Comments on ‘What more could we want of ourselves!’, Jacqueline Rose’s review of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

Peter Hudis

In responding to Rose’s review in London Review of Books Hudis discusses Luxemburg’s differences with Lenin, her writings on imperialism and indigenous communal social forms, and her worldview as both “open” and “single-minded.” Originally appeared on the Verso Books authors’ blog, June 21, 2011– Editors.

Peter Hudis, an editor of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, responds to ‘What more could we want of ourselves!’, Jacqueline Rose’s review of the book in the London Review of Books (June 16, 2011).

One sign of the multidimensionality of Rosa Luxemburg’s life and work is the way she appeals to thinkers and activists coming from a number of different directions. Some view her primarily as a brilliant economist, who wrote the first study (at least since Marx’s Capital) of capitalism’s inherent drive for global expansion. Others view her mainly as a path-breaking political thinker, because of her embrace of spontaneous forms of revolt and her searing critique of those who fail to grasp the centrality of mass participation and democracy in efforts at social revolution. Others are drawn to her largely because of her striking personality, which exhibited a fiercely independent spirit and a fascination with both the beauty and tragedy of the human and natural world. The great merit of Jacqueline Rose’s review of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg is that it focuses on what connects the many strands of Luxemburg’s legacy—her profound appreciation of the transformative power of the human intellect.

As Rose correctly writes, Luxemburg understood that “the reason people will turn to revolution, [is] not just, to use Marx’s terms, because of the clash between forces and relations of production, but because the mind always has the power to expose and outstrip injustice.” She critiqued capitalism not only for its obvious economic inequities and political injustices but also because it robs the mass of humanity from “the common property of everyone”’—access to knowledge.  The most lasting and important component of spontaneous freedom struggles, she held, was the “mental sediment” that they produce for the transformation of reality.[1] The development of this mental component, she held, was not a mere means to an end but is inseparable from the content of socialism itself. She understood, as did Marx, that “Capital in its true development combines mass labor with skill, but in such a way that the former loses its physical power, and skill resides not in the worker, but in the machine and in the scientific combination of both in the factory operating as a single whole. The social mind of labor acquires an objective existence outside the individual workers.”[2] A society can only be held to have made a full break with capitalism if it reverses this alienation of humanity’s mental powers. That is why, in Marx’s view, the new society will be characterized by “the developed person, whose mind is the repository of the accumulated knowledge of society.”[3]

Luxemburg’s emphasis on the power of intellect is all the more remarkable given that she was a product of the Second International, which was largely dominated by a crass vulgar materialism. She was swimming against the stream in insisting that politics is primarily not about power but education. As Rose puts it, “Luxemburg did not want to be the master of the revolution, she wanted to be its teacher (the worst insult, she once said, was to suggest that intellectual life was beyond the workers’ reach).” Indeed, it is virtually always the case that those who complain most about theory are not workers but a certain kind of radicalized intellectual who lacks confidence in the emancipatory potential of common people. “Theory” and ideas are presumably the property of those who are brought up to believe that it is their birthright and it is considered out of line to suggest that complex ideas be openly and directly discussed with workers themselves.

Luxemburg embodied a refusal to go along with such platitudes, which is one reason she encountered so much hostility from the leaders of the Second International. Rose makes an intriguing point in suggesting that she was hated by many of the leaders of German Social Democracy not only because she was a Jew and a Pole (which was surely the case) but also because she insisted on claiming her place as a theoretician. Perhaps one reason she was so sensitive to workers’ thirst for knowledge is that she had to combat the prejudice that theory should be considered outside a woman’s purview. For this reason, it seems to me, she chose not to mainly devote herself to the socialist women’s movement. She did not disdain the work of Clara Zetkin and others in it; on the contrary, she encouraged it. Nor did she remain completely aloof from participating in it herself. But she did not want the leaders of German Social Democracy to marginalize her to “the woman question” while they monopolized the field of Marxist theory. Many a male leftist will credit a woman for various things, but to credit her for having an intellect greater than their own—now that is a rarity! (It is to Leo Jogiches credit that, for all his faults, he accepted Luxemburg as his intellectual superior). Luxemburg’s life and work is living testimony that she lived by the principle (as voiced by Raya Dunayevskaya) that “The first act of liberation is to demand back our own heads.”[4]

