Rosa Luxemburg continues to provoke irreconcilably controversial reactions even today. Many within the SPD leadership believed she was too radical and democratic. The same can be said of many of those who followed her in the KPD leadership. Ruth Fischer discredited Luxemburg’s understanding of freedom as the freedom of those who think differently as a syphilis bacillus. From the same reasoning, Ernst Thälmann fully agreed with Stalin that Luxemburgism established a bridge to bourgeois ideology and social fascism, and therefore needed to be rooted out (Bierl 1993, 9f). In turn, the extremism studies expert and political scientist, Eckhard Jesse, put forward the critical view that Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin has caused many on the Left to see her as a kind of shining light and representative of democratic socialism. But many were merely deluded. ‘Had she not […] been murdered, she would hardly have enjoyed the kind of nearly panegyric adoration she then enjoyed.’ (Jesse 2008, 83) Her extremism is not compatible with the maxims of a democratic constitutional state – the November Revolution in conclusion should therefore not be seen as an opportunity lost, but rather as catastrophe prevented. (ibid., 79).

The whole and the parts

In The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg, Georg Lukács presents one of his central ideas: it is not the primacy of economic motives to explain historical processes which distinguishes Marxism from bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. (Lukács 1971, 27). At the end of the text Lukács attempts to gain benefit from the consideration that the totality is of greater importance than the individual, to draw something positive from Luxemburg’s murder. He does not deny that her death is linked to the defeat of the January 1919 revolutionary struggles, however, he views her death as ‘the crowning pinnacle of her thought and life’. The standpoint of totality provides the methodological certainty that the historical process ‘regardless of all temporary defeats and setbacks’ (ibid., 216) will come to fruition. Lukács was obviously endeavouring to prevent any feelings of resignation from taking hold in the movement in Germany following the murder of one of the leading figures of revolutionary social democracy. He opposed the opportunist point of view whereby, due to the weakness of the labour movement, the attempt at a revolutionary transformation should not have been made in the first place. Despite impending defeat, Luxemburg’s readiness to stand her ground with the masses and share their fate was consistent with the unity of theory and practice – or, in other words, a justified and meaningful sacrifice for the whole (which was still to come). This argument which aims to embolden people, but fails to consider the full potential of Luxemburg’s specific political work and ignores her as an individual, at the same time suggests that theorists dispose of this Whole, and have the right to mandate over individuals in its name. Not for one moment does he grant any consideration to the strategic thought that her death had actually contributed to irreversible defeat and that, put differently, it would have been more important for Luxemburg to survive because it could have opened up scope for revolutionary democracy in Germany, have kept strategic options open and have given the process a different direction. The term totality is used in conclusion. It renders the text strangely callous. Does Lukács do Luxemburg’s theory and political practice justice? Yes and no. Rosa Luxemburg knew that as a fighter for proletarian freedom she could end up in jail, yes, she even anticipated her murder. For her, this was all part of the struggle (Caysa 2002, 30). She would not have left Germany even if threatened to be hanged – ‘for the simple reason that I believe that it may well be necessary to make our party get used to the idea that sacrifices are part of being a socialist’ (Luxemburg 1914, 339f). In a similar situation in the summer of 1917, Lenin had taken a different decision and fled because he thought that to continue the revolution it was more important for him to live. In Luxemburg’s case, the Vorwärts, which had contributed to the general atmosphere of lynching, would probably have laughed about her cowardice, nevertheless it would probably have been better for her to have gone into hiding.

Tender humanity …

Lukács again fails to recognise the dialectics at work in Luxemburg’s thinking. A few days after being released from jail in November 1918, she delivered on her promise to her fellow prisoners by publishing a text in the Rote Fahne in which she demanded the abolishment root and branch of the existing justice system that only breathes the barbarism of capitalism. As this would require a new economic and social foundation, she demanded at least a sweeping reform of the penal system and the abolition of the death penalty. When the government, the workers and soldiers councils, failed to act accordingly, Luxemburg (1918a, 405) interpreted this as an indication of their true nature: ‘Alas, how German this revolution is! How prosaic and pedantic it is, how lacking in verve, in lustre, in greatness! The forgotten death penalty is only one small feature. But how often precisely such small features betray the inner spirit of the whole.’ This is diametrically opposed to Lukács’ way of thinking. Luxemburg’s point of reference is not the totality, it does not cross her mind that a change to the penal system could wait until the whole system has changed. On the contrary, the fact that a small feature is not considered becomes a measure of the whole. During the war, imperial genocide had shed so much blood already. This should therefore not be allowed to continue. ‘One world must now be destroyed, but each tear that might have been avoided is an indictment; and a man who hurrying on to important deeds inadvertently tramples underfoot even a poor worm, is guilty of a crime.’ (ibid. 406) Therefore the totality needs to change in order to prevent the offences of negligence and indifference out of respect for the individual, ‘Ruthless revolutionary energy and tender humanity – this alone is the true essence of socialism.’ (ibid.) I interpret humanity as an awareness for the individual parts that withdraws legitimacy from the crime of indifference that can be committed in the name of the totality. Luxemburg (1971, 369) unites approaches that are not easy to bring together in one sentence, a rigorous transformatory practice, ‘the highest idealism in the interest of the collectivity’ and the strictest attentiveness to the individual part. How does that work? The totality needs to be changed ruthlessly precisely to withdraw the foundations from this cold lack of sympathy and bring the individual parts to the fore at the global historic level. Luxemburg (1917, 177) feels as much sympathy with the pain of the Jews in the ghetto as with the victims of German warfare in Southwest Africa: ‘I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears’.

