Michael Brie on the meaning of Luxemburg’s work for socialist politics today
A century after her violent death in the night of 15–16 January 1919, the words from Rosa Luxemburg’s The Russian Revolution continue to echo. The goal of proletarian revolution should be “a dictatorship of the class, not of a party or of a clique—and dictatorship of the class means: in full view of the broadest public, with the most active, uninhibited participation of the popular masses in an unlimited democracy” (Luxemburg 2004, 308). Even enemies should be granted the freedom of political articulation. Luxemburg demanded directly socialist means of socialising production. Michael Brie focuses primarily on her lived and living socialism. This is done against the backdrop of the following question: What is the meaning of Luxemburg’s work for contemporary attempts to strategically ground a left socialist politics?
So you ask me what I’m missing. As a matter of fact of life!
(GB 1: 159)
Many politicians can be reduced to oneconcept; Luxemburg, on the other hand, is a realm of lived contradictions. Although she carefully guarded her personal life and maintained its free spaces down to the smallest detail, this life and her political activism were but two sides of one and the same life well-lived. Luxemburg’s relationship to the world and to herself cannot be separated. Time and again, she was prepared to sacrifice her life—first as a grammar school student, then in the 1905–1906 Russian Revolution, in Russian and German prisons and in the November Revolution. And she enjoyed life—the older she grew, all the more consciously and intensely. Whoever wants to understand Luxemburg must read her letters in addition to her published writings. Rather than mere supplements to her articles and books, they are on par with them. For Karl Kraus, her letters from prison were a “document of humanity and poetry unique in the Germanophone world” (cited in Hetmann 1998, 6). Within them, the meaning of her successful life as a socialist becomes clear. The relationship between Luxemburg’s political and theoretical texts on the one hand and her letters on the other reflect the tensions of her life, and whoever has failed to understand these has understood nothing of Luxemburg. Her life cannot be measured alone by her works: she did not found a state like Lenin or write a tome for the millennia like Marx’s Capital. Her political impact remained limited, and while her economic writings are important, they are equalled by the writings of several of her Marxist contemporaries.
Yet to measure Luxemburg by the immediate effect of her work is to miss her genuine lasting importance. After all, there is something else that makes Luxemburg stand out to the great extent she does: her life itself. Luxemburg’s magnum opus, not just philosophical in nature, was “the exemplary life she led” (Caysa 2017, 38). Her genius expressed itself in this life, a life both highly personal and political, one filled with both practical interventions of existential consequence and with theoretical reflection; the life of a gifted journalist and speaker engaged with the masses, and that of a person who would withdraw entirely into herself, into painting, music, plants and animals. Often she completely immersed herself “from morning to evening” in writing, in painting, in botany. At those times, it was as if she were intoxicated (GB 5, 74, 234). Shortly thereafter she would dash from one mass rally to the next. These pursuits did not exist parallel to each other but rather formed the poles of intensely lived, mutually affecting contrasts. As Walter Jens wrote, Luxemburg attempted to live an existence “in which, from private person and zoon politikon, a harmonious nature moulded by self-identity and an open relation to the world would result” (Jens 1995, 13). In a manner that remains exemplary, Luxemburg lived socialism as solidary-emancipatory movement in which the transformation of the world and the self are unified. […]
Reading Luxemburg’s political and theoretical writings requires penetrating the largely outdated language of the Marxism of the Second International. Many key words no longer have a living correspondent and need to be reconstructed. The naturalness with which she spoke of the working class or proletariat, of reform and revolution, of party and socialism, is from another time. But getting past this language allows one to unlock the lived reality behind it and discover the enduring reason for her radiance over an entire century: her empathetically sensitive relationship to the world. She searched for intimacy in everything, and addressed the world intimately. The power of this form of relating to the world resulted from the strength of her own personality, from her “soul”. In an 1899 letter to Leo Jogiches, she remarked: “It’s the form of my writing that no longer satisfies me. In my “soul” a totally new, original form is ripening that ignores all rules and conventions. It breaks them by the power of ideas and strong conviction. I want to affect people like a clap of thunder, to inflame their minds not by speechifying but with the breadth of my vision, the strength of my conviction, and the power of my expression.” (Luxemburg 2004, 382)
A paradox remains: Luxemburg was at once both sighted and blind. She had boundless optimism regarding the capacity of workers to achieve the insight necessary to overcome their capitalist unfreedom. Every single struggle seemed to her to point beyond the here and now. Accommodation to the status quo and self-satisfaction were two things that were unbearable to her. Presciently, she was able to conceive of the Russian Revolution of 1905 as an expression of human self-organisation and self-empowerment at its most vibrant while almost completely overlooking the indispensable role of firmly established organizations, seeing them as tools of domination. She insisted on a class solidarity that transcends all borders between nations, races and genders, thus refusing to lay claim to particular “Jewish pains” and rejecting the independence of struggles against patriarchy and national oppression. For her, everything was part of a common socialist struggle that should not be divided. This is why one finds in her work no strategically compelling answer to the question of how to acknowledge divisions while realizing a politics of solidarity that points beyond these to that which is held in common. She saw herself as an idealist, as much as she appealed to economic interests.
