After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of Rosa Luxemburg.
Life of Rosa Luxemburg:
Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish Jewess. She was born in 1870 and on the night of January 15, 1919 she was murdered. The city of Zamose was her birth place and this place was the center of Jewish culture. But her birth place was surrounded by Austria, Poland and Russia.
Naturally the political, social and cultural activities of these three places influenced the people of Zamose and Rosa was not free from this influence.
By birth Luxemburg was Polish but on the various aspects of her life there was a clear influence of German culture and life-style In many areas of Poland, Germany and Russia in those days (in the seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century) socialism was enthusiastically discussed by the people of different classes and Rosa came in contact with these people.
While studying in Zurich University, Luxemburg came in close contact with social democracy. From her biography we come to know that when she was just teenager socialism or socialist philosophy put an indelible mark on her thought.
From the 1890s Rosa Luxemburg devoted herself completely to the study of socialism and its propagation. At this time she settled in Berlin and joined the socialist party. In Social Democratic Review her political writings were published.
It is to be noted here that towards the end of the nineteenth century the political ideas especially the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein were hotly debated among the socialists of Germany.
Rosa Luxemburg was quite aware of it and she took interest in the revisionist ideas of Bernstein. But she strongly opposed the revisionism and to combat it she began to publish articles and pamphlets. In this respect her most notable writing was Social Reform or Revolution? This created sensation in the academic circles.
In Social Reform or Revolution? Luxemburg openly challenged the utility of revisionism. She believed that only a revolution had the capacity to change the economic and political condition radically.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the political and other conditions in Russia reached the boiling point and in 1905 the revolution in that country dismally failed.
This frustrated Rosa and in order to get a first-hand knowledge she illegally went to Warsaw. But she was arrested. Rosa believed that the failure of the 1905 revolution was temporary. The revolutionary activities must be made intensive and the workers must take proper lessons from the failures of the 1905 revolution.
At this time (in the first decade of the twentieth century) she deeply involved herself in the revolutionary activities of several European countries. She worked with Plekhanov, Axelrod and Lenin all of whom were in exile.
Though she was actively associated with the revolutionary activities of several European states her active relation with the German socialist movements is very important.
Here she came in touch with several top-ranking leaders of Germany and she came in touch with the German Communist party.
Gustav Luebeck was a noted revolutionary and when Rosa was working in Germany she had relationship with him and finally married him. Rosa was very intelligent and acquired vast knowledge on socialism and related subjects.
She was extremely meritorious and a voracious reader. She was quite fluent in several languages such as French, Polish, Russian and German. She had also working knowledge in English and Italian. A biographer of Rosa Luxemburg once said in her time she was the most civilised voice for the cause of international socialism.
Political Ideas of Rosa Luxemburg:
1. Reform, Revolution and Revision:
The pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution (1899) contains her views regarding revolution, revisionism and collapse of capitalism.
It is generally argued by the pseduto-Marxists that according to Marx with the development of capitalism several contradictions will develop within it and finally these will lead to the collapse or breakdown of capitalism. This is known as the “breakdown theory” of capitalism.
This is one of the most controversial aspects of Marx’s theory. Eduard Berstein and many others challenging this argued that if capitalism because of its inherent contradictions collapses, is there any necessity of revolution or class struggle?
In fact, revolution and automatic breakdown of capitalism are contradictory. Rosa has said that the revisionists and pseudo-Marxists have misinterpreted Marx’s theory. Explaining Rosa Luxemburg’s stand Kolakowski says that capitalism will collapse does not mean that it will collapse automatically without the need for revolutionary action.
Kolakowski further says:
“It was rather the case that imperialism must develop to a point at which it would awaken the revolutionary consciousness of proletariat, without which capitalism could not be overthrown. Its overthrow was a historical necessity, but so was the revolutionary movement that must bring it about.”
This is the unambiguous position of Rosa and other orthodox Marxists regarding automatic collapse of capitalism and the necessity of revolution. The contradictions within capitalism will weaken capitalism and the relations between capitalists and workers will deteriorate day after only.
The working class will “utilise” this situation in its favour and then it will attack the capitalist class. Rosa Luxemburg has further pointed out that it is wrong to hold that there is no necessity of reforms.
Rosa Luxemburg had a clear view about reforms. The chief objective of reforms is to conquer political power. But if reforms are treated as ends in themselves, the purpose of reforms will be futile.
On various issues Rosa stood on the opposite side of Bernstein, reforms and revisionism are chief no doubt. On another issue the difference between the two is also remarkable. For example, Bernstein propagated a slogan – “the goal is nothing, the movement everything.” On the other hand Luxemburg said – “The movement as an end in itself, unrelated to the ultimate goal, is nothing to me; the ultimate goal is everything.”
Bernstein concentrated on reforms and he treated revolution as a secondary means. Luxemburg did not agree with him. She maintained that the ultimate goal of the working class would be to seize political power and to that end reform may be used as a weapon.
