Introduction: Rosa Luxemburg and International Law

by | 16 Nov 2022

By Christine Schwöbel-Patel and Serena Natile[1]

2021 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Luxemburg: a revolutionary theorist and political activist, whose work has provided important political economy critiques of imperialism, capitalism, nationalism, and advocated for the collective commitment to social justice. Rosa Luxemburg’s work and influence spans many topics relevant to the critique of international law: political economy, militarism, capitalism, democracy, imperialism, self-determination, revolution, and feminism. Dr Luxemburg was the author of important works such as The Accumulation of Capital and essays such as Reform or Revolution and The Mass StrikeShe was also author of many letters. While recent books have celebrated her life and intellectual and political legacy, engagement with her work in international law, with some notable exceptions,[2] has been largely marginal. 

Disciplines such as political economy and international law have for a long time been de-politicised and de-contextualised and even critical/Marxist perspectives have been predominantly male/elite/often white/Western, and although these critiques are important and valuable for us, they have too often been top-down neglecting major grassroots contributions. Rosa Luxemburg instead aimed to reconcile socialist grassroots struggles with the theorisation of socialism. Her critiques of top-down reforms, trade union bureaucratic approaches, and formal rights, including bourgeoise women’s right to vote, were grounded in her activism. These critiques were motivated by her fervent work behind the scenes in support of grassroots movements. She was as sharp a theorist of capitalism as she was a passionate activist. 

Rosa Luxemburg’s work has been newly appreciated in Marxist and non-Marxist circles alike. In 2015, Kate Evans published the wonderful graphic novel Red Rosa. In 2020, Dr Dana Mills (keynote speaker at our online workshop) published a fantastic biography of Rosa Luxemburg in the Critical Lives series of Reaktion Books. In 2021, the collection Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg edited by professors Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell was published. Professor Lea Ypi recently ensured that Rosa took up her well-deserved place in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This renewed interest has provided new lenses to look, critique, and rethink international legal debates including the nexus between colonialism and capitalist accumulation, anti-militarism and internationalism, and revolutionary struggles.

In this project, our aim is to collectively explore what an international legal engagement with Rosa Luxemburg’s work may offer at this juncture of neoliberal capitalism, militarism, climate disaster, and pandemic. In bringing together different people who engage with Rosa’s work in various dimensions and contexts of international law, we also want to celebrate and reflect on the legacy of Rosa the person, the woman, the Polish-Jewish-Disabled-Socialist-Revolutionary-Woman. Her intellectual work cannot be detached from her political activism and her commitment to global transformation and justice. We learn from her how the ability to look beyond and fight for others’ injustice as much as our own is necessary to build a revolutionary movement of solidarity. She maintained coherence, integrity, and passion in her scholarship as in her political struggles, a coherence that we admire and try to have in our own work. We think that it is here that the power and legacy of Rosa lies. 

The symposium is organised according to four themes: imperialism and primitive accumulation; anti-militarism; self-determination: and reparation, rupture and revolution. On imperialism and primitive accumulation, Kanad Bagchi’s contribution ‘Rosa Luxemburg and the Imperialism of Money’ discusses how Rosa Luxemburg’s work can be used to better understand the dependency and subordination between the core and periphery as a feature of the international monetary system. Santosh Anand, in his contribution ‘Foreclosed Temporalities: Imperialism and International Criminal Law’, introduces Luxemburg’s conceptualisation of primitive accumulation to set an agenda for understanding the imperial relations at the heart of International Criminal Law. After international finance, and international crime, Michele Tedeschini highlights how the mining of the ocean floor is a further form of international law’s contribution in shaping the ocean floor as a site of accumulation. His contribution is titled ‘Emptying the bottom of the sea: Capital accumulation in the cavities of international law.’

