The Complete Rosa Luxemburg

Peter Hudis,
William Smaldone

This January 2022 interview of Peter Hudis conducted by William Smaldone, centering ‘The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg’, was originally published in Against The Current. —Editors

William Smaldone is the E. J. Whipple Professor of History at Willamette University. He is the author of several books in German and socialist history including Rudolf Hilferding: The Tragedy of a German Social Democrat (1998) and, most recently, European Socialism: A Concise History with Documents (2019). He conducted this interview with Peter Hudis in January 2022.

William Smaldone: We’re here today to interview Peter Hudis, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Oakton Community College and author of Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism and Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades. He is also the general editor of the complete works of Rosa Luxemburg. Can you tell us what editing her complete works means?

Peter Hudis: It means basically putting together a collection in which everything she ever wrote is available. That means published materials, pamphlets, articles for journalism, but also draft manuscripts that have recently been discovered. In some cases, we have reports of her lectures by her students at the German Social Democratic Party school. Perhaps we will even include police reports of transcripts of her speeches and meetings. These are not always totally reliable but shed some light on her legacy.

Putting together a complete collection of all of her writing has never been done before. And you realize she wrote in three different languages: German, Polish and Russian. It means collecting all that material and translating it; at least eighty percent of this material has never been available in English. All these will be new translations with extensive footnotes and a glossary.

WS: Is there a particular model that you and your team are working from? Are you using the Marx-Engels Collected Works as a model?

PH: Although this may be pushing my ambitions too high, I see the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (known as MEGA2) as the gold standard. It is now put out in Amsterdam but originally started in Berlin. I realize we’re not going to match the kind of a detailed editorial apparatus they have, but we want to make it as scholarly as possible.

We do want to avoid some things that you do get in the Marx-Engels Collected Works, with footnotes that label some of Marx’s adversaries as “petty bourgeois deviators,” etc. We want to have a fair presentation of the material in its proper historical context, without the editorializing that is sometimes done there.

WS: What inspired you? I mean, it’s a monumental task.

PH: It wasn’t exactly something I thought of or volunteered for!

I got interested in Luxemburg in the 1970s, when I joined the socialist movement. I was thrilled when I came across her work. A number of years later my mentor Raya Dunayevskaya, an important Marxist humanist philosopher, asked my help in translating some of Luxemburg’s writings. That was for a book she wrote, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution.

That started me on archival work, looking at some of Luxemburg’s original manuscripts in German. I got her Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works) and began to see there was so much that’s not in English. I thought it would be good if someday somebody put together an English version.

Although I translated a few articles and would be invited, on and off, to speak about her work, it wasn’t part of any systematic project. Then in 2007, I was invited to South Africa to a conference on political power and the role of the state in social transformation. I was to give a keynote address on Luxemburg, which was a great thing to do.

There were people there from all over the world — including Brazil, France, Argentina, China and Germany. Some had been doing work on Luxemburg. After dinner we were talking and folks said they were interested in Luxemburg, but it’s really hard to get a lot of her work.

How much of it is really in English? Well, most of it is not. Then Arndt Hopfmann, who at that time headed the South African office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, said “Peter, why don’t you put the complete works together?” I answered, “You have to be kidding me!”

With 15 people around the table, we began talking about the possibility, and followed up with correspondence over the next couple of years. Then we actually started getting a proposal off the ground.

The German collected works is a wonderful resource, but it is not complete and it was felt that her complete works really need to be in English because not that many people read German around the world.

I had a wish list for who would be the best publisher to publish such an English edition. I thought, Oxford University Press has wonderful international distribution so without knowing whom to contact, I sent them a letter.

I got a phone call back that asked if I could come to New York within the next two weeks to meet with the editorial board. They provisionally agreed to publish the complete works. But they said they would need an upfront commitment from a foundation to cover the entire cost of translating the materials in what would be a multi-volume edition.

They’d put out the collected works of W.E.B. Du Bois. If there was any model I was looking to from Oxford, that was it. They did a great job on a huge amount of material. But we couldn’t find that kind of commitment. At the most we were told we could get money for a year or so.

So we couldn’t go with Oxford, but Verso Books came and said, how come you didn’t come to us?

Political Space and Broader Audience

WS: Very good. Well, why do you think now is the moment when this project has come to the fore?

PH: That’s a good question. Luxemburg is such an outstanding figure, and she’s important from so many different directions and for people coming from so many different backgrounds. Why hasn‘t there been a collected works in English, if not a complete works, before now? I’m not sure.