In fact the struggle for political power does not stand opposite to struggle for reform. Rosa said that reforms are necessary because they can raise the level of consciousness of the workers.
The reforms do not possess the ability to change radically the economic and other pictures of society. But these will lead the working class to revolution. Through reforms workers will be acquainted with the nature and depth of exploitation of capitalists.
Bernstein once said that in Britain the workers had adopted a method of cooperation and technique of reform and by this they achieved remarkable success.
Rosa Luxemburg was acquainted with that. But in this respect her clear opinion was that the British workers had clearly abandoned the class relations.
“The British proletariat had adopted bourgeois ideas and sacrificed class objectives for immediate gains”. But the technique of the British workers cannot be taken as a model. The objective condition of capitalist development is quite ripe for a revolution. Naturally the question of compromise and cooperation does not wise.
In the Introduction to the Class struggle in France Engels made a famous as well as controversial announcement where he declared that for brief period the workers may adopt parliamentary and democratic methods as means of struggle against the capitalists. Luxemburg did not agree with Engels’ view and branded it as reformist policy.
She further maintained that if his suggestions were strictly followed that would be another type of reformism.
Rosa Luxemburg says that in his later years Marx saw that the technological development in capitalism would reach such a stage that capitalism will have no control over it. Marx predicted that this situation would arrive very soon and the working class must be prepared for that opportune moment.
In that situation the workers’ first and foremost duty would be to launch a violent attack against capitalism and by violent attack Marx meant revolution. This has been clearly explained by Kolakowski in his analysis.
Luxemburg vehemently opposed Bernstein’s revisionism and his attitude towards evolutionary socialism. She called Bernstein’s approach “vulgar bourgeois economics”.
Luxemburg did not rule out the importance of reforms. But she wanted to emphasize that the purpose of any reform must be to clear the way of the advent of revolution and establish socialism.
The British working class was absolutely misguided and adopted the path of reforms to achieve transitory gains. Luxemburg condemned it. All these clearly reveal that her faithfulness to Marxism was beyond doubt.
2. Mass Strike and Trade Union:
The question of spontaneity reappears when she talked about mass strike and trade union movement. She wrote an article; Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions. In her opinion the mass strike was the “spontaneous expression of the creative power of the broadest masses and antidote to bureaucratic inertia, it linked political with economic struggles”.
She was of opinion that through a spontaneous mass strike under the leadership of party and trade union certain basic demands which are mainly economic in nature can be met. But the basic point is the mass strike must always be spontaneous.
In her article Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions she wrote:
“The mass strike is not artificially made not decided out of the blue, nor propagated but rather it is an historical phenomenon which at a certain moment follows with historical necessity from social relations” (Quoted by Ashoke Bhaduri).
According to Rosa, mass strike is spontaneous and also a basic weapon in the hands of the working class in its struggle to capture political power. Luxemburg wrote the above article in the background of the 1905 Russian Revolution.
She explained the mass strike and its importance in the following way. She thought that mass strike was not an isolated action. But it is the sign, the totality concept of a whole period of the class struggle lasting for years, perhaps decades.
She also said that since the mass strikes are spontaneous they cannot be treated as useless. The workers call strike spontaneously and by doing this they intensify the struggle.
In the mass strike both the economic and political issues are mixed together. They are interdependent. Rosa said, “The economic struggle leads the political struggle.” At the beginning the workers call a mass or general strike to place their economic demands and when the strike continues it finally assumes political form.
Very often workers call mass strike both for economic and political demands. Rosa further says that since the mass strikes are spontaneous the divisive forces do not find any place in such cases. Rosa draws our attention to this aspect.
About mass strike her view can be stated in the following way. Mass strike and mass movement do not lead to revolution, but revolution unites the elements of mass movement.
Let us quote her again:
“If the mass strike does not signify a single act but a whole period of class struggle, and if this period is identical with a period of revolution, then it is clear that the mass strike cannot be called at will, even if the decision to call it comes from the highest committee of the strongest Social Democratic Party. As long as Social Democracy is not capable of staging and countermanding revolutions according to its own estimation of the situation, then even the greatest enthusiasm and impatience of Social Democratic troops will not suffice to call into being a true period of mass strikes as a living, powerful movement of the people”.
Rosa Luxemburg further observes that the success of mass strike in Russia and Germany was not due to the backwardness of Russia in economic and social fields. The success was due to the class consciousness and spontaneity.
It is the consciousness that inspires the working class to launch a movement or a general strike. Again, the consciousness is linked with spontaneity. Without consciousness the workers cannot participate in a movement spontaneously.
Rosa Luxemburg held the Bolshevik Revolution as the most spectacular incident of the First World War period and she laid great faith on the ability, spontaneity and consciousness of the working class.
She was of opinion that it was the spontaneity and consciousness that made possible the Russian revolution a success. But after a short time she began to criticize the Mensheviks, Kautsky and many others on their stand on coalition government coalition with the liberals. Mensheviks and Kautsky strongly argued that since Russia was economically backward, it would be better for the Bolshevik party to forge an alliance with the liberals. Lenin strongly opposed this suggestion and Rosa agreed with him.
