| Rowing against the current: teaching and learning with Rosa Luxemburg

August 2019  Druckansicht
by Miriam Pieschke

One of the many iconic images we have of Rosa Luxemburg depicts her at the SPD Party School, where she began to teach in 1907. Luxemburg stands on the left, apart from her there are only very few other women in the picture. Unlike her friend Clara Zetkin, a trained teacher, Rosa Luxemburg had no pedagogical background. Yet, as her texts quickly reveal, it was not only her knowledge and analytical acumen that qualified her for the job: it was her capacity to explain contexts and complex issues. This makes reading Rosa Luxemburg’s texts a delight even today. She develops an idea, presents her arguments and dissects counter arguments. Her ability to get to the heart of complicated questions coupled with her wit meant she was an inspiring speaker, a highly influential journalist and probably also a good teacher. To many she remains a role model, whether it’s for her life, her stance or her writing. To what extent can she also be a reference point for political education? Can her writings serve as a basis for guiding principles of education?

Learning by teaching

‘While we teach, we learn.’ Originally from the Roman philosopher Seneca, this quote is often attributed to Rosa Luxemburg. Initially hesitant to accept the job at the Party School, the minute she started teaching, she became enthusiastic and praised the vibrant atmosphere, eagerness for debate and the enthusiasm of students. In her biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Annelies Laschitza (1996, 292) writes that the students praised her teaching qualities although they also said that she was very demanding: ‘She always demanded intensive self-study. She thought it right not to teach in the afternoon to give students time to think about the morning lecture, go over their notes and read texts and books. These demands made Rosa Luxemburg as popular as she was feared.’ Questions were a key part in her method of teaching, she would ask students questions and from their answers immediately derive new questions. Instead of simply testing her students’ knowledge, she wanted them to think and in her lectures highlighted the salient points: ‘Rosa Luxemburg never taught pure economic history, her lectures always included political events, ethnological and social theoretical aspects, a specific region’s art and literature during a particular development phase. This way she also made new discoveries for herself.’ (ibid., 290f)

Luxemburg herself therefore traced her chief work The Accumulation of Capital directly back to her teaching. In its foreword, she describes her ‘unexpected difficulty’ in attempting to write a ‘popularization of Marxian economic theory’ (Luxemburg 1913). ‘On closer examination, I came to the insight that this was not merely a question of presentation, but that there was a problem that was theoretically bound up with the content of the second volume of Marx’s Capital, and which simultaneously has a bearing on the practice of contemporary imperialist politics and its economic roots.’ (Ibid.) And so the introductory textbook remained unfinished, because Luxemburg continued to investigate her discovery. Teaching therefore significantly contributed to her process of understanding, leading to her theory of accumulation, a milestone of her thinking.

Learning from each other: the masses and leaders

Luxemburg is perhaps best known for her reflections on the relationship between the masses and their leaders in the class struggle, movements and socialist parties. Her participation in the Russian Revolution 1905 to 1907 induced her to set out her arguments in favour of the mass strike in The Mass Strike, which according to her is not a single strike that can be called out by a party or union leadership (Luxemburg 1906, 118). Rather, it is a period of political and economic struggles which merge into each other, flare up and subside, are interdependent, reinforce or weaken each other. She was horrified by the way in which German union and party leaders believed they could not order a mass strike by decree, like whipping out some kind of pocket-knife. She called this ‘abstract mental gymnastics’ (ibid.) and was delighted that the German proletariat masses were ‘applying themselves to this new problem with such keen interest’ due to their ‘sound revolutionary instinct and to the quick intelligence of the mass […], in spite of the obstinate resistance of their trade-union leaders’ (ibid.). She did not presume here that the proletariat would understand everything required automatically due to its class position. Rather, she expected from the social democratic and union leadership the capacity to react both to this instinct and the specific development of events and take up the role as much of student as also of teacher, of leader and follower. In the case of Russia, this meant clarifying to the working class the ‘international significance of the revolution’ and preparing them for the ‘the role and the tasks of the masses in the coming struggles’ (ibid.). Luxemburg therefore called for learning from specific situations, she was concerned as much with the object as with the mode of gaining knowledge. ‘Only in this form will the discussion on the mass strike lead to the widening of the intellectual horizon of the proletariat, to the sharpening of their way of thinking, and to the steeling of their energy.’ (ibid.)

For Rosa Luxemburg, revolutionary Russia made the case for a reciprocal relationship between the leadership and the masses in specific struggles. In some instances, events had pushed the local branches of the social democratic party and unions to take the leadership and overcome the fragmentation of the masses. In other cases, ‘the appeals of the parties could scarcely keep pace with the spontaneous risings of the masses; the leaders scarcely had time to formulate the watchwords of the onrushing crowd of the proletariat’ (ibid., 128). This was due to the fact that both the leaders and the masses could only recognise the revolution as it unfolded (see ibid., 129). Leadership therefore meant: ‘To give the cue for, and the direction to, the fight; to so regulate the tactics of the political struggle in its every phase and at its every moment that the entire sum of the available power of the proletariat which is already released and active, will find expression in the battle array of the party; to see that the tactics of the social democrats are decided according to their resoluteness and acuteness and that they never fall below the level demanded by the actual relations of forces, but rather rise above it – that is the most important task of the directing body in a period of mass strikes.’ (ibid., 149) Luxemburg describes the revolution as a process of learning in which the role of leadership is also limited by the fact that only certain circumstances will allow events to take their course that cannot be ordered by leaders even if they wanted to.