The second set of blogs all engage with Rosa Luxemburg’s work and organising around anti-militarism. Marnie Lloyd, in A few not too troublesome restrictions”: Humanitarianism, Solidarity, Anti-Militarism, Peace’ places Rosa Luxemburg in conversation with Samuel Moyn in posing the question of how international humanitarian law efforts to humanise war have also legitimised war. Highlighting the ties between militarism and capitalism specifically is Chloe Jones’s piece titled: ‘Accumulation and Jurisdiction’. This piece carefully distinguishes between military violence on the one hand and how imperialist states produce legal and political frameworks to delimit and even restrain violence on the other hand. These latter tools were essential to ‘blunt the sharper edges of imperialism in order to sustain its drive’. Attila Antal also argues along these lines of different forms of violence in his piece The New Form of Capitalist Militarism: The Permanent State of Excption’. We gain an insight into the role of a ‘redesigned’ militarism in contemporary neoliberal and globalised capitalism, exemplified through the militarised use of extraordinary measures in Hungary since 2010.

Rosa Luxemburg’s engagement with the concept of self-determination, particularly in relation to nationalism and emancipation, is articulated in the third set of blogs. Marcel Garbos’s contribution ‘National nihilism’ reconsidered: Rosa Luxemburg, Polish industrialisation, and the possibilities of post-imperial polity’ engages with Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of the nation-state and self-determination and her revolutionary vision of internationalism to argue for the need to build transnational working-class solidarities that cut across divisions of nationality, citizenship, race, and space. Eric Loefflad’s contribution Domination is More than Conquest: Rosa Luxemburg’s View from Partitioned Poland’ engages with Rosa’s theories of self-determination and imperialism in the context of Poland to remind to international lawyers about the need to consider domination beyond the ban on conquest. Paola Zichi’s contribution Rosa Luxemburg’s Self-Determination and Feminist Legal Thought: On Imperialism, Capitalist Expansion, and International Law’ reflects on how Rosa Luxemburg’s work can provide conceptual instruments to feminist international scholars to better understand hierarchies of power in oppressed contexts such as Indigenous lands, in Israel/Palestine, in Kashmir, Western Sahara, Basque lands, Crimea, Cyprus, Kurdistan, Southern Sudan, and the Americas.

The final three blogs reflect on Rosa’s grassroots-inspired thinking, specifically on the need to advocate for reparation, rupture and revolution to bring about radical change. Mia Swart’s contribution ‘Pushed into the burning desert: German ‘reparations’ to the Herero though a Luxemburgian lens’ discusses how Rosa Luxemburg’s political thinking can provide useful insights to rethink the approach to ‘reparation’ as consciously and materially repairing what has been broken in the specific case of the German genocide of the Herero population in South-West Africa (now Namibia). Christine Schwöbel-Patel’s contribution ‘The Luxemburgian Trial of Rupture’ discusses how Rosa’s strategy of rupture and her use of the courtroom as a space of solidarity and collectivity can act as an inspiration for an anti-imperial praxis and pedagogy of law, in particular for mooting. Serena Natile’s contribution ‘The revolutionary potential of transnational social security law: lessons from Rosa Luxemburg’ engages with Rosa Luxemburg’s thinking about reform and revolution and her lessons regarding crises, capitalist states and democracy to explain how the international legal order has enabled and legitimised the global maldistribution of wealth and power. Luxemburg’s work and praxis prompts a reflection on whether a grassroots-inspired transnational framework for social security can have a revolutionary potential in disrupting capitalism’s unjust mode of distribution.

[1] The project is co-funded by the Centre for Critical Legal Studies at Warwick Law School, the Society of Legal Scholars, and the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation. Many thanks to Rosie Woodhouse for her fantastic research assistance and copy-editing.

[2] Deborah Whitehall, ‘A Rival History of Self-Determination’ (2016) 27(3) European Journal of International Law 719-743; Alexandra Kemmerer, ‘Editing Rosa: Luxemburg, the Revolution, and the Politics of Infantilization’ (2016) European Journal of International Law 853-864; Bowring, Bill (2008) The Degradation Of The International Legal Order?: The Rehabilitation Of Law And The Possibility Of Politics (Abingdon, Routledge Cavendish; Robert Knox, ‘Strategy and Tactics’ (21) Finnish Yearbook of International Law 193-229.

Christine Schwöbel-Patel, Marketing Global Justice: The Political Economy of International Criminal Law (CUP 2021), Chapter 9; Deborah Whitehall, ‘The reign of order and the rights of siege according to Rosa Luxemburg’ in Immi Tallgren (ed), Portraits of Women in International Law: New Names and Forgotten Faces? (OUP forthcoming 2021).


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