Rosa Luxemburg and the German SPD Movement

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism—From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In 1898, Rosa Luxemburg moved operations to the very center of the world’s most advanced socialist movement, and the expected site of the coming revolution, Germany. She didn’t accept the revolutionary ideology in Germany, she criticized and challenged every socialist leader. Why did she become such a vehement critic of her fellow socialists including Lenin?

A photograph of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin at sunrise, Germany.
After arriving in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg became active in the SPD movement.
(Image: Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock)

Rosa Luxemburg moved to Berlin, and to enable this move she contracted a fake marriage for German citizenship with Gustav Lübeck, an acquaintance. After they were married, they never saw each other again.

Once in Germany, she became active in the huge Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) movement, and she quickly became famous for her epic, drag‐down fights with other socialist leaders, like Lenin. She was well on her way to becoming a legendary figure—’Red Rosa’.

She became friends with Clara Zetkin, leader of the Socialist women’s movement, but she flatly told German SPD leaders, “I have nothing to do with the women’s movement.” She saw herself as a revolutionary, plain and simple.

This hardness could lead to unkind statements. Later, when she was released from prison and greeted by a band of wives of socialists, she quipped that they would have been of more use looking after their husbands. She seems to have internalized some of the stereotypes of her age.

Learn more about the life of Lenin.

The Famous Works of Rosa Luxemburg

But her greatest ambitions were quite different. She aimed to be a female Marx, the truest interpreter and continuer of his tradition, with her heavy theoretical work, titled The Accumulation of Capital (published in 1913).

She also came to lead the left wing of the SPD, arguing that the tactic of mass strikes would build a radicalizing dynamic and would sweep the socialists into power. She challenged top SPD leaders like Karl Kautsky and August Bebel.

Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin on their way to the SPD Congress, Magdeburg, 1910.
Rosa Luxemburg came to lead the left wing of the SPD in Germany. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

She especially clashed with Eduard Bernstein and his ideas of revisionism—she abused them as ‘opportunism’. Her book, Reform or Revolution, a refutation of Bernstein, appeared in 1899. As the factionalism within the organization increased, she clashed with top SPD leaders, berating them as timid, denouncing their bureaucratic spirits.

One barbed story went like this. Rosa and her friend Clara Zetkin were out walking with other SPD leaders and they accidentally wandered onto an army firing range. When they discovered this the male leaders joked, “What would they write on your tombstones if you were shot?” Rosa responded, “Here lie the two last real men of the German Social Democratic movement!”

Learn more about Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary Martyr.

The Clashes Between Red Rosa and Other Socialists

Clashing with fellow German socialists was not enough. She also clashed with Lenin, the Russian Bolshevik leader, warning that centralization instead of spontaneity would produce despotism. She vowed that spontaneous proletarian action was always best: “The mistakes that are made by a truly revolutionary workers’ movement”, she wrote, “are historically speaking immeasurably more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best possible ‘Central Committee’.”

She clashed with French radical Jean Jaurès over whether one could ally oneself with middle‐class liberals, but she also showed herself capable of magnanimity in debate. In one famous congress, Jaures had delivered his impassioned argument, but he had spoken in French. As there was no interpreter around to translate his remarks, Rosa leapt up and, on the spot, rendered his entire speech in German, even though she disagreed with every word.

She also clashed with a fellow Polish revolutionary newly arrived in Germany, Karl Radek. Radek admired her, but she found him repulsive, calling him a ‘whore’. She perhaps interpreted his constant humor as a lack of seriousness, or perhaps sensed his inner recklessness. Or perhaps their shared background, as new arrivals in the context of German socialism, was just too close for comfort.

And through the factional fighting, she kept hoping for the revolution. When a revolt did break out in the Russian Empire in 1905, she hurried back to Warsaw. So, she was active with the Polish, German, and Russian socialists, modeling internationalism in her own person. However, in actuality, she had arrived too late in Warsaw, as the revolutionary action had subsided. In the crackdown that followed, Luxemburg was arrested, imprisoned in Warsaw, and then released to her family due to poor health.

A photograph of Rosa Luxemburg.
Rosa Luxemburg rejected nationalism in favor of socialist internationalism. (Image: Unknown photographer 1895-1900/Public domain)

Back in Berlin, starting in 1907, she taught at the newly founded SPD party school. Luxemburg’s involvement in theory and politics could hardly be more intense. But, as her biographer Harry Harmer points out, at the same time as she ardently identified with the proletarian masses, she remained curiously remote from them, unless they were her servants or members of the audience at her speeches.

She had been electrified by the Russian Revolution of 1905, seeing it as proof of her tactic of the value of the mass strike. She prized the spontaneous action of the workers, rather than vanguard parties leading the workers that Lenin spoke of. Yet she also avowed, “The worst working‐class party is better than none.” However, urging such tactics in Germany landed her in prison for two months in 1907 for ‘inciting violence’.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Struggles Between Nationalism and Internationalism

So, this is how things stood when the war broke out in 1914. When it did, the power of nationalism became clear. Rallying to the defense of each country, some 70 million men were put in uniform, of whom over 13 million died.

This is the ideal place to make some points about nationalism, which Luxemburg rejected totally, in favor of internationalism. Nationalism is defined as the primary loyalty given to a nation, a collectivity based on blood, language, territory, history, and ideas. Self‐determination as a slogan implied that each nation had its own territory and a right to self‐rule. This all meant that a rich Frenchman and a poor Frenchman had more in common than people in other countries.

Marx had considered nationalism an illusion, a form of manipulation of the working class, who in truth had no country. Workers in France and Germany and America, Marx argued, had more in common with each other than with their wealthy countrymen. With globalization, nationalism was fading, he argued. Inequities between nations would all be solved once the revolution arrived. But despite this and other predictions that nationalism was disappearing, it endured and grew.

Learn more about World War I as a revolutionary opportunity.

Rosa Luxemberg’s Response to Increasing Nationalism

In the multinational, multicultural Austro‐Hungarian Empire, innovative Austro‐Marxists led by Victor Adler sought to reconcile socialism and nationalism. In the early years of the 20th century, Adler’s idea was that within a state, people could avow their national identity without having a territory of their own. Luxemburg opposed this as watering down the international movement, a reactionary move.

In 1907, at the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International, Luxemburg opposed suggestions to support colonial struggles of liberation. An essay she wrote in 1908 titled The National Question and Autonomy has been called ‘perhaps the most sweeping socialist condemnation of nationalism ever made’. She wrote: “Social Democracy is called… to realize not the right of self‐determination of nations, [but] solely the right to self‐determination of the working class, of the exploited and downtrodden class: the proletariat.”

Her ideas continued to evolve and with the beginning of the first world war in 1914, she became more vehement in her criticism of the revolutionaries in Germany.

Common Questions About Rosa Luxemburg and the German SPD Movement

Q: What is Luxemburgism?

Luxemburgism is a revolutionary theory based on the writings of Rosa Luxemburg. It belongs to the Marxist and communist school of thought.

Q: How long did the Spartacist uprising last?

The Spartacist uprising was a general strike followed by an armed battle that lasted in Berlin from 6th to 13th January, 1919.

Q: What did Rosa Luxemburg believe in?

Rosa Luxemburg believed in the international struggle against capitalism, and not just the nationalistic struggle for independence.

Q: Who founded Communist Party of Germany?

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht founded the Communist Party of Germany.

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