March 1, 2020

Reading Rosa Luxemburg in Latin America

Hernán Ouviña

From her initial reception to today’s popular struggles

A spectre is haunting Latin America: the spectre of Rosa Luxemburg. Her spectre soars over the resistance and initiatives led by the most combative sectors of the workers’ movement, indigenous peoples, peasants, popular feminisms, the student body, and migrant communities. Beyond their nuances and possible differences, we can affirm that, as a whole, this melting pot of struggles demonstrates that we live in a historical time in accordance with Luxemburgism.

However, for better or worse, this history is still not fully “history”. For better, because Rosa is far from being a Marxist merely anchored in her era and specific context, as something only situated in the past. To the contrary, today her work—understood as the combination of her thoughts, feelings, and actions—is tremendously topical and enduring. Her concepts and reflections, the sharpness of her critiques, warnings, and denunciations, are premonitory and have enormous validity, not only for going against the grain of what occurred during the twentieth century, but also primarily to analyse—and intervene in—the emancipatory wagers and most radical socio-political process that have unfolded in the Global South, particularly in Latin America. For worse, because the reception, influence, and recreation of Rosa Luxemburg’s work on our continent has still not been reconstructed in all of its richness and complexity. Over the past few years in the region, there have been partial and approximate attempts to address this task, which remains pending and is of the utmost importance. This paper also seeks to contribute to that effort.

In that regard, it is pertinent to start from a certain periodization or unfolding of the cycles of class struggle in the Global South over the past century. There we can identify three major moments, within which the spectre of Rosa encircles, influences, and contributes to the revitalization of Latin American Marxism in a critical and revolutionary register, helping to empower anti-systemic struggles on our continent.

Unity of Theory and Action

The first moment emerges in the heat of the final reflections and militant disputes waged by Rosa herself and primarily concerns the first years following her assassination. Between 1917 and 1923, there was a process of the exacerbation of class struggle that involved—beyond the particularities in each territory—a global dynamic. In this context, the figure of José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930), a Peruvian Marxist and one of the most original militant intellectuals from Latin America, stands out for his suggestive appropriation of the Luxemburgist legacy as well as his notable affinities with respect to Rosa’s path as an uncomfortable revolutionary for her time. In both cases, we are presented with “tragic” figures whose life was abruptly cut short, who battled both against reformism and positivist readings of Marxism, as well as visions that sought to make the Russian Revolution into a “model” that could be replicated in any time and place.

The unbreakable unity between theory and action, the point of view of the totality as the epistemological principle of Marxism, the critique of the Eurocentrism that imbued the immense majority of the Left at that time, the denunciation of the imperial forms of dispossession in the capitalist periphery, the revalorization of communitarian forms of social life, the bitter defence of internationalism without ignoring the situated analysis of reality, the commitment to more democratic organizational forms and faith in the self-emancipatory capacity of the masses are some of the common points that tie them together. They also had similar fates: they were excommunicated by the Third International and the majority of Communist parties, and shortly after dying, their names would go on to become synonymous with political error and theoretical weakness, becoming heresies to be fought against with equal care.

Even if I cannot go into depth here, it is worth highlighting that during his prolonged stay in Europe (where he ascribes to Marxism and experiences what he defines as a “civilizational crisis”), Mariátegui visited Germany in 1922, a moment in which the revolutionary process had still not been definitively closed off in the country. After his return to Peru the following year, he gave a series of presentations at the “González Prada” Popular Universities (a space of political self-education with the same aims as the Party School in Berlin that Rosa was a part of, which served as a place for the articulation of worker, student, and indigenous struggles). He dedicated two of those talks entirely to the analysis of events that had taken place in the German territory, giving a heartfelt portrayal of Rosa in which he said: “Rosa Luxemburg, international figure and intellectual and dynamic figure, also had an eminent position in German socialism. Her twofold capacity for action and thought, for realization and theory, were seen and respected. Rosa Luxemburg was, at the same time, brain and muscle for the German proletariat.”

