Revisiting Rosa Luxemburg’s internationalism

Date01 February 2021
Published date01 February 2021
DOI10.1177/1755088219833416
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/1755088219833416
Journal of International Political Theory
2021, Vol. 17(1) 58 –80
© The Author(s) 2019
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DOI: 10.1177/1755088219833416
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Revisiting Rosa Luxemburg’s
internationalism
Robert O’Brien
McMaster University, Canada
Abstract
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.
Keywords
Anti-imperialism, cosmopolitanism, global civil society, international ethics,
internationalism, Rosa Luxemburg, transnational activism, transnationalism
The rise of anti-immigrant politics in continental Europe, the Brexit referendum in the
United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as US President have ushered in a
bleak era for internationalists in Western countries. Appeals to nationalist impulses blam-
ing foreigners (whether they are migrants, workers or financiers) enjoy considerable
popular support across a wide range of countries. This is occurring at the precise time
that the need for increased cooperation between and across states becomes ever more
Corresponding author:
Robert O’Brien, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON L8S 4M4, Canada.
Email: obrienr@mcmaster.ca
833416IPT0010.1177/1755088219833416Journal of International Political TheoryO’Brien
research-article2019
Article
O’Brien 59
pressing because of the immense challenges of a global energy transition to avoid cata-
strophic climate change. In such times, it can be helpful to look outside present events for
instruction and inspiration. The 15th of January 2019 marked the centenary of the murder
of one of the leading figures in the history of Western internationalism, Rosa Luxemburg.
The anniversary is a useful prompt to reflect upon her model of internationalism and the
contributions it might make to present-day thinking and activity. This article argues that
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 parts of the
world.
The argument unfolds in five parts. The first section outlines three key questions in
the literature around internationalism, cosmopolitanism and transnationalism: What is
the appropriate ethical stance between people in different political communities? What
is the appropriate political project for those seeking a more just world? What tools should
be employed to reach the desired outcome? The second section offers a brief justification
for why it is useful to reconsider the work of Rosa Luxemburg. The third section pro-
vides Luxemburg’s answers to the three questions. 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 descend-
ing into barbarism. Central to this transformation was a constant struggle against milita-
rism and imperialism. Key tools for transformation included mass mobilisation, vibrant
democratic debate and revolutionary reform of the political economy. A fourth section
outlines the problematic aspects of Luxemburg’s internationalism that require revision.
These include her insensitivity to the importance of local/national identity and
Eurocentrism. The article concludes by outlining the central elements of a Luxemburg
inspired internationalism for the early twenty-first century and briefly considering how
it might be applied today.
Three questions about internationalism, cosmopolitanism
and transnationalism
Internationalism, cosmopolitanism and transnationalism are three of the most common
concepts used to theorise attempts of people working cooperatively across state borders.
They are often used in different ways by different authors, so it is important to outline
how they are being used in this article. With regard to internationalism, this article
refers both to the description of state foreign policies aimed at promoting international
cooperation such as liberal internationalism and the political stance of civil society
actors committed to universalising particular principles of behaviour such as feminist
internationalism or labour internationalism (Sluga and Clavin, 2017). Cosmopolitanism
refers both to the ethical project of viewing the rights of strangers on a par with the
rights of members of a bounded political community and particular liberal political
projects of world order (Brown and Held, 2010). These two dimensions have been
described as moral and institutional conceptions of cosmopolitanism (Zurn and de

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