‘National nihilism’ reconsidered: Rosa Luxemburg, Polish industrialisation, and the possibilities of post-imperial polity

by | 25 Nov 2022

Luxemburg, empire, and the nation-state

In Soviet and Western historiography, Rosa Luxemburg’s remarks on the ‘national question’ routinely appear as a passing foil to the better-known and more widely studied ideas of Vladimir Lenin. In contrast to Lenin, who fought to enshrine the ‘right of nations to self-determination’ in the Bolshevik program and framed the early Soviet system of ethnic federalism, Luxemburg features as the ‘national nihilist’,[1] who relentlessly defied Lenin on these points up until her death in 1919.[2]

Presenting Luxemburg’s thought on nations and nationalism as a ‘nihilist’ negation of the Leninist line, however, means overlooking her provocative insights on the alternate, transnational possibilities of post-imperial polity that she saw emerging from the multiethnic empires of her time. Far from denying the existence of nations or the seriousness of national oppression, Luxemburg specifically refused to accept the nation-state as either the historically ‘normal’ product of capitalist development, as Lenin described it in 1914,[3] or the normative unit of international order.[4]

Starting with her native Russian-ruled Poland in the 1890s, Luxemburg documented how capitalism and imperialism were binding together proletarians of different nationalities in previously distant, disconnected places. She contended that insular nation-statehood would foreclose more urgent and ambitious projects for working-class solidarity on the vast spatial and social stages furnished by empires.[5] The expansive productive architectures assembled by imperialism provided, for Luxemburg, the concrete foundations for the everyday political organisation of the proletariat as well as the inspiration for a materialist critique of the exclusive, self-contained nation-state.

In a world presently brimming with unequal and exclusive nation-states, Luxemburg’s methodology remains relevant as a framework for mapping transnational geographies of working-class interconnection and pursuing solidarities that cut across entrenched divisions of nationality, citizenship, race, and space.

Imperial Russia as Luxemburg’s conceptual laboratory

Luxemburg was born in 1871 in Zamość, then a provincial town in the initially autonomous Kingdom of Poland gained by the Russian Empire at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (marked “XI” on the map above). By Luxemburg’s youth, the Kingdom had emerged as the most heavily industrialised and proletarianised part of the Tsarist realm, with Saint Petersburg and Moscow later surpassing it following a state-led development drive in the 1890s.[6]

For Polish-speaking socialists, the Kingdom’s place within Russia’s uneven landscape of industrialisation posed a polarising conundrum through the First World War. From the viewpoint of Józef Piłsudski and his confederates in the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) founded in 1892, Poland’s path to socialism necessarily led through independence. According to Piłsudski, this was partly because any sort of political or economic union with the benighted, stagnant backwaters of ‘central Russia’ would warp Poland’s arc of healthy industrial growth, a historical materialist variation on well-worn Polish tropes of Muscovite barbarism and backwardness.[7]

Luxemburg, however, rejected this reasoning, seceding from the PPS in 1893 and leading the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP; later SDKPiL following a merger with workers from historic Lithuania). She would devote the rest of the decade, and her doctoral dissertation, to illustrating that Moscow and Saint Petersburg were fusing into one industrial fabric with the textile hubs of Warsaw and Łódź. While Piłsudski aspired to stitch together the borderlands of Russia, Austria, and Germany into a sovereign state approximating the eighteenth-century area of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Luxemburg held that industrial capitalism had fundamentally disjoined the Kingdom from the rest of the predominantly agrarian Commonwealth.[8]

Poland, for Luxemburg, had been thrust into a completely new, transnational constellation of proletarian centers following a common developmental trajectory converging with that of Central and Western Europe. Sustained by Russian markets and raw materials coupled with foreign investment, Poland’s industrialisation, Luxemburg claimed in 1896, was a radically internationalising phenomenon, tightly linking the once sleepy lands along the Vistula River to other, formerly remote parts of the empire and the world.[9]

The shared architecture of exploitation and production resulting from Russia’s industrialisation, Luxemburg argued, could only be redeemed and remade through a coordinated revolutionary struggle transcending national divisions, first through the adoption of a common constitutional system for the whole empire.[10] Luxemburg emphasised that Polish and Russian capitalists were already collaborating within their respective industries on an all-imperial scale to maximise power and profits, leaving it up to the working-class movement to take as its organisational foundation this vast productive apparatus that could transcend national quarrels.[11]

