In January 1919, the Chinese magazine Jin Hua reported on the brutal murder of German Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin soon after it happened. The report may have been one of the first times that Luxemburg showed up on the radar of a Chinese audience, but it certainly would not be the last. Since then, she has been a fixture of the country’s political and intellectual horizon.
Junyan Wang is a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Beijing Office. Her work concentrates on theoretical and empirical research into socialism with Chinese characteristics and ecological civilization.
Li Da, a founding member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and one of its leading early intellectuals, published several articles about Luxemburg in the Republican Daily News, a radical newspaper aligned with the New Culture Movement in the early 1920s. He also briefly introduced some of her main works to Chinese readers, including Reform or Revolution, The Industrial Development of Poland, The Crisis of German Social Democracy, and her crowning achievement, The Accumulation of Capital.
Published in 1913, The Accumulation of Capital was one of the first Marxist works to explore why capitalist countries competed for colonies and control over underdeveloped, non-capitalist countries. She wrote: “Capitalism is the first mode of economy with the weapon of propaganda, a mode which tends to engulf the entire globe and to stamp out all other economies, tolerating no rival at its side. Yet at the same time it is also the first mode of economy which is unable to exist by itself, which needs other economic systems as a medium and soil.” Lenin echoed her argument in his 1916 study, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
Although these two great Marxist theorists shared many ideas concerning the nature of imperialism, Luxemburg stressed imperialism’s drive towards external expansion and conquest, and the political and economic consequences for the conquered. She initiated a paradigm shift in social sciences, switching the focus from the dominant capitalist states to colonial and dependent states, and from developed Europe and the Americas to the Global South — a shift Lenin himself would undertake at the Second World Congress of the Communist International in 1920.
According to Lenin, there were not only colonizer states and colonized, but various forms of dependences, such as semi-colonies. “Let us assume”, he wrote in Imperialism, “that all the imperialist countries conclude an alliance for the ‘peaceful’ division of these parts of Asia; this alliance would be an alliance of ‘internationally united finance capital’. There are actual examples of alliances of this kind in the history of the twentieth century — the attitude of the powers to China, for instance.”
Luxemburg’s and Lenin’s understanding of capitalist expansion and colonization of non-capitalist countries proved critical to developments in China, exerting a profound influence on the direction of the Chinese revolution and the political strategy of the Chinese Communists in the following decades. Taking into account the fact that the imperialist powers had invaded China and deprived the Chinese people of their freedom, the second CPC National Congress held in 1922 adopted a programme calling for a “thoroughly anti-imperialist and anti-feudal” republic.
Luxemburg’s Reputation in China through the Years
Rosa Luxemburg was commemorated by the CPC throughout the Chinese revolution. For instance, when the party suffered a major defeat in 1927, it invoked Luxemburg as a fearless fighter against revisionism. In 1937, during the war against Japanese occupation, the party held her up as an “internationalist vanguard” role model to encourage the Chinese people in their fight against Japanese imperialism.
Luxemburg was, in the words of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Michael Brie, “neither primarily a strategist like Lenin nor a theorist like Kautsky, neither a sceptic like Bernstein nor an organic intellectual like Gramsci”. She was a person of many talents: a well-educated intellectual, sharp Marxism theorist, a talented editor and lecturer, passionate agitator, outstanding party representative, and courageous revolutionary. Alongside her practical political activity in Poland and Germany, she contributed an enormous amount of articles, speeches, papers, books, and letters, which inspired many, but also attracted their fair share of controversy and made it difficult to categorize her.
Far from being a thing of the past, capitalist crisis has taken on new forms and brought disasters to many developing countries, including China. Luxemburg’s theories of economy help to contextualize and understand that fact.
Her recognition in China reflected this fact. Often, she was compared to or stood in the shadow of other classical Marxists. She was celebrated as a great Communist revolutionary, but little attention was paid to what she actually said. This only began to change in the 1950s, when the Socialist Unity Party of Germany published an official biography to mark her eightieth birthday in 1951— albeit one that subjected her to extensive criticism for her “errors and mistakes”.
