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Our Rosa Luxemburg

Many of the figures involved in the European socialist movement in the early decades of the twentieth century are now mostly forgotten but not Rosa Luxemburg.


Sean Sheehan


Rosa Luxemburg wrote in one of her prison letters:

“To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life in the giant scales of fate if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud.”

Rosa Luxemburg’s ardent existentialist urge and love of being alive is combined with a fiery socialist spirit and a trenchant analysis of capitalism’s destructive power.

For her, all this went naturally together because a proper enjoyment of life had to be open to more than just the 1%, something the logic of capitalism made unachievable.

These powerful currents of thought flowed around and directed the course of her life. Many of the figures involved in the European socialist movement in the early decades of the twentieth century are now mostly forgotten but not Rosa Luxemburg.

J. P. Nettl’s biography was first published in two volumes in 1966. Now republished in one book by Verso, it remains the most comprehensive and instructive account of a remarkable life.

Rosa Luxemburg – her vivaciousness is diminished by using just her surname – was politicised while still at school in Russian-controlled Poland. Born in 1871, she was fifteen when four Polish revolutionaries were hanged for their activities.

In 1889, warned of imminent arrest, she fled to Zurich hidden under straw in a peasant cart. Nine years later, a new chapter in her life begins when she moved to Berlin and immersed herself in the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Parts of Nettl’s biography, nearly a thousand pages in length, are dry reading as he delves into the details of arcane political shenanigans in the SPD but his background chapter on this avowedly Marxist party is lucid and his book remains an invaluable study of her life and times.

When the highly influential Marxist theorist Eduard Bernstein voiced a fear of unplanned insurgency, Luxemburg first set out an important objection. Revolution, she insisted, is a lengthy business and ‘premature’ activism is a necessary part of any permanent overturn of the existing order.

As Nettl observes, this is the embryo of her reasoning which later enabled her ‘to greet the daring impulse and yet oppose the clinging methods of the Bolshevik revolution.’

The exact circumstances leading to Rosa Luxemburg’s murder in 1919 by a paramilitary unit, the GKSD, have long been shrouded in obfuscation. A forensic investigation by Klaus Gietinger reveals the truth and the SPD’s shameful role in the aftermath of her murder. Two other books on Luxemburg are helpful: “Socialism or barbarism”, is a useful selection of her writings, and “Rose Luxemburg and the struggle for democratic renewal”, shows her voice to be as relevant today as it was a century ago.

“Rosa Luxemburg: the biography” by J.P. Nettl and “The murder of Rosa Luxemburg” by Klaus Gietinger, are published by Verso

Socialism or barbarism”, edited by Paul Le Blanc, and “Rose Luxemburg and the struggle for democratic renewal” by Jon Nixon, are published by Pluto Books

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