The trajectory of the borderlands

As early as 1895, with ‘central Russia’ still in the midst of its ‘great spurt’ of industrial growth, Luxemburg rejected the creation of an independent Polish nation-state as the premature partition of an integrated imperial economy in the making. While Piłsudski derided the impoverished peasants of ‘central Russia’ as too backward and submissive to become serious revolutionary partners to the mature Polish proletariat, Luxemburg rebuffed such arguments, insisting upon a general tendency towards developmental convergence and interconnection across this allegedly unbridgeable gap of civilisation.[12]

Luxemburg’s central intervention in this debate appeared in print as The Industrial Development of Poland in 1898, one year before the publication of Vladimir Lenin’s far better-known The Development of Capitalism in Russia, which documented patterns of class stratification, technological transformation, and the formation of a home market resembling European precedents. As Lenin specified in his preface, however, this study was primarily based on data and observations from the ‘interior, purely Russian gubernias’ of the empire, a swathe of territory excluding outlying, ethnically non-Russian borderlands (okrainy) such as the Kingdom of Poland.[13] Luxemburg was thus among the first historical materialist minds of her generation to rigorously investigate the linkages created by capitalism between Russia’s ‘interior’ and its borderlands, deriving from her findings a transnational praxis of revolutionary socialism.

When the Revolution of 1905 later convulsed Russia, working-class uprisings in Moscow, largely still a city of peasant migrants, lent credence to Luxemburg and made a profound impression on Polish socialists in Warsaw and Łódź, contributing to a split within the PPS and the revision of Piłsudski’s separatist line by its Left Faction. These secessionists, who initially adopted a federalist program, creatively challenged Luxemburg’s vision of Russo-Polish integration as schematic and exaggerated, though many of them later joined forces with the SDKPiL to found the Communist Party of Poland in 1918.[14]

Colonialism and the contradictions of self-determination

In 1908, Luxemburg elaborated a broader diagnosis of the nation-state as a form of polity underpinned, in the case of the industrialised countries of Europe and the Americas, by the denial of inconvenient material ties linking dominant metropoles and their colonies. To speak of European nation-states as self-determining, self-contained units, Luxemburg argued, was to elide the material bonds and continuities between these economically advanced countries and the vast empires upon which they depended for their places in the exclusive club of nations exercising the privilege of self-determination.[15]

In places such as Britain and Germany, Luxemburg stressed, it was most accurate to speak of states ‘based on conquest’, both of the national minorities within their frontiers and the colonial world. The republics of the Americas, she emphasised, had secured their status as sovereign nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries only to inherit the colonial yokes of their former European masters, exploiting the indigenous and Black populations now locked within their sacred borders. So long as an inequitable division of labour persisted worldwide, the self-determination of a handful of nation-states amounted to little more than a euphemism for the prerogative to plunder, a privilege with which socialists in the metropoles would have to part.[16]

Simultaneously, Luxemburg cautioned against seeing colonies such as British India as embryonic nation-states in the making. In her view, the immense human diversity and highly variegated social developmental of such territories hardly fit the model of the homogeneous nation as the bearer of self-determination, an observation that implicitly challenged projects of postcolonial nation-building and gestured to the possibility of other forms of polity rooted in class identity.[17]That nation-states are ill-equipped to accommodate the messy plurality inherited from empires has only grown more evident with the successive waves of decolonisation in whose wake they proliferated.

Alternatives to the nation-state in the neocolonial present

Since Luxemburg’s assassination in 1919, empires have ceded the globe’s surface to a profusion of nation-states in the aftermaths of wars and revolutions, yet neocolonial configurations of labour and production persist beneath the multicoloured patchwork of national sovereignties adorning the map. Flows of migrant labour, cheaply manufactured goods, and coveted minerals extracted from unregulated mining operations pulse just below this smooth surface, connecting the broken bodies of the exploited with the lifestyles of the propertied.

