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Reading Rosa

Peter Hudis, editor of the newly published Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, speaks to Red Pepper

April 26, 2011
7 min read

How do you feel that Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas speak to the political situation we face today? How would a new generation of radical activists benefit from encountering her ideas?

The spontaneous mass revolts in north Africa and the Middle East, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, underline the importance of Luxemburg’s contribution. She understood better than any Marxist of her time (and better than most after it) that revolution is never ‘made’ by some enlightened party or individuals, but rather emerges spontaneously from the response of masses of people to social conditions. She was always looking for the unexpected to come from the masses, and her work helps train our eyes in precisely that direction.

Equally important is her understanding of what happens after the revolution. She held that there is no socialism without democracy, just as there is no democracy without socialism. She gave grief to anyone, whether friend or foe, who fell short of envisioning social change as a liberation and freeing of humanity’s innate and acquired talents and abilities. In this sense she was part of an idealist strain within Marxism that has been neglected for far too long. Let’s not forget that in 1844 Marx defined his philosophy as humanism that consists of the unity of idealism and materialism. We need that unity now more than ever.

What light do you feel that the volume of her correspondence adds to our picture of Luxemburg? What do her letters to women’s rights activist Clara Zetkin have to show about her views on gender politics, especially in relation to her own experiences?

For many years many assumed that Luxemburg was not a feminist and was relatively indifferent to women’s emancipation. This is not the case, however. Luxemburg turned down repeated requests from the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party to play a more direct role in the party’s women’s section and in Gleichheit, but that was because she viewed it as an effort on their part to steer her away from direct involvement in the political and theoretical debates in German socialism that they wished to reserve for themselves.

She encountered a great deal of sexism from leaders of the SPD (including from August Bebel, author of Women Under Socialism, who referred to her in a letter to Kautsky as a ‘poisonous bitch’) and she was fully aware of the sexism that so often thwarted her efforts to be heard. She felt, however, that the most effective way to combat such barriers was to reveal the overall political and theoretical weakness of her opponents.

We now know that she wrote a lot about women’s emancipation; in a letter to Zetkin she writes how proud she is to call herself a feminist. It was to bring this dimension to attention that Kevin Anderson and myself included a collection of her writings on women in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader. Now The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg further shows that one of her main concerns upon being freed from prison in November 1918 was to encourage the establishment of a women’s section of what became, by late December, the German Communist Party.

This was quite remarkable given how many other issues she had to deal with in the two brief months of revolutionary upheaval between her release from prison and her death. It is as if Luxemburg, now freed from those who had thwarted her in so many ways within the SPD, felt released to focus more intently on women’s issues.

Many activists first encounter the figure of Luxemburg through the filter of involvement with organisations in the Leninist tradition. But what were the main points of disagreement between Luxemburg and Lenin, and how does their difference in methods and perspectives look from our vantage point?

In many respects Lenin and Luxemburg were poles apart on the question of organisation, yet in other respects they shared common assumptions about it. Both accepted the need for a ‘vanguard party’, even though it is a notion that is alien to Marx’s work and which entered the German (and later Russian) socialist movement largely through the influence of Marx’s adversary, Ferdinand Lassalle (who Marx called ‘a future workers’ dictator’).

The Second International, in which both Luxemburg and Lenin were raised, did not develop on the basis of organisational concepts found in Marx; it was Lassalle or Kautsky who set the tone. It would therefore be a misreading of history to presume that Luxemburg and Lenin did not have some premises in common when it came to organisation. However, Luxemburg was never as rigid or dogmatic as Lenin on the need for centralised leadership by (as she put it) ‘some all-knowing central committee’.

She often clashed with Lenin for (as she put it in a manuscript of 1911 entitled Credo) ‘swaddling the party, in a purely mechanistic fashion, with an intellectual dictator from the central party executive’. Luxemburg had much greater confidence in what masses of people can unexpectedly create on their own and did not share Lenin’s fixation on centralised control over the masses.

In my view, the biggest difference between them was over what happens after the revolution. Luxemburg did not view democracy as a mere instrument to be cast aside upon the seizure of power. On the contrary, she held that unless the seizure of power immediately leads to the most extensive democratisation possible, it will prove impossible to create a new society. Parties do not create socialism; freely associated workers and citizens do instead. She therefore rightly condemned Lenin’s Red Terror, the creation of the Cheka, and the formation of a party dictatorship. Herein lies her most important contribution for those seeking to work out a viable conception of ‘what happens after the revolution’.

In what areas will the publication of the complete works make available significant new material to an English audience, and with what implication for our estimation of her achievements or limitations?

About 80 per cent of Luxemburg’s writings have never appeared in English. Even one of her most important theoretical works, The Introduction to Political Economy, has never appeared in full in English. The latter, along with six manuscripts on political economy, pre-capitalist societies, and Marx’s Capital that have been discovered in the past several decades, will appear in the first volume of the Complete Works: Economic Writings, 1898-1907.

These writings will show the extent of her understanding of Marxist theory and the depth of her compassion for those suffering from the ravages of imperialism and capitalist intrusion in the developing world. Many have assumed that her opposition to national self-determination meant that she was indifferent to those living outside of Europe, but the Complete Works will present a very different picture.

It will also enable us to evaluate the extent to which she succeeded or failed to promote her much-heralded principles of free discussion and avoidance of centralised organisational structures when it came to her work within the Polish movement. Very few of her writings on the latter (which amount to several thousand pages) have ever appeared in English, and they will help show the difficulties even she encountered in working out a totally different relation of spontaneity, consciousness and organisation from what characterised post-Marx Marxism.

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