Publication Rosa Luxemburg - Participation / Civil Rights - City / Municipality / Region - Cono Sur - Commons / Social Infrastructure The Right to the City as an Instrument of Revolution in Latin America

Using Rosa Luxemburg to contextualize and deepen our understanding of transformational struggle





Juliana Tumini,

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Protesting for urban citizenship at the G20 Summit, Hamburg, 2017.  CC BY-NC 2.0, Photo: Rasande Tyskar

Democracy is essential for the working class, because only in the exercise of its democratic rights, in the fight for democracy, can the proletariat become aware of its class interest and of its historical task.

 Rosa Luxemburg

In recent years, Marxist studies have drifted in an interesting way, orienting themselves towards the geographicaland spatial aspects of the capitalist mode of production. In particular, developments around the right to the city have illuminated tools pertinent to the current fight against capitalism. This approach is relevant in Latin America, which is characterized by a structural housing deficit and by the forced rehousing of the disadvantaged into poor habitats, signified by environmental problems, lack of public services, and restricted accessibility to civic, social, and cultural spaces, while in parallel the influence of capital over public space continues to advance. To this we must add that Latin America is the most urbanized region on the planet, with more than 75 percent of the population living in cities, a percentage that in Argentina exceeds 92 percent.

Juliana Tumini is a feminist lawyer and Doctor of Law from the Faculty of Law at the National University of Mar del Plata (UNMdP), as well as professor in the chairs of Political Law and General Theory of Law. She is also a member of the Alicia Moreau Human Rights Centre of Teaching and Research (CIDDH), part of the UNMdP Faculty of Law, and is currently co-director of the research project “The Right to the City as a Human Right: Producing Space to Build Spatial Justice”. This article is based on her 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.

The most vigorous struggles have been in the cities, as exemplified by two recent examples: the claims in Chile that led to constitutional reform and the feminist struggle for the right to voluntary termination of pregnancy in Argentina. These struggles are signs that it is the city, in the words of Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, that the class struggle is directed towards. The movements that claim their right to an extension of democracy are heterogeneous and their claims are not presented as disruptive but rather stressing institutional structures, demanding an extension of rights and democracy within the framework of legal norms.

However, despite significant progress resulting from social movements and popular governments that have realized some of their campaign promises, there have been regressive political responses in the region, led by governments, some chosen under the rules of the democratic system and others imposed by force. Society remains deeply unbalanced and it is in cities that the consequences of capitalism appear most brazenly. The pandemic has cruelly revealed the effect that poor habitat has on the quality of life of the disadvantaged and especially on women, whoare most strongly impacted by economic crises.

Here I will try to make a reading of the possibilities and limits of the right to the city as a tool of transformation, based on the reflections that Luxemburg left us in her understanding of the dialectical relationship between reform and revolution, as well as her unrestricted defence of democracy. There are some questions, informed by Luxemburg’s conceptual framework, that guide me: whether the right to the city established through social, political, and legal claims can be a tool for social transformation, and what its limits are within the framework ofcapitalism in its current phase. Regarding this conceptual framework, I refer in particular to the implications of Luxemburg’s refusal to set aside the struggle for an end to capitalism and understanding of the value of democracy as not subsumable for other purposes. For Luxemburg, democracy was not a mere instrument but had a relation to time, and her work did not abstract this notion but instead was aware of the limits of democracy’stransformative capacity within the framework of the capitalist system.

Urban Poverty and Class Inequality

David Harvey claims that we are the cities in which we live and encourages us to ask ourselves if these fragmented cities, where the rich areas coexist with the downtrodden, are those in which we want to live. Harvey questions whether these spaces represent what we want to be and whether they express the relationships wehave with nature.[1] Through Harvey’s questioning, we can remember the formulations, utopian and not, that other thinkers have constructed throughout history, intending to wake up a population and interrogate thenaturalization of social injustice. His reflection is not abstract, it is an answer to the reality of our neoliberal cities,which are a result of the need to reinvest surplus capital. As Pablo Slavin argues, the results of neoliberalism’s production of space are dual cities, fragmented places with countless slums; we live on what Mike Davis calls the Planet of Slums.

Indeed, more than 50 percent of the world's population live in cities:

One in four Latin Americans lives in slums according to the 2010/11 UN-Habitat Report. There are 110.7 million people, 23.5% of the population, living in precarious housing, inadequate infrastructure and services, irregular land tenure, and overcrowding. In favelas in Brazil, cantegriles in Uruguay, young villages in Peru, squalor villages in Argentina, and many other similar forms throughout the continent. In Latin America the urban population already means 75% of the total population, 50% of this urban population lives in slums in some countries in the region.[2] 

Latin America is the most urbanized region on the planet and in Argentina, 93 percent of the population live in cities. The housing and habitat deficit is structural problem. In Latin America, there are more than 110 million people living in squalid villages, which makes up more than 25 percent of the population.

