A Revolutionary Woman: The Life of Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg was a Marxist revolutionary and is considered one of the greatest theoretical minds and activists of the European socialist movement.

Mar 9, 2023By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

life of rosa luxemburg revolutionary woman


Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was a Marxist philosopher and economist, a revolutionary, and a member of the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party. Rosa Luxemburg played an important role in the founding of the Polish Social Democratic Party as well as the German Communist Party. She developed a humanist version of Marxist theory that focused on internationalism and mass participation and became one of the most active and influential figures of social democracy in Europe. For her revolutionary views, Rosa Luxemburg was arrested several times. Still, even in prison, she did not cease to fight for her ideas, advocating for the end of the war and the need for a revolution to achieve a more just social environment for all. Her colleague, Franz Mehring, described Rosa Luxemburg as the “most brilliant intellect of all the scientific heirs of Marx and Engels.”


Early Years of Rosa Luxemburg

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Ros Luxemburg by Herbert Hoffmann, 1907 via Histoire-image


Rosa Luxemburg was born on March 5, 1871, in a family of Polish Jews in the city of Zamość, which was controlled by Russia at that time. She was the youngest of five children of Edward Luxemburg and Lina Löwenstein. They moved to Poland in 1873. Rosa Luxemburg’s actual name is Rosalia Luxemburg. After suffering from hip disease at age five, she limped for the rest of her life.


Her father, Edward, was a supporter of the Jewish Reform movement. Edward coordinated fundraisers for the January Uprising against Russian rule in Poland in 1863-1864 and sent weaponry to Polish partisans. Later, Luxemburg said that her father had given her a liberal outlook on life. Rosa’s mother was religious and well-educated, with a rich library of books at home that formed Rosa’s love for reading from an early age.


Her native language remained Polish, though she eventually attained fluency in French, German and Russian as well. Early on, Rosa was regarded as quite intelligent since she wrote letters to her family and impressed them with poetry readings, especially Polish classic literature. She was also incredibly passionate about politics, natural science, and the human race as a whole, often feeling revulsed by how humans treated each other. At only sixteen, she wrote: “My ideal is a social system that allows one to love everybody with a clear conscience.”

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goretskaya polina zetkin luxemburg painting
Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg by Polina Goretskaya, via Art Majeur


It is believed that Rosa’s family greatly influenced the formation of her identity and political beliefs. The intellectual bases and the courage to strive to change the world were given by her family’s support and assistance in every stage of her life. She remained connected to Polish culture for the rest of her life. Polish dramatist and essayist Adam Mickiewicz was her favorite poet, and she fiercely opposed the Prussian Partition’s Germanization of Poles (the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth territory that the Kingdom of Prussia acquired during the Partitions of Poland in the late 18th century) and was against the russification policies in Poland.


From 1884 to 1887, Rosa Luxemburg studied at the girls’ gymnasium in Warsaw. In 1886, she joined the Polish left-wing Proletariat Party, organizing various political events, including the general strike. For these attempts, four leaders of the party were executed, and the party was dissolved by the Russian Empire. However, Rosa continued to participate in underground activism before being forced to hide in the countryside of Poland.


To avoid detention, Rosa Luxemburg moved to Switzerland and attended the University of Zurich, studying philosophy, history, politics, economics, and mathematics. In 1897, she attained a Doctor of Law degree from the same university, 30 years after the first woman was allowed to enroll at the University of Zurich. The topic of her doctoral dissertation was “Industrial Development of Poland.” She became the first Polish woman to earn a law and economics degree worldwide.


Political Activism 


Together with Leo Jogiches (also known as Jan Tyszka) and Julian Marchlewski (also known as Julius Karski), Luxemburg established the newspaper Sprawa Robotnicza (The Workers’ Cause) in 1893 to counteract the Polish Socialist Party’s nationalist policy. Luxemburg claimed that independent Poland could emerge and exist only via socialist revolutions in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.


