On Rosa Luxemburg and Her Murder

Against the Current, No. 200, May/June 2019

Jason Schulman

IT IS ONLY appropriate, of course, that Klaus Gietinger’s The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg be published this year — 2019. It began with one of the saddest centenaries in socialist history, the event that provides his book’s title, as well as the murder of Luxemburg’s comrade Karl Liebknecht.(1)

The sadness arises not only because Luxemburg, within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and finally the Spartacus League (Spartakusbund) and the German Communist Party (KPD), represented the democratic revolutionary socialism that informs the political perspective of Against the Current (as well as New Politics, which I co-edit).

It isn’t only because she was the author of such Marxist classics as Social Reform or Revolution, The Junius Pamphlet, The Russian Revolution and The Mass Strike, The Party and the Trade Unions, all still worth reading and re-reading.

It’s also because Rosa’s murder was the result of collaboration by the proto-fascist Freikorps (Volunteer Corps) — who shot her and threw her body into Berlin’s Landwehr canal — and the pro-war, nationalist leadership of the Social Democratic government of Friedrich Ebert.

It’s because her murder, soon followed by the massacre of thousands of revolutionary socialists, effectively foretold the failure of the working class to take power in the German Revolution of 1918-23, perhaps the key “turning point of history where history failed to turn” (as C.L.R. James once said of the outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution).

Because the German working class did not take power, to quote Issac Deutscher’s famous passage from “The Non-Jewish Jew,” it’s fair to say that in Rosa’s assassination “Hohenzollern Germany celebrated its last triumph and Nazi Germany — its first.”

The Politics of Murder

One might ask why the SPD leadership was so anxious to see Rosa’s voice silenced, especially since before World War I she “lacked a unique voice and public faction in the party.”(2)

It may have been in part because of her close association with Karl Liebknecht, the son of SPD co-founder Wilhelm Liebknecht and the first SPD parliamentarian to vote against German support of the war. Karl Liebknecht was subsequently imprisoned after his speech on May Day, 1916 during a mass antiwar demonstration organized by the Spartakusbund.

Liebknecht quickly became a prominent and popular symbol of revolutionary socialist opposition to the war — unsurprisingly, he was murdered only moments before Rosa, and by the same murderers.

But before the war, Rosa was already internationally famous within the socialist workers’ movement of the early 20th century, largely because of her role in the “revisionism debate” where she eloquently critiqued the class-collaborationist reformism of Eduard Bernstein’s “evolutionary socialism.”

It was virtually inevitable that she would become a leader of the Spartakusbund and then the KPD, even as she was skeptical of what Hal Draper, decades later, would call the attempt by the Bolsheviks to “hothouse-force” a Communist International into existence.

Her status as an internationally known symbol of working-class and Marxist resistance to WWI ensured that Ebert, ally of the Wilhelmine Monarchy and the bourgeois Centre and Progress Parties, a man who openly hated revolution “like mortal sin,”(3) could take no chances by letting her live — echoing the German bourgeois press that consistently called for her death.

Yet despite her revolutionary prestige, Rosa lost her first political fight within the new KPD “from the right” — her resolution in favor of running Communist candidates in the new Weimar National Assembly was defeated — just as she had consistently lost “from the left” within the SPD on the question of using a mass strike as an “offensive” weapon to transform Germany.

Rosa had long understood that the SPD’s avowed Marxism had become increasingly pro forma even before its leadership endorsed German participation in WWI. She knew that even Karl Kautsky, the “Pope of Marxism,” was by 1910 adapting to the political representatives of the conservative trade union bureaucracy who had come to lead the party.

But in 1918-19 Rosa also understood that the revolutionary left did not yet have the necessary support to overthrow the new bourgeois Weimar Republic and realize the demand of “all power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils (Arbeiter und Soldatenräte)” that had emerged across the country.

Yet she would not publicly denounce the planned Spartacist Uprising of January 1919, even though she rightly expected it to be a catastrophe. Its failure to lead to working-class revolution was what ultimately led to her murder.

The Aftermath: Luxemburg and Levi

While Rosa’s political devotee (and final lover) Paul Levi led the KPD to fuse, in 1920, with the much larger left wing of the USPD and thereby created a unified party of over 350,000 members, Communism never displaced Social Democracy as the primary party of the German working class.

