News | Party / Movement History - Rosa Luxemburg - German / European History Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg

How can we learn to fight from a woman murdered in a doomed struggle 100 years ago?


CC BY-ND 2.0, Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet

There is no question that Rosa Luxemburg was a radiant star.[1] The clarity of her vision lit up a widened horizon of possibility; her boldness offered direction. Our aim is to revisit her prescient insights through the lens of creolizing theory to illustrate how timely they are right now.

Jane Anna Gordon is professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, with affiliations in American studies, El Instituto, philosophy, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.

Drucilla Cornell is emeritus professor of political science, women’s studies, and comparative literature at Rutgers University.

This article was adapted from the volume Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), presented by the authors 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.

Creolizing as an approach to political theory draws insight and orientation from creolizing processes in and beyond the Caribbean. In creolized elements of life—whether speech or food, reasoning or music—forms of activity tied to groups of people who were supposed to be radically unequal and separated through Manichean social orderings in fact combined in ways that were unpredictable and surprising, yet recognizable. Used as an approach to ideas, creolizing takes two primary forms. The first is historical and reconstructive, aiming to identify relations of influence and indebtedness that have been hidden or obscured. In its constructive mode, creolizing stages conversations that could not have taken place historically but that would have been and still remain generative. The creolizing endeavour is not undertaken randomly. The aim is to put different, previously sequestered sides of a shared political situation together to explore the results.

Rosa Luxemburg as a person, thinker, and revolutionary is particularly amenable to creolizing. This is in part because she was self-creolizing, even if she never would have used that language. In her own life, she repeatedly demonstrated an appreciation that it was not only people and sites with recognized institutional authority that offered perspectives that were indispensable. In her research, she followed where the questions led, not stopping where the conventions of any given political or scholarly community might have suggested was appropriate. Indeed, in her engagements with the past and her present, she went where she thought fundamental social transformation was underway—whether or not doing so was safe or sanctioned. She brought into the historical record human struggle that she worried had been forgotten and remained open to being disproven about her expectations (for instance, that Russia and Eastern Europe would be in advance, in revolutionary terms, of Germany).

Hannah Arendt[2] observed that, as an Eastern European, Rosa had to master a range of languages that made the concrete practice of internationalism possible. She also traced increasingly global circuits that were already evident in local ways, if one were only willing to look. For example, she argued that Russia’s development of industry in Poland already connected both places, in different ways, to Africa and to Asia with implications for the kinds of relationships of revolutionary solidarity that thereby became necessary. When she explored enslavement, a relationship that she saw as decisively introducing the divide between mental and menial labour or between those who controlled societies and those who laboured for them, she looked as readily at the history of Europe and Asia and Africa as she did across the Americas. She emphasized that capitalism was dependent upon and indebted to ongoing versions of colonization and imperialism. This meant that, to understand Europe with any rigor, one needed to put into relation so-called “pre-capitalist” and capitalist spheres, refusing the distancing of the European self-image from its actual enmeshment with what would emerge as the Global South. Finally, in ways unusual for a thinker based in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, she connected human and ecological exploitation, framing the suffering of human and other-than-human animals as essentially related. As Jon Nixon put it in ways that resonate with the writings of Enrique Dussel:

As Luxemburg illustrated, it is sometimes—under certain circumstances—revolutionary to attend to the plight of a frozen bumblebee. Revolution resides in … the quality of our attention to the specificity of suffering. The crucial point is to understand the ostensible world from the perspective of its often hidden underside and, in so doing, stand alongside those who constitute that underside.[3]

For Rosa, critical consciousness “involve[d] an understanding of the interconnectivity of things: then and now, here and there, us and them, I and you”.[4]

This understanding was reflected in Rosa’s approach to politics which, for her, was “enacted on the street and in the head, on the campaign trail and at the desk, on the political platform and in her private letters to friends and associates”. She always sought to put her “intellect unconditionally at the disposal of what she saw as the common good”. But the actual nature of this public good could not be articulated in one centre that simply emanated outward.

Workers, whom she always understood broadly to include army and naval personnel, railroad and postal workers, and those working in and outside the industrial sector, did not only have to engage in struggle to deepen their maturity as revolutionary subjects. Their doing so produced ideas and strategies that would not otherwise have emerged. For her, as Nixon puts it, revolutionary action “is an act of faith … in the human capacity to cope with and carry forward the unfinished business that such action inevitably brings”.[5] It requires collective becoming.