Even more potently, Luxemburg reminds us that workers in more affluent, industrialised countries, though transformed into Lenin’s privileged ‘labour aristocracy’ since the Second World War,[18] must reach beyond their unholy alliances with native capital by pursuing closer alignment with colonised labour, both within the borders of nation-states and beyond them. In critiquing the division of labour between self-determining ‘nations proper’ and their subjugated ‘supply depots’,[19] Luxemburg challenges us to seek out scales of analysis and action that challenge the normative hegemony of nation-states and recover the vital material connectivity between the estranged working classes of juridically compartmentalised countries.

A potential source of inspiration for such a postcolonial order comes from the work of historians such as Frederick Cooper and Adom Getachew, who have illustrated that the post-1945 crises of European colonial empires spurred projects for the creation of transnational, post-imperial federations with developmental and redistributive aims.[20] As composite polities, post-imperial federations offer a formalised, juridically robust alternative to the anarchy of transnational corporations, international development banks, and self-interested nation-states, presenting over the long term the possibility of destigmatised mobility for migrants and the inevitably costly but necessary extension of metropolitan labour rights to workers from former colonies.

Mobilities and borders

If imperial Russia, with its chaotic, uneven spread of social development, provided Luxemburg with her most formative conceptual and empirical laboratory in the 1890s, it is now the ‘underdeveloped’ countries of the Global South that most abundantly reveal the limitations and exclusions of the nation-state. Scholars such as Zaragosa Vargas point to the centrality of cross-border dynamics of labour migration to transnational ideas of community and class identity in places such as the United States-Mexico border, where demands for labour rights grew inseparable from struggles for civil rights in the twentieth century.[21]

Flows of labour, as Vargas shows, did not merely complement stable national identities bounded by international borders, providing the material basis for transnational forms of working-class solidarity that challenged white supremacy and the class state. Recovering such ways of living against and in spite of the nation-state may be one of the best avenues by which to return to the spirit of Luxemburg’s thought and activism at the start of this century.

Luxemburg’s enduring urgency

By rejecting the dominance of the capitalist nation-state and its myths of self-determination, Luxemburg engaged not in ‘national nihilism’ but in a redemptive internationalist project that sought to transform sprawling spaces of imperial conquest into post-imperial frameworks of transnational working-class solidarity. Today, as the limitations of neoliberal humanitarianism come into sharper relief, Luxemburg’s revolutionary vision of transnational solidarity grounded in shared labour and material redistribution is as provocative an alternative to our stratified world of nation-states as it has ever been.

[1] The term “national nihilism” has been attributed to the Bolshevik Dmitry Manuilsky (1883-1859). See Richard Abraham, Rosa Luxemburg: A Life for the International (Oxford: 1989), 12.


[2] Spanning a decade, The National Question (1908-1909) and The Russian Revolution (1918/1922) form the major bookends of this thread of Luxemburg’s exchanges with Lenin. See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch01.htmhttps://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch03.htm

[3] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch01.htm

[4] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch01.htmhttps://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch02.htm

[5] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/industrial-poland/index.htm

[6] See Robert Blobaum, Rewolucja: Russian Poland, 1904–1907 (Ithaca: 1995).

[7] Józef Piłsudski, “Rosja,” in Pisma, v.1, ed. Leon Wasilewski (Warsaw: 1937), 83-85.

[8] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/industrial-poland/ch08.htm

[9] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1896/07/polish-question.htm

[10] Maciej Rózga (Rosa Luxemburg), Niepodległa Polska a sprawa robotnicza (Paris: 1895).

[11] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/industrial-poland/ch11.htm

[12] Luxemburg, Niepodległa Polska.

[13] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1899/devel/preface1.htm

[14] I deal with these debates in detail in another article currently in progress.

[15] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch01.htm

[16] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch02.htm

[17] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch01.htm

[18] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/ch08.htm

[19] See: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch01.htm

[20] Frederick Cooper, Citizenship Between Empire and Nation Remaking France and French Africa, 1945–1960 (Princeton: 2014); Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: 2020).

[21] Zaragosa Vargas, Labor Rights are Civil Rights: Mexican-American Workers in Twentieth-Century America(Princeton: 2007).


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