Born in southeastern Poland on 5 March 1871, Rosa Luxemburg was a towering figure of the classical socialist movement— a brilliant thinker, sharp-tongued rhetorician, and trailblazing leader of the proletarian cause. The famed socialist historian and journalist Franz Mehring once called her the “best brain after Marx”. Her comrade and dear friend Clara Zetkin described her as the “sharp sword, the living flame of revolution”. Even Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, with whom she often clashed, was compelled to acknowledge her status as an “eagle” of the Communist movement, at least in retrospect.
She was, by all accounts, a truly unique figure. A Jew, a Polish woman, physically disabled and politically an irreconcilable Marxist—the obstacles to her pursuing her aims in life were legion, yet she rose to become one of the paramount leaders of the largest and strongest socialist movement in the Western world, German Social Democracy. In her short but brilliant career, she locked horns with the Prussian military elite several times and spoke as equals with Karl Kautsky, August Bebel, Victor Adler, and many other leading lights of socialism. As a political agitator she rallied masses of workers against capitalism and imperialist warfare, while also challenging Marxist orthodoxy as both a theorist and instructor at the Social Democratic party school in Berlin.
Yet since being cut down by proto-fascist thugs in January 1919, Luxemburg has been memorialized as a martyr for the revolution and a symbol of the tragic highs and lows of Germany’s twentieth century more than anything else. While her name and image remains iconic, her prodigious intellectual output and many contributions to socialist theory, have often been reduced to footnotes.
In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of her birth, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung together with the International Rosa Luxemburg Society held a two-day virtual symposium on 4–5 March 2021 on Rosa Luxemburg’s political and economic thought, highlighting her many contributions to the socialist idea and seeking to apply those insights to our twenty-first century reality, riven by economic crisis and the social pressures wrought by a global pandemic. What can Luxemburg teach us about economic crisis, gender relations, revolutionary patience, and the struggle for a world beyond capitalism? Where have her ideas remained relevant, and where do they require modification?