1 Nearly a century ago, in January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg, founder of the German Communist Party (the Spartacus League), was murdered by a unit of the “Freikorps,” the bands of counter-revolutionary officers and soldiers – a breeding ground for the future Nazi Party – who had been summoned to Berlin by the Social Democratic Minister Gustav Noske to crush the Spartacist uprising.
2 She was thus—like Emiliano Zapata, who was shot in the same year—one of “history’s vanquished.” But her message has remained alive in what Walter Benjamin called “the tradition of the oppressed”—a message that is at once, and inseparably, Marxist, revolutionary, and humanist. Whether in her critique of capitalism as an inhuman system; in her fight against militarism, colonialism, and imperialism; or in her vision of an emancipated society, the utopia of a world without exploitation, without alienation, and without borders, this communist humanism runs like a red thread throughout her political writings, as well as in her correspondence, her moving letters from prison, which were read and reread by successive generations of young militants of the labor movement.
3 There are four topics in Rosa Luxemburg’s writings that are of particular importance from the perspective of a renewal of communism in the twenty-first century: internationalism, an “open” conception of history, the importance of democracy in the revolutionary process, and an interest in “premodern” communist traditions. 
4 First, in the era of capitalist globalization; neoliberalism; world domination of big financial capital; internationalization of the economy at the service of profit, speculation, and accumulation, the need for an international response and an internationalization of resistance – in short, a new internationalism – is more than ever on the agenda. However, few figures of the labor movement have embodied as radically as did Rosa Luxemburg the internationalist idea, the categorical imperative of unity, association, cooperation, and solidarity of the exploited and oppressed in every country and continent. As we know, she was, together with Karl Liebknecht, one of the few German socialist leaders to oppose the Union Sacrée and the vote for war credits in 1914. The German imperial authorities – with the support of the right wing of the Social Democrats – made her pay dearly for her consistently internationalist opposition to the war by putting her behind bars for most of the conflict. Faced with the dramatic failure of the Second International, she dreamed of creating a new world association of workers. Only death prevented her from participating, together with the Russian revolutionaries, in the founding of the Communist International in 1919.
5 Few understood as she did the mortal danger posed to workers by nationalism, chauvinism, racism, xenophobia, militarism, and colonial or imperial expansionism. We can criticize this or that aspect of her thinking on the question of the nation, but the force of her prophetic warnings is beyond question. I use the word “prophetic” in the original biblical sense (as defined by Daniel Bensaïd in his recent work): a prophet is not one who claims to make an “oracular prediction of an implacable fate,” but one who pronounces a “conditional anticipation,” who warns the people of the disasters that are to come if they do not take a different path. 
An Open Conception of History
6 Secondly, after a century that was not only one of “extremes” (Eric Hobsbawm), but also the most brutal manifestations of barbarism in the history of humanity, we can admire a revolutionary thought like that of Rosa Luxemburg, who refused the Social Democrats’ comfortable and conformist ideology of linear progress, optimistic determinism and passive evolutionism, the dangerous illusion – of which Walter Benjamin speaks in his “Theses” of 1940 – that it was enough for the working class to be “moving with the current” and wait for the right objective conditions to arise.  By penning, in her pamphlet “The Crisis in German Social Democracy” (under the pseudonym of “Junius”), the slogan, “Socialism or barbarism!” Rosa Luxemburg broke with the conception of history – bourgeois in origin, but adopted by the Second International – as irresistible, inevitable progress, “guaranteed” by the “objective” laws of economic development or social development.  A conception that was championed, for example, by Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov, for whom the victory of the socialist program was as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise. The political conclusion of this “progressive” ideology could only be passivity: who would be crazy enough to risk their lives fighting to ensure that the sun would rise in the morning?
7 Let us return briefly to the political and “philosophical” significance of the slogan, “socialism or barbarism.” It is suggested in certain of Marx or Engels  texts, but it is Luxemburg who gives it this explicit and trenchant formulation. It implies a perception of history as an open process, a series of “bifurcations” in which the “subjective factor” of the oppressed – consciousness, organization, initiative – becomes decisive. It is no longer a matter of waiting for the fruit to “ripen” according to the “natural laws” of economics or history, but of acting before it is too late. Because the other alternative is a sinister danger: barbarism. Rosa Luxemburg does not use this term to refer to an impossible “regression” to a tribal, primitive or “savage” past; for her, it is an eminently modern barbarism, of which the First World War presented a striking example, although worse in its murderous inhumanity than the warlike practices of the “barbaric” conquerors of the late Roman Empire. Never before had modern technologies – tanks, gas, and military aviation – been placed at the service of an imperialist policy of massacres and aggression on such an immense scale.
