How the 1905 Revolution Inspired Rosa Luxemburg’s Vision of Emancipation

In 1905, revolt across the Russian Empire threatened to topple the tsar — but also prompted a formidable reactionary backlash. For Rosa Luxemburg, it showed the need for working-class leadership in the fight to democratize society.

Free expression was at the core of Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary philosophy. (Deutsches Historisches Museum)

Reflecting in his memoirs on the death of Rosa Luxemburg, Victor Serge wrote that she was “the only figure in Western Socialism that was capable of equaling [the Russian revolutionaries] or even perhaps of surpassing them so far as intelligence and the spirit of freedom were concerned.” This sentiment was later echoed by Isaac Deutscher in his biography of Leon Trotsky: “Of all the personalities of European socialism, nobody was in origin, temperament, and political and literary gifts more akin to Trotsky than Rosa Luxemburg.” Such praise, however, runs the risk of paying Luxemburg a backhanded compliment, as if her brilliance were best measured against the light of her male contemporaries. Far from it, “Red Rosa” (to her admirers) or “Bloody Rosa” (to her enemies) was arguably the most gifted and original revolutionary of her era.

Luxemburg possessed rare qualities, escaping many of her comrades’ limitations; in particular, she had an acute sense of irony and an ability to recognize contradictions within her own position. And her commitment to revolutionary socialism didn’t restrict her intellect, nor did it hobble her appreciation for the arts. Though Trotsky possessed a Renaissance-like intelligence and could write insightfully about poetry and painting, his works like Literature and Revolution show the flexing of a manacled mind, a great talent of self-shackling rigidity. Luxemburg stands in even sharper contrast with Vladimir Lenin, who famously distrusted the humanizing influence of the arts (lest it threaten revolutionary focus) and had a priestly adherence to Marxism. (Bertrand Russell observed upon meeting him that he seemed “quite incapable of supposing that there could be anything in Marx that wasn’t right.”) The same cannot be said of Luxemburg, whose writings reveal a deep unease with systematic certainties and a refusal to seek the comfort of clichés. She was, in the most complimentary sense, unorthodox.

Alive to the ironies of history, Luxemburg understood that these contradictions characterized not only the tension between competing social forces under capitalism between Left and Right but also the dialectics of the Left itself. It is perhaps because of this that Luxemburg’s work lacks a decidedly prescriptive quality, and instead seems dominated by what G. W. F. Hegel called “the labor of the negative.” The absence of a prescriptive element is also seen as one of the reasons why Luxemburg’s ideas are considered less influential, not having been picked up with the same fervor and intensity as those of her contemporaries. This led J. P. Nettl, in his excellent biography, to concede that “unlike Lenin, she made no original contributions to the tactics or methods of revolution” and did not “produce anything that could be adopted for use.” However, the depth and latitude of thinking on display in the latest installation in Verso’s The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, titled “On Revolution,” shows that this assessment is untrue.

Joy and Agony

Many of the writings assembled in this collection are largely unknown and unread, having been unavailable in English until now. The volume thus brings more of Luxemburg’s philosophy into sharper resolution and fills a sizable lacuna in her body of work, much of which is still being translated (in its totality, The Complete Works is expected to reach fourteen volumes). This edition focuses on the political writings that were dispatched in the years following the 1905 Russian Revolution. The Russian Empire had recently suffered a humiliating defeat in its war against the Japanese while, at home, the tsar had banned strikes and refused to allow workers to organize in labor unions. The response was a wave of massive strikes and demonstrations, which culminated in the Bloody Sunday massacre, when hundreds of protesters were gunned down in front of the Winter Palace. The period that followed, according to Luxemburg, was one of both extreme joy and extreme agony, of utopian thinking sapped by reaction and inactivity, which Nettl dubbed “the lost years” and Luxemburg herself described as the “hangover.”

The study of history naturally gives rise to the play of counterfactuals — the what-ifs that follow from many great missed opportunities. In the twentieth century, one of the most pivotal and least considered of these is the 1905 Revolution, an event that Lenin called “the great dress rehearsal.” With caution, we can say that, had it succeeded, its cascading effects could have very well altered the course of the entire century, as it almost certainly would have realigned the relations between the imperial powers in Europe, and thus preempted or diffused the chain of events that led to World War I, and by extension, the rise of Hitlerism and Stalinism.

