Luxemburg was born to a Jewish family in ZamoÅä, in Russian-controlled Congress Poland. She was the fifth child of timber trader Eliasz Luxemburg and Line Lwenstein. After being bedridden with a hip ailment at the age of five, she was left with a permanent limp.
On her family's moving to Warsaw, Luxemburg attended a Gymnasium from 1880. From 1886 onward, she belonged to the Polish, left-wing Proletariat party (founded in 1882, anticipating the Russian parties by twenty years). She began in politics by organizing a general strike; this resulted in four of its leaders being put to death and the party being disbanded, though remaining members, Luxemburg among them, met in secret. In 1887, she passed her Abitur examinations. After fleeing to Switzerland to escape detention in 1889, she attended Zrich University (as did the socialists Anatoli Lunacharsky and Leo Jogiches), studying philosophy, history, politics, economics, and mathematics. She specialized in Staatswissenschaft (the science of forms of state), the Middle Ages, and economic and stock exchange crises.
In 1893, with Leo Jogiches and Julian Marchlewski (alias Julius Karski), Luxemburg founded the newspaper Sprawa Robotnicza ("The Workers' Cause"), to oppose the nationalist policies of the Polish Socialist Party, believing that only through socialist revolution in Germany, Austria, and Russia could an independent Poland exist. She maintained that the struggle should be against capitalism, and not just for an independent Poland. Her position denying a national right of self-determination under socialism provoked philosophic tension with Vladimir Lenin. She and Leo Jogiches co-founded the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP) (later Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania [SDKPiL]) by merging with Lithuania's social democratic organization. Despite living in Germany for most of her adult life, Luxemburg was the principal theoretician of the Polish Social Democrats, and led the party in a partnership with Jogiches, its principal organizer.
Nor was she especially concerned with the plight of Jews. She said, –Why do you come to me with your special Jewish sorrows? I feel just as sorry for the wretched Indian victims in Putamayo, the Negroes in Africa. . . . I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.–
In 1898 Luxemburg married Gustav Lbeck, obtained German citizenship, and moved to Berlin. There, she was active in the left wing of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), in which she sharply defined the border between her faction and the Revisionism Theory of Eduard Bernstein by attacking him in an 1899 brochure titled Social Reform or Revolution?. Luxemburg's rhetorical skill made her a leading spokeswoman in denouncing the SPD's reformist parliamentary course. She argued that the critical difference between capital and labour could only be countered if the proletariat assumed power and effected revolutionary changes in production methods. She wanted the Revisionists ousted from the SPD. That did not occur, but Karl Kautsky's leadership retained a Marxist influence on its programme.
From 1900 Luxemburg published analyses of contemporary European socio-economic problems in newspapers. Foreseeing war, she vigorously attacked what she saw as German militarism and imperialism. She wanted a general strike to rouse the workers to solidarity and prevent the coming war; the SPD leaders refused, and she broke with Karl Kautsky in 1910. Between 1904 and 1906 she was imprisoned for her political activities on three occasions. In 1907, she went to the Russian Social Democrats' Fifth Party Day in London, where she met V.I. Lenin. At the Second International (Socialist) Congress, in Stuttgart, she moved a resolution, which was accepted, that all European workers' parties should unite in attempting to stop the war.
Luxemburg taught Marxism and economics at the SPD's Berlin training centre. A student of hers, Friedrich Ebert later became SPD leader, and later the Weimar Republic's first President. In 1912 she was the SPD representative at the European Socialists congresses. With French socialist Jean Jaurs, she argued that European workers' parties should effect a general strike when war broke out. In 1913 she told a large meeting: "If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren, then we shall shout: 'We will not do it!'" But in 1914, when nationalist crises in the Balkans erupted to violence and then war, there was no general strike and the SPD majority supported the war– as did the French Socialists. The Reichstag unanimously agreed to financing the war. The SPD voted in favour of that and agreed to a truce (Burgfrieden) with the Imperial government, promising to refrain from any strikes during the war. This led Luxemburg to contemplate suicide: The "revisionism" she had fought since 1899 had triumphed.
In response Luxemburg organised anti-war demonstrations in Frankfurt, calling for conscientious objection to military conscription and the refusal to obey orders. On that account, she was imprisoned for a year for "inciting to disobedience against the authorities' law and order".
