Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters. The essence of political freedom depends not on the fanatics of ‘justice’, but rather on all the invigorating, beneficial, and detergent effects of dissenters. If ‘freedom’ becomes ‘privilege’, the workings of political freedom are broken.


Rosa Luxemburg was born in Russian-controlled Poland in 1871. In her short life, she was, amongst other things, an anti-war activist, a revolutionary, a teacher of economics and a political theoretician.

After becoming involved in the Polish anti-autocracy movement whilst still in high school, Luxemburg emigrated to Switzerland in 1889 to avoid the threat of prison. In Zürich she studied law and political economy, and in 1898 became a rare creature for the time: a woman with a doctorate.

During her studies, she became involved in the international socialist movement. With others, she formed the Polish Social Democratic Party, which was to become the nucleus of the future Polish Communist Party.

While she supported the anti-autocracy movement, the cure she advocated was not nationalism, which she viewed as a regressive pet project of the bourgeoisie. Instead, she stressed the importance of socialist internationalism.

After participating in struggles related to the Russian Revolution in Warsaw, Luxemburg was incarcerated. Her imprisonment was a time of contemplation for Luxemburg, from which emerged her theory of revolutionary mass action outlined in The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions (1906), which advocated the mass strike as the most important tool in overthrowing capitalist structures.

Following her release from prison, Luxemburg taught at the Social Democratic Party school and wrote her seminal work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913).

When World War I broke out, Luxemburg immediately opposed it, unlike the SDP. Alongside other revolutionaries she formed the Spartacus League in response, so-named after a Roman-opposing liberator of slaves. The League attempted to organise a general strike against the war-effort, for which Luxemburg was imprisoned for a further two and a half years.

Luxemburg wrote prolifically whilst imprisoned, with friends smuggling out her writings for distribution. Amongst these was Luxemburg’s 1916 pamphlet The Crisis in the German Social Democracy which underpinned the League’s philosophy, advocating the overthrow of the bourgeois regime and the formation of an international order which could prevent a renewed outbreak of hopeless warfare.

After her release from prison Luxemburg set to work reorganising the League and founding The Red Flag newspaper, which demanded amnesty for all political prisoners and the abolition of capital punishment.

In late December 1918, Luxemburg co-founded the German Communist Party. She was conscious, however, of remaining separate from the Russian Bolsheviks as she disagreed with their dictatorial and terrorist methods. In distinction, Luxemburg was committed to democracy for the proletariat masses.

In the winter of 1918/19, Luxemburg was involved in a communist uprising known as the Spartacus Revolt. On 15 January 1919, she was arrested, tortured and murdered for her involvement in its organisation by the Freikorps, a paramilitary group.

On the eve of her death, Luxemburg remained committed to her cause, writing:

[A] new leadership can and must be created by the masses and from the masses… Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!


We can take inspiration from Luxemburg’s constant and unerring faith in the necessity of a humanist socialism. Whilst committed to the distribution of power amongst the masses, she refused to agree with the prevailing Bolshevik ideology that this must be at the expense of their civil rights:

Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.

Although she was critical of liberal feminism, Luxemburg was undoubtedly a pioneering feminist martyr who was unafraid to disagree with the most powerful men in the world, including Vladimir Lenin. Her swan song should be taken up by all activists and movements for change: I was, I am, I shall be!


Author: civilrightsbloguk

University of Glasgow and University of Oxford law graduate, currently training as a solicitor in London.

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