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The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, A New Hearing.

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The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. Edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza. Verso. 2011.

“Rosa Luxemburg deserves a new hearing in light of the complex problems facing efforts at social transformation today.” Peter Hudis signals that this collection of 230 letters is a “companion volume” to Luxemburg’s Complete Works. This will include many texts previously unavailable in English. Why is this the first to go to press? To appreciate Luxemburg fully, we need, Hudis states, to “get to know her way of seeing the world”. This is not possible “if one lacks access to what is found in her correspondence.”

Rosa Luxemburg had not only an exceptional life as a cosmopolitan Polish Jew who made original contributions to Marxist theory. She was at the eye of the storms that swept early 20the century socialism. A figure of weight in the battles over ‘revisionism’ inside the German SPD (German Social Democrats), the powerhouse of the European left, she kept close to the Polish socialist movement. Luxemburg’s commentaries on disputes within the RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Labour Party) remain key documents. Participating in the Socialist International Luxemburg had a unique worldwide viewpoint, which influenced her studies of global capitalism. A staunch opponent of militarism and the Great War she broke with the SPD when it took a patriotic line. Her calls for active resistance to the war landed her 3 years and 4 months in gaol.

After leaving the SPD Luxemburg joined with a range of socialist dissidents in the Independent Socialist Party (USPD). In 1918, free, she threw herself into the Spartakus-led uprisings, despite strong reservations about the isolation of the radical workers’ council movement. While criticising the Soviet Union’s anti-democratic course she was a founder member of the German Communist Party (KPD) inspired by the Russian Revolution. Moments of ‘dual power’ in the country were followed by a savage repression endorsed by the right-wing of the SPD. On January the 11th 1919 Rosa wrote of “light and shade”, of a “fresh new generation” sometimes “half-baked”, with a “one-dimensional radicalism”. Yet the “movement is developing splendidly”.

On the 15th she, with Karl Leibknecht, were murdered at the hands of a military death squad, tacitly covered by social democrat Ministers in the new republican government. The young Communist Party declared, “Between the Social Democrats and the German Communists lies the blood of Luxemburg and Leibknecht.”

A Many-Sided Individual.

Annelies Laschitza outlines the complex background to the present edition of Luxemburg’s letters. Apart from disputes over publication rights, Luxemburg’s legacy was disputed from her death onwards. Stalin, inevitably, charged her with errors. German Communists, reluctant to lose a martyr of the revolution, treated her a “bloodless, petrified icon”. Brought together now, after different editions, the letters remain incomplete. It is certain that many of her mails were scattered and lost (or destroyed); some may remain undiscovered or lie unrevealled.

The present book is deeply personal. It shows a “many–sided individual.” That is someone whose “inner musical and lyrical quality was always inseparable from her ethical and political engagement as a public figure”. As Laschitza indicates, Luxemburg’s letters blend together different aspects of her life. They are not winnowed out for their political relevance, nor do they contain, as the Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence does, passages that explore in depth her theoretical investigations. The politics of early 20th century socialism are part of her being; her private existence echoes their effects, rather than being submerged.

Politics are still to the fore. Luxemburg’s letters to her lovers, Leo Jogiches, Konstantin (Koysta) Zetkin, her close friends, Lusie and Karl Kautsky, and her prison correspondents, range across the landscape of European socialism. They remind us of how far Kautsky’s claim that there was a ‘fusion’ between the workers’ movement and socialism reflected a reality, largely in the Germany speaking sphere. Rosa decided to operate on the Berlin the “larger more universal stage” than her Polish homeland. The great splits over reform and revolution, the role of mass strikes in the wake of 1905 Russian uprising, and wrangles over Possibilism and Opportunism in the Socialist International did not disturb an impression of a steady forward march.

There are many passionate political moments in these pages. The Great War created an emotional blood-bath in the international socialist movement. To Karl Moor Luxemburg wrote that the party is separating into “elements actually belonging to the bourgeois camp, who at best would constitute a reformist workers party subservient to the military, with a strong nationalist streak” and “the elements who do not want to abandon the core principles of revolutionary class struggle and internationalism.” Her comrades have to “oppose the backward flow of the stream”. (October the 12th 1914). The future held out, as she would publicly say, the alternatives of Socialism or Barbarism. In these conditions, the political appeared to overwhelm the personal.

But this is only one side of Rosa Luxemburg. She had a rich inner life Far from the ironic and enraged aesthetic of Tristan Tzara’s contemporary Dadaism they shine with a pre-Raphaelite delight in Nature. In her letters from the gaols of Wronke and Breslau there is keen interest in Mimi the cat, the changing sky, birds, flowers, trees and plants (not always easy to identify in an American translation). Often this playful and exalted feeling melds with the political. In 1917, she asks if Luise Kautsky realises that in the Russian Revolution, “World History in person is fighting her battles there and dancing the carmagnole drunk with joy?” (April the 15th).

“Only one thing torments me: that I shouldn’t be enjoying so much beauty all by myself..” Rosa writes to Hans Diefenbach, another lover, on July the 6th 1917. While one can take pleasure in these letters all by themselves, they are only really brought to life by knowledge of these, the others in her existence. Rosa Luxemburg’s wider biography is called for her, a companion to this companion. Elizabieta Ettinger’s Rosa Luxemburg: a Life (1988) is politically often shallow*. But, in the absence of another English language guide, it is indispensable for anyone looking for the human beings she addressed, and their place in her life. Talking about the Prison Correspondence Ettinger says, “Each of her correspondents knew a different Rosa Luxemburg”. “Chameleonlike, Luxemburg adjusted herself to the needs and expectations of others. Each of them was assigned a certain role in her drama, and each was a lifeline.” It would not be trivial to point out that many people in her position would spend little time on the needs of others, and that it was heartfelt and entirely reasonable protests against a real tragedy that landed Rosa locked away.

