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“I was, I am, and I will be:” Reconsidering Rosa Luxemburg for the 21st Century

Rosa Luxemburg was murdered almost 100 years ago. Yet, she seems more alive to our age and its concerns than many contemporary public intellectuals and social theorists. Her immensely multi-layered and highly creative mind, combined with an unyielding rejection of oppression and domination in its myriad shapes and disguises, echoes from her time to ours. We would do well to attune ourselves to her arguably still-vibrant voice, illuminating our current predicaments and dilemmas in often-unexpected ways. In so doing one must, of course, beware not only of the pitfalls of hagiography but also of the dangers of merely gutting Luxemburg’s thoughts for sound bites.

Illustration by Laura Fair-Schulz

Illustration by Laura Fair-Schulz

Just as Karl Marx (in Volume 1 of his Magnum opus Das Kapital), famously rejected any attempts to pass on ready-made philosophical recipes “for the cook shops of the future,” so we ought not treat Luxemburg as an infallible religious icon: she was neither a prophetess nor fortuneteller. Truly engaging with Luxemburg today means to enter into her intellectual and personal responses to the world: as a work in progress and thoughts in motion, perennially searching for further insight. Seriously reading Luxemburg’s today, either for the first time or even years after one’s first encounter, is an exceedingly enriching experience.

In the November 2013 issue of The Progressive, film director Margarethe von Trotta was interviewed by Ed Rampell in order to discuss her newest movie, on the political philosopher and public intellectual Hannah Arendt. Naturally, the conversation turned at some point to a previous work by von Trotta, namely her Rosa Luxemburg film from 1987. Curiously, von Trotta chose the actress Barbara Sukowa to play both Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt. Thus, the conversation between von Trotta and Rampell turned naturally toward comparing Luxemburg and Arendt. Interestingly, while von Trotta praised Luxemburg’s emotional intelligence, and expressed considerable admiration for her, she did not acknowledge Luxemburg as a deeply serious intellectual — on par with Hannah Arendt.

There is, unfortunately, something of an errantly emergent tradition to emphasize the romantic and passionate components of Luxemburg. Acknowledging these components as a creative and energizing force in Luxemburg’s thinking is, to be sure, more than legitimate, and, among other scholars, Michael Löwy has made this case eloquently and effectively. But this line of thought becomes problematic, however, when it implies that Luxemburg’s theoretical and intellectual contributions were secondary to her overall personality — as a profoundly compassionate and emotionally aware socialist. Rosa Luxemburg was most certainly not Hannah Arendt’s junior in the realm of intellectual inquiry, and this fact, however, still awaits real discovery and re-discovery on part of the mainstream scholarly and intellectual community.

Fortunately, there has been a renewal of interest in Luxemburg. To mention but a few examples, her writings have been made accessible in new editions, such as Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott’s anthology: Luxemburg: Socialism or Barbarism, as well as the latter’s The Essential Rosa Luxemburg. Very important currently is also The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. Older volumes, such as Paul Frölich’s classic Rosa Luxemburg: Ideas in Action have also been republished recently, and in addition, David Fernbach’s In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi should also be included in this list of publications adding to this revival.

Most importantly however, the Collected Works of Rosa Luxemburg is in the process of being published by Verso. Under the capable overall editorship of Peter Hudis, her complete works are to come out in 14 volumes for the first time in English.   Composed of many texts, previously accessible only in German or Polish, or altogether lost, this project is an outstanding resource, not only for scholars and intellectuals but also for activists in the 21st century. Already a preliminary volume, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, was published in 2011 by Verso to international acclaim. In 2013 the first volume of Luxemburg’s theoretical writings, entitled The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volume I, Economic Writings 1 (edited by Peter Hudis), has also come out. A second volume on Luxemburg’s economic analyses is in preparation, edited by Paul Blanc, and more volumes are to follow.

