Even though Luxemburg’s writings have been widely analysed and her correspondence subjected to detailed examination from various viewpoints, this question is harder to answer than it seems.
While family has always played a significant role in research on Marx, Engels and Lenin, we knew relatively little about the Luxemburg (or, more accurately, Luxenburg) family until a recently published account by Holger Politt and Krzysztof Pilawski. Many of the one-sided qualities attributed to her, i.e. that she loved spontaneity and loathed reform, or even that she opposed revolution, usually have little to do with Luxemburg’s true character and are more reflective of her opponents’ interests. But if individuals felt they had free rein to promote these one-sided portrayals and smears, it is precisely because of her complex personality, which was partly shaped by her background. This is still true today. As a self-determined woman, an intellectual, a teacher and a propagandist of Jewish origin, she broke completely with the typical image – shaped by petty bourgeois and patriarchal views – first of a social democrat and then of a communist functionary that persisted well into the second half of the twentieth century. Unlike other titans of the Left, she is rarely reduced to a slogan – even with such famous quotes as ‘freedom is always the freedom of dissenters’, or her statement that besides revolution ‘everything else is bilge’.
Rosa Luxemburg was born on 5 March 1871 in Zamość in Russian-ruled Poland. She came from a traditional Jewish merchant family. Like many of those now considered to be influential historical figures, she was well acquainted with the breadth of the bourgeois educational canon, which had been shaped by Enlightenment and humanist thinkers, and she lived this philosophy in her own unique way. After her family moved to Warsaw, she began attending a grammar school there. In 1889, she decided to move to Zurich for her studies. The claim that she fled the Polish capital for political reasons is one of the many myths about Luxemburg that have since been dispelled. Once in Switzerland, she met Leo Jogiches, who would go on to become her partner for a number of years and introduce her to party politics. In 1893, she became the cofounder of the Polish Social Democratic Party and before moving to Germany in 1898, she completed a doctorate in 1897 on the economic development of Poland. Her experiences during these years in Zurich and disputes with other members of the movement over the future path of Polish social democracy were decisive in shaping her theoretical and political views.
It is worth mentioning that until now only a fraction of her Polish writings have been translated into other languages. A wider audience will, however, be able to become acquainted with this significant portion of her work in the coming years thanks to the recent publication of English translations of her writings.
Throughout this time, she also developed her own sense of party identity as well as an understanding of another closely related aspect: the relationship between democracy and dictatorship. The early writings she is known to have produced mostly tackle the Blanquist tendencies of early social democrats who claimed to be speaking for the proletariat. Already in these works we can see a call for a unity of reform, revolution and shared learning undertaken by the masses and the leadership. This approach, which was originally aimed against the Blanquists, quickly brought her into conflict with the growing revisionist movement within the SPD but also with Lenin’s approach to organisational policy. In her eyes, democracy within the party was a valuable asset that she saw threatened by Leninist centralism as well as by the growing dominance of parliamentary considerations and compromises in the SPD. When the masses are solely considered as an object of leadership, social democracy would be doomed to fail.
She felt her views were vindicated by the Russian revolution that took place between 1905 and 1907. Once the revolution started, she illegally travelled to Warsaw but was soon arrested and, in June 1906, was released on bail. Once back in Germany, she became a teacher at the Social Democratic Party school in 1907 and worked there until 1914. While in Berlin, she used her experiences of the revolution to develop ideas about the German working class and made her mark as the leader of the leftist movement within the German Social Democratic Party. When it came to questions regarding the role of mass strikes, parliamentary tactics, and military and colonial policy, she increasingly found herself breaking with the SPD executive and party heavyweights such as August Bebel and Karl Kautsky. These conflicts led her back to her academic roots, namely Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, which she pursued alongside her job as a teacher.
Unlike other theorists of the Second International, she approached Marx in the traditional Marx way, i.e. critically. She had already grappled with the imperialist tendencies of politicians at the time in her economic policy analyses written at the end of the 19th century. While working at the SPD school, she struggled to find logical explanations for these tendencies using Marx’s theory. Her examination of Marx’s theory of reproduction confirmed its need for further development. By considering the role played by colonies and dependent, non-capitalist areas and sectors in the reproduction of the capital relations, she underlined the need for social democracy to have consistent positions against militarism and colonialism.
Her views encouraged Marxist theorists such as Otto Bauer and Lenin (even if the latter never admitted it) to examine reproduction as a whole and thus to develop Marx’s Critique of Political Economy into a macroeconomic concept. This led to her principal work on economics The Accumulation of Capital becoming the key foundation for the manifesto of the nascent Communist Party of Germany, if only for a few years. The publication undoubtedly has its weaknesses and flaws. But one argument is irrefutable: the tracing of the many aggressive forms in which capitalist market and property relations are able to establish themselves on a global scale back to the very nature of early 20th-century capital relations.
Luxemburg’s lines of thought and action remain relevant and inspiring to this day. Party structure and democracy, continual learning with and from the masses, internationalism, a consistent critique of capitalism, uncompromising anti-militarism and an autonomous, cultured life are the elements and ideas that Rosa Luxemburg embodies, and also what makes her work so fascinating, so important and so viable.
For further reading:
This article by Lutz Brangsch was originally published by Transform!Europe on 2 March 2021.
Lutz Brangsch was a researcher at the Academy of Social Sciences in Berlin and, from 1990 to 1999 on the staff of the National Executive of the PDS. Since 1999 he has been a researcher at the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, and since 2009 Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Critical Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation where he specializes in economics, economic and social policy, and the theory of democracy.
Photo: A note on a wall in Berlin: ‘Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters’
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