Luxemburg, Rosa

(1871–1919)
   One of the leading Marxists of the 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg exerted great influence within the socialist movement during her life, and her ideas and political actions have continued to inspire Marxists and shape Marxism long after her death. Born in Zamosc, Poland, in 1871, Luxemburg was brought up in a well-off middle-class Jewish family. Physically frail with a twisted body and limp she demonstrated from an early age an outstanding intellect, graduating top of her class from her school in Warsaw. Luxemburg also became involved in radical politics at an early age and had to flee to Switzerland at the age of 18 to avoid arrest. She attended Zurich University where she studied mathematics, natural science and political economy, and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Poland’s industrial development. She worked with Russian exiles in Switzerland, including Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Georgii Plekhanov, and Paul Axelrod, and helped to establish the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland, the Polish Marxist party, in 1894.
   In 1898 Luxemburg moved to Germany where she married a German, Gustav Luebeck, in order to gain German citizenship. She was active in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and rapidly became a leading figure in the party. Her activities included contributing to the party’s theoretical journal, Neue Zeit, editing various radical provincial journals and the SPD newspaper Vorwärts, and teaching Marxist economics at the party’s training school. Her political activism brought her spells in prison in 1905 and during World War I. At the outbreak of World War I she formed the Spartacus League with Karl Liebknecht, and in 1919 took part in an unsuccessful uprising after which she was arrested and murdered by German army officers.
   Among Luxemburg’s key interventions in socialist debates of the time is her booklet Social Reform or Revolution (1899), a response to Eduard Bernstein’s Evolutionary Socialism (1899) in which he argued for a reformist approach to achieving socialism. In this seminal work she argued that reform alone could never lead to socialism; only the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism could result in socialism. She did not reject reforms as such, but argued that their success depended on the revolutionary threat behind them, and that ultimately any gain could be clawed back unless a revolution followed. Luxemburg entered into dispute with Vladimir Ilich Lenin on the role of the party and the spontaneity of the masses. As early as 1904 she saw the Bolsheviks as too controlling of the working class and she criticized the notion of the vanguard party, i.e., a professional, elite party guiding the workers. For her the party should help to foster a collective revolutionary consciousness and would then become redundant after the revolution. She was strongly in favor of spontaneous political action by the workers, and in particular she believed in the potency of the weapon of the mass strike. The mass strike she saw as the supreme form of revolutionary action: it links the political and economic struggles; its effects are immediate and dramatic; it embodies worker spontaneity and it overcomes the bureaucratic inertia to which political parties are prone. In her analyses of the Russian Revolution she criticized the controlling and dictatorial character of Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the revolution, while still applauding their attempt to bring about a socialist revolution. She also disagreed with Lenin on the issue of nationalism, rejecting the ideas of national self-determination, and particularly independence for Poland, that Lenin favored.
   Luxemburg’s other significant contribution to socialist thought is found in her book The Accumulation of Capital (1913) in which she discussed capitalism’s inherent tendency to collapse and the causes of imperialism. For Luxemburg imperialism is the struggle between capitalist countries to control noncapitalist areas of the world. Without access to these noncapitalist areas the capitalist countries would themselves collapse as a result of their inherent contradictions. Ultimately, once capitalism had spread to all areas of the world through imperialism, it would self-destruct. The choice then would be “socialism or barbarism.”

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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