This was why any developing socialism had to be ever more democratic and participatory or permanently and perpetually open. Still, maintaining such an orientation required a willingness and ability to remain creative and experimental in the face of what was new. As an example, Arendt considered Luxemburg’s account of collective action exercised through the workers’ and soldiers’ councils as what alone could have averted the petrification of the Russian Revolution. Stressing the necessity of their being geographically inclusive, so as to include agricultural workers, Rosa’s councils aimed to bring together disparate working people of different parties and occupations to work out ways of determining their shared future.

None of this is to say that Rosa offered us divine tablets. Suggesting that she did would contradict her approach to thought and action. Instead, we contend that figures like African Americans W.E.B. Du Bois and Lorraine Hansberry, Martinican Frantz Fanon, and Trinidadians C.L.R. James and Claudia Jones extended many of Rosa’s fundamental insights by revisiting them through the lens and lessons of Global Southern contexts. Rosa could not have asked whether human caravans crossing the Americas were engaged in what she would have called a “mass strike.” But this is not an indictment. Rather, we see ourselves as underscoring the immense value of Rosa’s work by putting it into relationship with people, ideas, and contexts that her writing suggests would have interested her but that she herself could not have encountered directly. In so doing, we see ourselves as responding to her invitation to carry her spirit and intellectual project forward.[6]

Doing so is not a mere historical curiosity for those already interested in Marxism or the history of women political thinkers. Especially since Marx’s Ethnographic Writings were not published until after Rosa’s death (they would only be transcribed and published in 1972), we see her analyses as fundamentally opening the grammar and questions that were not yet offered through European Marxism and that would blossom into some of the most important political concepts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These include the ingredients to develop a full-fledged account of racial capitalism, a genuinely open dialectic regarding from whom and where not just historic suffering but revolutionary transformation would emerge, and her delineating of the specific character of Euromodern colonial capitalism as fundamentally dispossessing in ways that connect human and ecological expropriation.

Her challenge to undialectical reformism and her account of the necessary relationship of socialism and democracy could also not be more timely. With the latter, Rosa agreed with Marx that “Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it” (Critique of the Gotha Programme IV). In other words, if, for her, what was exciting about the method of Marx was that no principle was treated as unchanging, and every idea had to be reactivated through radical questioning, the same was true for institutions and organizations that could claim to be socialist, democratic, or both.

“Like a Clap of Thunder”

You often come out of a page I’m reading—and sometimes out of a page I’m trying to write—come out to join me with a toss of your head and a smile. No single page and none of the prison cells they repeatedly put you in could ever contain you. —John Berger (2018: 87)

Although many readers will be familiar with Luxemburg’s intellectual biography, we here offer a brief introduction for those who may be encountering her thought for the first time. To begin, the reader will notice that we refer to Luxemburg as “Rosa”. If you are in the academy, you may well have been lectured about the importance of calling women by their last names, even if these last names are only and inevitably their father’s or husband’s. Are we trivializing Rosa when we call her by her first name? If we thought so, we obviously would not do it. We identify Rosa as Rosa to express a fondness shared by the masses of people in Germany who, during her endless participation in popular movements, also called her Rosa. They saw in her a counter to what she criticized in the Bolshevik Revolution and in democratic centralism itself. Specifically, she rejected the desire for a great phallic leader who could complete his followers by offering all of the answers and by promising an impossible certainty. For Rosa, this was nothing but a fantasy, and a dangerously anti-socialist and anti-revolutionary one at that.

In a letter to Leo Jogiches penned in 1899 in Berlin, Rosa wrote, “I want to affect people like a clap of thunder, to inflame their minds not by speechifying but with the breadth of my vision, the strength of my conviction and the power of my expression”.[7] A profound theorist as well as a courageous and committed revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg is as challenging in death as in life.

Born in 1871 into a family of fluctuating financial circumstances, Rozalia or Róża Luksenburg always manifested a combination of unusual brains, curiosity, and marginal status. Although her grandfather was a rabbi, her parents embraced the cosmopolitan attitudes of “enlightened” Jewry. When moving from Zamosc to Warsaw in 1873, they chose a neighbourhood that put them at a distance from the majority of poorer and more orthodox Jews.[8] Róża herself was not moved by specifically religious faith, but this was largely irrelevant to Tsarist authorities who confined “Poles of the Mosaic faith” to ghettos and shtetls.[9] One consequence was that Jewish girls did not have access to academically serious schools, which were reserved for Russians. Róża was still able to attend a Polish school on a scholarship. Only a few spots were allowed for Jews, however, and they were held to a higher standard of admission. Despite her remarkable academic achievements, the highest medal was withheld from Róża because of her already identified “rebellious spirit.”

