Rosa Luxemburg, founder of the Spartacus League, brutally murdered by proto-fascists in January 1919, was born on this day in 1871, just two weeks before the Paris Commune took hold. Two months after her death, in its new International Relations Section, basically an aggregation of press clippings and documents from overseas, The Nation published the full text of the Spartacist Manifesto: “Arise and face the struggle! Arise and act!” In 2011, Vivian Gornick reviewed a collection of Luxemburg’s letters, under the headline, “History and Heartbreak.”

When I was a child, Rosa Luxemburg’s name would sometimes be mentioned with awe in my slightly irreverent left-wing household. Who was she? I’d ask. A great socialist, I’d be told. She criticized Lenin. She was assassinated. For years I thought the Soviets had murdered her. In a sense, I wasn’t so far off. In 1931 Joseph Stalin had Luxemburg “excommunicated” from the canon of Marxist heroes. If she’d been living in his Russia she’d certainly have been eliminated. No revolutionary as independent-minded as she could fail, come the revolution, to be denounced as a counterrevolutionary….

There she was: a girl, a Jew, a cripple—possessed of an electrifying intelligence, a defensively arrogant tongue and an unaccountable passion for social justice, which, in her teens, led her to the illegal socialist organizations then abounding among university students in Warsaw. In the city’s radical underground, she opened her mouth to speak and found that thought and feeling came swiftly together through an eloquence that stirred those who agreed with her, and overwhelmed those who did not. The experience was exhilirating; more than exhilirating, it was clarifying; it centered her, told her who she was….

On January 15, 1919, the police came for her. She thought she was being returned to prison, and was actually relieved; the last two months had been a waking nightmare. She got into the car without a protest, was taken to army headquarters for purposes of identification, then returned to the car, where she was shot in the head.

March 5, 1871

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