Rosa's commitment to her class against the greatest of odds is an enduring inspiration, writes Dana Mills
It is exactly a hundred years since Rosa Luxemburg took her last breath and the world lost one of the sharpest minds and determinate hearts of the international left. Rosa Luxemburg was born in the small town of Zamosc, then Poland under the Russian empire. Brought up in a Jewish family which placed robust emphasis on culture and books, though Rosa, from a young age, was the only family member of her three siblings and parents to take a decisively revolutionary route. In her early teens, she joined radical circles in Poland and by the time she reached 18 she was already known in Poland and beyond. She opted to study in Zurich, where women could enrol in university, and she became Dr. Luxemburg in 1897. Throughout her life she encountered combinations of sexism and antisemitism which barred her entry from various institutions and created volatile responses to her writing and activism, and yet she never stopped working for a world in which no one would face oppression and violence.
In 1899 her international stature was established when she published a response to Eduard Bernstein’s revision of Marxist principles, that called for incremental changes in social- democracy rather than agitating for an all-encompassing revolution. Bernstein was one of Friedrich Engels’ most prominent students and a friend of the Marx family. One learns about Rosa Luxemburg’s determination and faith in her conviction in her taking on such a well known and central figure within the SPD, the German social democratic party. Luxemburg’s rebuttal was simple: of course there should be work for bettering workers’ conditions in the present. But the revolution should never be abandoned for the sake of legal reforms. It was social reform and revolution for Rosa, always, and yet the emphasis on the latter never disappeared from her work and life. Elsewhere she had written “the revolution is magnificent, everything else is bilge”. Rosa Luxemburg’s name had become — in her life and after it — synonymous with the idea and practice of revolution.
Rosa Luxemburg wrote and organized around the connection between all oppressions. After the death of Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s literary executor and foremother of socialist- feminism, it was Rosa who continued the Marxist legacy, brought it to the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th, and expanded its applications and analytical foci. Her masterpiece and most significant theoretical intervention The Accumulation of Capital showed the necessary connections between capitalism and imperialism; capitalism requires imperialism in order to expand, and pre-capitalist societies allow for capitalism to entrench itself internationally. Thus any work to collapse capitalism must be international and specifically anti-imperialist. She identified the use of racist structures and patriarchal oppressions for sustaining international capitalism. Her analysis and examples drew on countries she had never visited and cultures she never knew; and yet she held that oppression on any point of the globe is a signal that capitalism is still alive and thus work must continue.
Living with Rosa Luxemburg a hundred years since her passing is an everyday lesson in integrity. The woman who never wavered from her principals— whether she was wrong or right— was also a passionate lover, a kind and generous friend, an inspiring and loyal teacher and a brilliant autodidact who threw herself into learning how to paint in the same passion as she did teaching herself botany and zoology. Engrossing herself into her life work in all energy and passion was her principle and ethos that guided her. That in turn brought about some of the biggest challenges she had faced as well as all rounded respect which should especially be noted for a disabled woman who faced so many boundaries in her life. Rosa Luxemburg teaches me daily the lessons of sticking to one’s guns while always opening one’s heart. Her letters from prison show her attentive eye and immersion in nature without comprising intellectual wit, humor and analytic shine.
Luxemburg was a fierce woman, independent mind, unapologetic in combat and committed fully to all battles in which she engaged. She was one of the first, alongside Sylvia Pankhurst, to take Lenin to task on his strategy in the Russian Revolution (though she was highly excited for the revolution itself, which she experienced in her imprisonment for dissenting against the First World War). Together with her comrade and sister Clara Zetkin she opposed bourgeoisie feminism with its emphasis on legal inequality without acknowledging structural oppressions that underpin it. It is fascinating and crucial for our times to reflect on international socialism at the turn of the century and beyond, when figures such as Eleanor Marx, Zetkin, Luxemburg and Sylvia Pankhurst were considered giants and exemplars of activism, without ever reducing their gender into identity politics or tokenism.
Working on Rosa Luxemburg in 2019 is a privilege in the context of ongoing focus on women radicals, oft overlooked by liberal feminism as well as sexism in left wing historiography. Rachel Holmes’s monumental biography of Eleanor Marx and forthcoming work on Sylvia Pankhurst, as well as Katherine Connelly’s ongoing robust examination of Sylvia Pankhurst and Kate Evans magnificent graphic biography Red Rosa provide a rich socialist-feminist approach that is both historically grounded as it is sensitive to our times. Rosa’s comrade sisters are back in our midst, thanks to my own inspirations and comrade sisters who engage in writing their lives.
Eleanor, Rosa and Sylvia were truly revolutionary as they worked for a future in becoming— thus, reflecting upon their legacy and significance today must be in the context from which we stand and the perspective of our own work towards a future that is free of oppression. Rosa Luxemburg’s writings which analyse various forms of oppression in tandem rings as true today as it did in her time. ‘The whole development, the whole tendency of imperialism in the last decade leads the international working class to see more clearly and more tangibly that only the personal stepping forward of the broadest masses, their personal political action, mass demonstrations, and mass strikes which must sooner or later open into a period of revolutionary struggles for the power in the state, can give the correct answer of the proletariat to the immense oppression of imperialistic policy. In this moment of armament lunacy and war orgies, only the resolute will to struggle of the working masses, their capacity and readiness for powerful mass actions, can maintain world peace and push away the menacing world conflagration’ (from the idea of May Day on the March, 1913).
Rosa Luxemburg wrote much of her work while in prison. She was hyperbolic in temperament as well as her relationships, and thus she was received as either heroine or villain, but no one was without an opinion towards her. ‘Red Rosa’ wanted to die at her post, and yet her march continues a legacy after her murder.
A hundred years after Rosa Luxemburg’s last steps on earth her words resonate still in many realms of our lives. And yet, it is her humanity and commitment to humankind, raw, unfiltered, beautiful and depressing, all at the same time, that make her an inspiring and galvanizing voice for our times. To end on her own words, from one of her letters from prison:
“I’m telling you that as soon as I can stick my nose out again I will hunt and harry your society of frogs with trumpet blasts, whip cracklings, and bloodhounds— like Penthesilea I wanted to say, but by God, you people are no Achilles. Have you had enough of a New Year’s greeting now? Then see to it that you stay human..being human means joyfully throwing your whole life “on the scales of destiny” when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud. Ach, I know of no formula to write you for being human…."
(Rosa Luxemburg, letters, 1916).
Dana Mills is a writer and an activist. She is working on the historiographies of radical Jewish women. She is currently writing a biography and critical study of Rosa Luxemeburg.