Róża consistently sought and found educative experiences outside of formal institutions of learning. Unusually small, with one misshapen leg, when Róża was five her already recalcitrant limp was misdiagnosed. Homebound in a heavy cast for a full year, she was surrounded by her mother and brothers’ love of learning and ideas. Enveloped in this culturally rich and creative environment, by ten Rosa spoke Russian, the language of the occupying powers, Polish, the language of her country, and German, the language of higher learning at the time along with Latin.[10] Similarly, on completing the Second Gymnasium as a fifteen-year-old girl in Poland, there were no formal, advanced educational opportunities available to her. She again sought to continue her education through other means, this time through becoming active with Proletart, the first Polish Socialist Party founded underground in 1882. The issues that were their focus were vivid to Rosa who, living at the centre of industry of the Russian empire, concretely witnessed the close proximity of people living with exorbitant wealth and in extreme poverty. Hostility to socialist ideas was also clear and pronounced. One year earlier, four leading members of Proletart were hanged in the Warsaw Citadel while others were imprisoned. The founder was sentenced to sixteen years of hard labour but died in custody. After two years, the police became interested in Róża’s participation. Others could cloak their identities, but there was no way to hide hers.

Smuggled across the Polish-German border at seventeen when Proletart was crushed by government forces, Róża enrolled at the University of Zurich. It was there that she registered as Rosa Luxemburg, the spelling of her name on which she insisted from then on.[11] She first took classes in botany and zoology, which remained life-long loves to which she would later return when she became disenchanted with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and during her imprisonment in Wronki Fortress. But in Switzerland, she ultimately switched to law, which included the social sciences, and her primary focus of economics. Zurich and Paris had also become homes to much of the Russian and Polish socialist leadership living in exile.

As she pursued her doctorate (1889–1897), Rosa also developed her skills as an orator and activist intellectual. Her aims in her formal intellectual work were always to make a contribution to Polish Marxism. Traveling regularlybetween Zurich and Paris, she researched in Polish libraries, oversaw the publication of The Workers’ Cause, and remained an active member of, and speaker in, Polish émigré circles. A year into her studies, she met Leo Jogiches, a Lithuanian Jew, who would be a comrade and lover for seventeen years and a colleague until the end of her life. He had joined the socialist movement in Vilna in 1885 and was considered an outstanding strategist and socialist leader. While he published little under his own name, he offered commentary on most of Rosa’s early articles and essay drafts, propagating their ideas in underground organizational work, and remained one of Rosa’s most trusted interlocutors on political matters.

Like Rosa, Jogiches ascribed to a dissenting position on the question of nationalist independence for Poland. The recently founded Polish Socialist Party followed the stances of Georgi Plekhanov (who was widely, if regrettably, considered to be the founder of Russian Marxism) and of Marx and Friedrich Engels who, in the culminating pages of their Manifesto of the Communist Party, had called for the national independence of this occupied country.[12]

Rosa thought otherwise. Her experiences of Warsaw, conversation with Poles in and outside the country, and her detailed studies of economic statistics made it clear that Poland was no longer a primarily agricultural economy. “Unlike Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg was looking back not to 1772 and to the lessons of 1830, 1848 and 1863 … but seeking to apply Marx’s analysis to the Poland of the day”.[13] It had an emerging proletariat in its own right and the territory’s industrial development meant that it was already embedded in a global economy, reliant particularly on Asia and Africa for raw materials. Winning independence as a Polish nation would embolden the budding brood of the local bourgeoisie. It would not increase the power of its poor. They would do better allying with the Russian proletariat in ways that could expand into a wider and deeper internationalism.[14] When Rosa insisted at the Third and Fourth Congress of the Second International and through the founding (with Jogiches) of the Social Democracy and the Kingdom of Poland (SKDP, which later expanded to include Lithuania) on a strict internationalism, she was engaging in relentless self-criticism: was what had emerged as a point of dogma still the freshest strategy and most adequate theoretical answer to the central questions of socialism?

Rosa’s The Industrial Development of Poland met with the rare honour of being accepted as a dissertation and being immediately published as a book. One of the first studies of its kind, it shared much with the distinctive tradition of dependency theory in the political economy of the Caribbean, including the sociologist, political economist, and philosopher Paget Henry’s dissertation-turned-book on Peripheral Capitalism and Development in Antigua.[15] Like that work, it centres on a supposedly marginal or minor territory to illuminate the local expressions of global political-economic relations.

Rosa’s commitment to revolutionary struggle led her to Berlin. The city sustained 90 different socialist dailies. It was also home to the SPD, which, as the leading party of the Second International, claimed 100,000 members.[16] To secure permanent residency in Germany, Rosa married a man she had never met. They parted immediately after they had been legally joined and would let the marriage dissolve five years later. Her first charge was to campaign for the SPD with Polish workers in Upper Silesia. She was surprised by how much she enjoyed this work, by how effective she was at it, and by how open Polish workers were to a socialist message.