The difference of opinion between Lenin and Luxemburg began to surface immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution. Rosa observed that Lenin and his party started to rule Russia in a dictatorial manner and in this regard Lenin’s argument was that in order to counteract the counter-revolutionary and anti-socialist forces some definite doses of dictatorship were essential. But Luxemburg did not buy this argument.
The party, after seizing power, cannot and should not adopt dictatorial means for running the day-today administration. Freedom, rights and, above all, representative methods cannot be curbed.
In the name of cleansing the Soviet society of reactionary elements Lenin was quite unwilling to introduce universal suffrage and other democratic processes. Lenin’s argument was that the introduction of democratic processes would open the floodgates of problems.
Naturally the introduction of any form of representative democracy had no place in the programme of Lenin. This considerably surprised and irked Luxemburg and strongly criticized Bolshevism.
Rosa attacked another very important aspect of the Bolshevik party. She observed that after the Revolution the supporters and members of the Bolshevik party were enjoying freedom, whereas large masses of men were denied freedom and this led her to make the following observation; “Freedom for the supporters of the government, only for the members of the one party however numerous they may be is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”.
A person who thinks differently has also the freedom to express his views and when this is permitted there exists true freedom.
She again says; “Lenin is completely mistaken in the means he employs Decree, dictatorial force of the factory over-seer, draconic penalties, and rule by terror, all these are but palliatives”. Rule by terror demoralizes the public and it is harmful for socialism.
It is unfortunate that Lenin and the Bolshevik Party followed this harmful way Somehow Lenin gathered an idea that socialism could be firmly established by force and draconic laws and means. But this is absolutely wrong. Here lies the basic error in the policy pursed by the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin.
This cleared the way of disastrous consequences. She admitted that the Bolshevik party came to power at a critical juncture of time and in that situation it was not possible to grant full-scale of freedom. But immediately after seizing power the party and the government must have granted freedom.
The party should have taken steps to introduce democratic principles and parliamentary systems. It is unfortunate that Lenin did not care to follow that track.
It is under his leadership the Bolshevism became a symbol of draconism, terrorist methods, and all sorts of undemocratic ways.
4. The Essence of Socialist Society:
According to Luxemburg the essence of socialism or socialist society is that in such a society the proletarians will no longer be ruled by a microscopic fraction of society that is, the capitalist class. Instead the, ruled will be ruler and the controlled will be controller. From top to bottom the proletarians will replace the members of the capitalist class by their own representatives.
In Russian Revolution, Leninism or Marxism Luxemburg said:
“All socialist civic virtues, together with the knowledge and ability to manage socialist operations, can be acquired by the working class only through their own activity, their own experience”.
A socialist society cannot easily be achieved or set up without any trouble. For it, untiring struggle and lot of labour are required. Only in a socialist society the liberation of, working class is possible.
She further says that in a socialist society the organs created or set up by the capitalists must be replaced by the socialist organs or systems. The proletarians shall set up a revolutionary tribunal whose function would be to try criminals.
The authority of the socialist society will confiscate all weapons and ammunition which the reactionary government purchased or collected or manufactured.
These weapons were used to torture the working class. The capitalist parliaments and all the municipal councils shall be replaced by workers’ councils. The socialist society shall abolish all sorts of differences in respect of rank, titles etc.
Assessment of Political Ideas of Rosa Luxemburg:
The assessment of Luxemburg is not an easy task because of her controversial stand in the orthodox Marxist world. In spite of this Kolakowski calls her “an outstanding example of a type of mind.” We may or may not agree with her interpretation of Marxism, but there is no doubt that her faithfulness to Marxism is beyond all sorts of question.
She was an extremely controversial figure in the Marxist world. But we think that she interpreted Marxism in the background of Marx’s own thought. According to Kolakowski “Marxism was to her the universal key to the meaning of history”.
Rosa Luxemburg was undoubtedly the champion of spontaneity and consciousness. This we think is the core of revolution. She never hesitated to challenge Lenin and his other comrades on this particular issue.
She vehemently objected to the idea of imposing anything regarding revolution or movement upon the proletarians. She repeatedly said that spontaneity and consciousness were the chief factors of Bolshevik Revolution.
After the Revolution when Lenin ignored the democratic principles and processes and turned to draconic and undemocratic ways she openly opposed Lenin’s method and mentality.
Rosa all along argued for democracy and criticized the way of imposing the leader’s mentality of imposing his decision upon the rank and file. Rosa was always the champion of orthodox Marxism and this was the primary cause of conflict between Lenin and Luxemburg. But, unfortunately, the school of orthodox Marxism was small and not powerful.
An important drawback of Rosa Luxemburg is that she believed that the working class alone would be able to establish socialism. Party or intellectuals have no role to play was her strong belief. But this is not correct. Leadership has an important part.