We Need to Rescue Rosa Luxemburg From the Soap Opera Treatment

Too much writing about Rosa Luxemburg nowadays focuses on her personal letters and relationships at the expense of her ideas. It’s good to humanize our heroes, but we risk belittling the significance of a revolutionary thinker whose understanding of socialism should be a touchstone for today’s left.

Rosa Luxemburg was a Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist, and revolutionary. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The twentieth century liked to place great revolutionaries on a pedestal, or even in a garish mausoleum. Our own age prefers to see them as the kind of people with whom you could go for a drink. It’s progress of a sort.

Everyone knows the story of Karl Marx going on a bender around the streets of London, pursued by the cops for strictly unpolitical hooliganism — there’s even a display about Marx and Engels in the Wetherspoons on Charing Cross Road. New biographies of Trotsky combine an account of his struggle against Stalin with the more colorful details of his affair with Frida Kahlo.

Lenin doesn’t really lend himself to the human-interest angle, but the many photos of the Soviet leader petting cats do at least give him a foothold in the latest Internet trends. Irish people delight in the claim that he spoke English with a posh Dublin accent, supposedly acquired from a tutor in London.

There’s no better example of this tendency at work than the popular image of Rosa Luxemburg. Latter-day writing about Luxemburg tends to focus on her personal letters and romantic relationships, pushing her views about capitalism and the way to end it into the background, or depicting them as an offshoot of her emotional life.

To some extent, this tendency is understandable and well-intentioned, and it certainly responds to market demand. It’s hardly surprising that the new edition of Luxemburg’s letters published by Verso attracted reviews in the Guardian and the Nation, the New Republic and the London Review of Books, while her more forbidding economic writings did not.

If this approach encourages a few people to read Luxemburg’s work and study the time in which she lived, it will have been worthwhile. But taken too far, it has the effect of trivializing rather than humanizing her legacy. There’s no point liberating revolutionary icons from the mausoleum only to confine them to a neatly manicured flower garden.

Private Affairs

It all starts with the name. It’s hard to imagine anyone talking about “Vladimir,” “Leon,” or “Nikolai” when they discuss the October Revolution. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever referred to Rudolf Hilferding as “Red Rudi,” or given his private correspondence more weight than theoretical tomes like Finance Capital. Luxemburg, on the other hand, frequently appears in the guise of “Rosa” — a small but telling detail of how she is perceived.

Of course, this superficial familiarity, with its unmistakably gendered thrust, is hardly unique to the world of politics. Another Polish woman of genius, born in the tsarist empire just a few years before Luxemburg, has recently inspired a graphic novel called Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout (now adapted as a movie). As the publisher’s blurb has it:

They fell in love. They took their honeymoon on bicycles. They expanded the periodic table…

No male scientist of comparable importance would be likely to receive the same treatment: for better or worse, it is what it is. Luxemburg wasn’t just a great socialist thinker and activist: she led an interesting life, and her writings were often lyrical as well as theoretically sharp. If an author uses that side of her story to draw people in, it would be churlish to complain. It’s more of a problem if they also use her personality as a kind of master key for her political thought.

Rosa Luxemburg. (Wikimedia Commons)

That perspective frequently intrudes on one important aspect of Luxemburg’s theoretical legacy: her critique of Bolshevism. Discussions of this critique often give you the impression that Luxemburg was more democratic than Lenin or Trotsky because she was softer and more compassionate, with a rich inner life that the Russian Marxists lacked. Reviewing her translated letters, Vivian Gornick and Jacqueline Rose leaned heavily upon this stereotype, implying that Luxemburg’s disagreements with the Bolshevik leader were the extension, on a world-historic stage, of her tempestuous, ill-fated relationship with Leo Jogiches.

This version of events has tremendous literary appeal, but that doesn’t make it good history or politics. There’s no reason to think that Lenin acted in the way that he did after 1917 because he was a callous individual with a taste for violence or the exercise of power for its own sake. Lenin’s successor at the helm of the Soviet state did possess all those vices — or at least acquired them along the way — but that still won’t suffice as an explanation of Stalinism.

If Luxemburg was right and Lenin was wrong — and there’s good reason to think that she was, though not about everything — it wasn’t because she was a nicer person than him. For what it’s worth, Luxemburg and Lenin seem to have had a good personal relationship, and even a shared love of cats. Their polemical exchanges show that Lenin had no monopoly on invective, but they respected each other all the same.

Her judgement rested on a superior understanding of some basic political questions that should be at the heart of the socialist project. That’s ultimately more important than whether we find Luxemburg to be a more attractive and engaging figure than Lenin.

Democracy and Socialism

Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian revolution and the early days of Soviet rule comes with a lot of baggage that’s piled up since her death. An influential English-language edition, published in the 1960s by the University of Michigan Press, combined the 1918 essay with an earlier critique of Lenin that bore the snappy title “Leninism or Marxism?” But Luxemburg herself had given it a much less exciting name, “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy,” and never claimed that it held the secret to her later issues with Bolshevism.