This compelling objective of making available, for the first time in English, all of Luxemburg’s intellectual work needs as much support as possible. While being partially funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, this ambitious and very necessary publishing undertaking is, not unlike many other academic projects, forced to function on a shoestring budget, and many people are volunteering their efforts and expertise.  Especially the translation work requires additional funds, in order to make accessible just-recently discovered manuscripts by Luxemburg on the history of ancient Greek, Roman, Medieval, and Early Modern societies.  Anyone who would like to contribute to easing the translation expenses may contact http://www.toledotranslationfund.org and download the proper forms. In our age, when more and more even mainstream economists and scholars see the structural inadequacies of neo-liberal capitalism, Luxemburg work deserves and needs a greater presence.

Rosa Luxemburg’s biographical trajectory is as multi-faceted as her intellectual ventures. In her relatively short life, of only 48 years, she saw, delved, experienced, felt, and roused more than most people with much longer life spans. Born in the Polish part of the Russian empire in 1871, she grew up in a cultured, assimilated, and solidly middle-class Jewish family. Being irrepressibly curious, precocious, and unusually intelligent, young Rosa decided to move to Switzerland, in order to pursue the university education that was, at that time, impossible in Tsarist Russia. After several years of studying history, political science, philosophy, economics, and mathematics at the University of Zurich, Luxemburg defended her doctoral dissertation on the industrial development of Poland, which was published later on in the German city of Leipzig as her first substantive book.

Afterward, Luxemburg returned to Russian Poland and threw herself into journalism and political activism. One of her main objectives during that time period was to help found a broadly based Socialist party that would include ethnic Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and even Austrians. This underscored her internationalist outlook and pushed her into debates and confrontations with more narrowly nationalist socialist movements, such as the Polish Socialist Party.   Luxemburg and her intimate friend and comrade Leo Jogiches became the co-founders of the Social Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania. Forced to leave Poland on the grounds of her political activities, Luxemburg moved to Germany, where she developed into one of the most intellectually resourceful and industrious Marxist journalists, theoreticians, and organizers. As Marxism, after the death of Marx and Engels, increasingly fractured to three main camps (namely the Centrism of Karl Kautsky, the Revisionism of Eduard Bernstein, and the Revolutionary Marxists), Luxemburg became the most potent voice of the latter.

In Imperial Germany, Luxemburg fought tirelessly against the limitations of parliamentary reformism. She did so in both thought and deed. Chief among her theoretical works are, in addition to her dissertation, Reform or Revolution (1900), Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy, (1904) The Mass Strike (1906), The National Question (1909), Theory and Practice” (1910), The Accumulation of Capital (1913 — her most serious theoretical contribution to Marxist economic analysis), as well as The Russian Revolution. In addition, Luxemburg published a myriad of brochures, including her famous The Junius Pamphlet of 1915.

In addition to trying to understand the inner workings, as well as the constant evolution, of capitalism and capitalism’s need to penetrate, dominate, and control all geographic and also all mental spheres of life, Luxemburg stressed the necessity to conceptualize socialism as an expansion of civil liberties, rather than their curtailment. Her thoughts on these matters were very much shaped by her comradely debates with Lenin, whom she greatly admired and also criticized for being at times too authoritarian. Luxemburg fully shared Lenin’s ideals of revolutionary Socialism while also understanding that Bolshevik theory and practice evolved out of specifically Russian circumstances and thus could not be a blueprint, to be followed elsewhere.

She also became increasingly alarmed by the nationalist tendencies of many mainstream Social Democratic leaders in Germany, which culminated in their support of the German war effort in 1914.   Luxemburg never betrayed her anti-war views and paid a high price for her principled opposition to World War I. She was arrested for sedition and later on put under so-called protective custody, until the end of the war and the collapse of Imperial Germany. Launching herself into political life as soon as she was released from prison, she came to support the spontaneous revolutionary uprisings in Berlin and elsewhere – in spite of her personal views and better judgment that they were premature and ill prepared. In January 1919, right-wing militia men, with the explicit approval of key members of German Social Democratic leadership, viciously murdered Rosa Luxemburg and her comrade-in-arms Karl Liebknecht. Yet, while successfully putting an end to her, they failed to permanently silence her thought.