What I find especially important is Rose’s discussion of how Luxemburg embraced uncertainty “as central to life and revolution.” There is much to be said of this. Luxemburg understood, far better than most radicals before and after her, that revolution is about the unexpected. She never approached political phenomena with that “all too knowing look” that says, “well, we know how that is going to turn out.“ Her deep appreciation of spontaneous revolt was inseparable from an understanding that the actions of masses of people rarely if ever conform to the predictions of the ”politically informed.” This year’s Arab Spring, so unexpected in both its timing and form, certainly brings to life Luxemburg’s keen appreciation of the need to remain open to the possibilities released by struggles for emancipation.

At the same time, we need to be wary of the temptation to explain her contribution by a singular principle. While she held that “socialism is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future,” she also considered it of great importance to directly delve into that mist by raising the question of what happens after the seizure of power. This was shown most of all in her critique of the Bolsheviks in The Russian Revolution. She understood that the revolution would strangle itself if the curtailment of democracy by the Bolsheviks persisted. Her book not only contained an important warning about the consequences of Lenin and Trotsky’s policies, it also pointed to the necessity for spontaneity and democratic deliberation to continue and deepen after any revolution. For Luxemburg, an emphasis on the unpredictable nature of revolution did not foreclose the need to single out specific forms, such as democracy, which a revolution must incorporate in order to be successful. For social forms that facilitate spontaneous development enable the unpredictable nature of human praxis to begin to discover itself.

While it is crucial to bring out Luxemburg’s differences with Lenin, Rose’s review is somewhat inaccurate on several points. I know of no evidence that Lenin ordered that The Russian Revolution be “burned.” Instead, in the very letter in which he attacked Paul Levi for publishing the work (after her death, in 1922), he insisted on the issuance of her complete writings-a task that is only fully being realized today, with Verso’s publication of the 14-volume Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg. Rose may be confusing Leo Jogiches comment (as reported in Ettinger’s biography of Luxemburg) that the manuscript of The Russian Revolution should be “burned” with Lenin’s views, but Jogiches surely meant that in jest. For tactical reasons he opposed publishing it, despite Luxemburg’s insistence. But Jogiches would have been the last person in the world to destroy any of Luxemburg’s writings. In fact, he spent the last weeks of his life—at great danger to himself—collecting all of her writings that he could. As for Lenin, he wrote in his famous letter to Pravda in 1922: “Paul Levi now wants to achieve popularity with the bourgeoisie by republishing precisely those works of Luxemburg in which her errors appear.” This appeared in the same letter in which he called her an “eagle” and insisted on the publication of “the complete edition of her works.” When the book came out, Lenin applied tremendous pressure on Levi’s allies at the time, such as Zetkin, to proclaim that Rosa had “changed her mind” about what she said in The Russian Revolution—something we know was not accurate. Indeed, Henriette Roland-Holst broke off relations with Zetkin after she joined in the attack on Levi for publishing the book on the grounds that Zetkin’s capitulation showed a lack of principle.

Lenin’s attitude was therefore at best ambivalent: he would have much preferred to see Luxemburg’s entire work issued (or the process seriously underway) instead of having The Russian Revolution published on its own, as that would contextualize their many agreements as well as disagreements. Yet he also wanted to see her work appear in full (eventually) and would never advocate burning anything. After all, it wasn’t until 1926 (at the earliest) that the tendency to group all leftist critics of the Soviet regime into one camp (such as lumping Luxemburg and Trotsky together) even began to be manifested.