But within the SPD itself, Rosa quickly became a controversial figure. This began with her direct challenge to one of its leaders, Eduard Bernstein, who Friedrich Engels had made Marx’s literary executor. For his part, Bernstein was developing a decidedly un-Marxist view. Capitalism, he argued, develops mechanisms, like credit, to iron out its instabilities. With the growth of trade unions, the proletariat was able to secure higher wages, thereby addressing exploitation. And the SPD’s growing electoral power seemed to demonstrate that capitalism could be reformed through legal and parliamentary measures.

For Rosa, as she would articulate in speeches, articles, and essays, capitalism was ridden with crises. It moved with predictable unpredictability from boom to bust. Credit was an incredibly ambivalent tool because, if adopted to overcome the inevitable crises of overproduction to allow the proletariat to buy goods they could not afford, it could not play the role assigned to it by Eduard Bernstein as a “saviour” from capitalist crises. Rosa agreed that extending democratic rights through legal means was necessary, but full democracy could not be achieved under capitalism because participatory democracy required mechanisms for transforming economic and social inequality. The larger aim of socialism therefore had to orient any and every fight for social transformation, keeping the relationship between reform and revolution in a living dialectic. Revolutionaries did have to involve themselves in reform struggles—over the right to unionize, the right of women to vote, and the democratization of voting itself. But all reforms had to be indexed according to their larger role in the achievement of a totally changed society. This included whether the struggle for them itself played a role in educating the working class.

Most in the SPD recognized that Rosa’s intellectual entrance marked the arrival of a serious theoretical voice. In response, some, including Clara Zetkin, who was editor of SPD’s newspaper for women and head of its Women’s Office, supported her against Bernstein, forming the emerging far-left wing of the party and becoming Rosa’s life-long friend. For others, Rosa’s self-confidence was interpreted as rudeness and arrogance. She would be referred to as the “guest who comes to us and spits in our parlour”.[17]

Rosa soon published what would be her first critique of Lenin’s centralist party organization. In it, she accused Lenin’s “uncompromising centralism,” through which he imposed strict and direct discipline of central authority on local organizations, of wrenching “active revolutionaries from their, albeit unorganized, revolutionary activist milieu”.[18] In her words, his approach was primarily concerned with “control of party activity and not with its fertilization, with narrowing and not with broadening, with tying the movement up and not with drawing it together”.[19] In its place she argued for “a completely new notion of the mutual relationship between organization and struggle”, through which those actively engaged in struggle develop, as an expression and means of extending their raised consciousness, new ways of organizing collective action. Understood this way, “organization, enlightenment, and struggle” are “different facets of the same process”.[20] The precise relationship among them is not “ready-made” or “predetermined” in ways that the Central Committee could determine and seek to “drill into the social democratic membership”.

These criticisms were not personal. Indeed, despite her sharp criticisms of Lenin and differences between them on matters of organization and leadership, Rosa was a militant supporter of the Bolshevik seizure of power and would remain in close touch with Lenin for the rest of her life. At stake were competing conceptions of power and the desperate need for democratic institutions under socialism.

In January 1905, a mass uprising spread through vast areas of the Russian Empire and Russian-partitioned Poland. When 200,000 people marched to the Winter Palace to petition the Tsar, troops opened fire and hundreds were killed. News spread and anger mounted: students shut down the universities, sailors mutinied, soldiers turned against their officers, and half of all paid laborers in European Russia went on what was called the mass strike. Given the sweep of the revolutionary struggle—this, surely, was the revolution about which socialists were constantly speaking and strategizing—Rosa was sickened by the lukewarm responses of her fellow socialists in Germany.

She snuck into Cracow, where Jogiches was organizing, and wrote and had illegal newspapers printed. The two were caught, arrested, and slated for execution. One of Rosa’s brothers intervened and generously bribed the authorities who claimed to let her go on grounds of ill health. Jogiches remained imprisoned and, though he would escape, was sentenced to hard labour in Siberia. On release, Rosa travelled to Finland, where she spent time with Lenin and the Bolshevik circle, publishing The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions as a pamphlet in Hamburg.

As she explored, the aim of a mass strike is to make the relevant political situation ungovernable. Workers are typically at the centre, but the resultant action is not exclusively theirs as the mass strike blurs the line between economic and political struggle. The economic struggle, demanding the dignity of workers, often becomes the platform for a much greater political demand for democracy. In like manner, the demand for democracy could also spur mass movements to challenge economic hardships. One cannot know in advance whether a particular mass strike will lead to the overthrow of a repressive regime. For instance, it could be argued that the end of apartheid in South Africa was not primarily the result of armed struggle. It was due to what Luxemburg would call a mass strike. The United Democratic Front in South Africa adopted the slogan of making the country ungovernable, which led to the uprising of the Black population. It was those mass movements that played the major role in the collapse of apartheid.

