Rosa Luxemburg, whom Hannah Arendt called a "revolutionary heroine," was the most notable representative of those left-wing socialists who clung to what was once the major plank of the orthodox socialist party: international pacifism. The international socialists found the cause of war in those greedy capitalists who presided over private capitalism, the very structure of evil.
As for Rosa, she was an award-winning Polish economist and communist agitator especially admired in Berlin as a teacher of political economics who made that dismal and obscure subject interesting and clear. Of course her version of economics was "materialistic" and "socialistic," emphasizing the broad distribution of produce to to the laboring producers, hence its moral content was more attractive to the majority of Germans - Social Democrats - than the money-grubbing, selfish doctrines of private capitalism.
Rosa believed that the strong German socialist party would be the salvation of international socialism; after obtaining her doctorate degree in Zurich, she entered into a marriage of convenience with a German citizen and, in 1899, moved to Berlin where she agitated and taught economics at the Social Democratic Party School. Berliners were astonished to encounter a woman who had a doctorate degree; her lectures on economy, which were histories of economics, were quite popular. She poked fun at the ambiguous and absurd obfuscations of professional economists, and then got down to the brass tacks, which, of course, held down a carpet of communist propaganda. Her democratic spirit still makes up for the communist line—it appears monotonous today, yet inspired millions of people in its time.
Rosa's bloody image, reinforced by a photograph of her corpse after it was fished out of the river, has been revised by historians. She was been called 'Bloody' Rosa by her murderers and others who contemned her; nonetheless, the record indicates that she advocated agitation instead of terrorism; she averred that bomb-throwing had no more effect on government than killing a gnat. The capitalist government would be overthrown by the people once they were educated to the truth about capitalism.
Rosa opposed the Marx-Trotsky line on dictatorship: she insisted on a dictatorship by the educated proletariat at large, and not of the proletariat by a party elite. Her view reminds us of the seemingly oxymoronic label, 'anarcho-communism', used by Emma Goldman and comrades - we might speculate that Rosa used the term 'democracy' instead of 'anarchy' because she had reserved 'anarchy' to denote the essence of neo-Darwinian capitalism and international warfare.
Rosa was not a cold-hearted political bird: her prison letters reveal a woman who loved birds and plants as much as a humanitarian revolution. She was dismayed that flora and fauna, just like the Native American culture, were being extinguished. Neither did she want to be cast as a brazen feminist: she objected to being a 'token woman.'
Rosa emigrated from Poland to Berlin. Of course she was not a typical Berliner, but even among native Berliners who was typical? Too much has been made of 'typical Berliners' and "typical Germans.' The several searches for the stereotypical Berliner has been a wild-goose chase - when we examine the characteristics of specific, concrete individuals, they differ from the stereotypical views. Suffice it to say that, if typical Berliners exist, Rosa was a representative member of a typical crowd of disobedient Berliners.
Since the agitation Rosa recommended in lieu of immediate violence was actually a careful preparation for or devised prelude to the armed overthrow of national governments at the propitious moment, say, during war, she was not, strictly speaking, a pacifist. The socialist revolution would be a revolution to end all wars. However, the revisionist socialists sacrificed the immediate realization of their internationalist ideal in hopes of preserving their national means (the socialist parties within the nations) which would presumably be able to gradually help along the inevitable rise of the proletariat and the achievement of international peace. Yet Rosa held to the internationalist line to the bitter end.
