A Revolutionary Woman in Mind and Spirit: The Passions of Rosa Luxemburg

— Paul Le Blanc

IN THESE COMMENTS on the spirit and mind of this great revolutionary thinker and activist, I think it makes sense to begin with a focus on her gender. It isn’t clear that Rosa Luxemburg herself would be inclined to agree. She had, after all, refused to occupy a “safer” and marginalized position as a women’s spokesperson in the socialist movement.

Rosa Luxemburg nonetheless had a vibrant sense of the interpenetration of women’s liberation and working-class liberation. In 1902, she wrote that “with the political emancipation of women a strong fresh wind must also blow into [the socialist movement’s] political and spiritual life, dispelling the suffocating atmosphere of the present philistine family life which so unmistakably rubs off on our party members too, the workers as well as the leaders.

Despite pioneering work for women’s rights by such respected Social Democratic leaders as Clara Zetkin and party-founder August Bebel, many older male comrades believed that “a woman’s place is in the home.

Luxemburg’s whole life constituted a conscious and powerful challenge to such sentiments. More than this, there was the painful process of self-definition as she ended her intimate involvement with her first great love, Leo Jogiches.

A master at developing and maintaining revolutionary organizational structures that were especially important for the necessarily clandestine situation of the Polish workers’ movement, Jogiches has been well described by Hannah Arendt as “a very remarkable and yet typical figure among the professional revolutionists,” combining a strong masculinity with an incisive analytical mind and a deep life-commitment to strongly held values and beliefs.

There were few men Luxemburg respected, Arendt tells us, “and Jogiches headed a list on which only the names of Lenin and Franz Mehring could be inscribed with certainty. He definitely was a man of action and passion, and he knew how to do and how to suffer.

Luxemburg’s intense, sometimes consuming intimacy with Jogiches lasted amid all the stresses imposed by two strong personalities and by the fluctuating, often tense and difficult conditions of revolutionary struggle from 1892 until 1907. When it finally broke apart—angrily, stormily, and not without some personal destructiveness for them both—Luxemburg nonetheless maintained a comradely working relationship as a political equal with him.

As Raya Dunayevskaya has perceptively suggested, “it was there, just there, that something new was emerging.” It is highly significant, and appears to set her off from the norm, that (although she continued to have comradely ties, close friendships, and sometimes erotic liaisons) her “further self-development was reaching new heights without leaning on Jogiches” or any other man.

Dunayevskaya stresses: “Luxemburg needed to be free, to be independent, to be whole ... Her greatest intellectual accomplishments occurred after the break.” It is interesting to note that Luxemburg herself felt that “the character of a woman shows itself not where love begins, but rather where it ends.1

I think the question may go deeper than the things already mentioned. To put it bluntly: Did being a woman enable Rosa Luxemburg to develop a Marxist orientation animated by qualities often beyond the reach of her male counterparts?

She was an “outsider” who became a powerful force in the predominantly male milieu in the inner circles of the German, Polish and Russian left-wing workers’ movements, which may have helped her perceive connections less easily visible to others. There were other unusual dimensions of her thought as well.

She proved herself as a brilliant political analyst and a pioneering economic theorist, a fine writer, an inspiring teacher, a powerful speaker, and a revolutionary leader who displayed both courage and insight. But to all of this she brought something different, something special, soaring like an eagle (as Lenin once put it) above most of the others.

There was a sensuousness that was an integral element in how she saw things and expressed them—brushing aside artifice and laughing at posturing, connecting with what was real and dynamic, reaching deep into her own emotional reserves in a way that deeply touched the emotions of others; consistently moving beyond abstractions, nourished by an amazing awareness of the infinite and ever-renewing threads that connect all living things; unashamed of valuing beauty and emotion and nurturing, uncompromisingly honest.