While the SPD would publish Rosa’s work on mass action, spontaneity, and organization, the dissemination of this writing was blocked by the SPD leadership who, at best, were willing to accept the mass strike as a defensive strategy. When she returned to Germany, Rosa stood trial for her remarks and was sentenced to two months in prison. In the face of a powerful surge of strikes, demonstrations, and conflicts with the police as part of the press for general suffrage, the party sought to refocus its energy in the electoral domain. This led to public breaks and to the isolating of Rosa in SPD settings. Rationalizations of her treatment became more pronounced in their sexism with those who said that she was as clever as a monkey but a bitch who could do a lot of damage or who charged her with flying off the handle when her vanity came into question.[21]

Against Marxists who spoke incessantly of the proletariat but who thought their consciousness was reductively determined by material conditions, Rosa believed strongly in popular political education both through the collective organizing that we have already mentioned and in the classroom. Every winter from 1906 until the outbreak of World War I, district organizations chose party and trade union members to participate in the SPD Party School in Berlin. From 1907, Rosa became the only female lecturer, teaching courses on economics while working on her Introduction to Political Economy. As one would expect from what we have already seen, according to her contemporary and collaborator Paul Frölich, Rosa “proved an outstanding teacher … She never lectured at [the students] and promised no ready-made answers, compelling them to work out their own ideas and conclusions”.[22] When the Party School was criticized for failing to raise the general level of education of workers and doing a poor job of training SPD activists, Luxemburg offered a response. She argued against both a superficial curriculum aimed at general, comprehensive literacy and a narrow training focused on highly specific issues relevant only to immediate organizing. Students needed to develop practical and theoretical forms of reasoning together over the course of a life of learning. The Party School’s role was to encourage such learning and offer a grounding of “how—from a Marxist perspective—the political economy works”.[23]

Rosa’s magnum opus, which has stirred up controversy as well as admiration, was The Accumulation of Capital. It extended her criticisms of the revolutionary potential of nationalism and of centralized forms of organization and control to argue for the fundamental relationship between capitalism and imperialism. In ways that foresaw what are now called globalization, on the one hand, and the military-industrial complex, on the other, its critical revisiting of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation is her most significant intellectual contribution. She argued that primitive accumulation would remain inevitable to the attempted resolution of the crisis of industrial capitalism in the so-called industrial states with the implication that such crises could only be resolved through fresh bouts of intensified violence.

When the SPD won an unprecedented number of parliamentary seats, Rosa doubled down in her determination that they should challenge the impending World War I as imperial and essentially antipathetic to the cause of internationalism. Her mobilization efforts brought her into court for a sentencing hearing that she used to put army abuses on trial. The findings led to her dismissal, but what followed was crushing: the SPD members in parliament voted unanimously for the war. As it broke out, Rosa served her sentence in the women’s prison in Berlin, where she authored The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in German Democracy. While it is not an explicit focus of any of thechapters in this volume, Rosa’s arguments made her “among the most important antimilitarist figures in European history”.[24] Indeed, as recently as 2003, 100,000 people attended a rally in the Berlin suburb of Friedrichsfelde to commemorate Rosa’s life and legacy. They did so “in the midst of growing opposition around the world to the new stage of military intervention signalled by the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq”. For them, Rosa was “a rallying point amid the challenges of imperialist war and terror”.

When Rosa was released from prison in Berlin, she was promptly rearrested and transferred to a prison in Poland. While there, the Bolsheviks came to power. She interpreted their seizure of power as daring and courageous, but her essay “The Russian Revolution” still offered a searing critique. To be fair, she believed that the wealthy might have to have their property expropriated without anything like just compensation. She even accepted, with Lenin, that the elite classes might have to be denied their right to participate in democratic institutions, at least for a time. Ultimately, her critique of Lenin was that he confused necessity with what socialism could be.

A revolutionary uprising of soldiers and workers led the German Imperial Government to hand power over to the SPD. Briefly, there was a new chancellor of Germany who was one of Rosa’s former students. He immediately declared Germany a republic.

