International Rosa Luxemburg Conference 2015: Socialism in Asia and Europe

International Rosa Luxemburg Society; Institute for East Asian Studies, SungKongHoe University; Institute for Social Sciences, Gyeongsong National University, sponsored by National Research Foundation, Korea
27.11.2015 - 28.11.2015
Daniel Palmieri, Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS), University of Bremen & Jacobs University Bremen

The 18th summit of the International Rosa Luxemburg Conference at Seoul addressed trajectories of socialist practice and thought, and included otherwise rarely discussed interpretations of socialist ideas from China, Korea, and Japan. Throughout the last 25 years, the International Rosa Luxemburg Society has grown into a global network of scholars interested in the study and discussion of ideas for an alternative society, whose work centers on writings of the German socialist leader at the turn of centuries, Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919). The conference with the title “Socialism in Europe and Asia” reflected the nation-border transcending aim of socialist thought by Luxemburg, as origins of scholars and discussions reached far beyond the common academic Western hemisphere. Including Asian perspectives particularly helped to remind participants that socialism is not an exclusively historical topic, but remains influential for large parts of the world population living in Asia today. It also reflected an still on-going interest in visions for alternative societies, and how contemporary ideas can still refer back to Rosa Luxemburg as both a socialist thinker and revolutionary activist.

The first panel discussed the “Appropriation of Rosa Luxemburg in Asia”, highlighting Luxemburg's popularity among intellectuals particularly in China and Asia today as well as during the 1980s. XIONG MIN (Zhongnan University) outlined the perception of Luxemburg's writings within China. She showed how Lenin’s theories had overshadowed Luxemburg's writings in the tumorous 1920s first. By then she was rather appreciated as an activist on the streets than as a revolutionary thinker, leading to little impact of her ideas in China at her time. Not until the 1980s, when liberalization and economic integration into the world market increased, also Luxemburg's discussion of such sensitive issues like democracy and imperialism were of closer interest for scholarship in China. This would indicate how the popularity of Luxemburg's thought would relate to times of reorientation and open critique within China.[1] Her claim is supported by CHANG DI-BOK (Mokpo National University), dwelling into Korea's perception of Rosa Luxemburg. In Korea, Luxemburg was first read as a theoretical underpinning for anti-imperialistic sentiment during the occupation by Japan (1920s-1945). Together with other Marxist authors she was then condemned after the Korean War, and only again attracted interest during the formation of the workers movement in the 1980s. Particularly her depiction on democracy served with arguments to oppose the then military dictatorship in South-Korea, which then fell in June 1987.

Besides her critical reflections on Leninist styled socialist parties, Luxemburg today also serves as an economical thinker for the South East Asian region. Following Luxemburg's claim of an expanding capital due to lowering revenue and eventual crisis in the domain, KIM EO-JIN (Gyeongsang University) uses Luxemburg’s writings to criticize economic exploitation in South East Asia by China, Japan and South Korea. This would also mean that China already turned from being exploited by Western capital during the 20th Century to an exploitive actor of the 21st century. Luxemburg is thus of interest for Asian scholars as political as well as economic thinker. But it was particularly during the 1980s, when her writings were appreciated throughout the eventful times of reform in Korea and China respectively.

