Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919)

A Polish-born socialist and exponent of revolutionary Marxism, Luxemburg advanced the first Marxist critique of the Bolshevik tradition from the point of view of democracy. Emphasising the benefits of a broadly based democratic organisation, she condemned Lenin’s conception of a tightly centralised vanguard party as an attempt to exert political control over the working class. By associating vanguardism with the rise of despotism, she predicted the subsequent course of Russian communism. In her most important theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Luxemburg examined the intrinsic connections between capitalism, nationalism, militarism and imperialism. In Social Reform or Revolution (1899), she condemned the revisionism of Bernstein and others for denying the objective foundations of the socialist project. Luxemburg therefore represented a form of Marxism that attempted to steer a course between Bolshevism and Marxist revisionism, and thus between the major two traditions of twentieth-century socialism: orthodox communism and social democracy.


Marxist theorist and revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg was a critic of the revisionist socialism of German social democrat and political theorist Eduard Bernstein Eduard Berstein(1850–1932) . She attacked gradualism and parliamentarianism and defended Marx’s ideas of dialectical materialism and his analysis of history . However, Luxemburg was also a critic of the consequences of the Russian Revolution and feared that it would lead to authoritarianism . She criticised Lenin’s dismissal of the Russian Constituent Assembly in 1918 and thought this would result in the failure of the revolution . Luxemburg was strongly opposed to capitalism; it was gradualism’s acceptance of capitalism that led her to reject it . She argued that exploitation was at the heart of the capitalist system and as a result true equality would never come about unless it was rejected . In Luxemburg’s view, social democracy had failed the working classes because of its support and acceptance of capitalism and imperialism . Luxemburg opposed the First World War as an imperialist conflict that would not benefit the working classes.

Luxemburg developed a theory of revolutionary mass action . She believed that the organisation of the class struggle had to come from below and should be based on a spontaneous uprising of the proletariat . She supported the mass strike as a movement that would lead to class consciousness and radicalise workers, and believed this would then develop into a socialist revolution naturally . A critic of Lenin’s democratic centralism — the theory that the revolutionary party needed a tight, disciplined structure and should be led by a vanguard of intellectuals — she argued that this would lead to dictatorship . Some communists saw her as a naive utopian as a result; others saw her as a true democrat . In The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Luxemburg argued that capitalism would lead to economic imperialism and would take over non-capitalist markets . We might now call this globalisation . Luxemburg was executed in 1919, along with her colleague Karl Liebknecht, by members of the Freikorps, a right-wing paramilitary group in Germany .

Rosa Luxemburg sought to uphold and develop the ideas of Karl Marx was.

Through her membership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), Luxemburg made a distinctive contribution to the development of Marxist socialism.

In one of her earliest publications, Reform or Revolution? (1900), Luxemburg accepted Marx’s argument that capitalism promoted exploitation and was at odds with humanity’s natural, fraternal instincts. She also agreed that evolutionary socialism was impossible: only revolution could create real change. Like Lenin, she had little sympathy for Marx’s ‘historicism’ and denied that for revolution to occur, capitalism would have to reach an advanced stage of development. However, Luxemburg’s analysis of how the revolution should come about would distinguish her from both Marx and Lenin.

Luxemburg rejected Lenin’s claim that revolution could occur only through the planning and leadership of a vanguard elite. Instead, she envisaged revolution arising ‘spontaneously’, after class consciousness had gradually been brought about through the proletariat’s ongoing battle for progress in the workplace. Mass strike action would develop spontaneously from this and eventually ignite a much wider revolutionary movement that would overthrow the capitalist state. Yet Luxemburg rejected the Marxist–Leninist idea of revolution leading to a dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead, she advocated the immediate construction of a new democracy, underpinned by common ownership, open debate and elections.

In many respects, Luxemburg was more faithful than Lenin to Marxist ideas. For example, she upheld Marx’s internationalism by dismissing Lenin’s interest in socialist nationalism, claiming Lenin overlooked the transnational character of both capitalism and proletarian interests. Socialist revolution, she contended, should be more than a form of national regime change; it should be a revolt against capitalism and nationalism globally — an argument which continues to be made today by groups like the International Socialist League.

Luxemburg’s concerns about nationalism were brought to a head by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, which she stoutly opposed. Disgusted by the SPD’s support for the German war effort, Luxemburg left the party and began organising anti-war demonstrations, certain that the war provided optimum conditions for revolution, while proclaiming that ‘the enemy of socialism remains in our own country’.

After the war, Luxemburg helped establish the German Communist Party (KPD). Conventional Marxists and Leninists were appalled by Luxemburg’s belief that the KPD should contest elections to the post-war German Constituent Assembly, claiming this was a betrayal of Marx’s rejection of evolutionary socialism and an heretical compromise with the status quo. Yet Luxemburg argued that having a foothold in the existing political system made it easier for communists to convey the case for revolution to proletarian voters. This argument portended Euro-communism in the late twentieth century and remains popular with modern communist parties in Europe.