Close this search box.

Rosa Luxemburg and Postcolonial Criticism

A Reconsideration

April 5, 2021

Rosa Luxemburg is one of the most significant political figures of the twentieth century: she developed an analysis of imperialism that apprehended not only its economic and political, but also its social, cultural, and human dimensions; she resolutely opposed capitalist militarism; she was a leading theorist and strategist; and she was an activist, from her first party work among miners in upper Silesia, through her speaking tours to mass crowds after the 1905 Russian revolution, to her agitation among revolutionary workers on the streets in the final days of her life.

Her understanding of oppression was bolstered by personal circumstances: female in an overwhelmingly male public sphere, Jewish in a climate of vicious antisemitism, Polish at a time when Poles suffered national oppression, and an individual who lived with a disability. All of this contributed to the unique understanding of discrimination and inequality that is manifest in her life-long commitment to the global working class movement. And culture and the arts were central to her life and work.

This legacy should make Luxemburg a figure of particular interest for postcolonial literary criticism, which places questions of empire, colonization and decolonization, alterity, and oppression at the heart of cultural analysis. But Luxemburg has not been a major point of reference in the field. Iranian author and literary scholar Hamid Dabashi calls her “the unsung hero of postcolonial theory”:

By giving detailed accounts of the British economic atrocities in India, and French colonialism in Algeria, Rosa Luxemburg anticipated the more detailed accounts of postcolonial theories by decades. By bringing the presumed margins of self-centering Europe to global consciousness, she enabled the postcolonial theorist a veritable voice at the worldwide gathering of critical Marxist thinking.1Hamid Dabashi, On Edward Said: Remembrance of Things Past (Chicago: Haymarket: 2020), 199.

These special qualities are at last starting to be recognized in the interdisciplinary field: this can be seen in 2 recent publications in English: Rosa Luxemburg: Capitalism, Imperialism, and the Postcolonial, edited by Fillipo Mennozi,which considers the contemporary importance of Luxemburg as a global thinker; and the collection Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Drucilla Cornell and Jane Anna Gordon, which explores her work through the lens of theorists and contexts of the global South.

But Luxemburg’s analysis of literature remains largely ignored. This might be expected in postcolonial studies, which has been somewhat skeptical towards Marxism, but it is also the case more broadly in English literature departments. You will not find Luxemburg in the Marxism section of a standard literary theory course. Typical candidates may include extracts from Marx (usually the Communist Manifesto), maybe some Adorno, perhaps Althusser on ideology, something by Fredric Jameson — but not Luxemburg. Now admittedly, there is a lot left out of the academic Marxist canon. You aren’t likely to see Anatoly Lunacharsky, Leon Trotsky, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Claudia Jones, Benita Parry, or countless others, so this omission isn’t specific.

And perhaps we should not be surprised by this. Luxemburg herself provided a trenchant critique of the role of the formal education system in class society. Think of her famous description of the chair of the economics when she was a student at the University of Zurich:

“[He is a] theorizing bureaucrat who plucks apart the living material of social reality into the most minute fibers and particles, rearranges and categorizes them according to bureaucratic procedure, and delivers them in this mangled state as scientific material for the administrative and legislative activity of Privy Councillors”2Quoted in Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Ideas in Action, Trans Joanna Hoornweg (London: Pluto, 1972), 30.

This scorn extended to the rapidly blooming institution of literary criticism. She scoffed at a proposal from her friend Hans Diefenbach: “Your idea that I should write a book about Tolstoy doesn’t appeal to me one bit. For whom? What for, Hänschen? Everyone can read Tolstoy’s books, and if the books themselves don’t give off a powerful breath of life, I wouldn’t succeed in doing so through literary commentary.”3Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza, eds., The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. (London: Verso Books, 2011), 410.

