Rosa Luxemburg and the National Question

Rida Vaquas
national question

On the 4th December Rida Vaquas spoke at a symposium on Rosa Luxemburg organised by the Socialist Theory and Movements Network at Glasgow University and gave the below talk under the title The National Question and the Working Class Party: Rosa Luxemburg’s Perspective. You can watch the video and the other contributions online here


The fraternization of the workers of the world is for me the highest and most sacred thing on earth; it is my guiding star, my ideal, my fatherland. I would rather forfeit my life than be unfaithful to this ideal!” These were the words spoken by Rosa Luxemburg in April 1916, when differences in the anti-war left came to a head. Less than three years later, she did forfeit her life, murdered by far right paramilitaries in Berlin, with tacit approval of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) government.

Today, Rosa Luxemburg is most rightly famous for her internationalism as expressed in her brave stance against the First World War. As soon as SPD voted for war credits on 4th August 1914, she, alongside Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin, was the first to organise the anti-war opposition seriously in Germany. She was rewarded for her efforts by spending much of the war in prison, while coordinating an illegal opposition movement through her correspondence. Few among the Left today can meet the level of commitment to internationalist principles.

But while Luxemburg’s internationalism during the First World War is praised, if her pre-war positions on nationalism and the national question are considered at all, they receive an overwhelmingly negative assessment. Rosa Luxemburg, of course, maintained a position that the right to self-determination of nations was a “metaphysical formula”, which offered no guidance for the practical day to day politics of working class struggle. She rigidly opposed the establishment of an independent Polish state throughout her entire political career. On the Left today, “the right of nations to self-determination” and hence a practical support for demands of national independence, is seen as a common sense staple of any form of programme. The phrase “self-determination” has transformed from a tactical question to a moral one—it is the de facto framing of all questions relating to national oppression. Hence the Labour Party in 2019 passed an emergency motion recognising self-determination for Kashmir. But it has also been used to support Catalonian secession and Scottish independence, where the case of ‘national oppression’ is not at all so evident. The supposed catch-all efficacy of ‘self-determination’ for such dissimilar political situations raises obvious questions about its tenability as an actual solution to national oppression but contesting the ‘right’ at all leaving you liable to be called a chauvinist. This uncritical acceptance of the overarching principle has shaped scholarly and political assessments of Rosa Luxemburg’s position on the national question.

Hence Trevor Erlacher accuses Luxemburg of “national nihilism” and Michal Kasprzak refers to Luxemburg’s “international proletariat fundamentalism”. Eric Blanc, a scholar who has performed an immensely valuable service in illuminating Luxemburg’s work in the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), correctly rejects the accusation of national nihilism, noting Luxemburg’s numerous defences of Polish culture, but indicts her of a tragically misguided sectarianism, stating Luxemburg and her party’s politics were largely defined by their opposition to the PPS and its call for Polish independence.

My talk’s basic contention is that Luxemburg had a point—and we need to break out of all the condescending prejudices of today’s understanding of nationalism to see it, going back to when “the right of nations to self-determination” was yet to be set in stone and be adopted by everyone from President Woodrow Wilson to the Labour Party. 

Hence I am not concerned with Rosa Luxemburg’s case that “the Polish question had already been resolved by the capitalist development of Poland, and indeed resolved in a negative sense, because Poland through its production and trade relations was firmly bound to Russia” hence making independence utopian, as economic independence was impossible. I don’t believe that economic determinism was essentially decisive in the formation of Rosa Luxemburg’s opposition to Polish independence and the broader question of self-determination: what was decisive was her conception of the working class party and the programmatic demands it should make. What I want to explicate is why Rosa Luxemburg did not see the “right of nations of self-determination” as a point to put on a programme—as something that ought to be fought for and obtained by class struggle. Moreover, by illuminating some limited instances where she did support independence struggles, I want to dispel the misapprehension that Rosa Luxemburg’s opposition to the right of nations to self-determination meant an opposition to independence struggles in general. 

In contextualising Rosa Luxemburg’s position on Poland, it is crucial to note that while it was a departure from Marx and Engels who were both enthusiastic supporters of Polish independence, it was not actually a departure from Marxist orthodoxy. Especially in Poland, split into three and  governed by Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. The first Polish Workers’ Party, The Proletariat, founded in 1882 vehemently opposed Polish independence as a distraction from class struggle. Two years prior to its foundation, its founder and intellectual leader Ludwik Warynski spoke at a Geneva demonstration of 500 revolutionaries from across Europe, about the Polish Proletariat’s intentions. Karl Marx had sent a letter in solidarity to this event, ending with the slogan “Long live Poland!”. But Ludwik Warynski took a different approach entirely, going as far as to criticise, leaders of earlier Polish rebellions. He said “We are not the fighters of 63, who are all inflamed by a hatred of Tsardom and who perished on the national battlefields… we are natives, members of one big nation more unhappy than Poland, the nation of proletarians.” This total rejection of national struggle, influenced by the reception of Marx’s The Communist Manifesto in Poland, remained an ongoing theme throughout The Proletariat’s existence. 