That edition also carried an introduction from Bertram Wolfe, a former Communist who had become a Cold War liberal, working in the orbit of the State Department and the Hoover Institution. Luxemburg referred disdainfully in the pamphlet to German “government-Socialists” who had enthusiastically supported the war effort (and her own imprisonment for opposing it). It’s easy to imagine what she might have had to say about US “government-Liberals” trying to recruit her spirit for their camp.

A stained glass view of Luxemburg does no justice to her or the Bolshevik leaders she was criticizing. On some important points — land reform, the non-Russian nationalities — her positions were impractical and would have required more centralized coercion rather than less to put them into effect. On the question of national self-determination, Lenin was always far more perceptive than Luxemburg, belying his image as a highly dogmatic Marxist by escaping the traps of class reductionism and economic determinism.

However, Luxemburg put forward a brilliant, penetrating argument about the necessary link between socialism and democracy that can still electrify the reader today. The most famous line from the pamphlet — “freedom is always only freedom for those who think differently” — often appears in isolation, as a kind of boilerplate liberal sentiment — worthy to be sure, but scarcely indistinguishable from the views of John Stuart Mill. It should be read in its original context, as part of a tightly reasoned case against the idea of a tutelary dictatorship that could lay the foundations of a socialist economy.

For Luxemburg, the very nature of socialism made this impossible:

Far from being an aggregation of ready-made prescriptions that have merely to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and legal system is something that lies in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program amounts to no more than a few major signposts that indicate the general direction in which to identify the measures that are to be taken, and these indications are predominantly of a negative character at that.

For the creative work of building a socialist system, political freedom was the essential lubricant:

Experience alone is capable of making corrections and opening up new paths. Uninhibited, effervescent life alone fashions a thousand new forms and improvisations, contains creative power, and corrects all mistakes. The public life of states where freedom is restricted is so meager, so miserable, so schematic and so sterile precisely because by excluding democracy, it occludes the living source of all intellectual wealth and progress.

After a century’s experience of monolithic post-revolutionary states, communist or otherwise, nobody can seriously dispute how right Luxemburg was about their development path:

Public life gradually falls into a slumber, a few dozen party leaders with inexhaustible energy and boundless idealism direct and govern; among the latter, a dozen outstanding minds are in reality the ones that lead, and an elite from within the working class is occasionally mustered in order to applaud the speeches of the leaders and to show unanimous approval for the resolutions drafted by them.

There’s only one qualification to add here: over time, the “few dozen party leaders” also tend to fall into a slumber themselves, as anyone who lived through the Brezhnev years in the Soviet Union will attest.

The Prophet Outcast

Vivian Gornick suggests that Luxemburg was “one of the most emotionally intelligent socialists in modern history,” and “knew instinctively that if socialists closed down inside, they’d become the kind of people who, devoid of fellow feeling, would make police-state socialism.” Maybe she was and maybe she did, but it sells her short if we leave the discussion there.

By any conventional standard, Luxemburg lived a life of intense political commitment and struggle, making huge personal sacrifices for the cause she believed in, just as much as any Bolshevik leader. Lenin and Trotsky, for their part, were deeply cultured men, with a feel for art and literature as well as politics. If Luxemburg saw further than them, it wasn’t simply because she was more empathic. It was also because, in some crucial respects, she was smarter, more perceptive, and more imaginative.

Luxemburg went out of her way to be fair to the Bolsheviks, suggesting that it would have been “superhuman” to conjure up a thriving socialist democracy under the dire circumstances in Russia at the time:

Through their resolute revolutionary stance, their exemplary drive and the force of their action, and their unswerving loyalty to international socialism, they have genuinely achieved all that was possible under such devilishly difficult conditions. The danger begins only where they make a virtue out of necessity by establishing a theory that sets in stone every detail of the tactics imposed upon them by such fatal conditions, and where they attempt to recommend to the international proletariat that it should emulate these as the paradigm of socialist tactics per se.

This was after a year of Bolshevik rule. It’s a matter for speculation how much further she would have gone if she had lived to the point when Paul Levi first published her pamphlet in 1922, by which time the Soviet leadership had fully institutionalized a one-party state. When it comes to later developments, there’s no reason to question the judgement of Stalin himself: he posthumously denounced Luxemburg as an ideological heretic, instinctively recognizing that she would have been a bitter foe of his.

Rosa Luxemburg addresses a crowd in Stuttgart, Germany in 1907.