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Fighting in the Berlin newspaper district. The Vorwärts building after being bombarded by government troops. The Spartacist had barricaded themselves inside the Vorwärts building by Willy Römer, 1919, via Art Blart


She maintained that the struggle should be for global socialism, not just for Polish independence. This claim provoked a well-known intellectual disagreement with Vladimir Lenin, who opposed the idea.


After unifying the social democratic parties of Congress Poland and Lithuania, she and Leo Jogiches co-founded the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) Party, which was characterized by its opposition to the Polish independence movement and its commitment to proletarian internationalism – striving towards all communist revolutions as being part of a single global class struggle.


Rosa and Leo are often remembered not only as political allies but as close personal companions as well. Leo has been referred to as “the man behind Rosa Luxemburg,” a spymaster who helped put Luxemburg’s idea into action. Rosa Luxemburg wrote around 1,000 letters to Jogiches, which reveal the passionate and sensitive nature behind her strong, intellectual image.


In August 1893, Rosa Luxemburg made her first public appearance at the third International Socialist Workers’ Congress in Zurich, advocating for her party to obtain a mandate which was eventually denied. However, her courageous speech during the Congress at the age of 22 is considered a remarkable breakthrough in her political career.


In 1898, Rosa Luxembourg had a fictitious marriage with Gustav Lübeck to obtain German citizenship. Eventually, she moved to Berlin and joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which was gaining strength as it had become one of the biggest constituent parties of the Second International, an organization of socialist and labor parties. Hence, Rosa felt that Berlin was the place where she could aggregate her political influence.


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SPD election poster for the Reichstag election on June 6, 1920, via German Historical Museum, Berlin


Rosa Luxemburg’s intellectual rivalry against the revisionist Eduard Bernstein is considered the most prominent illustration of Rosa’s intervention into the international socialist debate. Karl Kautsky, a Czech-Austrian philosopher and Marxist theorist, is also commonly associated with this debate. Eduard Bernstein was a German Marxist theorist, politician, and influential member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. He believed that parliamentary politics, reforms, and trade union activity were necessary to achieve socialism in a capitalist and industrialized country, not revolution. In contrast, Rosa Luxemburg thought that even though it is necessary to transform the existing working-class conditions, it is essential to keep the revolution as the central motivation for socialism. This critique was published in her pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, made publicly available in 1900.


In Berlin, Rosa Luxemburg started teaching at the SPD’s party school, putting her views into practice that only direct education could form the revolutionary consciousness. Despite her small stature, her charismatic nature captured audiences effortlessly. Bertram David Wolfe, an American scholar, described Rosa Luxemburg:


She walked with an ungainly limp. But when she spoke, what people saw were large, expressive eyes glowing with compassion, sparkling with laughter, burning with combativeness, flashing with irony and scorn.”


During her time teaching, Rosa elaborated on one of the most important works, including her book The Accumulation of Capital, and met her lifelong companion, Clara Zetkin, a German Marxist theorist, communist activist, and advocate for women’s rights. Despite this, Rosa never felt truly at home in Berlin or Germany. However, this feeling of being a foreigner and outsider helped her maintain her compassion and understanding of social justice.


The Russian Revolution & Vladimir Lenin 

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Poster of the Provisional Government by Boris M. Kustodijew, 1917, via German Historical Museum, Berlin


The Russian Revolution of 1905 and related waves of mass political and social unrest against the ruling class that spread through the entire Russian Empire appeared to have had a decisive influence on Rosa Luxemburg’s views and beliefs. Before the Revolution, Rosa stipulated that social revolution was possible only in a highly industrialized and developed country such as Germany. With the Russian Revolution, the world saw the opposite. In 1905, Russia suffered from a wave of mass political and social unrest and could not be characterized as a highly industrialized and developed country. The Russian revolution inspired her to call for the party members at the Social Democratic Party Congress in 1905:


“Previous revolutions, especially the one in 1848, have shown that in revolutionary situations it is not the masses who have to be held in check, but the parliamentarians and lawyers, so that they do not betray the masses and the revolution.”


