July 22, 2021

Can Rosa Luxemburg Help Us Understand Racialized Capitalism?

Peter Hudis

The mass protests against police abuse and for Black lives that engulfed the US and numerous other countries in 2020 pose a critical test as to whether Marxist theorists can account for the persistence of racism and the new forms of subjective agency that have arisen against it. The months-long series of marches, rallies, and other events that erupted following the police murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 was the largest series of continuous protests in US history, with 26 million people participating in over 2,000 towns and cities. It continues today, in a series of ongoing campaigns aimed at defunding police, aiding workers impacted by the ravages of COVID-19, and abolishing prisons and the criminal injustice system.

Historical turning points like the one which characterizes the protests of 2020 have a way of casting judgment, not just upon existing society, but on the standpoints of those claiming to oppose it. Most specifically, it renders increasingly anachronistic the claim that race-based politics detract from the class struggle or the fight against capitalism. Many of the young activists in today’s anti-racist movements make no secret of their hostility to capitalism. Yet it is not the general class struggle that motivates them but rather capitalism’s specifically racist character. This also renders anachronistic versions of identity politics that put issues of class or anti-capitalist politics aside, which continues to dominate left-wing academic discourse. It has become increasingly problematic to treat race, class, and gender as independent variables.

It is therefore only fitting that we conclude this conference by asking whether the work of Rosa Luxemburg speaks to these issues. In doing so, we make no pretence that she can answer the problems of our time. Her lifeworld was defined by the horizons of a socialist movement in which issues of race and racism were either ignored or viewed as secondary to the class struggle. But as many presentations at this conference have shown, the multidimensionality of Luxemburg’s life and work has a way of speaking to us across the historical barrier that divides our time from hers. So, can her work help us understand the nature of racialized capitalism?

Before we try to answer this question, we first must face a serious problem. It was summed up by Sylvia Wynter, the outstanding decolonial scholar and philosopher, in 2015:

Both before and during the post-World War II global anticolonial and antiapartheid uprisings…Marx’s then prophetic-poetic emancipatory project had been, for so long, the only ostensibly ecumenically human emancipatory project around…The result was that many of us had thought that what first had to be transformed, was, above all, our present free-market/free-trade mode of capitalist economic production exploitation system into a new socialist mode of production. The idea was that once this was done, everything else would follow…[including] our still ongoing, status-ordered hierarchically structured, world-systemic order of domination/subordination. This change was to automatically follow. It didn’t of course.[1]

Wynter makes an extremely important point. There is a long history of equating capitalism with private ownership, unfettered markets, and “freely” contracted wage labour. It follows from this that “socialism” or “communism” is defined by nationalized property, central planning, and the abolition of labour markets. But is it really possible to adequately address race and racism within such a framework? Why assume that ending private ownership of the means of production in favour of a “socially planned economy” will undermine racism, when the nationalization of property in the USSR did not prevent racist (and in some cases genocidal) policies against Ukrainians, Jews, or Crimean Tartars? And yet from Luxemburg’s time down to today, many have assumed that ending “our free-market/free-trade” economic model will quasi-automatically lead to overcoming all forms of impression, including racism and sexism.

Take for example the 1903 programme of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party—adopted at a conference which Luxemburg attended (she walked out in protest, but only because she objected to its support for national self-determination). It stated, “By replacing private with public ownership of the means of production and exchange, by introducing planned organization in the public process of production…the social revolution of the proletariat will abolish the division of society into classes and thus emancipate all oppressed humanity, and will terminate all forms of exploitation of one part of society by another” (Programme of the Social Democratic Worker’s Party, 1903). This defined the horizon of many socialists and communists for decades afterward—even after the abolition of the “free-market/free-trade” model by so-called “Marxist” regimes led not by a free association of the producers but to various forms of state-capitalism. Even the new generation of revolutionaries born from 1960s freedom struggles, which included a New Left that initially wanted nothing to do with the “frozen Marxism” of the past, continued to define “capitalism” in terms of “market anarchy” and “private ownership,” and “socialism” as social planning and collective property. Indeed, many still do so today. It is hard to find a leading public intellectual on the socialist Left in the Western world today that does not define “socialism” as the abolition of “free” markets and the enactment of a “fair” redistribution of surplus value—instead of as the creation of freely associated relations in and beyond the workplace that abolish the existence of value production and the law of value.

