In my search for historical figures that could serve as role-models for a new women’s peace movement, and for heart-centered political thought, again and again I run into Rosa Luxemburg. Because of her courage, her humanity, and her crystal-clear analytical capacity, she has not been forgotten.
With what intensity did this woman fight, love, and suffer, during her short life! With what articulate brilliance, with what unshakable readiness to act was this woman endowed! With what sharp a analysis of global imperialism and what keen strategic planning–but also with a passionate love for men, and gentle love for all creatures–did this woman act.
And then: How brutally was she murdered, by soldiers of the SPD, in power at that time: insulted, pushed around, shot to death, and in the end thrown into the Landwehr Canal in Berlin.
Who was she? Who was this small, outwardly quite unremarkable woman, who with the power of her words could touch the feelings of people–from great masses to small intimate circles–and fill them with enthusiasm? What gave this woman–whose letters from prison showed such sensitivity and richness of soul–the unshakable strength and radicality to say “No” to the war, when everyone around her was celebrating it?
What was she hoping for? And where did things go wrong in the end?
Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1871, into an affluent Jewish family in Poland. Already at the age of 16, she joined an illegal socialist group in Warsaw. She was persecuted for this, and finally had to leave the country to avoid arrest. She studied in Zürich and became a journalist. Her lover and mentor of many years, Leo Jogiches also came from Poland. Over 1000 of her letters to him survive, and they bear witness of a passionate, rich, productive, and problematic relationship—most of the time they were separated, working apart and living in different places. He was the organizer of the conspiracy; she was the charismatic speaker. They complemented and supported one another in difficult times; she loved him with all the hunger and longing that comes from the awakening heart of a woman. And he? He keep up a cooler appearance: He criticized, guided, and controlled her… and flew into jealousy when he discovered her love for another. But he remained true to her far beyond the end of their relationship and beyond death. In the end, he was the one would not be silent, and who would not rest until the truth of her murder was revealed and made public.
After her studies, Rosa Luxemburg decided to go to Berlin, at that time the center of Social Democracy. When the brash young woman arrived on the scene, German Social Democracy was already a comfortable club for elderly gentlemen; Rosa, with her rebellious energy and her sharp tongue, tried to light a fire under them again. She began by taking on propaganda operations in the countryside, developing her rhetorical powers in the process, to mobilize workers for the imminent revolution. For the revolution was coming… of that she had no doubt. In Russia, it has already started, and for young socialists this was an important example: The factories should belong to the workers; the land should belong to the people who live and work there. This was the simple formula that was supposed to bring about a deep and fundamental change to every aspect of life, according to the high hopes and beautiful dreams that Rosa and her friends and companions shaped together.
Today—now that these socialist experiments have failed—we are scratching our heads: Why did they expect workers behave fairly with one another? How could a woman of such intelligence and fine perception believe that a creature as complex as a human being would simply become good, solely by controlling the means of production? Today, perhaps we can better understand this seemingly naive hope, if we keep in mind the circumstances under which most people lived at that time: Unlimited working hours, child labor, no social safety net, families of eight or ten living in a single room, starvation wages, filth, sickness, and bitter poverty were the reality for the greater part of humanity. The social contrast between rich and poor was clear and visible to everyone—without the distractions of consumerism or television.
Rosa Luxemburg represented a socialism with a human face. She did not have the usual, materialistic worldview. During her long periods of imprisonment, alone in a cell or in the prison yard, she connected in her most cherished ways with life and with creation. She movingly describes her partner in conversation: the songbird, who infected her with the joy of life; who put a smile on her face when she was alone in the night-like darkness; and who, “transformed all cruelty into great brightness and happiness.” Moving also is her now-famous description of the buffalo. In her compassion for this beaten creature, for its soft eyes like “the expression of a weeping child,” we find a greatness of soul; a generous and perceptive love for all living things. Anyone who is connected in this way, is standing with the source of an inexhaustible power beneath them.
The time for a revolution for humanity was still a long way from arriving.
Rosa Luxemburg was one of the first to see and analyze the danger of the coming war. The ruling SPD, however, let itself be carried along with the enthusiasm, and chose the side of war. Among the millions of young men that fell in the war, there was Kostja Zetkin, whom Rosa Luxemburg had loved like a mother, as a lover, and as a teacher.
Pacifism was dangerous and therefore forbidden. Rosa Luxemburg spent all four years of the war in prison. After the war, she and her political friend Karl Liebknecht became symbols for labor uprisings. Despite her better judgment, she allowed herself to be persuaded to give her approval to violent confrontations. In Berlin and Kiel, whole streets were under the control of workers, and there were battles with the police. Civil war was close. The SPD took drastic measures. After weeks of actions against “Red Rosa,” the “Red Sow,” or the “Communist Sow,” on the 15th of January, 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were abducted and brought to the Hotel Eden, the enemy headquarters.
From the differing and contradictory accounts of the perpetrators, we can only begin to get a sense of how they were treated, before they were killed. One of her shoes was found afterwards in the hotel. Months later, her corpse was found drifting in the Landwehr Canal. The perpetrators were never punished, and those who gave the orders remained in the shadows. Soon the whole of the socialist opposition was killed, the uprisings were put down. The Weimar Republic ran its course, and ended in National Socialism.
What were Rosa Luxemburg’s thoughts, during the last minutes of her life—if she had time to think?
What did she think, looking back on her choices and all that had happened? Would she have done things differently?
What does it mean to us today, to take up her political and human legacy—with everything we have learned since then?
What would a humane socialism look like? What would a socialism look like, that doesn’t keep the questions of living together, of love and partnership, limited to the private sphere, but which rather takes them on fully? What would a socialism look like, where the questions of beauty, the meaning of life, of longing and compassion—themes Rosa Luxemburg wrote about so movingly in her letters—are really part of the political agenda, really heard and taken seriously?
This kind of socialism is not a subject for political parties and parliaments. It is a subject of lived life. And this new, differently-lived life will come through in the end.