8 From the perspective of the history of the twentieth century, too, Luxemburg’s slogan proved to be prophetic: the defeat of socialism in Germany opened the way for the victory of Hitler’s fascism and, subsequently, the Second World War, the scene of the most monstrous modern barbarism that humanity has ever known, of which the name Auschwitz has become the sign and symbol.
9 It is no coincidence that the term “socialism or barbarism” served as a banner and a shibboleth for one of the most creative groups of the Marxist left in post-war France: that which gathered around the magazine of the same name, convened in the 1950s and 1960s by Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort.
10 The choice and the warning indicated by Luxemburg’s slogan continues to be the order of the day in our time. The long decline of the revolutionary forces – from which we are gradually beginning to emerge – was accompanied by the proliferation of wars and massacres of ethnic cleansing from the Balkans to Africa, and by the rise of all kinds of racism, chauvinism, and fundamentalism, even in the heart of “civilized” Europe.
Democracy Under Socialism
11 Thirdly, given the historical failure of the dominant currents of the labor movement, that is to say, on the one hand, the inglorious collapse of so-called “actually existing socialism” – the heir of sixty years of Stalinism – and on the other hand, the passive submission (unless it is an active membership?) of Social Democracy to the neoliberal rules of the global capitalist game, the alternative posed by Rosa Luxemburg, in other words, a socialism that is both genuinely revolutionary and radically democratic, would appear to be more relevant than ever.
12 As an activist in the labor movement of the tsarist empire – she founded the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, affiliated with the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party – she criticized the theses defended by Lenin before 1905 for their authoritarian and centralist tendencies. Her critique coincided, on this point, with that of the young Trotsky in Our Political Tasks (1904). 
13 At the same time, as a leader of the left wing of the German Social Democrats, she fought against the tendency of trade union and political bureaucracy and parliamentary representation to monopolize political decisions. The Russian general strike of 1905 seemed a good example for Germany to follow; she was more confident in the initiative of the workers than in the wise deliberations of the German labor movement’s governing bodies.
14 Learning, while in prison, of the events of October 1917, she immediately made common cause with the Russian revolutionaries. In a pamphlet on the Russian Revolution written in prison in 1918, which was published posthumously in 1921, she enthusiastically welcomed this great historic act of emancipation, and paid a warm tribute to the revolutionary leaders of October: “Whatever a party could offer of courage, revolutionary far-sightedness and consistency in an historic hour, Lenin, Trotsky and the other comrades have given in good measure. All the revolutionary honor and capacity that western Social-Democracy lacked was represented by the Bolsheviks. Their October uprising was not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honor of international socialism.” 
15 This solidarity does not prevent her from criticizing what seems to her to be wrong or dangerous in their politics. While some of her critiques – on national self-determination or on the distribution of land – are certainly questionable and quite unrealistic, others, concerning the question of democracy, are entirely pertinent and remarkably contemporary. Acknowledging that it would be impossible for the Bolsheviks, in the dramatic circumstances of the civil war and foreign intervention, to “conjure forth the finest democracy,” Rosa Luxemburg nonetheless called attention to the danger of a certain slide into authoritarianism, reaffirming some fundamental principles of revolutionary democracy: "Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. [...] Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, and becomes a mere semblance of life in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.” 
16 It is hard to ignore the prophetic significance of this warning. A few years later, the bureaucracy seized all power, gradually eliminating the revolutionaries of October 1917 – until finally, in the 1930s, it mercilessly exterminated them.
Communism and the “Primitive” Commune
18 The fourth aspect, Rosa Luxemburg’s interest in the primitive commune, is much less well known; accordingly, we reserve a more prominent place for it in this article. The central theme of her Introduction to Political Economy (an unfinished manuscript published by Paul Levi in 1925) is the analysis of what she refers to as primitive communist society and its opposition to the capitalist marketplace society. It is true that this is an unfinished text, written in prison in around 1916, from the notes of her lectures on political economy at the Social Democratic Party school (1907-1914); others chapters are anticipated that either remained unwritten or that were lost thereafter. But that does not explain why the chapters dedicated to primitive communist society and its dissolution occupy more pages than those dedicated to commodity production, wage labor, and the tendencies of the capitalist economy put together!