Luxemburg had owed an intellectual debt to The Proletariat, her biographer J. P. Nettl notes that she was likely involved in the second formation of The Proletariat as a student, after the arrests and executions in 1885. Luxemburg herself described Warynski as the “the finest mind that the Polish socialist movement has produced.

In examining The Proletariat, we can see that Rosa Luxemburg’s own party, founded in 1893, felt themselves continuing a tradition of internationalism, against the new national demands of the Polish Socialist Party, founded in 1892. Luxemburg’s position asserted the primacy of class in political struggle and most importantly, Rosa Luxemburg thought the class struggle for democratic rights was the precondition for realising the freedom of nationality.

In her words from an 1896 article in the SPD’s paper Die Neue Zeit, arguing against a forthcoming resolution of the Polish Socialist Party to the London Congress of the International, seeking it to adopt Polish independence:

The struggle for political freedoms in Russia assures the Polish proletariat of the possibility of not only guarding their own interests as workers, but rather fighting for autonomous freedoms in Poland as well, in the only effective way, to stand at the post as defenders of threatened Polish nationality.

In other words, the problem with Polish independence as a programmatic demand was that it distracted from the working class struggle that would allow for the exercise of Polish nationality. The struggle of Polish workers, subjugated by Tsarism, must firstly be directed at the Tsarist state for the overthrow of the Tsarist state. A programme based on the erection of a state which did not exist that promised Social Democracy when it existed was worse than useless—it prevented the working class from fighting for their minimum demands against the existing state. The leftist common sense on this question is that the resolution of “the national question” via national independence clears the way for class struggle. Rosa Luxemburg inverted this entirely: only class struggle guaranteed free nationalities. When we look at the latter half of the twentieth century, it’s hard to avoid the obvious conclusion that national independence did not in fact clear the way for class struggle when it was applied. The newly formed nation-states, more often than not dependent on the beneficence of imperialist powers, frequently created new, and oppressed national minorities within their borders, and the new ruling classes took steps to quell and brutally suppress class struggle. In the first year of Polish independence in 1918, the new government, headed up the former right wing of the Polish Socialist Party, had turned its guns on the workers, opening fire at a workers protest on 29 December 1918.

Luxemburg perspicaciously criticised the 1918 Bolsheviks for throwing around the phrase national self-determination: “state independence itself is a dazzling thing which is often used to cover up the slaughter of the people.” It is hard to see a single case of a twentieth century independence movement where that has not been borne out. 

Before moving on to the next part of my talk, I would like to observe quickly that Luxemburg was not alone  on the Second International Left in maintaining a sceptical position towards Polish independence prior to the outbreak of the First World War. While Eric Blanc correctly notes that the leaders of the SPD, Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel and Karl Kautsky were advocates of Polish independence—this was not the attitude of the entirety of the Party Left. Franz Mehring in 1901 described Polish national agitation as a “reactionary utopia” and argued that “Polish workers must fight shoulder to shoulder with their class comrades without any reservation in all three partition states. The time has long passed when a bourgeois revolution could create a free Poland, today the rebirth of Poland is only possible through the social revolution of the proletariat in which it breaks its chains.” Clara Zetkin in 1910, while maintaining more instinctive sympathy for what she termed the “freedom struggles” of the Finnish, Polish and Armenians under Tsarism, nonetheless concluded that ultimately freedom could only be guaranteed by the revolution. Even Lenin’s theoretical “right to national self-determination” in Russian Social Democrats’ 1903 Programme was a highly limited one in terms of exercise, he stated that “it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state”, and hence opposed the Polish Socialist Party’s calls to establish an independent Poland.

What I want to bring out by highlighting the commonalities in position between Rosa Luxemburg and the Left of the Second International is how crucial the prospect of a proletarian revolution was to the assessments made of the national question; which highlights a further difficulty in uncritically transplanting the “Leninist position” as some Trotskyist groups do, directly onto present day conditions. Absent of proletarian revolution being both imminent and desirable, I believe the calculations of Second International socialists could very well change entirely.

