Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) became a revolutionary activist while still a schoolgirl in Warsaw. At that time Poland was divided into three parts, ruled by Russia, Germany, and Austria. Warsaw was Russian-ruled.
In 1889, Luxemburg left Poland to avoid imprisonment, and went to study in Zurich (Switzerland), one of the few universities in Europe which then offered equal opportunities to women.
Many other revolutionary-minded Russian and Polish students were in Zurich. In 1893 Luxemburg and three comrades - Leo Jogiches, Julian Marchlewski, and Adolf Warszawski - founded a new Polish Marxist party there, splitting from the main Polish Socialist Party (PPS) because of its nationalist ideas. Luxemburg's party, initially tiny, would eventually win over a big part of the PPS, after 1917, to become the Communist Party of Poland, while PPS leader Josef Pilsudski evolved into a bourgeois dictator.
In 1898 Luxemburg moved to Germany. She quickly became a well-known leader of the German socialist party's left wing, though she still maintained links with the underground activity of her party in Poland and was active there in the revolutionary years 1905-6. Along with Lenin, she was one of the leaders of the left at the international socialist congresses of those years. Lenin and most of the left disagreed with Luxemburg's idea that the "right of nations to self-determination" had become meaningless or impossible in modern capitalist conditions. They saw that as an over-reaction by Luxemburg against the PPS's nationalism.
In 1910-11 Luxemburg became the first leader of the left to enter into open conflict with Karl Kautsky, who was the main theoretical writer of the German socialist movement and was seen by almost all the younger left-wingers, including Lenin, as their teacher. In a long series of articles, she argued for the German socialists to work towards mass strikes, while Kautsky insisted on more cautious tactics. Lenin later commented: "Rosa Luxemburg was right. She
realised long ago that Kautsky was a time-server".
In August 1914 the imposing strength of the German socialist movement was suddenly revealed to be hollow. Its parliamentary representatives voted to support the government in World War One. Kautsky had personally preferred not to support the government, but now argued for "unity" behind the leadership.
Luxemburg and three comrades set out to rebuild the revolutionary movement. It was not easy. Luxemburg wrote in a letter to a friend:
"I want to undertake the sharpest possible action against the activities of the [parliamentary] delegates. Unfortun-ately I get little cooperation... Karl [Liebknecht] can't ever be got hold of, since he dashes about like a cloud in the sky; Franz [Mehring] has little sympathy for any but literary campaigns; [Clara Zetkin's] reaction is... the blackest despair. But I intend to see what can be achieved".
Despite being jailed from February 1915, she managed to establish an underground group, Spartacus, which put out illegal pamphlets and newsletters.
In jail, she had criticisms of the Bolshevik-led Russian revolution. She disagreed with their policies of freedom for Russia's minority nationalities, of letting peasants divide up the land, and of dissolving the Constituent Assembly. But she insisted:
"Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went
ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world...
"This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism...
"In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in
Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to 'Bolshevism'."
As Germany exploded into workers' revolution at the end of World War One, Luxemburg was released from jail on 9 November 1918. She threw herself into building a German Communist Party. She was dismayed by the ultra-left ideas of the party's young activists. They wanted to boycott the elections being called for a National Assembly, while she insisted that they had to participate, as part of the patient work necessary to win a majority before real revolution would be possible.. But she argued that the more experienced revolutionaries
had to educate and organise the young activists into an effective party.
She did not have time to do that. In January 1919 a section of the Communist Party was enticed into a premature and abortive attempt at a revolutionary uprising in Berlin, and right-wing army officers, working in league with the reformist Social Democrats, took the opportunity to murder Rosa Luxemburg on 15 January 1919.