Rosa Luxemburg was neither primarily a strategist like Lenin nor a theorist like Kautsky, neither a sceptic like Bernstein nor an organic intellectual like Gramsci. She was, rather, in an entirely Old Testament sense and yet also a very modern one, a prophet—a “guide on the path out of the house of slaves” (Veerkamp 2015, 53).
Luxemburg […] wanted to find in reality that which matched herself: the will, with head held high, to shape the world in a more humane way; the radicalness to desire complete emancipation; the love that seizes the other entirely and comes from one’s innermost being; the beauty that lies in every leaf, in every birdsong, in every harmony; the idea that casts the world in a new light. […] Her sense of self was not lost in her contact with the outside world (GB 2, 290). During the war, she wrote from prison: “As for me, in recent times I, who certainly was never soft, have become as hard as polished steel and from now on will neither politically nor in personal relations make even the slightest concession” (Luxemburg 2011, 362f).
And at the same time, she could display the utmost vulnerability, such as she does in a letter to her friend Hans Diefenbach (who died on the front in October 1917) from 30 March 1917: “In the midst of my lovely, laboriously achieved state of equilibrium, last nicht before going to sleep I was again seized by a despair blacker than the night. And today is also another gray day, without sun—a cold east wind … I feel like a frozen bumblebee […]. I always made it my business to kneel down next to such a frozen bumblebee and waken it back to life by blowing on it with my warm breath. If only the sun would wake poor me from this deathly coldness!” (Luxemburg 2011, 384)
Luxemburg’s highest principle was “always to be myself, without any regard to the surroundings or other people”. To this, she added: “I am an idealist and will remain one, as much in the German movement as in the Polish” (Ibid.). Within others and the world, she sought that which corresponded to her innermost being. When she spoke emphatically about socialism, about the fundamental ingenuity of humans who have set themselves in motion, about what the party needed to do, about pre-capitalist or post-capitalist societies, she captured these things always in a way that filled her with enthusiasm and resonated with her personality. And when she wrote of death in poorhouses, of the victims of colonialism and war, of a buffalo being beaten, she expressed her own suffering as well.
Thus, she identified the “most valuable legacy” of Marx as the connection between two contradictions: “theoretical immersion in order to guide our daily struggle with the steady helm of principle, and resolute revolutionary drive so that the major period we are approaching might not be restricted to a minor lineage” (GW 3, 184). This here was a self-portrait. She expressed her admiration for the political mass strike in words that matched what she hoped to achieve in her own work: “from the whirlwind and the storm, out of the fire and glow of the mass strike and the street fighting rise again, like Venus from the foam, fresh, young, powerful, buoyant trade unions” (Luxemburg 2004, 186).
In 1915, she wrote the following regarding work in socialist organisations: “Though we, the soul that thirsts for free humanity, might not be worthy to ever taste at the springs of socialism and drink new life from it, what the hour demands from us could be more than enough [to tide us over]. What we do for the organisation and through it has to be like a bowl filled to the brim with socialist spirit. Then and only then will it [socialism] receive its true purpose and higher consecration.” (GW 7, 936).