Being a thinker, by her definition, also meant being a political activist. Instead of compartmentalizing her intellectual, emotional, and physical circumstances, like so many are prone to, coping with the disturbing complexities and inequities of reality, she sought to integrate those oft-fragmented aspects of human being into the fore of her overall personality. This endowed her with remarkable sensitivity and consistency. Rosa Luxemburg’s multiple and hybrid identities seem at home in our globalizing and highly interactive world. She was at once a Russian Pole, Jew, German, woman, and most of all Marxist intellectual. None of these labels were all defining, binding, or exclusive, and she qualified them in both thought and action.

As she was deeply invested in the process of human emancipation, self-determination, and liberation, this naturally included the emancipation, self-determination, and liberation of women. One of Luxemburg’s closest friends was, after all, the Grande Dame of Marxist Feminism Clara Zetkin. Scholarly and agile interpreters of the Marxist tradition, such as Raya Dunayevskaya as well as Frigga Haug have noted Luxemburg’s deeply rooted commitment to women’s liberation. Yet, at the same time, Luxemburg refused to be pigeonholed as a Marxist Feminist, and she regarded, for example, Social Democratic leader August Bebel’s efforts to confine her to women’s issues with considerable ire.

Looking at humanity in a more holistic fashion, she could not abide being reduced to any particular sub-group, be they women or Jews. For instance, while never being ashamed of her Jewish origins, Luxemburg poignantly stated in 1917:

[w]hat do you want with this theme of the ‘special suffering of the Jews?’ I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch. You know the words that were written about the great work of the General Staff, about Gen. Trotha’s campaign in the Kalahari desert: ‘And the death rattles of the dying, the demented cries of those driven mad by thirst faded away in the sublime stillness of eternity.’ Oh that ‘sublime stillness of eternity,’ in which so many cries of anguish have faded away unheard, they resound within me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the [Jewish] ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.

Such ecumenical views have prompted several critics to pin some form of anti-Semitic “Jewish self-hatred” on her. Robert Wistrich, among others, has repeatedly pushed this point: [l]ike not a few Jewish Marxists, she exhibited a curious mental block when it came to speaking about real (as opposed to ‘literary’) pogroms.”   And that,

it is nonetheless revealing that she made so few allusions in her voluminous German writings or in her private correspondence to the widespread anti-Semitism in Imperial Germany. The contrast with Engels, Bebel, Bernstein or Kautsky is striking in this respect.

Contrary to simple right-wing polemicists, however, Wistrich states his case with some nuance and historical context, most recently in his essay “Rosa Luxemburg: The Polish-German-Jewish Identities of a Revolutionary Internationalist”:

Rosa Luxemburg, like Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky, consistently failed to understand the driving power of modern nationalism. The First World War had demonstrated the falsity of Marx’s slogan in the Communist Manifesto that the workers have no fatherland. Luxemburg’s dream of a revolutionary proletarian fatherland in the abstract, was also conclusively buried in the carnage of the trenches. None of the subsequent twentieth- century revolutions, which brought Communists to power, whether in Russia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Cuba, China, Vietnam and other Third World countries, could have happened without harnessing nationalism to the proletarian cause. The establishment of Israel in 1948 was yet another nail in the coffin of the Luxemburgist negation of the right to national self-determination.

Yet, as Kevin B. Anderson and Peter Hudis note in their recent draft “Rosa Luxemburg: Between Universalism and Particularism,” she clearly framed her Jewishness as part and parcel of her overall humanity, already stating in 1899: [a]s concerns the Dreyfus Affair in particular, the intervention of the proletariat in the case need not be justified either from on general point of view, on the subject of bourgeois conflicts, nor from the point of view of humanity. For in the Dreyfus case four social factors make themselves felt which give it the stamp of a question directly related to the class struggle. They are: militarism, chauvinism-nationalism, anti-Semitism, and clericalism. In our written and spoken agitation we always combat these direct enemies of the socialist proletariat by virtue of our general tendencies. It would thus be totally incomprehensible to not enter into a struggle with these enemies exactly when it is a question of unmasking them, not as abstract clichés, but through the use of living current events.