Levi did his best to work in Rosa’s tradition, but the growth of German Communism during his leadership was accompanied by “new forces [that] increased the weight of impatience and adventurism within the united party.”(4) As Charlie Post has noted in the pages of ATC, Levi, like Rosa,

“…understood that a workers’ revolution could only succeed with the active participation of the majority of the working class. With greater insight and prescience than her own comrades, and most of the Bolshevik leaders prior to 1920, she grasped the majority of workers remained loyal to the SPD — and that a majority of the actual workers’ vanguard remained loyal to the USPD. This revolutionary minority had to be won to the necessity of an independent revolutionary organization, which could, through common activity in the class struggle, eventually break the majority of workers from reformism.”(5)

Marxist historians of the German Revolution and the German socialist movement generally agree that Rosa and her comrades took too long to remove themselves from the SPD in order to build a revolutionary opposition(6) and, as Rosa herself understood, the Spartakusbund left the USPD too early, with too few adherents, to build even a quasi-mass revolutionary party.

The result, as stated in a classic book on the German left, was that there was “no central leadership which, like Lenin’s in Russia, pursued a conscious strategy in the interest of the single aim of the seizure of power, no cold political planning in which the masses were viewed not solely as the subjects of politics, but as its objects.”(7)

Levi tried to do exactly this, holding to the sense of “revolutionary patience” that had guided Rosa during her years in the SPD. In January 1921 he led the KPD to adopt what soon became known as the United Front policy, pressuring the SPD and the USPD to join in action for workers’ basic material needs and, in the wake of the Kapp Putsch — a brief military coup in 1920 — for political liberty.(8)

In John Riddell’s words, “This policy did not bring any dramatic victories. It could only have been effective over time. It clashed with the belief of many members that bold action could bring workers’ power in the coming months.”(9)

Those who held to this voluntarist “theory of the offensive” took hold of the KPD leadership in February 1921; in March they instigated the insurrectionary “March Action (Marzaktion),” an utter disaster that “launched the Communists into a confrontation not only with the state but with the working-class majority.”(10) Within weeks the KPD lost 200,000 members.

Luxemburg and “Leninism”

Levi had been unpopular within the KPD even prior to the Marzaktion and his subsequent public denunciation of it, the pamphlet Our Path: Against Putschism (Unser Weg: Wider den Putschismus), did him no favors in that regard. He lacked Luxemburg’s stature as a long-time representative of the Marxist left in the SPD; while Rosa had taught Marxist political economy at the SPD’s Berlin training center, Levi had been only a lawyer.

Even as Rosa always ended up as a political minority in every party she ever joined, it is at least conceivable that her “revolutionary credentials” might have won over enough KPD members — and leaders — to abandon the voluntarist orientation that led to the Marzaktion debacle.

Rosa was a critic of the justifications given by Lenin and Trotsky for suppressing “formal democracy,” for “mak[ing] a virtue of necessity and…freez[ing] into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by [the occupation of Russia by German imperialism] and want[ing] to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.”(11)

As such she surely would have objected to the Communist International’s adoption of Theses on the Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution in 1920, which asserted that “The working class does not only need the Communist Party before and during the conquest of power, but also after the transfer of power into the hands of the working class. The history of the Communist Party of Russia, which has been in power for almost three years, shows that the importance of the Communist Party does not diminish after the conquest of power by the working class, but on the contrary grows extraordinarily.”(12)

Of course, for most of these years the Russian Communist Party held a monopoly on political power, and its leaders had no intention of sharing it with any other party during the Russian civil war — or, as it turned out, after the war’s end. Certainty of the inevitability of civil war during the period of proletarian revolution was used to justify “iron proletarian centralism”:

“To lead the working class successfully in the long and hard civil wars that have broken out, the Communist Party must create an iron military order in its own ranks…without the strictest discipline, complete centralism and full comradely confidence of all the party organisations in the leading party centre, the victory of the workers is impossible.”(13)

Given that Rosa in 1904 had already attacked what she (mistakenly) believed to be Lenin’s “pitiless centralism” in Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy, she would have fought against approval of the Theses with every fiber of her being. Would she have been successful? Most likely not, despite her esteem among revolutionary socialists.

Yet had she been successful, the further bureaucratic centralization of the Communist Parties via the “Twenty-One Conditions” (officially the Conditions of Admission to the Communist International) would have been blocked and there would have at least been a chance that the “Stalinization” of the KPD — and perhaps other parties of the Comintern — could have been prevented.

