January 9, 2019

Rosa in Translation

Peter Hudis

A brief introduction to the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg

Peter Hudis is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Oakton Community College (Des Plaines, Illinois). He is author of Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Brill, 2012) and Frantz Fanon, Philosopher of the Barricades (Pluto, 2015). His edited volumes include The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx, by Raya Dunayevskaya (Lexington, 2002); The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (Monthly Rrview, 2004); The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 2013); and The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 (Verso, 2013, 2015, and 2018).

Interest in Rosa Luxemburg’s life and work has grown significantly in recent years, as seen in several new book-length studies of her work as well numerous essays, book chapters, and conference presentations that explore her legacy in relation to ongoing debates in socialist theory, feminism, post-colonial theory, and Marxist political economy. This is largely due to the emergence of a new generation of socialist activists and theorists who are looking for theoretical resources to help develop an emancipatory alternative to capitalism. As the logic of capital increasingly colonizes ever more arenas of everyday life, putting at risk the very sustainability of life on this planet as we know it, the need for a viable emancipatory alternative becomes more pressing than ever. Renowned for both her opposition to capitalism and criticisms of reformist as well as authoritarian-statist variants of socialism, Luxemburg has much to say to those searching for a revolutionary new beginning in the twenty-first century.

Yet it is very difficult to critically evaluate, let alone appropriate, a thinker’s ideas without having access to all of her works. Luxemburg, who was one of the most prolific writers of the socialist tradition, created a vast and multi-dimensional body of writings that for many years has not been fully available. Although the renowned Luxemburg scholar Annelies Laschitza edited a German edition of her collected works (the Gesammelte Werke, published by Dietz Verlag in Berlin) several decades ago, it was only in the last few years that 2,000 additional pages of her previously unpublished writings in German were discovered and published as supplementary volumes. Meanwhile, several thousand additional pages of writings originally composed in Polish have yet to be published even in German.

For the English-speaking world, the lack of accessibility to the full scope of her writings is far more striking. Although her principle political works (such as Reform or Revolution, The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions, and The Russian Revolution) were made available in English long ago, dozens of essays and speeches and hundreds of articles have yet to be translated. One of her most important works of economic theory—The Introduction to Political Economy—only became available in English a few years ago (in Volume I of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg). Moreover, although Luxemburg’s letters have long been a source of attraction for those drawn to her personal and political temperament, less than 20 percent of her total correspondence has made it into English. In sum, at least two-thirds of her overall body of work remains out of reach to the Anglophone reader.

 In order to fill this gap, Verso Books (in collaboration with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and Dietz Verlag) is issuing the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg in English. It will consist of everything she ever wrote—books, essays, articles, speeches, manuscripts, and letters. Much of the material has only been discovered in recent years and/or identified as written by her (her newspaper articles were often unsigned). Materials that were previously in English will be newly translated; those in English for the first time will be translated from the original German, Polish, and Russian.

The Complete Works is divided into three rubrics: “Economic Writings” (three volumes), “Political Writings” (nine volumes), and “Correspondence” (five volumes). Three volumes have appeared so far. Volume I (published in 2013) mainly contains economic writings that were not previously available in English, such as the Introduction to Political Economy and a series of manuscripts on pre-capitalist society and economic history composed as part of her work at the German Social Democratic Party’s school from 1907 to 1914. Volume II (published in 2015) includes new translations of her two most important books—The Accumulation of Capital and the Anti-Critique—as well as an essay on Volumes Two and Three of Marx’s Capital. A third volume of Economic Writings, consisting of manuscripts that have only recently come to light, will be published in the coming period. The Political Writings are arranged thematically: three volumes “On Revolution”; two of “Debates on Organization”; three of “The National Question”; one of “Colonial Policy and Imperialism”; and one of “Culture and Miscellaneous Journalism.” The first of the three volumes “On Revolution,” containing writings from 1897 to the end of 1905, was published in January 2019 as Volume III of the Complete Works.

Most of the writings in Volume III consist of articles, reports and commentaries on one of the most important revolutions of the modern era—the 1905 Russian Revolution. This was not a matter of theorizing about a revolution from afar. Luxemburg composed a virtual daily blog of the revolution as it was unfolding. It is quite unusual for a Marxist theoretician to provide a day-by-day and blow-by-blow account of a revolution while it is occurring. Whereas other leading Marxists of the time tended to write treatises on the “meaning” of the revolution based on the application of an abstract schema “predicting” its “inevitable” course of development, Luxemburg sought to capture the texture and tempo of the revolution by approaching it with open eyes. In doing so, we are made to feel the rhythm of the revolution—its rapid advances and occasional retreats, its moving forward by involving greater layers of the populace and the difficulties it faces as conflicts emerge when faced with vicious repression. In reading these translations of her reports in the German and Polish press, “The Revolution” ceases to be an abstraction but steps forth in all its fortuitousness. It served as the source material for much of her later theoretical work, such as The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions. Volume IV and V, which are now in preparation, will contain her writings “On Revolution” from 1906 to 1909 and 1910 to 1919, respectively.

In addition, Verso Books published a companion volume to the series in 2011—a translation of Annelies Laschitza and Georg Adler’s Herzlichst Ihrer Rosa, published as The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. This 600-page edition represents the largest collection of her letters ever published in English, and most of them are available to the English-speaking public for the first time. Here is where can see Rosa’s unique personality emerge most clearly and movingly, as she reveals her innermost thoughts and feelings to an assortment of friends and political associates.

Since Luxemburg is perhaps most renowned for her internationalism, it may be fitting to conclude with a few words as to how I became involved in the formidable challenge of helping to compile her Complete Works in English. I was fascinated by Luxemburg’s independent spirit and theoretical rigor when I first encountered her work while searching for a fresh voice in what often seemed an arid and sectarian US Left. My interest in her work only intensified when I did research for a work on Luxemburg published by the Marxist-Humanist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya in the early 1980s (I served as her secretary for the last years of her life). Many years later, when I began to write more on Luxemburg, I was invited to conferences on her thought in Germany, China, Brazil, and South Africa. At the latter, I met a number of youth from the townships who were reading Luxemburg and wanted to know how to obtain more of her writings. As I discussed this over dinner with a group of Luxemburg scholars, Arndt Hopfmann from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung said, “What is really needed is an English Complete Works! Peter, why don’t you help put one together?” The idea sounded a bit outlandish—where would the resources for such a project come from? Thanks to many discussions with members of the Stiftung—especially Evelin Wittich, without whose aid and support our work would not be possible—the project began to come together.

No one did more to preserve, record, research, edit, and publish the work of Rosa Luxemburg than Annelies Laschtiza. She literally spent half a century devoted to disseminating her legacy, and we owe everything to her. Without her indefatigable labors there would be no Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg. Her passing in December 2018 is a great blow; we can only hope we are capable of remaining true to her efforts.

P.S., Although the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung has provided important support for our project, none of us who work on it receive any financial compensation. All monies raised go to pay for costs of translations. For those who can assist our need for additional funds for translations, you are welcome to make a contribution through the Toledo Translation Fund.