One factor could be that there’s never been a “Luxemburg movement” as such. There have been many movements associated with the names of Lenin and with Trotsky and others, but there’s never been a political party or movement that was associated with the Luxemburg’s name.

The second, and the most important reason, is the collapse of “Marxism-Leninism,” or at least the Marxist-Leninist regimes, which opens up political space. Luxemburg was on the margins of a lot of left-wing discussion in many parts of the world, especially in the Global South. Because of the influence of the so-called socialist regimes, she was largely persona non grata.

With Russia and China turning to the so-called “free” market after the failures of their command economies, here’s Luxemburg writing that there an alternative to reformist social democracy and authoritarian revolutionary socialism. Here is somebody who has navigated a path that avoids both of those defective positions.

This is not the first time in history that this search for a third Marxist way has been articulated. We saw it in the late ’60s as well. But it is much stronger in this period.

WS: I think there is resurgence of interest in Rosa Luxemburg’s life from two quarters. First, from those who see her as a potential radical socialist alternative to the “Marxist-Leninist” model, which is in retreat as you noted. Second, in the scholarly world, there has also been growing interest in her. Given that, why hasn’t there been an effort to put out more of her works in English? There have been some fairly well-known collections, by both Pathfinder Press and Monthly Review Press. But they were quite limited in scope.

PH: I was asked by Monthly Review Press, along with Kevin Anderson, to put together The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (2004). That’s what got me invited to South Africa. It was published a few years before I was invited there. But to some degree it could have been that certain issues have emerged or new forces had begun to make their voices heard.

I’m thinking especially of the feminist movement. One of the barriers that existed on the part of Marxists was the general assumption that Luxemburg wasn’t really a feminist. And from the opposite point of view, there was the assumption among many feminists that she wasn’t really a feminist because she was a Marxist. [On this discussion, see “Rosa Luxemburg for our time” by Nancy Holmstrom, https://againstthecurrent.org/atc181/p4585/ — ed.]

So, they had people engaging in one way or another with Luxemburg from either the Marxist or feminist side but not making much of an attempt to connect to her as a Marxist-Feminist. There were exceptions, such as Sheila Robotham, but these were exceptions and not the rule.

As early as the 1980s, however, and certainly after the 2000s that started to change, particularly Jacqueline Rose’s Women in Dark Times (2014). An important chapter of her book is on Luxemburg and written by someone not connected to the orthodox Marxist tradition.

Rose is a brilliant British academic known for her writings on the relationship between psychoanalysis, feminism and literature. The people who are reading Luxemburg are interested in feminism and interested in issues of social justice. They are saying that the dichotomy of seeing her as a Marxist or as a feminist does not make a lot of sense.

It’s now a much broader audience than the traditional left. There’s a whole new generation of feminists as well as decolonial theorists who are finding their own issues reflected in her writings. A new generation comes along, asking new questions about a so-called old figure, and they want to know more about what she’s about.

Trove of New Material

WS: That’s very interesting. Given the scope of her work, which encompasses a wide range of political, economic, social and cultural issues. are there any particularly exciting new discoveries that have emerged? What are you and your team finding as you work through this trove of material?

PH: Yes. There are lots of other figures that make my own work possible, but one who got me thinking about collecting Luxemburg’s works from the very the beginning is Narihiko Ito, the great Japanese Luxemburg scholar.

He had been planning to put out a Japanese edition of her complete works. It didn’t get off the ground for various reasons, but he was a serious Luxemburg scholar who (among may other things) went to research archives in Moscow in the 1990s.

While we had always known that she had taught at the Social Democratic party school in Berlin from 1907 to 1914, he located eight or nine previously unavailable manuscripts and lectures from her work there dealing with the non-Western world in that period.