19 This unusual approach to political economy is probably one of the primary reasons why this book has been neglected, avoided, or ignored by most Marxist economists and even by biographers and scholars of the work of Rosa Luxemburg, with the exception of Paul Frölich and Ernest Mandel, author of the preface to the French edition; thus, Nettl merely mentions it and does not provide any information or commentary on its content. As for the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin Institute of East Berlin, responsible for the reissue of the text in 1951, it declares (in its introduction) that it is a “popular presentation of the basic features of the capitalist mode of production,” making no reference to the fact that nearly half of the book is actually dedicated to primitive communism.  But the real importance of this book, in my opinion, lies precisely in its approach to pre-capitalist communes and its critical and original way of thinking about the evolution of social formations, a stance intended, as Benjamin put it, “to brush history against the grain.” 
20 How can Luxemburg’s interest in primitive communes be explained? On the one hand, it is obvious that she saw in the existence of the old communist societies a way of undermining and even destroying “the old notion of private property as something eternal that has existed from the beginning of the world.”  Bourgeois economists, unable to conceive of communal property or to understand anything that failed to resemble capitalist civilization, stubbornly refused to recognize the historical existence of these communes. For Luxemburg, thus, this represented a prize in a theoretical and political battle over a key aspect of economic science. Secondly, she saw primitive communism as a crucial historical point of reference for a critique of capitalism, a way of revealing its irrational, reified, and chaotic nature, and highlighting the radical opposition between use-value and exchange-value. As Ernest Mandel rightly points out in his preface, “the explanation of fundamental differences between an economy based on the production of use-values, designed to meet the needs of the producers, and an economy based on the production of commodities, occupies the better part of the book.”  For her, then, it was a matter of retrieving and “saving” from the primitive past anything that might, to some extent at least, have prefigured modern communism.
21 Luxemburg’s attitude was not without a certain affinity to romantic conceptions of history that rejected the bourgeois ideology of progress and criticized the inhuman aspects of industrial capitalist civilization (hence, too, her interest in the work of a romantic economist like Sismondi). While traditionalist romanticism dreamed of restoring an idealized past, revolutionary romanticism, to which Rosa Luxemburg was close, sought in certain forms of the pre-capitalist past some elements and aspects that anticipated the post-capitalist future.
22 In their writings and correspondence, Marx and Engels had already drawn attention to the work of the romantic historian Georg Ludwig von Maurer on the old Germanic commune (the Mark).  Like them, Rosa Luxemburg enthusiastically studied Maurer’s writings and marveled at the democratic and egalitarian operation of the Mark and its social transparency: “One cannot imagine anything any simpler and more harmonious than the economic system of the old Germanic mark. Here, the entire mechanism of social life is laid out for all to see. A strict plan and a tight organization incorporate everything each individual does and places him as a part into the whole. The immediate needs of everyday life and the equal fulfillment of everyone; this is the starting point and endpoint of the organization. Everyone works for everyone else and collectively decides on everything.”  Here, her appreciation and attention go to the features of this primitive communist formation that contrast it with capitalism and make it, in some respects, greater in humanity than bourgeois industrial civilization: “Thus, more than two thousand years ago [...] there prevailed among the Germans a fundamentally different situation from ours: no State with binding written laws, no division between rich and poor, between masters and servants.” 
23 Drawing on the work of the Russian historian Maxim Kovalevsky, who had been a friend of Marx,  Rosa Luxemburg emphasized the universality of agrarian communism as a general form of human society at a certain stage of its development, found among the Indians of the Americas, the Incas and the Aztecs, as well as among the Kabyles, the African tribes, and the Hindus. The Peruvian example seems particularly significant, and here again, she could not help comparing the Incan Marca to “civilized” society: “The modern art of having one’s food supplied by foreign labor and making the refusal to work an attribute of domination was still foreign to the essence of this social organization, in which collective property and the general duty to work were deep-seated customs.” She also expressed her admiration for “the incredible tenacity of the Indian people and their organization of the mark community, since both of these have been preserved well into the nineteenth century, despite these conditions.”  Twenty years later, the eminent Peruvian Marxist thinker José Carlos Mariategui advanced a perspective that had striking similarities to Luxemburg’s ideas (although he was surely unaware of her remarks on Peru): modern socialism must draw on indigenous traditions dating back to Incan communism in order to win the peasant masses over to its side. 