As soon as Rosa was released, she travelled directly to Berlin. Karl Liebknecht and the Spartacus League had declared the Socialist Republic of Germany. Rosa immediately joined them in fighting for an effective seizure of state power. Among the League’s demands were to impound food and distribute it to the starving, confiscate weapons and arms and create a workers’ militia from the adult working population, selecting their officers by election, put generals on trial for war crimes, abolish all private wealth above a certain level, nationalize the banks and heavy industry, and divide up large landed estates so they could be farmed collectively. This was to be achieved through elected worker and soldier councils that would meet every three months. And there had to be complete legal equality of the sexes.

Although other founding members of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and Rosa spoke publicly about a full vision of socialist democracy, most members of the SPD were satisfied with their party, with one man one vote, and an eight-hour day. Some of her critics said that Rosa’s support of the Spartacus League was clear evidence that she had become unhinged by her long imprisonment and isolation. They misunderstood one of Rosa’s central positions: that there was no such thing as premature revolutionary activity. When Rosa framed capitalism as a continued problem, she was accused by some as a Russian spy seeking simply to bring Germany into Russia’s project. The irony was that she was increasingly in trouble in Russia since she made known her disappointment in the absence of freedom of the press and assembly under Lenin. He was using terror which she thought was not necessary to a proletarian revolution.

Some of Germany’s new leaders wanted to use terror as well. They claimed that Germany had not lost the war but had been betrayed, especially by socialists and by Jews. Demonstrators were shot and propaganda circulated widely. When the SPD voted their powers away and revolutionary momentum faltered, the party’s right-wing leaders called in the Freikorps (or mercenary or volunteer private armies), who would become core members of the Nazi Party. Gustav Noske indirectly called for Rosa’s assassination, directly empowering the Freikorps that would kill her.[25]

In January 1919, Rosa was brutally murdered. Her body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal. When her body washed up and was identified, her funeral was held at Friedrichsfelde Cemetery. She was 47.

Rosa’s life and politics were remarkably unscripted. Dominated by her unflagging commitment to revolutionary theory and action as both possible and necessary, she imitated no existing model. As one of the earliest and most forceful resisters against what would become mainstream, widespread orthodox Marxism, she believed that Marxist commitments and methods required not just application but thinking and acting anew. As such, she believed that socialist democracy was not a closed project. This is precisely why Rosa was engaged in her own version of adaptive thinking and why she lends herself so amenably to creolizing.

What Does It Mean to Fight?

What does it mean to learn about how to fight from a woman murdered at 47 in 1919 as part of a struggle that did not successfully seize state power and that therefore was seen by many as not only beaten but discredited?

Rosa had a profoundly pedagogical understanding of what it meant to be (even brutally) defeated. When grappling with historical setbacks in particular struggles, including the attempt to establish a socialist republic in Germany, her first question was what lessons the losses offered. As she wrote: “What was this recent ‘Spartacus Week’ in Berlin? What has it brought? What does it teach us?”[26] This was no celebration of weakness or fear of successfully winning power. It was an expression of her conception of revolutionary struggle and her commitment to all of it, including the attendant and inevitable difficulties.

For Luxemburg, the lesson of the so-called “failure” of the 1905 Russian Revolution was not that the masses of people needed strong leaders to tell them what to do, but instead that the people needed to think through how they might seize power differently. As we have seen, Lenin advocated a democratic centralist party, in which, to paraphrase his formulation, the brains were in the Central Committee and the arms and legs of the party were the cadre. For Luxemburg, the only real school of revolution was in struggle. As she wrote in criticism of Lenin in 1904:

The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history. Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.[27]

Rosa understood that revolutionary struggles would take place over a long period of time and that the ultimate goal of seizing state power and overthrowing capitalism would involve series of partial victories and partial setbacks. This offered an important reminder that radically transforming the world is not an easy undertaking. As she writes: “The socialist transformation presupposes a long and stubborn struggle in the course of which, quite probably, the proletarian will be repulsed more than once”.[28] But crucially, steps forward were enabled by, literally made upon, previous defeats which were indispensable in nurturing collective “strength and clarity of purpose”.[29]

In addition to having a highly constructive approach to defeat, which always contextualized individual instances of failure in the much larger horizon of collective transformation, many have rightly emphasized Rosa’s bravery. It was as evident in her many life decisions, some of which we have recounted here, as it was in her readiness to think and step into the unknown. At the very heart of her many disagreements with supposed comrades was the point that we do not and cannot know what socialism is in advance. This is in part because we have been inculcated by exploitative relationships out of which we cannot just imagine our way out.

Unlike many who invoke it, Rosa was actually comfortable with the possibility of enacting her freedom and seeking, with others, to birth the new. When doing so, she did not deny her intellectual or political indebtedness to those who came before her. Instead she saw her actions as the extension of what it meant to continue the project inaugurated by Marx, even as she debated Marx himself. She would repeatedly call out even the most esteemed in her circles. This was neither oedipal nor done for the sake of being irreverent. Being a comrade meant pushing one’s comrades not to be lazy in their thinking or in their actions.