Paul Frolich mentions this in his biography of Luxemburg, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Times, but what happened to those manuscripts? They were not in her apartment at her death, which was ransacked by the Freikorps [the military death squad that murdered Luxemburg in 1919 — ed.] in any case.   A lot of things were destroyed, so it wasn’t clear what had survived, but he found them in an archive in Moscow. That was an amazing discovery — and the material consisted of Luxemburg delving into the latest studies in anthropology and ethnography of Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, peoples of Sub-Sahara Africa and Northern India.   She was trying to understand precapitalist social formations, including how communal formations cultivated the land. These are an inspiration for those trying to critique colonialism, imperialism, and the destruction of such communal forms. They also suggest how these communal formations might possibly presage what a possible future socialist society could mirror.   We knew some of her thinking because of the Introduction to Political Economy, which was a work that came out of her lectures at the party school. One chapter had been translated by members of the Trotskyist movement back in the 1940s. But it was only the first chapter of a book that’s close to 250 pages. The bulk of it was never translated into English although it has been in French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.   We said, “Let’s assemble all these chapters together as the first volume of the complete works along with the whole of Introduction to Political Economy.” This is something people haven’t seen in the English-speaking world.   We begin the complete works with several volumes of Luxemburg’s economic writings, then publish her political writings. We will add another volume of economic essays and manuscripts that haven’t been available in English in an additional supplementary volume. What is particularly valuable is that these are the issues decolonial theorists today are examining very closely, as can be seen from the recently published collection Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg edited by Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell.   It’s important to understand she wrote a lot of her work in Polish. Almost all of this is not in the German collected works. They have not been republished since they were written in 1903 or 1911 or whenever. Even in the original Polish, they were for a long time very, very hard to access. I didn’t realize how much of that there is.   At first, I thought we’ll get some of the Polish material and translate and publish it. Now I realize it’s thousands of pages! Some are short articles that she wrote for the daily press and revolutionaries on the ground. Others are significant theoretical essays.   One, which she wrote in 1908, summarizes the lessons of the three Russian Dumas, the parliamentary body (with very limited powers) that was a concession by the Tsar to the 1905 Russian Revolution. This will appear in Volume Four, which Verso is putting out within the next couple of weeks.   It is a remarkable discussion of how an underdeveloped society, as Russia was at the time, could achieve a transition to socialism. She asked how could a developing country, without a long experience of capitalism or industrial development, carry out a socialist revolution? How can you move toward socialism when you’re surrounded by hostile powers who are out to get you?   Of course, the radical movement has debated this issue over the last hundred years. Given this problem, Luxemburg, it turns out, has a very distinctive notion of how to transition to socialism compared with Lenin, Trotsky or Kautsky. I had not known about this until a few years ago when I finally learned of the document; it is now translated from the Polish by Joseph Muller.   There’s been a lot written about what she was doing inside the German Social Democratic Party and within the Second International in general. But what was she doing inside her own Polish party? She had two Polish parties, one that lasted until 1900 and another that she led from 1903, and which lasted until the end of her life.   In English we don’t have a balanced assessment (with a few important exceptions) of these discussions. I don’t think biographers or many other writers seriously studied most of the Polish material, which might be understandable given the language barrier. But that’s no excuse.   Now that we’re getting this material translated, a different kind of picture in emerging. It’s much more complicated than Luxemburg the democrat versus others as the hierarchical authoritarians.   There’s truth to both claims. But we also see that within the Polish party there was a lot of factionalism, and many expulsions. There was a lot of centralism, which raises the whole question: What’s the relationship between the principles that a major theoretician enunciates in her writings and how that is practiced organizationally at an everyday level? We would not be able to make that evaluation with someone like Luxemburg without that Polish material.  

Organizing and Editing

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg walking to the SPD Congress, Magdeburg, 1910.

      WS: Two or three things you just raised will be enough to engender a whole new industry of writings on Rosa Luxemburg and her role on the left. It’s going to be fascinating. What about some of the editorial challenges facing the project? How do you recruit your editors?       PH: Through the entire project we’ve been helped very much by members of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung both in New York and in Berlin as well as the South Africa group, where it was first conceived. They provided us with a degree of financial assistance, but more importantly with all kinds of editorial assistance.   There are great Luxemburg scholars in Germany, including Annelies Laschitza (1934-2018), who spent 45 years of her life studying and collecting the writings of Luxemburg, including identifying her many writings written anonymously or under a pseudonym.

