Revolutionary Philosopher & Icon

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg was born on March 5, 1871 in Zamość, the youngest of five children. Her family lived near the old market square, not far from the home of Y.L. Peretz.

She became politically active at a young age and while she finished the gymnasium in Warsaw at the top of her class, she was denied a medal because of her “oppositional attitude toward the authorities.”

In 1889, she moved to Zurich where she met exiled Russian revolutionaries and her partner, Leo Jogiches, with whom she shared “a lifelong personal intimacy (without benefit of religious or civil ceremony).”

In 1903 Luxemburg and Jogiches formed the Social Democratic Party of Poland. As it was an illegal organization, she went to Paris to edit the party’s newspaper, Sprawa robotnicza (Workers’ Cause). In 1905 August Bebel appointed Luxemburg editor of SPD newspaper, Vorwärts. During the 1905 Revolution, Luxemburg and Jogiches returned to Warsaw where they were promptly arrested.

 

Rosa Luxemburg

5 March 1871 – 15 January 1919

 

I am the Sword
I am the Flame

The frontispiece of a 1921 Yiddish translation of Social Reform, or, Revolution.

 

Comrades in Arms

Luxemburg with fellow revolutionary Clara Zetkin advocating mass strikes for universal suffrage, Magdeburg 1910.

 

In Memoriam

A stamp printed in the Soviet Zone of Germany in 1949, commemorating 30 years after the murder of Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

After their release, Luxemburg taught in Berlin between 1907 and 1914. In December 1914, she joined with Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin to establish an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). After its first mass demonstration against the First World War in Berlin in 1916, several leaders, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested and imprisoned. She remained in prison until November 1918.

In January 1919, the Spartacists voted, against Luxemburg, for revolution—beginning the Spartacist Revolution. The German government brought in the army and the Freikorps paramilitary units to squash the rebellion.

On January 15, 1919, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested, tortured, and murdered. Their bodies were thrown into Berlin’s Landwehrkanal.

Although her worldview stemmed from her experience as a Jew growing up in the Russian Empire, she believed human suffering transcended nations, religions, and race. When urged to act for particular “Jewish” causes, Luxemburg wrote:

“What do you want with this theme of the ‘special suffering of the Jews’? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch . . . Oh that ‘sublime stillness of eternity,’ in which so many cries of anguish have faded away unheard, they resound within me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”

Here’s, “Auf, auf zum Kampf (Up, Up, Let’s Fight),” sung by the German folksinger Hannes Wader and dedicated to the memory of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the January Revolution with words by Bertold Brecht.
“Dem Karl Liebknecht dem haben wir’s geschworen,” the lyrics sing, “Der Rosa Luxemburg reichen wir die Hand (We made an oath to Karl Liebknecht and to Rosa Luxemburg, we extend our hand).”