USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Rosa Luxemburg Introduction

Rosa Luxemburg grew up in a Poland that was occupied by Tsarist Russia. She was well-educated, the daughter of a timber merchant, who experienced periods of prosperity and hardship. Luxemburg was Jewish in a deeply anti-Semitic culture. She witnessed anti-Jewish violence, pogroms, at a young age. When the family moved to the city of Warsaw, Luxemburg became involved in revolutionary politics as a teenager. She joined an underground party called Proletariat and helped organize strikes and protests. When the party was crushed by the tsarist authorities, Luxemburg went into exile in Zurich, Switzerland, a center of international political exile. In Zurich, while continuing her political work, she attended the university, earning her doctorate in public law and political science in 1898.

From Zurich, Luxemburg went to Berlin and became involved in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest and most powerful leftist, Marxist, political party in the world at that point. The SPD had around one and a half million members in the years before the First World War. It had youth movements and women’s movements. It had social welfare programs and educational programs. By 1912, the SPD was Germany’s largest party, receiving almost 35% of the vote in that year’s election for the Reichstag (German parliament).

The SPD, however, was a problematic organization from Luxemburg’s perspective. As it grew larger, it became increasingly centralized and bureaucratized. A small group of leaders, a party elite, formed and set the agenda and direction of the party. This agenda and direction was oriented around piecemeal reform of the German social system. It was not a kind of revolutionary agenda that Luxemburg desired. It was not a call for an end to the capitalist system. On issues such as German colonial policy, Luxemburg clashed fundamentally with party leadership, who, in general, supported Germany’s imperial policy. In an essay titled “The Proletarian Women,” written in 1914, Luxemburg writes:

The workplace of the future needs many hands and passionate enthusiasm. A world of female misery awaits deliverance. Here the wife of the small farmer groans, almost breaking down under the burden of life. There in German Africa in the Kalahari Desert the bones of defenseless Herero women bleach, driven to a cruel death from hunger and thirst by German soldiers. In the high mountains of Putumayo on the other side of the ocean, unheard by the world, death screams die away of the martyred Indian women in the rubber plantations of the international capitalists.

For Luxemburg, capitalism and imperialism were deeply linked, and it was imperialism and its militancy that was driving Europe toward war.

Luxemburg vehemently opposed war. Already in 1914, before the beginning of hostilities, she went on a speaking tour to advocate for socialist resistance to the impending conflict. In June of 1914, Luxemburg was arrested by the German government for “insulting the military.” She was criticizing the abuse of soldiers within the military system. As Luxemburg continued to push for an anti-imperialist and anti-militarist message, the SPD leadership moved increasingly to the right, allying with the government’s position. For Luxemburg, the longstanding rift between her more revolutionary position and the party’s reformist and subordination to German imperial interests was becoming intolerable. From prison, Luxemburg wrote a scathing critique of what she perceived as SPD failures in the face of what was by then not a pending crisis but an actual, unfolding catastrophe—the First World War. Luxemburg and others in the socialist movement in Germany broke away from the main body of the SPD, eventually founding the Spartacus League and then the German Communist Party. In 1919, as the revolutionary threat grew to the then ruling SPD, the socialist government unleashed a force of domestic terror and oppression on these radical elements. These were the so-called Freikorps, rightwing domestic militias that organized independently but were tolerated or actively encouraged by the government in an alliance against communists and radicals. A group of Freikorps vigilantes murdered Luxemburg and her friend and colleague Karl Liebknecht in 1919.

The following piece, the “Junius Pamphlet,” was written in 1916 while Luxemburg was in prison. In it, she takes on the issue of the SPD’s support of the war and the responsibilities of the political organization with regard to workers of all countries. This piece connects many of the themes discussed in the book so far: imperialism, nationalism, mass society, industrialization, economic crisis, and notions of progressive reform and revolution.    

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