Rosa Luxemburg, Complete (or getting there) and Astounding

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By Paul Buhle

The  Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. 1, Economic Writings. Edited with introduction by Peter Hudis. New York, Verso and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: 2013, 2014 (paper), 582pp, pbk, $49.95.

The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Vol.2, Economic Writings. Edited by Peter Hudis and Paul LeBlanc. Introduction by Paul LeBlanc. New York, Verso and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: 2015, 526pp, $120.

Perhaps the publication of these extremely important and even timely volumes arrives most evidently with a backstory in the front. A favorite saint of many parts of the global Left since her 1919 assassination, Rosa Luxemburg received a tardy and somewhat ambivalent rehabilitation from Communists, with a long-awaited and total vindication after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (or Foundation), an internationalist, democratic socialist institution with many adopted causes, also has adopted the comprehensive publication of their namesake’s work, with Verso as a partner. Even with financial support, this is a massive task, for which a small army of translators, editors and fact-checkers, etc., have pooled their efforts.

English-language readers old enough, like this reviewer, to have seen her works mostly available in pamphlets, some of them published in British colonial Ceylon (not yet Sri Lanka), will find this latest development a sort of vindication. Actually, biographies and assorted scholarly as well as political treatments have been sneaking forward since the 1950s, varying in coloration from Trotskyist to liberal social democratic, while the assorted republication of her works has continued. Still, much remains to be known or understood, in part because she was a vastly prolific writer but in part for reasons that have grown ever more significant with the passing of generations.

As explained by Peter Hudis in the introductory notes to The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (2011), the full 14-volume collection will follow the two economic works (freshly translated, like the rest of the materials, with extensive scholarly notes) with seven volumes of her political writings, and completed with five volumes of her letters, of which The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg is a mere selection.  I may flatter myself, as editor, and the artist, Kate Evans, that Red Rosa, the comic art biography—also to be published by Verso and likewise funded by the Luxemburg Stiftung—completes this vast compendium in another way. We Rosa fans would also like a better movie than the Margarethe von Trotha Rosa Luxemburg, and for that matter a television series, but these obviously need to wait.

The two volumes under review here, at any rate, are surely among the heaviest reading to come, but also among the freshest, in the sense that they provide dramatic suggestions for understanding our world of global plunder and ecological devastation. Hudis, a scholar who came upon unpublished Luxemburg materials while a member of Raya Dunayevskaya’s political grouping, offers a lucid introduction to the first volume, explaining how Rosa considered herself, above all things, as a revolutionary economist. She moved on from The Industrial Development of Poland to seven years (1907-14) of teaching at the German Social Democratic school, engaging her socialist students with their own questions, and setting out her own extended Introduction to Political Economy. Hudis properly stressed that she saw capitalism as a transition, with its internal contradictions leading to…socialism or barbarism, a choice that Luxemburg saw more clearly than others.

We understand better what she intended by turning to the second volume, because The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to the Economic Theory of Imperialism (1913), her magnum opus, struggles brilliantly with the (presumably) temporary salvation of expansive capitalism through empire. She made clear before Lenin’s more famous Imperialism: the Final Stage of Capitalism, that the system had no life without ruthless advance upon the peoples and ecosystems outside of the industrial nations. It had acted so from its beginnings, and the effort by some socialist thinkers (lamentably, Eduard Bernstein was not alone) to spin this chokehold into social uplift was worse than mistaken. There is no capitalist model for proper, sustained development, as Luxemburg might have said, only one misery to replace another. To make this argument demanded a great deal of heavy lifting. If we think of Rosa as a political revolutionary above all, she considered herself no less an economic revolutionary.

To put it briefly, Rosa Luxemburg saw further into the world of colonial (later, post-colonial) depredation than any other pre-1920 Marxist and, in a deep theoretical sense, about as deeply as anyone has yet reached. To put it bluntly, the acceptance of colonialism by leading socialists before 1914 ensured that workers would not resist fighting on the side of their own empire-nations against the workers of other empire-nations. The democratic socialist vision has never recovered.

We see in these volumes the work she did in making the argument, actually many related arguments. We need to remember that before the “Great War,” European prosperity seemed guaranteed, state planning underwriting the certainty of progress, and never mind that invasions and occupations of Africa and Asia, also Latin America under different conditions, were often and quite shamelessly waged as wars of virtual and in some regions actual extermination, the U.S. assault on the Philippines being a case in point. How did these vast predatory moves assist Mother Capital? She argued that an expansion into the sector not-yet-capitalist, buoyed by credit at home and abroad, prompted demand far beyond that possible otherwise. The natural tendency of capitalism to stagnate, pushing wages downward, was in effect halted. Meanwhile, at home, the calculated market penetration of every aspect of social and domestic life accelerated, creating new classes of consumers, middle and working classes at different levels of goods, and spurring further growth.

Unlike most other social democrats, who preferred to see some happy ending for the colonized areas (working classes are created, and become socialistic), Rosa saw human and ecological catastrophe.  Unlike the same theorists, she felt certain and argued vigorously that these developments would lead to ever-worsening wars. This downward slide could only be reversed by the action of internationalism, the coordinated global working class.

And there is another side, expressed best in her letters rather than published works. Rosa Luxemburg was a lover of nature and, like this reviewer, an especial devotee of avian life, thus a mourner of the capitalist assault upon bird habitats around the world. Before the grip of Stalinism pushed such considerations aside, even Russian planners sought to preserve zones of survival and rehabilitation for bird species, among others. Sad to say, that kind of insight was sadly lacking in the old social democratic world, along with a general blindness toward race.

Critics of Luxemburg insisted that she had created a closed system: capitalism’s limits would be reached with the completion of the colonial quest. She actually made a different argument.  If there is a theoretical limit, it is only theoretical. The real difficulty faced by capital is the interference of conflicts among the powerful and between the powerful and the lowly (by extension of her ideas, also between the powerful and the limits of ecological survival). Cyclical crises as well were bound to mark the path ahead. In the pages of these volumes lies a secret, if not the exhaustive, explanation for the first and second world wars, the anti-colonial uprisings, and so much more. In fact, we could rightly conclude that Rosa anticipated neoliberalism, the coordinated project of the rulers or at least major national blocs of rulers to sustain and expand profits by lowering the living standards of working people and accelerate the financial sector’s vampire-like operations.  She saw, if not all, a large enough set of problems and contradictions to prompt the alert reader through a lot of heavy slogging. It’s well worth the effort.

Paul Buhle’s New Left journal lent its name to the Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg (1971): it was a “Radical America Book.” He now edits nonfiction comic art and wishes his generation had been able to go further, way back when, with Rosa studies.

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