Review: “Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work” – Paul Frölich

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Paul Frölich’s famous biography of Rosa Luxemburg. A lot of what is written in the book strikes me as ultra-left, maybe even Trotskyist; and since I am not expert on Luxemburg’s life and her theories, I find it difficult to determine how much of the ultra-leftism, encompassing everything from dubious economic conclusions to outright anti-Sovietism, is an accurate reflection of Luxemburg’s political ideas or the author’s own bias.

Polish Bourgeoisie vs. Russian Bourgeoisie?

In the chapter “The National Question as a Strategic Problem,” which to my dismay offers little insight into Luxemburg’s violent dispute with Lenin on the right of nations to self-determination, Frölich examines Luxemburg’s opposition to Polish independence from Russia. Among the reasons Luxemburg opposed Polish independence, Frölich writes, was because “Russian and Polish capitalism were bound to each other by a strong solidarity of interests, that they depended on each other and profited from each other” (p. 27). Those “Tsarist measures adduced as evidence of anti-Polish economic policies all aimed in reality at prodding Polish industry into purchasing Russian, rather than foreign, raw materials. And, finally, Russian expansionist policies led Tsarism to form stronger ties with Polish, than with native Russian, industry, because Polish industry was better equipped to take advantage of the expanding market” (p. 27).

Nobody I can think of has ever denied that capitalism was more highly developed in Poland than in Russia. But to argue that tsarist Russia favoured the Polish bourgeoisie and Polish industry over the Russian bourgeoisie and Russian industry, and that tsarist Russia was content being a source of raw materials for Polish industry, seems extremely dubious if not completely false. If this were true, that would mean tsarist Russia was basically captive of Polish capitalism, almost like a reverse colonialism. It would also imply that the Polish bourgeoisie were the impetus for Russian expansionism in Central Asia and other Russian colonial territories; Russia exploited Central Asia for raw materials such as cotton, which, if what Luxemburg (or Frölich?) wrote is true, would mean that Russian expansionism in Central Asia ultimately benefited the bourgeoisie of Poland more than the bourgeoisie of Russia. None of this seems accurate to me.

Too Much

Throughout the book Frölich credits Luxemburg with ideas and successes as if she was single-handedly responsible for them all. This distorts not only the history of Luxemburg but also of those ideas and successes. For example, when examining Luxemburg’s most important theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital, Frölich credits the theory of imperialism to Luxemburg’s genius — and only her genius. According to Frölich, “Rosa Luxemburg had solved a problem with which economists had wrestled for a fully century, ever since the first great economic crisis in 1815; a problem with had withstood even the intellectual powers of Marx” (p. 158). Just read this passage on page 164:

The Accumulation of Capital did more than solve an abstract theoretical problem: it also proved that imperialism, with all its typical accompaniments — the rivalry of capitalist states for colonies and spheres of influence, for investment possibilities for European capital and raw-material resources; capital export; high protective tariffs; the predominant role of bank and trust capital; the armaments race, etc. — was not an accidental by-product of certain political measures, nor did it serve merely the interests of narrow capitalist cliques (the armaments industries); rather it was a historically necessary phase of capitalist development — in fact, the final stage of that development…”

Not a single word about J. A. Hobson, Rudolph Hilferding, Lenin, etc. The theory of imperialism was an achievement of Luxemburg and Luxemburg alone. This is not the only remarkable achievement attributed to Luxemburg by Frölich. Even the October Revolution of 1917, writes Frölich, “was the first triumph of Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas[!!!]…” (p. 233, emphasis added).

Socialism in One Country and the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact

According to Frölich, Luxemburg opposed “socialism in one country” advocated by Stalin, believing that without a world revolution socialism was doomed to fail in the Soviet Union. Frölich defends Luxemburg’s Trotskyist position by claiming that the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 proves without a doubt that socialism had failed in the USSR! (p. 252). What nonsense!


I wouldn’t recommend this book. Rosa Luxemburg was no doubt a brilliant Marxist theoretician and a fiery orator (her condemnation of Kautsky was excellent!), but this book does not provide an accurate historical account of her ideas or her life as a person. Frölich’s book strikes me as a biography of an important Marxist theoretician through the perspective of a disgruntled Trotskyist.

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