The uprising in 1905 took everybody by surprise. Since Marx, there had long been a prejudice among both liberals and socialists about the backwardness and “oriental despotism” of the Eurasian steppe, and no one had expected that a benighted nation without a strong social democracy would suddenly erupt in revolutionary activity. At best, it was expected that a Russian revolution would play midwife to the far more crucial movement in Germany. It was thus a time of necessary recalibration, as the uprising had made a few things clear. The first was that workers didn’t need to wait for the dialectical progression of historical conditions, and the second was that they didn’t need permission. They didn’t require the organization of parties, a social democracy, or education to foster “class consciousness” as a precondition for action. This was apparent to Trotsky, who during this time developed his notion of “permanent revolution.” To Lenin, it became clear that power could be seized by a small group at any time, provided the right moment presented itself. And for Luxemburg, it exposed a hard paradox in the relationship between organization and action, and which was to precede the other.

Educating the Workers?

Many of these ideas are discussed at length in The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, written over summer 1906 while Luxemburg was in Finland meeting with her Bolshevik and Menshevik counterparts. At the time, Russia’s preindustrial economy was closer to the Middle Ages than to modernity and had no existing framework for organization — yet its workers had broken out in the kind of revolt that Luxemburg and her comrades in the Social Democratic Party had been trying for years to foster in Germany. Luxemburg argued, against her contemporaries in the party, that organization and public enlightenment were not preconditions for revolution but were rather kicked off by the revolution itself. In other words, it is an act of spontaneous generation that is auto-emancipatory and auto-enlightening, and it is from this point that organization and education begin. To calculate this moment in advance, she wrote, “would be like teaching someone to swim by seating them in front of a chalkboard and explaining the principles of swimming through diagrams.”

Among other things, this fundamentally undermined the role of a revolutionary vanguard. Luxemburg was rightfully wary of the belief that it was the responsibility of an educated minority to disseminate class consciousness among the proletariat and organize the struggle on its behalf. Criticizing the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) for the same approach, she argued that the solidification of an educated bureaucracy would oblige people, already susceptible to the authority of clerics, not to think for themselves but to believe whatever the party teaches:

Just as churches expect their “little sheep” to believe in the shepherd’s words and not talk back, so the PPS instills in the masses certain ideas, as articles of belief, using every means in its power to prevent members of the party from encountering the arguments of adversaries, denouncing every difference of opinion in the ranks of their party as disorganization and factitiousness, and attempting to form not a cadre of conscious, critically thinking workers, but a church of believers.

Social Democracy should exist, she argued, to secure free and open conditions of organization, and to protect the interests of workers so that this could take place unobstructed. The party is merely a “guardian” for the revolutionary activity that must come, necessarily, from below.

Nonetheless, the enlightenment of the working class remained a key question. Luxemburg dealt with this firsthand when she was offered a teaching position in the Arbeiterbildungsschule, the Social Democratic Party school established in Berlin in 1907. The program was designed to be more elite, educating workers that were one day expected to become leaders or organizers of some kind. During her time at the school, Luxemburg taught courses on political economy and economic history. The cliché of the teacher learning more from the students may have been true in this case: “Only by sharpening the subject matter through teaching was I able to develop my ideas,” Luxemburg wrote to a friend. And out of this came two important works, “Introduction to Political Economy” and the work for which she is most known, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), a study of the imperial mechanics of capitalism.


By 1907, however, the momentum and utopian optimism that had characterized the years following the Russian uprising had been completely deflated. During this time, Luxemburg even considered a recess from revolutionary action, writing to a friend that summer, “I would move instantly to the south and away from Germany if I had the slightest notion how to earn a living.” The reaction in Russia had been brutal: “Society is repressed and held under a state of siege by the band of thieves in government,” she wrote in “Lessons from the Three Dumas” (1908). “Court-martials, gallows, and firing squads proliferate; prisons grow over-crowded.” The tsar had established a fig-leaf parliament (the Duma), and its seats were crowded by reactionary and right-wing parties (like the proto-fascist Black Hundreds) while socialist and democratic parties were thrown out following a dissolution of the assembly in June 1907.

The creation of the Duma had not led to the legitimization of socialist parties but rather an upswell of promonarchical forces that used the parliament to strengthen absolutism. The historical progression had thus been undermined: the expectation was that a mass uprising by workers would lurch the society out of medieval despotism and into bourgeois parliamentarianism. But in Russia, mass action had only succeeded in bringing about a phony assembly, and material conditions were still not yet right for socialism, since (according to Marx) socialism could only develop out of an advanced stage of capitalism that could no longer stand up under its own internal contradictions.

