A book about a dead Polish Jewish Communist with a limp may not be the archetypal Valentine’s Day present. I thought I would take the risk, considering the importance of the figure in question and her inspiration to women as well as men, and the fact that I had managed to get an author signed copy of the book. Just to make sure I was on safe territory, I also bought chocolates, red roses and made dinner.
Sally Campbell’s pocket sized ‘A Rebel’s guide to Rosa Luxemburg’, the latest book in the Rebel’s guide series, is an excellent overview of the life of the revolutionary and theorist, who played a pivotal role in developing Karl Marx’ ideas. The book offers a good starting point for those previous unaware of Rosa Luxemburg and her political theories.
Born in 1871, in what is now Poland, then part of the vast Tsarist empire, she was drawn to radical politics at a young age, being an active member of the Proletariat Party, Poland’s first Socialist Party. She attended the University of Zurich, becoming further acquainted with revolutionary individuals and honing her own political ideas. Whilst still in her early 20s, Luxemburg co-founded a new revolutionary party in Poland, the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), and established the party newspaper, Sprawa Robotnicza (Workers’ Cause).
Campbell’s book gives ample examples of Luxemburg’s political battles and bravery, often speaking at political conferences dominated by older men and challenging the Marxist interpretations of the time. For example, the SDKiP was at odds with the political programme of the PPS (Polish Socialist Party) who argued that the liberation of Polish workers’ from Tsarist oppression was paramount. Luxemburg, favouring an internationalist approach, argued that the focus not be on the liberation of Poland or any part of Tsarist Russia, but rather the goal should be the liberation and unity of all workers throughout the Tsarist empire.
Campbell’s book devotes a significant section to explaining Luxemburg’s political theories. After moving to Germany at the end of the 19th century and becoming a prominent member of the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), Luxemburg published what was to become probably her most famous work, ‘Reform or Revolution’ in which she argued that Socialism can never be attained through the reform of Capitalism, but only through the overthrow of the Capitalist system itself. In response to some members of the SPD who believed that as Capitalism becomes more established, economic crises would cease, Luxemburg reasoned that crises are an inherent part of Capitalism. Her observation that under a system thriving on wealth accumulation and inequality, the working class will draw the short straw in times of economic crisis, has been proved many times over in the decades after her death.
Throughout her life, Luxemburg remained true to her ideals. She argued against the increasing militarisation and nationalism that gripped both Germany and other European nations during the early 20th century. Whilst some prominent members of the SPD called for the party to support Germany regardless were a conflict to break out in Europe, arguing that they would be powerless against a wave of nationalism in the outbreak of war, Luxemburg maintained her opposition to war. She accused her fellow SPD members of promoting the concept of ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite in peace-time, but cut each others’ throats in wartime.’
When the First World War ended, Luxemburg and those SPD members who had stayed loyal to the Internationalist, Socialist and anti-war ideals of the party, found themselves persecuted by their former ‘comrades’. Friedrich Ebert, President of the Weimer Republic, and his Defence Minister, Gustav Noske, unleashed the Freikorps – paramilitary forces comprised of demobilised soldiers – against those on the left of their party. Luxemburg was murdered alongside thousands of other SPD members.
Many, including young East Germans opposed to the dictatorial polities of the GDR, have found Luxemburg to be an inspiration. She remains one of the most important Marxist scholars to date, having had ideas ahead of her time, and vindicated many years later. To have achieved all she did at a time when women had not yet won the vote, makes her actions all the more incredible.
A Rebel’s guide to Rosa Luxemburg can be purchased on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rebels-Guide-Luxemburg-Sally-Campbell/dp/1905192789Tags: Review
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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek