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Red Rosa:On Economic Expansion and Militarism.

Works Reviewed: Luxemburg, Rosa. The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg. Volume 1: Economic Writings 1. Edited by Peter Hudis. Translated by David Fernbach, Jospeh Fraccia, and George Shriver. New York: Verso, 2013., 596 pages.

Rosa Luxemburg appears to us today, in the gauzy film of hindsight, not so much as a figure from the past as the symbol of a world that lay within reach of historical possibility, but was violently arrested. A world that may yet inspire our longing and our work. The horizon of a world that was lost – lost before it was ever allowed to come into being – dawns under Red Rosa’s star. It was her communism, which uniquely brought the voice of dissent, of foreignness and of women to the foreground of social revolution, which brought out the most violent reactions of the fascist Freikorps troops. Barbara Ehrenreich describes the male fantasy of the “Red women” which preys upon the fascist imagination as it mingles a fear of women’s bodies with a fear of the dissolution of order:

“Communism – and this is not the communism of Lenin and Stalin, but the communism off Rosa Luxemburg, the most potent and horrifying of the “Red women”… – represents a promiscuous mingling, a breaking down of old barriers, something wild and disorderly.”[1]

The Freikorpsmen feared communism, but what this fear coded for them was a dread of women. Women as such constituted a threat to the fascist warrior’s sense of ordered reality; the stark tidiness of a freshly pressed military uniform. In this distorted view of reality the scene of domestic life became utterly desexualized, while warfare was glamorized and eroticized in extremely disturbing ways.[2]

In a world where perpetual warfare had become engrained into the political and sexual economy of the nation, a woman of Rosa Luxemburg’s keen emotional intelligence was a threat. Her own comrades in Germany’s Social Democracy party turned against her as the nationalist frenzy of the First World War caught them in the grips of violent death-glorifying fantasy. Rosa remained, in Germany, a sole voice of sanity, a faithful witness against the fervor of war.

Nationalisms, with their intense focus on racial, ethnic, and linguistic purities, name ways of coding violence against women, whose sexuality makes them possible sites of ethnic or racial contamination. Nationalist rhetoric fosters fear of foreigners, resident aliens, and those whose religious affiliations might be suspect. The world that Rosa Luxemburg lived in was not big enough for her internationalism. It was not big enough for the challenge of deep social democracy, because the minds of the rulers were small, rigid, and anxious. The people of Germany, and of all Europe, in failing to disown the war-hungry autocrats, failed Rosa Luxemburg.

Rosa Luxemburg was a threat; a threat to a social order based on militarism and imperialism. The perpetual battle against true social democracy continues to manifest itself today. It is apparent in the increased economic disparity, in the overblown rhetoric of religious war, in the absurd escalation of the surveillance state, and in the deeply misogynistic, racist, and oligarchic political configurations of our time. The masters of war are still alive, still forcing their fantasies of a stilled, stolid deathly politics upon the living world. It is clear enough; Rosa is still a threat, and needs to remain one.

Economic Writings

The translation and publication of her complete works into English is, therefore, a timely event. Her voice is a necessary one, because it is original and untamed. In the introductory essay to The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg: Volume 1: Economic Writings 1, Peter Hudis provides a vignette of the breadth and depth of Luxemburg as an activist, a theoretician and an original personality. In her own words she expresses it this way:

“I feel that within me there is maturing a completely new and original form which dispenses with the usual formulas and patterns and breaks them down… I feel with utter certainty that something is there, that something will be born.”[3]

Her originality is revealed, not simply in her own sensibility of it, but through the depth of her active political commitment and relentless inquiry into the nature of capitalist expansion. Hudis describes the sum of her four major theoretical works – The Industrial Development of Poland; Introduction to Political Economy; The Accumulation of Capital: and The Accumulation of Capital, or what the Epigones Have Made of Marx’s Theory: An Anti-Critique – as “the most comprehensive study of capital’s inherent tendency towards global expansion ever written.” There is a great deal of truth to this claim, already in her dissertation piece, The Industrial Development of Poland, she observes:

It is an inherent law of the capitalist method of production that it strives to materially bind together the most distant places, little by little, to make them economically dependent on each other, and eventually transform the entire world into one firmly joined productive mechanism. This tendency, of course, works most strongly within one and the same state, within the same political and tariff borders.[4]

