Saturday, April 16, 2016

Rosa Luxemburg, Political Activist and Theorist

Rosa in 1907 or 1908.
Rosa Luxemburg was a brilliant political activist who developed the humanist theory of Marxism: that democracy and revolutionary mass action were the keys to attaining socialism. She dedicated her life to the pursuit of this vision. 

"Those who do not move, do not notice their chains." ~ Rosa Luxemburg

Regarding Rosa's upbringing, not a great deal is known. She was fiercely protective of her privacy and the details of her family and personal life, and the few who were trusted with such information rarely shared it after her murder in 1919.

Historians have been able to piece together only a brief description of her childhood from the letters exchanged within the family; anything else from that time is speculation.

Youth and Family

Rosa was born on March 5, 1871, in Zamo, Poland (at that time Poland was not independent, but part of the Soviet empire). She was the youngest of five children, born to Lina and Edward Luxemburg. Rosa exhibited high intelligence at an early age and while the family did not have much money, they were very supportive of each other. Rosa's parents used all their means to make sure their children had what they needed.

By the time Rosa was a teenage she was showing such intellect and success in academics that her mother wrote she would "make our family's name famous." She left Poland to emigrate to Switzerland and attend Zurich University, where she first studied zoology, then switched to economics, philosophy, and law.

Her family reveled in her accomplishments and her mother Lin "laughed and wept" when she received news of Rosa's completed doctorate in 1898. As read in the letters of Rosa's oldest sister, Ana, their mother was "refusing to part with your letter for a single moment, eager for the whole world to know how happy and proud she was."

Rosa's family and siblings would remain supportive of her throughout her life, though they did not agree with her politics. When she was imprisoned in 1904, they visited her and arranged for her food, and when she was arrested a year later they worked tirelessly to secure her release and prevent her from being exiled to Siberia. They would pay a large sum of money to have her released, though she had expressly forbidden this.

Rosa's father would die in September of 1900 while she was still in Zurich. He expressed regret that she was not closer geographically, but he and Rosa exchanged letters right up until his death.  They shared a close relationship and he was very supportive of all his children. Much of Edward's values and beliefs were passed on to Rosa.

Against Polish Independence: Rosa's Radical Views

Rosa became involved in the international socialist movement while still a student in Zurich, and met many representatives of the Russian social democratic movement, with whom she soon began to disagree.

Rosa held a view that would have her labelled a traitor and rejected by many of the citizens of Poland after her death: that Poland should not be an independent state, an opinion she espoused even after independence was achieved in November 1918.

Her reason for this was the belief that nationalist uprisings were doomed to fail (as they had in 1830 and 1863), and only had the support of the lower-middle classes. Also, Rosa was first and foremost a socialist, and felt that any attempt towards nationalism would reverse economic growth and stunt the trend towards capitalism, thus delaying the eventual arrival of socialism.

Rosa's opposition to the independence of Poland was interpreted by some as hostility towards the Polish culture and language. Far from it, however, and she fought stridently against the assimilation of the Polish under both Russian and German rule; countries which both sought to destroy Polish culture through various means.

In 1900 in a publication called "The Defense of Nationalism" she wrote "Poles are meant to forget that they were born Polish, and to transform themselves into Germans!" She attacked the German government and the liberal Polish opposition, for their failure to defend the Polish. She called upon "the Polish people to shake off their apathy, give full reign to their fury, and go into battle against Germanisation... [in order] to defend our Polish identity."

Rosa's vision of Poland was that of a socialist, democratic federation aligned with other nationalities of the former Soviet Empire. She would later describe Poland as "one of the most explosive centers of the revolutionary movement" which in 1905 "marched at the head of the Russian Revolution."

With these views against independence Rosa challenged the Russians, Germans, and Polish Socialist Party as early as 1897, when she and her colleagues founded the Polish Socialist Democratic Party, which would go on to become the Polish Communist Party.

Rosa in Berlin

After completing her doctorate, Rosa married Gustav Lubeck to obtain German citizenship, then settled in Berlin. There she would work with the Socialist Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the largest and most powerful socialist organization in the world.

She developed a reputation for being a left-wing firebrand speaker and writer, one who was devoted to the cause. She published works that demonstrated both her passion and skills as a theoretician with regard to economics, nationalism, socialism, democracy, imperialism, and war.

With the SPD Rosa taught at the party school, wrote for their newspapers, and represented the Polish and Germans at meetings of the Socialist International.

Russian Revolution of 1905-7

When revolt came to Poland in 1905 as part of the Russian Revolution, Rosa followed her belief that world revolution would originate in Poland, and went to Warsaw to join the struggle.

She was imprisoned for her participation, but it was from this experience that one of her main theories evolved: that revolutionary mass action (in the form of a mass strike) was the single most important tool in toppling capitalism and attaining socialism.

