Rosa Luxemburg
and German Socialism  

Written by: Hanna C. Sanchez

Rosa Luxemburg was the youngest daughter of a middle class family in Poland.  Although she learned about politics from her father who often read from the newspaper and discussed politics with his family, her commitment to socialism emerged only from herself.  Originally from Poland, Rosa greatly influenced the Socialist movement in Germany through her writings, ideals, and actions. 


Her views of a revolutionary party differed from the classic Leninist beliefs and she is often referred to as the democratic alternative to the authoritarian party.  However, Rosa was not an advocate of democracy; rather, she saw democracy as a stepping stone on the path to her socialist revolution.  She is the best known revolutionary theorist to actually experience a western revolution, even though the German revolution of 1918-19 ultimately failed.  Rosa was an orthodox Marxist and believed the revolution would occur by the working class taking and exercising political power.  Furthermore, the workers would have to be educated and possess class-consciousness in order to execute successfully a revolution, and this education would result from their experiences with the government.  According to Rosa, the revolution would occur as a series of events in which the forces of capitalism gradually weakened as the workers gained power.  Rosa also disagreed with revisionists such as Bernstein in that she felt reforms would serve to educate the proletariat, which in turn would lead to the revolution. 


She initially became involved with movements in high school in Warsaw, and continued her involvement in the Polish Social movement after she graduated.  Her work was so extensive that in 1889, she heard that the Russian authorities that controlled most of Poland might arrest her.  As a result, Rosa decided to leave the country and was smuggled across the border by a Catholic priest.  She went to Zurich, Switzerland, which was the center for many eastern European émigrés.  At the university in Zurich, Rosa earned her degree of Doctor of Law in 1897 and wrote a thesis on the industrial development of Poland.  Her educational background in history and political economics served as the foundation for work after her schooling.

            While in Zurich, Rosa became even more involved in the socialist movement.  With Leo Jogiches, who became her lover, she co-founded the Polish Social Democratic Party (SDKP).  Although the SDKP was not very successful during the 1890s, Rosa became well known throughout the international socialist movement.  Members of the nationalistic Polish Socialist Party criticized Rosa for her position that Socialist parties were not interested in Poland’s struggle for independence, and this attracted much attention to her.


In 1898, she married Gustav Lubeck and moved to Berlin.  Her marriage was not one of love, as her relationship with Jogiches continued.  Rosa’s primary goal was to gain German citizenship through the marriage in order to prevent her deportation as an undesirable alien.  In Germany, she became involved with the German Socialist Party (SPD) mainly as an expert on Polish affairs.  She was particularly valuable to the SPD since it aimed to establish itself in Polish areas under German control.  From the start of her work with the SPD, Rosa made it clear that she did not want to be limited in her work and she maintained a position in the mainstream of German socialist politics. 

Rosa achieved a prominent position in the SPD and was widely published.  Her main argument during the period of 1899 to 1904 was the necessity of a connection between the daily activity of the trade union movement and the Socialist party and the long-term aim of revolution.  However, she had no concrete plans on how to accomplish this.  Furthermore, she did not have specific suggestions on how to speed up the path to a revolution nor did she know what form the revolution would take.


The Russian Revolution of 1905 led Rosa to believe that it would radicalize the socialist movement all over Europe and not just in Russia.  In her explanations of the Russian Revolution, she mentioned for the first time that bloodshed would be encountered in the revolution.  Although she was excited by the Russian Revolution, she was also frustrated by the fact that it was taking place just east of Poland while she was in Germany.  Despite her work as a link between Russian and western European socialists, she would have preferred to be in the middle of the revolution that was already taking place.