It is hard to see how an anti-capitalist perspective can address the lived experience of people of colour if it fails to target the reified form of human praxis that defines are present existence. While a redistribution of value would surely benefit Blacks, Latinx, and Native Americans who experience capitalism’s worst inequities, it does not by itself challenge racist attitudes and behaviours. There is no assurance that targeting neoliberalism—based on de-regulated markets and privatization—challenges racialized ways of seeing and relating to others, especially since many who imbibe the norms of a racist society often include progressive whites.

In recent decades a number of theorists, such as the German Neue Marx-Lektüre, the Japanese school of Kozo Uno, and the US theorist Moishe Postone have challenged traditional Marxism’s fixation on property forms in lieu of challenging the domination of socially necessary labour time and the existence of value production. However, since they presume that such abstract forms of domination efface human resistance to the value-form, they are no more capable of addressing race and racism than the orthodox Marxists that they abhor. Marxism clearly faces a problem when it comes to theorizing the integrality of racism and capital accumulation.

For this reason, in the last several decades many critical race and postcolonial theorists have turned away from Marxism in favour of alternative approaches—whether of Foucault or other thinkers—none of which, in my view, point us toward developing an alternative to capitalism. Yet those committed to the latter need to put aside their defensiveness and acknowledge that part of the reason for the attraction of “identity politics” is that Marxism after Marx has largely relied upon a set of theoretical and political assumptions that have proved incapable of accounting for the persistence of anti-Black racism or the lived experience of those combatting it. It surely is not incidental that we have Marxist theories of politics, history, finance, culture, media, art, etc. but are still lacking a strictly Marxian theory of racialization.

So, can the work of Luxemburg provide any assistance for working one out for today?

Luxemburg and Marx on “So-Called Primitive Accumulation”

An especially important work which brings Luxemburg’s thought to bear on racial capitalism is Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism. It is an impressive account of how Blacks and Latinos in the US are impacted by mass incarceration and deadly forms of policing, as well as predatory lending, data-driven surveillance, and the racialization of debt. This makes newly relevant, Wang argues, Luxemburg’s view that capitalism “has a dual character: one sphere is governed by freedom of contract and the rule of law while the other is dominated by political violence and looting carried out by hegemonic capitalist nations”.[2Capitalism depends on non-economic forms of coercion against colonized peoples and racial minorities as much as contractual wage labour. “Rather than casting slavery and Native genocide as temporally circumscribed events that inaugurated the birth of capitalism in the New World (“primitive accumulation”),” Luxemburg’s approach shows how the racial logics produced by these processes persist to this day”.[3] She summarizes Luxemburg’s relevance as follows:

What Luxemburg is describing [in The Accumulation of Capital] is a dual system whereby the liberal contract prevails in the “temperate zone” of the “white race” while the labour supply in the extra-capitalist social strata is secured through colonial domination and forms of soft power. A hybrid form emerges when capitalist social formations are grafted onto non-capitalist social formations. Luxemburg’s arguments are relevant to debates about the birth of capitalism and ongoing accumulation, but they also help us analyze fictitious capital, financialization, and contemporary racial capitalism.[4]

Luxemburg thereby appears better positioned to provide an account of racial capitalism than Marx, whose formulas on expanded reproduction at the end of Volume Two of Capital assume a single isolated capitalist nation and whose discussion of “The So-Called Primitive Accumulation” at the end of Volume One treats “non-economic” forms of coercion as the exception rather than the rule in societies governed by contractual wage labour.

While Wang has a compelling argument, there are problems with how she, as well as Luxemburg, frame the problem. The Marxists of the Second International read the section on “the so-called primitive accumulation” as a universal theory denoting the course of development for all times and places, instead of as a historicaldescription of it in one time and place—England in the sixteenth century. Due to this (mis)reading, they held that primitive accumulation is restricted to the distant origins of capitalism and no longer defines it. They concluded from this that since capitalism has outgrown its violent past it can be changed through parliamentary means. Luxemburg virulently opposed this, as seen in her attack on Bernstein. The (mis)reading of Marx on primitive accumulation also dovetailed with the tendency to turn a blind eye to imperialism, on the grounds that capitalism will naturally outgrow its reliance on it. Luxemburg opposed this as well, as seen in her break with Kautsky in 1910 over the Morocco incident.