Luxemburg’s nuanced and discerning take on religion in general and Christian theology more specifically might serve as a useful guide to navigating the complexities of our contemporary religious landscape. As Gilbert Achcar recently pointed out in his intriguing book, Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism, the sentiments of many Marxist Leftists who came of age in the 1960s and 1970e were that religion would soon disappear: “[a]t that time, I was fully convinced that the progress of science and education would wipe out religion in the twenty-first century.” As Achcar proceeds to focus on the rise of Christian Liberation theology in Latin America as well as Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world during the last few decades, Luxemburg would have understood these phenomena, inasmuch as she anticipated the survival and even the vibrancy of religion — for some time to come. Roland Boer’s perceptive chapter on “The Christian Communism of Rosa Luxemburg,” in Volume 2 of his masterful Criticism of Religion: On Marxism and Theology examines how and why Luxemburg opposed misguided efforts at anti-religious propaganda in the socialist movement. In fact, she was one of the first Marxists to underscore that dogmatic Atheism cannot be the core of either Marxism or the Labor movement. While being naturally highly critical of ecclesiastic hierarchies and power structures, she nevertheless identified with the yearnings and hopes for a better world — also present in religious sensibilities. She understood the immense social and cultural energies unleashed by religion and sought out ways to rather harness and make them fruitful to the cause of human emancipation.

Overall, Luxemburg’s political project focuses on the defense and expansion of the realm of human freedoms across gender, religious, ethnic, and class lines. In doing so, she rejected not only the authoritarianism of the Right but also all on the Left who thought they could build any kind of socialist alternative without the utmost respect for civil liberties and democracy, — always a timely concern and blisteringly so in the latter half of the 20th century, the aftershocks of which are still with us. In addition, Luxemburg understood only too well that the representative democracies of the Western capitalist societies were perpetually undermined by obscene socio-economic and cultural inequalities. Her alternative, to the obvious structural limitations of the theory and practice of bourgeois liberalism, was never the elimination of democracy but instead its radical enlargement and expansion. To her, genuine socialism could never be built on the foundations of one-party dictatorships, no matter how well meaning the leaders might be. Authentic socialism required the augmentation of political democracy with economic democracy, — for the mutual enrichment of both. Thus any socialism worthy of its name needs to be based on the transformation of electoral and representative democracy into participatory democracy. Socialism thus could never be imposed from above. Only a grass-roots socialism — from below — could defang both the destructive and self-destructive elements of humanity, on the one hand, and unleash human creativity, and its potential for justice, peace, and self-fulfillment, on the other.

Rosa Luxemburg’s approach addresses what Slavoj Žižek alludes to when he urges the Left to move beyond the limitations of the 20th century. Not only was Luxemburg aware of the utter bankruptcy of the conservative and hierarchical strains of thought and action, but she also understood how the reformist Liberal and Social Democratic movements would ultimately run into dead ends and exhaust themselves. And, of course, she was an early and very prescient Leftist critic of the peculiar bureaucratic collectivism and state capitalism that would eventually evolve into the Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet Union and its satellite states. In fact, her trenchant critique of the evolving one-party dictatorship in Russia made her arguably the most vehement advocate of civil liberties and personal freedom on the Left. In this, Luxemburg anticipates and illuminates our current dilemmas: how the endemic structural and moral imbalances of capitalism have not only not resolved themselves but are increasingly an existential threat to the very survival of our species. Today, while problems and crises mount, the current “Left” seems to have lost faith in its own solutions and remedies.