She saw herself as someone who lent the socialist spirit expression. Without this spirit, the bowl that contained it [the socialist organisation] would be to her but a dead husk [Hülle] and a personal hell [Hölle]. Her willingness to face defeat or even death rather than fail to live in accordance with her ideals arose from the direct unity between the deepest recesses of her personality and the global movement for which she advocated. She saw herself as “a country of unlimited possibilities” (GB 5, 157) and sought in reality the kinds of movements, of people, of ideas and of forms that also sought to explode borders.
In Prison: With Herself and the World
The character of a person reveals itself most of all when one is deprived of the sanctuary of privacy. Prisons are places where this happens. […] Already by the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg had been jailed several times. During the war, she spent a year in the women’s prison on Barnimstrasse in Berlin, and then after a short interruption in the spring of 1916 as a “protective custody prisoner” in Wronke and Breslau before her release in 1918. In the “involuntary leisure” (GB 5, 130) of her imprisonment in Berlin, she wrote among other texts the “Junius Pamphlet” and a response to the critique of her Accumulation of Capital, an “anti-critique”. Towards the end of her sentence, she translated the first part of the memoir of the Russian-Ukranian Social-Revolutionary writer Vladimir G. Korolenko and wrote an introduction to it, managed to smuggle out many articles and of course engaged with the Russian Revolution as well.
Just as noteworthy as her theoretical and political prison writings—and the fact that she was able to compose them given her situation—were her ability and willpower to live in prison with the intensity that she did. As she wrote, she obeyed an imperative: “above all one must at all times live as a complete human being” (Luxemburg 2011, 375).
She did this in several ways. First, as far as her circumstances, the wardens and their higher ups allowed, she made an effort to transform the prison into a living space, bestowing upon it trappings of home even under the most wretched conditions. She tried to keep up with old habits. Her flats had always been tremendously important to her. They needed to match her—ordered and as close to nature as possible. Even her prison cells were “cosily” fashioned, as far as this was possible at all. In Wronke, she planted a garden and continued to pursue botany. As much as she could, she always maintained a disciplined daily routine. Second, she carried on her dialogue with friends and forged new relationships. What she lacked in direct contact, she made up for with postal correspondences of utmost intensity. Third, she stayed politically active, intervening and continuing to try to reach and enlighten people with her words. And fourth, she used the time for theoretical and cultural reflection. Thanks to her charismatic personality, she managed at least in Wronke to receive substantial perks (cf. the memoirs of the prison director, Dr. Ernst Dossmann, in GW 7, 971, 995).
As Luxemburg repeated time and again in her speeches and articles, “[a]s Lassalle said, the most revolutionary act is and forever remains ‘to say loudly what is’” (GW 2, 36, cf. also the footnote in GW 7.2, 577 for the Lassalle quotation). For Luxemburg, speaking truth involved several dimensions.
First, from it stemmed the demand to create and obtain political spaces in which the freedom of those who thought differently would be protected above all. Here, even the enemy would remain inviolate when speaking. Only in this space of free speech could self-empowerment and self-determination unfold. Thus, for Luxemburg, democracy was not a transitional phase, and the dictatorship of the proletariat should be moulded by “unrestricted freedom of press and assembly” (Luxemburg 2004, 307). How else, she asked, would “the rule of the broad mass of the people” be possible (Ibid., 304)?
Second, Luxemburg’s version of speaking truth is not to be confused with non-committal chatter. […] Truth lies first and foremost in the speaker him- or herself. Primarily, it consists of personal statements that are authenticated by one’s own activity. Luxemburg’s legacy lies above all in confronting the contradictions of life as a socialist with the utmost rigour, far beyond even the point at which rigour becomes the grossest negligence and can mean death. While the imperial prosecutor at her 1913 trial recommended she be taken into custody immediately, Luxemburg shouted at the end of her defendant’s speech: “A Social Democrat does not flee. He stands by his actions and laughs at your punishments. And now sentence me!” (quoted in Fröhlich 2010, 177).
Luxemburg distinguished herself by standing by her words. In this regard, she was also radical. And this alone is what made her a worthy speaker of truth. The truth of her speech lay in the truth of her life, her speaking of truth was above all the expression of a truth vouched for in personal life. She was of the same mind as the Book of Revelation: “So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).