Luxemburg was absolutely correct in her criticisms of Bernstein and Kautsky, but she proceeded from the same premise as they insofar as she likewise read Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation as a universal theory. The difference is that she criticized Marx for this, whereas her opponents did not. Few at the time asked if it is actually the case that Marx’s discussion on primitive accumulation is a universal theory; they did not take into consideration that it might take different expressions and modalities depending upon the historical context. This oversight is to a certain extent understandable, since the writings in which Marx explicitly denied that it is a universal theory were not published until after their deaths.

Moreover, what no one knew at the time was that Marx devoted much of the last fifteen years of his life to determining the extent to which “so-called primitive accumulation” is an ongoing and continuous process, as seen in its impact on the non-Western world, which he explored in a series of studies of Russia, China, India, Indonesia, Muslim North Africa, Southern Africa, Australia, and First Nations Peoples of the Americas in years following the publication of Volume One of Capital in 1867. These writings (first published in recent decades) analyze the violent dispossession of native peoples from their lands and the commodification of their labour power as an essential condition for the expansion of capitalism. Indeed, a major reason for his failure to complete Volumes Two and Three of Capital by the time of his death in 1883 is that he was still in the process of absorbing and analyzing these developments, which would no doubt be as important for the later volumes of Capital as England and West Europe was for Volume One.

Luxemburg cannot be blamed for not realizing this, since such developments were unknown at the time. But it is hard to be as charitable to contemporary figures who continue to argue that Marx held that violent dispossession applies only to the distant European origins of capitalism—despite much evidence to the contrary.

Even if we were to put this aside, however, there are problems with Luxemburg’s critique of Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation. The latter refers to “the complete separation between laborers and the ownership of the objective conditions for the realization of their labor…[it] is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production” (Marx 1977, pp. 874-75). This violent separation makes possible generalized wage labour. But generalized wage labour is not the only possible outcome of primitive accumulation. Africans forced into the trans-Atlantic slave trade were violently torn from any organic connection to the “conditions for the realization of their labor”, but they did not become wage-slaves but chattel slaves—unlike in 16th-century England. Yet according to Marx, their labour augmented capital and proved of pivotal importance in capitalism’s development. He wrote,

In the second type of colonies—plantations—where commercial speculations figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the capitalist mode of production exists, although only in a formal sense, since the slavery of Negroes precludes free wage-labour, which is the basis of capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists. The method of production which they introduce has not arisen out of slavery but is grafted on to it. In this case the same person is capitalist and landowner. And the elemental existence of the land confronting capital and labor does not offer any resistance to capital investment, hence none to the competition between capitals.[5]

Does this mean that the violent dispossession that people of colour experience in contemporary capitalism is an instantiation of primitive accumulation? It is hard to claim this in light of the fact that African-Americans were long ago separated from the conditions of production (such as the land) and since the end of slavery have been employed as wage laborers. That Black Americans were the first to suffer deindustrialization, long before the term gained widespread currency, and that a disproportionate number face underemployment and even permanent unemployment, is not a sign of primitive accumulation but rather the logic of mature capitalism in which the domination of dead labour over living labour at the point of production becomes so extensive as to reduce the proportion of living labour relative to capital. As the last hired and first fired, increasing numbers of Blacks find that their labour power—and even their very lives—no longer matter in the eyes of capital.

And yet, it is precisely this domination of dead over living labour which leads to a massive displacement of workers from the process of production, that is obscured and occluded by Luxemburg’s argument in TheAccumulation of Capital.

The Critical Problem in Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital

Despite brilliance of The Accumulation of Capital in delineating how “capital needs other races to exploit territories where the white race is not capable of working”, Luxemburg did not grasp the level of abstraction employed in Marx’s analysis of the logic of capital in Volume Two of Capital. The formulas on expanded reproduction at the end of the volume is not a description of how capital accumulation actually occurs in the “real” world; it is an abstract model that temporarily brackets out issues like foreign trade, non-capitalist sectors, and realization crises in order to illuminate what Marx considered the central issue in expanded reproduction—the domination of dead over living labour. Wang underlines this critical point:

Critics of Marx who have taken up [Cedric] Robinson’s hermeneutic of racial capitalism contest Marx’s division of people in a capitalist society into the universal class-based categories of workers and capitalists. However, this critique misses that in texts other than Capital—particularly in his historical and journalistic writings—Marx writes about a complex cast of characters that cannot be reduced solely to capitalists and workers (remember: in Capital, Marx presents us with abstract models as a way to critique classical political economy, and so these models should not be taken as empirical descriptions of reality).[6]

Luxemburg ties Marx’s alleged failure to discuss primitive accumulation as an ongoing process in Volume One to his failure to account for capitalism’s dependence on non-capitalist strata in the developing world in Volume Two. But she is mixing up two different issues, marked by two different levels of abstraction. The section on primitive accumulation describes a contingent historical process, whereas the formulas on expanded reproduction is a highly abstract mathematical model that is not intended as an empirical description of reality. At issue here is not some scholastic hair-splitting. At issue is whether Luxemburg’s approach provides an alternative to the difficulties many Marxists have faced in theorizing race and racism.

The central issue in Luxemburg’s critique of Marx in The Accumulation of Capital is how expanded reproduction is possible, given that capitalism generates a greater mass and value of the surplus product than can be consumed by wage earners or capitalists. Since the law of value is a disciplining mechanism that forces producers to generate more productive output in less amounts of time while suppressing wage increases in favour of profits, a disproportion between production and consumption is built into the very innards of the system. So, how is expanded reproduction possible? Luxemburg holds that the answer boils down to for whom is the surplus product destined; whereas for Marx, it is for what is it destined.

Marx wants to show that what drives capitalism is “production for the sake of production”—that is, augmenting capital as an end-in-itself. He therefore abstracts from factors extraneous to capitalism to show that capital “grows big with value” by productively consuming constant capital. Dead labour, or capital, increases at a faster rate relative to living labour: the means of production dominate over the means of consumption. This, however, does not free capitalism of its disproportionalities but shifts them onto a higher level, since it responds by investing in ever-more machinery and technology. Luxemburg denied that this is how expanded reproduction actually occurs, arguing that the real issue is who (not what) can realize the value of the surplus product. Since the adequate level of purchasing power can be supplied neither by wage-earning workers nor capitalists, it can only derive from “third groups” in non-capitalist societies. This is the crux of her effort to show that imperialism is necessary for capitalism.

The argument is logical, coherent and highly attractive—especially showing how and why capitalism is driven to take over and destroy indigenous social formations and peoples in the non-Western world. But the argument leads her to overlook a critical determinant that has some rather egregious consequences.

Since Luxemburg posed the contrast of capitalist/non-capitalist strata as the key to expanded reproduction, she downplayed the domination of means of production over means of consumption. Indeed, she asserts in The Accumulation of Capital, “The growth in constant capital at the expense of variable capital is merely the capitalist expression of the general effects of the increasing productivity of labor. The formula is greater than (v), translated from capitalist language to that of the social labor process, means no more than this: the greater the productivity of human labor, the shorter the time needed to transform a given quantity of means of production into finished products”.[7] It is simply a technical fact, she contends, that characterizes not only capitalism but all forms of developed society—including the future socialist one: “This is the expression of the universal, absolute condition of social production in all its historical forms”.[8] What to Marx is a specific and defining feature of capitalism—the domination of dead over living labour—becomes, for Luxemburg, merely the expression of a universal feature of human development.

Hence, for all of her objections to Marx’s “unfinished” and “incomplete” formulas of expanded reproduction at the end of Volume Two of Capital, she holds they can be applied to the “planned” system of production that supposedly defines “socialism.” As Tadeusz Kowalik put in his important study of The Accumulation of Capital, “Rosa Luxemburg was the only economist known to me who recognized the universal common, supra-capitalist character and significance of this theoretical construct before the First World War, and what is perhaps more important, that these schemes would also be applicable to the socialist economy”.[9] In light of the tragic history, and outright disasters, associated with what called itself “socialism” in the twentieth century, this can hardly be considered a compliment. The domination of means of production over means of consumption, of dead over living labour, is not a mere technical matter. It is the capitalist law of value expressed in material terms.