At the very least, the malign influence of Ruth Fischer, the KPD co-leader of 1924 who described the residue of “Luxemburgism” in the Party as a “syphilis bacillus,” would have been obstructed.

Rosa Luxemburg Today

To conceive such alternative history is not meant to inspire a “great woman theory of history.” It is merely to recognize the enormity of the tragedy of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg not only morally but politically.

Thankfully, there is now an increasing interest in Rosa’s life and work, exemplified by Verso Books’ ongoing publication of her complete works in English — a great undertaking — and the flurry of reviews and discussion that immediately followed the release of the first volume, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, in 2011.

This revival has been building up for some time, presaged by the republication of her economic magnum opus, The Accumulation of Capital, by Routledge in 2003; the publication also in 2003 of David Harvey’s The New Imperialism by Oxford University Press, which draws from Luxemburg’s work for its theory of “accumulation by dispossession;” the appearance in 2004 of The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (Monthly Review Press), the first one-volume collection of her economic and political writings in English; a conference on The Accumulation of Capital held in 2004 in Bergamo, Italy; and an international conference on her ideas as a whole that was also held in 2004 at the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou.

More recently, Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 2015) by the British cartoonist Kate Evans has provided an extremely accessible — and enjoyable — introduction to its subject. Then, of course, there’s the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, publisher of books such as Rosa Remix (2016) and Rosa Luxemburg’s Ethical Feminism by Drucilla Cornell (2018).

The current near-universal impotence of the revolutionary left is reason enough to take yet another look at the thought of Rosa Luxemburg, who never failed to emphasize each part of the slogan, “educate, agitate, organize!”

We should continue to read Rosa not because she provides a ready-made model of revolutionary strategy to be emulated, not because she has all the answers to Marxism’s current dilemma — of building an ever-more impressive theoretical corpus without a real-world mass movement — but because her democratic, internationalist, antimilitarist, anti-opportunist, and emancipatory socialist principles are the right principles. We need her sense of “democratic consciousness” and “cosmopolitan pedagogy.”(14)

We should no more treat her writings as holy writ than she did those of Marx and Engels, but we also cannot do without them. Her importance is not merely historical — she remains essential for those trying not only to understand the world, but to change it.


  1. Translated by Loren Balhorn. London: Verso Books, 2019.
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  2. Spencer A. Leonard and Watson Ladd, “Splits, regroupments, war, and revolution in Germany, 1914-1920: A conversation with Ben Lewis,” Platypus Review 46 (May 2012), https://platypus1917.org/2012/05/01/conversation-with-ben-lewis/. The quote is from Lewis.
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  3. Quoted in Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Ideas in Action (London: Pluto Press, 1994 [1940]), 264.
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  4. John Riddell, “Why did Paul Levi lose out in the German Communist leadership?,” John Riddell: Marxist Essays and Commentary, July 5, 2013, https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/why-did-paul-levi-lose-out-in-the-german-communist-leadership.
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  5. Charlie Post, “A German Lenin?” Against the Current #168 (January/February 2014), https://solidarity-us.org/atc/168/p4075/
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  6. .

  7. “Luxemburg and the radicals operated as a rump caucus in the SPD. By the time war was declared, it was too late to form a coherent revolutionary opposition capable of withstanding the military government’s repression.” Michael Hirsch, “Contra Bronner on Luxemburg and Working-Class Revolution,” in Jason Schulman, ed. Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 176. That said, some argue that “organizing a ‘Bolshevik’ fraction…would have been impossible in a mass party with a strong bureaucratic and cultural apparatus like the SPD…I’m not sure how much more she could have done other than split. And that she was unwilling to do.” Stephen Eric Bronner, “Reflections on Red Rosa: An Interview,” in Schulman, ed., 188.
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  8. Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955), 14.
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  9. “Through common actions against capital and the state over immediate economic and political issues, unified working-class struggles would become more widespread, powerful and radical; and the limits of the reformist party and union leaders to even effectively defend the workers’ past gains could be demonstrated in practice.” Post, op cit.
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  10. Riddell, op cit.
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  11. Ibid.
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  12. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (1922) [1918], Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch08.htm.
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  13. Gregory Zinoviev et al., Theses on the Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution (1920), Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch03a.htm.
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  14. Ibid.
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  15. Stephen Eric Bronner, Socialism Unbound: Principles, Practices and Prospects (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), xvi.
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May-June 2019, ATC 200