24 But the most important author in this field, for Luxemburg – as well as for Engels in his Origin of the Family – was the American anthropologist L. H. Morgan. Inspired by his classic work, Ancient Society (1877), she went further than Marx and Engels, developing an entire grand vision of history, an innovative and bold conception of the millennial evolution of humanity, in which modern civilization, “with its private property, its class rule, its male domination, its states, and its binding marriage” appears as a mere interlude, a transition between the primitive communist society and communist society of the future. The romantic/revolutionary idea of a link between the past and the future appears here explicitly: “The noble tradition of the distant past thus extends its hand to the revolutionary aspirations of the future; the circle of knowledge finds its completion; and from this standpoint, the present world of class domination and exploitation, claiming to be the nec plus ultra of civilization, the ultimate goal of universal history, is nothing more than a tiny, transient step in the great forward march of humanity.” 
25 From this perspective, the European colonization of the peoples of the Third World appeared mainly as a socially destructive, barbaric, inhuman enterprise, and this is particularly true of the English occupation of India, which pillaged and disrupted the traditional communist agrarian structures, with tragic consequences for the peasantry. Luxemburg shared with Marx the belief that imperialism brought economic progress to colonized countries, even if it did so “by the base methods of a class society.”  However, while Marx, without hiding his indignation at these methods, focused particularly on the economically progressive role of the railways introduced to India by the English,  Luxemburg’s emphasis was rather on the socially harmful consequences of this capitalist “progress”: “The old ties were broken, the peaceful seclusion of communism from the rest of the world was shattered and replaced by strife, discord, inequality and exploitation. The result: on the one hand, huge latifundia; on the other hand, millions of farmers reduced to indigence. Private property entered India, and with it, typhus, starvation, and scurvy became permanent guests in the valley of the Ganges.”  This difference with Marx corresponded to a difference in their historical standpoints that allowed her to take a fresh look at the colonial countries, of course, but it was also an expression of Luxemburg’s particular sensitivity to the social and human qualities of primitive communes.
26 This issue was addressed not only in the Introduction to Political Economy, but also in The Accumulation of Capital, where she again criticized the historical role of British colonialism, outraged by criminal contempt expressed by the European conquerors toward the ancient irrigation system: capital, in its blind voracity, “is incapable of seeing far enough to recognize the value of the economic monuments of an older civilization”; colonial policy produced the decline of the traditional system, and consequently, in 1867, famine claimed millions of victims in India. As to the French colonization of Algeria, it was marked, in her eyes, by a systematic and deliberate attempt to destroy and disrupt communal property, leading to the economic ruin of the indigenous population. 
27 But beyond this or that instance, it was the entire colonial system – Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, or German, in Latin America, Africa, and Asia – that Luxemburg denounced, resolutely taking the side of the victims of capitalist “progress”: “For primitive peoples in colonial countries where primitive communism had once prevailed, capitalism is an unspeakable catastrophe, full of the most appalling suffering.”  This concern for the social condition of colonized peoples is one token of her book’s astonishing modernity – especially when compared with the equivalent work of Kautsky (published in 1886), from which non-European peoples were practically absent. 
28 From this analysis came Luxemburg’s solidarity with the struggle of indigenous peoples against the imperial metropolises, a fight in which she saw the admirable and tenacious resistance of the old communist traditions against the search for profit and capitalist “Europeanization.” Implied here was the possibility of an alliance between the anti-colonial struggle of these peoples and the anti-capitalist struggle of the modern proletariat as a revolutionary convergence between the old and new communism. 
29 According to Gilbert Badia, whose book on Rosa Luxemburg is one of the few to examine this issue critically, in the Introduction to Political Economy, the ancient structures of colonized societies are too often presented in a fixed manner “and radically opposed to capitalism, in a black-and-white contrast.” In other words, “to those communes, adorned with every virtue and conceived as virtually frozen in time, Rosa Luxemburg opposes the destructive function of a capitalism that is in no way progressive. We are indeed far from the conquering bourgeoisie hailed by Marx in the Manifesto.” 
30 These objections do not seem to me to be justified for the following reasons: 1) Luxemburg did not conceive of these communes as immobile or fixed; on the contrary, she pointed to their contradictions and transformations, stressing that “[p]rimitive communist society, through its own internal development, leads to the formation of inequality and despotism.”  2) She did not deny the economically progressive role of capitalism, but denounced the “base” and socially regressive aspects of capitalist colonization. 3) If she emphasized the most positive aspects of primitive communism in contrast to bourgeois civilization, she in no way obscured its limitations and failures: parochial narrowness, a low level of labor productivity and civilized development, helplessness in the face of nature, brutal violence, a permanent state of war between communities, etc.  4) Indeed, Luxemburg’s approach was very far from Marx’s hymn to the bourgeoisie in 1848; on the other hand, it was very close to the spirit of Chapter 31 of Capital (“Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”), in which Marx described the barbarity and atrocities of European colonization.