Starting in the 1940s, in Eastern Europe and the USSR, various theoreticians—such as Vassily Leontief, Oskar Lange, and Wloszimierz Brus—sought to “apply” Marx’s formulas of expanded reproduction to a task never envisioned by him, the effort to plan a putatively “socialist” society. It was a complete disaster. Augmenting the means of production at the expense of consumer goods, driving the living standards of wide swaths of the populace, especially the peasantry, beneath subsistence levels in the name of rapid industrialization, outright genocidal policies against subject peoples in places like Ukraine who got in the way of these hare-brained schemes—this and more was the price paid for presuming that Marx’s formulas at the end of Volume Two applies to “socialism.” The Soviet architects of this brutal process, by no accident, called it “primitive socialist accumulation.” Why is it that many postcolonial theorists take Marx to task for supposedly restricting primitive accumulation to the distant origins of capitalism in Western Europe, but almost never mention that a much more recent instantiation of primitive accumulation is Stalin’s forced industrialization of the USSR?

Rosa Luxemburg cannot be held responsible for the crimes committed by what called itself “socialism” and “communism” over the past 100 years. She was a virulent critic of authoritarianism, elitism, and statism and would never for a moment have considered the regimes established by Stalin, Mao, and their successors as “socialist”. If she issued so sharp of critique of Lenin in 1918 for his suppression of democracy after his seizure of power, imagine how much more strident would be her attack on the later leaders of the USSR and the “socialist bloc” who were immeasurably worse than Lenin. Every fibre of her being would have gone into opposing them—just as was the case when it came to her opposition to capitalism.

Nevertheless, the central claim of The Accumulation of Capital—that expanded reproduction depends on exploiting non-capitalist societies—is precisely what prevents her economic theory from addressing today’s realities. It is rather clear the entire world is capitalist and has been so for some time. So how is it possible that expanded reproduction can still occur?

History takes its toll on theory and theoreticians. It has often been said that a serious theoretician thinks out the logic of an idea put to its ultimate conclusion. Rosa Luxemburg was clearly a serious theoretician. But it has also been said that if you think out the ultimate logical conclusion of a correct premise you will be known as a genius, whereas if you think out the ultimate logical conclusion of an incorrect premise… you will be known as something else. TheAccumulation of Capital is a brilliant demonstration of taking the logic of an idea to its ultimate conclusion; unfortunately, the conclusion indicates that the premises were faulty.

Towards a New Humanism

We can now draw together the threads of our discussion by evaluating whether Luxemburg’s economic writings are capable of providing a framework in which to grasp racialized capitalism in general, and the relation of class, race, and gender in particular.

Luxemburg’s failure to grasp the historical specificity of Marx’s critique of the domination of dead over living labour is a serious matter. It signifies that her theory of expanded reproduction failed to keep its fingers on the pulse of human relations. Her emphasis on the market at the expense of social relations of production led her to fall far short of the humanism that characterizes so many other aspects of her life and work. It is not enough to point out that that racism is integral to capitalism (which she did); the crucial issue is grasping the specific texture of racial oppression and the subjectivity of the revolts that arise against it. Luxemburg was so over-burdened by the phenomenal expressions of imperialism that she neglected the essence—the way in which the ever-growing domination of means of production over means of consumption produces a dehumanized form of human praxis that defines the capitalist era.

Race cannot be reduced to class; as Frantz Fanon noted, “Sartre forgets that the black man experiences his body quite differently than the white man”.[10] Black consciousness is not a “weak stage” that is supplanted by class consciousness. Nor can sexism be reduced to class. Racism and sexism are particular (and differing) expressions of human relations that take on the form of relations between things. Each must be understood and targeted on their own terms in a non-reductive manner. However, to overlook the historical specificity of the reification involved in the dominance of dead over living labour hardly makes room for a viable theory of racialization—since as Fanon shows, racism is rooted in the white gaze which “sees” and relates to Blacks not as persons but as things that inhabit “a zone of non-being.” Racism is not epiphenomenal: it not only reflects but constructs reified social relations that perpetuate and reproduce the capitalist mode of production. It is hard to see how an anti-capitalist revolution can succeed without directly targeting such relations of personal domination. As Raya Dunayevskaya argued, “It is not the means of production that creates the new type of humanity, but the new type of humanity that will create the new means of production”.[11]

Despite the unfinished state of Marx’s Capital, it shows, if read carefully, that the fundamental problem is not private property or the market but the way in which the law of value compels human relations to take the form of relations between things. Only a Marxism that focuses on this, the peculiar form of social labour that characterize societies governed by value production, only a Marxism that is a humanism, has a chance of meeting the challenge of our times. We need to think, comrades, and think critically, about where the logic of our ideas leads us.

