Six women share their take on Luxemburg and why they think the revolutionary icon is still relevant to their lives and fights of today.
A visionary thinker, more relevant than ever
Margarita Tsomou “When I first came across Rosa Luxemburg I was a 19-year-old economics student in Hamburg. I took part in a student strike in 1996, and discovered people who were thinking about how the world could be different, how education functions to sustain capitalism, how we could think up a world beyond what we know… I was like “wow”! For me back then, it seemed like science fiction! But it opened up my eyes. And Rosa Luxemburg was a reference all along. Someone gave me her pamphlet Reform or Revolution, in which she was making the argument that in order to achieve real reforms, you first need to change the system. Take the yellow vests in France, they want equality and better pay. But in the frame of financial capitalism as we have it now, it seems completely impossible to get there. So in order to achieve this reform, a revolution is needed. Understanding this was very important for me, because I had joined the SPD and thought that was the way I’d change the world. Next thing I knew, I was throwing away my SPD membership card. I started doing rank and file politics and attended university mostly for strikes! 1996 was also the year I first visited Berlin, and I went to where Luxemburg’s body was thrown in the canal. I remember this very clearly: it struck me how a brain and soul like Rosa Luxemburg’s could be so easily crushed – how vulnerable the body is! Her ideas remained though. And they’re still so relevant! It’s kind of amazing how, however much the world has changed, the structural laws have stayed so similar to back then. We have a Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, and a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, but if we really wanted to be serious about paying tribute to her ideas, the world would need to be very different. What she was actually fighting for at the beginning of the 20th century hasn’t been achieved yet, only women’s suffrage has been secured – ironically around the time she was murdered.
Rosa Luxemburg is a role model to me as she always fought, and in the end died, for what she believed was right. In my romantic revolutionarism, this is super inspiring. Also inspiring for me is how relevant to this day her political thought is. I read her while writing my PhD on democratic theory and I thought this is the most radical way of thinking about democracy, even in an anarchist way. I learnt a lot from her, from her relationship to parliamentarism for example. She was doing this double thing: on the one hand she was pro being in parliament, on the other she wanted to abolish it – she denounced the capitalist democratic system’s tendency towards authoritarianism and pointed out how it betrays democratic ideals by clinging to economic actors in order to keep the distribution of property intact. I used this a lot in my PhD when I was examining the Greek crisis, and what happened with democratic institutions there. Take her essay on Marx’ Eighteenth Brumaire, she analyses it extremely well and it presages how the German parliament will give power to Hitler in 1933. She believed that we have to be in parliament in order to save democracy from its own tendency to subvert itself, and in order to do so, we have to expand it beyond bourgeois capitalism. What’s also super inspiring is the way she talks about colonialism. She continued and expanded Marx’ theory of imperialism, explaining how, in order to produce things more and more cheaply, capitalism forever needs to expand and exploit resources the world over – swallowing up indigenous populations along the way. She references the Herero women crushed by the colonial German army and the opium wars in China. She describes how we go to places where there is no property, we take the land and we privatise it. We actually steal the land. And then we introduce wage labour. We use the indigenous population as consumers, because they become dependent on products they might not have needed before. She explained all these things very clearly. In this way Luxemburg can help us think about colonialism today – beyond the tendency we have today to talk about colonialism as a matter of identity politics.
Proletarian woman, poorest of the poor (…) rush to the fight for the liberation of the female sex and the human race from the horrors of capital reign!”