 In March 1906, Rosa was arrested along with Jogiches.  Her health worsened while in prison, and her state helped persuade the government to release her on a bail of 3000 rubles.  After her release, she received permission to leave Germany and in August went to Finland, stopping by St. Petersburg where she visited Trotsky and Parvus.  In Finland, Rosa visited Lenin and wrote The Mass Strike, in which she interpreted the 1905 Russian revolution and demonstrated how the lessons of the events were applicable to all of Europe.  Unfortunately, her writings did not have its intended effect since it was presented at a time when most Socialists were no longer willing to discuss a revolution.


Rosa returned to Germany in 1906 and was disappointed to discover that there was little enthusiasm over the Russian Revolution.  The party congress in 1906 stated that while there may have been possibilities for a revolution, they no longer were present.  Furthermore, she found herself increasingly alone in her opinions in the party.  Although the SPD agreed with her that the revolution was not likely to be just one big event, it would not go along with her belief that the revolution would be a series of events.

 As a result of the 1905 Revolution, she had refined her beliefs of the revolution.  She felt that the economic structure around her was becoming increasingly contradictory and more serious strikes would break out because of the economic situation.  These strikes would be countered by governmental opposition and repression, which would educate the workers politically.  This would lead to the gradual politicization of the entire strike movement, although the workers’ strategy would still be to economically paralyze the whole country.  Although the government would subdue each strike, each strike would reemerge stronger and more determined than the previous one.  The series of mass strikes would ultimately undermine the capitalist order as well as educate the proletariat of the course that history was taking.  However, most socialist parties disagreed with Rosa’s view of the revolution and the role of mass strikes.  They believed that the voters would bring them political power and the trade union movement would provide some economic power.


 Rosa’s appeal and popularity reached a pinnacle at the start of 1914.  She went on trial for a statement she made the previous year in which she renounced fighting against the French and was subsequently sentenced to one year in prison.  Not only did she gain attention through this episode, but Rosa also came to represent the SPD persecuted by the government.

The First World War broke out while she was in prison, and she was surprised by it.  The brutality of the war horrified her and she worked with some groups to end the war, even though she did help pass a resolution for those who wanted to use the war to further the revolution.  She spent most of WWI in prison and accomplished a great deal of work.  Among her writings, Rosa referred to the Russian Revolution as the mightiest event of the World War, but felt that its ultimate effects depended on what western nations afterwards.  She criticized the lack of political freedom in the Russian Revolution and the German socialists who would have to incite their own revolution in order for the one in Russia to be effective and prolonged.  Rosa acknowledged the possibility of the failure of the revolution and further believed that failure would be better if success would be accomplished with the compromise of principles.  Her own group, the Spartacist League, was almost insignificant in the German Revolution of 1918.  The revolution took place in Berlin on November 9, the day that Rosa was released from prison. 


In January 1919, the Independent Socialists, Communists, and other radicals joined to protest against the government.  However, it became apparent that the government would not fall and all groups except the Communists consequently separated themselves from the protest.  Rosa led the Spartacist League with Karl Liebknecht and together they became the leaders of the Spartacist Rebellion.  They were later arrested after a resistance to the government was suppressed.  Rosa was interrogated, beaten, shot, and then thrown into the Landwehr Canal in Berlin.

            Rosa became a martyr of socialism as a result of her death at the hands of the government.  Even while some of her works were criticized, she was still remembered by both the Socialists and Communists.



Bradley, Michael E.  “Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory of the Growth of the Capitalist Economy.”  Social Science Quarterly.  Vol. 52 (2), 1971.  Pgs. 318-330.

Reynolds, David B.  “Rediscovering Western Marxism’s Heritage: Rosa Luxemburg and the Role of the Party.”  Research and Society.  Vol. 3, 1990.  Pgs. 1-34.

Richards, Michael D.  “Rosa Luxemburg- Heroine of the Left.”  History Today.  Vol. 22 (2), 1972.  Pgs. 103-110.

Weitz, Eric D.  “’Rosa Luxemburg Belongs to Us!’ German Communism and the Luxemburg Legacy.”  Central European History.  Vol. 27 (1), 1994.  Pgs. 27-64.





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