Luxemburg herself never broke from the traditional definitions of capitalism and socialism that I criticized at the start of this talk. Her economic writings, from TheIndustrial Development of Poland to The Introduction to Political Economy, and from The Accumulation of Capital to the Anti-Critique, pose the absolute opposites as “market anarchy” versus planned production. We can hardly blame her for this: almost everyone else did so at the time. Her generation did not know the fullness of Marx’s Marxism, since so much of his work—from the 1844 Paris Manuscripts to the Grundrisse, and from the drafts of Capital to the Ethnolog­ical Notebooks—were unknown. It is not that if they were known, all problems would be solved. But what Marx does provide is indispensable— a critique that shows that the domination of capital centres on subjecting individuals to the drive to augment wealth in monetary form as an end in itself, while never losing sight of human resistance to such abstract forms of domination. As I have argued elsewhere, implicit in Marx’s critique of capital is a concept of an alternative to capital that reaches beyond the standpoint of post-Marx Marxism.

Luxemburg was surely correct that the market and private ownership of the means of production stand in the way of a free association of the producers. But their abolition, while necessary, is not sufficient—they provide no assurance that a new society based on a free association will arise so long as alienated forms of labour and life that serve as the condition for the possibility of the “free” market and private property remain to be uprooted.

Although her economic theories do not point us in the right direction, that is not the case with her political writings and practice as a revolutionary, which continues to shine like a jewel. She directly speaks to us in not refraining from critiquing both reformist and revolutionary currents that bar the way to a thoroughly democratic socialism. She did not oppose participating in bourgeois parliaments and repeatedly insisted that a democratic republic is the formation best suited for waging the class struggle to a successful conclusion. However, beginning with her polemic with Bernstein in the late 1890s and continuing with her disputes with Karl Kautsky on the eve of World War I, she took issue with the presumption that the institutions of bourgeois society can be counted upon to forge the transition to socialism. This did not stop her from voicing equally strong opposition to revolutionaries who adopted authoritarian methods, as seen in her critique of Lenin—voiced in her 1904 in Organizational Questions of Social Democracy, her1911 critique of him for imposing a “the blind submission of all-party organizations and their activity, down to the smallest detail, to a central authority that alone thinks, acts, and decides for everyone”,[12] and her 1918 booklet On the Russian Revolution, which criticized Lenin and Trotsky for suppressing democracy, imposing a single-part state, and banning left-wing organizations. Her support of the Bolshevik seizure of power and opposition to efforts to overturn it did not lead her to mute her criticisms, even as they were in the midst of fighting a bloody civil war against imperialist forces, as seen in her brutally realistic assessment, “It is clear that, under such conditions, i.e., being caught in the pincers of the imperialist powers on all sides, neither socialism nor the dictatorship of the proletariat can become a reality [in Russia], but at the most a caricature of both”.[13] She rejected any project of a social alternative that does not obtain the explicit consensus of the exploited masses.

This is the Rosa that lives on and speaks to the thoroughly democratic and grassroots movements of our time—especially those that have arisen over the last year. She did not view democracy as a mere tool to be used to obtain power, but as indispensable for fostering social consciousness and revolutionary initiative both before and after the seizure of power. As she stated against those who view free and open debate as “divisive” or superfluous:

The freedom to speak and publish is one precondition to the attainment of consciousness by the proletariat; the second is that the proletariat not put any restrictions on itself, that it not say, “We can discuss this, but not that.” Conscious workers the world over understand this, and they always try to give even the worst of their enemies the right to freely explain their views. They say, “Let even the enemies of the working people voice their own views, so that we may respond to them, and so the working masses can work out for themselves who is a friend and who a foe.”[14]

Not least is her remarkable personality, which has inspired generations of readers. As a Polish-Jewish disabled woman, she had to claw her way to the top in order to become recognized as one of the leading Marxist theoreticians of German Social Democracy and the Second International. It is a testament to her strident and original personality—which is evident from her voluminous correspondence in which she insisted on not separating the personal from the political, the intellectual from the emotional, the theoretical from the practical.