China was also affected by this change in tone. Beginning in the 1950s, some of Rosa Luxemburg’s works were translated into Chinese, including her Letters from Prison, Reform or Revolution, Accumulation of Capital, and the Introduction to Political Economy. These translations introduced her ideas to a wider audience, but were generally framed in a way that criticized her thinking as a whole. The introduction to the Chinese edition of her Selected Works, for example, dismissed her criticisms of Lenin’s party-building approach as “unrealistic”, and labelled her critique of national self-determination “principally incorrect”. That said, these lines were usually complemented with Lenin’s famous praise that “not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works … will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world.”
A Compass in Stormy Seas
A turning point in Rosa Luxemburg’s global prominence was reached in the 1970s when, according to Chinese Luxemburg expert Cheng Renqian, interest in Rosa Luxemburg underwent a global resurgence. Triggered by the economic crisis in the developed capitalist countries on the one hand and the crisis of state socialism in Eastern European and the former Soviet Union on the other, thinkers in both East and West found themselves turning to Luxemburg’s writings for answers.
Back in China, Cheng served as a trailblazer for Luxemburg study in the country. Working at the former Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, now part of the Institute for Party History and Literature Research, he published a volume entitled Research Materials on the History of the International Communist Movement (Rosa Luxemburg Album) in 1981 that included several quite controversial articles on the Russian Revolution, party organization, and other topics.
The following year, Chinese scholars began to establish contact with the International Rosa Luxemburg Society and better align their research with their international peers. As a result of this fruitful exchange, two Chinese volumes of Rosa Luxemburg’s Selected Works were published by the People’s Publishing House in 1984 and 1990— a milestone in terms of granting Chinese readers a more holistic perspective on her ideas. This edition reflected Chinese scholars’ deepened understanding of Rosa Luxemburg at that time and was regarded as the new standard for studying Luxemburg in Chinese.
Another turning point in the academic reception of Rosa Luxemburg was reached with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the global expansion of neoliberalism. Both internationally and in China, the scholarly community adopted an increasingly positive view of her legacy. Cheng Renqian himself published the unprecedented book Rosa Luxemburg: Biography and Thoughts, in which he portrayed “lively and versatile Rosa”, pushing back against the stereotype of her as a “cruel revolutionary” and “aggressive agitator”. The volume made great strides in uncovering Luxemburg’s legacy for Chinese readers by undertaking extensive analysis of primary sources.
Since then, more and more Chinese scholars from different backgrounds have published studies on Rosa Luxemburg with a more open-minded approach towards her deliberations on economy, politics, literature, and philosophy, particularly with view to the relevance of her ideas in understanding the 2007–2008 financial crisis. Far from being a thing of the past, capitalist crisis has taken on new forms and brought disasters to many developing countries, including China. Luxemburg’s theories of economy help to contextualize and understand that fact.
From Edited Selections to the Complete Works
The Chinese publication of Luxemburg’s Selected Works and several other monographs in the second half of the twentieth century ensured that Chinese readers were finally able to access the thought of this great Marxist thinker. However, according to Chinese Rosa Luxemburg scholar He Ping, by the 2000s, only 20 percent of Luxemburg’s work was available in Chinese translation.
It was against this backdrop that the Chinese translation of Rosa Luxemburg’s Complete Works, which were first issued in German in the 1970s and are currently being translated into English, was initiated in 2014. The publication of her Complete Works will allow Chinese scholars and readers alike to reassess the “real” Rosa Luxemburg against the Chinese studies of her thought already available, while access the full breadth of her writing will allow Luxemburg to speak to a Chinese audience in her own words.
The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s headquarters in Berlin together with its Beijing office has proven pivotal in this undertaking. After granting the translation rights for the Complete Works to Wuhan University, the foundation began holding an annual workshop on Rosa Luxemburg together with the institution, which has now taken place every year since 2015. Here, various international experts, editors of Rosa Luxemburg’s works in various languages, and students and researchers gather to exchange perspectives and organize further studies in the field. A number of academic papers and publications have emerged from this collaboration, nurturing the careers of younger Chinese scholars and boosting interest in Luxemburg’s thought throughout the country.
As China moves forward in its social and political development, Rosa Luxemburg’s thought will continue to accompany and inform that development.
In contrast to the English edition of the Complete Works, the Chinese translation adopts and extends the editorial style of the Chinese Selected Works. The original Chinese Works were compiled chronologically, highlighting publications that best represented her ideas and covered the most important stations of her life. The Chinese Complete Works also proceed chronologically, while seeking to divide the individual volumes in a way that groups Luxemburg’s theoretical contributions into different periods.
