A tribute to Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg was murdered one hundred years ago, murdered to stop her work as a socialist, writes Felicity Dowling. In paying tribute to Rosa, we are both celebrating her life and marking the centenary of the assassination of one of the greatest women of the socialist movement. Thousands of people from many nationalities will march through Berlin this weekend, to lay red roses on her grave.

Why is Rosa still important?

Rosa was a teacher, scholar, writer, campaigner, and workers’ leader.1 Rosa was a woman who made her own life, economically, socially and sexually, a Polish Jew, an independent working woman, a disabled woman, and an independent thinker. She was born in Poland in 1871 and her life was dedicated to building the workers’ movement there, but also in Germany and internationally. The rights of women were a fundamental part of this.

Rosa was a giant of socialist theory; she studied the works of Karl Marx and further developed theories especially around the Accumulation of Capital, Imperialism, and theories around the Mass Strike.

Her words on the need for democracy are very important today with the rise of the right across the world, the rise of those who are contemptuous of democracy

 “If democracy has become superfluous or annoying to the bourgeoisie, it is on the contrary necessary and indispensable to the working class. It is necessary to the working class because it creates the political forms (autonomous administration, electoral rights, etc.) which will serve the proletariat as fulcrums in its task of transforming bourgeois society. Democracy is indispensable to the working class because only through the exercise of its democratic rights, in the struggle for democracy, can the proletariat become aware of its class interests and its historic task.”

 In Berlin, in the early twentieth century, Rosa taught Marxist economics to thousands of workers and wrote as a journalist in workers’ papers. Socialism and trade unionism in Germany had developed as a mass movement involving hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, with not only political and trade union activity but also social activities for workers. The SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) had over one million members and was the largest political party in Germany. Rosa matters to socialists today for many reasons, for her theories, for her internationalism, her feminism, for her anti-war work, but above all for her commitment to abolish capitalism.

For Rosa, the way to abolish capitalism was by the organization of workers in the workplace and in the communities; workers’ capacity to challenge and defeat the owners of industry and finance by refusing to work, by together going on strike. Nothing the bosses can do can take away that power. Rosa did not think we should leave politics to leaders but that workers themselves had to engage in these struggles.

Rosa also developed theories that help us understand what globalized capitalism is doing when it appropriates and despoils the natural world, when it robs the accumulated wealth of the welfare state and the NHS. Capital develops either from the profit from people’s work, or by the rich and powerful taking what once was held in common by the people, through privatisation) or by war or colonization.

Rosa helped develop a politically well-educated working class and political party, something much needed today.

Rosa was an internationalist and an anti-war campaigner. Today more than ever we in Britain need to avoid nationalism as war drums beat again. A core idea of socialism in the early 20th century was that working people should stand together against the national bosses and rulers. This is why the Second International, a grouping of socialists from around the world, was formed, to counter the bosses’ attempts to pit worker against worker. It was well understood that war was likely.

The final session of the International Socialist Bureau was held at Brussels on July 29, 1914 and “resolved unanimously that it shall be the duty of the workers of all nations concerned not only to continue but to further intensify their demonstrations against the war, for peace, and for the settlement of the Austro-Serbian conflict by international arbitration.”

Tragically, the pressures of nationalism and war fever won the day and the SDP agreed to support the war. An appalling slaughter, World War 1, started.  No wonder she wrote this description of capitalism:

“Shamed, dishonored, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics – as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity – so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.”

This description fits the world of today which has only a short time to solve the climate crisis, but where Trump and his cronies make the climate problem worse not better. The socialist leaders had betrayed the ideas of socialism. But not Rosa, and not her handful of comrades and others like Lenin who opposed imperialist war. Rosa continued her agitation against the war with a small number of other internationalists including Rosa’s great friend, Clara Zetkin, and Karl Liebknecht. In February 1915 Rosa was arrested but continued to write and her work was smuggled out of prison. She also wrote of her personal life:

I suppose I must be out of sorts to feel everything so deeply. Sometimes, however, it seems to me that I am not really a human being at all, but like a bird or a beast in human form. I feel so much more at home even in a scrap of garden like the one here, and still more in the meadows when the grass is humming with bees than – at one of the our party congresses”.

As the war ended, Germany was in revolution.2 In Russia, the working class, far smaller, less experienced and less educated than the German working class, had got rid of the Tsar and established a socialist government. In Germany, however, the SDP lined up with the bosses to stop working people challenging for power.

Rosa worked for a different kind of world where wealth is held not by the capitalist class with its endless wars, despoliation, and poverty, but one where the dominant wealth is held in common by the people and used for the good of all.

But Rosa did not think change came by a formula set out by leaders but by the class itself.

 The modern proletarian class doesn’t carry out its struggle according to a plan set out in some book or theory; the modern workers’ struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight… That’s exactly what is laudable about it, that’s exactly why this colossal piece of culture, within the modern workers’ movement, is epoch-defining: that the great masses of the working people first forge from their own consciousness, from their own belief, and even from their own understanding, the weapons of their own liberation”.

The Government assisted by the SPD, recruited ex-soldiers (Friekorps) to physically attack workers. On January 15th, 1919, Rosa was 47. The Friekorps found where Rosa and Karl Liebknecht were hiding, and without any warrant, arrested them. At 10 pm she was brought in for interrogation at the Eden Hotel. Rosa was interrogated by Waldemar Pabst, leader of the GKSD, the shock troops of the reactionary forces.

At 11.40 they led her out, soldier Runge struck her on the head with his rifle butt. She stumbled and lost her shoe. One of the soldiers kept it as a trophy. Another took a letter from Clara Zetkin from her handbag. Rosa was then hit again with a rifle butt, which knocked her unconscious. Then she was driven to the canal. At 11.45, Lieutenant Souchon put a Mauser pistol to her left temple, shot her through the left ear, shattering her skull and dislocating her jaw. Lieutenant Vogel threw her body into the canal into the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. Rosa’s body was found on May 31st.

The SPD refused an investigation into the murder. Noske, a senior SPD politician, later admitted he gave the order.  On the same night, Liebknecht was shot in the head in the Tiergarten, the main Berlin Park.

Rosa’s work is well worth reading. Caveats and faint praise from the right wing and from some male socialists are best ignored.

Bertold Brecht, the brilliant German socialist dramatist, and author, wrote a version of an old socialist song to commemorate Rosa and Karl. In the UK it is sung as “For Rosa Luxemburg, we have a score to settle”. Here though is the German version.

In this centenary year, we will publish more about Rosa.


1 The wonderful Red Rosa Graphic novel by Kate Evans, is a good introduction for the newcomer to her work and a great celebration for those who know her work well.

2 For an explanation of the German revolution, this is helpful. For a beginner this (though neither socialist, nor totally accurate) and this video are useful.


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