She can also help us rethink feminism in a non-identitarian way. In Germany we have quite a liberal feminist discourse and Rosa Luxemburg advocated a feminism from below. Her feminism was part of a general struggle for better conditions for everyone – it is one that considers women part of the working classes and the working poor, be it here in the service sector or in sweat shops in the Global South. Her kind of feminism is closer to today’s Women’s Strikes (on International Women’s Day on March 8). Like Luxemburg, the women taking part in the strikes are making the point that the problem isn’t only between women and men, but in the economic and political position of female subjects: they’re paid less, have fewer rights and often are slaves in reproductive labour. They use the working class method of the strike, instead of relying on parliamentary lobbying. It comes hand in hand with the realisation that capitalism is really a patriarchal idea: it needed patriarchy to develop and patriarchy works very well with capitalism. And the fight for women’s rights cannot be thought in gender terms alone. You cannot be a feminist without being anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist. In this way intersectional feminism can be directly linked to Rosa Luxemburg. If she were alive today, I think that she would be a leader of the female strikes on March 8!
A true internationalist
Lucy Redler “To me, Rosa Luxemburg is as relevant as ever. We are still dealing with the same problems she was facing, except that today our level of left-wing political organisation is much lower than it was 100 years ago. So our job now is not only to carry socialist ideas into the world, but also to rebuild the workers’ movement. Luxemburg, a true internationalist, had the same position as Trotsky and Lenin: we cannot achieve socialism in one country only. Exploitation, wars, inequality of wealth and climate change are all happening on a global scale. Luxemburg was aware of this, and heavily involved in the international workers’ movement. She also engaged in the politics of other countries, but not in a patronising way – she wanted to spark a debate worldwide.
One always has to be like a candle burning on both ends.”
We, at the SAV, are part of the Committee for a Workers’ International, which has groups, parties and organisations in 40 countries. We visit each other and take part in each other’s fights. For example, we are in touch with French comrades about the mass movement of France’s yellow vests. They tell us how the right wing is trying to infiltrate the movement and it is very important that the left be present to help influence the outcome. That a neo-liberal like Macron is now raising the minimum wage is a sign that this kind of pressure can change things. For most of the people in the movement, this is by far not enough. And what we see happening is that a protest against raised taxes on diesel has grown into demands for more fundamental changes and a democratisation of society. Luxemburg pointed out just that: through struggles for reform, the awareness grows for necessary foundational changes. This holds true to my experiences – take the Charité strike in 2015. At first the employees went on strike because they wanted more personnel, and suddenly integral questions were being asked: where does this pressure on the health sector come from? Why is it organised in a neo-liberal fashion? Why do we have private clinics and how has health become a commodity? The strike, which lasted 11 days, was a success: the first tariff contract for more staff in German hospitals was put in place. I think we, at the SAV but also at Die Linke, need to be active in such struggles. It would be great if the Die Linke fraction showed up at the Bundestag wearing yellow vests to encourage the movement in Germany. Like Luxemburg, I believe that parliament can be a stage to present ideas, but the big changes happen through extra-parliamentary fights. The biggest topics for us right now are the care sector and rents. Take the protest on Karl-Marx-Straße: we need to support further demands and push for the expropriation of Deutsche Wohnen and other big real estate corporations.
To me, Rosa Luxemburg was so impressive and exemplary: passionate, tenacious, incorruptible – she thought beyond borders and gave her life to socialism and internationalism.
A fearless fighter
Merle Stöver I was about 13 when I first got interested in left-wing politics and Luxemburg. At age 15 or 16 I first read her letters. She often closes them with: “Make sure you stay human, valiant/unflinching and smiling, despite all.” As soon as I turned 18 and no longer needed my parents’ permission, I had that last bit tattooed on my back: “trotzt alledem und alledem”. I have always admired how she kept up the fight against adversity and the difficult working conditions. In a letter she wrote in May 1917 to Sophie Liebknecht from prison, she says: “You know, I still hope to die on my post, in a street battle or in jail. But my innermost self belongs more to the Great Tits than the comrades.” This is quite extreme, and one has to keep in mind that she wrote this during the war. But as a communist myself, I can identify with that inner split: her full, fierce immersion in socialist politics and her vulnerable side which she only showed to her friends. Luxemburg continually expressed a kind of Weltschmerz in a world almost constantly at war. The Russian Civil War was just over, capitalism killed people because of the abominable working conditions, and World War I was just around the corner. At the same time, as a Jewish woman, she got a lot of abuse from her own party as antisemitism was common even within the SPD. When I was 17, I started writing my feminist blog, which dealt with our rape culture and victim shaming. I received so much hate mail and even threats: my phone would beep in the middle of the night with messages from random people saying they wanted to “fuck my brains out”. Remembering how Luxemburg asserted herself within a male-dominated party despite all the hate and danger, inspired and encouraged me.