For several decades now, postmodernists of various shades and leanings have proclaimed, and even celebrated, the so-called “Death of the Grand Narrative.” Not only have the traditional Socialist and Communist alternatives to the status quo become deeply circumspect toa majority of those who identify broadly with the contemporary Left, but also the entire legacy of emancipatory thought, since the Enlightenment, seems to be written off. This emancipatory legacy of the Enlightenment project has been called into question not just by reactionary rightists, but by leftists, following in the pathways of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. These developments have coalesced into a deeply entrenched crisis of confidence. While Francis Fukuyama’s now infamous assertion, regarding the triumph ofAmerican-style neo-liberal capitalism (argued in his 1989 essay “The End of History” and more elaborate 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man), usually meets with a dismissive snicker by self-described progressives, many of them nevertheless have internalized Fukuyama’s thesis, often without beingfully conscious of its far-reaching implications. Fukuyama proclaimed:

[w]hat we maybe witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period ofpost-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point ofmankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

The unfortunate, alarming, and successful siren call, expressed in Margaret Thatcher’s notorious acronym “TINA,” is that “there is no alternative” to neo-liberal capitalism, and so internalized is TINA that, in the words of Slavoj Žižek, it is now far easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism! In contrast, Rosa Luxemburg’s commitment to human freedom and social justice, illustrates how dispiriting and unnecessary this proverbial self-castration of the mainstream Left, during the last three decades, truly is. Conversely her refreshing confidence that humanity ultimately possesses the capacity to live freely and self-directed lives serves as a powerful antidote to an age of greatly diminished expectations. In many ways, Luxemburg echoes Antonio Gramsci’s famous sentiment that “[t]he point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned.” Had Luxemburg lived longer, she could very well have identified with Gramsci’s equally stirring declaration of being a pessimist by virtue of intelligence while at the same time actively cultivating the indefatigable optimism that leads to sustained political activism.

Rosa Luxemburg understood that the private appropriation of collectively produced wealth creates unsustainable power differentials (the inner logic of capitalism remaining fundamentally at odds with any assertion of human equality and fairness). Helen C. Scott and Paul Le Blanc point out, in their highly readable introduction to Socialism or Barbarism: The Selected Writings of Rosa Luxemburg that she did not lose sight of how “destructive, irrational, and corrosive” Capitalism is to the unfolding of human dignity. While never viewing reform and revolution as polar opposites but instead as dialectically connected and mutually re-enforcing, Rosa Luxemburg emphasized that capitalism’s pathologies are endemic to its overall inner logic and thus cannot be contained, at least not in the long run, by piecemeal tinkering and gradual reform.

Rosa Luxemburg’s entrenched skepticism about the ability of capitalist societies to find the humane balance between economic productivity, labor rights, and democracy comes into renewed focus when one consults the newest data from the Global Rights Index, published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The overall picture is abysmal, not just for India and China, but also in most supposedly democratic Western societies. This investigation finds, among many other disturbing things, that employee rights are “systemically violated” in the United States. Of course, thoughtful readers of the recent and now rather famous Princeton University study, which examined on a broad empirical foundation US policy initiatives between 1981 and 2002, would not be surprised. This very mainstream Princeton study illustrates how and why the U.S. is not a democracy but an oligarchy in everything but name. Rosa Luxemburg would have spotted that the ITUC and the Princeton Study affirm her diagnosis — that genuine and sustainable democracy require us to move beyond capitalism, as any concessions extracted from the ruling classes are always in danger of being degraded and reversed.

In addition, and contrary to the sentiments of many Leftists today, Luxemburg’s writings tirelessly remind us that ultimately only the working class has the potential to overcome capitalism and replace it with genuine democracy. However this axiom is not based on an intellectually servile and dogmatic repetition of Marx and Engels’ thoughts on the working class, as the most potent revolutionary subject in capitalist societies. Luxemburg was, after all, persuaded by argument rather than spurious authoritarian claims. She also eschewed teleological schemes of historical inevitability, most famously by remarking that the eventual victory of freedom and justice over exploitation and domination was by no means a forgone conclusion. She made it clear that the socialist future was a possibility that stills needs to be actualized by concrete human beings made from flesh and blood, not by some magical laws of history. At a certain point in the development of human society and at certain levels of technology and productivity, cultures would theoretically afford all of their members, not just the privileged upper class, a life free from material and cultural poverty.   But, of course, this humane socialist future is by no means fixed and certain; civilization, Luxemburg pointed out, is at the junction where we must chose, between socialism and barbarism. As then, both are very real possibilities, and the choice is ours in our age. What made Luxemburg single out the working class as the main subject of revolutionary change was not some mystical historically destiny, but the simple fact that mainly blue- and white-collar workers have the capacity to bring the entire system of capitalist accumulation and power to a crashing halt. Neither radicalized college students nor professional activists have that potential power currently.