Throughout the second panel the presenters focused on Rosa Luxemburg's thoughts on the agitation of the masses. LEE GAB-YOEONG (Incheon University) hereby stressed the role of agency, which, according to Luxemburg, would be needed to lead a revolution. Though Luxemburg would be a classical socialist in the sense that she believed in a historical progress working its way towards revolution, she also claimed that in the end, history was still made by humans. In particular, enlightened masses were to support the universal class of the proletariat to path the way to a socialist society. The presentation argued, however, that under the contemporary global condition, workers have been subject to disorganization and diversification to such a degree they can hardly be conceptualized as a homogeneous, enlightened mass seeking for revolution anymore. This, in turn, would be fatal for Luxemburg's socialist vision, as OTTOKAR LUBAN (International Rosa Luxemburg Society) pointed out in his contribution. For Luxemburg, the spontaneous, and creative force of the masses was crucial to realize socialism. Because socialism was such a challenging task, its realization would be in need of any creative input from the bottom-up. This implies also a critique of Leninist styled socialist parties, which, as in the case of China, undermine the creativity of the masses through centralization of power.[2] Without the enlightened masses challenging global capitalism, there is no revolutionary subject that could grant the passage to socialism. Thus, it might well be, as SOBHANDAL DATTA GUPTA (University of Calcutta) claimed that there is a relevance of Rosa Luxemburg for building an alternative socialism. But if Luxemburg's relevance is to go beyond her insightful and relevant critique of party-centralism and bureaucracy [3], the question on universal aims for a new, global left would need to be addressed. This would also imply to critically reflect on the Eurocentric loaded concepts used to analyse contemporary socialist parties and movements around the world as done still throughout this panel.

The third panel discussed “Socialism and Alternative Society Models” by depicting on two observations in Asia and Europe respectively. CHANG DAE-OUP (Sogang University) again took up on the issue of challenges for socialist agency under contemporary, globalized capitalism. In his presentation, he gave the popular and highly relevant topic of work-migration an interesting twist by turning the usually victimized migration workers into agents of subversive action. Their migration would not only be spatial, but also social, hence forming new fractions in otherwise enclosed social systems such as nation states or global cities like Hong Kong. With their claim to rights that otherwise were exclusive to citizens, migrant workers would create a new, un-bordered citizenship, with potential for radical political changes towards a more global understanding of citizen rights. The second talk turned the attention to an explicitly European “Third Way” communists in Portugal preceded during the second half of the 20th Century, and the lack of further agency for socialism in Europe today. JOÃO ARESÉNIO (University Institute of Lisbon) stressed the importance of alternative society models, as to hold in check imperialistic power and capitalist contradictions. Thus, the quick dissolution of the Portuguese communists under the lead of Álvaro Cunhal, and the adoption of the liberal model in the 1980's, would be a severe lost. It gave away alternatives to the still problematic post-socialist transition and regional integration of Central Eastern Europe. It left Cunhal with little but to project his hopes for a “Third Way” to contemporary South East Asia at his time, and the same could be said about contemporary socialists in Europe.

In the fourth panel DANIEL PALM (Bremen International Graduate School for Social Sciences) made a case for entangled history, and stressed the shared origins of party rule in East Germany and the PR of China, as both came into power as repercussions of the Second World Word War. Against their shared origins there is a serious difference due to the bottom -up nature of insurrection in China. This stands in contrast to the top down instalment of the party regime from Moscow in East Germany. He also showed how party leadership in China understood the signs of their time during the 80s, liberating the economy and integrating into the world market, while the GDR leadership remained reluctant to discuss much needed reforms. China's independence from Moscow and the Chinese capacity to transform the party into a vehicle for reform instead of a blockade as was the case in East Germany would help to understand the endurance of the Chinese Communist Party until today. YAO KYONG-SOON (Korea University) also problematized changes coming during the 1980's, but focusing on Korea. During her talk, she reconstructed origins and dynamics of the oppositional movement in Korea. Starting from a small number of labors, the movement among workers adopted Leninist organizational strategies, which, however, would have moderated any all too centralized rule. Though dissolving after 1991, the model of agitation used in Korea during the 1980s might still until today hold interest for the formation of a revolutionary worker movement. The 1980s were thus a decade of socialist reinvention, where the former socialist role model Moscow no longer held much promise for China nor South Korean movements, and lastly also not for the East German Communist Party.

