EVERY BELIEF SYSTEM requires a mythical hero, idolized in death, yet whose legacy is open to multiple interpretations. In the United States, for example, blue states revere the figure of JFK; red states, Ronald Reagan. In the 1920s the Wobblies lionized Joe Hill, and in the '70s radicals looked to Malcolm X. Today iPod-shuffling art students and e-marketing executives alike might sport Che Guevara's ragged silhouette, a trademark for what Thomas Frank has called the "counter-cultural capitalist orthodoxy." Nevertheless, for any true-blue red around the world there remains an ultimate icon: Rosa Luxemburg, fiery orator, Marxist theoretician, amateur naturalist, occasional artist, and inexhaustible political leader whose anti-Leninist credo held that working-class spontaneity must lead the party, rather than be molded by it. Thus, in 2002, when the Left returned to power in Berlin for the first time since the fall of the Wall in 1989, the new government decided to create a monument to Luxemburg. Completed this fall, the memorial, designed by Hans Haacke, now stands in the plaza that bears her name.
Born in Poland in 1871, Luxemburg studied political science, mathematics, economics, and philosophy at the University of Zurich before cofounding the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP) in 1893. Five years later she moved to Germany, where she became a citizen and was active in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Luxemburg and fellow radical Karl Liebknecht publicly broke with the SPD after its vote in 1914 to support the kaiser's entry into World War I; her left-wing splinter group, the Spartacist League, would subsequently emerge to chastise even further the SPD for its nationalist, promilitary position. But opposition to Germany's slide into war was for Luxemburg not based on pacifism. "Rote Rosa" (Red Rosa), as she was called by friend and foe alike, decried the fact that war invariably pitted one nation's workers against another, when all along the real enemy stood behind them in the form of the capitalist class. An uncanny grasp of the link between armed conquest and globalization is developed, for example, in her major theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism (1913). Needless to say, Luxemburg made numerous political enemies, and not only among conservatives. In the end it was the chancellor of the SPD, a former student of Luxemburg's named Friedrich Ebert, who found her antipatriotic, antimilitarist writings and oratory too much to tolerate. On January 15, 1919, in the midst of a spontaneous workers' uprising following the November Revolution--and a mere month after Luxemburg cofounded yet another group, the German Communist Party (KPD)--Ebert sent the Freikorps militia to arrest both her and Liebknecht. The two were executed within hours of their arrest. Death was especially grisly in Luxemburg's case: Battered lifeless by rifle butts, her body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal. A few months later it washed back up, and with it the mytho-historical icon Rosa Luxemburg breathed life.
In the eighty-seven years since Luxemburg's demise, a startling range of ideological interpretations and expectations--some compatible, others conflicted, and a few simply contradictory--have been projected onto her diminutive profile by groups eager to use her as a symbol: from the Bolsheviks who slid her stinging critique of Lenin beneath the Kremlin carpet, to dissident East Germans seeking democratic reform during the cold war, to anti-Stalinist radicals of the New Left, to present-day autonomists, antiglobalization activists, and antifascists who find her anarcho-Marxist tendencies appealing. A dozen shades of pink, a dozen Rosas of the imagination. One can easily imagine, then, the difficulty of commissioning a memorial for this political figure and influential thinker. But such was the ambitious task set by the so-called red-red alliance in Berlin, a coalition created strategically in 2001 by the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS, since 2005 known as the Left Party. …