And in the same letter she writes, “I also regard, for example, the monstrous amount of Goethe literature (that is, literature about Goethe) as pure trash, and it is my opinion that far too many such books have been written.”4Ibid. For these and many other reasons, Luxemburg studies are unlikely to be the flavor of the month in the corporate university.

However, Luxemburg is generally absent not only from literary theory 101 courses, but also from much more inclusive, far-ranging, and thoughtful studies of Marxist criticism. This is an unwarranted omission, as there is much in Luxemburg’s legacy that is of value and relevance, both in general—in her many political, organizational, and theoretical contributions—and specifically, in what she had to say about literature. Furthermore, although she drew the line at that Tolstoy monograph, Luxemburg did pen more than a few works of literary analysis across the span of her active writing life.

This is an unwarranted omission, as there is much in Luxemburg’s legacy that is of value and relevance, both in general—in her many political, organizational, and theoretical contributions—and specifically, in what she had to say about literature.

Of the material that is published and currently available in English, this includes an assessment of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz from 1898; a review of Franz Mehring’s biography of Schiller from 1905; the essay “Tolstoy as Social Thinker,” which first appeared in 1908; and “Life of Korolenko,” which she wrote in Breslau Prison in 1918 and was published posthumously in 1919 as the introduction to her German translation of Vladimir Korolenko’s History of My Contemporary.

These collectively form an impressive counterpoint to the straw-person version of Marxist literary analysis as crudely reductive. They showcase a consistent attention to aesthetic and formal issues while also locating authors, movements, and texts in their historical conditions of production and reception; unlike a great deal of contemporary criticism, they restore what Edward Said referred to as “the messier precincts of ‘life’ and historical experience” to studies of literature.5Edward Said Introduction Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Boston: Harvard UP, 2000), xviii-xix.

Luxemburg’s orientation on the specific value of each work is evident across the range of her political and personal writing: whether reaching for a line from Goethe to illustrate a complex step in the reproduction of capital, or identifying the ability of the great Russian novels to reveal the hidden processes of the tsarist empire, Luxemburg is acutely aware that the literary arts have a power and affect unlike any other mode of communication: she draws attention to the particular characteristics of genres and works, and highlights their emotional and sensual impact.

This can be seen frequently in the letters, for example when she describes the impact of reading a verse from Goethe: “it’s as if with parched lips I were sipping a delicious drink that cools my spirit and heals me, body and soul.”6Quoted in Subhoranjan Dasgupta, “Rosa Luxemburg’s Critique of Creativity and Culture,” Institute of Development Studies (Kolkata, May 2009), 6-7).

Or when she recounts the comfort she draws from the poems of Krasińkski: “in their sound they are the purest music…I read them mostly for their tone and color.”7Adler et al, Letters, 272.

Or comparing the comedic possibilities of George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderers to Shakespeare: ‘“it wafts into one’s face the giggly hobgoblin of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”’8Quoted in Dasgupta, 8.

And in the formal literary criticism, too, contra the oft repeated claim that Marxist criticism is by definition reductive, the formal and emotional specificity of each work is primary. As Subhoranjan Dasgupta writes in his lovely 2009 work “Rosa Luxemburg’s Critique of Creativity and Culture,” Luxemburg “emphasizes one of the basic tenets of enlightened Marxian aesthetics: artistic engagement or literary production always enjoys a high degree of autonomy.”9Dasgupta, 8.

At the same time, Luxemburg traces the relationships between cultural production and the shifting balance of class forces: she both looks to creative literature for particular historical insights and turns to history to understand artistic developments. And there is nothing reductive or mechanical about this method; rather we are given nuanced and specific analyses of the reciprocal push and pull between socio-historical forces and the cultural developments that are shaped by and in turn shape them.