Scott and LeBlanc remind us that, in addition to her remarkably dynamic fusing of non-dogmatic and critical Marxism on the one hand with political practice and activism on the other, Luxemburg’s ardent ecological concerns and regard for the innate rights of other animals, serve as models of a more holistic Left. Both note Luxemburg’s awareness and advocacy of an underlying sensuous and passionate interconnection with reality — people and other creatures and all of nature [which made her develop] an approach that is deeply humanistic but also alive to the understanding that humanity is part of a vast and complex web of life and creation.

Finally, Scott and Le Blanc point out how Luxemburg freed herself from the still very Eurocentric views of her cultural and educational background. She came to identify and connect . . . “with the ethnically and culturally diverse peoples of our world — with sensibilities one finds among the best cultural anthropologists — which permeate her analysis and fierce hostility to Imperialism.”

Luxemburg very well understood what the contemporary Left may need to learn afresh, namely that advocating anti-Capitalism is not enough if we are serious about overcoming the increasingly obvious limitations of the current economic and political order. Focusing only on what must be opposed cannot provide a sufficient vision to energize and sustain the Left in the long run. Luxemburg’s unabashed push for a socialist conception of the future, underpinned by a non-dogmatic but serious and probing identification with the living-and-breathing Marxist tradition, stands as a compelling example of what can and must be done in order to reverse several decades of decline and intellectual as well as cultural defeatism on the Left. There are, to be sure, already some encouraging signs of a renewal, regarding serious socialist thought. Even in the United States, several recent books, such as John Nichols’ 2011 The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism, and, more recently, the anthology Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA (2014) serve as conveyer belts to put a spirited and explicitly socialist critique of capitalism’s irreconcilable pathologies squarely into the public arena. The latter is especially noteworthy, because it is published by a mainstream publishing house not conventionally associated with alternative, Leftist, let alone Socialist works. In addition, there are new intellectual journals with broad appeal, proudly identifying with the socialist and even Marxist tradition. Chief among these are Jacobin, established in 2010 as a venue for young intellectuals discovering and rediscovering the socialist tradition, as well as the refurbished International Socialist Review.

Naturally the old runaway phobias about Socialism, induced by the propaganda that emanated out of the Red Scare of the 1920s and (of course) the Cold War of blessed memory, are still alive and well in the general public, — but they also even exist among the Left that dares not speak its name. A sad case in point is, among many other things, the April 2014 interview in The Progressive, with the candidly Marxist economist Richard Wolff. While the interview itself was rich in insights, the introductory blurb identified Wolff merely as “one of the most prominent progressive economists in America.” Naturally this completely glosses over the intellectual roots of Wolff’s critique of American capitalism. This omission is not a mere formality but a sleight of hand, inasmuch as it does not clarify that Wolff might not be yet another Left-Liberal Keynesian and, as such, potentially indistinguishable, by the uninformed reader, from other Keynesians, like the post-Clinton era Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz, or perhaps even a Paul Krugman or Thomas Piketty. Whether Wolff represents merely another variant of Keynesian assumptions or is an avowed Marxist matters greatly.

While Marxists like Wolff doubtlessly share moral outrage over the obscene inequalities and injustices, endemically produced by contemporary capitalism, with the Keynesians, Wolff goes much further in his suggested remedies, because his critique is based elsewhere. He is highly skeptical about any realistic chance to return to the old Keynesian welfare states, as advocated, for example, by Robert Reich in his recent documentary Inequality For All. Reich, pointing to the New Deal-inspired policies, that shaped much of US capitalism between the 1950s and the 1970s, instructed his viewers with the sentiment “we did it once, we can do it again.” Granted that the moral impetus and goodwill of this sentiment is undeniable, one may yet ask, alongside Richard Wolff and Rosa Luxemburg, whether capitalism can really be lastingly tamed and civilized by reformist measures.