Third, speaking truth expresses faith in those spoken to. They as well should not remain lukewarm, neither as political subjects nor as humans. Thus wrote Luxemburg to Kostja Zetkin in preparation for the “Junius Pamphlet”: “Today, I was at an opera house concert, Beethoven’s piano concert was gorgeous. While I listened to the music, there grew within me a cold hatred of the thugs under whom I must live. I feel that now a book must be written about what’s happening that neither man nor woman has read, not even the oldest people, a book that would smash this herd with crushing blows.” (GB 5, 28).
By speaking truth, she wanted to urge others to take up the true life, to compel them to do so with force of language. And this pertained also to her personal relationships, as is especially visible in a letter to Leo Jogiches, her life partner, from 21 March 1895: “Ah, you Gold! I have some very fearsome intentions for you, you know! Really, while I’ve been here, I’ve been letting it run through my head a little, the question of our relationship, and when I return I’m going to take you in my claws so sharply that it will make you squeal, you’ll see. I will terrorize you completely. You will have to submit [pokorit’sa]. You will have to give in and bow down. That is the condition for our living together further. I must break you, [and] grind the sharp edges off your horns, or else I can’t continue with you/ You are a bad-tempered person, and now, within myself, I am as sure of that as that the sun is in the sky, after having thought about your entire spiritual physiognomy. And I’ll smother this rage and fury that you have in yourself as sure as I’m alive. Such weeds can’t be allowed to get in among the cabbages. I have the right to do this because I’m ten times better than you, and I quite consciously condemn this very salient aspect of your character.” (Luxemburg 2011, 32)
Fourth, for Luxemburg, to speak truth was to produce a true reality—truer relationships, truer forms of life, truer politics—be this reality as it may an ontological anticipation [Vor-Schein], as Ernst Bloch termed it (cf. Jameson 1971, 150 for translation). Her speech praxis took itself to be a lived anticipation of that which is possible, which could become reality, if people live in truth. In her work The Russian Revolution, she formulated an alternative vision to the emerging “real socialism” in the Bolshevik mould: “The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history, which—just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part—has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution” (Luxemburg 2004, 306).
This socialism would be a society of lived diversity, one whose innermost content would approach Rosa Luxemburg, the Rosa Luxemburg of whom Paul Levi wrote the following in 1922: “At the bottom of her consistent soul, she knew no divisions and walls. For her, the universe was a living process of becoming, in which leverage and oxygen-reserves cannot replace the workings of nature, in which the struggle, striving and contention of human beings, the great struggle that is incumbent on individuals, generations, strata and classes, is the form of becoming. This did not mean she did not want people to struggle because everything happens of itself, she rather wanted the most active struggle, since this is the most active form of becoming.” (Levi 2011, 251)
Fifth, Luxemburg’s speaking of truth stemmed from Marxism. […] Luxemburg lived the contradictions of Marxism. For her, it was neither a pure doctrine nor an order of the convinced, neither formalised ideology nor a mere political instrument, but rather a way of life and the only possible—revolutionary—Realpolitik. As she wrote in 1903, Luxemburg saw herself confronted with the “undeniable” fact that “Marx has had a somewhat restrictive influence upon the free development of theory in the case of many of his pupils” (Luxemburg 1927). She referred to the “scrupulous endeavour to keep ‘within the bounds of Marxism’” which “may at times have been just as disastrous to the integrity of the thought process as has been the other extreme—the complete repudiation of the Marxist outlook, and the determination to manifest ‘independence of thought’ at all hazards” (Ibid.). This of course raises the question whether within the framework of Marxism—or, within which Marxism—the contradictions lived by Luxemburg can be discussed productively.
Freedom is Always the Freedom of Others
Against all opportunism, Luxemburg claimed that true freedom, as opposed to covert pressure to fit in, must actively promote the freedom of others in their otherness. In this regard, she anticipated modern social movements. She strove for a vibrant world, one in which many worlds would have a place. Equality under freedom is an equality of differences. Comportment as a free human being, as she understood and practiced it, consists precisely of giving others the possibility to be free as others. And before this freedom becomes a right, it exists as the imperative to overcome all relationships of exploitation and oppression—especially towards those who think differently—involved in one’s own actions.