One of the finest examples is her account of the poet Adam Mickiewicz. In the 1898 essay she calls him “a master at once of lyric and epic, both the bard of national love and yearning and the objective portrayer of the nation’s past.”10 Rosa Luxemburg, “Adam Mickievicz,” Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political and Literary Writings: Revolutionary History 10.1 (2009), 14. She locates the source of this power in the historical convulsions that gave rise to Romanticism: A “new intelligentsia” was born out of the 1831 popular revolt against Tsarism, and this formed the basis for the Romanticism that displaced the derivative Classicism that had previously held sway:

While the classicists could offer only shelf upon shelf of a grey mass of mediocrities and soulless manipulators of form, Romanticism, overnight as it were, conjured up whole constellations of glittering young talent from the womb of society, and, as the most brilliant star of this dawn twilight, the mighty genius of Adam Mickievicz arose in the firmament of Polish literature.11 Ibid, 13.

Revolutionary social forces gave rise to fresh artistic vision and formal innovation. But as is suggested in that paradoxical phrase “dawn twilight,” this brilliance was short lived, and “soon after the rising was defeated, the nightingale of Polish nationalism fell silent.” His last major work, Master Thaddeus or Pan Tadeusz, was “the last great monument to Polish nationalism.”12 Ibid, 15.

Luxemburg thus sees creative literature’s potential to be a repository for revolutionary struggle. In her review of Mehring’s biography she writes of the emancipatory possibilities of Schiller’s poetry, and locates this firmly in the working class movement:

Schiller’s role in the intellectual growth of the revolutionary proletariat in Germany is not so much rooted in what he himself imported into the working-class struggle for emancipation through the content of his poems, but rather the reverse; it consists in what the revolutionary working class deposited in Schiller’s poems based on its own world-view, its striving and its feelings.13“Review: Mehring on Schiller,” Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political and Literary Writings, 17.

Luxemburg holds together this sense of literature’s liberatory potential with an awareness of culture as both a product of and constrained by class society.

This connection between revolutionary social change and cultural innovation is the major theme of her “Life of Korolenko” which situates the great nineteenth century Russian novel within changing conditions under Tsarism:

The chief characteristic of this sudden emergence of Russian literature is that it was born out of opposition to the Russian regime, out of the spirit of struggle… Russian literature became, under czarism, a power in public life as in no other country and in no other time. It remained at its post for a century until it was relieved by the material power of the masses, when the word became flesh.14“The Spirit of Russian Literature: Life of Korolenko” (1918), Alice Waters, ed., Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), 342.

Luxemburg traces the multi-stranded and complex ways that revolutionary struggle gives rise to artistic movements and writers, which in turn can nurture and inspire further struggles. She writes of Korolenko’s “Legend of Florus”: “Like a refreshing breeze, this defiant creed stormed through the deep fog of indolence and mysticism. Korolenko was ready for the new historic ‘violence’ in Russia which soon was to lift its beneficent arm, the arm to work and fight for liberty.”15Ibid, 362.

Luxemburg holds together this sense of literature’s liberatory potential with an awareness of culture as both a product of and constrained by class society. In the 1903 essay “Stagnation and Progress of Marxism” she writes: “In every class society, intellectual culture (science and art) is created by the ruling class; and the aim of this culture is in part to secure the direct satisfaction of the needs of the social process, and in part to satisfy the mental needs of the members of the governing class.”16“Stagnation and Progress of Marxism,” Waters, ed., 110. In the 1908 discussion of Tolstoy she returns to this question. For Tolstoy, she explains, “Art, contrary to all aesthetic and philosophical scholastic opinions—is not a luxury product for releasing feelings of beauty, joy or the like in beautiful souls, but an important historical form of social communication, like language, between people.”17“Tolstoy as a Social Thinker,” Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political and Literary Writings, 24. This understanding leads to a what she calls “genuinely materialist and historical criterion” and identification of the class character of art: “ever since society has been split into a great exploited mass and a small ruling minority, art only serves to express the feelings of the rich and leisurely minority.”18Ibid, 24-25. Luxemburg departs with Tolstoy, however, because his model is static, lacking any concept of the working class as agent of change, and failing to grasp the fluidity of culture and class society.

