Rosa Luxemburg is the only disciple of Marx who subsequently developed the work of his life both in the economic-material sense and in the economic-methodical sense, with which she has been able to link concretely, from that point of view, with the current situation of the evolution of society.
Why should we study the critical thinking of Rosa Luxemburg, who died more than one hundred years ago? How important can the ideas of someone who was harshly criticized by her contemporary party colleagues and ignored by sectors linked to communism throughout the twentieth century be? What has the influence of her thinking in our region, Latin America, been?
Pablo Slavin is the chairperson of the International Rosa Luxemburg Society, Professor of Political Law in the Faculty of Law at UNMDP in Argentina, Director of the Research Institute Dr. Carlos Santiago Nino, Director of the Center for Research and Teaching in Human Rights “Dra. Alicia Moreau” at UNMDP, Director of the Legal Clinical Extension Project on the Right to Habitat and Environmental Quality (Faculty of Law, UNMdP), and Director of the Popular University of Workers of Mar del Plata and the Atlantic Zone, Argentina (UPT). This article is based on his presentation at “Rosa Luxemburg at 150: Revisiting Her Radical Life and Legacy”, a conference hosted by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the International Rosa Luxemburg Society on 4–5 March 2021.
Luxemburg was one of the most prestigious figures of Communism and a driving force for Social Democracy during the two first decades of the twentieth century. If there is something that we should give attention to in particular among her numerous qualities, it is the clarity with which she could apply Marx’s and Engels’s methodologies, dialectic materialism, in all her analysis.
According to what Marx prescribed in his Theses on Feuerbach, Luxemburg was not satisfied with conducting a theoretical study of reality, but on the contrary, was always fighting to change it. A tireless polemicist, she was one of the most brilliant minds that socialism produced after the deaths of Marx and Engels. Not only did she have a great knowledge of philosophy and politics, but her ability for economics led her to teach at the school of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Furthermore, she didn’t eschew the revolutionary struggle, which she paid for with repeated jail time in her native Poland and Germany, and with her life.
With honourable exceptions, even today there are few forums in which her ideas are discussed. Her work, I am convinced, is not the object of study that it deserves. I believe that in her indomitable freethinking spirit, lies the answer to the ignorance with which her work and her figure have been treated since her death. Essentially, Rosa Luxemburg never submitted to party discipline. She knew to confront and harshly criticize her companions from the Second International when she considered that they defected, in defence of the principles of socialism. Principles that she defended with her life, although never considered dogmas and instead, subjected to continuous critical analysis.
It is with this in mind that Michael Löwy, after asking himself whether Rosa Luxemburg can actually be considered a “Marxist” and reviewing some of her disagreements with Marx, argues that: “For her, precisely, Marxism was not a Theological Summa, a petrified set of dogmas, a system of eternal truths established once and for all, a series of pontifical proclamations marked with the seal of infallibility; but yes, on the contrary, a living method that must be constantly developed to apprehend the concrete historical process”.
Luxemburg argued with Bernstein and the Revisionists about, among other issues, the importance of the dialectical method, the validity of the theory of collapse, and the validity of the revolutionary principle. Luxemburg confronted her friend Karl Kautsky when he, as party leader, took up in practice the reformist stance that she had criticized Bernstein for. Luxemburg harshly questioned the party’s complicit silence in the face of Germany’s imperialist invasion of Morocco, in 1910. This complicity and silence was conduct that anticipated the behaviour of the Second International in 1914, when its deputies would end up voting in favour of war credits. Luxemburg debated with Lenin on subjects as varied as the question of nationalities, the role of the Party, the problems of organization, and the importance assigned to mass strikes in revolutionary struggle. Although she joyfully welcomed and defended the 1917 revolution, she did not hesitate to criticize Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks for the lack of freedom, the authoritarianism, and the dangers that this proposed for the triumph of a socialist revolution.
As a strong defender of the democratic system, Luxemburg stated with certainty that:
the heavy mechanism of democratic institutions has a powerful corrective, precisely in the living movement of the masses, in its uninterrupted expression. And the more democratic the institutions, the more vital and powerful the pulses of the political life of the masses are, the more direct and total their effectiveness becomes, in spite of the stagnant insignia of the party, outdated electoral lists, etc. It is true that every democratic institution has its limits and its absences, a fact that brings together all human institutions. But the remedy invented by Trotsky and Lenin, the suppression of democracy in general, is even worse than the evil to be avoided: in effect, it suffocates the living source from which only corrections of congenital insufficiencies can arise to social institutions, an active, free and energetic political life of the broadest masses.
Furthermore, she added that: “It is a well-known and indisputable fact that without a free and untrammelled press, without the unlimited right of association and assembly, the dominance of the great popular masses is entirely unthinkable”. In addition, Luxemburg suggested that: “Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion in every public institution, life dies out and becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only bureaucracy remains as the active element”.
That is why Luxemburg’s constant critical interventions, both in the newspapers and at party assemblies, generated hatred from those who should have been her fellow revolutionaries. For the Bolsheviks, her questioning of the detours that the revolution was taking in Russia caused her writings to be intentionally hidden after Lenin’s death. Luxemburg’s name became a synonym for betrayal of the revolution and her ideas were intentionally misrepresented.