In August 1914 Luxemburg, along with Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin, and Franz Mehring, founded the Die Internationale group; it became the Spartacist League in January 1916. They wrote illegal, anti-war pamphlets pseudonymously signed "Spartacus" (after the slave-liberating Thracian gladiator who opposed the Romans); Luxemburg's pseudonym was "Junius" (after Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic).
The Spartacist League vehemently rejected the SPD's support for the war, trying to lead Germany's proletariat to an anti-war general strike. As a result, in June 1916 Luxemburg was imprisoned for two and a half years, as was Karl Liebknecht. During imprisonment, she was twice relocated, first to Posen (now PoznaÅ), then to Breslau (now WrocÅaw).
Friends smuggled out and illegally published her articles. Among them was "The Russian Revolution", criticising the Bolsheviks, presciently warning of their dictatorship. Nonetheless, she continued calling for a "dictatorship of the proletariat", albeit not the One Party Bolshevik model. In that context, she wrote "Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden" ("Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently"). Another article, written in 1915 and published in June 1916, was "Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie" ("The Crisis of Social Democracy").
In 1917 the Spartacist League was affiliated with the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) (anti-war, ex-SPD members, founded by Hugo Haase). In November 1918 the USPD and the SPD assumed power in the new republic upon the Kaiser's abdication. This followed the German revolution begun in Kiel, when Workers' and Soldiers' Councils seized most of Germany, to put an end to World War One and to the monarchy. The USPD and most of the SPD members supported the councils, while the SPD leaders feared, they could found a Rterepublik ("Council Republic"), in emulation of the system of Soviets of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
Luxemburg was freed from prison in Breslau on November 8, 1918. One day later Karl Liebknecht, who had also been freed from prison, proclaimed the Freie Sozialistische Republik (Free Socialist Republic) in Berlin. He and Luxemburg reorganised the Spartacus League and founded the Red Flag newspaper, demanding amnesty for all political prisoners and the abolition of capital punishment. On December 14, 1918, they published the new programme of the Spartacist League.
From December 29 to 31 of 1918, they took part in a joint congress of the Spartacist League, independent Socialists, and the International Communists of Germany (IKD), that led to the foundation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht and Luxemburg on January 1, 1919. She supported the new KPD's participation in the Weimar National Assembly that founded the Weimar Republic; but she was out-voted.
In January 1919 a second revolutionary wave swept Berlin. Unlike Liebknecht, Luxemburg rejected this violent attempt to seize power. But the Red Flag encouraged the rebels to occupy the editorial offices of the liberal press.
In response to the uprising, Social Democratic leader Friedrich Ebert ordered the Freikorps to destroy the left-wing revolution. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were captured in Berlin on January 15, 1919, by the Freikorps' Garde-Kavallerie-Schtzendivision. Its commander, Captain Waldemar Pabst, along with Horst von Pflugk-Hartung questioned them and then gave the order to execute them. Luxemburg was knocked down with a rifle butt by Otto Runge (1875–1945), then shot in the head by lieutenant Hermann Souchon (1894–1982); her body was flung into Berlin's Landwehr Canal. In the Tiergarten Karl Liebknecht was shot and his body, without a name, brought to a morgue. Likewise, hundreds of KPD members were summarily killed, and the Workers' and Soldiers' councils disbanded; the German revolution was ended. More than four months later, on June 1, 1919, Luxemburg's corpse was found and identified after an autopsy at the Berlin Charit hospital.
For her murder, Otto Runge was imprisoned for two years, while Pabst and Souchon went unpunished. The Nazis later compensated Runge for having been jailed, and they merged the Garde-Kavallerie-Schutzendivision into the SA. In an interview given to the German news magazine "Der Spiegel" in 1962 and again in his memoirs, Pabst maintained that two SPD leaders, defense minister Gustav Noske and chancellor Friedrich Ebert, had approved of his actions. This statement has never been confirmed, since neither parliament nor the courts examined the case.
Luxemburg and Liebknecht were buried at Friedrichsfelde Central Cemetery in Berlin, where socialists and communists commemorate them every January 15.
On May 29, 2009 Spiegel online, the internet branch of news magazine Der Spiegel, reported the possibility that someone else's remains had mistakenly been identified as Luxemburg's and buried as hers.