But allow me to return to Luxemburg and the question of “uncertainty.” It has often been said that precision should be sought in any field only to the extent that the subject matter allows.[5] The same can be said of certainty—and uncertainty. Luxemburg had a keen eye for the unexpected when it came to mass resistance and revolution, and for good reason: revolution is most of all about subjective reactions to objective conditions. There is never a one-to-one relation of objective to subjective, and the exact form of mass revolt can never be predicted in advance. Nor is it possible to affirm in advance which form of revolutionary organization is suited in all cases (those who fetishize a particular form, be it the “Leninist” vanguard party, the guerilla foco, the workers’ council, or even the mass strike, tend to have a difficult time understanding that).

However, when it came to tracing out the trajectory of capital accumulation, uncertainty and unpredictability was not what Luxemburg emphasized. Her theory of capital accumulation was predicated on the argument that capitalism must of necessity take over and destroy non-capitalist strata in order for surplus value to be realized. No less central to her argument was her claim that precapitalist forms of land tenure and social relations would inevitably dissolve and be destroyed once the capital relation comes in contact with them. As Luxemburg states in her Introduction to Political Economy in speaking of non-capitalist social formations in the developing world (which Rose cites), “There is only one contact that it cannot tolerate or overcome; this is the contact with European civilization, i.e. with capitalism. For the old society, this encounter is deadly, universally and without exception.”[6] Where is the emphasis on openness and uncertainty in this formulation? Clearly, when it came to analyzing the trajectory of capital, the alienated form of objectified labor, Luxemburg emphasized predictability and certainty above all else.

There were surely reasons for her to do so. After all, the trajectory of capital acccumulation does tend to undermine and destroy non-capitalist strata. But there is a difference between a tendency and an inevitable result. Despite the importance of her discussion of precapitalist societies in the Introduction to Political Economy and the Accumulation of Capital, Luxemburg’s analysis lacked the subtlety and nuance of Marx’s examination of non-capitalist social formations, especially as found in his writings on the Russian village commune at the end of his life.[7] Marx was much more cautious about making apodictic statements about the future of the village commune, on the grounds that it might be able to maintain itself and serve as the basis for a Russian revolution that bypasses a capitalist stage—provided specific historical conditions were present. He wrote, “What threatens the life of the Russian commune is neither a historical inevitability nor a theory; it is state oppression.”[8]

Thus, while celebrating Luxemburg’s theoretical contribution—of which we still have a great deal to learn—we should not overlook the fact that some aspects of her thought was informed by the unilinear evolutionism that defined the Second (and Third) International. Nor did she have access to most of Marx’s unpublished writings on developing societies, which would have helped her counter the unilinear evolutionism that characterized the vantage point of post-Marx Marxism.

Rose is right, of course, that Luxemburg never expressed “slavish adherence” to any particular theoretical position—including those of Marx. Her independent spirit and intellect is one of her most important contributions. At the same time, it may give the wrong impression to suggest that she considered Marxism to be “a gout-ridden uncle afraid of the breeze.” That was surely how many Marxists treated Marxism. But Luxemburg never approached any major political issue without attempting to root herself in Marx’s work. A striking expression of this was her participation at the 1907 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, held in London. In evaluating the lessons of the 1905 Russian Revolution, she exhaustively re-examined Marx’s Communist Manifesto in light of recent events, arguing that “Clearly comrades, you in Russia at the present time have to begin, not where Marx began [in 1847], but where Marx ended in 1849, with a clearly expressed, independent proletarian class policy.”[9] In insisting that “The course of the 1848 revolution … cannot be the model for the present revolution in Russia,” she also insisted that “The Russian Social-Democracy is the first to whom has fallen the difficult but honorable task of applying the principles of Marx’s teaching … in a stormy revolutionary period.” Here is where Luxemburg’s legacy especially comes alive—in her insistence that each generation needs to rethink what Marx’s legacy means for today, in light of our specific realities.

For this reason, Rose touches on something very important when she says that Luxemburg was both “open” and “single-minded.” Indeed, one can argue that the former is not truly possible without the latter. She repeatedly reproached Jogiches for allowing commitment to the cause to deter him from any serious engagement with “the question of the inner life.” But it was not the cause to which he devoted his life that she criticized, but rather the manner of his approach to it. Complete and passionate dedication to a singular cause is no reason for lack of openness to life and experience; on the contrary, it can be seen as its precondition. For when the complete and total commitment is to freedom—not power or rule over others, but freedom—then how can one not open oneself up to the world?

