The socialist internationalism of Rosa Luxemburg

  • March 5, 2021

Anarchism & Autonomy

In light of rising nationalism and a planetary ecological crisis fomented by global capitalism, Rosa Luxemburg’s internationalist ethos is more relevant than ever.

This essay was originally published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in January 2020


ew Marxist thinkers were more committed to socialism’s internationalist program than Rosa Luxemburg. She was Jewish, Polish and German, but her one and only “motherland” was the Socialist International.

Unlike so many other socialists of her time, for Luxemburg internationalism was not limited to the European countries. She actively opposed European colonialism early on, and did not hide her sympathy for the struggles of the colonial peoples. This naturally included German colonial wars in Africa, such as the brutal repression of the Herero uprising in German South West Africa in 1904. In a public speech held in June 1911, she explained:

The Herero are a negro people, who have lived for centuries in their homeland. … Their ‘crime’ was that they did not give in to white slave-drivers … and defended their land against foreign invaders. … In this war, too, the German weapons were richly covered with—glory. … The men were shot, the women and children … pushed into the burning desert.

While she condemned German imperialist pretensions (against France) in North Africa — the so-called “Morocco incident” in 1911, when Germany sent its war boats to Agadir — she described French colonialism in Algeria as a violent attempt to impose bourgeois private property against the ancient clan communism of the Arab tribes. In her lectures on political economy at the Social Democratic Party school in 1907–1908, she emphasized the connection between the modern communism of the proletarian masses in the advanced capitalist countries and the “ancient communist survivals that put up stubborn resistance in the colonial countries to the forward march of profit-hungry” imperial domination.

In her most important economic essay, The Accumulation of Capital, she argued that capitalist accumulation on global scale was not only an early stage but a permanent process of violent expropriation:

The accumulation of capital, seen as an historical process, employs force as a permanent weapon, not only in its genesis, but further on down to the present day. From the point of view of the primitive societies involved, it is a matter of life or death; for them there can be no other attitude than opposition and fight to the finish … Hence permanent occupation of the colonies by the military, native risings and punitive expeditions are the order of the day for any colonial regime.

Very few socialists at that time not only denounced colonial expeditions but justified the colonized people’s resistance and struggle. This attitude reveals the truly universal nature of her internationalism — even if, of course, Europe was at the center of her attention.

“Workers of the World, Unite!”

Georg Lukács, in his chapter on “The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg” in History and Class-Consciousness (1923), argued that the dialectical category of totality is the “bearer of the principle of revolution in science.” He saw Rosa Luxemburg’s writings, especially her Accumulation of Capital (1913), as a striking example of this dialectical approach. Nevertheless, the same thing can be said of her internationalism: she judges, analyses and discusses all social and political issues from the viewpoint of totality, i.e. from the perspective of the interests of the international working-class movement.

This dialectical totality was not an abstraction, an empty universalism, or a conglomerate of undifferentiated beings: she knew well that the international proletariat was a human plurality composed of people with their own cultures, languages and histories; their conditions of life and work were also very different. In Accumulation of Capital there is a long description of forced labor in the mines and plantations of South Africa — nothing equivalent could be found in German factories. But this diversity was not to be understood as an obstacle to common action: in other words, internationalism meant for her, as for Marx and Engels, “Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!” — the unity of workers from all countries against their common enemy: the capitalist system, imperialism and imperialist wars.

This is why, soon after her arrival in Germany and entry into the ranks of German Social Democratic Party (SDP), she refused to make any concessions to militarism, military credits or naval expeditions. While the Social Democratic right wing (people like Wolfgang Heine and Max Schippel) were willing to negotiate agreements with the Kaiser’s government on these issues, she openly denounced such capitulations, supposedly justified by the “need to create jobs.”

Consistently Anti-War

Rosa Luxemburg saw clearly enough the rising danger of a European war, and never ceased to denounce the Imperial German government’s war preparations. On September 13, 1913 she gave a talk in Bockenheim, a town near Frankfurt am Main, that ended with a solemn internationalist statement: “If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren, then we shall shout: we will never do it!” The public prosecutor immediately charged her with “calling for public disobedience of the law.”

The trial took place in February 1914, and Rosa Luxemburg gave a fearless speech attacking militarism and war policies and quoting a resolution from the 1868 Brussels conference of the First International: in case of war, the workers should call a general strike. The talk appeared in the socialist press and became a sort of classic of anti-war literature. She was sentenced to one year in jail, but only after the war began, in 1915, did the Imperial authorities dare to arrest her.

While so many other European socialists and Marxists supported their own governments at the outbreak of World War I in the name of “defending the Fatherland,” she immediately sought to organize opposition to the imperialist war. Her writings during these first crucial months make no concessions to the aggressive official “patriotic” ideology, and develop increasingly critical arguments against the SPD leadership’s wretched betrayal of the principles of proletarian internationalism.