It would not be the only time that he alluded to her in his writings. At the end of his life, between 1929 and 1930, in a context in which “Luxemburgism” did not enjoy any legitimacy at all among the ranks of the Left, Mariátegui wrote a series of notes entitled Defence of Marxism, in which he vindicated praxis as the backbone of any revolutionary project, that, according to him, implies the creation of men and women who are radically different from those forged by capitalism. Among the names that he highlighted as examples of this type of figure that brings together critical thought, a new sensibility, and transformative action, Rosa once again appears: “And in Rosa Luxemburg, do not the combatant and the artist merge at all times? Who lives the idea and creation with more fullness and intensity? There will come a time in which, despite the conceited professors, who today monopolize the official representation of culture, the astonishing woman who wrote those marvellous letters to Luisa Kautsky from prison, will awaken the same devotion and will receive the same recognition as a Teresa of Ávila. She put a more philosophical and modern spirit than that whole pedantic bunch that ignores her into the tragic poem of her existence, the heroism, the beauty, the agony, and the joy, that is not taught in any school of wisdom.”

This defence of Luxemburg led Mariátegui to translate Rosa’s text “Christmas in the Asylum of Night” and publish it in the magazine Amauta (of which he was the founder and director until his death) on the tentb anniversary of her assassination in 1929. In early 1930, he also edited, in that same magazine, an extensive article paying homage to the Polish revolutionary, written by the Argentinian poet and leftist activist Nydia Lamarque, entitled “The Heroic Life of Rosa Luxemburg”, whose suggestive complementary illustration is a drawing of an indigenous “spinner” from the Andes. It is quite the symbol despite ethnic, geographic, and philosophical differences. Weaving networks and ideas, threading together struggles, and linking resistances both in the European core (where the urban proletariat took on a fundamental role) as well as the peripheries of the Global South (in which peasant and indigenous communities resisted accumulation by dispossession with determination) was something that preoccupied Rosa throughout her busy and intense militant life.

Exhuming Luxemburgism

The defeat and gradual declining ebb of all these struggles, the brutal repression committed by fascism and Nazism, as well as the consolidation of Stalinism within leftist parties, led to an extremely adverse context for critical Marxism and an almost total eclipsing of those traditions that had distanced themselves from social democracy and Leninism. However, the decade of the 1960s would be a second moment of resurgence and outburst of popular struggles, which allows for rescuing Rosa’s work in the wake of the rebellions experienced in much of the Global South.

This new global insubordination, whose emblematic years were 1967, 1968, and 1969, becomes conducive for the exhumation of Rosa as a heterodox and comprehensive anti-capitalist militant. In the multitudinous demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, alongside signs featuring Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, those with her unforgettable face stand out. Her proposal were revitalized in the French May, Italy’s Hot Autumn, and the student movement and extra-parliamentary Left in Germany. If the Cuban Revolution had already opened a period of recreating critical thought in Latin America early on, the insurgent movements and popular rebellions in diverse territories of our continent carried Rosa’s contributions into the present.

Within the constellation of currents of the New Left that emerged forcefully in those years, it is worth highlighting an Argentinian political-cultural group known as Pasado y Presente (“Past and Present”), that in a clear break with the most orthodox Marxist traditions published a homonymous magazine and series of notebooks in book format (which, over a period of more than a decade, came to have a total circulation of almost one million copies). They published several books and articles by Rosa Luxemburg that which were previously unavailable in Spanish. Facing a brutal military dictatorship, Pasado y Presente circulated their ideas in the city of Cordoba as that city was shaken up by a political mass strike with insurrectional overtones known as the “Cordobazo”, involving the proliferation of barricades and confrontations with police forces, going beyond the union and party leadership through a healthy and combative spontaneity.

Among the various writings they published, one was key for understanding those unprecedented processes of popular self-activity: The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, was published in Argentina (and for the first time anywhere in Spanish) in May 1970 on the first anniversary of the “Cordobazo”, which was followed by similar rebellions across the country and continent. Simultaneously with the diffusion of this cursed writing by Rosa that, according to Pasado y Presente, “can yield many valid teachings and reflections for the examination of current times”, they published the text Organizational Problems of Russian Social Democracy, the rough draft entitled The Russian Revolution, the Anti-critique, a response to questioning of her book The Accumulation of Capital, as well as the Introduction to Political Economy, posthumous material of enormous importance for the Latin American experience, and several articles and documents linked to the national question in Poland and Europe.

José Aricó, the most well-known member of Pasado y Presente and translator of some of those texts, affirms that publishing Luxemburg in those years was above all a political act, that “acquires a double meaning: that of a tribute to the revolutionary assassinated by Noske’s rat, and in turn that of rescuing a theoretical and political theory that is fundamental for Marxism, but was silenced for years by Stalinism.” With so much convulsion in Latin America, that generation recognized that “Rosa Luxemburg’s thought has a surprising topicality”. I believe that the innovative experience of Pasado y Presente is related to what Frigga Haug defined as the “Luxemburgist-Gramscian” line, insofar as their political-cultural initiatives and reflections were able to combine the best of those heterodox Marxists, uncomfortable for both Social Democracy and Leninism in its Stalinist variety.