As Frantz Fanon argued in a different context, there is no pathway to the universal that is not through the particular.[10] It is unfortunate that Luxemburg did not seem to appreciate this when it came to her relentless opposition to all forms of national self-determination—a position that has hardly stood the test of time. That said, on this point too some nuance is needed. Although Luxemburg fought groups like the Bund on many occasions, it is not the case that “She would have no truck with the Jewish socialist movement.” Despite their differences, the Bund preferred to work with Jogiches and Luxemburg above all other Polish Marxists, and Luxemburg had several of her articles reprinted in the Bundist paper Der Yiddischer Arbeter in 1899. As Nettl notes, although John Mill of the Bund “found both Luxemburg and Jogiches resistant to his early appeals to them as Jews, and firmly opposed to any obligation to a specifically Jewish Socialist movement, he none the less saw them with an eye that at that time was politically and personally neutral, if not benevolent.”[11]

Despite these reservations, I deeply appreciate Rose’s review for bringing out so many aspects of the richness of Luxemburg’s thought and personality. It makes the work in co-editing The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg all the more worthwhile.

Visit the London Review of Books to read Jacqueline Rose’s review in full.



[1] See The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions, in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (New York: Monthly Review, 2004), p. 185

[2] See Marx’s Grundrisse, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 28 (New York: International Publishers, 1986), p. 453

[3] Grundrisse, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 29, p. 97

[4] “The Women’s Liberation Movement as Reason and as Revolutionary Force,” in Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution, by Raya Dunayevskaya (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1985), p. 28

[5] See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Joe Sachs (Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 2002), p. 3: “It belongs to an educated person to look for just as much precision in each kind of discourse as the nature of the thing one is concerned with admits.”

[6] “The Dissolution of Primitive Communism: From the Ancient Germans and the Incas to India, Russia, and Southern Africa, from Introduction to Political Economy,” in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 103

[7] For a study of this issue, see my  “Accumulation, Imperialism, and Pre-Capitalist Formations: Luxemburg and Marx on the non-Western World,” in Socialist Studies/Études socialistes, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2010), pp. 75-91

[8] “Marx-Zasulich Correspondence: Letters and Drafts,” in Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the Peripheries of Capitalism, edited by Teodor Shanin (New York: Monthly Review, 1983), pp. 104-5

[9] “Rosa Luxemburg’s Address to the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, London, 1907,” in Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution, by Raya Dunayevskaya (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1981), p. 205

[10] “The consciousness of self is not the closing of a door to communication. Philosophic thought teaches us, on the contrary, that it is its guarantee. National consciousness, that is not nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension.” See Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, translated by Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1973), p. 247

[11] J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (London: Oxord University Press, 1969), p. 83


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 Comment

  1. Abe Cabrera

    I really liked these reflections. Luxemburg’s emphasis on the power of intellect is pleasantly unexpected compared to the typical caricatures that pass for Marxism in recent memory.

    I especially liked this paragraph:

    “She repeatedly reproached Jogiches for allowing commitment to the cause to deter him from any serious engagement with “the question of the inner life.” But it was not the cause to which he devoted his life that she criticized, but rather the manner of his approach to it. Complete and passionate dedication to a singular cause is no reason for lack of openness to life and experience; on the contrary, it can be seen as its precondition. For when the complete and total commitment is to freedom—not power or rule over others, but freedom—then how can one not open oneself up to the world?”

    I don’t know if this is the same thing, but I have perceived leftists to be some of the most bitter and dull people I have ever met(though they by no means have a monopoly over these character traits). With noticeable exceptions, activism and “politics” almost become a prison, a categorical imperative that dominates their humanity to the point that there is little humanity left. It’s just an observation, and perhaps a bad one. But I can’t help but express it. What good is a theory of freedom if you are a slave to that theory in every aspect of your life?