… but still maintaining a distance

Luxemburg therefore consciously navigates within contradictions. And there are more of them: spontaneity and party organisation, between the laws of history and the intervening will, between the rigorous rejection of war, terror, ‘murder’ and revolutionary violence (1918b. 446f). How to deal with these contradictions, when the one side is relevant or when the other is relevant remains unclear. Luxemburg did not elaborate a materialistic theory of dialectics, but her position is clear: she does not uphold one side at the cost of the other, but rather defends the need to work with the tensions resulting from the contradiction between totality and its individual parts. Appreciating small pleasures, rejoicing in the magic of life from the smallest things, submerging oneself in the details of revolutionary transformation, living without expecting historic justice or a higher meaning, simply the way one feels is right, she nonetheless makes a claim to maintain a distance and not to overestimate the actions of individuals. When the world descends into chaos, she wants to make sense of it instead of moaning and complaining. She sees theory as a part of the struggle. The concept helps to gain a posture and sovereignty that allows her to reject the hold of power on her person, feelings, mood and thinking. ‘A fighter is precisely a person who must strive to rise above things, otherwise one’s nose will get stuck in every bit of nonsense.’ (Luxemburg 1917, 367) It is a specific way of maintaining distance to everyday events, lest you are sucked into history as it occurs, into fear, routine, parliamentary cretinism, party misery, which cloud political judgement, but to keep focused on the long-term aim. ‘“Disappointment with the masses” is always the most reprehensible quality to be found in a political leader. A leader with quality of greatness applies tactics, not according to the momentary mood of the masses but according to higher laws of development, and sticks firmly to those tactics despite all disappointments and, for the rest, calmly allows history to bring its work to fruition.’ (ibid, 374) Luxemburg repeatedly refers to an objective logic of history that must be given time. She firmly believes in the need for patience. She believes in sovereignty vis-à-vis external forces, a sense of wider developments. Restlessness and fuss about trivialities were not useful. She called for the calm of a scientist in research and observation (ibid, 322). Luxemburg’s trust in history, in revolution, is not based on a mechanistic understanding of the development of society (Luxemburg 1899, 64). It would be wrong to accuse her of a wait-and-see attitude. She has a specific view of the class-struggle efforts made by the working class. These do not take place at the final moment, when the conditions are ripe; they always occur too early. As the class struggle is not separate from social developments, these non-synchronised interventions impact the historic process and create the conditions for success in the long term. It was precisely this lack of overlap which convinced Rosa Luxemburg that dramatic turning points are always possible. Even when the situation were to appear hopeless and desperate, fundamental, well-hidden springs could cause fortuitous processes, for which one should ready oneself. She said that the masses are always on the verge of becoming something totally different from what they appear to be (Luxemburg 1917, 176).

The pulse-beat of the political life of the masses

Numerous statements reflect Luxemburg’s radical democratic resolve. Peter Bierl (1993, 78f) argues that almost until the last day of her life, Rosa Luxemburg considered that the democratic republic was the most suitable institutional form for the transformation to socialism. However, she does not explain how she sees the relation between council and parliamentary democracy. She rejected the dissolution of the Russian constituent assembly by Trotsky and Lenin. She expected the representative body to provide ground for the productivity of joint actions and public discussions over collective decisions to flourish: ‘And the more democratic the institutions, the livelier and stronger the pulse-beat of the political life of the masses, the more direct and complete is their influence […]. To be sure, every democratic institution has its limits and shortcomings, things which it doubtless shares with all other human institutions. But the remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure; for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammeled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people.’ (Luxemburg 1918c, 356) In the weeks following Germany’s November revolution, however, she firmly opposed a national assembly. She argued that as a vestige of the bourgeois revolution this form of democracy was now obsolete. Everyday parliamentary politics, concerned as it is with majorities and compromises in which the bourgeoisie always prevails and without a directly active working class, corresponds to a balance between classes. Luxemburg maintained that the November revolution had put an immediate transition to socialism on the agenda, merely instituting a national assembly would therefore be a step backwards. As far as she was concerned this was the time for rule by the people. Initially she argued in favour of a worker’s parliament, later for councils. Immediately before the 1st German Congress of Workers and Soldiers Councils in mid-December 1918, she drew up the basic outlines of a council democracy. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils would replace parliaments and municipal councils, delegates from the local councils would elect a central council for Germany, which, in turn, would elect an executive council with legislative and executive powers. The total population of adult-aged city and rural workers of both genders would hold voting rights for the workers councils and soldiers with the exception of officers would have the right to vote for the soldiers’ councils. The delegates of the central council, which would have control over the executive council, would be recallable (Luxemburg 1971,  372). Only two weeks later, at the KPD founding meeting, she again advocated participation in the national assembly elections because of the broad support it enjoyed among workers and the fact that another decision had marginalised the party. Depending on the constellation, she reaches different assessments.This suggests that she did not care too much about the concrete political form – parliament, workers’ parliament, or council – her concern was a basis for democracy which was as broad as possible: ‘The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany [.]’ (ibid., 450)


