A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg

Issue section: 
(363)

Sally Campbell

The latest addition to the Rebel's Guide series of introductions to key revolutionary figures looks at the life of Rosa Luxemburg, an extraordinary and inspirational socialist. As a young Jewish woman from Poland, Luxemburg was perhaps not an obvious leader of the German working class.

But after joining her first revolutionary organisation at just 15 years old her life eventually followed a path that makes her deserving of a place alongside Marx, Lenin and Trotsky in this series.

This brief biography draws out her main theoretical contributions and what they meant practically at the time, as well as looking at their relevance today.

Reform or Revolution, written in 1889, is a brilliant analysis of how change occurs within society. Luxemburg showed that the fighting for reforms and fighting for a revolution are not separate and cannot be counterposed, while they are also not two paths to the same goal. Socialism can only be achieved from below by a working class revolution.

As we approach the biggest strike action in Britain since 1926, it shouldn't be hard to see that Luxemburg's examination of the relationship between economic strikes, political demands, the party, trade unions and the class in The Mass Strike is useful for socialists today.

Luxemburg is hailed as a fantastic orator able to explain her position with passion, clarity and without just appealing to emotions, who always left those that heard her with a greater understanding politically. Her writings reflect this and her quotes always allow the reader to grasp the key arguments with ease.

Another key thing to take from Luxemburg's life is that she was never afraid to enter into a debate. If she believed she had an argument to win she would rise to the challenge even if her opponent was older, more respected or a more experienced revolutionary. A culture of debate is essential to any democratic movement both for agreeing a strategy at the time and as a record for future movements to analyse successes and failures.

Ultimately one of the key lessons we can learn from Luxemburg comes not from her greatness but from a mistake. Because there was no move to build an independent revolutionary organisation separate from the reformists in the SPD until far too late, there was no party able to lead the working class when the revolutionary wave swept Germany. This ultimately meant the revolution failed which in turn sealed the fate of the Russian working class. But this does not make her any less of a worthwhile figure to study.

The short guide covers these themes and other key lessons we can learn from Rosa Luxemburg. It is a valuable introduction to one of the few famous female revolutionary socialists and will no doubt inspire newcomers to read more of her work.

A Rebel’s Guide to Rosa Luxemburg is published by Bookmarks, £3.00