hundred years ago – 15th January 1919 – Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by members of the Freikorps (a mercenary force recruited in the main from decommissioned WWI German soldiers). Her body was then thrown in the Landwehr Canal in central Berlin. Almost five months later – on 31st May – her body was found washed up at one of the locks of the canal.
By this time the German Revolution had effectively been quashed. Her funeral – along with that of others who had been murdered in the uprisings of late 1918/early 1919 and the violent crackdown that ensued – was held at the Friedrichsfelde Cemetery on 13th June. She was 48 at the time of her death.
Luxemburg was one of the outstanding intellectuals of the 2nd Socialist International (in which, as Tony Judt put it, ‘you could not be important unless you were of theoretical standing’). She was one of the very first women in Europe to gain a doctorate in economics; an immensely loyal friend and fellow activist; a fluent speaker and writer in a range of European languages; a fierce critic of both the revisionists and doctrinaire Marxists within the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD); one of the great pamphleteers and letter writers of the 21st Century; and, above all, a person of immense physical and mental courage.
In October 1907 she became the only female lecturer at the newly established SPD Central Party School in Berlin (an adult education centre for local SPD representatives across Germany) and remained in post until the outbreak of WWI when the School was disbanded. Her students represented a wide variety of occupations: mechanics, carpenters, decorators, miners, party secretaries, trade-unionists, housewives, intellectuals, and many others.
‘She proved’, wrote Paul Frölich (a contemporary of Luxemburg and later her biographer), ‘an outstanding teacher’:
She never lectured at them and promised no ready-made answers, compelling them to work out their own ideas and conclusions … Their work with her brought Rosa Luxemburg’s pupils not only an intellectual gain but a moral awakening.
Education, she affirmed, was a universal entitlement. ‘In the socialist society,’ she wrote in 1907 as one of the texts for use in the School, ‘knowledge will be the common property of everyone. All working people will have knowledge’.
She was a fierce champion of independent thought. Her vehement and principled opposition to WWI led to her imprisonment for the duration of that war. In the various prisons in which she was incarcerated she wrote three of her greatest pamphlets: one responding to the critics of her economic theories, one setting out the arguments against the war, and another providing a critical analysis of the Russian Revolution.
In the latter, she wrote: ‘Freedom is always and exclusively for the one who thinks differently’. For Luxemburg, thinking differently – thinking against the grain of received opinion – was of supreme importance.
Luxemburg – in both her life and work – reminds us of the importance of critical consciousness. Only by understanding the world can we hope to change it. But we can only understand it by engaging with its underlying assumptions and power structures. Education, framed in these terms, is necessarily transformative. It can never be a matter of simply transmitting the received values and understandings of previous generations. It implies a critical stance that is transformative of the way in which individuals view themselves and others – and, crucially, how they view their relation to, and their relationships with, others.
She also reminds us of the necessity of collective action in an increasingly fragmented and disconnected world. It was Luxemburg’s steadfast belief in cross-party, multilateral action – mobilised from the bottom-up through locally organised councils and comprising those of all political persuasions and classes – that led Hannah Arendt to explain Luxemburg’s legacy in terms of a clear line of continuity from the post-WWI German Revolution to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
That line can be drawn deeper into the late 20th and early 21st Centuries through to the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, the ‘Velvet Revolutions’ of 1989, and even the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings that unfolded in the Middle East in 2011. They all sprang from the same impulse. As Luxemburg wrote in one of her last articles, and while on the run in December, 1918, and in the thick of the short-lived German Revolution, ‘The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing’.
Finally, Luxemburg provides some important insights into the nature of civic and political leadership. Even in the thick of revolutionary violence she defined her role as the interpreter – the friendly critic and chronicler – of the revolutionary struggle; one who spoke back fearlessly both to the proto-fascist elements within post-WWI Germany and to what she saw as the doctrinaire Marxists within her own revolutionary groupings. She challenged and shaped from within the dynamic of collective action.
Her greatest achievement was to assert that socialism and democracy are nothing without one another. This was undoubtedly her great contribution to the thinking of the Second Socialist International, and her legacy as a major political thinker, whose books and papers were burned by Hitler and vilified by Stalin.
Lukács – in his 1921 essay on Luxemburg – acknowledged the significance of her stance against the centralising and controlling tendencies inherent in Russian Communism: ‘Rosa Luxemburg perceived at a very early stage that the organisation is much more likely to be the effect than the cause of the revolutionary process.’ From Luxemburg’s perspective, revolutions are not brought about by vanguards telling the people what to do and how to organise themselves, but by people understanding the economic bases of their shared experience, and acting – in the spirit of solidarity – on that shared understanding.
I am reminded a hundred years after Luxemburg’s brutal murder of the vulnerability of the democratic voice, particularly the female voice; of the need to reaffirm the transformative nature of human understanding; the need to insist upon shared understanding across cultural, religious and political divides; and the need for organisational structures and systems that acknowledge the indeterminacy and unpredictability of human affairs.
Whatever our party political affiliation, Luxemburg has much to teach us about the necessity of education as a transforming element in the lives of people and the future of social democracy.