Austria's ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914, excluded any possibility of its acceptance, hence war was the foregone conclusion. A few days later, Rosa appeared at a great rally in Brussels against the impending war. Juares, the great French socialist, spoke as eloquently as usual - he would be murdered shortly thereafter. The workers were optimistic, believing war could be averted, or, if not, that they would still have their international socialist organization for moral support. Rosa stood up to speak, looked into the faces of the workers, but said nothing, sat down, and put her face in her hands. Time and time again the crowd pleaded with her to speak, but she sorrowfully demurred. Paul Frolich explains:
"From the lessons of history, and especially from the experience of the Russo-Japanese War, she was familiar with the blinding and bewildering effects that nationalism had on the popular masses at the beginning of a war.... This explains why she looked so searchingly into the mass of people in that hall, people who turned to the International with hope and faith. Could she speak to these people? Could she tell them the awful truth, destroy their faith and produce a panic? This she could not bring herself to do - for both psychological and political reasons. Yet it would have been just as impossible for her to compromise with a lie, to feign optimism, to strengthen futile hopes among the masses, to deceive them. She therefore remained silent." (Rosa Luxemburg, ideas in action)
Rosa saw many years of work going down the drain; for the first time, the strong-woman of the socialist revolution was depressed and discouraged, but she soon became outraged. In February 1915 she wound up in prison yet again, wherein she proceeded to compose her thoughts and commit them to writing. Her writing was secreted out of prison and eventually published as the revolutionary booklet, The Junius Pamphlet - named after Lucius Junius Brutus, the legendary republican leader who overthrew the Roman monarchy. A few excerpts shall evoke her mood at the time:
"Particularly in the fight against militarism and the war the position taken by the German Social Democracy has always been decisive. 'We Germans cannot accept that,' was usually sufficient to determine the orientation of the International. Blindly confident, it submitted to the leadership of the much admired, mighty German Social Democracy. It was the pride of every Socialist, the horror of the ruling classes of all countries."
"And what happened to Germany when the great historical crisis came? The deepest fall, the mightiest cataclysm. Nowhere was the organization of the proletariat made so completely subservient to imperialism. No where was the press so thoroughly gagged, public opinion so completely choked off; nowhere was the political and industrial class struggle of the working class so completely abandoned as in Germany."
"War is methodical, organized, gigantic murder. But in normal human beings this systematic murder is possible only when a state of intoxication and been previously created. This has always been the tried and proven method of those who make war. Bestiality of action must find a commensurate bestiality of thought and senses. The latter must prepare and accompany the former."
"Mass murder has become a monotonous.... Gone is the first mad delirium.... The show is over. The curtain has fallen on trains filled with reservists, as they pull out among the joyous cries of enthusiastic maidens.... Into the disillusioned atmosphere of pale daylight there rings a different chorus; the hoarse croak of the hawks and hyenas of the battle field.... Business is flourishing upon the ruins... Shamed, dishonoured, 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. And in the midst of this orgy a world tragedy has occurred: the capitulation of the Social Democracy...."
After the outbreak of the war, Rosa, along with Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin, formed a faction within the Social Democratic Party in Berlin called the Sparticists. When the pacific socialists split off from the Social Democratic Party, the Sparticists went along, and then became the Sparticist League in 1918, one of the founding groups of the German Communist Party. During the revolutionary period at the end of the Great War, Rosa and her colleague, Karl Liebknecht, had a price on their heads; they were taken into custody by the government and brutally murdered.
Rosa firmly believed that so-called "free trade" conducted at gunpoint to enable private capitalists to rid themselves of surpluses abroad rather than distribute them to labor exploited at home was the cause of internationally organized mass-terrorism and war. Private capitalism is still standing a century later, but its form has been modified over the course of its struggles with socialism. Capital is much more broadly socialized albeit into seemingly private hands. Individual shareholders still have little control over the large corporation. An interlocking power elite control the economy. There is some circulation between the economic classes, but moving into the highest bracket is mostly a matter of luck whether by accident of birth or by meritorious action. Consumers, however, indirectly own the means of production, for they may boycott a business and shut production down rendering the means of production worthless; further, producers can strike. Therefore regressive thinkers condemn the strikes and boycotts as a perverse, immoral course of action.
Likewise, voters in the United States have in their hands the power to realize radical reforms and even to revise the foundational constitution of the state. But they will not do so. The majority of any population, unless made desperate, is not inclined to radical changes. Hedonists prefer to twiddle their thumbs over computers, tweak the status quo under the rubric of "reform," and tolerate vicious governments presided over by war-mongering, power-hungry liars rather than to make the necessary sacrifices to morally improve their lot as a whole. We remember Rosa Luxemburg as someone who sacrificed her life for the cause.