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Internationalism in difficult times

Dr. Robert O’Brien revisits the thinking of Rosa Luxemburg, one of the 20th Century’s leading internationalists, to see if there are any lessons for today.

Mar 18, 2019

Robert O’Brien’s most recent article “Revisiting Rosa Luxemburg’s Internationalism” (Journal of International Political Theory) looks at the extraordinary life and thought of one of the most prominent 20th century internationalists, Rosa Luxemburg.  Luxemburg was an intellectual, activist and revolutionary operating in three languages and three socialist movements (Polish, German, and Russian) in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She debated with leaders of the Russian revolution such as Lenin and Trotsky, as well as cooperated with, and mercilessly criticised, the leading figures of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) such as Kautsky. Her work for the Second International was tireless, as was her struggle against militarism, imperialism, and war. She participated in the unsuccessful 1905 Russian Revolution and was murdered by right wing militias in the aftermath of the failed German revolution in January 1919. All of this was accomplished by a person battling sexism and anti-Semitism from her political opponents.

O’Brien argues that in an era where internationalism is on the retreat in the Western world, a modified version of Rosa Luxemburg’s thinking about internationalism can serve as a useful guide for those concerned about relations between peoples in different countries.  Luxemburg contributes to existing internationalist, cosmopolitan and transnational approaches by offering a unique set of answers to questions about the appropriate ethics, political project and tools to be adopted.  Her ethical stance of the universal worth of all people was informed both by a deep sense of empathy and her theoretical analysis of capitalism. She believed that citizens had a duty to hold their governments accountable for foreign policy and that the world formed a single system and community. The political project was one of radical transformation and equality. European nations faced the option of transforming into more egalitarian and peaceful societies or descending into barbarism. Central to this transformation was a constant struggle against militarism and imperialism. Key tools for transformation included mass mobilisation, vibrant democratic debate and revolutionary reform of the political system.  Problematic aspects of Luxemburg’s internationalism that require revision include her insensitivity to the importance of national identity and Eurocentrism.