Rosa insisted that socialism and freedom were compatible, and that the protection of basic freedoms was necessary for the imagination of and struggle to build new socialist relations. She once wrote that “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”.[30] This was her recognizing that the one who thinks differently might be just the dreamer we need, the artist who makes us see differently, the poet who beckons us to another world, the housewife who insists that domestic chores must be shared. This was not, then, an empty liberal maxim so much as a call to open avenues to reconsider how we can radically transform the ways we live together.

Rosa brought to the fight a sober assessment of what she uniquely could contribute. In her case, this was her intellect, imagination, capacity for human relations, and ferocious energy. She also had an understanding, if abbreviated by her murder, that one had, in the face of individual instances of suffering, such as imprisonment and torture, to sustain and work at maintaining life-affirming vitality and joy through varieties of forms of intimacy or ways of connecting with human and other-than-human others.

It is easy to sit on the sidelines and despair. That is and has always been true. Perhaps, at moments when our ability to change the exploitative relationships of capitalism and imperialism seems small, Rosa’s message to all of us is that we cannot know of defeat in advance. We cannot know what possibilities any particular struggle will yield. We do not struggle only because we think we can win or even that we can hope to win. We struggle because we want to live more human lives by investing in and with others to build a new world. From such a vantage point, pessimism is not only irrelevant. The pessimists throw themselves on the wrong side of history.

We read Rosa today because she calls on us to rethink her ideas by creolizing them so that she can continue to speak to the most burning issues of our time.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. 1995. “Rosa Luxemburg: 1871–1919” in Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company: 33–56.

Berger, John. 2018. “A Gift for Rosa Luxemburg” in Landscapes: John Berger on Art, edited with an introduction by Tom Overton. London: Verso.

Bose, Anuja. 2019. “Frantz Fanon and the Politicization of the Third World as a Collective Subject.” Interventions; International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 21, no. 5 (March): 671–689.

Bronner, Stephen Eric. 1997. Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Dunayevskaya, Raya. 1991 [1981]. Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Evans, Kate. 2015. Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg. New York: Verso.

Frölich, Paul. 2010 [1939]. Rosa Luxemburg: Ideas in Action, translated by Joanna Hoornweg. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Gietinger, Klaus. 2019. The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg, translated by Loren Balhorn. London: Verso.

Henry, Paget. 1985. Peripheral Capitalism and Development in Antigua. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books.

Hudis, Peter and Kevin B. Anderson. 2004. “Introduction” in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. New York: Monthly Review Press: 7–30.

Kaiser, Ingeborg. 2008. Rosa and the Wolves: Biographical Investigation into the Case of Rosa Luxemburg, translated by Patricia H. Stanley. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, Inc.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 1970. The Russian Revolution, and Leninism or Marxism?, with an introduction by Bertram D. Wolfe. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 2004a. “Selected Correspondence, 1899-1917,” translated by Elzbieta Ettinger and Stephen Eric Bronner in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. New York: Monthly Review Press: 380–395.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 2004b. “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy,” translated by Richard Taylor in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. New York: Monthly Review Press: 248–265.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 2004c. “14E. Order Reigns in Berlin,” translated by Peggy Fallen Wright in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. New York: Monthly Review Press: 373–378.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 2004d. “Social Reform or Revolution,” translated by Dick Howard in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. New York: Monthly Review Press: 128–167.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 2011. “Letter to Hans Diefenbach, Wronki in Posen, March 5, 1917,” in The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza, translated by George Shriver. London; Verso: 377–380.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 2015. The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg Volume II: Economic Writings 2, edited by Peter Hudis and Paul Le Blanc and translated by Nicholas Gray and George Shriver. London: Verso.

Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme. Available here:

Nettl, J.P. 1966. Rosa Luxemburg, London: Oxford University Press.

Nixon, Jon. 2018. Rosa Luxemburg and the Struggle for Democratic Renewal. London: Pluto Press.

Nye, A. 1994. Philosophia: The Thought of Rosa Luxemburg, Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt, New York: Routledge.

Rich, Adrienne. 2001. “Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marx” in Arts of the Possible. New York: W.W. Norton & Company: 83–97.

Rosemary H. T. O’Kane. 2015. Rosa Luxemburg in Action: For Revolution and Democracy. New York: Routledge.

Valdez, Inéz. 2019. Transnational Cosmopolitanism: Kant, Du Bois, and Justice as a Political Craft. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[1] We are grateful to Peter Hudis for sharing his extensive knowledge of Rosa Luxemburg’s life and work with us as we prepared this introduction.