Throughout her life, Luxemburg maintained a commitment to a republican program. The reasons for this were twofold. The first was that socialism must be majoritarian. The dictatorial rule of a revolutionary minority, by comparison, would simply be another form of tyranny. “Every revolution,” she wrote, “is a social revolution — that is, society goes through a season of extraordinarily focused inner maturation: a season of rapid class formation, differentiation, and self-awareness.” The conditions for majoritarian socialism could only gestate in a system that was without coercion, regardless of the governing party. The roots of socialism, in other words, are fundamentally democratic, and the ascension of socialist parties to power must be a result of the popular will. In “Blanquism and Social Democracy” (1906) she reminds her comrades that the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in its original sense, is not an actual dictatorship but a democratic process whereby the interests of workers become institutionalized, but that these conditions hadn’t been met yet:

Today there is not sufficient strength, since the proletariat constitutes a minority. . . . Indeed, that a minority should realize socialism is out of the question, as the very idea of socialism does not allow minority rule. . . . And since the fact remains that in our society the working class is not the majority . . . Social Democrats will not constitute a majority in the Constituent Assembly; . . . We may regret this, but we cannot change it.

Luxemburg would later insist on this in the Juniusbroschüre (written in prison in 1915), which Lenin dismissed as “an incorrect revolutionary program.” Since 1905, Luxemburg had been suspicious of Lenin’s elitism and the authoritarian tendencies that lurked within Bolshevism, and unlike him, she was unwilling to skip the republican phase of governance and accept socialist rule that was not truly majoritarian. “Without general elections,” she later wrote, “without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution . . . bureaucracy remains as the active element.” She was, ultimately, according to Nettl, “far more afraid of a deformed revolution than an unsuccessful one.” In other words, she knew — to quote Franz Kafka — that “every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

Though these were still mainly questions of approach, they pointed to differences in principle that over time became more entrenched — and would be the subject of many bitter polemics. After 1917, the Bolsheviks abolished the Constituent Assembly and declared a one-party state, and Luxemburg’s former comrade, Felix Dzerzhinsky, founded the Cheka, the secret police that would eventually morph into the KGB. By 1918, while in prison in Breslau, Luxemburg confided to a friend that “one would like to give the Bolsheviks a terrible tongue-lashing” for their “abysmal” handling of the situation in Russia. The greatest of all disagreements, perhaps, and the one most worth highlighting and insisting on, was Luxemburg’s defense of free expression. It was during this same period of imprisonment that she would write, after the Bolsheviks stamped out all opposition in the press, that the right to free speech meant nothing unless it meant freedom for “the one who thinks differently.”

The defense of free expression had always been at the core of Luxemburg’s revolutionary philosophy, as we see in the writings from the 1906–9 period included in this volume. In “Critique in the Workers’ Movement” (1906), she writes declaratively, “The most important precondition for raising proletarian consciousness within the struggle itself is the exercise of the freedoms of assembly and of the press,” and that, “Absolute freedom of critique and discussion lies at the heart of the interests of the workers’ movement” [italics in the original]. The corollary, she understood, meant also not placing any restrictions on one’s own discourse, recognizing that, in shielding people from disagreement, you do a disservice first and foremost to your own cause. Indeed, there is a Millian insistence on the need for there to be a collision with error, and a confidence in the self-defeat of falsehood that is almost Whiggish at times.

It is hard not to wince at this knowing the collision that would soon come and the depths of carnage that Europe would descend into over the decades to follow. Luxemburg herself would be one of the first casualties of the barbarism she long sensed was festering in the continent, when she was assassinated in 1919 by the Freikorps, a paramilitary group that would later be used as a recruitment pool for the brownshirts. After her death, Lenin ordered a complete reprinting of her work “in spite of [its] mistakes.” His successors, however, would overturn her legacy after 1925, when the German Communist Party was “Bolshevized,” and, by 1932, Stalin would denounce her as a Trotskyist, thus excommunicating the dead. It is not surprising, perhaps, for at the heart of Luxemburg’s work is the idea that emancipation is inevitable, that people will liberate themselves, and that no system can hope to crush this. And so, she left plenty that could be adopted for use.