Rosa Luxemburg Categorically Opposed Unilateral and Forced Border Changes

Image Description Below

With war still raging in eastern Europe, Holger Politt considers Rosa Luxemburg’s pacifist stance and her writings on annexation, separatism and the autonomy of national minorities.

Russia’s military assault on Ukraine with the aim of bringing the country back under Moscow’s hegemony presents the peace movement in most of western Europe with unprecedented challenges. Suddenly, it is the Russian army that is the clear and unpopular aggressor. Previously, Moscow had been perceived as more of a stabilising force within the global concert of powers that – even in terrible circumstances, such as the war in Syria – would only respond to action taken by the collectively superior western nations. Neither Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 nor its annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed this perception. But the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 left the international community scratching their heads.

Russia’s swift move to crush any sign of a strong and effective peace movement within its borders made it even more difficult for others to offer solidarity. It also made it harder for those advocating peace in western countries to reconsider their attitudes regarding eastern Europe. Otherwise they would quickly have learnt that present-day Ukraine is no longer Russia, that the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union after 1991 had resulted in globally recognised borders between the two countries and that Putin’s government was now challenging these borders with spurious arguments. But some sections of the peace movement – out of desperation – frequently argue the opposite, claiming that it is the West that systematically threatened Russia, forcing the country into a terrible predicament and that Moscow is simply defending itself – although they obviously condemn the invasion. At least the old Cold War-era narrative was once more ringing true: the guilty parties are in the West; Ukraine, a country desperately trying to defend itself militarily, is merely a pawn in a proxy war – or so they claim.

Yet were they to accept that – following the dissolution of the former Soviet Republics – Russia has absolutely no right to invade its neighbour – certainly none of the existing arguments for doing so hold any water – they might look back at the words of Rosa Luxemburg. In her writings, she outlined a clear stance concerning three issues that are key to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine: annexation, separatism and national minorities.

She gave more detailed arguments on these subjects in her article on how national minorities should be treated, a work that is relatively well known and, moreover, quite often read. But she is unequivocal in her condemnation of annexation and separatism: Luxemburg decisively rejected the unilateral acquisition of foreign territory by another nation through the use of political or military force, deploring such actions as risking war and the dangerous escalation of existing tensions between neighbouring countries. She also strongly condemned national or ethnic minority groups’ efforts to break free from their federations, insisting on their right to national self-determination; Luxemburg believed they should take a different path. For instance, she opposed the campaign within the Polish labour movement for the separation of Poland’s divided territories from their ruling governments in order to re-establish an independent Poland, which was supposedly necessary in order to pave the way for a socialist state. Luxemburg thought that, given the circumstances, the Polish workers should first aim to cooperate closely with the labour movements in each of the three ruling states: the Russian movement in the Russian Empire, the social democrats in the German Empire and the Austrian social democrats in Austria. A good example is her dogged fight against Polish socialists within the German SPD who wanted to make policy demands, even going so far as to suggest the secession of former Polish territory in Prussia. This was condemned within the SPD – in no small part due to Luxemburg’s influence – as separatism.

Luxemburg considered annexation and separatism to always be factors that could heighten the risk of conflict or even lead to the outbreak of a major European war between hostile powers. The incorporation of Alsace-Lorraine into the newly formed German Empire in 1871 and Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908 were cases in point, resulting in complex shifts and lighting the fuse that ultimately set the entire continent ablaze.

It is no coincidence that Rosa Luxemburg devoted the entire first section of her profound article The National Question and Autonomy (1908/09) to the people’s supposed right to self-determination. She firmly warned against the careless assumption that such actions could resolve contentious or unsettled issues of nationality if the groups in question were granted the fundamental right to separate from the federation to which they belonged. Instead, she used this piece to build her argument for the robust protection of minorities, which she generally considered to be an integral part of political freedom. This would mean ensuring legal protection of the national language, e.g. in education and justice systems, the legal right to foster and preserve national cultures and traditions, and, finally, the expansion of political self-governing bodies in certain regions and territories up to and including autonomy for certain closed settlement regions where one nationality makes up a clear majority, but without allowing unilateral secession from the governing state.

In these sections of text, it soon becomes clear that the author harbours a deep-rooted fear, arising from personal experience, that the unilateral calls for change to existing borders could dangerously exacerbate existing conflicts, making de-escalation extremely challenging and invariably leading to armed clashes or even all-out war. Voices calling for independence from existing federal control that are quick to refer to, and invoke, a right to self-determination are systematically repudiated; rather, the struggle for the protection and rights of national minorities – up to and including arrangements for some level of autonomy – is seen as part of the wider struggle to achieve complete political freedom. As Rosa Luxemburg repeats throughout her article, existing national borders must remain; solutions for controversial issues could be found when the time came to build a socialist society, a period that Luxemburg believed would see nation states and their national borders rejected on a global scale.

However, there is, at times, some confusion. Luxemburg fleetingly made some comments on the (at the time, violent) independence movement in Ukraine in her manuscript on the Russian Revolution written during her imprisonment in the late summer of 1918. Unsurprisingly, these remarks follow the same logic that she applied to separatism in general. Without delving too deeply into history (a large area of what is now Ukraine was, at the time, not part of the Russian Empire), I shall just briefly mention that, even after the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg remained convinced that the national question in the lands that once belonged to the Russian Empire could only be addressed once complete political freedom had been achieved across the entire nation. The Kremlin’s virulent attacks against Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state can though be seen in a completely different light, given that the mutually agreed separation of the two states took place more than three decades ago. Here Rosa Luxemburg’s stance thus clearly plagues an aggressor that insists on annexation and separatism.

Image: Muago — CC1.0 Wikimedia commons