  That made our job much easier. She’s the one that went into the archives and found the originals and transcribed them in many cases. We wouldn’t be able to do this without her, without people like Narihiko Ito (1931-2017), as well as others such as the Polish historian Feliks Tych. We sat down with such scholars and asked how we should organize it. Do we simply do a chronological development? That made a lot of sense and what I preferred at first. But we decided to publish the new economic writings first. That suggested more of a thematic arrangement. Now there is a separate rubric on her political writings, and within that rubric it is broken down into various sub-themes, such as what she wrote on actual revolutions, that is 1905 as well as 1917-18 in Russia and Germany. Three volumes are devoted to this subtheme “On Revolution,” two of which are complete and a third volume of which will soon be. The next sub-theme is “Debates on Revolutionary Strategy and Organization.” These include the debates she had with Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Lenin and with a great many others. This will be at least four volumes of 600 pages each. Then there are her writings on the national question, with at least three volumes worth 600 pages each. And there are her cultural writings. You see the hurdle a thematic approach posed. How do you decide which document fits into which rubric? In her political writings she might mention the national question in one paragraph and discuss revolutionary strategy in another paragraph. Where do you draw the lines? That’s a lot of work to do, but the biggest editorial challenge with a complete works is that you can’t leave anything out. What happens when you discover a manuscript after you finished the volume it should have been in? We have already run into this! We found another 250 or 300 pages of economic writings after we published two volumes of 600 pages each, on her economic writings. We decided that eventually we’re going to issue a supplementary volume to the two, but you can’t do that with every volume. (For Volumes One, Two and Three, see https://www.verso books.com/books/1734-the-complete-works-of-rosa-luxemburg-volume-1 and https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Rosa-Luxemburg-Complete-Works-Volume-2-Economic-Writings-2.pdf and https://www.versobooks.com/books/4130-the-complete-works-of-rosa-luxemburg-volume-iii.) In selecting the editors, we started out with a small group that was advised by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Germany. We then put out a call to people we knew as well as a public announcement. We now have about 20 people on an editorial board representing seven or eight countries. Everyone who works on the project does so gratis — this is our labor of love. The only money we have is for the translators. It’s vitally important to compensate them for their work. Occasionally we put out a call for people who would like to join the editorial board; we did that last year. We had dozens of applicants. We couldn’t add everybody, or we’d be very unwieldy, but we found some really great people that we didn’t know before as well as great people who we did know.

Financing the Project

WS: I’m amazed at the number of people that applied to help with the editing, having that many is really something. What about the financial side? PH: Let me first tell a story. I’ve been to China several times, largely because among Chinese Marxists there’s a growing interest in Rosa Luxemburg. I’ve been to Wuhan University several times, where the chair of the philosophy department had sponsored a conference on Luxemburg. The Chinese are now publishing the complete works of their own, kind of inspired by the English edition. Their first volume came off the press about a month ago. Of course, they have resources we don’t have, because they’re getting published by a major state-connected publishing company. And they have university resources too. The last conference I attended was just before the pandemic. And someone in the audience asked about our financing. I answered that none of the editors receive any compensation for our work. There was dead silence in the room. I explained that what funding we’ve been able to get comes from two sources. One is from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, which has been very helpful, but they cannot fund the entirety of the project. We have to reapply every year and have no guarantees. Sometimes we get the amount that we want, sometimes we don’t. In 2021, because during the pandemic other projects were held up, we got more than what we asked for. But their funding is not an open-ended checkbook. So we utilize other fundraising venues as well. For example, if you type Rosa Luxemburg Toledo into any search engine, it brings you to a website where you can make donations to Luxemburg’s Complete Works in English. All the money collected within that fundraising platform goes towards translations. WS: It’s an interesting feature of your project that you can turn to an institution like the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. It is an institution connected to Die Linke (the German Left Party). In German politics, each party represented in the parliament has its ancillary institute that can carry out such projects. They can carry out political work or pursue historical work, on behalf of the movement that sponsors them. It’s an interesting feature of the German political landscape, and one we do not have in the United States. But I’m wondering if down the road raising money via the Toledo model might become more important than the funding from the Luxemburg Stiftung. PH: That’s already the case to a certain degree. The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung has a number of priorities including important work with NGOs in the Global South. They have concrete projects and don’t simply exist for publication purposes. But without their support, we could never have come as far as we have. Our editorial board is looking for grant proposals and other funding streams that we hope to tap. But of course, that takes a lot of time and effort as well. Definitely, the Toledo fund is an important platform (see https://www.toledotranslationfund.org/complete_works_rosa_luxemburg). WS: And all this is made more difficult because most of the editors involved also have to earn a living…. PH: Yes, at their paid workplace. I teach, as you mentioned, not at a research university. I teach philosophy at a working-class community college with a heavy course load. WS: When we are directing students to different sources, one of the places we can send them is to the Marxist internet archive, which publishes a wide variety of works by socialists from a across the spectrum. And I know that in the past, they’ve had some difficulty with copyright matters. Has that been a problem for your project? How have you dealt with it? PH: No, fortunately none of those problems have occurred, thanks to the publisher Dietz Verlag, which has the rights to Luxemburg works. They are the publishers of the Gesammelte Werke. I should also mention that since 2016 they published another two volumes in German of Luxemburg’s previously unavailable German writings Each is a thousand pages, almost none of this material is available in English. There’s also a large amount of Luxemburg’s writings that has either been discovered over the last 20-30 years or just was not included in earlier editions. WS: That’s a great advantage. I’m wondering, given the scope of the project, how long will it take to complete? PH: In addition there is the need to gather all the material that goes in a particular volume. It’s immensely more complicated than I realized when I first started. There are other things to keep in mind — like making sure her oral interventions at various socialist conferences are included in cases where minutes recorded them. Verso will publish one volume per year. Volume Four is coming out now. That means Volume Five, which we’ve just about finished editing, won’t be out for another year. This volume will contain her writings on revolution from 1910 to the end of her life in 1919. We’re already working on Volumes Six and Seven, which have her writings on revolutionary strategy and organization. One interesting complication that arose in the course of arranging this is that in 1904 Luxemburg was writing for a Polish newspaper, Gazeta Ludowa in Poznan, at the time in German-occupied Poland. It was well known that she wrote for it, but it turns out most of her articles were unsigned or with pseudonyms. But we have been able, thanks to our friends in Germany and Poland such as Jörn Schütrumpf and Eva Majewska, to identify and select those written by her. Upon further investigation, it turns out she had started this newspaper largely to show her German party, the SPD, which was funding some of her work in Poland, that there was a lot more support among the Polish workers than there really was for her party. She was putting out this very prestigious-looking newspaper in which she wrote most of the articles. It’s a lot of material, almost 200 pages worth, mainly from 1904. About 18 months ago we were already commissioning translations for Volumes Six and Seven of the complete works, which will include this material. So you plan and then come up with new material, which is a pleasant surprise but nevertheless increases your workload.