The arrival of Stalinism to power had a devastating effect on how Luxemburg was remembered. Ruth Fischer, a disciple of Grigory Zinoviev in Germany, pronounced a sentence that would become infamous among Luxemburg's detractors, saying that she was responsible for having “inoculated the syphilis virus in the KPD [Communist Party of Germany]”. In order to attack her, Rosa was ideologically associated with Trotsky, outlawed under Stalinism. This is why, in 1931, Stalin himself wrote a letter to the editorial staff of Proletárskaia Revolutsia magazine entitled “On some issues in the history of Bolshevism”, in which he assimilated Luxemburg’s thought with that of Trotsky and the Mensheviks. Stalin wrote:
In 1905 disagreements developed between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in Russia about the character of the Russian revolution. … The Mensheviks in Russia rejected the idea of the hegemony of the proletariat in the bourgeois-democratic revolution. To the policy of alliance of the working class with the peasants, they preferred the policy of compromises with the liberal bourgeoisie, and branded the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants of Blanquist reactionary scheme, in conflict with the development of the bourgeois revolution. What attitude did the leftists of the German Social Democracy, Parvus and Rosa Luxemburg, adopt towards these discussions? They invented an utopian and semi-Menshevik scheme of permanent revolution (distorted image of the Marxist scheme of the revolution) penetrated to the core by the Menshevik denial of the alliance between the working class and the peasants, and contrasted it with the Bolshevik scheme of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants. Later, this semi-Menshevik scheme of permanent revolution was adopted by Trotsky (and in part by Martov) and turned into a weapon in the fight against Leninism.
For the Social Democrats, the work and the spirit of Luxemburg was too revolutionary. For the leaders who embraced market socialism and to whom Bernstein’s reading of Marxism seemed adequate and also very comfortable, there was no interest in the analysis of Luxemburg’s work. Luxemburg’s criticisms of the bureaucracy of Party and Trade Unions, her defence of the spontaneity of the masses, her interpretations of the collapse of the capitalist system, and her harsh questioning of the imperialist policy followed by the central countries were unpalatable to them.
Who Was Left to Defend Her?
The factions on the right, as expected, took isolated sentences from her criticisms of the Bolsheviks, ignoring the rest of her work. During the revolts in Hungary and Poland in 1956, the Prague Spring, and the French revolt of 1968, Luxemburg’s work once again became an object of study and analysis, and her figure was vindicated. Unfortunately, these were only isolated episodes. The reception of her thought in Latin America has been very complex and with enormous differences depending on the country.
In Brazil, as professor Isabel Loureiro explains, Luxemburg’s thought had brilliant followers and interpreters, among them, Mário Pedrosa, Paul Singer, and Michael Löwy stand out. Thanks to them, Luxemburgism became an ideology that greatly influenced the Workers’ Party, which governed the country from 2003 to 2016, a true party of the masses. In addition, Luxemburg’s thought had an influence on the MST (Movement of Landless Workers), a social movement of enormous relevance.
The situation has been very different in my country, Argentina, where the neglect of her thought has been even more noticeable than in the rest of Latin America. The centenary Socialist Party, founded in 1895, understood how to have an outstanding influence in the first half of the twentieth century. However, while the argentine Socialist Party elected Alfredo Palacios, the first socialist deputy in America, in 1904, and governed several cities like Mar del Plata and Rosario, it never took on the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg. The Socialist Party was influenced by the fact that one of its founders and central figures, Juan B. Justo, the author of the first translation of Marx’s Capital into Spanish, favoured Bernstein’s revisionism over Luxemburg’s Marxism. Other members of the party followed the same logic, and today the party is practically endangered.
Another important aspect of Argentinian history that undermined the dissemination of Luxemburg’s thought was the terrible military dictatorship that devastated our country between the years 1976 and 1983. The identification of Marxism with subversion and terrorism occupied a central space in official discourse and practice in those years. The persecution and physical elimination of intellectuals, workers, and political activists, as well as the disappearance of everything that was related to Marxism from the academic curriculum deeply affected society as a whole. Fear is not easy to eradicate.
I am convinced that Luxemburg’s critical thought is still relevant and that her studies, clarifications, and understanding, but above all her critical analysis, is vital to building a theoretical framework that helps us solve the problems that twenty-first century society presents us with. Marxist socialism is not dead, I consider it to be more alive than ever. As Luxemburg affirmed in 1903:
If we discover a stop in our movement, in what refers to all its theoretical applications, that is not because the theory on which it is based, Marxism, is unable to develop or is restricted. On the contrary, it is due to the fact that we have not learnt to apply appropriately the most important intellectual weapons taken from Marxism by virtue of our pressing requirements in the first stages of our struggle. It is not true that, in what refers to our practical fight, Marx has resigned or been overcome by us. In contrast, Marx, in his scientific conception, has gained distance as a fighters’ political party. It is not true that Marx has stopped satisfying our needs. On the contrary, our needs still do not adequate themselves to the application of Marxist thought.
Löwy, Michael, Dialéctica y Revolución, Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores, 1983 .
Lukács, G., Historia y Conciencia de Clase, Madrid: Editora Nacional, 2002 .
Luxemburg, R., Crítica de la Revolución Rusa, trans. J. Aricó, Buenos Aires: La Rosa Blindada, 1969 .
Luxemburg, R., “Estancamiento y crisis del Marxismo”, Rosa Luxemburgo, Obras Escogidas Tomo 1, Argentina: Ediciones Pluma, 1976 .
Stalin, J., “Sobre algunas cuestiones de la historia del bolchevismo”, Marxists Internet Archive
, 2002 , available at www.marxists.org/espanol/stalin/1930s/sta1931.htm. Last accessed on 19 March 2021.
 Georg Lukács, Historia y Conciencia de Clase, Madrid: Editora Nacional, 2002 , p. 41.
 Michael Lowy, Dialéctica y Revolución, Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores, 1983 , p. 77.
 Rosa Luxemburg, Crítica de la Revolución Rusa, trans. J. Aricó, Buenos Aires: La Rosa Blindada, 1969 .p. 113.
 Ibid., p. 118.
 Ibid., p. 123.
 Rosa Luxemburg, Estancamiento y crisis del Marxismo, Rosa Luxemburgo, Argentina: Ediciones Pluma, 1976 . p. 135.