As can be seen by reviewing the publication dates of the books and materials that address Rosa’s work on our continent, her own work and that focused on her enjoyed its greatest diffusion during the 1970s. Undoubtedly, the Latin American and global context required theoretical-analytical tools and militant intervention that would run counter to the dogmatisms that predominated until then. Rosa’s writings are—through an exercise of translation and updating—a powerful compass in that emotional historic time of capitalist crisis, in which the politicization of the popular classes and the rise of struggles constituted an invariant condition of the era. Luxemburgist work emerged in this decisive moment with enormous potential to put forward political wagers on an anti-authoritarian and radical socialism, against any bureaucratic or purely parliamentarian logic, privileging popular protagonism from below, based on a feeling more in line with the enormous challenges of a conjuncture that is primarily about demanding the impossible.

However, the decline that followed this period of protest and planetary discontent—marked by a counterrevolution that involves a generalized exercise of state and paramilitary terrorism in much of the Global South during the 1970s and 1980s as well as authoritarian statism and neoliberal offensive deployed in Europe over these decades, and the confusion and unease as a result of the implosion of the self-proclaimed socialist regimes—diminished Marxism’s vitality as a conception of the world and compass for transformative action.

New Uprisings, New Horizons

The new cycle of popular struggles and challenge to neoliberalism in the region that emerged in the 1990s was the opportunity for Rosa to return as a theoretical-political reference that was increasingly important in the resistances unfolding throughout the continent, led by unprecedented social movements and grassroots organizations. The Caracazo of 1989 in Venezuela, the indigenous rebellion in the Ecuadorian territory in 1990, the commemoration of 500 years of resistance to colonial oppression in 1992, and the Zapatista uprising on 1 January 1994 in Chiapas, the water and gas wars in Bolivia, 19 and 20 December 2001 in Argentina, as well as countless processes of mass insubordination were precursors of this new phase of mass discontent and protest. They were also important moments of self-affirmation and the construction of territorial power that remain despite changes in government and have gained momentum with the feminist and popular-communitarian movements against extractivism and multiple forms of violence against bodies. During 2019 those movements included true mass political strikes and street revolts (the majority of a spontaneous character) in countries such as Haiti, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador, which make Rosa’s elucidations on this matter even more vital.

In this sense, we are part of a new intellectual and militant generation that, particularly in recent years, has tried to bring certain Luxemburgist ideas and hypotheses to the present and recreate them, with the goal of contributing to the reflection and action of leftist organizations and popular movements that are anti-capitalist, anticolonial, anti-imperial, and anti-patriarchal. Although there are numerous contributions that Rosa’s work can provide to the current Latin American conjuncture, I cannot go into depth about them here. However, I would like to state at least some of her principle contributions that we have had the opportunity to confirm and converse with movements and organizations from different South American countries in the context of the political education workshops carried out in 2018 and 2019, which we plan to repeat this year in other Latin American territories thanks to support from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Briefly, those contributions are:

  1. The point of view of the totality, the revolutionary dialectic and historical praxis, as the epistemological-political principles of a non-schematic and non-mechanistic Marxism.
  2. The suggestive reading of the link between capitalism and colonialism to build a more complex understanding of the dynamics of exploitation, debt, and dispossession that involve a violent, asymmetrical, and unequal relation between the global cores and peripheries. This reading is based on a perspective that comprehends capitalism as a constitutively conflictive and imperial world-system constantly in search of new markets and far from homogeneous or harmonic in its configuration.
  3. The capacity for combining the denunciation of misogyny, confrontation against the patriarchy, and promotion of women’s leadership with the impulse and importance of class struggle in such a way that these different and complementary modalities of oppression can be combatted from a comprehensive perspective. Multiple feminist collectives and organizations, rooted in “intersectional” struggle, today raise the figure of Rosa in mobilizations and self-affirmation processes across the Global South. For them, she is a key reference who dared to challenge men’s monopoly over political work and thought and to characterize women workers as “the most dispossessed of rights of all the dispossessed”, while also never ceasing to critique bourgeois feminism that, dissociating itself from those struggles, underestimates and even drinks the fruit of class domination.
  4. The close relationship between socialism and democracy, which involves reformulating their link in the function of a non-instrumental perspective, in which means and ends are articulated and mutually condition one another, to the point that the path is as important as the goal. Thus, the exercise of a socialist democracy tying together liberty and equality does not begin, following Rosa, “only in the promised land”, but rather must be prefigured here and now, in every chink and crack of everyday life.
  5. Activism against war and militarism, which is being revitalized today in the heat of what the Zapatistas have defined as the “Fourth World War”. Certain feminists argue that this conflict takes women’s bodies as the main spoils of war and territory of dispute, and the international strike called again for this 8 March aims precisely to denounce this systematic violence with the shout “We want ourselves alive!”
  6. The critique of ultra-centralist and bureaucratic forms of organization that, according to Rosa, must be replaced by a democratic and participatory organization-process, with constant movement and dynamism and an experimental character open to collective learning depending on the fluctuations of the class struggle and mass spontaneity. This feature is seen in countless social movements and spaces of popular self-organization that have emerged in Latin America in recent decades in the heat of the resistance against neoliberalism. These movements have also managed to generate, as Rosa insisted, bridges of mutual interaction and instances of confluence during successive “waves” of street struggle between activists who are organized and sectors that, despite not being organized, demonstrate an enormous spirit of struggle and high levels of self-consciousness. 
  7. The wager on dialectically articulating reform and revolution that in Rosa’s words involves “the union of the everyday struggle with the great task of transforming the world”. This means that the former promotes the conquest of “non-reformist reforms”, enabling mechanisms of rupture and foci of counterpower and contributing to the strengthening of a global strategic vision that, at the same time, impels those partial demands again based on a long-term emancipatory and counter-hegemonic perspective.
  8. Internationalism as an unswerving political principle. For her, anti-imperialism and active solidarity between the oppressed classes of the world were not subject to pragmatic or conjunctural conveniences but constituted an ethical attitude of a strategic nature that should be exercised on an everyday level by putting one’s body on the line, not through discourses and documents that are exhausted in a mere rhetoric of complaint. Today this conviction is updated as an accurate antidote to the exacerbation of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia in slogans such as that of the Latin American peasant movements, who shout in unison “Let’s globalize the struggle, let’s globalize hope!”
  9. The demand for the full recognition of plurinationality in those territories and concrete cases in which territorial self-administration, cultural freedom, and the use of a native language merit being recognized as genuine demands of subjugated peoples and nations without necessarily being equivalent to “secessionism”. There are clear parallels between this initiative, which Rosa conceives for situations such as that of the vast and mottled Russian territory, and the demand made by many indigenous peoples and nationalities in Latin America. Far from demanding a complete separation or the creation of their own state in a mono-ethnic or monolingual form, they advocate for plurinational states in which hierarchical and racist logics are suppressed, opening the way for a real process of comprehensive decolonization.
  10. The extreme sensibility and empathy for nature, which allows for characterizing her as one of the first Marxists to prioritize the ecological and environmental question, by vindicating a strong defence of all living beings as well as the earth against the voracity, contamination, and violence that capitalism imposes in its thirst for accumulation and constant dispossession. Rosa has an “elective affinity” with anti-extractivist struggles, Buen Vivir, and the cosmovision of numerous Latin American indigenous peoples, Afro-descendent communities, and peasant organizations that postulate that nature, just like human beings, has rights that cannot be sacrificed at the altar of what has been badly named as “progress”.

All of these idea-forces together form an unavoidable beacon for the refoundation of socialism as an alternative civilizational project, against the barbarism that capitalism, patriarchy, and coloniality seek to impose. Rosa, unlike many Marxist references that are no longer read today, or whose writings and proposals seem ancient and part of the old that is dying, stands out for her joviality, radicalism, and indiscipline, and for the extreme topicality of her work for this convulsed twenty-first century that we seek to transform at its root. Therefore, bringing her into the present would be, in turn, an opportunity to re-establish those strategic debates in the very heart of the emancipatory projects and experiences that flourish on our continent. Ultimately, if we are sure of one thing, it is that the coming revolutions in the Global South will be for the conquest of bread, but also for the flowering of roses.

Hernán Ouviña is an Argentinian activist and author of the book Rosa Luxemburgo y la reinvención de la política. Una lectura desde América Latina (Buenos  Aires: Editorial El Colectivo, 2019). He organizes workshops for social  organizations and teaches at the Institute of Latin American and  Caribbean Studies at the University of Buenos Aires. Translation by Liz  Mason-Deese.