‘Rosa Remix’ Rosa Luxemburg Conference

The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung-New York Office, in collaboration with Verso Books and the New School, organized a conference honoring Red Rosa 100 years after the publication of her masterpiece The Accumulation of Capital. These are some notes from “Rosa Remix.”

Raphaële Chappe, a doctoral candidate in economics at the New School for Social Research, joined Wolff in the discussion of Greece. She previously served as a vice president for global bank Goldman Sachs, before becoming a marxist. (Investigative reporter Matt Taibbi infamously described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”)

Patrick Bond, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, discussed the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) so-called New Development Bank, among other topics.

Rosa Luxemburg specialist and translator Holger Politt spoke of his experiences working on translating and publishing some of the thousands of previously unpublished pages of writings by Red Rosa.

The conference addressed not just Rosa Luxemburg’s invaluable theoretical and practical contributions to marxism, economics, and the study of capitalism, imperialism, and more; it furthermore spoke to her legacy as an enormously influential socialist feminist.

Writer Amber A’Lee Frost noted that Luxemburg, as one of the foremost theorists of marxism, is often written off by liberal feminists as “economistic”—that is to say, supposedly “too concerned” with class and not enough with patriarchy (as if patriarchy were independent of capitalism). Frost quipped that she would expect an economist like Rosa Luxemburg to be economistic, and pointed out that male economists are rarely accused of the same kind of economism.

Luxemburg did indeed address gender in her approximately 9,000 pages of work.

In her 1912 article “Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle,” Luxemburg argued class struggle and feminism go hand-in-hand.

A hundred years ago, the Frenchman Charles Fourier, one of the first great prophets of socialist ideals, wrote these memorable words: In any society, the degree of female emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.[B] This is completely true for our present society. The current mass struggle for women’s political rights is only an expression and a part of the proletariat’s general struggle for liberation. In this lies its strength and its future. Because of the female proletariat, general, equal, direct suffrage for women would immensely advance and intensify the proletarian class struggle. This is why bourgeois society abhors and fears women’s suffrage. And this is why we want and will achieve it. Fighting for women’s suffrage, we will also hasten the coming of the hour when the present society falls in ruins under the hammer strokes of the revolutionary proletariat.

[B] Though Rosa Luxemburg could not have known it, Karl Marx cites these same words in the third of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 when he discusses the nature of communist society.

In her 1914 essay “The Proletarian Woman,” Luxemburg continued:

From time immemorial the women of the people have worked hard. In the primitive horde she carried loads, gathered provisions; in the primitive village she planted grain and milled it, and made pottery; in ancient times she served the ruling class as a slave and suckled their offspring at her breast; in the Middle Ages she laboured at the spindle for the feudal lord. But for so long as private property has existed, the woman of the people generally works separated from the large workplace of social production, and therefore from culture, cooped up in the domestic confines of an impoverished household existence. Only capitalism has torn her out of the family and clamped her under the yoke of social production, driven onto alien fields, into workshops, onto construction sites, into offices, into factories and warehouses. As a bourgeois woman, the female is a parasite on society, her function consists only in consuming the fruits of exploitation; as a petit bourgeois woman she is a beast of burden of the family. Only as a modern proletarian do woman become human beings, for only struggle makes the individual contribute to cultural work, and to the history of humanity.

For the propertied bourgeois woman her house is the world. For the proletarian woman the whole world is her house, the world with its sorrow and its joy, with its cold cruelty and its brutal size. The proletarian woman travels with the tunnel workers from Italy to Switzerland, camps in their shacks and sings while drying her baby’s laundry, beside dynamited rocks hurled into the air.

The Proletarian woman needs political rights, because she exercises the same economic function in society, slaves away in the same way for capital, maintains the state in just the same way, is sucked dry and held down in just the same way as the male proletarian. She has the same interests and needs the same weapons in her defence. Her political demands are rooted deep in the social abyss which separates the class of the exploited from the class of the exploiters, not in the contrast between man and woman, but in the contrast between capital and labour.

In 1921, just two years after her death, the Third Congress of the Communist International would stipulate the following, drawing from her work:

As long as the proletarian woman remains economically dependent upon the capitalist boss and her husband, the breadwinner, and in the absence of comprehensive measures to protect motherhood and childhood and provide socialised child-care and education, this cannot equalise the position of women in marriage or solve the problem of relationships between the sexes.

The real equality of women, as opposed to formal and superficial equality, will be achieved only under Communism, when women and all the other members of the labouring class will become co-owners of the means of production and distribution and will take part in administering them, and women will share on an equal footing with all the members of the labour society the duty to work; in other words, it will be achieved by overthrowing the capitalist system of production and exploitation which is based on the exploitation of human labour, and by organising a Communist economy.

Yet fixating on Rosa Luxemburg’s work on gender—which only comprises a tiny fraction of her Brobdingnagian corpus—is itself a form of misogyny, as it presumes women economists must devote themselves to the study of gender and patriarchy. Luxemburg, once again, was one of the most important theorists in the colossal realm of marxism. In her short life, she established herself as a superlative political economist—not to mention a committed revolutionary.

Lecturers also touched on the views of Luxemburg—a Polish Jew living in anti-Semitic turn-of-the-century Germany—on racism and anti-semitism, drawing attention to the following quote.

In 2011, the Atlantic wrote

Her internationalism was so strong that she despised anything to do with lesser or sectarian “identities.” This led her to oppose any nationalist claims made by her fellow Poles and fellow Jews (in retrospect, perhaps, a somewhat questionable position for any German politician to have been taking). To her friend Mathilde Wurm, she wrote rebukingly:

What do you want with this theme of the “special suffering of the Jews”? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch. You know the words that were written about the great work of the General Staff, about General Trotha’s campaign in the Kalahari desert: “And the death rattles of the dying, the demented cries of those driven mad by thirst faded away in the sublime stillness of eternity.” Oh that “sublime stillness of eternity,” in which so many cries of anguish have faded away unheard, they resound within me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.

The quotation is from a conscience-stricken German soldier in the army of General Lothar von Trotha, who had in 1904 issued a general “extermination order” against the rebellious Herero tribe in what is now Namibia. One feels another crackle of premonition when reading again about this once-notorious atrocity: the imperial ethnologists in German South West Africa who conducted hideous medical experiments on the Herero included the mentors of Josef Mengele, and the first political governor of the province had been Hermann Goering’s father. Von Trotha himself became a member of a race-myth cult group calling itself the Thule Society, which was one of the seedbeds of the early Nazi Party. For Luxemburg, the hecatomb of the European war was partly a projection of the brutality of empire back into its metropolis. Her prompting was always to the enlargement of the picture: the concept of the “global” did not in the least intimidate her. Indeed, she took it as her point of departure.

(This view also confirms the thesis that fascism, and particularly Nazism, was, at least in part, the application of European colonialism internally, on Europe itself.)

As expert and translator Dr. Holger Politt made clear, nevertheless, these notes fail to do even a fraction of justice to Red Rosa’s overwhelmingly large oeuvre and incalculable genius.