back to

The enduring radical legacy of Rosa Luxemburg


Jacobin magazine has an interview with Paul Buhle, editor of Red Rosa, a new graphic biography on Rosa Luxemburg, about the continuing relevance of the pioneering thinker and agitator. An excerpt:

How has the legacy of Luxemburg been able to evolve to be claimed by people and groups on the Left from social democrats to communists to anarchists?

As suggested in the afterword to Red Rosa, her legacy was fought over in Germany during the 1920s, only to be discarded, at the command of Stalin, in 1931. Thereafter, it tended to become the special province of Trotskyism, whose leaders looked upon rival claims (mainly by left socialists and anarchists) with resentful possessiveness. Credit must be given to Trotskyists, however, for keeping her pamphlets circulating.

Oddly, in the 1960s, a circle of Cold War social democrats claimed Marxism vs Leninism as a totemic anticommunist text and, not so indirectly, a defense of their own support of the Vietnam War. This cynical gesture mirrored the East German claims upon Rosa, with arrests of demonstrators during the annual January remembrances (of Rosa and Karl Liebknecht’s assassinations) for anyone holding up unapproved posters.

A deeper interpretation is needed for the complexity of the longstanding, German Social Democratic Party’s youth movement adoption of Rosa as saint. But it is surely the Left Party and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung of today that have the proper credentials to claim her for their own (not that they wish to monopolize her memory or her meaning for themselves).

What do you think she would make of the current state of the American left and the tasks for socialists and their organizations?

The near-century since Rosa’s death has seen so much changed, the sense of certainty for a future socialism so diminished by ecological crisis, that it probably does us no good to imagine that, for instance, she would have viewed Bernie Sanders or even Jeremy Corbyn as weak tea, their movements as far too timid and accepting of capitalism. On the other hand, Rosa believed in mass organizations and doubtless had little taste for divisive sectarian gestures.

Socialist feminism? The ideals would have appealed, the idea of anything like a separate movement, probably not. And so on. Her faith in the working class of the West might have been shaken as her hopes for the peoples of the former colonies enhanced.

I like to think that, in my lifetime, C. L. R. James best updated Rosa, even when he did not quite grasp that he was doing so. Like the analogies of Rosa’s ideas and the vision of the Industrial Workers of the World, this is, probably, the subject for another time.

Image of Rosa Luxemburg via Jacobin.