[2] 1995.

[3] 2018: 102

[4] Ibid.: 161.

[5] Ibid.: 141.

[6] In this sense, our book has much in common with Adrienne Rich’s depiction of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Women’s Liberationand the Dialectics of Revolution (1985). Rich writes, “In Luxemburg, Dunayevskaya portrays a brilliant, brave, and independent woman, passionately internationalist and antiwar, a believer in the people’s ‘spontaneity’ in the cause of freedom; a woman who saw herself as Marx’s philosophical heir; who refused the efforts of her lovers and other men to discourage herfrom full participation in ‘making history’ because she was a woman. But the biography does not stop here. Luxemburg’s lifeand thought become a kind of jumping-off point into the present and future—what she saw and didn’t see, her limitations aswell as her understanding. We can learn from her mistakes, says Dunayevskaya” (2001: 91–92).

[7] 2004: 892.

[8] Kaiser, 2008: 121.

[9] Evans, 2015: 14. O’Kane observed that in biographies of intellectual women, there is a tendency to over-emphasizepersonal details. With Rosa, in O’Kane’s account, this is evident in undue attention to her romantic relationships and the repetition of her being “born into a Jewish family in Russian-occupied Poland”. O’Kane continues, “Given that her family, although very supportive of her, were not themselves involved in politics and that Rosa, having left Poland at the age ofeighteen, did not herself practice the religion into which she was born and later refused to join the Bund (General JewishWorkers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia), it is doubtful that these particular aspects of her early life deserve very much emphasis, and it could be seen as a legacy of her vilification as a ‘Bolshevik Jew’” (2015: xiii). We include Rosa’s Jewishness first because, as was true of many other non-religious Jews, we understand many elements of Rosa’s internationalism andsocialism as an expression of a secular Jewishness. In addition, for the Jewish co-author of this text, Rosa’s Jewishness is apoint of Jewish pride.

[10] O’Kane adds that she would later build on these existing language skills to become fluent in French and “pretty good” inEnglish and Italian.

[11] O’Kane, 2015: 23.

[12] Even after they fell out over organizational issues in 1902 and fully broke off relations by 1912, Lenin continued to encourage Russian youth to read Plekhanov’s works. Plekhanov and Rosa detested each other from their first meeting. In 1907, he would accuse her of being “a Madonna reclining in the clouds”. She said nothing positive about his written works, which included the introduction of the term “dialectical materialism”.

[13] O’Kane, 2015: 22.

[14] As Stephen J. Bronner put it “socialism [had to] offer a qualitative alternative” (1997: 17) to the bourgeois model of nationalism. If one were to charge that Rosa failed to comprehend the strategic idea that national revolution could serve as an opening to the permanent international revolution, this was, in “a certain sense … beside the point” (1997: 18).

[15] 1985.

[16] As Bronner puts it, “[t]he revolutions of 1848 had failed, the Paris Commune had been crushed and the First International lay in ruins. The Second International had arisen from the ashes and the SPD stood at its forefront” (1997: 24).

[17] Quoted in Anderson and Hudis, 2004: 9. Richard Fischer, the managing editor of the SPD’s main publication, Vorwärts, used this phrase. See Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands,September 22–28, 2901 (Berlin: SPD, 1901), p. 191.

[18] 2004b: 250.

[19] 2004b: 256, emphasis in original.

[20] 2004b: 251f.

[21] Nettl, 1966: 291; Dunayevskaya, 1991: 27. Victor Adler wrote to August Bebel on 5 August 1910: “It really is too bad—the poisonous bitch will yet do a lot of damage, all the more so because she is as clever as a monkey while on the other hand her sense of responsibility is totally lacking and her only motive is an almost perverse desire for self-justification. Imagine! …Clara [Zetkin] already equipped with a mandate and sitting with Rosa in the Reichstag! That would give you something to laugh about, compared to which the goings on in Baden would look like a pleasure outing.” It is worth noting that in Bebel’s reply toAdler of 16 August 1910, he stated, “With all the wretched female’s squirts of poison I wouldn’t have the party without her.” On the same day, Bebel wrote to Karl Kautsky, “It’s an odd thing about women. If their partialities or passions or vanities come anywhere into question and are not given consideration, or, let alone, are injured, then even the most intelligent of them flies of the handle and becomes hostile to the point of absurdity.”

[22] 2010 [1939]: 146–147.

[23] Nixon, 2018: 26.

[24] Hudis and Anderson, 2004: 7.

[25] Gietinger, 2019.

[26] 2004c: 375.

[27] 1970: 108.

[28] 2004d: 159.

[29] 2004c: 377.

[30] 1970: 69.

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