Luxemburg proudly embraced the “scientific socialist” doctrines of Karl Marx, while openly dismissing the vulgar-Marxist notion that “economic development rushes headlong, like an autonomous locomotive on the tracks of history, and that politics, ideology, etc. are content to toddle behind like forsaken, passive freight wagons.

Other mature Marxists of course had made much the same point—yet this passionate revolutionary consciously fused thought and feeling in an insistent manner that was unusual for the prominent theoreticians who dominated the socialist movement. “Unrelenting revolutionary activity coupled with boundless humanity—that alone is the real life-giving force of socialism,” she wrote amid the storms of crashing empires and working-class insurgency in the wake of the First World War.

Such expressions were typical of her, but set her apart from many of the more “worldly” personalities on the left. Many years before, she had explained to a jaundiced Polish comrade, in regard to the massive Social-Democratic Party of Germany, which she had recently joined, that “I do not agree with the view that it is foolish to be an idealist in the German movement.

“To begin with, there are idealists here too—above all, a huge number of the most simple agitators and from the working masses and furthermore, even in the leadership.” But what’s more, “the ultimate principle” in all of her revolutionary activity “is to remain true to myself without regard for the surroundings and the others—thus, “I am and will remain an idealist in the German as well as the Polish movement.2

Luxemburg’s uncompromising idealism was focused on pushing the German workers’ movement to remain true to its original revolutionary perspectives: to win the battle for democracy through an uncompromising struggle by the working class against its oppression (and against all forms of oppression)—finally taking state power and bringing the economy under the control of the working-class majority.

Considerable lip-service was given by the Social Democratic Party to such socialist goals, but “when you look around, the Party looks damn bad—completely headless ... No one leads it, no one shoulders the responsibility.” The result: a drift toward routinism; a pull toward piling up reforms as a substitute for revolutionary struggle; the rising influence of trade union bureaucracies and of the party’s vote-chasing electoral apparatus; in short, policies involving an opportunistic adaptation to capitalism.

She had little patience, however, for the ultra-left elements of “supposed orthodox ‘radicalism’ ... attacking each of the opportunist imbecilities and submitting it to a garrulous exegesis ... [and] who endlessly find it necessary to bring the stray lamb, the Party, back into the safe fold of ‘firmness of principles’ without realizing that these negative proceedings will not get us ahead even one step.

Instead, as working-class support for the German Social-Democratic Party shifted from hundreds of thousands to millions of people, “we ourselves must move ahead, develop our tactics, reinforce the revolutionary side of the movement,” which she believed would become possible—and effective—in the revolutionary storms that would soon transform “the stagnant waters of the movement” into “a strong fresh current—which indeed came to pass in the mass strikes and revolutionary upheavals that swept Eastern Europe in 1905–06.

As historian Gary Steenson has commented, “it was her willingness to act ... that gave legitimacy to her position; unlike others in the SPD, Rosa Luxemburg was neither an armchair revolutionary not a firebrand who expected others to carry out the real struggle in the streets.3

With the temporary abatement of the revolutionary upsurge, the forces of moderation and opportunism became stronger than ever in the German party.

A cautious trade unionism had become predominant, and trade union leaders indignantly dismissed the mass strike concept with the comment that “the general strike is general nonsense.” Rather, as historian John Moses explains, the union leadership “advocated the patient adaptation to existing forces with the ultimate aim of winning piecemeal concessions from both government and management.

This was matched by an increasingly moderate parliamentary strategic orientation, in part because the labor bureaucracy had sought to make the Social Democratic Party—in the satisfied words of trade union head Karl Legien—into “the representative of the political interests of the trade unions.

In addition, the party apparatus itself, as scholar Richard N. Hunt has noted, had been “created during a long period of social stability and economic expansion, [and] it was hired to run election campaigns, handle finances, disseminate the press, and do everything possible to attract new voters.