Jailed several times for her anti-militarist and anti-nationalist propaganda, she summarized her principled standpoint in an essay from 1916 titled “Either/Or: “The fatherland of the proletariat, the defense of which must take precedence over all else, is the socialist International.” The Second International had collapsed under the impact of what she called “social-chauvinism,” substituting “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” with “Proletarians of all countries, cut each other’s throats!”

In response, Luxemburg issued a call for the creation of a new International. Writing down her proposal for the basic principles of this future International, she emphasized: “There can be no socialism outside the international solidarity of the proletariat and there can be no socialism without class struggle. The socialist proletariat cannot renounce the class struggle and international solidarity, either in war or in peace, without committing suicide.”

This was, of course, an answer to Karl Kautsky’s hypocritical argument that the International was a tool for times of peace, but unfortunately not adequate in a situation of war. This new theory served as justification for his support of German “national defense” in 1914. “Either/Or” includes a personal statement, a moving confession of her most cherished ethical and political values: “The international fraternity of the workers is for me the highest and the most sacred thing on earth, it is my guiding star, my ideal, my fatherland; I prefer to give up my life, than to become unfaithful to this ideal!”

Warning against Nationalism

Rosa Luxemburg was prophetic in her warnings against the evils of imperialism, nationalism and militarism. A prophet is not someone who miraculously predicts the future, but one who, like Amos and Isaiah, warns the people of the catastrophe that lies ahead — unless they take collective action to prevent it. She warned that there would always be new wars as long as imperialism and capitalism continue to exist:

World peace cannot be secured by such utopian or basically reactionary plans as international courts of arbitration composed of capitalist diplomats, diplomatic agreements concerning ‘disarmament’ … ‘European federations,’ ‘middle-European customs unions,’ ‘national buffer states’ and the like. Imperialism, militarism and wars will not be abolished or damned as long as the rule of the capitalist classes continues uncontested.

She warned against nationalism as a mortal enemy of workers and the socialist movement and as a breeding ground for militarism and war. “The immediate task of socialism,” she wrote in 1916, “shall be the intellectual liberation of the proletariat from the domination of the bourgeoisie as manifest in the influence of nationalistic ideology.”

In the “Fragment on War, the National Question and Revolution” (1918), she worries about the sudden rise of nationalist movements during the last year of the war: “At the nationalist Blockberg it is today the Walpurgis night” (a reference to the German mythological witches’ sabbath). These movements were of very different nature, some being the expression of less developed bourgeois classes (like in the Balkans), while others, such as Italian nationalism, were purely imperial-colonial. This “present world-explosion of nationalism” contained a colorful variety of special interests, but was united by a common interest flowing from the exceptional historical situation created by October 1917: the struggle against the threat of the proletarian world-revolution.

What she meant by “nationalism” was not, of course, the national culture or the national identity of different peoples, but rather the ideology that turns “The Nation” into the supreme political value to which everything else must submit (“Deutschland über alles”).

Her warnings were prophetic, insofar as some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century — from the First to the Second World War (Auschwitz, Hiroshima) and beyond — were committed in the name of nationalism, national hegemony, “national defense,” “national vital space,” and the like. Stalinism itself was the product of the nationalist degeneration of the Soviet state, as embodied in the slogan “Socialism in one country.”

One can criticize some of her positions in relation to national demands, but she clearly perceived the dangers of nation-state politics (territorial conflicts, “ethnic cleansing,” oppression of minorities). She could not have predicted genocides.

Opposing national independence

It is true, however, that this radical internationalism led her to take questionable positions on the national question. For instance, concerning her native country, Poland, she not only opposed the call for Polish national independence raised by the “social-patriots” of Piłsudski’s Polish Socialist Party (PPS), but even rejected Bolshevik support for Poland’s right to self-determination (including the right to separate from Russia).

Until 1914 she would base her views on “economistic” arguments: Poland was already integrated into the Russian economy, and therefore Polish independence was a purely utopian demand shared only by reactionary aristocratic or petty-bourgeois layers. She also conceived of nations as essentially “cultural” phenomena, proposing “cultural autonomy” as the solution for national demands. Missing in her approach is precisely the political dimension of the national question as emphasized in Lenin’s writings on the topic: the democratic right to self-determination.

However, at least in one article, she stated the problem in a much more open and dialectical way: the 1905 introduction to the collection The Polish Question and the Socialist Movement. In this essay she draws a careful distinction between the legitimate right of every nation to independence — “which flowed directly from the most elementary principles of socialism” — and the desirability of this independence for Poland, which she rejected. She also insisted that national oppression is “the most intolerably barbaric oppression,” and can only provoke “wrathful, fanatical rebellion.”

Yet some years later, in her 1918 notebook The Russian Revolution — which contains highly valuable criticisms of the Bolsheviks’ curtailments of democracy and freedom — she once again rejects any reference to the nation’s right to self-determination as “hollow, petty-bourgeois phraseology.

A Compass for the Globalized Left

What is the relevance of Rosa Luxemburg’s internationalism today? Of course, historical conditions in the early twenty-first century are very different from those of the early twentieth, when she wrote most of her texts. Yet in some decisive aspects, her internationalist message is as — or perhaps even more — relevant today as in her time.