The importance of revolution leads to another crucial determining factor of Rosa Luxemburg’s thought on self-determination as a programmatic point: namely that it compromises the independence of the working class party as a class organisation. Rosa Luxemburg’s chief insight in this front was that nationalism and the national idea was not an empty vessel that one could simply pour in revolutionary content. The content of nationalism was determined by the historical and social conditions which gave rise to it. There was no bourgeois nationalism that one could contrast with proletarian nationalism; instead, in practice, social patriotism always ended up buttressing the incipient ruling class. Hence she narrates the ways in which the so-called “national idea” led to the murder of workers in her 1907 series of articles on the national question:

under the national slogan, workers’ “national unions” were organized by the National Democracy for counteraction against the economic struggle and the revolutionary action of the proletariat. Under the national slogan, National Democratic railroad workers broke the railroad strike, which had been started in December 1905 in Poland, forcing the striking workers to return to work at gun point.” 

The national interest represented the interests of the emergent capitalist class who would, in practice, be the owners and administrators of national wealth. To obfuscate that by claiming a shared cross-class interest in the establishment of a Polish nation critically inhibited the working class in building up its own organisational power that it needed to combat the ruling class. In adopting national independence or national self-determination as part of a programme as a working class party, a party ended up tailing movements beyond its control and sacrificing its own political independence.

In this too, Rosa Luxemburg was not isolated in the Second International. The pioneer of the anti-zionist Bund, Boris Frumkin opposed Zionism as a programme on a similar basis. He wrote in 1908 that: “In the Zionist endeavours to win common national goods, they cultivate consciousness of a solidarity of interests across all classes of the Jewish people. National demands, as means in class struggle, are superseded by nationalist tendencies, become an end in themselves” and moreover, Zionism could only be achieved by diplomatic negotiations with imperialist powers, not by the class struggle of the Jewish proletariat itself.

To sum up, the key problem in the metaphysical phrase of “national self-determination” in Rosa Luxemburg’s perspective was firstly that it distracted from the political struggle of the class to obtain democratic rights—the only means by which exercise of national freedoms could be guaranteed—and secondly it sacrificed the independence of the working class party to subordinate it to the national aims of the bourgeoisie, inhibiting it from building its own power and consciousness.

There’s of course an elephant in the room here that I’m sure you’ve already picked up on: imperialism. It’s extremely important at this stage to observe an opposition to national self-determination in general, and a scepticism about national independence struggles did not translate into opposing them in every and any context. Rosa Luxemburg recognised the trajectory of colonies liberating themselves to be an aspect of capitalist development in itself. She wrote in 1908 “the colonial expansion of capitalism brings about the somewhat contradictory tendency from the colonies to make themselves firstly economically, and then politically independent.” Insofar as this represented a progressive stage within capitalist development, it was not necessarily to be opposed. But she nonetheless maintained a scepticism and wariness about anti-colonial struggles, describing how many of them were essentially a native bourgeoisie seeking to shake the fetters of political and economic dependence on the metropole, to exploit the resources of their countries for their own capitalist development. Each case had to be analysed on its own merits. In the case of India, for example, the sheer existence of a large number of nationalities warned against a quick judgement on the basis of the “rights of people”. The area where she emphatically supported an independence struggle was Armenia, emphatically arguing that “the aspirations to freedom can here make themselves felt only in a national struggle” and hence that Social Democracy must “stand for the insurgents”. Her reasoning for this was that Armenia was not bound to the Ottoman Empire by capitalist development but by brute force. Luxemburg is not incompatible with modern-day anti-imperialism, but a careful examination of her thought urges us to be more circumspect, to understand national liberation as a strategic question, not a moral cause.

There’s certainly a polemical element to what I’ve presented here, I started studying Rosa Luxemburg on the national question as a teenager very seriously to explain to people why I am not a Trotskyist—I’ve never seen it as an academic assignment. For me the question is more than one of scholarly or antiquarian interest, but a way of developing a sharper, clearer analysis of the national questions of our own time, to fulfil Rosa Luxemburg’s exhortations of her students at the party school:  to not accept anything without examination and to constantly reexamine everything: “To play a game of catch with every problem, that’s how it must be!” But there is much serious socialist history to be recovered on this question. Luxemburg’s Collected Works will hopefully present many more of her writings on the national question, translated from Polish into English for the first time. But there is still more to do in recovering the debates of the Social Democratic Parties of Latvia, of Armenia, of Finland on these questions which could only enrich and nuance a debate in the Left that seldom goes further than contrasting the supposedly correct “Leninist position” with the ultra-left and infantile “Luxemburgist” position.