The current publication plan foresees the Chinese edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s Complete Works consisting of eight volumes, alongside supplementary volumes of her letters. Volume 1 covers September 1893 to November 1899, Volume 2 runs from November 1899 to January 1904, Volume 3 from April 1904 to December 1905, Volume 4 from January 1906 to December 1907, Volume 5 from January 1908 to June 1911, Volume 6 from July 1911 to July 1913, Volume 7 from August 1913 to June 1916, and Volume 8 mainly covers the period of March 1916 to January 1919. The first volume appeared in 2021, with a plan to publish one volume per year until the Works are completed in 2028.
The Meaning of Rosa Luxemburg in China Today
Although recognition of Rosa Luxemburg has been more widespread in the international arena, her immanent connection with China, especially with regard to the Chinese people’s development of their own socialist model, is more fundamental. During her life, she inspired the Chinese people with her penetrating insights into their struggles and suffering during the semi-colonial period. Her brilliant judgement on the nature of imperialism helped to define the strategy pursued by the Communist Party of China from its beginnings in 1921 all the way to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Rosa Luxemburg witnessed the birth of the first socialist country in history, the Soviet Union, and embraced it whole-heartedly, even while expressing measured criticisms of it. Throughout her life, she pursued an alternative to capitalism and imperialism, while maintaining an open-minded approach to what exactly constituted “socialism”. She debated with Lenin about democracy, the principles of party organization, and the October Revolution. Many of her criticisms were later echoed by reformers in Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s.
China’s socialist path is rooted in Marxism-Leninism and was deeply influenced by the model set by the former Soviet Union, consisting of state ownership, centralized planning, and industrialization. Yet from the outset, the Chinese leadership sought to adapt this model to its actual conditions. In the mid-1950s, Chairman Mao began to see the defects and limitations of centralized planning and initiated de-centralization reforms by delegating more power to local regions and promoting economic democracy in the industrial sector. Around the same time, China began to develop an interest in reforms taking place in Eastern Europe, with high-level delegations travelling to Yugoslavia and Romania in the 1970s to conduct more thorough studies of the debates around economic accounting, the law of value, and market mechanisms being held there.
Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of China’s reform and opening up, is perhaps best remembered for coining the term “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in the 1980s. Speaking to foreign dignitaries in 1988, he explained, “Frankly, when we were copying the Soviet model of socialism we ran into many difficulties. We discovered that long ago, but we were never able to solve the problem. Now we are solving it; what we want to build is a socialism suited to conditions in China.” As President Xi Jinping remarked in his report to the Twentieth National Congress of the CPC, as China works to build a “great, modern socialist country” by 2050, considerable obstacles persist in the form of formalism, bureaucratization, and privilege-seeking. Here, Luxemburg also has illuminating insights to take into account.
In her famous 1918 polemic, What Does the Spartacus League Want?, Luxemburg put the choice facing humanity in stark terms: “In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity. The words of the Communist Manifesto flare like a fiery menetekel above the crumbling bastions of capitalist society: Socialism or barbarism!”.
According to her, socialism is the only alternative to capitalism, “into whose bloody maw millions upon millions of steaming human sacrifices are thrown”. War, or at least the threat of war, has never been far wherever capitalism reigns. The current war in Ukraine is no different, threatening not only global instability but even escalation into another world war. Here, as well, Luxemburg’s analysis of imperialism and the warlike nature of capitalism is particularly applicable.
As a socialist country, China has always pursued peaceful development — not only due to its cultural tradition, but also its socialist nature. A more recent example can be seen in the Belt and Road Initiative, which has been embraced by many countries around the world as a platform for economic cooperation. In the midst of global COVID-19 pandemic, China supplied more than 480 million doses of vaccines to the international community, providing aid to nearly 100 countries and exporting vaccines to more than 50 countries, making it the world’s largest provider of vaccines to foreign countries, as China had promised at the seventy-third World Health Assembly.
As China moves forward in its social and political development, Rosa Luxemburg’s thought will continue to accompany and inform that development — now more than ever, as her work successively becomes available through the Chinese edition of her Complete Works. As Luxemburg said in January 1919, the day before her death, “I was, I am, and I shall be.”