Post Rosa, a world-spanning collection of letter exchanges between socialists inspired by Rosa Luxemburg, demonstrates her continuing importance, finds Dominic Alexander
As one of the greatest of socialist revolutionaries of the period after Marx and Engels themselves, Rosa Luxemburg has developed at least as complex and contested a legacy as any other figure. Her intellectual and political stature as a leading woman in the socialist movement in itself means much to many, while she is also a lost leader of the lost German revolution of 1919. For some, her politics represent a better path not taken by socialist revolutionaries, while others would point out how much her politics complemented those of Lenin or Trotsky. In the nature of things, these arguments have been often enough acrimonious, and are not likely to end any time soon, but there is no question that socialists of many varieties have taken inspiration from her.
This collection, Post Rosa: Letters Against Barbarism does not seem to have been planned as a series of analytical essays, but rather as personal responses to Rosa Luxemburg’s broader influence on life as a socialist activist. Naturally however, interpretations of her theory and politics are abundantly present as well. The structure consists of ten sets of exchanges of letters between socialists in different parts of the world, and each of these vary widely in topic and tone.
Luxemburg and ecology
If there is a thread which unites most of the book, it is the clarity and brilliance of Luxemburg’s writing. Her evocation, in her personal letters, of the beauty and wonder of the natural world around her is appreciated repeatedly by most of the writers. Many of the contributors are concerned to bring Luxemburg to bear upon the existential climate crisis of our moment, and the contributors are surely right to guess that she would be on the side of a socialist response to the emergency. There is good reason to think this, as her great economic work, The Accumulation of Capital, presents an analysis of capital’s drive to plunder human and world resources, which helps enormously to explain the plight into which the system has forced us. For Paul Le Blanc:
‘The pandemic is only one of an accumulating number of disasters related to the intertwined realities of globalization and climate change driven forwards by something Luxemburg analysed in her great book on economics. This is the relentless process of capital accumulation, a voracious pursuit of corporate profits on a global scale, at the expense of vast numbers of people, damaging the environment on which our lives depend. … The durability of civilization and humanity over the next hundred years seems open to question’ (p.11).
Luxemburg’s warning that we face a choice between ‘socialism or barbarism’ is being borne out in ways that she could not have predicted. Both Michael Löwy (pp.47-8) and Haydeé García Bravo (p.158) wish to repurpose the famous phrase for fashioning a response to the ecological crisis. The processes that concerned Luxemburg remain very much in evidence, as alejandra ciriza, quoting from The Junius Pamphlet on imperialism, shows the links between colonial depredations and the destruction of nature:
‘I am also thinking about her articulating the advancement of capitalism and the destruction of existing social relations and of nature, exactly as it has been happening here on our continent. In Argentina, ongoing, multiple extractivist interventions are penetrating into areas hitherto peripheral, like the remaining jungles of Salta, Chaco and Formosa; the search for lithium in Puna, or the ongoing fracking activities in the Patagonian Plateau. The overall devastation and misery, the destruction of all forms of community relations, of nature and bodies, confirm in our everyday lives the connection Rosa saw between capitalism, the destruction of pre-existing social relations and the most extreme forms of violence’ (p.129).
The scale and rapidity with which capitalism is now devastating the world is daunting and even overwhelming. Paul Le Blanc emphasises the urgency and difficulties of the task:
‘It will take time to rebuild the Left, and time to build the mass movement and mass struggles required to win a Green New Deal. … And the necessary victories must be realized, it now seems to me, within about three decades. Scientists tell us that preventing global warming from a disastrous rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius will require a reduction to near zero by 2050’ (p.15).
There is a pessimistic note struck by LeBlanc here, which is entirely understandable, but his first letter carries a closing quotation from Luxemburg which reveals the reason for keeping on fighting: ‘The masses … are always on the verge of becoming something totally different from what they seem to be’ (p.18).
Consciousness is not the matter of fixed attitudes that liberals would have us believe, but is contradictory, and therefore massive shifts in ideas and activity can happen suddenly. Le Blanc references various signs of an upswing for working-class struggle. So, however grim prospects might seem at a particular moment, there is reason to keep on the task of organising: ‘Time and again, after I conclude that defeat must be accepted … - I find myself pulled back into the same struggle to which Luxemburg and others devoted the whole of their lives’ (p.26).
The urgency of the climate crisis has the potential to panic some into thinking that there is no time to build the mass movement needed to effect a change of system, so concluding that answers acceptable to the ruling class need to be found. This is the wrong conclusion to draw. As Helen C. Scott, responding to Le Blanc, notes in agreement about the relevance of Luxemburg’s revolutionary ideas:
‘certain fundamentals of capitalism – class exploitation, economic crisis, imperialism – cannot be legislated away. Meaningful reforms within the system can be won, but class struggle is the primary motor for this, not parliamentary or congressional activity’ (p.20).
An adequate response to ecological crisis won’t be won through the official channels, so building the mass movement is the only realistic option.
Socialist politics and organisation
Scott emphasises the importance and utility of socialist organisation, in whatever circumstances, as ‘our efforts are going to be more successful if part of a collective project’ if we ‘draw on the lessons – positive and negative – of the revolutionary socialist tradition’ (p.32). The importance of class, and Luxemburg’s commitment to working-class struggles is emphasised by many. In the context of the ecological crisis, the Polish contributor, Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, points to the critical danger that “liberal ecologists” (her scare quotes) ‘just tell the industrial workers that their mines and factories must be closed’ without any alternatives for them (p.50). What is needed is a socialist plan to save the planet which is rooted in workers’ struggles, something she feels Luxemburg would have understood.