31 In fact, on the subject of the Russian village commune (obshchina), Rosa Luxemburg had a much more critical vision than did Marx himself. Based on the analysis of Engels, who noted, at the end of the nineteenth century, the decline and degeneration of the obshchina, she found an example of the historical limitations of the traditional commune and the need to transcend it.  Her gaze was turned resolutely towards the future, and here she separated herself from economic romanticism in general and the Russian populists in particular in order to emphasize “the fundamental difference between the world socialist economy of the future and the primitive communist groups of prehistory.” 
32 In drawing attention to these texts, we did not only wish to save from oblivion an unknown chapter of Rosa Luxemburg’s work. It seems to me that they contain much more than a scholarly survey of economic history: they suggest another way of seeing the past and the present, social historicity, progress, and modernity. By confronting the capitalist industrial civilization with humanity’s communitarian past, Luxemburg broke with linear evolutionism, positivist “progressivism,” Social Darwinism, and all the interpretations of Marxism that reduce it to a more advanced version of the philosophy of Monsieur Homais in Madame Bovary. What is at stake in these texts is, ultimately, the very meaning of the Marxist conception of history.
33 Her work is gaining a new relevance today, as we witness in many regions of the world, but particularly in Latin America – Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, among other places – in the struggle of peasant and indigenous communities, whose pre-capitalist traditions are still very much alive, to defend their forests, their lands, and their rivers against oil and mining multinationals, capitalist agribusiness, and their own governments’ neoliberal policies, responsible for ever more serious social and ecological disasters. ?
Luxemburg used the term “socialism” to describe the “ultimate goal” of the revolutionary movement, and from the end of 1918, the term “communism” to refer to the revolutionary party.
Daniel Bensaïd, Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique (London: Verso, 2002), 55-56.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 258.
Rosa Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, ed. Peter Hudis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 350.
For example, in the first lines of the Manifesto, in reference to the fact that the class struggle “each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition [London: Verso, 2012], 35).
Leon Trotsky, Our Political Tasks (London: New Park Publications, 1979).
Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 290.
Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution and Other Writings (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006), 221, 214, 216.
See Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg, Ideas in Action (London: Pluto Press, 1994), 159-161; Ernest Mandel, “Préface,” in Rosa Luxemburg, Introduction à l’Économie Politique (Paris: Éditions Anthropos, 1970); John P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 265; Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin Institut beim ZK der SED, “Bemerkungen zu Rosa Luxemburgs ‘Einführung in die Nationalökonomie’” in Rosa Luxemburg, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1955), 403-410.
Benjamin, Illuminations, 257.
Rosa Luxemburg, Introduction à l’Économie Politique (Paris: Éditions Anthropos, 1970), 83.
Mandel, “Préface,” xviii.
See Marx’s March 25, 1868 letter to Engels in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1987), 42.557.
Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 75 (modifications by the translator, in line with Löwy’s modifications).
Luxemburg, Introduction à l’Économie politique, 73.
See David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (London: Macmillan, 1973), 429.
Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 78, 89.
See Michael Löwy, "Le marxisme en Amérique Latine de José Marategui aux Zapatistes du Chiapas," Actuel Marx 42 (Oct. 2007):25-35.
Luxemburg, Introduction à l’Économie politique, 91.
Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 110.
See Kolja Lindner, “Marx’s Eurocentrism: Postcolonial studies and Marx scholarship,” Radical Philosophy 161 (May-June 2010):27-41.
Luxemburg, Introduction à l’Économie politique, 80. This passage seems to suggest an idyllic vision of the traditional social structure in India, but in another chapter of the book, Luxemburg recognizes the existence, above the rural communities, of a despotic power and a privileged priestly caste establishing relations of exploitation and social inequality (157-158).
Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), 376, 380.
Luxemburg, Introduction à l’Économie politique, 201.
On this point, see Ernest Mandel’s preface to Luxemburg, Introduction à l’Économie politique, xvii-xviii.
Luxemburg, Introduction à l’Économie politique, 92.
Gilbert Badia, Rosa Luxemburg: Journaliste, Polémiste, Révolutionnaire (Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1975), 498, 501.
Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 109.
Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, 77-78.
Rosa Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 201.
Luxemburg, Introduction à l’Économie politique, 133. In the same context, Rosa Luxemburg, like Marx, recognized that “capitalist society provides, for the first time, the possibility of realizing socialism,” notably by the economic unification of the world and the development of productive forces.