Party functionaries were not inclined “to mount barricades or overturn existing society, but only to work within it for the attainment of a socialist [electoral] majority.” For this they preferred “a moderate, easy-to-sell program appealing to the widest possible audience,” enabling the party to become a sufficiently powerful force in parliament to pass beneficial social legislation.

Even if this strategic course was justified with “orthodox Marxist” rather than “revisionist” phrases, it added up to a reformist orientation which Luxemburg saw as evolving into an accommodation to an oppressive capitalist status quo.4

Yet Luxemburg was convinced that “the masses, and still more the great mass of comrades, in the bottom of their hearts have had enough of this parliamentarism,” as she wrote to her co-thinker Clara Zetkin in 1907.

“I have the feeling that a breath of fresh air in our tactics would be greeted with cries of joy. But still they submit to the heel of the old authorities and, what’s more, to the upper strata of opportunist editors, deputies, and trade union leaders.

Economic and political developments were transforming the realities facing the German workers’ movement, opening up new opportunities, creating new moods within the working class, but also highlighting inadequacies in the increasingly bureaucratized apparatus of the German Social Democracy.

By 1910, Carl Schorske has noted, “the mood of the Social Democratic rank and file waxed stormier as the hopelessness of reform from the top grew more apparent from week to week,” and it was Luxemburg “who took the intellectual leadership of the movement to drive on to more radical action.

Yet time was running out. “We are approaching the time when the Party masses will need a leadership that is aggressive, pitiless, and visionary,” she commented in 1912, but noted that “our higher leadership cadres, the party paper, parliamentary group, as well as our theoretical organ” threatened to “grow shabbier and shabbier, more cowardly, more besotted with parliamentary cretinism.5

Within two years, her warnings were confirmed more disastrously than even she had expected, when the bulk of the socialist leadership led the party into an accommodation with imperialism and militarism—abandoning the traditional clarion call “workers of all countries unite” in order to embrace patriotism and support the German war effort in World War I.

The influence of nationalism and the success of pro-war “patriotic” appeals within much of the working class—utilized by some Social Democrats to explain part of their own support for the war effort, and pointed to by other comrades as a bitter betrayal of the Marxist principles of working-class internationalism and proletarian revolution—was seen by Luxemburg from a different perspective.

Her view of the interplay between the masses of the working-class and revolutionary leadership is marked by a striking dynamism:

There is nothing more mutable than human psychology. The psyche of the masses like the eternal sea always carries all the latent possibilities: the deathly calm and the roaring storm, the lowest cowardice and the wildest heroism. The mass is always that which it must be according to the circumstances of the time, and the mass is always at the point of becoming something entirely different than what it appears to be. A fine captain he would be who would chart his course only from the momentary appearance of the water’s surface and who would not know how to predict a coming storm from the signs in the sky or from the depths ... The “disappointment over the masses” is always the most shameful testimony for a political leader. A leader in the grand style does not adapt his tactics to the momentary mood of the masses, but rather to the iron laws of development; he holds fast to his tactics in spite of all “disappointments” and, for the rest, calmly allows history to bring its work to maturity.6

Related to this was the firm belief that when and where the German socialist movement was strong and effective, the German working class had learned that “socialism is not only a question of the knife and fork, but of a cultural movement and a great and proud worldview.

Although Marx and Engels themselves had proclaimed that “the German proletariat has become the heir of classical German philosophy, ... since their terrible collapse in the world war, the inheritors look like miserable beggars, eaten alive by vermin.” But as Luxemburg wrote to her friend Franz Mehring, “the iron laws of the historical dialectic ... will force these beggars to stand up and turn into proud and tough fighters” animated by “the spirit of socialism.7

Hardly viewing history as the inexorable movement of impersonal forces bringing about hoped-for revolutionary results, Luxemburg believed in the importance of what people like herself did or failed to do. Revolutionary leadership meant putting forward clear ideas that would help masses of workers as they sought to make sense of the realities of which they were part.

