News | Rosa Luxemburg - Socio-ecological Transformation Rosa Luxemburg’s Red Ecology

In contrast to her work on political economy, Luxemburg’s ecological writings have long gone underappreciated


Red carnation flowers at the grave of Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin.
Every January, tens of thousands of mourners lay red carnation flowers at the grave of Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin to commemorate the anniversary of her death. Photo: IMAGO / IPON

Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist thinker and agitator, is often associated with a red rose or a red carnation. The flowers have come to symbolize both socialism and the labour movement. Rosa Luxemburg’s gravestone at the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, the spot where it is believed her body was disposed of following her murder by right-wing thugs, is mostly adorned with red carnations. The flowers are replenished by the dozens on the anniversary of her murder (15 January) and on her birthday (5 March).

Christine Schwöbel-Patel is Professor of Law at the University of Warwick and co-lead of the project “Rosa Luxemburg and International Law”.

The red flower is a fitting tribute to Rosa, particularly given her lifelong interest in botany, nature, and animals. While other Marxist thinkers, including Marx himself, Vladimir Lenin, Amílcar Cabral, and W.E.B. Du Bois have received a rigorous reassessment and revitalization of their radical politics in light of the climate catastrophe, Luxemburg’s work on nature has received feminizing disregard: it is viewed as sentimental, expressing her “love” for plants rather than an integral part of her revolutionary life. By revisiting her work, this should change.

Marx(ist)’s Ecologies

There has been a veritable explosion of literature on major political economists and “their” ecologies in recent years. This is a welcome response to the normalization of market-based solutions in climate change. Nature is commodified and monetized, not only in its exploitation, but also in its protection. Carbon trading, biodiversity offsetting, and other valuations of nature have become common sense responses to climate disaster. Against this backdrop, both the questioning of market rationales and a discussion of capitalism’s role in climate catastrophe are important means for unsettling the normalization of pro-market ideas.

Marx in particular has been re-read in light of climate crisis, most prominently by scholars such as Kohei Saito and John Bellamy Foster. Much of this literature acts as a corrective to previous interpretations of Marx’s work, in which he is presented as uncritically praising the progress of technology and productive forces, which under socialism would be owned and controlled by the working class. The anthropocentric view attributed to Marx is often put down to his value theory, based on human labour-power as the (only) source of value.

Against this, Foster has based his work on Marx and ecology on Marx’s “metabolic rift” approach. According to him, it is important to afford attention to environmental crises as a contradiction of capitalism. Saito extends this argument, arguing that Marx’s ecology was a fundamental part of his critique of political economy, particularly in his later years. Saito aims to complete Marx’s “unfinished theory” of ecology. This forms the basis for developing a historical-environmental-materialism about the disturbances in the metabolic interaction between humans and the Earth.

Despite certainly not gaining universal support among Marxists, theoretically, an ecology of historical materialism is not a large leap to make.

Meanwhile, drawing on Lenin’s work, notable climate theorist and activist Andreas Malm has called for “ecological Leninism”, invoking the need for a Leninist temporality of urgency in the sense of thinking about politics for catastrophic times. Malm calls for ecological war communism, so as to turn the environmental crisis into a crisis for fossil capital. Further revolutionary leaders and thinkers whose work has been re-examined for its ecological credentials include the agronomic writings of Amílcar Cabral and W.E.B Du Bois.

These contributions to the debate place revolutionary (Marxist) thinkers at the intersection between society, nature, and racism, highlighting the need for an anticolonial ecology. Despite certainly not gaining universal support among Marxists, theoretically, an ecology of historical materialism is not a large leap to make. A materialist reading includes a better understanding of the interaction between humans and the material world, including nature, in relation to social structures.

Reclaiming Rosa

Rosa Luxemburg’s preoccupations and passions during her short lifetime (she was murdered at the age of 47) are often portrayed as divided. On the one hand, there is the cool-headed political economist, who knew Marx’s work intimately, and argued with Lenin, while on the other is her passionate life, including her work on botany, her detailed paintings of flowers and landscapes, her love for nature, as described in many of her letters, especially from prison. This division is portrayed as her public life and her private life, with all the gendered associations that it entails.

These two aspects of Rosa’s life appear to cancel each other out: her political economy is not taken seriously because she was also a woman who loved and painted, and her botany is not taken seriously because it was not obviously connected to revolutionary politics. What remains, for those sympathetic to socialist politics, is “Rosa the icon” — an iconic face on a red banner, a red carnation. However, in line with the feminist methodology of breaking down both these divisions and her sentimentalization, we might think of this unity as the foundation for “Rosa’s ecology”.

It is notable that prior to studying political science and economics, Luxemburg moved to Switzerland to study botany and zoology. Her interests in ecology and political economy became particularly entwined in 1913, which saw both the publication of her magnum opus, The Accumulation of Capital, and what she described in a letter to her friend Luise Kautsky as the beginning of her plant cataloguing. While thinking through issues of the violent spread of capitalism into non-capitalist spaces, Rosa Luxemburg went for walks near her Berlin flat in Südende, “collecting, pressing, and botanizing’” plants. Rosa eventually compiled 18 plant journals.

In The Accumulation of Capital, we see a sustained effort at bringing together ecology and political economy. In particular, one can see this in Rosa’s descriptions of capital’s restless and relentless expansion through primitive accumulation, which depends on modern colonial policy to appropriate the most important means of production: “The most important of these productive forces”, explains Luxemburg, “is of course the land, its hidden mineral treasure, and its meadows, woods and water”.

Given the ongoing exploitation of nature for imperialist wars and new accumulation projects, we have much to learn from Rosa Luxemburg’s theories of nature and capital.

Capitalism’s expansionism was not just about its effects on labour relations, it was also about its effects on nature. She referred to these dynamics both in a metaphorical sense, as well as a materialist sense. More in the former category, for example, she described capitalism as needing other economic systems as its soil.

Although the effects of capital’s brutal expansion and accumulation on the environment had not yet become real in the sense of climate breakdown during her lifetime, Rosa already saw the materialist problems associated with the “unrestricted utilisation of all substances and facilities afforded by nature and soil” in capitalist production. Rosa had a keen eye for exploitation of nature in the context of capitalist relations: “To tolerate any restriction in this respect would be contrary to the very essence of capital, its whole mode of existence”, she claimed.

Just as her political economy includes relationships between capital and nature, her letters to her friends that include observations on nature are often related back to capitalism and imperialism. She regularly placed observations on animals, including her cat Mimi, in the context of their exploitation for war or human endeavours for capitalist accumulation.

One such letter was written by Rosa from prison to her friend Sonia Liebknecht, who she calls her “Sonitschka, mein Vöglein” (my little bird). In it, Rosa describes the plight of a water buffalo from Romania caught as a war trophy. Rosa describes how she watched while soldiers mistreated one of the buffalo until it bled leaving it, Rosa believed, with an expression like a chastised child. She writes of her tears and pain. “Oh my poor buffalo, my poor, beloved brother, we both stand here powerless and mute, are one in pain, in powerlessness, in longing.”

Given the ongoing exploitation of nature for imperialist wars and new accumulation projects, we have much to learn from Rosa Luxemburg’s theories of nature and capital. Perhaps, one day, the laying of red carnations and red roses will come to symbolize the rich legacy of political economy and ecology that Rosa left for us.