Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1870 and went to school in what was then Russian Poland. She attracted a lot of attention from the authorities because of her interest in the revolutionary movement and was forced to leave Russia.
The SPD was the largest working class party in the world. However its leaders became reformists. They were interested in protecting their roles as workers’ representatives within the capitalist system rather than overthrowing it.
In 1918, because of Rosa’s disgust with the leaders of the SPD supporting the German rulers’ war, she left and formed another party. This party was called the Spartakists and they managed to successfully rally the best revolutionary young workers and become the vanguard (forefront) of the 1918 revolution.
However, despite their revolutionary courage, they lacked a clear programme for victory. Rosa thought that there would be a victorious revolution based on the spontaneous uprising of the masses. This lack of organisation was to be their downfall.
The SPD knew how weak but potentially dangerous the Spartakists were and used the notorious Freikorps – whose leaders went on to form the Nazi party! – to track them down and brutally murder them. Rosa Luxemburg was found dead along with her comrade Karl Liebknecht in the Berlin canal in January 1919.
This shows the dangers of reformism for the working class. Reformists prevent revolution by lying about those who are true revolutionaries, and pretending it is they who are protecting the interests of the working class. Reformists hold back the masses and steer them away from revolution . . . and into the arms of the bosses.
The best way of making sure Rosa Luxemburg did not die in vain is to make sure the next time we have the bosses on the run, we win!
The Mass Strike
In 1893 there was a general strike of 250,000 workers in Belgium (almost the entire Belgian working class) who were fighting for equal voting rights for all. In response to this the ruling Clerical Party backed down and gave voting rights to all men – but property holders had more than one vote! A right wing majority in parliament was guaranteed. Nevertheless, this showed the power of the mass strike.
But the fight for equal voting rights in Belgium had not been won, and in 1902 another strike was launched by the Belgian labour movement. However, since the 1893 strike, the Labour Party had gained 24 seats in the parliament and they believed they could use their positions in parliament to improve workers’ lives. In a deal with the Liberal Party, Labour agreed to drop its demand for women’s voting rights. When the strike broke out in 1902, the Liberals response was, “Go back to work and wait until the next elections when we will win”. The leader of the Labour party – Vandervelde – praised this declaration, when only one day before, the party had declared it’s total support for the strike!
Rosa Luxemburg was the first Marxist to recognise the importance of these events in her book, The mass strike, the party and the trade unions.
First, the mass strike had the power to force the ruling class to give concessions because it stopped production and therefore stopped the bosses from making profits. In other words, the strike struck right at the heart of the capitalist system. Secondly, the general strike directly involved the great mass of the working class in action, in changing events, making history. When all the other SPD leaders were counting their parliamentary seats, Rosa was far more interested in picket lines!
Luxemburg’s arguments about the revolutionary potential of the mass strike were soon proved right. In Russia in October 1905, a group of print workers went on strike over wages. The strikers linked up with other small strikes through a workers’ council – the Petrograd Soviet of Workers Deputies – that was made up of activists from each of the strikes.
The strikes, over economic issues like wages and conditions inparticular workplaces, then grew into a mass working class movement voicing political demands- most notably, a law ensuring an 8 hour working day for the whole working class. The soviet even began to take the running of the city into their own hands – nothing moved unless the joint strike committee said so. The Russian events brought the struggle for working class power to the centre of the worlds political stage.
The fight against reformism
Luxemburg and the left of the SPD could see that the refusal to adopt the general strike tactic was linked to the party’s refusal to take bold actions against the German bosses and their brutally anti-democratic state machine. Everything was justified by the mantra that, “Socialism is inevitable”.
Luxemburg saw little comfort in this for the working class suffering at the hands of capitalism today. She argued for a link between the day to day battles for improvements for the working class within capitalism (minimum programme) and the fight for socialism (maximum programme). This brought her into even more of a conflict with the leaders of the SPD.
Luxemburg was the first revolutionary to show that the reformists, who justified every cowardly retreat in the name of gradually reaching the socialist goal, were not socialists at all. In a pamphlet called Reform or revolution, Luxemburg takes apart the reformists’ arguments.
The right wing claimed that the fight for socialism could be reduced to the fight for a series of reforms within the capitalist system. These reforms would eventually convince the capitalists to give up their power and embrace socialism. So, why not drop the goal of socialism from the party’s programme since it was irrelevant and frightened off the bosses unnecessarily?
Luxemburg showed that this was not just a right wing interpretation of socialism, it was an argument for maintaining the capitalist system! If the party dropped the goal of socialism, then it would end up strengthening capitalism by diverting workers’ anger away from overthrowing the ruling class and into a futile attempt to make the present system more humane. If reformism was allowed to capture the SPD and their unions, argued Luxemburg, the party would end up betraying workers’ struggles.
A lonely voice against war
But even Luxemburg could not have foreseen just how right she would be proved. In the build-up to World War I, all the workers’ parties had agreed to strike together if war was declared. Workers’ blood should not be shed in defence of the capitalist system, even if it is disguised as a defence of the “fatherland” or “civilised democracy”. When war was declared, however, all the reformist parties supported “their” ruling class. The International was shattered.
Luxemburg spoke at workers’ meeting after meeting, trying to rally opposition to the war. Eventually, she was imprisoned, where she immediately started to build a new workers’ party from the ruins of the SPD. Along with Karl Liebknecht – the only SPD MP to vote against the war – Luxemburg formed the Spartakist League in 1915, which later became the Communist Party of Germany after the Russian Revolution.
From her prison cell, Rosa Luxemburg wrote articles and pamphlets exposing the war as a war for profits and calling for international working class solidarity to oust the war-mongerers. One of these pamphlets, the Junius Pamphlet, was used to found a new workers’ International.
A revolutionary leadership.
Rosa Luxemburg’s major weakness was overestimating how far workers would go spontaneously, or on their own, without a revolutionary party fighting for revolution within the working class movement- especially since the ideological power of the capitalist media and of left-talkers like the SPD leaders is so great. Unless a revolutionary party takes a mass strike foward to revolution, the outcome will be the reformist “leaders” successfully putting brakes onit to keep it from going too far (getting rid of capital-ism). This means prepar-ing for revolution by building the party beforehand.
Unlike other so-called socialist leaders around the world, Luxemburg enthusiastically welcomed the Russian Revolution in 1917. Like all true revolutionaries, she thought that a real, actually happening revolution was worth a thousand boring speeches. That’s why she immediately supported the Bolsheviks.
But the young German commun-ists didn’t have the advantage of their Russian brothers and sisters. They had not had years to develop their skills and tactics. They courageously led an uprising in January 1919, with an armed demonstration of half a million workers. But, hesitation at the vital moment led to its defeat. Luxembourg was killed because the ruling class knew what a threat she was to them.
The real tragedy of Rosa Luxemburg was that she did not start the task of building a revolutionary party until 1915 . . . by which time the murdering reformists of the SPD had unleashed capitalism’s most reactionary forces onto her.