The Rosa Luxemburg I met as a student

Submitted by Matthew on 21 October, 2015 - 1:04 Author: Antoinette Konikow
Rosa Luxemburg

Antoinette Konikow was a Ukrainian-born American socialist, and a founding member of the Communist Party USA. She was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 for being a Trotskyist, and remained active as such until her death in 1946. In this article, Konikow describes Rosa Luxemburg, with whom she studied in Zurich.


Physically she was small, slender. A neglected hip disease in childhood left her with a limp. On her arrival to address large gatherings, committees meeting her for the first time would become crestfallen. How could such a frail being make an impression on the speaker’s platform?

But once she faced the crowd, she seemed to grow in stature; her resonant powerful voice, her flaming oratory roused audiences to wild enthusiasm. Our Red Rosa, the German workers called her with proud tenderness.

Rosa Luxemburg was a magnificent speaker and combined this with a rare ability of presenting the ideas of socialism in a simple and graphic language.

She was not only a student but a theoretician of Marxism, the author of many pamphlets and books, among them, The Accumulation of Capital in which she expanded and modified Marx’s exposition. (The controversy over her interpretation still continues and I leave it to theoreticians to evaluate its merits.) But Rosa was no cabinet theoretician. Her writings as her speeches were intimately bound up with action.

She possessed the rarest of gifts — the ability to understand and even sense in advance the vital periods, problems, and strategy of the workers’ movement. It was precisely this that brought her into sharp conflict throughout her life with the self-satisfied and degenerating leadership of old German Social Democracy.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in Tsarist Poland, and began to participate in illegal revolutionary circles from a very early age. At 18 she was forced to flee Poland in order to escape arrest. I met her at Zurich, where she studied economics and philosophy. She was so mature, serious and self-assured that my friends and myself considered her our senior, but in reality she was several years younger than we were.

Returning to Poland she worked to counteract the reactionary nationalist movement which had grown strong, by organising the workers on a principled Marxist basis. Lenin criticised her opposing the demand for self-determination, in particular for Poland.

Her influence in organising a powerful and strongly centralised party in Poland was enormous. On more than one occasion she sided with Lenin against the Mensheviks within the Russian movement.

Through a fictitious marriage she became a German citizen and was thus admitted to the arena of the large German party. From then on we find her dealing blow after blow to the reformist tendency which was gaining sway over the German Social Democracy and the Second International. For example, when the French Socialists became jubilant because [one of their leaders] Alexandre Millerand had received a high ministerial post, Rosa at once condemned this entry into a bourgeois government. The gist of her criticism was: socialists can accept executive state positions only if the government itself is in their hands, otherwise they invariably serve as the servants of the bourgeoisie and betray the workers.

In her fight against revisionism she attacked Eduard Bernstein, a very prominent and influential party leader in Germany, who argued that Marx had become “out-moded” and that it was possible to evolve into socialism without any revolution by simply relying on progress, the parliament, and the feelings of justice and morality.

The party had several million votes, a vast treasury, many newspapers, scores of parliamentary seats, etc. Party functionaries were well paid, and trade union leaders dominated the party. A feeling of satisfaction combined with a fear of losing their gains began to possess the Social Democratic tops. They argued against revolutionary action because everything seemed to be progressing smoothly. Why rush, why “gamble” when a gradual growth would bring about socialism? In her fight against this Philistine outlook, Rosa had against her almost the entire German leadership.

When the 1905 revolution broke out in Russia, Rosa with great joy followed the tremendous mass movement in her own backward homeland. She grasped at once the importance of the new weapons applied in Russia, especially the role of the general strike. The German leadership inclined to dismiss the general strike as “general nonsense.” But Rosa saw in it revolutionary mass action surging onward without fear of the possibilities of defeats — an expression of the tremendous vitality latent in the masses. During this period she became more and more estranged from the old leadership.

The World War of 1914 brought with it the crucial test for all revolutionists. The German party and the Second International revealed the full extent of their degeneration. The leaders betrayed the working class.

Kautsky, the theoretical leader of the Second International bid his farewell to Marxism, declaring that internationalism could operate only in peace time and had to be suspended for the duration of war. Rosa Luxemburg did not waver in her stand. Together with Lenin she had sponsored the resolution against war adapted at the Stuttgart World Congress, the last one before the war. This resolution in veiled phraseology (to elude the German censors), had actually threatened a civil war against the bourgeoisie in every country if war were declared.

At the outbreak of the war Rosa Luxemburg applied the line of this resolution. Addressing the workers in Germany she said: “If you are ordered to shoot down your French brothers refuse to shoot!” She was arrested and imprisoned for the duration of the war. Her fate became henceforth indissolubly linked with that of Liebknecht, her comrade-in-arms, who had proclaimed: “Our main enemy is at home!” and who soon shared Rosa’s fate — imprisonment.