The official national report for 2018 describes this situation:

Precarious housing conditions, housing deficits and basic infrastructure deficits ... 41.9% of households do not have sewer service (4.8 million households) and 12.9% of households do not have access to the drinking water network (1.5 million households). 40.9% of households do not have access to the gas grid. The quantitative housing deficit is 1.2 million homes. The qualitative housing deficit reaches 2.2 million households. 14.6% of households do not have regular housing tenure. 18% live in irregular settlements.

The city in which I live, and from which I write, is no stranger to either the characterization of the dual city or lousy habitability rates. In the regional framework of the province of Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata is one of the cities with the most precarious neighbourhoods and informal settlements, only surpassed by La Matanza and La Plata.[3] There are paradigmatic examples of citizen struggle, like when neighbours united and formed the NGO In Defence of Public Beaches, which aims to enforce the protection of public space on the coast, and systematically usurped private bids for land; and the falsehoods concocted by large-capital companies to reduce the payment of land taxes also come to light.[4] The most serious concern is the fragmented city, which is noticeable in the difference between the suburbs and the most central districts, as well as the absence of services such as sewers, well-maintained roads, adequate public transport, and sufficient or even existent refuse collection. This image is replicated in most large cities, where private neighbourhoods with the best services and infrastructure border impoverished neighbourhoods. It is not only an image of inequality but also, on many occasions, the existence of the private neighbourhood harms the impoverished settlement by diverting or modifying the drains, thereby generating an accumulation of water and mud.[5]

Luxemburg and the City

Why link Rosa Luxemburg’s work to the right to the city and, in particular, why think of it as an instrument for revolution in Latin America? Two reasons to consider the work of Luxemburg in relation to Latin America’s current situation are: on the one hand, her theoretical positioning with regard to the apparent dichotomy between reform and revolution, and, on the other hand, her historical conception of democracy and the value she attributed to it, associated with socialism.

The sharpest criticism of the conception of the right to the city is the claim that it is a harmless reform of capitalism, which would result in a strengthening of the system instead of the beginning of revolutionary transformation. For this reason, Luxemburg’s reflections on the false dichotomy of reform or revolution can be taken up and used to consider whether the city represents a space for class struggle or whether an insistence on the right to the city as a tool of transformation is really a reform within capitalism.

In this vein, Jean-Pierre Garnier objects and wonders:

What is the point of then returning a radical critical thinking of the urban if it has no impact on the social reality of the city, why and why criticize capitalist urbanization if this does not lead to effective questioning, that is to say in the facts and not only in the words of the social system produced by this urbanization? ...and requires thinking about how to move from theorizations to realization.[6]

David Harvey in Rebel Cities, in which he seems to resume the work of Rosa Luxemburg,[7] insists that the reevaluation of the idea of the right to the city stems more from a theoretical background than from urban struggles or popular social movements. Harvey’s argument recalls the example of Brazil, with the clause of the 2001 Constitution which guarantees the right to the city, democratization through participatory budgets, and the right to housing.

Conversely, and drawing on Lefebvre, Harvey admits that the ultimate goal is to overthrow and replace the capitalist system through a broader revolutionary movement but understands that: “The claim of the right to the city is an intermediate station on the route to that goal. It can never be a goal in itself, although it increasingly seems one of the most conducive ways to follow.”[8]

Luxemburg’s reflections on the need and limits of transformations within the capitalist system and within theframework of representative democracy are useful when addressing the issue of the right to the city and its revolutionary power. Luxemburg’s dialectical perspective allowed her to affirm that the difference and tension between reform and revolution, which involved the combination of the struggle for the improvement of working-class living conditions with a strategic emancipation project, should not become a dichotomous distinction.[9] In the same sense, we can argue that some transformations promoted and carried out in the name of the right tothe city should not be seen as antagonistic to the possibility of revolutionary change.