Unlike Vladimar Lenin, she did not think a tight party structure was critical, as organization would naturally emerge from the struggle. For this belief, she was frequently admonished by opposing communist leaders and parties.

After release from prison, Rosa taught for seven years at the SPD school in Berlin and in 1913 wrote Die Akkumulation des Kapitals; The Accumulation of Capital. By this time she had also broken off relationships with some of the main leaders of the SPD, who disagreed with her drive towards radicalization.

The Outbreak of War

In the years prior to 1914, Rosa warned frequently of the dangers of an upcoming war, one that would be catastrophic. She urged her fellow Europeans not to take up arms against each other. When war broke out in August 1914, socialist parties that had previously railed against war now ceded their positions and supported their governments, much to Rosa's despair.

The SPD likewise backed the German government in 1914 but Rosa opposed this vehemently. With like-minded radicals like Karl Liebknecht she formed the Spartacus League, which was dedicated to ending the war through revolution and the establishment of a government run by the working class.

Rosa's protest of the war soon lead to her arrest, and she spent close to four years in prison. She wrote anti-war pamphlets under a pseudonym while imprisoned (published in 1916), and continued to lead the Spartacus League from inside her cell. In the meantime, the SPD disowned and expelled her and other anti-war activists.

Released from prison in 1918, Rosa and Liebknecht formed the German Communist Party on New Year's Eve. They immediately began agitating against the SPD government, and with their considerable influence they contributed to a number of violent and bloody clashes between the workers of Berlin and the government. There were hundreds of casualties on the side of the civilian workers and revolutionaries, and Communist leaders were arrested.

On January 15th 1919 Rosa and Karl Liebknecht were captured by right-wing government soldiers, taken for interrogation, and then murdered. Rosa's body was thrown into a Berlin canal and not retrieved for five months later. The murderers were never prosecuted.

After Rosa's death

Rosa's family had to suffer constant arrests, suspicion, house searches, and harassment due to her political activity when she was alive, and this only increased after her death. During the Nazi occupation of Germany, many members of Rosa's family died in German concentration camps or were executed for being part of the Polish Resistance. Her nephew was executed by the Soviets in 1940 and after 1945 other members of the family were exiled to Siberia for being members of the bourgeoisie.

Rosa’s great niece Irene Borde has said that "the surname Luxemburg disadvantaged us in the Soviet Union" because of Rosa’s anti-Soviet style Communism.

Rosa became a martyr for the cause of international socialist revolution following her death. As described by a fellow Spartacist, Clara Zetkin: "She sacrificed herself to the cause, not only in her death, but daily and hourly in the work and struggle of many years. She was the sword, the flame of revolution."

Rosa was 47 when she died.

Excerpts from Rosa's Letters

Rosa kept up a correspondence with family and friends that provide much insight into her views.

On anti-Semitism:

Rosa believed that combatting anti-Semitism was not a distinct, special problem, but ‘one of a thousand social tasks’ resulting from the inequalities of class society. Wrote Rosa to a Jewish friend who sent her a novel by the Jewish writer Spinoza:

"What do you want with this 'special suffering of the Jews'? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch… Oh that 'sublime stillness of eternity,' in which so many cries of anguish have faded away unheard, they resound with me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears."

From Rosa's father:

Edward wrote to Rosa in April 1900 when she was away at school that his only hope was that both she and Anna, her oldest sister, would marry before his death. When he received no reply, he wrote again nine days later, that her attitude: "reminds me of something I once read. An eagle soars so high that he loses all sight of the earth below. You are so busy with social causes that family affairs are not worth even a thought of yours."

On not being with her father when he died:

Rosa wrote to her friend Hans Diefenbach, whose father was dying, in 1917: "Later, one always blames oneself bitterly for every hour which one took away from the old people. I wasn’t lucky enough even to have done as little as that. After all, I constantly had to look after the urgent business of humanity and make the world a happier place…In the meantime, the old gentleman wasn’t able to wait any longer. Probably he said to himself that there would be no sense anyway in waiting, however long he waited; after all, I never did “have time” for him or myself- and he died…

"Now, of course, I would be much wiser, but one is usually wiser after it’s too late. Anyway, if you possibly can, go to your old man and stay with him to the end."

  • "You alone will make our family's name famous": Rosa Luxemburg, her Family and the Origins of her Polish-Jewish Identity. Rory Castle, PDF. June 2012.
  • Rosa Luxemburg Blog, Rory Castle. 2016.
  • 96 Years ago today, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered in Berlin. Rory Castle, Rosa Luxemburg Blog. January 15, 2015.
  • Socialist Revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg born, March 5, 1873. 2016.

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