She instead depicts the realm of culture as a political and ideological battleground, produced by and reinforcing the brutal tectonics of capitalism, but also exposing and opposing that same system. The great Russian novels show that “Permanent oppression, insecurity, injustice, poverty, and dependence, as well as that division of labor which leads to one-sided specialization, mold people in a certain manner” and “it is just the peculiar psychological abnormality, the warped development of the human soul under the influence of everyday social conditions, which aroused writers like Gogol, Dostoyevsky, … and others.”19“Korolenko,” 348-9. She writes: “Dostoevsky’s novels are furious attacks on bourgeois society, in whose face he shouts: The real murderer, the murderer of the human soul, is you!”20Ibid, 347.

While attuned in this way to the utopian and subversive potential of fiction, and always interested in authors’ backgrounds, Luxemburg knows how to separate the art work from the artist. She notes that many of the great Russian novelists were mystics or reactionaries, and she wonderfully says that “Tolstoy’s creative power is so strong that he himself is incapable of botching his own works.”21“Tolstoy as a Social Thinker,” 21. She opposed any tendentious uses of art, dismissing Polish socialists who “try at all costs to derive evidence from Mickiewicz’s writings for his socialist views.”22“Adam Mickievicz,” 15. Ultimately, she writes, “patterns such as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘progressive’ in themselves mean very little in art.”23“Korolenko,” 345. Socialists do not need political cover for appreciating art; it is valuable in its own right. But its potential cannot be realized under capitalism. She insists that “the utmost the working class can do today is to safeguard bourgeois culture from the vandalism of the bourgeoise reaction and create the social conditions requisite for free cultural development.24“Stagnation,” 110

Luxemburg preceded both the advent of mass culture and the explosion of postcolonial literature—itself the product of mass struggles for liberation by the colonized—that transformed the so-called “Western canon” and continues to fire imaginations across the globe. Yet her dialectical approach to culture is nonetheless pertinent to contemporary debates.

Over 20 years ago, Edward Said identified in much ostensibly radical literary criticism what he called “an unadmitted dichotomy between two kinds of ‘Politics’: (1) the politics defined by political theory from Hegel to Louis Althusser and Ernst Bloch; (2) the politics of struggle and power in the everyday world.”25Said, Reflections, 133. It remains the case that literary conferences and journals often prioritize the first type while neglecting the second.

And yet there is a competing impetus, that can be seen in current calls to decolonize English departments such as that issued by Kimberly Anne Coles, Kim F. Hall, and Ayanna Thompson last year. In response to white supremacist appropriations of medieval and early modern literature, they argue that literary scholars have to confront the blood and violence that made English literature possible:

The colonial project is stitched in and through the language and literatures of the pre- and early modern periods; the politics and economics that ultimately produced settler colonialism, chattel slavery, the forced migration of peoples and the development of the British empire animate these early English texts.

Luxemburg’s work can productively be put in conversation with these initiatives. She explores the realm of literature as a political battleground, both reflecting and straining against the enslavement, exploitation, violence, and suffering that form the precondition for its origins and continued development. Further, she understood that imperialism is inextricably central to capitalism, and that revolutionary struggle is a precondition for the free cultural development of the oppressed. This allows, to quote Edward Said again, “the restoration to…works and interpretations of their place in the global setting, a restoration that can only be accomplished by an appreciation not of some tiny defensibly constituted corner of the world, but of the large, many-windowed house of culture as a whole.”26Said, “Criticism/Self-Criticism,” 43.

Given how much of the archive remains unpublished, it is certain that the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg project will unearth and increase availability of more literary commentary along with writings about culture and the arts more broadly. Hopefully this will help restore Luxemburg to the world of Marxist literary criticism, and most importantly, to current and future struggles for a different world.



While logged in, you may access all print issues.

If you’d like to log out, click here:


Support our Work

Gift Subscriptions, Renewals, and More