Rosa Luxemburg
Woman as Revolutionary
by Margaret Wyles

April 24, 2000

Contemplating suicide as World War I broke out, Rosa Luxemburg mourned the end of her dreams as members of her own Socialist Party, beloved comrades, betrayed their dream of a peaceful democratic state, and shackled themselves to the German war machine, the results of which would mean, in both European conflicts, the deaths of nearly a hundred million.

"The spectacle is over," she would write. "The trains carrying the reservists are now leaving in silence without the ecstatic farewells of fair maidens . . . The crisp atmosphere of the pale rising day is filled with the voices of a different chorus: the hoarse clamor of the hyenas and vultures reaping the battlefields. . . The well groomed cosmetic mask of virtue, culture philosophy, and ethics, order, peace, and constitution slips, and its real, naked self is exposed. The rapacious beast breaks loose, the infernal sabbath of anarchy erupts, and the bourgeoisie's plague-infested breath spells the doom of mankind and culture. . . During this witches' sabbath a disaster of world-wide magnitude occurred: the capitulation of the international social democracy." The disaster precipitated the rise of Nazi Germany and the dissolution of the promise of democratic socialism under Stalin.

We begin this next century not unlike the last with a renewed revolutionary spirit, encouraged by the mass movements in Seattle and Washington. Possibilities of similar horrors or the realization of utopian dreams provide an opportunity to make a different choice. As we struggle for direction and coalition among disparate elements in a fragile activist movement, Rosa Luxemburg's words and actions call out to us, beyond time and space, with wisdom, experience and spirit. "At home wherever in the world there are clouds, birds, and human tears," she speaks to a world mired in cynicism, yet hungry for idealism and heroism. A revolutionary woman, she stood equal in a man's world, without succumbing to a dismemberment of her sensuality and heart.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in a small Polish city in 1871. Inflamed by the revolutionary spirit of her time, she emigrated to Germany as a young adult, where she perceived socialism to be the most advanced ideologically and closest to revolution, and immersed herself in the study and activism consistent with the café society of her time.

Marrying her actions to her words, she would inhabit the prisons from time to time and spend most of the war in jail as a result of her revolutionary activity and opposition to war. One year after her release, on January 15, 1919, "Bloody Rosa" as she was disparagingly called, was murdered, her corpse thrown into a canal. Her assassins, directed by members of her own party, would later joined forces with Hitler's storm troops. Her long time lover and confidant, Leo Jogiches, his doom sealed in Berlin, refused to leave the city, determined to bring her murderers to justice. Her body would eventually wash up on shore, months after Jogiches himself was assassinated.

Having entered upon a new era of activism, it is unfortunate that many of the would be leftist leaders have not sought to avail themselves of the great leftist revolutionary thinkers of the past. Rather than the careful study and critical analysis of past mistakes and successes, we imagine ourselves outside an historical context within which to measure our progress, and evaluate our strategies, relying almost exclusively on emotional components - on outrage, compassion and fear. Notwithstanding the important impetus to action these provide, without critical analysis and commitment to long term goals, emotional barometers of success can lead to overconfidence and inaction, or, in the alternative, cynicism and despair.

Failure is to be expected, and success can only be measured in its proximation to the final goal. Thus, while we celebrate the "successes" of Seattle and Washington, where will we stand when our next efforts fail by comparison? Will we surrender easily of the "feel good" generation that requires instant gratification, or are we personally committed to the requisite next 100 years of struggle? As Rosa would articulate, if there was to be any hope at all, it would be the hope of action rooted not in blind faith and good feelings but in careful analysis and planning, brought to fruition in directed and effective action.


