Rediscovering Rosa Luxemburg

Submitted by AWL on 10 March, 2015 - 5:32 Author: Peter Hudis

Few adherents of the radical tradition need to be convinced of the importance of Rosa Luxemburg.

A committed Marxist who opposed the dead-ends of both parliamentary reformism and “revolutionary” dictatorships imposed from above, her writings have been read and reread by generations of activists striving to find a pathway out of existing society. A brilliant economist who is widely authored the most in-depth treatment of the integral connection between capitalism and imperialism, her Accumulation of Capital and Anti-Critique is pivotal in understanding the dynamic that explains capital’s proclivity for global self-expansion. And her irrepressible and vibrant personality has awed and inspired thinkers and activists inside and outside the Marxist tradition for decades, not the least because of the insights found in her correspondence. As the foremost women theoretician produced by the Marxist movement, she has become a subject of discussion by many feminists in recent years. Given the widespread attention given to her life and work, it may seem that we know all that needs to be known about Luxemburg’s life and thought. But that is quite far from the truth.

Although much of Luxemburg’s work has been available in English translation, much of it is untranslated or unknown. At least 75 per cent of her articles and essays, written in German, Polish and Russian (with a few in Yiddish), have never appeared in English. Only in 2013 did the first full English translation of her second most important book, The Introduction to Political Economy finally appear in English, in Volume I of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso Books). This impressive 220-page study is one of the best overviews to Marxist political economy and should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the historical origins of capitalism, its drive for global expansion, the relation between pre-capitalist and post-capitalist forms of social organization, and the nature of wage labor. Meanwhile, less than 20 per cent of her correspondence has appeared in English — even with the publication of the 600-page Letters of Rosa Luxemburg in 2011, the most comprehensive collection of her letters to date, which sparked considerable discussion in the mainstream and radical press.

At issue is not simply the amount of writings that have (or have not) been translated from the five-volume German-language Gesammelte Werke. Recent scholarship has turned up hundreds of previously unknown or unavailable articles, lectures and manuscripts. It is no secret that Luxemburg taught political economy, sociology, anthropology, economic history and Marx’s Capital at the German Social-Democratic Party’s school in Berlin from 1907-14, but it was only relatively recently (in the late 1990s) that Prof. Narihiko Ito discovered the texts of these notes and talks. Eight of them are now available, for the first time in full, in Volume 1 of the Complete Works. It is also no secret that Luxemburg was not only an important theorist of revolution but also an active participant in the 1905 Russian Revolution (she went to Russian-occupied Poland at the end of 1905) and 1918-19 German Revolution.

Yet it is only recently that many of her writings on these revolutions have come to light. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Luxemburg scholar and biographer Annelies Laschitza, Dietz Verlag last year published a supplementary Volume 6 of Luxemburg’s Gesammelte Werke, containing previously unknown writings from 1893 to 1906 (many of these are unsigned articles that Laschitza determined, based on meticulous research, were written by Luxemburg). The volume consists of 900 pages. Laschitza is currently working on a further (and equally large) volume of previously unknown political writings that will cover 1907 to 1918.

Even this does not exhaust the new archival discoveries. Holger Politt (continuing the earlier work of Felix Tych in Warsaw) has been working to compile Luxemburg’s writings from the Polish revolutionary press, much of which has never been appeared in either German or English (and most never been reprinted in Polish). This material amounts to another 2,000 pages.

Clearly, there is much still to learn about Rosa Luxemburg! All of this material — indeed, everything she ever wrote — will appear in The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, in 14 volumes. Each volume will be published according to the highest scholarly standards, containing up-to-date editor’s notes that refer the reader to contemporary writings on the subjects covered by Luxemburg as well as the background for many of her historical, literary, and biographical references. Each volume will contain a detailed glossary. We will provide new translations of all the material, including those that have appeared previously in English, and ensure that the translations are checked against the original to ensure that each work is presented in its entirety.

Such considerations have not always characterised the publication of Luxemburg’s work in English. To give one example, the earlier English translation of The Accumulation of Capital (in 1951) left out its sub-title, “A Contribution to the Economic Theory of Imperialism” as well as its Foreword, which stated that “the present work should have some implications for our practical struggle against imperialism.” It also failed to include over a dozen other sentences or passages from the original. The new, complete translation of The Accumulation of Capital will appear in Volume 2 of the Complete Works, which will be published this spring. It will also include a new translation of her Anti-Critique — one of her most powerful writings — as well as an essay chapter on Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital that originally appeared as an unattributed chapter in Franz Mehring’s Karl Marx (Mehring, who was not proficient in Marxian economics, had asked Luxemburg to write the chapter in his stead).

The Complete Works is divided into three rubrics — 1) her economic writings (two volumes), 2) political writings (seven volumes), and 3) complete correspondence (five volumes). Since her overall contribution cannot be grasped without engaging her work as an economic theorist, we have begun the series with her economic works. Admittedly, separating her oeuvres into economic and political writings is somewhat artificial. As she indicates in her correspondence, her initial approach to economic theory was largely stimulated by a political problematic — the expansion of European imperialism into Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, many of her “political” writings — such as Reform or Revolution — contain brilliant analyses of the economic law of motion of capitalism and its proclivity for cyclical crises. Yet given the amount of time, care, and attention that she gave to developing her major economic works, it makes sense to begin the Complete Works with her contributions to the field of Marxian economics.

We are now in the process of beginning the work on her political writings. At first we planned on issuing these in chronological order — beginning with her earliest writings within the Polish Marxist movement and ending with her writings of 1918-19. However, in light of the discovery of her many previously unknown or unpublished writings we have decided to structure the volumes around specific themes. The first three volumes of the political writings will be devoted to “On Revolution.” Clearly, revolution was the central theoretical and practical occupation of her political life, and her writings on this subject reveals her most important contributions. The first of these (Volume 3) will consist of her writings on revolution up to the end of 1905. Volume 4 will cover 1906 to 1914 and Volume 5 material related to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and German Revolution of 1918-19. The political writings will be further rounded out by being organised around additional themes, such as nationalism, imperialism, etc.

We do not, however, envision creating a separate volume devoted to the question of organisation. Why not? The reason is that unlike other Marxists (such as Lenin), Luxemburg did not create a specific theory of organisation that was distinct from her concept of revolution. “Organisation” was not some separate and isolated branch of inquiry, but rather integral to her understanding of class-consciousness and its role in social transformation. In my view, this represents one of her greatest strengths, which can greatly aid the left’s effort to work out a viable concept of an alternative to capitalism.

The Complete Works will conclude with a five-volume collection of her correspondence.

The issuance of The Complete Works would not be possible without the assistance of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, who has been of tremendous aid in all stages of our work on this project. The cost of translating these works is not inconsiderable, even in light of the relatively modest level of compensation that our translators have accepted. The RLS has been of great assistance in this regard, but it cannot cover the entire cost of translation.

We therefore encourage those interested in seeing this project through to its completion to make a contribution to the Toledo Fund; all contributions sent to aid the issuance of Luxemburg’s Complete Works we be used solely for that purpose.

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