Rosa Luxemburg: fiery, sharp, funny, sometimes sad

Submitted by Matthew on 14 September, 2011 - 12:22

Rosie Woods reviews The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, published in March 2011 by Verso Books.

Many women on the left have their own heroines, women from the past who have inspired them. Sylvia Pankhurst, Clara Zetkin, Minnie Lansbury... Mine has always been Rosa Luxemburg. The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg showed me her personal side.

Here are letters written to a variety of friends, lovers and comrades, dating from 1891 until 1919, the last written just four days before her murder by the Freikorps (German far right paramilitaries). They are an interesting and at times very moving insight into her life.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in Poland in 1871, but by the age of 18 she had fled her native country to avoid imprisonment for her political activities. While studying in Zurich she met many like minded socialists and with some, including her long term lover, Leo Jogiches, set up the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). She later became predominantly active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). She was a tenacious and bold woman who was uncompromising in her politics, taking a stand against the growing reformism in the German movement, remaining until the end of her life deeply committed to class-struggle socialism.

What I was not expecting in these letters is the focus on her personal relationships, especially that with Leo Jogiches, nor the deeply emotional form of her writing, in which very business-like letters dealing with party business are interspersed with intimate love letters.

The business letters show how much laborious work went into the editing and production of the various newspapers Rosa was involved with, not to mention the numerous pamphlets and longer works. At the time so much had to be communicated and organised by letter, articles sent back and forth, edits and re-edits seen through to the end.

Rosa’s frustrations with these arrangements show through from time to time as she chides Leo Jogiches for the corrections he has sent to some of her work: “of course what I am referring to here [are the] thousands of other little gnats and fleas, which under the microscope of your literary pedantry grow to the size of elephants.” Turns of phrase such as this come naturally to Luxemburg and make her letters compelling and interesting to read.

Rosa suffers acutely from her separation from Jogiches whom she addresses by all manner of pet names. She writes very eloquently and honestly about her feelings and anxieties about the relationship; so much so that it feels quite intrusive to be reading her words, which were surely intended to be private.

It is clear that Rosa Luxemburg was at times a very unhappy person; she felt the weight of her political work and at times writes of a desire to “just live” free from it all.

Prior to the great revolutionary upheavals of 1905 there is a despondency and sense of depression in her writing and a great desire for the hard work and activity of her comrades to be meaningful and yield results.

In 1898 Rosa joins the German SPD, and almost immediately throws herself into the political fight against Eduard Bernstein, who is leading a revisionist revolt within the party, trying to turn it into a moderate, reformist direction. Rosa produces one of her most important works, Reform or Revolution.

As her involvement in German politics intensifies the tone of her letters changes somewhat. She is fired by political struggle, and in her letters to comrades and friends she is thinking all the time about the next steps and what is important to the movement.

Around 1905, as Rosa writes about the unfolding of events in Russia’s revolution, she talks about the role of the general strikes; their limitations and what else is needed. There is an inspiring sense of excitement in her words. She is engaged in a frenzy of daily activity, speaking to mass meetings, producing banned socialist papers, as well as continuing to debate.

Something that is striking throughout is Rosa Luxemburg’s character. She is not the sort of person to accept an easy answer, to raise an easy slogan, or to change her position under pressure. Nothing is easy. She still frequently talks about her struggles with anxiety, loneliness and physical illness.

In 1913 she writes to Franz Mehring of her concern that the “parliamentary group in the Reichstag, all are becoming more and more petty, cowardly, and caught up in the parliamentary cretinism”. In only a short time those against whom she has warned will throw the weight of the German SPD behind the German war effort, an act which both threw Rosa into turmoil and spurred her and others on to break from the SPD and form the Spartacus League.

Most of the letters during the war are from prison, where she continues to read and study. It is from there that she hears about the Russian Revolution in 1917. Reading the personal letters she wrote at that time, it is clear that for all her cautions and later criticisms of the developments in Russia she welcomes the revolution. She is both scathing and funny in her denunciation of leading SPD member Karl Kautsky, who opposed it on the basis of “statistical analysis” of Russia’s ripeness for revolution.

Rosa’s final letter is to Clara Zetkin, her close comrade and personal friend. It is written in the midst of the “Spartacist uprising” in January 1919 where Rosa is centrally involved despite her own view that the whole thing is botched and a blunder. Here she is invigorated by the course of events and intensity of the struggle. She writes “One must take history as it comes, whatever course it takes... At this moment in Berlin the battles are continuing. Many of our brave lads have fallen”. Four days later she was dead.

This collection of letters allows us to see the more intimate side of Rosa’s life, her vulnerabilities and her formidable strength and drive. The letters also capture the day-to-day hard work, risk and sacrifice that were a reality for her and revolutionaries like her. I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to know more about this inspiring woman.