Latter-day social democrats often contrast the two systems established in Germany during the Cold War, presenting the greater freedom and prosperity in the western zone as a retrospective vindication of the reformist tendency in European socialism. There are any number of problems with this argument, but the most striking one is this: by calling in proto-fascist death squads to repress the Spartacus League in 1919, the leaders of German Social Democracy eliminated the revolutionary thinker with the most implacable commitment to democratic rights as a necessary part of a socialist system. As such, they bear a large share of responsibility for the evolution of German Communism in the years before it eventually took power in Berlin after the Second World War.

“Ruthless Revolutionary Energy”

Luxemburg’s critique of authoritarian socialism was all the more important because it came from within the revolutionary camp. There’s sometimes a tendency to downplay this aspect of her thought, by stressing her principled aversion to unnecessary bloodshed — captured in her famous remark, uttered a few weeks before her murder, that anyone who stepped on a “poor earthworm” without cause on the road to socialism was guilty of a crime. That was a fine sentiment, and much preferable to macho rhetoric about the need to break eggs if we want to make an omelette.

However, when Luxemburg spoke in the same speech about the need to combine “ruthless revolutionary energy and tender humanity,” she meant every word of it, including the ruthlessness. The idea of a peaceful road to socialism seemed entirely implausible to her:

It is sheer insanity to believe that capitalists would goodhumoredly obey the socialist verdict of a parliament or of a national assembly, that they would calmly renounce property, profit, the right to exploit. All ruling classes fought to the end, with tenacious energy, to preserve their privileges … they all shed streams of blood, they all marched over corpses, murder, and arson, instigated civil war and treason, in order to defend their privileges and their power. The imperialist capitalist class, as last offspring of the caste of exploiters, outdoes all its predecessors in brutality, in open cynicism and treachery.

In order to see off this challenge, she insisted, “the violence of the bourgeois counterrevolution must be confronted with the revolutionary violence of the proletariat.” For today’s political consensus, such views are enough to put Luxemburg beyond the pale. Conventional wisdom stigmatizes revolutionary violence of all kinds as “terrorism” — even when a stateless people deploys it against a brutish occupying army, as in the cases of Palestine and Kurdistan — while depicting support for interstate violence as the essence of responsible politics.

It bears repeating that it took thirty years of war, revolution, and counterrevolution to establish liberal democracy as the dominant political system in Western Europe, let alone socialism. Luxemburg would no doubt have modified her views in some respects if she had lived to see the consolidation of capitalist democracy in large parts of the world — a development that she considered inconceivable in the early twentieth century. That doesn’t mean she would have become a pacifist or forgotten her warning about the lengths to which ruling classes will go when their privileges are at stake.

The Forbidden List

We can find echoes of Luxemburg in the most surprising places. In the 1970s, the British political philosopher Norman Geras published a fine book, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, that played its part in the recovery of her thought. Geras later wrote an essay about the ethics of revolutionary violence, “Our Morals,” that was very much in the spirit of Luxemburg, stressing the need to exclude noncombatants from the list of “legitimate targets,” no matter how justified a struggle might be.

In 2018, officials at the University of Reading flagged up “Our Morals” as a dangerous text in the light of the British government’s counterterrorism program, Prevent. As the Guardian reported:

Third-year politics undergraduates have been warned not to access it on personal devices, to read it only in a secure setting, and not to leave it lying around where it might be spotted “inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it.”

Stephen De Wijze, who had worked with Geras at the University of Manchester, said that he found it “hard to imagine what sensible criteria could have been used to make this initial negative assessment,” since the arguments made by Geras were “the very opposite of the hate-filled ideologies that Prevent is seeking to confront.” In fact, the officials at Reading had inadvertently grasped the true spirt of programs like Prevent, which conflate indiscriminate terrorism with other forms of armed resistance and even nonviolent civil disobedience.

A manual issued by counterterrorism police in 2020 listed climate change activists alongside neo-Nazis and Islamic fundamentalists under the heading of “extremism,” urging cops and teachers to keep tabs on anyone who spoke in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution.” Within months, the British Home Secretary Priti Patel had threatened to classify Extinction Rebellion as an organized crime group.

It’s safe to assume that Luxemburg would be speaking in “strong or emotive terms” about the threat of ecological breakdown if she were alive today. In her own time, she argued that capitalism would hit a brick wall when it ran out of noncapitalist spaces on which to encroach, so the capacity of the system to expand in purely economic terms would have surprised her. But that capacity for seemingly limitless growth is now running up against the natural limits of the Earth system, giving Luxemburg’s famous slogan “socialism or barbarism” renewed currency.

Luxemburg was certainly a likable, warmhearted figure in her private life. She was also a dangerous woman, an outlaw who wanted to tear down the established order. She could write affectionate letters to her friends and lacerating polemics against her enemies. In today’s world, she belongs on a wanted list or an index of forbidden books, not in a sepia-tinged photo album. The modern left can learn from her compassion, but it can also draw lessons from her ruthless determination.