From her observations and experiences of the Russian Revolution, Luxemburg developed her specific understanding of leadership that emphasises the two aspects of learning and teaching: ‘During the revolution it is extremely difficult for any directing organ of the proletarian movement to foresee and to calculate which occasions and factors can lead to explosions and which cannot. Here also initiative and direction do not consist in issuing commands according to one’s inclinations, but in the most adroit adaptability to the given situation, and the closest possible contact with the mood of the masses.’ (ibid., 148) This is what she calls the element of spontaneity: ‘The revolution, even when the proletariat, with the social democrats at their head, appear in the leading role, is not a manoeuvre of the proletariat in the open field, but a fight in the midst of the incessant crashing, displacing and crumbling of the social foundation. In short, in the mass strikes in Russia the element of spontaneity plays such a predominant part, not because the Russian proletariat are “uneducated,” but because revolutions do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them’ (ibid.) Luxemburg’s analysis is therefore not based on a single historical event; indeed she would later deepen her analysis of the relationship between masses and leaders in her writings on the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the German Revolution 1918 (cf. „Order reigns in Berlin“ in this edition).

Learning from experience

Closely tied to her concepts of the relationship between masses and leadership her thinking contains a further pedagogic idea that emphasises the role of experience. Already in 1906 she demanded: ‘Absolutism in Russia must be overthrown by the proletariat. But in order to be able to overthrow it, the proletariat requires a high degree of political education, of class-consciousness and organisation. All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.’ (Luxemburg 1906, 130) Experience creates a mental sediment, the cultural growth of the proletariat and in this most ‘precious’ lies the ‘inviolable guarantee of their further irresistible progress in the economic as in the political struggle.’ (ibid., 134).

With learning from experience, which she describes as essential, Luxemburg does not only refer to the experiences made during struggles, but also to those made in everyday life. This was behind her strong criticism of the restrictions imposed by the Bolsheviks on public life and discourse during the 1917 Russian Revolution: Luxemburg emphasised ‘untrammeled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people’ (1918, 302) as a necessary corrective element to the limitations and shortcomings of bourgeois-democratic institutions.1[1] Unlike bourgeois society, the dictatorship of the proletariat depends on the political education and training of the entire ‘mass of the people’, as ‘the life element, the very air without which it is not able to exist.’ (ibid., 304).

In the eyes of Rosa Luxemburg, this made the restrictions to the right of assembly and freedom of the press so worthy of criticism. Public life in her view was the source of political experience, in particular in situations in which the political leadership can only advance tentatively, and through experimenting. As neither the leadership nor the masses are capable of knowing everything, they depend on learning from experience: ‘It is the very giant tasks which the Bolsheviks have undertaken with courage and determination that demand the most intensive political training of the masses and the accumulation of experience’, as only experience is ‘capable of correcting and opening new ways.’ (ibid., 305) Public life and collective learning were synonymous for Luxemburg: ‘Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative new force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts. The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress. (ibid.) Under bourgeois social systems, the impoverishment of public life bolsters those in power, therefore what is crucial for a socialist society is that the entire mass of the people participate in public life and public control, otherwise ‘the exchange of experiences remains only with the closed circle of the officials of the new regime.’ (ibid., 306). Luxemburg was convinced that a transformation of society is only possible through ‘a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois rule. Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc.’ (ibid.).

While the Bolsheviks justified coercive measures by referring to the political and tactical requirements of the revolution, according to Luxemburg these requirements can only be met by granting the greatest freedoms: ‘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. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins.’ (ibid., 307)

Learning as a form of organising, organising as a form of learning

Learning and political organising are one and the same to Luxemburg, interdependent and in need of each other: through collective reasoning people become able to act collectively, through collective struggle they gain new understanding and knowledge. She readily acknowledges the challenges presented by capitalist society’s conditioning and disciplining of human action and thinking, which hampers emancipatory learning and action. Moreover, this is why traditional concepts of teaching and learning are so seductive: some define the content, the rest follow. Apparently this seems to lead to rapid results. However, as the experiences of real socialist societies painfully highlight, such results are no less built on sand than the bourgeois order itself. Once people have been systematically discouraged from contributing by thinking and critical analysis, an irreparable damage has been done. How can we create a process of learning for organising that overcomes obedience, instead of using it for own ends in the name of party discipline? To accomplish this, left-wing political education must be oriented regarding content, methodology and framework conditions in such a way that, it can go beyond the existing conditions within the existing conditions (Brie and Candeias in this edition). Collective learning on individual conditions of being, insights regarding how one is as individual bound into and suffering from the dominant social conditions constitute a first important step in this regard. Such emancipatory learning requires space, time and patience and presents great challenges to all teachers that have to prepare and guide such scenarios.

In particular in the face of severe defeats, Luxemburg held on to her convictions. ‘I was. I am. I will be!’, was her approach to learning from defeats. This optimism is the least teachers should take from Luxemburg.


Laschitza, Annelies, 1996: Im Lebensrauch, trotz alledem. Rosa Luxemburg. Eine Biografie, Berlin

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1906: The Mass Strike, in: The Essential Rosa Luxemburg, Scott, Helen (Ed.), Chicago 2008

—. 1913: Hudis, Peter/Le Blanc, Paul (Ed.), The Accumulation of Capital. A Contribution to the Economic Theory of Imperialism, in: The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volume II. Economic Writings 2, New York 2015

—. 1918: The Russian Revolution, in: The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Hudis, Peter/ Anderson, Kevin B. (Ed.), New York 2004, 281 – 312


[1] Trotsky for example had justified the dissolution of the constituent assembly alleging that it only represented the pre-revolutionary majorities. Luxemburg opposed this assessment of the cumbersome nature of electorates with the corrective element of public debate by referring to historic examples (Luxemburg 1913).