Today we can seriously set about destroying capitalism once and for all. Nay, more; not merely are we today in a position to perform this task, nor merely is its performance a duty toward the proletariat, but our solution offers the only means of saving human society from destruction.
Luxemburg was born on 5 March 1871, in Zamość. She and her family were Polish Jews living in Russian-controlled Poland. She was the fifth and youngest child of timber trader Eliasz Luxemburg and Line Löwenstein. Luxemburg later stated that her father imparted an interest in liberal ideas in her, while her mother was religious and well read with books kept at home. The family spoke German and Polish, and Luxemburg also learned Russian. The family moved to Warsaw in 1873. After being bedridden with a hip ailment at the age of five, she was left with a permanent limp.
Starting in 1880, Luxemburg attended a gymnasium. From 1886, she belonged to the Polish left-wing Proletariat Party (founded in 1882, anticipating the Russian parties by 20 years). She began political activities by organizing a general strike; as a result, four of the Proletariat Party Leaders were put to death and the party was disbanded, though the remaining members, including Luxemburg, kept meeting in secret. In 1887, she passed her Matura (secondary school graduation) examinations. After fleeing to Switzerland to escape detention in 1889, she attended the University of Zurich (as did the socialists Anatoly Lunacharsky and Leo Jogiches), where she studied philosophy, history, politics, economics, and mathematics. She specialized in Staatswissenschaft (government science), the Middle Ages, and economic and stock exchange crises.
Luxemburg defended Karl Marx's dialectical materialism and conception of history. Karl Kautsky, the ethical socialist, rejected neo-Kantian arguments in favour of social Darwinism. The proletariat had to be re-organized in 1893 and in 1910–11, as a precondition, before they could act. These formed the substantive form of arguments with Rosa Luxemburg in 1911, when the two seriously fell out. But Kautsky saw, as did Luxemburg, that what was true for the Radicals, Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Parvus in Russia, was not necessarily so true in Germany. Kautsky was older than Luxemburg, more cautious, and he read mass strikes as adventurism. But radical qualitative change for the working class would lead Luxemburg into an age of revolution, which she thought had arrived. She was determined to push capitalism to its limits to develop class consciousness. In order to get organization and consciousness, workers had to strike to test resilience to exploitation; this would not be achievable through blind adherence to party organization.
Luxemburg wanted to move to Germany to be at the centre of the party struggle, but she had no way of obtaining permission to remain there indefinitely. In April 1897 she married the son of an old friend, Gustav Lubeck, in order to gain a German citizenship. They never lived together and they formally divorced five years later. She returned briefly to Paris, then moved permanently to Berlin to begin her fight for Eduard Bernstein's constitutional reform movement. Luxemburg hated the stifling conservatism of Berlin. She despised Prussian men and resented what she saw as the grip of urban capitalism on social democracy. In the Social Democratic Party of Germany's women's section she met Clara Zetkin, of whom she made a lifelong friend. Between 1907 and his conscription in 1915 she was involved in a love affair with Clara's younger son, Kostja Zetkin, to which approximately 600 surviving letters (now mostly published) bear testimony. Luxemburg was a member of the uncompromising left-wing of the SPD. Their clear position was that the objectives of liberation for the industrial working class and all minorities could be achieved by revolution only.
When Luxemburg moved to Germany in May 1898, she settled in Berlin. She was active there in the left wing of the SPD, in which she sharply defined the border between the views of her faction and the Revisionism Theory of Eduard Bernstein. She attacked him in her brochure Social Reform or Revolution, released in September 1898. Luxemburg's rhetorical skill made her a leading spokesperson in denouncing the SPD's reformist parliamentary course. She argued that the critical difference between capital and labour could only be countered if the proletariat assumed power and effected revolutionary changes in methods of production. She wanted the Revisionists ousted from the SPD. That did not occur, but Karl Kautsky's leadership retained a Marxist influence on its programme.
From 1900, Luxemburg published analyses of contemporary European socio-economic problems in newspapers. Foreseeing war, she vigorously attacked what she saw as German militarism and imperialism. She wanted a general strike to rouse the workers to solidarity and prevent the coming war; the SPD Leaders refused, and she broke with Karl Kautsky in 1910. Between 1904 and 1906, she was imprisoned for her political activities on three occasions. In 1907, she went to the Russian Social Democrats' Fifth Party Day in London, where she met Vladimir Lenin. At the socialist Second International Congress in Stuttgart, her resolution, demanding that all European workers' parties should unite in attempting to stop the war, was accepted.
Luxemburg did not hold spontaneism as an abstraction, but developed the Dialectic of Spontaneity and Organisation under the influence of mass strikes in Europe, especially the Russian Revolution of 1905. Unlike the social democratic orthodoxy of the Second International, she did not regard organisation as a product of scientific-theoretic insight to historical imperatives, but as product of the working classes' struggles:
The recently published Letters of Rosa Luxemburg shed important light on her life in Germany. As Irene Gammel writes in a review of the English translation of the book in The Globe and Mail: "The three decades covered by the 230 letters in this collection provide the context for her major contributions as a political Activist, socialist theorist and Writer." Her reputation was tarnished by Joseph Stalin's cynicism in Questions Concerning the History of Bolshevism. In his rewriting of Russian events he placed the blame for the theory of permanent revolution on Luxemburg's shoulders, with faint praise for her attacks on Karl Kautsky, which she commenced in 1910.
