Rosa Luxemburg, born on March 5, 1871, in Zamość, Poland, was a Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist of Polish-Jewish descent. Active in political life in Germany, she became a naturalized German citizen.
Luxemburg was, successively, a member of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Independent Social Democratic Party, and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
In 1915, after the SPD supported German involvement in World War I, she and Karl Liebknecht co-founded the anti-war Spartacus League (Spartakusbund), which eventually became the KPD. During the German Revolution that immediately followed WWI, she co-founded the newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), as the central organ of the Spartacist movement.
The emergence of a communist movement truly dedicated to the principle of “Workers of the world, unite!” was a historical inevitability in the wake of what many committed socialists considered a colossal betrayal when, in one country after another, the existing socialist parties supported their own bourgeois governments in war – against socialists and workers of other countries! The 1917 Russian Revolution broke that paradigm, and led to the foundation of numerous communist parties around the world in the immediate post-WWI years.
Luxemburg considered the Spartacist uprising of January 1919 a blunder, but supported it as events unfolded. Friedrich Ebert’s social democratic government used the Freikorps (World War I veterans who banded together into right-wing paramilitary groups) to crush the revolt. Freikorps troops captured Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others of their supporters. Luxemburg was shot and her body thrown in the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. She died on January 15, 1919.
Stemming from the ferocity of the social democratic repression of the left, the communists maintained little faith in any political alliances with social democrats. The failure of these two divisions of the left to reconcile in the 1920s and early 1930s split the resistance to the Nazis, a historical miscalculation which belatedly led, after the rise of fascism, to the global strategy of the united front.
Due to her pointed criticism of both the Marxist-Leninist and the social democratic schools of socialism, Luxemburg has had an ambivalent reception among scholars and theorists of the left, although most Marxists came to regard Luxemburg and Liebknecht as martyrs. Their reputation has only grown over time. Commemoration of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht continues to play an important role among the German political left.
Perhaps the most famous quote from Luxemburg’s writings is: “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”
“The more that social democracy develops, grows, and becomes stronger,” she wrote, “the more the enlightened masses of workers will take their own destinies, the leadership of their movement, and the determination of its direction into their own hands.”
In 1928, the year that saw the premiere of the powerful Threepenny Opera by composer Kurt Weill and librettist Bertolt Brecht, the two collaborators were commissioned to write The Berlin Requiem, a cantata for tenor, baritone, male chorus and wind orchestra. Two of Brecht’s poems in the work, the “Ballad of the Drowned Girl” and “The Red Rosa,” pay tribute to Luxemburg and the circumstances of her death.
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