Both a visionary and a realist, "it was characteristic of her, however, that her intellect never lost control of her temperament, so that the revolutionary fire with which she always spoke was also mingled with cool headed reflectiveness, the effect was not destructive but warming and illuminating." (Max Adler)

Rosa's intellectual acumen was evident at an early age, and her rise to the top of the socialist world was extraordinary. Under the tutelage of her mentor and then lover, Leo Jogiches, Rosa would eventually challenge the thoughts of the most renowned thinkers of her time. In a long standing debate with Lenin she warned against increasing centralization and bureaucratization, which she feared would lead, and in fact did lead in the Soviets, to a "public life so poverty stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living source of all spiritual riches and progress." Rosa further understood that the Russian revolution needed international solidarity if it was to withstand the inevitable pressure of counterrevolutionary forces. As we bridge the gaps between nations over the internet and in mass demonstrations, her call for international solidarity is no less crucial now than it was 100 years ago, and the implications of our decisions no less far reaching.

Identifying herself as a "revolutionary" rather than a "reformist," she was acutely aware that the reformist branch of her Party, under the leadership of Edward Bernstein, had lost its mooring and was in danger of compromising, not just tactically, but on the goal itself. The distinction is not a small one and should not be lost on those of us debating the strategies and goals of today's movement. Bearing in mind the goal in assessing a strategy is a powerful tool that keeps us moving forward, undistracted by side issues that might cause our forces to be torn apart by a smaller, but more unified elite, or, worse yet, deflected as we unwittingly support imperialist interests as was evidenced recently when "leftists" and "liberals" lined up in support of the humanitarian charade in Kosovo. There can be no simple dichotomy between the tasks of the present and this ultimate goal of the future. Governments of both right and left have shown all to well how the goal can be continually pushed away into an ever-receding future in the name of the immediate tasks of the present, once this split is made.

Too little has been written about what our ultimate goal might be, beyond vague ideas of dismantling capitalism or removing those in power. For Rosa the goal was always clear: control by the people of both economy and politics. She viewed democracy in real terms, as more than just representative government, but a deepening of democracy into the everyday lives of citizens. What can freedom mean without the freedom to determine our own economic destinies? How does one weigh the power to vote against the power to eat? Without clear goals, how can we measure our progress, plan our strategies and direct our energies?

Further, where are goals and strategies discussed? In the streets? On the internet? Perhaps a starting point. But what will hold the masses together? Despite the imperfections inherent in any organization, Rosa continued to function within the Socialist Party, realizing that, without the structure a party affords, isolated movements are easy pickings for the vultures at the top.

Rosa was among the first to perceive imperialism as the inevitable outcome of capitalism - that capitalism would periodically implode within its borders and need to expand outward to satisfy its insatiable need for new markets and new sources of cheap labor. Those of us in the movement who would attempt to "contain" or "muzzle" capitalism with some moral restraint, miss this crucial point. Capitalism's very survival is dependent upon expansion. To focus on the symptom (imperialism) is to ignore the root cause (capitalism). Only a radical approach, one which goes to the root, will realize any kind of permanent change. For Rosa, the choice was between "socialism or barbarism." We, on the left, tend to distance ourselves from this word "socialism" as, alternatively an experiment that didn't work, or an unremittingly gray and stifling bureaucracy. For Rosa, representing the most radical elements of her Socialist Party, socialism was anything but gray. "Unrelenting revolutionary activity coupled with boundless humanity - that alone is the real life-giving force of socialism."

As mentioned, Luxemburg saw the need for a world movement to counter the dangers of Nationalism that would pit worker against worker because of artificial boundaries, rather than unite them because of their shared interests. One has only to look at Yugoslavia to see how effective this "divide and conquer" approach was used by Western interests to dismantle a functioning socialist state. Recently the labor movement, despite the alliances made in Seattle, has come forward to focus its attention against the Chinese government, rather than against those who truly wield power in this country, thereby thwarting, to the detriment of the workers and to the benefit of those in power, a powerful alliance of workers beyond borders. The issue, of course, is not without complexity. However, the thrust of the debate on whether or not China should become a member of the WTO must rest not on whose national interests are best served, but whether or not admission is to the benefit or detriment of the workers, rather than those in power.

