Rosa Luxemburg was born on the 5 March 1871 in the Polish town of Zamość, as Rozalia Luksenburg. She was a member of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), before splitting from the latter to help establish the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Her political thinking is best characterised by her opposition to Eduard Bernstein’s revisionist socialism as well as Lenin’s Bolshevism. Her relationship with Poland’s independence struggle is an ambiguous and often forgotten one. As the turmoil of today’s world seems to befit Luxemburg’s lifetime, I and many young leftist Poles pause to re-examine the politics and activism of Rosa Luxemburg, and what her legacy means for ongoing struggles in Poland.
Luxemburg and Bernstein
In 1898, Eduard Bernstein wrote Evolutionary Socialism in which he argued that socialism could be achieved through peaceful means and gradual change. Bernstein’s argument was that ‘the movement is everything, the final goal nothing’. Luxemburg replied, in 1900, with Reform or Revolution.
In Luxemburg’s text, she hit back at Bernstein’s claim: if capitalism could be reformed by gradually improving the workers’ standard of living, then there would be no point working towards a revolution. Such reforms, Luxemburg explained, were impossible, as crises are built into the capitalist system that exploits the workers and their labour. According to Luxemburg, this exploitation cannot be eliminated without the eradication of the capitalist class, which can only be achieved through the revolutionary seizure of power. It is within this framework that Luxemburg argued for the qualitative difference between revolution and reform.
The final split between Luxemburg and the SPD came in 1914 when the majority of the party voted in favour of war credits. Thus, the SPD lent its support to a devastating war that pitted against each other the working men and women of Europe. Rosa Luxemburg remained an outspoken critic of the war, despite being imprisoned multiple times by the government. Together with fellow Marxist socialists from the SPD, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin, she founded the Spartacus League, the predecessor of the KPD.
Luxemburg died in the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin, a general strike which she and Liebknecht staged in the post-war political turmoil of 1919. She was killed by the German Freikorps, which were para-military units composed mainly of veterans, who crushed the uprising, with the blessing of the Social Democratic government of the new Weimar Republic.
Luxemburg and Lenin
Luxemburg was a revolutionary Marxist and critic of Bernstein’s revisionism (the notion that socialism can be introduced through evolution rather than revolution), but that did not automatically make her a supporter of Leninism. In fact, she was critical of two core elements of Leninism which distinguished it from other strands of Marxist thought: vanguardism and democratic centralism.
Lenin believed that the revolution should be carried out by a narrow vanguard composed of professional revolutionaries committed to the cause. Luxemburg, on the other hand, rejected this idea of a socialist vanguard and argued instead for the need of the working class to actively participate in its own liberation.
Furthermore, she repeatedly advocated the need for democracy, common ownership, public debate and elections. This is in stark contrast to the Marxist-Leninist idea of democratic centralism, where decisions debated within the party do not require further input from the public. Luxemburg criticised the Bolshevik strategy and embraced a more democratic and inclusive interpretation of Marx’s idea of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
Her relation to the October Revolution was also less than straightforward. Despite her reservation towards both Leninism and Trotskyism, she saw the October Revolution as the first step towards an international revolution of the proletariat. The latter would correct the mistakes of Bolshevism. In this stance Luxemburg remained true to her ideals of internationalism and mass participation. She believed that the international proletariat could learn from its own mistakes.
To aid the international revolution to which she aspired, Luxemburg led the Spartacist Uprising, an eager attempt to begin the communist revolution in Germany, for which she would pay the ultimate sacrifice.
Luxemburg and Polish independence
Perhaps the most misrepresented aspect of Rosa Luxemburg’s political thought is her relationship to Poland’s struggle for independence. In Poland, Rosa Luxemburg has been bequeathed the reputation of being an opponent of Polish independence. This is only partially true. Luxemburg was an internationalist and opposed the nationalism of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). She feared that liberating Poland from Tsarist Russia could simply mean handing power back to the Polish nobility and bourgeois.
Her concerns were not totally unfounded. The Polish state, which remerged in 1918 out of the collapse of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires, eventually turned into a militaristic and nationalist regime. Uprisings by exploited Polish peasants, as well as Ukrainians and other minorities, against the hold of the rural nobility were a common occurrence.
Luxemburg also opposed the political independence of Poland on practical grounds. Her argument was that the former Polish territories had become economically integrated with the empires that controlled them. As a result, she argued for an alliance between the Polish proletariat and the working classes of Russia, Germany or Austria-Hungary, depending on which territory Polish workers inhabited. The working classes, in her view, ought to have organised themselves based on their class interests rather than national interests.
Despite these reservations, Luxemburg simultaneously advocated the right of Poles to retain their cultural identity and language. In a brochure published in 1900, entitled In Defence of Nationality, she passionately defended Polish cultural autonomy and the right of Poles to speak their own language and protect their identity. She therefore opposed the policy of Germanisation carried out by the Prussian government on Polish-inhabited territories. In the brochure, Luxemburg also highlighted that Germanisation was not in the interest of the German people but rather its capitalist elites.
Luxemburg’s attitude to the Polish independence movement was arguably not very different from that espoused by Roman Dmowski, founder of National Democracy (Endecja) and widely considered one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Polish independence (the many ‘founding mothers’ of Polish independence are often omitted in commemorations).
Both Luxemburg and Dmowski supported Polish autonomy but rejected the struggle for political independence on practical grounds. Dmowski initially saw the road to national liberation in reform within the Russian Empire, whereas Luxemburg saw it within a joint revolutionary struggle by the Polish and Russian proletariat against the Tsarist regime.
The bottom line remains that Luxemburg’s attitude to Polish independence was in no way unusual or anti-Polish.
Luxemburg’s similarities with Dmowski end there, however. Dmowski was a nationalist, antisemite and anti-feminist. Despite this, his legacy lives on in the multiple streets bearing his name. Dmowski’s glorification is due to the fact that he is largely remembered for his role in gathering support for an independent Poland at the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920). Even recent attempts to rename the Dmowski Roundabout in honour of Polish women have been crushed.
Meanwhile, Rosa Luxemburg’s name has been largely sidelined in Polish discourse, despite the fact she defended the rights of millions of oppressed Poles, including workers’ rights irrespective of religion or nationality.
The Polish state which emerged in 1918 was far from the one Luxemburg had envisioned. And though the Communist government, which emerged after 1945, put an end to the nobility’s domination of the countryside, it was also characterised by nationalist rhetoric and its own violent repressions.
As 2021 marks 150 years since Rosa Luxemburg’s birth, this is another opportunity for the Polish Left to rediscover her legacy. Despite being mostly known for her activism in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg never abandoned her Polish roots. She viewed the plight of Polish workers in the context of a desired international workers’ revolution. Her revolution saw itself as both democratic and inclusive; an alternative to the Leninist project in the East. Today, as Poles find themselves struggling under the yoke of a far-right, nationalist state, we may find inspiration in Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas, too-often omitted from the pantheon of great Polish thinkers.