Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland, 1871 – the year of the Paris Commune. In her short lifetime she experienced three major revolutions and participated in the most important debates amongst socialists internationally.
They did not then have a model of a successful socialist revolution, but were trying to grapple with how workers would move into struggle and become conscious of the need to change society. Rosa was a thinking and ‘creative’ Marxist, ready to defend the ideas of Marx and Engels but prepared to develop them when necessary.
Hers was an inspirational life, exuding passion and determination, She was passionate in her love of life, about her beliefs and principles and her desire to see an end to all exploitation and oppression. She showed courage and determination, standing firm when in a minority or facing repression, imprisonment, illness, even death.
Rosa became involved in revolutionary politics when she was still at school in Poland. At the age of 18, state repression forced her into exile in Zurich.
When Rosa moved to Germany in 1898 she had already established herself amongst international socialists as a Marxist speaker and thinker. She became active in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest working-class party in the world. By 1912 it had amassed one million members, 15,000 full-time party workers, 90 daily newspapers, youth and women’s sections and 2.5 million affiliated trade unionists.
The party described itself as Marxist and revolutionary but had never been tested in struggle. The end of the nineteenth century saw an economic upswing allowing the German ruling class to buy a degree of industrial peace through some economic and social improvements. But the repressive regime restricted political activity.
Despite her youth and the internationally recognized political authority of the German SPD leaders, Rosa would speak out if she disagreed with their political orientation. Sometimes she confronted overt sexism from an overwhelmingly male leadership unaccustomed to confident female revolutionary leaders.
Her first real test came when Eduard Bernstein, an SPD leader, challenged the basic ideas of Marxism. Capitalism, he argued, had overcome its basic contradictions, Economic crises had been eliminated through credit, the development of monopolies and ‘globalization’, The SPD should no longer stand for class struggle and revolutionary change but economic, social and political reform within the existing system.
In her famous pamphlet “Social reform or revolution” Rosa Luxemburg argued that capitalism may have experienced a prolonged economic upswing but it hadn’t solved its contradictions. Credit could only temporarily delay a crisis and would also intensify it, Monopoly capitalism had not eradicated competition which was sharpening between the imperialist countries resulting in further conflict when war broke out in 1914.
Bernstein’s theory of gradual reform of capitalism was Utopian, she argued. As capitalism moved into crisis the capitalist class would attack the wages and conditions of workers. The fight for revolutionary change in society was as relevant as ever.