This essay, which opens the volume, gives an indication of her attention to particular political and economic configurations and her ability to, presciently, situate those situations with regard to the overall structure and inherent tendencies of global capitalism. In The Industrial Development of Poland, Rosa makes no mention of Marxist theory. Her work is clearly grounded in an internationalist perspective, and her keen awareness of the expansionist tendencies of capitalism alone, as seen in the quote above, make Rosa a figure worth reconsidering in our allegedly “global” age. What, she asks, are the barriers to prevent a continued expansion of global capitalism? If these barriers cannot be identified the objective necessity of socialism would remain wishful thinking. Marx, Rosa thought, lacked an adequate explanation of the limits of capitalist expansion.

The boundless horizon of Rosa Luxemburg’s thought, then, is made manifest within the constraints of particular, determinate action. However she refuses the answer of nationalism as a legitimate way of resolving the double bind between the place of determinate action and the horizon of global responsibility. For example, unlike Marx and Engels, Rosa opposed calls for Polish national self-determination. As we see in the quote from her dissertation work, Rosa is far too aware of the complicity of national statist power in the work of capitalist expansion.

Introduction to Political Economy

Freedom is always the freedom to think differently, said Rosa Luxemburg, and her work powerfully embodies this mantra. It is not, however, that thinking differently is enshrined into a law that refuses any agreement. Rather, Rosa struggles to maintain the difficult space of critical thought. Certainly, there is often a polemical edge to her work, but it is equally clear that this polemic is felt as the necessary reaction to the work and words of people whose theoretical speculations have an obscure and oppressive quality. Thus, in Introduction to Political Economy, she takes the professors of political economy to task. This work, which was never fully completed, offers a biting critique of the illusory notion of a “national economy.” The national economy, she points out, is a myth that conveniently ignores the constant exchange between nations, and obscures the ever-increasing grip of capitalist economy on the world stage:

In this way, the “commodity” capital spreads still more remarkable “commodities” on an ever more massive scale from various old countries to the whole world: modern means of transport and the destruction of whole indigenous populations, money economy and an indebted peasantry, riches and poverty, proletariat and exploitation, insecurity of existence and crises, anarchy and revolutions. The European “national economies” extend their polyp-like tentacles to all countries and people of the earth, strangling them in the great net of capitalist exploitation.”(116)

Rosa is attentive to attentive to the myriad economic entanglements which global trade foists upon the world and, because she refuses to reduce history to national identity and economy to national economy, she is able to resist the facile definitions of economy proffered within the sphere of academic specialization. The definitions which, to our great detriment, remain much in vogue today.

The historical depth of Rosa Luxemburg’s work comes through strongly in Introduction to Political Economy as well as in other work included in this volume. In her work on Slavery the rise and fall of the Roman Empire is analysed through the lens of its slave economy. In this essay she develops the compelling, and still inadequately considered thesis that “the slave revolts were the first immense, world-historical class struggle against the exploiters. Not the free peasant, not the proletarians in Rome.” (327) Rosa’s work on slavery is not fully developed, indeed it has a more tenuous character even than the Introduction to Political Economy, but it is full of intriguing threads. Most notably this work, along with her comments on The Middle Ages, Feudalism, Development of Cities gives evidence of her sense of the importance of reading history in a way that is attentive to the dissolution of social structures.

Her analysis of capitalism, therefore, is read against the backdrop of prior social dissolutions. Through her attentiveness to the dissolute, the hidden, to that which escapes the eyes of those complicit with the reigning authority Rosa perceives and elucidates the connections between militarism and industrial expansion with a keen and prescient gaze. If we are to move beyond the stagnation of our arrested history, hers will be a voice that is heard.

               [1]Barbara Ehrenreich “Foreward” in Klaus Theweleit Male Fantasies Volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies,           History. trans. Stephen Conway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. xiv.  

                [2]Theweleit, Male Fantasies.

                [3]Rosa Luxemburg,  The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg: Volume 1: Economic Writings 1, trans. Peter Hudis (New York: Verso, 2013)

                [4]Ibid.,  73.