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Portrait of Rosa Luxemburg, 1910, via German Historical Museum, Berlin


Following the revolution, Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches returned to Poland as they believed that the fire of the Russian Revolution could be caught there. However, she was arrested. These experiences contributed to the creation of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of revolutionary mass action, introduced in her work Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften (Mass Strike, the Political Party, and Trade Unions) in 1906. For Luxemburg, the mass strike was the most important tool of the proletariat for attaining a socialist victory, contradicting most of the orthodox communists. She wrote:


“The mass strike is the first natural, impulsive form of every great revolutionary struggle of the proletariat and the more highly developed antagonism is between capital and labor, the more effective and decisive must mass strike become.”


The relationship between the Russian revolutionary and political theorist Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg was both tense and close. Their views and sympathies mostly aligned, particularly regarding the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which Rosa welcomed heartily as she was aware of these events’ momentous nature. However, the attack on the democratic institutions and the way Bolsheviks took power were issues of her critique. Her work The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism?, published later in 1961, is dedicated to the October Revolution.


The Spartacus League & the German Revolution

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Hinein in die K.P.D.! (Spartakusbund), 1919, via German Historical Museum, Berlin


In August 1914, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin, and other members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) established The Spartacus League (Spartakusbund), a revolutionary movement. The organization represented a response to the German government’s official policies in support of World War I. The name of the League was a reference to Spartacus, a leader of a slave uprising in the Roman Republic between 73 and 71 BCE. Spartacus also represented the continual battle of the exploited against the exploiters, supporting the Marxist perspective of historical materialism: the idea that class struggles drive the course of history.


In 1916, the movement was renamed Spartacus Group, and in 1917, it joined the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which had split from the SPD as its left-wing faction. Later in January 1919, the league stopped the operation as an independent entity and joined the newly formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD).


In November 1918, a wave of revolt shook German politics. Sailors in the city of Kiel began the revolt, which spread among German workers who demanded the collapse of the monarchy. Fearing the domino effect of the Russian Revolution, the chancellor, Max von Baden, handed power to Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who tried to prevent the working class from coming to power.


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Portrait of Rosa Luxemburg, 1919 via German Historical Museum, Berlin


The revolt freed Rosa from prison. Being in captivity since 1916 had undermined her already weak health. However, the idea of revolution encouraged her to attend the demonstrations almost daily. While the spontaneous strikes of November appeared enough to bring down the old order, they were not sufficient to create a new one.


Workers were misled by the leaders of the SPD and USPD’s rhetoric because they lacked experience and had no other option but to follow the political establishment. Within days the rebellion was savagely crushed by the Freikorps, military units recruited to fight on the government’s behalf, and would later assist Adolf Hitler in rising to power. Eventually, Rosa Luxemburg was arrested again on January 15, 1919. Her final words in Rote Fahne on January 14 read:


‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rise up again … and … will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!


The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg

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The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg, by R.B. Kitaj, 1960, via Tate Museum, London


Rosa Luxemburg was murdered on January 15, 1919 by the Freikorps. The body of Luxemburg was thrown into a canal and found only a few months later. Rosa was only 47 years old.


The legacy of Rosa Luxemburg is revolutionary. Vladimir Lenin described her as the “outstanding representatives of the revolutionary proletariat and of unfalsified Marxism.”


In her attempts to change the course of human history, she fought for a socialist revolution that was “softer” and unforced, impulsive as opposed to Lenin’s October revolution in Russia. The system oppressed her in three ways: once as a Pole living under the Russian Empire, twice as a Jewish person, and again as a woman. Hence, her comprehension of social democracy as granting everyone universal rights was almost instinctive and visceral. In 1913, she wrote, “History will do its work, see that you, too, do your work.”

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.