Make sure you stay human, valiant and smiling, despite all.”
We’re living in a society which is attacking gender studies, and wants to take back women’s emancipation – it is becoming more and more hostile. For me, this is embodied by the AfD and their traditionalist views. In times like these it helps to remember Rosa Luxemburg… About a year ago, I got another tattoo of her and Clara Zetkin on my arm. I think those two had a kind of labour division going on: Zetkin was concentrating more on women’s rights while Luxemburg pushed for a workers’ revolution, but they supported each other. It touches me because three years ago I learned the hard way that not all feminists stand in solidarity with one another. I actually had to stop my blog after a dispute with Laurie Penny over the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” campaign against Israel (which she supported and I called antisemitic), and it was a huge backlash for me, as she used her whole network of followers against me. It taught me that solidarity is not a given… My plan is to cover the length of my right arm in tattoos of women that have inspired me. So far I have added Simone de Beauvoir, and more are on the horizon.
A vanguard intersectionalist
Emilia Roig I got interested in her pretty late if I think about it. In France she never was part of the school curriculum, so I only discovered who she was by coming to Berlin. It was partly due to Die Linke’s (Rosa Luxemburg) foundation. I was intrigued and then when I did my PhD on the discrimination of women of colour in the French and German labour market in the care sector, I reviewed what communist thinkers had to say about it– and Luxemburg was one of them. It was interesting to see how clearly she distinguished between capitalist and non-capitalist production systems. For her it would have been a disaster to try to formalise care work and make looking after kids a paid profession, because as long as it remains in the capitalist system – and subjected to the workings of the system, it would be undervalued, underpaid and come with bad status and working conditions. And that is exactly what’s happening today.
That’s what I like about Luxemburg – she rethought the way things work from the inside out. And she believed that first and foremost we need to reshape relationships between people. Entirely. Profoundly. This approach is extremely powerful and relevant, even today. Take feminism. As long as applied within the current power structure, it doesn’t really go anywhere. We first need to rethink the constructs of the nuclear heterosexual family, gender, etc. So, we cannot separate capitalism from patriarchy. Nor can we separate colonialism or racism from patriarchy. It’s all linked, and Rosa Luxemburg was a visionary in that sense as she saw the interconnection. She critiqued the feminism of her time as “bourgeois feminism”. For her, giving voting rights to women was actually dangerous because she was afraid wealthy white women would serve capitalism further. She wasn’t wrong! The suffragette movement was absolutely not an inclusive movement for the lower social classes, in fact it was for the most part very elitist, white, and even racist. These women were playing their part in supporting class oppression, racial oppression, colonialism… So we should see beyond labels – the word feminist didn’t even exist back then. She just didn’t identify with the suffragettes, that’s all. But, for me, she was a true feminist, and she contributed to the feminist movement simply by critiquing the idea that any woman advancing any interest is “good for feminism”. Frauke Petry, and, of course to a lesser extent, Angela Merkel, are not necessarily progressing the feminist movement just because they’re women! Meanwhile Luxemburg’s brand of feminism was very inclusive towards non-white people.