It meant winning people to a revolutionary program—a fighting strategy and practical tactics—that could bring the working class to power. How one advanced this orientation could be decisive in moving forward the class struggle and the revolutionary process.

“Do you know what keeps bothering me now?” she once wrote in an 1898 letter. “I’m not satisfied with the way in which people in the party usually write articles. They are all so conventional, so wooden, so cut and dry.” In the opinion of the twenty-seven year old revolutionary Marxist, one must do better:

Our scribblings are usually not lyrics, but whirrings, without color or resonance, like the tone of an engine-wheel. I believe that the cause lies in the fact that when people write, they forget for the most part to dig deeply into themselves and to feel the whole import and truth of what they are writing. I believe that every time, every day, in every article you must live through the thing again, you must feel your way through it, and then fresh words—coming from the heart and going to the heart—would occur to express the old familiar thing. But you get so used to a truth that you rattle off the deepest and greatest things as if they were the “Our Father.” I firmly intend, when I write, never to forget to be enthusiastic about what I write and to commune with myself.8

By the time she was in her mid-forties, she confessed to an intimate friend that “in theoretical work as in art, I value only the simple, the tranquil and the bold. This is why, for example, the famous first volume of Marx’s Capital, with its profuse rococo ornamentation in the Hegelian style, now seems an abomination to me (for which, from the Party standpoint, I must get 5 years’ hard labor and 10 years’ loss of civil rights ...).

She hastened to add that Marx’s economic theories were the bedrock of her own theoretical work, but also emphasized that her “more mature” work was in “its form ... extremely simple, without any accessories, without coquetry or optical illusions, straightforward and reduced to the barest essentials; I would even say ‘naked,’ like a block of marble.

Delving into theoretical questions—explaining the economic expansionism of imperialism that arose out of the accumulation of capital, which became the title of her 1913 classic—was a creative labor through which “day and night I neither saw nor heard anything as that one problem developed beautifully before my eyes.

The process of thinking—as she slowly paced back and forth, “closely observed by [her cat] Mimi, who lay on the red plush tablecloth, her little paws crossed, her intelligent head following me—and the actual process of writing combined as an experience of trance-like and profound pleasure.9

Luxemburg’s gifts were hardly restricted to the realm of study and the written word. As a public speaker similar qualities came through.

“An untamed revolutionary force was alive in this frail little woman,” an admiring Max Adler later commented. “It was characteristic of her, however, that her intellect never lost control of her temperament, so that the revolutionary fire with which she always spoke was also mingled with cool-headed reflectiveness, and the effect of this fire was not destructive but warming and illuminating.

In personal interactions, as well, Luxemburg’s student and biographer Paul Frölich tells us, her “large, dark and bright eyes ... were very expressive, at times searching with a penetrating scrutiny, or thoughtful; at times merry and flashing with excitement. They reflected an ever-alert intellect and an indomitable soul.

Her “fine-toned and resonant” voice “could express the finest nuances of meaning,” and her slight Polish accent “lent character to her voice and added a special zest to her humor.

More than this, Frolich tells us, the sensitive revolutionary was by no means full of herself but knew—when with another—that sometimes one must remain silent or listen, and be able to talk “in a natural, down-to-earth, and spirited way” about everyday life. “All this made every private moment with her a special gift.10

As the brutalizing First World War dragged on, Luxemburg commented that “although I have never been soft, lately I have grown hard as polished steel, and I will no longer make the smallest concession either in political or personal intercourse.

In almost the next breath, she added: “Being a Mensch [a person] is the main thing! And that means to be firm, lucid and cheerful. Yes, cheerful despite everything and anything—since whining is the business of the weak. Being a Mensch means happily throwing one’s life ‘on fate’s great scale’ if necessary, but, at the same time, enjoying every bright day and every beautiful cloud.11

Luxemburg’s powerful personality and intellect derived, in large measure, from the fact that she refused to narrow herself—for example by an exclusive focus on political conflicts—believing that “such one-sidedness also clouds one’s political judgment; and, above all, one must live as a full person at all times.