To illustrate Luxemburg’s thinking, Michael Löwy compares the Polish thinker’s position to that of Lenin, and concludes that she avoided both ends of the controversy: she did not succumb to the Idealist Kantian effluvium ofEduard Bernstein or to an economist fatalism of Karl Kautsky :

The category of practice—which for her, as for Marx, is the dialectical unity between the objective and the subjective, the mediation by which the class itself becomes class for itself—allowed her to overcome the paralyzing and metaphysical dilemma of German social democracy, between Bernstein’s abstract formalism and Kautsky’s mechanical economics: for the former, the “subjective”, moral and spiritual change of “human beings” was the condition for the advent of social justice, while for the latter objective economic evolution led “fatally” to socialism.[10]

Luxemburg was convinced that it was not possible to carry out the transition to socialism without “the masses receiving a very intensive political education and accumulating experiences”, something unthinkable for the democratic freedoms in question. Therefore, Luxemburg was concerned with and questioned the decision of the Bolsheviks to eliminate democratic freedoms, freedom of the press, association, and assembly, which are precisely the guarantee of the political activity of the working class.

By polemizing with Bernstein, whom she called opportunistic and who argued that democracy would make revolution unnecessary, Luxemburg did not fall into economic determinism. Instead, from a dialectical perspective, Luxemburg affirmed both the need to take advantage of certain institutions of democracy (tracing the difference between the legislative fertile ground for change and executive power) for transformation, especially forthe political formation of the working class and the imperative of not abandoning the ultimate goal of socialism: ending the division of society into classes. Luxemburg stated:

If democracy has become, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, superfluous and annoying, it is, on the contrary, all the more indispensable and necessary for the working class. It is necessary for the working class because it creates the political forms (autonomous administration, electoral rights, etc.) that will serve the proletariat with points of support for the task of transforming bourgeois society. Democracy is indispensable for the working class, because only through the exercise of its democratic rights, in the struggle of democracy, can the proletariat become aware of his class interests and his historical task … In short, democracy is not indispensable because it makes the conquest of political power superfluous by the proletariat, but because it makes this conquest necessary and possible.[11]

Although throughout her work, Luxemburg remembered the essentials of democracy to sustain freedom of thought and avoid fossilizing bureaucracy, she was lucid enough to warn that what Bernstein called democracy was nothing more than a historical form tied to capitalism and not an eternal democratic model.

Therefore, conceiving the right to the city as a stop on the road to transforming the system does not disagree with the position of the Polish thinker. Indeed, by avoiding making the distinction between reform and revolution (aparadoxical dichotomy) and admitting the limits and dangers of proposing reforms under the capitalist system, Luxemburg’s argument did not deny any change within capitalism, provided that the ultimate goal of overthrowing the capitalist system was not abandoned. The struggles for the different rights that make up the right to the city can operate as a way of forming critical awareness, capacity for transformation, and emancipation.

In Harvey’s view, what is relevant is the meaning attributed to the significant emptiness of the right to the city—one can use it in a reformist way and innocuously, or one can conceive of it as a revolutionary notion. This duality admits, however, the difficulties involved in distinguishing between reformist and revolutionary proposals:

Porto Alegre’s participatory budgets, ecologically sensitive programs or minimum living wage campaigns in many American cities seem reformist (and quite marginal) … But as their influence spreads, initiatives of this kind bring to light deeper layers of possibilities for more radical conceptions and actions at the metropolitan level ... Just as Marx called the restrictions on the length of the working day a first stage in a revolutionary way, claiming everyone's right to live in a decent home and living environment can be seen as a first stage towards a more general revolutionary movement.[12]

However, it is necessary to broaden our idea of who will carry out the transformation and in this case, for whom is the city made and who has a right to it. The terrible feminization of poverty in Latin American countries, the lack of economic resources that is marked by multiple disadvantages, the difficulty of access to quality jobs, insufficient wages, the difficulties arising from birth control, and the burdens of care and violence tend to drive people out of the confines of cities or to preclude people in precarious neighbourhoods who do not have enough resources from renting or buying a house in a more habitable location. Violations overlap and magnify because of the inadequacy of the habitat in which impoverished people develop their lives, almost always in spaces with low-flooding ground, without public services, and the remoteness or inaccessibility of public services and spaces.This increases the time required to perform care tasks, limiting the time they can devote to paid work or personal education and skill improvement activities, time and cost of transport, as well as in the care of young children are factors that discourage women from entering the labour market.[13]

The construction of disputes over the right to the city, which expands the revolutionary subject, seem to respond to the characteristics of contemporary claims, and do not focus on contesting capitalism and its class exploitation but are rather conceived in terms of a dispute with patriarchy and environmental damage, among other things.[14]

Expanding Transformational Struggles

If Luxemburg conceived revolution from and for everyday life, access to housing and urban infrastructure as well as participatory democracy seem to be conditions that subjects should become aware of in order to think about and carry out systemic and revolutionary transformation.