There, in the Kalahari desert of colonial Africa bleached by the sun, are the bones of defenseless Herero women, chivvied into the gruesome death from starvation and thirst by German soldiers…”
– I love that quote about the Herero women. She pointed to the genocide in German West Africa at a critical time; she stood up for indigenous people and poor female farmers alike, bringing them together in one global fight against capitalist oppression. Her analysis is totally devoid of all the nationalistic prejudices of her times. She framed capitalism beyond nations. She was so forward-looking! Interestingly she’s honoured today in Germany because of her martyr status – murdered violently, thrown into the canal, etc. And also because she’s a woman and we’re looking for inspiring political female figures because they’re so scarce. But if she were alive today, I definitely think she’d be an intersectional feminist. I also think she’d identify as queer. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking [laughs]. I don’t know what she’d be doing, or whether she’d be happy with the current political offer or join any party, but what I know is that she’d be against the system, that’s for sure. And because of that, I don’t think she’d be honoured. She’d be seen as trouble.
The prophetic postnationalist
Doris Achelwilm I first encountered Rosa Luxemburg while studying political science in Hannover. I was immediately attracted by the way she reconciled her subjective insights with theoretical thought and political strategy. She teaches us that we must not sacrifice our ideas in order to gain the majority. But we also shouldn’t complacently inhabit the cocoon of the “righteous” minority – we need to battle for change. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Rosa Luxemburg managed to keep it up until the end.
To say what is, remains the most revolutionary of acts.”
My favourite quote of hers is: “To say what is, remains the most revolutionary of acts.” Originally, it was Lassalle who said this, and by repeating it, she was reminding the Social Democrats of what they used to stand for. She didn’t allow for different struggles to be played off against each other, as is often the case today: the fight for women’s or minorities’ rights seems to be in constant competition with the fight for labour rights. On the other hand, she resisted the temptation to equate national independence with the resolution of neo-colonial exploitation. She was critical of the Polish nationalism that promised freedom from exploitation, and understood that it doesn’t work as a tool for liberation, as the actual problems are not local but global. She could see that if nationalism was to win, it would scrap all freedom. In this sense, she was a prophet.
Of course, Luxemburg is still a crucial reference for Die Linke. In November, our parliamentary fraction had planned a reading of protocols from the KPD’s founding convention. It was to take place at the Paul-Löbe-Haus right next to the Reichstag, and it was supposed to be part of our remembrance of the November revolution, the split of the Social Democrats and the introduction of the women’s right to vote. But the CDU/CSU and AfD fractions prevented the reading, which was a pretty unusual and irritating thing to do. The KPD was part of the first democratic parliament in Germany and its members were persecuted for their resistance against Hitler. I think the fact that these parties joined forces to make sure we couldn’t go through with our event, shows the worrying direction our politics is heading in.
The relentless revolutionary
Lisa Gärtner So many people try to claim Rosa Luxemburg these days, and I find it important to remember that she left the SPD and co-founded the KPD. She didn’t want to be part of a government in a capitalist system – she wanted a revolution. For me, as a member of the MLPD, that is one of the main takeaways. The MLPD was founded in 1982 in the KPD’s communist tradition. The KPD, Liebknecht and Luxemburg are explicitly mentioned in our political programme and our party acts as an antidote to the parties represented in parliament today. For us, it’s not primarily about winning seats, but about getting rid of capitalism altogether. If you look at how parliament dealt with the VW crisis, you can see that it is not us voters who decide what happens in the country, but the big corporations. Like the leaders of the November Revolution, we think the workers should be in power and that we need a mass revolution to end capitalism. That is exactly what Luxemburg wanted as she marched with the workers and soldiers. Her biggest achievement will forever be that she led the revolution that ended a war in which millions of people had died.
No, comrades, for us socialists it’s not about governing, but about abolishing capitalism.”
At the MLPD we try to teach the younger generations about Luxemburg and Liebknecht. It’s shocking how little is taught about her in schools. We actively present her as a role model, especially in these apathetic times – it’s time to get up and change things! For the 100th anniversary of Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s death, we will have a big theatre event on January 12 at 5pm where teenagers recreate the revolution on stage at Kontraste Eventhalle in Hoppegarten. The next day, we will join the memorial demonstration in Friedrichsfelde. I have been going every year, ever since I was 13, and I think it’s great how many young people take part. It shows how the rebellious spirit of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Lenin lives on.