Rosa Luxemburg and the actuality of revolution


In these remarks, I want to do three things.  First, I want to suggest an approach to Rosa Luxemburg that makes sense to me, while mentioning other approaches that do not.  Then I want to suggest an answer to a question that has been raised about how Luxemburg was inclined to view and characterize – in the final years of her life – the Social Democracy in Germany and in general.  From there, I will want to consider advice on political strategy that she seems to offer socialist activists of today, to be found in volumes two and five of her collected works which I have helped edit, at the same time suggesting connections of this with a broader revolutionary tradition.  

I want to begin with an appeal that we engage with Luxemburg in the manner she deserves.  This has several aspects. One involves opening our minds and hearts to her – and for many of us this is incredibly easy, given her vibrant sensibilities, her energy, her personal and intellectual animation and depth, and the very way she talks to us in her writings.  Another aspect involves trying to understand what she actually said and meant and did (as opposed to settling for a Rosa simply of our own making). I have heard people describe Rosa Luxemburg essentially as a utopian radical-feminist or as a rigidly “Marxist” anti-feminist.  I have heard people talk about her – and quite positively – as if her thinking was compatible with Emma Goldman’s anarchism or Eduard Bernstein’s social-democratic reformism or Deng Xioping’s bureaucratic state-capitalism. She is also very frequently cast in the role of Lenin’s Most Magnificent Enemy in some cosmic morality play.  

One can get negative too. Simply because Luxemburg is a Marxist, believing in the class struggle and opposing capitalism, she is for some on the Right a precursor of Joseph Stalin and a herald of horrific tyranny.  Among some on the Left, on the other hand, she is criticized as a woolly-minded “spontaneist” who does not understand the need for organization in the revolutionary struggle.  

Luxemburg was qualitatively different from, and more interesting than, any of this, and she deserves better from us. 

Related to this, she deserves from us an effort to make use of what she is actually offering us.  She was brilliant, insightful, with considerable knowledge and practical experience. She said and wrote things that are worth comprehending, actively considering, and testing out as we try to understand and change the world around us. 

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