Forensic pathologist Michael Tsokos, head of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences at the Berlin Charit, had recently discovered a preserved corpse lacking head, feet, or hands, in the cellar of the Charit's medical history museum. He considered the corpse's autopsy report suspicious and decided to perform computer tomography on the remains. The body showed signs of having been waterlogged at some point, and CT scans showed that it was the body of a woman of 40–50 years of age who suffered from osteoarthritis and had legs of differing length. At the time of her murder Rosa Luxemburg was 47 years old, and furthermore suffered from a congenital dislocation of the hip which resulted in her legs being of different lengths. A laboratory in Kiel also tested the corpse using carbon dating techniques and confirmed that it dated from the same period as Luxemburg's murder.
The original autopsy performed on 13 June 1919 on the body that was eventually buried at Friedrichsfelde showed certain inconsistencies which supported Tsokos' hypothesis. The autopsy explicitly noted an absence of hip damage, and stated that there was no evidence that the legs were of different lengths. Additionally, the autopsy showed no traces on the upper skull of the two blows by rifle butt inflicted upon Luxemburg. Finally, while the 1919 examiners noted a hole in the corpse's head between left eye and ear, they did not find an exit wound or the presence of a bullet within the skull.
Assistant pathologist Paul Fraenckel appeared to have had doubts at the time that the corpse he had examined was that of Rosa Luxemburg, and in a signed addendum distanced himself from his colleague's conclusions; it was this addendum and the inconsistencies between the autopsy report and the known facts that persuaded Tsokos to examine the remains more closely. As regards the missing hands and feet, according to eyewitnesses, when Luxemburg's body was thrown into the canal, weights were wired to her ankles and wrists which could have caused her extremities to become severed in the months her corpse spent in the water.
Tsokos realized that the optimum way to confirm or deny the identity of the body as that of Luxemburg's was to use DNA testing. His team had initially hoped to find traces of DNA on old postage stamps that Luxemburg had licked, but it transpired that Luxemburg had never done this, preferring to moisten stamps with a damp cloth instead. They therefore opted to find a surviving blood relative and in July 2009 the German Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported that a great-niece of Rosa Luxemburg's had been located, 79-year old Irene Borde, who donated some strands of her hair for purposes of DNA comparison testing.
The Dialectic of Spontaneity and Organisation was the central feature of Luxemburg's political philosophy, wherein "spontaneity" is a grass roots approach to organising a party-oriented class struggle. Spontaneity and organisation, she argued, are not separable or separate activities, but different moments of one political process; one does not exist without the other. These beliefs arose from her view that class struggle evolves from an elementary, spontaneous state to a higher level:
"The working classes in every country only learn to fight in the course of their struggles ... Social democracy ... is only the advance guard of the proletariat, a small piece of the total working masses; blood from their blood, and flesh from their flesh. Social democracy seeks and finds the ways, and particular slogans, of the workers' struggle only in the course of the development of this struggle, and gains directions for the way forward through this struggle alone."
Luxemburg did not hold "spontaneism" as an abstraction, but developed the Dialectic of Spontaneity and Organisation under the influence of mass strikes in Europe, especially the Russian Revolution of 1905. Unlike the social democratic orthodoxy of the Second International, she did not regard organisation as product of scientific-theoretic insight to historical imperatives, but as product of the working classes' struggles:
"Social democracy is simply the embodiment of the modern proletariat's class struggle, a struggle which is driven by a consciousness of its own historic consequences. The masses are in reality their own leaders, dialectically creating their own development process. The more that social democracy develops, grows, and becomes stronger, the more the enlightened masses of workers will take their own destinies, the leadership of their movement, and the determination of its direction into their own hands. And as the entire social democracy movement is only the conscious advance guard of the proletarian class movement, which in the words of the Communist Manifesto represent in every single moment of the struggle the permanent interests of liberation and the partial group interests of the workforce vis vis the interests of the movement as whole, so within the social democracy its leaders are the more powerful, the more influential, the more clearly and consciously they make themselves merely the mouthpiece of the will and striving of the enlightened masses, merely the agents of the objective laws of the class movement."
"The modern proletarian class does not carry out its struggle according to a plan set out in some book or theory; the modern workers' struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight... That's exactly what is laudable about it, that's exactly why this colossal piece of culture, within the modern workers' movement, is epoch-defining: that the great masses of the working people first forge from their own consciousness, from their own belief, and even from their own understanding the weapons of their own liberation."