Living in conditions of mere survival does not allow us to think beyond the next day. Therefore, there are some important struggles for the right to the city, such as access to an adequate habitat, that propose emancipation. Other transformations, such as expanding public spaces for recreation or building restrooms in public squares are perhaps safe reforms for capitalism.

Making the distinction, as Harvey would say, may not be easy. However, to think that the urban changes that make life in the city fairer are an obstacle to more meaningful transformations produces a paralyzing and petty conclusion: that of believing that pauperization and worsening or not improving the lives of workers is inescapable for revolution. It is not desirable to fall into an idealistic vision, in moral terms of the Kantian type, or to defend a practice that involves refusing to limit the suffering of many to ensure the future of others. Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy seems to offer us an interesting solution, encouraging us to fight for the right to the city, to try reforms within the framework of capitalism, but also to keep in sight the ultimate goal of transforming the capitalist system. This is essential not only to improve living conditions but also to expand the instances of political participation and the democratic education of the population.


0223, 11 August 2015, Again the fence of Rumencó left a neighborhood underwater (in Spanish).

Garnier, Jean-Pierre ,“The Right to the City from Henri Lefebvre to David Harvey: Between Theorizations andRealization”, Ciudades, vol. 15, pp. 217–225.

Harvey, David,“The Freedom of the City”, The Politics of Making, edited by M. Swennerton, I. Troiani, and H.Webster, London: Routledge, 2007, pp. 15–24.

Harvey, David, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London and New York:Verso, 2012.

Kliskberg, Bernardo (2014). The pariah of The Earth. Between misery and xenophobia. Editor: Página 12 (in Spanish)

Löwy, Michael, “The spark ignites in the action - the philosophy of praxis in the thought of Rosa Luxemburg”, International Viewpoint, 20 May 2011.

Luxemburg, R., “Reform or Revolution”, in Selected Works, Editorial Antídoto, Buenos Aires: pages: 9-48, 1899 (in Spanish).

Ouviña, H., “Rosa Luxemburg and the Reinvention of Politics: A reading from Latin America”, Buenos Aires: El Colectivo, 2020 (in Spanish).

Q Digital, 6 January 2021, Operation of ARBA in one of the towers of Pelli: it is declared a wasteland (in Spanish).

Slavin, Pablo E., “The Debate on Reform and Revolution: Some Implications in the Struggle for the Right to the City”, pp. 101- 116 (in Spanish). In Research Advances in Legal and Social Sciences, XXI Conferences of Researchers and Fellows in Legal and Social Sciences; Mar del Plata, Law School (UNMDP), 2017. 

Slavin, Pablo E., “Building Space Justice: Call for the construction of a charter for the right to the city for the party of General Pueyrredón”, Mar del Plata: National University of Mar del Plata, 2019 (in Spanish).

Slavin, Pablo E., “Right to the city, what, whose and for whom?” S.P.E., Research Advances in Legal andSocial Sciences, Mar del Plata: National University of Mar del Plata, 2020 (in Spanish).

Slavin, Pablo E., “And now, where?” S.P.E., Current Debates in Security and Political Philosophy in COVIDTimes, Mar del Plata: National University of Mar del Plata, 2020 (in Spanish).

[1] David Harvey, “The Freedom of the City”, The Politics of Making, edited by M. Swennerton, I. Troiani, and H. Webster,London: Routledge, 2007.

[2] Kliksberg, Bernardo (2014) The pariah of The Earth. Between misery and xenophobia. Editor: Página 12 (in Spanish).

[3] P.E. Slavin, “Building Space Justice: Call for the construction of a charter for the right to the city for the party of GeneralPueyrredón”, Mar del Plata: National University of Mar del Plata, 2019.

[4] Q Digital, 6 January 2021, “OPERATION of ARBA in one of the towers of Pelli: it is declared a wasteland”.

[6] Jean-Pierre Garnier, “The Right to the City from Henri Lefebvre to David Harvey: Between Theorizations and Realization”,Ciudades, vol. 15, pp. 217–225.

[7] David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London and New York: Verso, 2012.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, Buenos Aires: Editorial Antídoto, p. 41.

[10] M. Löwy, “The spark ignites in the action”.

[11] Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, p. 41.

[12] David Harvey, “The Freedom of the City”.

[13] P. E. Slavin, 2020.

[14] H. Ouviña, “Rosa Luxemburg and the Reinvention of Politics: A reading from Latin America”, Buenos Aires: El Colectivo, 2020, p. 195.