I venture to suggest that were Luxemburg alive today she would be thrilled with the movement against police abuse and for Black lives—and would plunge into trying to understand it and generalize its accomplishments as much as she did for the 1905 Russian Revolution. Under its impact, she insisted that the German working class needed to learn to “speak Russian”. Perhaps she would have responded to the protests of 2020 by arguing that the rest of the world needed to “speak” African-American. That is not as far-fetched as it may sound, given the comment of one of her critical commentators, Raya Dunayevskaya, who wrote in 1976: “To grasp the Black Dimension is to learn a new language, the language of thought, Black thought. For many, this new language will be difficult because they are hard of hearing. Hard of hearing because they are not used to this type of thought, a language which is both a struggle for freedom and the thought of freedom.”[15]

Today’s anti-racist movements pose a critical challenge to rethink the assumptions that have guided the theoretical and practical approaches of Marxism after Marx. Developing a viable alternative to capitalism, which has never been more important than now, may well depend upon it. What stands in the way of theorizing the dialectical relationship between race, class, and gender are not the differing demands that arise from these loci of struggle but rather a narrow vision of politics that fails to address to what is shared, in different ways, by each of them—resistance to the dehumanization that is integral to actually existing capitalism. Marxism is a revolutionary humanism or it is nothing. The point is not to argue over whose oppression is more or less important than another’s, but to hear how each force of revolt contains within itself the capacity to reach for a new society freed from dehumanization and depersonalization. As Louis Lavelle wrote long ago, “Philosophy and life only have a serious character on the condition that the Absolute is not before me and outside of me as an inescapable goal, but on the contrary is in me and that in that I trace my furrow.”[16]

Peter Hudis is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Oakton Community College and the General Editor of the Collected Works of Rosa Luxemburg. This article is based on his closing keynote presentation at “Rosa Luxemburg at 150: Revisiting Her Radical Life and Legacy”, a conference hosted by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the International Rosa Luxemburg Society on 4–5 March 2021.


Dunayevskaya, Raya 1985. ‘The Black Dimension in Women’s Liberation’, in Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future. Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press, pp. 49–52.

Dunayevskaya, Raya 1992. ‘Labor and Society’, in The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism, edited by Peter Hudis. Chicago: News and Letters, 1992, pp. 17–24.

Fanon, Frantz 2008. Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Kowalki, Tadeusz 2014. Rosa Luxemburg: Theory of Accumulation and Imperialism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lavelle, Louis 1946. De l’acte. Paris: Montaigne

Luxemburg, Rosa. 1906. “Krytyka w ruchu robotniczym.” Czerwony Sztandar, No. 39, January 9, 1–2.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 2004 [1918]. Onthe Russian Revolution. In The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, pp. 281–311.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 2011 [30 September 1918]. “Letter to Julian Marchlewskli.” In The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. Eds. Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza. London and New York: Verso Books, pp. 473-6.

Luxemburg, Rosa. 2015a [1915]. The Accumulation of Capital, Or, What the Epigones Have Made of Marx’s Theory—An Anti-Critique. In Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Vol. II: Economic Writings 2. Ed. Peter Hudis and Paul Le Blanc. London and New York: Verso Books, pp. 345–450.

Marx, Karl. 1971. [orig. 1861-63] Theories of Surplus Value, Part 2. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1977 [orig. 1867]. Capital, Vol. I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin Books.

Program of the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party 1903. Marxist Internet Archive, available at https://www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/rsdlp/1903/program.htm.

Wang, Jackie 2018. Carceral Capitalism. South Pasadena CA: Semiotext.

Wynter, Sylvia (2015) “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future,” in On Being Human as Praxis, edited by Katherine McKittrick. Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 9–89.

[1] Wynter 2015, pp. 40–1.

[2] Wang 2018, p, 113.

[3] Ibid, p. 115.

[4] Ibid, p. 111.

[5] Marx 1971, pp. 302-03.

[6] Wang 2018, p. 100.

[7] Luxemburg 2015, p. 230.

[8] Luxemburg 2015, p. 43.

[9] Kowalik, 2014, p. 90.

[10] Fanon 2008, p. 117.

[11] Dunayevskaya 1992, p. 40.

[12] Luxemburg 2004, p. 252.

[13] Luxemburg 2011, p. 473.

[14] Luxemburg 1906a, p. 2.

[15] Dunayevskaya 1985, p. 49.

[16] Lavelle 1946, p. 49.