Middle school students ask about Rosa Luxemburg

February 1, 2019

Middle school students doing a history project about the Polish-born revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg asked socialist Paul Le Blanc six questions about her life. Paul, the author of numerous books, including Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, was happy to oblige. Here are his answers.

1. What tragedies had Rosa Luxemburg invoked as a child?

I am not sure what you mean by “invoke” — that generally means to cite something or to call upon something. I know she felt it was a tragedy that some people couldn’t read, and as a child, she sought to teach one of her family’s house-servants how to read.

If you meant what tragedies did Rosa Luxemburg experience, that is another matter. She suffered from a hip ailment as a child which kept her in bed for a year, and which caused her body to be somewhat deformed for the rest of her life. She walked with a limp, and it is said she had a hunchback.

As a child, she would have been most keenly aware of this, but she would soon discover other “tragedies” (if we understand this to mean difficulties brought on simply by the person that she was). She was a woman in a world that, even more than today, oppressed and denigrated women.

Clara Zetkin (left) alongside Rosa Luxemburg
Clara Zetkin (left) alongside Rosa Luxemburg

She was Polish, and in her time, the Poles were an oppressed nationality (particularly by Russians and Germans). She was a Jew, in a world where anti-Semitism was stronger and more restrictive than is the case today.

Also, increasingly, she became aware of the oppression of downtrodden and despised majorities by powerful and privileged minorities — in the form of class society, and also in the form of colonialism and imperialism, which stunted and destroyed the lives of millions of people.

She also saw various forms of human cruelty and destructiveness, against other people and against animals and the planet as a whole. She believed that such tragedies could and should be prevented — she hated them.

2. What is the Marxist theory, and how was it better than parliamentary politics?

The last part of this question is like asking how are Galileo’s scientific theories better than a telescope. A telescope, if used correctly, is a tool for developing scientific theories (including Galileo’s). Someone who is foolish might say, “We don’t need Galileo’s theories — we just need a telescope.” Someone equally foolish might say, “We don’t need a telescope — we have Galileo’s theories.”

Marxist theory includes five major components:

(1) a philosophy or way of understanding reality which is dynamic or dialectical, philosophically materialist, and humanistic;

(2) a theory of history that sees historical development being shaped by economic development, with a special emphasis on the amazing developments of technology and on the conflict between social-economic classes — wealthy and powerful minorities and the laboring majorities that the minorities squeeze the wealth from;

(3) an analysis of our present economic system — capitalism — which sees it as incredibly productive and dynamic, but also as incredibly destructive, resulting in various problems and crises, largely because it is an economy ruled by a minority motivated by a desire to profit at the expense of others and, if necessary, at the expense of society as a whole;

(4) a belief that the working-class majority under capitalism can and should develop a political program to defend its interests under capitalism (through struggles for reforms, or changes for the better within capitalist society; through building trade unions at workplaces (to push for better wages and working conditions); and through building a working-class political party that will help it “win the battle of democracy,” and then replace capitalism with something better;

(5) a vision of a revolutionary socialist alternative to capitalism — an economic democracy in which the wealth created by the majority would be used for the benefit of all — that could be won through the struggles of the workers and the oppressed.

Luxemburg was part of a massive socialist working-class movement in the world that had many organizations that were part of it. She was born in Poland, but while she was alive, Poland didn’t exist as a separate country. A piece of it was part of the Russian Empire, and another piece of it belonged to Germany.

While there was a small Polish socialist group that she was part of, she decided to move to Berlin and join the very large German socialist movement — which was connected with sizable trade unions; with many other groups that represented women and young people, and struggled for reforms; and with a very substantial political party that was able to elect a growing number of representatives to the German parliament (called the Reichstag).

Some influential people in the German socialist movement began to feel and argue that winning more and more reforms and electing more and more people to parliament was all that was needed to gradually change capitalism into socialism — and they therefore felt it was most realistic simply to figure out how to win elections to parliament and how to maneuver within parliament to pile up the reforms they desired. Luxemburg disagreed.

Marx had been in favor of a workers’ party running candidates for parliament — and Luxemburg agreed with that.

But Marx had also believed: (a) that the state (or government) in a capitalist society would be more or less controlled by the capitalists; (b) that determined mass struggles of workers and oppressed people outside of parliament, putting pressure on capitalist employers and the government, would be necessary for winning reforms; (c) that the problems and destructive dynamics of capitalism are so deep that they could not simply be reformed out of existence; and (d) that eventually the capitalists would use their considerable wealth and power to push back, defeat and crush — by any means necessary — the working-class majority in order to stop it from replacing capitalism with socialism.

This meant that a revolution would eventually be necessary to overthrow capitalism. Luxemburg agreed with this view.