For that matter, although she had more than once suffered from anti-Semitism, she rejected what she viewed as a fixation on “this particular suffering of the Jews,” insisting that it was in no way worse than the often murderous oppression of other peoples by European imperialism.

“The poor victims on the rubber plantations in Putumayo, the Negroes in Africa with whose bodies the Europeans play a game of catch, are just as dear to me,” Luxemburg wrote to a friend. “Do you remember the words written on the work of the Great General Staff about Trotha’s campaign in the Kalahari desert? ‘And the death-rattles, the mad cries of those dying of thirst, faded away into the sublime silence of eternity.’

Indignant over the murderous arrogance and smug eloquence of the poetic imperialist, she concluded: “Oh, this ‘sublime silence of eternity’ in which so many screams have faded away unheard. It rings within me so strongly that I have no special corner of my heart reserved for the [Jewish] ghetto: I am at home wherever in the world there are clouds, birds and human tears.12

Of course, the violence and inhumanity visited on those victimized by colonial oppression in “faraway lands” of Asia and Africa became a murderous backdraft which exploded into Europe with the imperialist slaughter of 1914–1918. Luxemburg concluded that humanity stood at a crossroads: either forward to socialism or a downward slide into barbarism.

She and her comrades in the newly-formed Spartacus League (soon to become the German Communist Party) warned:

The great criminals of this fearful anarchy, of this chaos let loose—the ruling classes—are not able to control their own creation. The beast of capital that conjured up the hell of the world war is not capable of banishing it again, of restoring real order, of insuring bread and work, peace and civilization, and justice and liberty to tortured humanity.
What is being prepared by the ruling classes as peace and justice is only a new work of brutal force from which the hydra of oppression, hatred, and fresh bloody wars raises a thousand heads...13

This certainly turned out to be true. The “war to make the world safe for democracy,” the “war to end all wars,” generated catastrophic aftershocks. Luxemburg herself, and some of her closest comrades, were destroyed by these—which, in turn, helped to undermine the new revolutionary possibilities which she had identified.

It is impossible to measure the loss of this vibrant and magnificent person. The intellectual legacy that she left, however, sheds light not only on the quality of this individual, but also on the times in which she lived, and on the 20th century as a whole—and perhaps also on the dynamics and possibilities of the 21st century.14


1. Stephen Eric Bronner, ed., The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, New Edition (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993), 90, 163; Hannah Arendt, “Rosa Luxemburg, 1871-1919,” Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), 45-47; Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1981), 92-93.

2. Bronner, 60, 77-78.

3. Ibid., 75-94-95; Gary P. Steenson, “Not One Man! Not One Penny!” German Social Democracy, 1863-1914 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), 221.

4. John Moses, “Socialist Trade Unionism in Imperial Germany, 1871-1914,” in Roger Fletcher, ed., Bernstein to Brandt, A Short History of German Social Democracy (London: Edward Arnold, 1987), 31; Richard N. Hunt, German Social Democracy, 1918-1933 (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1970), 166, 59.

5. Bronner, 121, 149; Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955), 181.

6. Bronner, 179.

7. Ibid., 294-295.

8. Quoted in Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, transl. by Johanna Hoornweg (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 39-40.

9. Bronner, 185, 204.

10. Frölich, 197, 182.

11. Bronner, 172, 173.

12. Ibid., 179-180.

13. “Spartacus Manifesto,” in Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, eds., The Weimar Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 38.

14.Additional works by and about Rosa Luxemburg include: Dick Howard, ed., Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971); Mary-Alice Waters, ed., Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970); Paul Le Blanc, ed., Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999, forthcoming); Norman Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (London: Verso, 1983). Also see Paul Le Blanc, From Marx to Gramsci (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1997).

ATC 80, May-June 1999