Finally, the conference sought to bridge the discussions on socialist agency with contemporary socialism in China. The session “History and Reality of Contemporary Chinese Socialism” was entirely dedicated to the thoughts of the poet and writer CAO ZHENG-LU. His revision of the Cultural Revolution related back to Rosa Luxemburg on a theoretical level. Like Luxemburg, also Maoists would hold much hope with the agitation and activation of the masses, and particularly the Great Cultural Revolution would exemplify this optimism. According to Cao, it would give example to a shared feeling of empowerment, of being in charge. It would thus be a true democratic movement from below, putting the masses into power. It would be precisely such a feeling of empowerment that would be wanting in today's Chinese society. This thesis has then in the following been discussed among several commentators, mostly appreciative of his line of thought, yet not referring back to the Tiananmen protests nor addressing the various protest forms taking place in China today.

The conference provided a platform for a wide range of contributions, speaking on ideas of socialism in Europe - and more so in Asia. It thus took an angle on socialism seldom heard of in academia, where the bias towards Western ideas and history is until today dominant. The conference showed the prospects of a more inclusive approach to academia by trying to understand the past of socialist movements in Asia as well as their aspirations for alternative forms of socialism today. Most importantly, it granted access to Chinese perspectives on otherwise difficult to address issues like democracy and Sino-centered imperialism. The Rosa Luxemburg Conference managed to establish an exchange of ideas with Asia, instead of only talking about Asia from Western perspectives. In this aspect it certainly proved more open and sensible to differing perspectives than other comparable conferences of international sociology. One of the ways it could foster this asset would be to more systematically compare socialist experiences and visions around the world, as to reconstruct socialist ideas, perceptions, and actions during the 20th Century from a global perspective. This, then, could more clearly brighten up our understandings of those socialist trajectories that may still be of importance for the 21st Century.

[1] See also: Narihiko Ito / Theodor Bergmann / Stefan Hochstadt / Ottokar Luban (eds.), China entdeckt Rosa Luxemburg, Berlin 2007.
[2] See also: Ottokar Luban, Rosa Luxemburgs Demokratiekonzept, Leipzig 2008.
[3] Sobhandal Datta Gupta, Rosa Luxemburg, Bakharat 2015.

Part 1: Appropriation of Rosa Luxemburg in Asia
Xiong Min: Ninety Years of Ups and Downs: Review and Reflection of Research on Rosa Luxemburg in China
Chang Si-Bok: The Historical Acceptance of Rosa Luxemburg in Korea
Kim-Eo-Jin: Rosa Luxemburg's Imperialism Theory and Prospect of Anti-Imperialism Strategy in East Asia

Part II: From Capitalism to Socialism – Ideas of Rosa Luxemburg
Lee Gab-yoeong: Revolution and the Masses from the Perspective of Rosa Luxemburg
Ottokar Luban: Rosa Luxemburg's Ideas on the Process of Realizing a Socialist Society
Sobhandal Datta Gupta: The Relevance of Rosa Luxemburg for Building an Alternative Revolutionary Left Party in Today's World.”

Part III: Socialism and Alternative Society Models
Chang Dae-oup: Bordered Capitalism, Citizenship and Subversive Migration
Joao Arsénio: Álavaro Cunhal's Internationalism
Ha Tae-gyu: Marx's critique of Representative Democracy Gyeonsang University, Korea.

Part IV: Thought and Movement of Socialism in Asia
Daniel Palm: The Communist Parties in East Germany and China: Origins, Patterns, and Divergence
Yao Kyeong-soon: The Formation and Bifurcation of the Revolutionary Labor Movement in South Korea During the 1980's
Fuji Takeshi: How the (counter) Revolutionary Subjectivity is Formed: A Question of National Socialism

Part V: Round Table: History and Reality of Contemporary Chinese Socialism
Cao Zheng-lu: “A Lesson on Democracy' of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”
Discussants: Baek Seung-wook; Jang Young-seak; Lee Jeang-hoon (Sungkonghoe University)


Tagungsbericht: International Rosa Luxemburg Conference 2015: Socialism in Asia and Europe, 27.11.2015 – 28.11.2015 Seoul, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 04.03.2016, <>.
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