Luxemburg taught Marxism and economics at the SPD's Berlin training centre. Her former student, Friedrich Ebert, became the SPD leader, and later the Weimar Republic's first President. In 1912 Luxemburg was the SPD representative at the European Socialists congresses. With French socialist Jean Jaurès, she argued that European workers' parties should organize a general strike when war broke out. In 1913, she told a large meeting: "If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren, then we shall shout: 'We will not do it!'". But in 1914, when nationalist crises in the Balkans erupted to violence and then war, there was no general strike and the SPD majority supported the war – as did the French Socialists. The Reichstag unanimously agreed to financing the war. The SPD voted in favour of that and agreed to a truce (Burgfrieden) with the Imperial government, promising to refrain from any strikes during the war. This led Luxemburg to contemplate suicide: the "revisionism" she had fought since 1899 had triumphed.
According to Gammel, "In her controversial tome of 1913, The Accumulation of Capital, as well as through her work as a co-founder of the radical Spartacus League, Luxemburg helped to shape Germany's young democracy by advancing an international, rather than a nationalist, outlook. This farsightedness partly explains her remarkable popularity as a socialist icon and its continued resonance in movies, novels and memorials dedicated to her life and oeuvre." Gammel also notes that for Luxemburg, "the revolution was a way of life," and yet that the letters also challenge the stereotype of "Red Rosa" as a ruthless fighter. But The Accumulation of Capital sparked angry accusations from the Communist Party of Germany; in 1923 Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow denounced the work as "errors", a derivative work of economic miscalculation known as "spontaneity".
In August 1914, Luxemburg, along with Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring, founded the Die Internationale group; it became the Spartacus League in January 1916. They wrote illegal, anti-war pamphlets pseudonymously signed "Spartacus" (after the slave-liberating Thracian gladiator who opposed the Romans); Luxemburg's pseudonym was "Junius" (after Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic).
Friends smuggled out and illegally published her articles. Among them was The Russian Revolution, criticising the Bolsheviks, presciently warning of their dictatorship. Nonetheless, she continued to call for a "dictatorship of the proletariat", albeit not of the one party Bolshevik model. In that context, she wrote the words "Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden" (Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently) and continues in the same chapter "The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress." Another article, written in 1915 and published in June 1916, was Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie (The Crisis of Social Democracy).
The Spartacus League vehemently rejected the SPD's support for fighting World War I by the German Empire, trying to lead Germany's proletariat to an anti-war general strike. As a result, in June 1916 Luxemburg was imprisoned for two and a half years, as was Karl Liebknecht. During imprisonment, she was twice relocated, first to Posen (now Poznań), then to Breslau (now Wrocław).
Bolshevik theorists, such as Lenin and Trotsky, responded to this criticism by arguing that Luxemburg's notions were classical Marxist ones, but they could not be applied to Russia of 1917. They stated that the lessons of actual experience, such as the confrontation with the bourgeois parties, had forced them to revise the Marxian strategy. As part of this argument, it was pointed out that after Luxemburg herself got out of jail, she was also forced to confront the National Assembly in Germany – a step they compared with their own conflict with the Russian Constituent Assembly.
The original autopsy, performed on 13 June 1919 on the body that was eventually buried at Friedrichsfelde, showed certain inconsistencies that supported Tsokos' hypothesis. The autopsy explicitly noted an absence of hip damage, and stated that there was no evidence that the legs were of different lengths. Additionally, the autopsy showed no traces on the upper skull of the two blows by rifle butt inflicted upon Luxemburg. Finally, while the 1919 examiners noted a hole in the corpse's head between left eye and ear, they did not find an exit wound or the presence of a bullet within the skull.
Opponents of Marxism, however, had a very different interpretation of Luxemburg's murder. Anti-communist Russian refugees occasionally expressed envy for the Freikorps' success in defeating the Spartacus League. In a 1922 conversation with Count Harry Kessler, one such refugee lamented:
The famous Monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, originally named Monument to the November Revolution [Revolutionsdenkmal] (Berlin-Lichtenberg, built 1926, destroyed 1935), was designed by pioneering modernist and later Bauhaus Director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The memorial took the form of a 'suprematist' composition of brick masses. Van der Rohe said, "As most of these people [Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, other fallen heroes of the revolution] were shot in front of a brick wall, a brick wall would be what I would build as a monument". The commission came about through the offices of Eduard Fuchs, who showed a proposal featuring Doric columns and medallions of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, prompting Mies' laughter and the comment "That would be a good monument for a banker". The monument was destroyed by the Nazis after they took power.
In December 2009, Berlin authorities seized the corpse to perform an autopsy before burying it in Luxemburg's grave. The Berlin Public Prosecutor's office announced in late December 2009 that while there were indications that the corpse was Rosa Luxemburg's, there was not enough evidence to provide conclusive proof. In particular, DNA extracted from the hair of Luxemburg's niece did not match that belonging to the cadaver. Tsokos had earlier said that the chances of a match were only 40%. The remains were to be buried at an undisclosed location, while testing was to continue on tissue samples.
The forensic pathologist Michael Tsokos, head of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences at the Berlin Charité, discovered a preserved corpse lacking head, feet, or hands, in the cellar of the Charité's medical history museum. He found the corpse's autopsy report suspicious and decided to perform a CT scan on the remains. The body showed signs of having been waterlogged at some point, and the scans showed that it was the body of a woman of 40–50 years of age who suffered from osteoarthritis and had legs of differing length. At the time of her murder, Rosa Luxemburg was 47 years old and suffering from a congenital dislocation of the hip that caused her legs to have different lengths. A laboratory in Kiel also tested the corpse using radiocarbon dating techniques and confirmed that it dated from the same period as Luxemburg's murder.