Freedom, according to Rosa Luxemburg’s conception of it, is infinitely far removed from market-liberal egoism or the cult of self-actualisation. Freedom, as practiced by Rosa Luxemburg herself as a social virtue, was a struggle for the freedom of others. A free society is not one in which citizens only defend themselves against their own oppression. As experience shows, such citizens will all too hastily partake in the oppression of others when doing so is permitted by power relations and appears advantageous to their own interests. Only those are truly free who also defend others from oppression, even when they themselves would profit from it. Luxemburg envisioned freedom in part as a way of acting that builds relationships through which other also gain access to the conditions of freedom. This applies equally to the question of the fundamental goods of freedom, such as the dismantling of privileges that do not contribute to overcoming social inequality. However, dismantling such privileges is impossible without fundamentally transforming relationships of property and power, and without overcoming the dominance of profit over economy and society. This is why she was a socialist.
Only that society can be called free in which every individual is free. Yet this is only possible if the free development of each contributes to the solidary development of all. And according to Luxemburg, only blind believers or cynics can believe that the “invisible” hand of the market or the “visible” hand of the state will ensure this happens without our involvement. To not be involved would mean nothing other than to comfortably or cowardly delegate the responsibility for freedom to others and thereby to become unfree. In this sense, politics for Luxemburg was always rebellious participation in emancipatory, solidary praxis. The freedom to invest money whose movement leads to a complete valorisation of capital, its domination of global society and its distribution of wealth and poverty, health and sickness, education and illiteracy, peace and war between opposing social groups, classes, peoples and parts of the globe—this was for Rosa Luxemburg cruel oppression. A freedom that consists of a small percentage of the globe’s population consuming most of its resources was denounced by her as brutal domination. The highly militarised “peaceful world order” was for her the militaristic politics of empire. The recently established freedom to acquire genetic codes and bodies of knowledge as private property would have been castigated by her as criminal plunder. The annihilation of earth’s biodiversity replete with the abuse of its fauna and destruction of its fauna would have been condemned by her as barbarism.
Among the most persistent prejudices of liberal society is the idea that freedom stands opposed to equality and justice. Rosa Luxemburg’s conception of freedom has solidarity as its basis. Only those who enable others to lead free lives act justly. […] To have left behind this legacy, to have displayed it in her life, is what constitutes the wonder that is Rosa Luxemburg.
Literature by Rosa Luxemburg
- GB Gesammelte Briefe. Edited by Annelies Laschitza, Günter Radczun and Georg Adler. Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag.
- GW Gesammelte Werke. Edited by Annelies Laschitza and Eckhard Müller. Berlin: Karl Dietz Verlag.
- 1927. “Stagnation and Progress of Marxism”. In Karl Marx: Man, Thinker and Revolutionist. Edited by David Ryazanov. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. New York: International Publishers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1903/misc/stagnation.htm. Accessed 11 January 2018.
- 2004. The Rosa Luxemburg Reader. Edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- 2011. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. Edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza. Translated by George Shriver. London: Verso. epub.
Literature by Other Authors
- Fröhlich, Paul. 2010. Rosa Luxemburg. Ideas in Action. Translated by Johanna Hoornweg. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
- Hetmann, Frederik. 1998. Eine Kerze, die an beiden Seiten brennt. Das Leben der Rosa Luxemburg (A Candle Burning at Both Ends: The Life of Rosa Luxemburg). Freiburg: Herder.
- Levi, Paul. 2011. In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi. Edited by David Fernbach. Leiden: Brill 2011.
- Jameson, Fredric. 1971. Marxism and Form. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Jens, Walter. 1995. Rosa Luxemburg. Weder Poetin noch Petroleuse (Rosa Luxemburg: Neither Poet nor Petroleuse). In Rosa Luxemburg. Edited by Kristine Soden. Berlin: Espresso Verlag. 6-17.
- Veerkamp, Ton. 2013. Die Welt anders. Politische Geschichte der Großen Erzählung (A Different World: The Political History of the Great Story). Berlin: Berlin Institut für Kritische Theorie.
Michael Brie researches the theory and history of socialism at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung's Institute for Critical Social Analysis. This text is an edited and abbreviated version of the first chapter of his new book, Luxemburg neu entdecken, recently published by VSA. The German version of this excerpt appeared in the January 2019 issue of Sozialismus.de. Translation by Adam Baltner.