3. How did her mass actions in politics affect people?

Of course, mass actions cannot be carried out by a single person. The question could be turned around: How did mass actions of the people affect Rosa Luxemburg’s politics?

There were revolutionary upsurges, mass strikes and uprisings in much of Eastern Europe in 1905, especially in the Russian Empire.

These were, to a significant degree, not planned by any revolutionary organization. They were popular explosions generated by oppressive conditions and masses of people feeling “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more” and “we’re all in this together” and “in unity there is strength!”

These mass actions helped working-class organizations — trade unions, revolutionary groups, etc. — to grow and to win partial victories.

Luxemburg was very much influenced by all of this, and based on this experience she wrote a famous pamphlet — The Mass Strike, the Trade Unions and the Political Party. She argued that such mass action as she saw in 1905 must become an essential part of socialists’ thinking and political strategy.

Some of her comrades in the socialist movement were frightened by this approach and very much disagreed with it. But there were many radical-minded working-class people and socialist intellectuals who thought it made sense, and they absorbed the ideas she put forward in what they were trying to do.

4. What was Rosa’s biggest impact on our current society?

ROSA LUXEMBURG — in my opinion — has three major impacts on our current society.

(a) As a brilliant, brave, amazing woman with a very vibrant idealism and deeply humanistic ideas, she has been an attractive figure for many people, especially young people, but not just them, who are dissatisfied with various oppressive aspects of the society that we are part of.

(b) She represents a very democratic and humanistic version of socialism that is more attractive than either the often bureaucratic reformism that compromises with the capitalists or the repressive dictatorships that have claimed to be “socialist,” but are really controlled by new ruling elites.

(c) Many of the economic, social and political realities that she analyzed and struggled with are similar to things that people face today — so many find her ideas and example helpful in helping them figure things out: how to understand the world and how to struggle to change it.

5. How did her actions represent political representatives at the time?

I HAVE indicated this in previous answers. Those who wanted to preserve the existing social, economic and political system hated her, made fun of her and attacked her as “bloody Rosa.” Some people who thought this way finally murdered her.

Some people in her own socialist movement strongly disagreed with her, considering her unrealistic and even dangerous. Other people in the socialist and working-class movement learned from her, were inspired by her, and in some cases loved her.

She was a leading representative of the revolutionary wing of the socialist movement, far on the left of the political spectrum.

When the First World War came, she opposed it as an unjustified imperialist war — at a time when many (even many workers and socialists) went along with it or enthusiastically supported it in the name of “patriotism.”

She spent several difficult years in prison because she refused to go along with this. By the time this horrific war was over, many people concluded that Rosa Luxemburg had been right. When she was murdered, for many she became an inspiring and heroic martyr — but others spit on the memory of “bloody Rosa.”

6. What were Rosa’s triumphs and tragedies?

She overcame many difficulties to accomplish amazing things, becoming: an influential political figure when women didn’t even have the right to vote; a force in a socialist movement that was dominated by men; a brilliant writer and political analyst, influential economist and important social thinker whose works are read — often avidly — even today, a century after her death.

Some of the struggles she helped strengthen resulted in important gains for millions of people. She had wonderful and sometimes beautiful friendships, loved and was loved by a number of people. She loved and was able to immerse herself literature, creative activity, culture.

She knew how to have fun (and had fun). She was animated by an awe, a sense of wonder, about the natural world and life in general. She lived life fully, bravely, and her life was full of positive meaning — which is something which she was fortunate enough to be keenly aware of. She very much made a difference in more than one way.

The world and life are full of suffering, and suffering was part of her life and consciousness as well. Some she loved left her, in one way or another, in some cases through death. At certain moments, cruelty and violence created a vast whirlpool all around her — and she did not have to power to stop it.

The movement to which she dedicated herself failed to bring about the socialism which she had struggled for over most of her life. She herself was brutally murdered and thrown into a canal, where over a period of time her body bloated and decomposed.

Luxemburg had argued, three years before her death, that humanity faced a choice — moving forward to socialism or a downward slide into barbarism.

Throughout the 20th century, the socialism in which she believed was achieved nowhere, but historical developments did in many ways have the quality of a very terrible barbarism — the rise of fascism and Nazism, the Stalinist degradation of Communism, the Great Depression, a Second World War more horrific than the first and an extended Cold War with many grotesque features on both sides, not to mention a threat of nuclear annihilation.

There has also been a very glitzy consumer capitalism, with many technological wonders, accompanied by growing cultural and environmental pollution, punctuated by terror and violence. This all was so different from the future that Rosa Luxemburg had dreamed of, hoped for, fought for.

It remains to be seen, in the 21st century, if the tragedy will be deepened and finalized — or if there will be triumphs in line with her thinking and her spirit.

Further Reading

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