The role of Luxemburg’s friends and comrades cannot be ignored. Luxemburg’s most enduring relationship was with Leo Jogiches (murdered by the German Police, in 1918, as he sought to bring the circumstances of her killing to light). Jogiches was a player in both Polish and Russian social democracy, separate groups but each under the Tsarist crown until 1918. Her companion was in permanent disagreement with Lenin. This is hard to drive from one’s mind. A letter from October1913 says that Lenin’s group has “for years in Russia has systematically sought to split the workers’ party and recklessly engaged in faction fighting. Which has formed a fictitious ‘central committee’ not recognised by anyone..”. Jogiche’s party, the Polish, SDKPiL (Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania) was also critical of Lenin’s opponents, from the Mensheviks to ‘opportunists’ and ‘liquidators’. They were attempting to steer their own political course. The Letters make sense only in this context, and set alongside views expressed in her articles on Russian social democracy’s pre-Great War divisions, as well as the famous text, The Russian Revolution (1918). It is impossible, since none of Jogiches’ own letters survive, to say how far Luxemburg’ opinions tally with his, or are dependent on his information. But agreement is, to say the least, extremely probable. **

Rosa’s Legacy.

A German poem after the Fall of the Wall had a line, ‘Rosa Luxemburg, Vergessen, Vergessen, Vergessen.”(forget..) For some on the left this suggestion festered like a wound. It seemed true that all might be lost as the ruins of Stalinism fell over the whole left. Yet, after the Charnel Houses of the 20th century, in The Letters, this melodious voice speaks to us clearly and profoundly. Luxemburg, with her politics of freedom and socialism, remains unforgettable.

The memory of Rosa Luxemburg has dimmed before, and then been re-discovered. While the German left never lost its affection, elsewhere the link with her political tradition was weakened by Stalin’s disdain. Yet solid biographies by the anti-Stalinist Paul Frölich (translated in 1940)) and JP Nettel (1966) had an impact. Left socialist publication of some of her key texts kept her memory alive amongst the non-orthodox Left in many countries. By the late sixties Luxemburg’s ‘spontaneism’ influenced criticism of repressive Official Communism and sclerotic social democratic parties. Frölich says, she “valued the creative forces of the masses to a extraordinary high degree…” Luxemburg’s more detailed analysis of the early ‘revisionist’ Eduard Bernstein, struck a chord, as the non-Communist socialist movement seemed to be wasting away into harmless Parliamentary parties, stuck a chord. Dick Howard, in 1971, observed that on the New Left, “the name of Rosa Luxemburg is more and more frequently mentioned”. ***

The New Left dispersed, and some of these themes were again buried. But Luxemburg’s 1905 critique of Lenin’s organisational principles, famously expounded in What is to Be Done? (1904) assailed rule by “his majesty the central committee”. Its criticism of Bolshevik ‘ultra-centralism’ continues to circulate widely. Luxemburg’s 1918 defence of the “social kernel” of democratic revolutionary socialism against the Bolsheviks’ suppression of political freedom and its use of red terror has won her an enduring audience. ‘Luxemburgism’, originally a Stalinist insult, has come to mean supporting mass spontaneous struggles that break the carapace of bureaucracy, orthodox Communism and social democratic. Her support of the right to differ has sounded down the years.

In the last decade David Harvey has developed insights from her The Accumulation of Capital (1913). That is on the way capitalism must mobilise “world labour power” and expands “with complete access to all territories and climes.” This has been extended, controversially, to explain how capitalism has turned inwards, eating up public services, and shaping the Market State. As yet nobody has found a way of translating spontaneous resistance to this process into a revolutionary challenge to capitalism.

“Le Mort sasit le vif.” The dead lays holds of the living. Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1915 to Marx’s biographer, Franz Mehring. Her prescient observations on globalisation, her precious love of freedom, and her fineness of spirit continue to grip us. Perhaps Luxemburg’s political ideas should also come again to the fore. We await further volumes of her writings to make this case.


* Ettinger is cited in The Letters for her publication of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters to Leo Jogiches in 1977 and for criticising those who engage in “mythologising” her. Laschitza says this is less of a problem than demonising Rosa.

** Selected Political and Literary Writings. Rosa Luxemburg. Revolutionary History. Vol. 10. No 1. 2009.

*Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg. Monthly Review Press. 1971.


Written by Andrew Coates

June 17, 2011 at 11:34 am

3 Responses

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  1. A most attractive person. A beacon in the storm. With hindsight I think Tony Cliff became less interesting when he ditched Luxemburg for his own version of Lenin.

    Jim Monaghan

    June 17, 2011 at 2:49 pm

  2. I was thinking this Jim when I followed through a link to Cliff on Rosa suggested in Revolutionary History:


    Andrew Coates

    June 17, 2011 at 3:58 pm

  3. I recently read the LRB piece and it is well worth a read, Leo Jogiches to my mind was a very important figure in Eastern European socialism pre 1918, and without his influence I wonder if Rosa would have risen to such heights. Yet he had been all but airbrushed from history and is only mentioned due to his relationship with Rosa.

    A great comrade and internationalist who truly believed the main enemy is at home

    Organized Rage

    June 17, 2011 at 4:43 pm

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