Rosa Luxemburg, caged like an eagle, spent her days in a tiny cell from which she could barely glimpse a blue patch of the sky. Her letters from prison reveal an aspect of her character previously known only to her friends. The tenderness of this indomitable fighter is evidenced in these letters. She could not observe without revulsion even the suffering of animals — the overloaded oxen, the tiny, unprotected bird. In her letters she puts down her deep sympathy for all suffering, her craving for peace and beauty, her anger at injustice. She did not, however, let her hands hang. Her magnetic personality and noble nature enabled her to make friends in prison who helped to smuggle out her articles for The International the publication of the Spartakus group which she and Liebknecht had formed.

Her best known work of that period is the Junius pamphlet, circulated throughout Germany. She did not sign her name because that would have disclosed her work in prison. Even Lenin was unaware of the identity of the author, of this remarkable pamphlet, which he greeted with joy as a sign of a new and powerful revolutionary wing developing in Germany. He criticised the pamphlet for its mistakes, but appreciated its power and true revolutionary spirit.

Rosa explained that the victory of either side — whether Germany or the Allies — would necessarily lead to another world slaughter. Only the masses could tear humanity out of war. Nothing can save the world except Socialism.

She exposed the hypocrisy of the capitalist class, the fraud of patriotism. The ruling class will always make an alliance with the enemy in order to suppress its own working class. The French aristocrats allied with the English and German armies against the French Jacobins. The German army released the army of Napoleon III so that the Paris Commune could be crushed. The Russian White Guards urged England, France and Germany to help them against the Russia of the Bolsheviks.

She pointed out that, far from weakening the working class, the revolution would strengthen and encourage the masses to defend their country, which becomes their real fatherland only after the revolution. The combined forces of all the monarchies could not subdue the great French Revolution. Nor could Soviet Russia under Lenin and Trotsky be overthrown by all the imperialists.

And when the social patriots sneered that the party could do nothing during war time, she replied:

“Our task is to issue clear political slogans comprehensible to the workers; a determined consistently revolutionary course of action followed by the party will arouse assurance, self-confidence, and resolution. In the masses a weak, vacillating course not only undermines the power of the working class but demoralises and confuses the masses.”

The Junius pamphlet states that national war cannot be waged under imperialism. Lenin realised that Junius had the world war in mind, but considered it necessary to correct this statement by explaining that we would support national wars of the colonial peoples for self-determination; such wars are progressive and a blow to imperialism.

Junius called for a German republic to put an end to the war. Lenin pointed out that a parliament constituted of representatives of the bourgeoisie and the middle class could never stop the war. Only the masses — through the Soviets — can assure peace.

In prison Rosa received the great news of the Russian Revolution. She burned with indignation over the Brest-Litovsk peace forced by Germany upon the Bolsheviks.

She accused the pro-war “socialists” of their responsibility, their degrading submission to the Junkers. The Russian Revolution deeply inspired Rosa. Enemies of the Russian Revolution have tried to construe her criticism of the Russian Bolsheviks as an opposition to the Russian revolution. This is false. It was as one of them that she criticised some of their tactics. The most vicious lie is that spread by the Stalinists, who tried to depict her as an enemy of communism.

The doors of her prison were thrown open by the German workers. It was 9 November 1918 — the beginning of the German revolution. Although her prison term had weakened and exhausted her, Rosa threw herself into the work. She edited the Rote Fahne (Red Banner). Together with Liebknecht she organised the German Communist Party. The manifesto of the party was written by her.

The degenerated leadership of the Social Democracy took charge of the government in order to crush the revolution. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were hounded. Leaflets demanding their assassination were circulated. Large rewards were offered for their capture. The Spartakus group which had become the German Communist Party had a large following but was not yet strong enough to take power. The situation greatly resembled the July days in Russia in 1917.

The advanced workers were pressing forward to battle, while the leadership realised that it was premature. The bourgeoisie and the Social Democratic leaders did everything in their power to provoke the masses in Berlin to an uprising so as to drown the revolution in blood. Liebknecht and Luxemburg did not stand aside from the masses. On 1 January 1919 they were arrested and immediately assassinated. These two great revolutionists, two of the most sincere, devoted and fearless leaders of the proletariat were murdered by the bourgeoisie and its socialist lackeys. Luxemburg and Liebknecht have become the symbols for courage, militancy and unswerving opposition to imperialist war. The monuments erected in Germany to commemorate these two comrades have been destroyed by Hitler.

But Luxemburg and Liebknecht have more permanent memorials than monuments of stone. Their names are inscribed in flaming red letters in the hearts of the international working class.

Socialist Appeal, 18 January 1941

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