In the twenty-first century, capitalist globalization has imposed its power to a historically unprecedented degree, promoting obscene levels of inequality and leading to catastrophic environmental consequences. According to the 2017 Oxfam Report, eight billionaires and owners of multinational enterprises have a fortune equivalent to that of the poorest half of humanity (3.8 billion people). Through its institutions — the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO) and the G7 — capital has consolidated a united bloc of capitalist ruling classes around neoliberalism and deregulation.

There are of course contradictions between various imperialist interests, but they all share a common agenda: erasing all partial conquests of the labor movement, eliminating public services, privatizing profits and socializing losses, and thus intensifying exploitation. This planetary process is hegemonized by parasitical finance capital, whose despotic rule through the blind and reified mechanisms of “financial markets” is now imposed on the populations of all countries.

Local and national resistance is necessary but insufficient: such a perverse planetary system must be fought on a planetary scale. In other words, anti-capitalist resistance must be globalized. The Communist and Socialist Internationals of Rosa Luxemburg’s days hardly exist in this form. There are some regional organizations, such as the Party of the European Left or the Latin American São Paulo Conference, but no equivalent international body. The Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938 is still active on all four continents, but its influence is limited.

The main cause for hope is the new international movement for global justice, which is sowing the seeds of a new internationalist culture. The form taken by this planetary resistance to capitalist globalization is that of the “movement of movements,” a loose federation of social movements whose main expression is the World Social Forum founded in 2001. This convergence of trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists, workers, peasants, Indigenous communities, youth networks, as well as socialist or communist groups in the common struggle against corporate — i.e., capitalist — globalization is an important step forward. Of course, it is mainly a space for exchanging experiences and taking scattered common initiatives, and lacks the ambition to define a common strategy or program.

Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy can be important for this movement in many respects. She makes clear that the enemy is not “globalization” or just “neoliberalism,” but the global capitalist system itself. The alternative to global capitalist hegemony is not “national sovereignty,” the defense of the national against the global, but rather globalizing, i.e. internationalizing, resistance. The alternative to Empire is not a “regulated,” “humanized” form of capitalism, but a new, socialist and democratic world civilization. Of course, in our times we have to deal with new challenges unknown to Rosa Luxemburg: ecological catastrophe and global warming. They result from the destructive dynamic of capitalists’ unlimited urge for expansion and growth and must be confronted on a global scale. In other words, the ecological crisis is a new argument for the relevance of Luxemburg’s internationalist ethos.

Rosa Luxemburg’s warning against the poison of nationalism has never been so relevant. In the world today — and particularly in Europe and the United States — nationalism, xenophobia and racism under various “patriotic,” reactionary, fascist or semi-fascist guises are on the rise and constitute a mortal danger for democracy and freedom. Islamophobia, antisemitism and anti-Roma racism are rampant, enjoying open or discrete government support. Above all, xenophobic hatred of migrants — desperate populations fleeing persecution, war and famine — is cynically promoted by neo-fascist parties and/or authoritarian governments. Orbán, Salvini and Trump are only the most blatant and nauseating representatives of policies that scapegoat migrants — whether Muslim, African, or Mexican — and denounce them as a threat to national, racial, or religious identity. Thousands of migrants are condemned to death in the waters of the Mediterranean by the hermetic closure of Europe’s borders. One can treat this as a new form of the brutal colonialist behavior Rosa Luxemburg so harshly denounced.

Her socialist internationalism remains an invaluable moral and political compass in the midst of this xenophobic tempest. Fortunately, Marxist internationalists are not the only ones to stubbornly oppose the racist and nationalist wave: many people all around the world, moved by humanist, religious, or moral values, are demonstrating solidarity with persecuted minorities and migrants. Trade unionists, feminists and other social movements are busy organizing people of all races and nationalities in a common struggle against exploitation and oppression.

Is reactionary xenophobia the only form of nationalism in the world today? One cannot deny that there are still movements of national liberation with legitimate demands for self-determination — a concept to which, as we know, Rosa Luxemburg did not subscribe. The Palestinians and the Kurds are two obvious examples. Yet it is interesting to observe that the main Kurdish left-nationalist force, the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), decided to abandon the call for a separate nation-state. Criticizing nation-statism as an oppressive form, it adopted a new perspective influenced by the anarchist ideas of Murray Bookchin: “Democratic Confederalism.”

The internationalist ideas of Rosa Luxemburg, but also of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, José Carlos Mariategui, W.E.B. Dubois, Frantz Fanon and many others are precious instruments to understand and transform our reality. They are necessary and indispensable weapons for the struggles of our times. Nevertheless, Marxism is an open method, constantly in movement, which must cultivate new ideas and concepts to confront the new challenges of each epoch.

Michael Löwy

Michael Löwy is a sociologist and philosopher as well as emeritus scholar at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and a lecturer at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He focuses primarily on social movements in Latin America and Marxism.

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