Radically fighting for each individual part, for the democratisation of the social conditions people create through their work, living with contradictions – all of this prepares the ground for a ‘new Marxism’ (Caysa 2002, 34). Rosa Luxemburg’s thinking was far ahead of that of her comrades and the politics of the time, she anticipated civilizational progress which has not yet been fulfilled. Whereas bourgeois society freed the individual from the estates enabling them to conceive of themselves as free and equal, with their own mind and reason, these conditions nonetheless set limits to individuation. Competition, the state and modern bourgeois law individuate and individualise individuals: they gain rights, an identity and are encouraged to see themselves as sovereign in deciding their actions and are attributed to them. However, they only enjoy their rights negatively, as rights that distinguish them from others, suggesting to them to be indifferent, cold and hard to the consequences of competition and the exploitation of arising ‘opportunities, their own failure and that of others. Notwithstanding the negative consequences, bourgeois society continues to navigate within the tight confines of this concept of freedom. The opportunities to widely expand the realm of freedom – to overcome violence, poverty and hunger and establish a life of idleness and pleasure – were and continue to be wasted. In the Marxist tradition, cooperation is the decisive criterion to envision successful collective forms of living. Humans co-operate and they survive as a species only in this way, only collectively can they create objects that go beyond their individual or group skills. Over millennia, this co-operative potential was harnessed by a few for their own ends and developed quite unilaterally. That’s because they also had to ensure that those who co-operated did not do so freely and autonomously. To appropriate the end results and determine the forms of co-operation, co-operation had to be put under the rule of power and its productivity limited. Individuals were subjugated under the forceful laws of history and universalities (the market, state, nation and religion) to lead them and strip them of their freedom and rob them their life opportunities and creative capacity. In Luxemburg’s view (1918d, 436), this is what socialism opposes and aims for something completely new in the history of civilisation: zest for life, beauty, dignity, responsibility, glow, enthusiasm for the common good, inner clarity, compassion, courage, resilience and endurance in the face of the toughest odds. She hints at such a perspective – autonomous collective living: ‘The essence of socialist society consists in the fact that the great laboring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction.’ (Luxemburg 1971, 368) Co-operation is to be liberated, individuals individuated far beyond the capacity of bourgeois society. Marx and Engels conceived of freedom in a new way when they wrote: ‘In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’ (Marx/Engels 1848, 62) In this vision individual freedom is the basis of everything. However, the focus is on the development of individual freedom by promoting the freedom of the associated others and not self-realisation of the potential within the individual. In the socialist tradition, such an understanding of freedom remained marginal. Like Lukács, many were willing to subordinate the individual to the collective, with the promise that everybody would then be better off. The idea of freedom was reduced to a variable of political rule. ‘Freedom cannot represent a value in itself (any more than socialisation). Freedom must serve the rule of the proletariat, not the other way round.’ (Lukács 1971, 292) The critique aimed mainly at Luxemburg’s phrase that freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently (Luxemburg 1918c, 359). This would grant those aiming for a fundamental social transformation to make a claim for this freedom. However, Luxemburg was opposed to a tactical relation with freedom. Hers was expressly not a liberal approach based on any norm of justice, which becomes clear when she wrote that freedom could not be the privilege of any single person, but that it had to be granted precisely to those who think differently. Only this way could freedom be the freedom of each and everyone (cf Brie 2002, 66f). Only then can freedom prove itself and permit autonomy. ‘All that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom’ would be lost, ‘if it became a privilege’ (Luxemburg 1918c, 359). In making use of freedom, the co-operative, communicative productivity that is a constituent element of a free association can flourish. This is based on the aforementioned democratic theoretical and political conviction that socialism cannot be brought about and maintained in an authoritarian way, but rather depends on the beliefs and practices of the overwhelming majority of people (Schütrumpf 2018).