While it is heartening to see disparate members of the current movement - union members, environmentalists, students, peace activists - work together as they did in Seattle, Rose's oft repeated insistence that any movement to be effective must be in constant contact and must draw its inspiration and authority from the people is ever more relevant. Labor was conspicuously absent in Washington, in recognition of the very tentative nature of this recent coalition. Its constant and increasing revolutionary understanding is crucial. Recall the student anti-war movement of the 60's, the current environmentalist movements, both perceived by the workers as elitist movements, the tension exacerbated by members in both movements who themselves perceived the workers and the soldiers to be the enemies, rather than the victims in the struggle for power. While both movements attained a modicum of success, neither was able to eliminate the root cause of the problem. Thus, we are constantly putting out fires instead of hanging the arsonist. There will be more wars, more environmental disasters, until such time as the workers in the chemical plants, the soldiers in the fields, the nurses and doctors, are educated to see and to own for themselves the revolutionary struggle.


A revolutionary, like a movement, cannot exist in the abstract. The embodiment of a revolutionary in living breathing flesh is the only way to render actual what had been, until its realization, only a latent possibility. Rosa "walked the walk" as few have done, not just in terms of her political life, but in her personal life as well. To bring forward a truly socialist world, where people participate as equals and decisions are based on human need, not greed, requires a different state of consciousness than the ones most people inhabit. Deadened by television, consumerism, technology, imprisoned by an artificial morality which further debilitates our spirit, we have lost our personal moorings as well. True revolution can never reach its potential if it only challenges the political and economic landscape. There is the inner landscape as well, which both reflects and has impact on, the outer landscape, and we can ill afford to bring the trappings of the capitalist world with us into the new world.

Rosa's life and words reveal that there is no prescription, no map to the future. That each painful inch of movement is reached, not just by moving outward, but, as revolutionaries and writers, by "dig(ging) deeply into (our)selves ...to feel the whole import and truth of what (we) are writing."

Always digging deeper, Rosa nevertheless could appreciate the small moments in life, the gentle song of a robin, the first blooms of spring. Life called to her to experience its richness. Deeply sensual, she abhorred artifice and posturing. When one touches and is touched with such sensitivity, what need does one have for the excesses of a consumerist society? How does one compare an afternoon of television to a walk through a meadow in Spring? Having found her inner beauty, she had no need to ravage the world to fill the gap in her soul.

Rosa worked through intermittent despair, entering her own personal darkness. Those of us who have felt the pain of watching needless suffering and lives wasted from wars, and other means of oppression, can identify with her as she writes to her friend Luise Kautsky:

With a great effort, I had just regained my composure, when a despair gripped me which was far blacker than the night. And today, once again, it is gray instead of sunny - a cold east wind...I feel like a frozen bumble bee. Did you ever find such a bumble bee in your garden in the first frost of an autumn morning? It lies on its back, quite numb as if it were dead, with its little legs tucked in and its fur covered with hoar frost. Only when the sun warms it through, do the legs slowly being to stir and stretch. The little body rolls over and finally, clumsily, rises into the air with a buzz. I always made it my duty to kneel down by such frozen bumble bees and, with the warm breath from my mouth, bring them to life. If only the sun would awake me, pour soul that I am, from my cold death! In the meantime, like Luther, I'm fighting the devils inside me - with an inkwell.


Were she to have stopped there, would she have committed suicide as she contemplated, her legacy would have been little more than that of a tragic figure in a world of tragic figures. As we rail against injustice, read of innumerable atrocities, and watch the world sink further into poverty, these words from Rosa urge us to move beyond our cynicism and, all evidence to the contrary, affirm life in its fragile beauty.

I lie here alone and in silence, enveloped in the manifold black wrappings of darkness, tedium, unfreedom, and winter - and yet my heart beats with an immeasurable joy...And in the darkness I smile at life, as I were the possessor of a charm which would enable to transform all that is evil and tragic into serenity and happiness...At such moments I think of you, and would that I could hand over this magic key to you also. Then, and at all times and in all places, you would be able to see the beauty and joy of life...My one desire is to give you in addition my inexhaustible sense of inward bliss. Could I do so, I should be at ease about you, knowing in your passage through life you were clad in a star-bespangled cloak which would protect you from everything petty, trivial, and harassing."


This Week's Other Article

Smiles Amid the Sadness - by Alex Jay Berman


Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published April 24, 2000
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