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In an article published just before the October Revolution, Luxemburg characterized the Russian February Revolution of 1917 as a "revolution of the proletariat", and said that the "liberal bourgeoisie" were pushed to movement by the display of "proletarian power." The task of the Russian proletariat, she said, was now to end the "imperialist" world war, in addition to struggling against the "imperialist bourgeoisie." The world war made Russia ripe for a socialist revolution. Therefore "the German proletariat are also ... posed a question of honour, and a very fateful question."
In several works, including an essay written from jail and published posthumously by her last companion, Paul Levi (publication of which precipitated his expulsion from the Third International) entitled "The Russian Revolution", Luxemburg sharply criticized some Bolshevik policies, such as their suppression of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, their support for the partition of the old feudal estates to the peasant communes, and their policy of supporting the purported right of all national peoples to "self-determination." According to Luxemburg, the Bolsheviks' strategic mistakes created tremendous dangers for the Revolution, such as its bureaucratisation.
Her sharp criticism of the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks was lessened insofar as she explained the errors of the revolution and of the Bolsheviks with the "complete failure of the international proletariat"
Bolshevik theorists such as Lenin and Trotsky responded to this criticism by arguing that Luxemburg's notions were classical Marxist ones, but did not fit Russia in 1917. They stated that the lessons of actual experience, such as the confrontation with the bourgeois parties, had forced them to revise the Marxian strategy. As part of this argument, it was pointed out that after Luxemburg herself got out of jail, she was also forced to confront the National Assembly in Germany– a step which they compared with their own conflict with the Constituent Assembly.
"In this erupting of the social divide in the very lap of bourgeois society, in this international deepening and heightening of class antagonism lies the historical merit of Bolshevism, and with this feat– as always in large historic connections– the particular mistakes and errors of the Bolsheviks disappear without trace.
After the October Revolution, it becomes the "historic responsibility" of the German workers to carry out a revolution for themselves, and thereby end the war. When a revolution also broke out in Germany in November, of 1918, Luxemburg immediately began agitating for a social revolution:
"The abolition of the rule of capital, the realization of a socialist social order– this, and nothing less, is the historical theme of the present revolution. It is a formidable undertaking, and one that will not be accomplished in the blink of an eye just by the issuing of a few decrees from above. Only through the conscious action of the working masses in city and country can it be brought to life, only through the people's highest intellectual maturity and inexhaustible idealism can it be brought safely through all storms and find its way to port."
The social revolution demands that power is in the hands of the masses, in the hands of the workers' and soldiers' councils. This is the program of the revolution. It is, however, a long way from soldier– from the "Guards of the Reaction" (Gendarmen der Reaktion)– to revolutionary proletarian.
Luxemburg's last known words, written on the evening of her murder, were about her belief in the masses, and in what she saw as the inevitability of revolution:
"The leadership has failed. Even so, the leadership can and must be recreated from the masses and out of the masses. The masses are the decisive element, they are the rock on which the final victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were on the heights; they have developed this 'defeat' into one of the historical defeats which are the pride and strength of international socialism. And that is why the future victory will bloom from this 'defeat'.
'Order reigns in Berlin!' You stupid henchmen! Your 'order' is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will already 'raise itself with a rattle' and announce with fanfare, to your terror:
I was, I am, I shall be!"
In Berlin Mitte, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and selfsame U-Bahn station were named in her honour by the East German government. The Volksbhne (People's Theatre) is in Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. The names remain unchanged since reunification in 1989.
A different viewpoint, however, was common among the Russian White emigres who settled in Weimar Berlin. According to one,
"Infamous, that fifteen thousand Russian officers should have let themselves be slaughtered by the Revolution without raising a hand in self-defense! Why didn't they act like the Germans, who killed Rosa Luxemburg in such a way that not even a smell of her has remained?"
At the edge of the Tiergarten, on the Katharina-Heinroth-Ufer, which runs between the southern bank of the Landwehr Canal and the bordering Zoologischer Garten (Zoological Garden) a memorial has been installed on which the name of Rosa Luxemburg appears in raised capital letters, marking the spot where her body was thrown into the canal by Freikorps troops.
"Rosa" a novel by Jonathan Rabb published in 2005, gives a fictional account of the events leading to Luxemburg's murder.
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