This subject of ecology is not a particularly controversial one here, but since the contributors are drawn from an extremely diverse breadth of opinion, inevitably there are some very significant contrasts in perspective elsewhere. Thus Peter Hudis draws a stark contrast between Luxemburg’s advocacy of democracy and Lenin’s approach to organisation or the actions of the Bolsheviks in power. A number of others think this long-standing narrative to be greatly overdrawn.
Helen C. Scott thinks we should ‘break with the tired “good revolutionary/bad revolutionary” opposition between Luxemburg and Lenin’, thinking also that the common contrast between the ‘steely, hard Lenin’ and ‘the caring, gentle soul’ of Luxemburg to be rooted in sexism. It has also been challenged by much recent work on Lenin by figures such as Lars T. Lih, Tamás Krausz, and Paul Le Blanc. Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn, Hudis’ correspondent, makes a telling point that since ‘RL was never in a position to exercise or defend state power’, any claims about the decisions she would have made ‘even in the face of the most bloody and intransigent adversity’ amount to ‘a leap of faith’ (p.233).
In reply, Hudis claims that ‘the defeat of a revolution in a single country is not the worst outcome’ (author’s emphasis, p.243), so long as certain principles are maintained. This seems hard to maintain in the historical context of Europe in 1917-19, where the defeat of the revolution in Russia would most surely have led to a murderous White regime there. Such a regime would certainly have acted to crush the left elsewhere in east and central Europe. The possibility of a German revolution, or the Hungarian or the still-born Italian one, all in 1919, would have been forestalled entirely. Revolutions smashed in violence are not likely to inspire ‘workers elsewhere to take up the fight’, as Hudis imagines (p.243).
However strenuously one may disagree with one side or another of these debates, they are certainly legitimate, and these are important arguments to have to clarify what is at stake. Another position, which has been argued one way or another over and again since the beginning of revolutionary socialism, is that the project has failed, and a different politics is needed. The working class, it is claimed, does not have the potential Marx and Luxemburg, among others, believed it to have. In the past, variants of this view have generally led away from left politics altogether.
Paul Mason, the latest to tread on this path, makes some wild claims about the widespread and entrenched ‘anti-humanism’ of the left, including, strangely, that ‘many young protesters today’ have an ideology that ‘human beings are just really machines; that history is a process without a subject’ (p.98).
Mason is, of course, entitled to make all the bizarre, unsubstantiated generalities that he chooses. Even less acceptable, however, is what he goes on to say. Ludicrously, he thinks that ‘within the Corbyn movement the dominant form of Marxism was … ossified, anti-humanist thought.’ He claims that the ‘remnants’ of communism in Britain did not ‘explain the collapse of the Soviet Union, or engage with the revelations of inhumanity that emerged afterwards, or – and this proved important in the collapse of Corbynism – to accept the vast anti-Semitism perpetrated by Stalinism during its coverup of the specifically Jewish aspects of the Holocaust’ (p.99). This is a very slippery statement, and it is difficult to know what Mason is specifically alleging or referring towards, but guilt by several steps of association seems to be implied. A statement like this goes well beyond the bounds of reasonable debate. Since Mason has already threatened to sue Counterfire once, the issue shall be left there.
Happily, the other contributors are all, at least in their own view, students and followers of Luxemburg and Marx. There are several exchanges where the dialogue of activists across countries or even continents seem fruitful and mutually inspiring. There are some odd moments, however, due to the eclectic variety of figures involved. It is very interesting to hear the stories of revolutionary women in Vietnam’s past in Nguyen Hong Duc’s contribution, but the suggestion of a project to map out common ground between Luxemburg and Ho Chi Minh (p.213) seems less than promising. This is particularly so when Duc claims that Luxemburg’s ideas about the ‘struggle of the workers’ movement and of the proletariat are no longer relevant today because the characteristics of world politics have changed’ (p.222). This passage has the hallmarks of someone who must tow a party line in a state which is no workers’ state at all, whatever claims it may make to socialism. There are similarly disquieting moments in the letters from China.
These reservations, however, shouldn’t overshadow the strengths and affecting qualities of other exchanges in the book. A theme for many, including the editor, is the emotional toll engaging in the struggle, and its many setbacks, can take. Jigisha Bhattacharya warns against the ‘neoliberal regimes of self-care’, but finds a different direction to arrive at an answer to the problem in some of Luxemburg’s personal letters: ‘an instance of these difficult solidarities – not the liberal bourgeois sisterhood, but truly political forms of solidarity’ (pp.290-1).
Many quote from Luxemburg’s letters, finding solace in her capacity for carrying on amidst the most terrible circumstances. Maureen Kasuku in Kenya, faces a very difficult context in maintaining her activism, but ‘every day, I pick myself up and roll up my sleeves because there’s work to do. I gain strength from my comrades across the world’ (p.66). This comes after her choice of a particularly extraordinary passage from Luxemburg:
‘And in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness. And all the while I’m searching within myself for some reason for this joy, I find nothing and must smile to myself again – and laugh at myself. I believe that the secret is nothing other than life itself; the deep darkness of night is so beautiful and as soft as velvet, if one only looks at it the right way; and in the crunching of the damp sand beneath the slow, heavy steps of the sentries a beautiful small song of life is being sung – if one only knows how to listen properly’ (pp.65-6).
Amid all the political arguments, it’s worth recalling what a virtuoso writer Luxemburg was. However, her main focus was always the workers’ revolution, and Maureen Kasuku’s choice of quotation, again, gets the last word: ‘Only the hammer blow of revolution, that is to say, the conquest of political power by the proletariat can break down the wall between capitalist society and Socialist society’ (p.75).
Post Rosa: Letters Against Barbarism can be ordered from https://rosalux.nyc/post-rosa-letters-against-barbarism/.
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Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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