Reading and re-reading Luxemburg reminds us how much would be mislaid were we to dissolve the Marxist tradition into a catchall progressive undertaking. Surely, Marxists — especially those in a similar trajectory — understand the necessity to enlarge their own perspective in critical dialogue with other ways of seeing and analyzing the world. This mutual exchange and probing encounter with different approaches should not, however, lead to a grinding away of what is most compelling about a Marxist and socialist take on reality. Marxist analysis, while being far from infallible, offers what might arguably be the most analytically rigorous, focused, and intellectually coherent critique of capitalism. Luxemburg understood that and thus defended Marxism as a living tradition against those who, like Eduard Bernstein and later also Karl Kautsky, consciously as well as unconsciously tried to dilute it.

Thus Luxemburg can teach us much today about the indispensability of connecting Leftist, and especially Marxist, thought with political action. If Perry Anderson is to be believed, in his influential Considerations on Western Marxism: “the first and most fundamental of Western Marxism’s characteristics has been structural divorce of this Marxism from political practice.” His diagnosis rings profoundly and disturbing true: denoting missed opportunities, precisely because Western Marxism’s main strength has been in theoretically opposing the hollow rigidity and the dogmatism of Soviet-style “Marxism-Leninism.” Rosa Luxemburg is often positioned within the Western Marxist tradition as a trailblazer, reconstructing the dialectic unity between theory and practice: between analytical and descriptive efforts on the one hand, and political action on the other. Without empty sloganeering, she reminds us that a genuine Marxism can neither remain confined to the academy nor to small and eternally feuding political and ideological sects without otherwise succumbing to intellectual sterility and practical irrelevance.

On January 15th 1919 Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by right-wing thugs, with the tacit approval of the mainstream Social Democratic leadership. Not only did it cut short her own promising work, but this terrible deed came to poison the relationship between the developing Communist Party of Germany and Social Democrats, making it much easier, down the road, for the sinister alliance of Conservative and Nazi leaders to prepare for the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. The murder of Luxemburg derailed any hope for a genuinely democratic socialism in Germany, and it thus made the Stalinist take-over of the German Communist Party all but inevitable. The late Christopher Hitchens noted within this context in his Atlantic Monthly review, of the 2011 edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters translated into English: “[o]ne cannot read the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, even at this distance, without an acute yet mournful awareness of what Perry Anderson once termed ‘the history of possibility.'”

These lost possibilities were fleshed out in more detail by Pierre Broué in the latter’s towering history of the German Revolution of 1918. There, Broué conjectures about what could very well have unfolded had Luxemburg’s life had not been cut short; among other things, that German’s democratic socialist revolution might have triumphed and served as a signal to other radicals, on the Left — to defend and expand the necessary symbiosis between socialism and civil liberties. Neither Stalin nor Hitler would have been able to come to power under such circumstances and the entire history of this immensely bloody 20th century could have been very different.

Counterfactual histories of what may have been are, of course, highly speculative. But they nevertheless remind us of unfulfilled potentials and roads not taken, — as unsated hopes, dreams, and visions of a just and free society will live on to reassert themselves in the future. The heart of Rosa Luxemburg’s thinking, as well as her entire personhood, was not static but immensely dynamic and vigorously applied. Speaking to her contemporaries, spotlighting the revolutionary upheavals in Germany at the end of World War I that were successfully and violently crashed by the ruling classes, she also incisively addresses the status quo of ongoing oppression today, capturing a message of perennial determination in the struggle:

’[o]rder rules in Berlin![?]’ You stupid lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will rear its head once more and announce to your horror amid the brass of trumpets:

‘’I was, I am, I shall be!’

 

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