Theoretician and Revolutionary Activist

WS: What you just described tells us about her incredible capacity for work. What’s the degree to which your volumes can contextualize all her work for the reader? PH: That was a real challenge in Volume Three, which will be out in paperback soon. That was the first volume on revolution, with her writings from 1897 to 1905, most taking up the 1905 Russian Revolution. Most of this material was not available in the Gesammelte Werke but is in the supplementary Volume Six that had been put out in 2016. Luxemburg was not only writing pamphlets and booklets, but composing virtually daily reports on the revolution in the German socialist press. She was writing a daily column, called “The Russian Revolution,” for four or five months or so at the end of 1905. That consists of about 300-400 pages worth of material in Volume Three. Here’s a very unique thing: She’s a revolutionary theoretician, but it’s very unusual for a Marxist theoretician at the same time to also be immersed in and recording the day-to-day unfolding of a revolution happening right in front of her. Then she goes to Russian-occupied Poland at the end of 1905, directly participates in the revolution and is thrown in jail. She is writing an amazing amount of material on a daily level. When you read through it, you understand this is the raw material for what becomes her famous Mass Strike pamphlet, written in 1906. She wasn’t simply theorizing out of a debate with other radical intellectuals. She was drawing from hundreds of pages of journalistic material. It’s easy for intellectuals to say, well, these are just news reports. But it’s fascinating to read because you see the raw material that she was studying in order to develop her theoretical arguments. She’s not developing abstract theses out of the sky. This is not an academic preoccupation. She’s trying to generalize from a concrete set of realities. That’s what William Pelz and Axel Fair-Schultz established in their introduction to Volume Three, saying here is the historical and social context in which these writings were composed. Sandra Rein and I co-wrote the introduction to Volume Four. We took great pains to explain the difference between her writing for a German audience and a Polish one. A version of the introduction appears in Thesis Eleven, the Marxist journal that comes out in Australia, as well as in the French journal Actuel Marx. Her German audience was part of a huge, massive and above-ground socialist party with millions of members. It’s a different thing when you’re dealing with a small underground party in Poland where there’s no avenues for democratic expression or outlets. She addressed each audience in a different way, given that context. Each volume’s introduction needs to be sensitive to this and needs to find a way to spell it out for a modern audience. WS: Here again, we see the richness of your project. Anyone who’s heard of it must be excited. With each successive volume I know I am. I thank you very much for this interview. We wish you luck in your future work. PH: Great to talk to you about the project.

May-June 2022, ATC 218

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