This Woman Wanted to Make the World a Better Place Through Popular, Not Populist, Action

And she paid the ultimate sacrifice for her commitments.
Rosa Luxemburg.
Rosa Luxemburg.

In this era of populism marked by strong ideologies but little deep thinking, let us recall Rosa Luxemburg. Philosophical and political economic ideas informed her critique of capitalism and her commitments to bottom-up mass movements, democratic processes and internationalism. Indeed, her arguments were sufficiently threatening to the 1919 German state that its police literally murdered her for her ideas. 

Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish, Jewish, revolutionary Marxist, an immigrant who became a German citizen. Born in 1871, she grew up in a world that was seething with change and discontent as industrialization and wars — both civil and international — were transforming Europe. Determined to get her PhD, in 1889 she headed to the only place that would award a doctorate to a woman: Zurich University, where she learned botany, philosophy and her major field of political economy. Already a young radical and activist, she sought out the Russian and other Eastern European revolutionaries in exile there. Recognition of her powerful intellect and voice soon spread, and she quickly became both a major strategist of revolutionary socialism and a compelling speaker on its behalf. In 1898, she moved to Germany, where the Social Democratic Party was legal and significant, claiming approximately 100,000 members, seats in the Reichstag and an active and relatively free journalism. 

Even capitalists could only buy so much in terms of luxuries.

Luxemburg was first and foremost a political and economic theorist. She extended the arguments of Karl Marx in several significant ways. 

Her magnum opus, “Accumulation of Capital,” attempts to answer the question of who will become the consumers of the future. Marx recognized the dual dynamics of, one, the unceasing demand of capital for profit from the production of commodities and, second, the continual pressure for technological change as a means to extract greater productivity from the workforce. The consequence, as Luxemburg, recognized, was that at some point workers and the emerging middle class would reach the limits of their buying capacity, given the downward economic pressures on them. Even capitalists could only buy so much in terms of luxuries.

So how was capitalism to resolve this limitation on its accumulation? It would encourage imperialism. With its control of the state — through both influence and elections — capitalists would have their countries conquer new markets not through free trade but by imposed trade and production. In the process, they extend the life of capitalism but do not resolve the internal contradictions that will ultimately, in her view, destroy capitalism. Marx and Engels certainly expressed the seeds of this logic in “The Communist Manifesto,” but they did not develop the analysis. In “Red Rosa,” Kate Evans’ wonderful graphic novel (a comic book that reveals Luxemburg’s intellectual and sexual life), argues — as do others — that, “It is fifty years before the term ‘globalization’ will be coined. Luxemburg formulates its mathematical proof.”

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, co-founders of Germany's Spartacist League.
Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, co-founders of Germany's Spartacist League.

Theorizing about globalization was only one of Luxemburg’s contributions to the conceptualization of the relationship between the national and the international. Both her theoretical and popular writings also make the case against nationalism, even within the workers’ movement. Although a strong supporter of the Russian Revolution and long an ally — if often friendly critic — of Lenin, she became disenchanted with the course of the revolution as it focused on the needs of the “fatherland.” But it was her opposition to the militaristic nationalism in Germany, adopted even by the SPD, which led to her final arrest and murder. 

Her political and economic theory had one other pillar: democratic practice. Her stated opposition to the anti-democratic tendencies of the SPD made her anathema to the leadership of the party. Her equally strong criticism of the Russian Revolution on those grounds made her a darling of the Trotskyists after her death. However, democratic practice for Luxemburg referred not only to well-regulated parliaments and equality of the vote — although she was a strong advocate of such reforms. 

It also led to her theory of “The Mass Strike,” in which worker spontaneity and large-scale collective action must guide the revolutionary movement but also be guided by theories of political action. Her theory was explicitly in opposition to anarchist notions of the general strike. In her perspective, the mass strike was the action of a class-conscious proletariat demanding the political rights, voice and forms of parliamentarianism appropriate to the particular historical and country conditions in which they found themselves. It required the existence of parties and revolutionaries engaged in schooling the workers and shaping their beliefs about the way the world is and how they can act on it to achieve their ends.   

She deserves to reclaim her place as a key theorist of capitalist dynamics, globalism and nationalism.

Rosa Luxemburg used her theoretical acumen as a political strategist whose thinking and advice were informed by observations of the contexts and circumstances prevailing in specific times and places. Most accounts of Luxemburg frame her impact in terms of her strategic arguments with other famous theorists of change: Bakunin, Bernstein, Lenin, Kautsky. While her contributions to these disputes remain an important piece of her legacy, they are far from the whole of it. She deserves to reclaim her place as a key theorist of capitalist dynamics, globalism and nationalism. Some of her arguments resonate with today’s world; some are outmoded by new thinking and experiences; but some will spur new questions and answers.  

In the Interests of Others identifies the organizational and institutional conditions that shape beliefs and actions to promote an expanded “community of fate,” that is identification with distant others you may never meet but with whom you come to realize your fate is intertwined and on whose behalf you are willing to take costly actions. Rosa Luxemburg personified someone who not only saw herself as part of an expanded community of fate but attempted to build one. And she paid dearly for her commitments with multiple periods in jail and, ultimately, death.

Her appeal to popular action, however, while targeted at those who felt the harm imposed by the prevailing economic system, was far from the knee jerk and nationalist populism of today. It was an appeal to action grounded in political and economic theories providing a logic of how to act and where to act to make the world better for all in one’s own country and throughout the world. 

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