The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

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The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

The New Republic

Timothy Snyder

June 9, 2011

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
Edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza
Translated by George Shriver
(Verso, 609 pp., $39.95)

Once upon a time there lived a Jewish lady, of modest stature and of a certain age, who walked with a limp and liked to sing to the birds. Through the bars on her window she would treat the titmice to a Mozart aria, and then await their call, the transcription of which she wished, as she wrote to a friend, to be the only adornment on her grave. This lady spent much of her time between 1915 and 1918 writing magnificent letters to her many female friends, to distract them from the carnage of a war that she herself had opposed from the beginning. She also translated a long novel from Russian into German, from her fourth-best language into her second-best, or, as it happened, from the language of her first lover into that of her last.

She had been unhappy in love, but had always wanted to make a man happy, to “pull down a few stars to bestow on someone for use as cufflinks,” and to bear a child. When her young friend was killed on the Western Front, she grieved quietly and kept her head up. Though she sometimes mentioned in her letters the fate of comrades whose suffering was worse than hers, on battlefields or Siberian plains, she never complained of her own time in German prison. She had a sustaining faith in the common people, above all in the downtrodden Poles to whom she felt closest, but generally in the workers of Europe, who could be trusted to turn an unwanted war into a social revolution. When the war finally ended, she exploded onto the scene of a defeated and divided Germany, calling less radical socialists the pygmies and pimps of counterrevolution, only to be murdered by the real counter-revolutionaries of the German far right. Her grave bears not the call of the titmouse but her name, Rosa Luxemburg, and the date of her death, January 15, 1919.

Soon thereafter her friends and admirers began to collect and publish her private letters, a custom that continued throughout the century, first in German, then in Polish, and now in English. Her letters to her male lovers and female friends, which constitute the bulk of this edition as of some earlier ones, are meant to show that Rosa Luxemburg was not only a doctrinaire Marxist and a ruthless revolutionary but also a human being. During her lifetime she was known as the pitiless foe of dithering comrades, the Jewish-Polish bogey of the German bourgeoisie, the Red Rosa who wanted Europe aflame. She was, of course, all of those things, just as she was, of course, a woman with feelings.

The attempt to rescue her public reputation through the ritual unveiling of her private life, which has now continued for nearly ninety years, is based upon a surprisingly sentimental, not to say bourgeois, premise. Surely only a decadent liberal would accept the traditional distinction between public life and private life, and believe that what happens in private is somehow more authentic than what happens in public. It doesn’t take a very developed dialectical mind to notice that Luxemburg’s private and public lives were very much dependent upon each other, that they formed a coherent whole, a single person. In the Polish historical collections edited in the communist period by Feliks Tych, as in the sympathetic biography written by J.P. Nettl, this question was addressed by tactful references to the secretive socialist Leo Jogiches, who for much of Luxemburg’s life was her lover and political adviser. “What do you think about all this?” she would ask him. “Write immediately!” The bulk of the letters in the first half of this collection were written to him in Polish, and have been doubly translated, first to German, then to English. Jogiches wrote to her in Russian, and his missives, like those of other correspondents, are absent.

The underlying association between politics and love cannot be deduced from Luxemburg’s letters alone, even with the help of the accompanying apparatus. The introduction contrives not to mention her Jewish origins, and it vastly understates her Polish connections. The footnotes in this book are often uninformed, or polemical, or both at once. None of her opponents is taken at all seriously; they are “nationalists” or “opportunists” or the like. Though it is almost (but not quite!) bracing to be confronted again by the terms of abuse of the old Left, they do not really cast much light on Luxemburg’s life. Some fairly major historical figures are mentioned only as people who wrote articles about or against Luxemburg. Why should we want to know that Leon Wasilewski was a leading student of the national question, and later foreign minister of Poland, known for his toleration and decency, when we can know that he wrote a “slanderous” article about Luxemburg? When Luxemburg mentions some bit of gossip about an opponent, the reader is often left with that. Why should anyone know that Ignacy Daszyński was one of the more impressive of the socialist leaders of his and Luxemburg’s generation, when we can know that someone once said that his wife was pregnant when he married her? If this book were taken literally, the figure who emerges would be someone with a sadly tumultuous love life who happened to be right on every major question of her day and was unfortunately opposed by a series of misguided nonentities, whose lives and purposes can be understood through clichés and gossip. Precisely because of her significance, Luxemburg deserves a more thorough sort of inquiry than this.

Luxemburg was perhaps the leading activist and thinker of the left wing of the Second International, the association of socialist parties that met in international congresses between 1889 and 1914 and regarded itself as a shadow government of Europe. Despite the general acceptance of Marxism, and thus the widespread belief that changes in the modes of production were bringing political revolution, it was always a bit unclear how socialists meant to resolve the question of power. On the one hand, the Second International was rhetorically committed to an international proletarian revolution brought by history. On the other, it united active political parties, and so implicitly endorsed the various national political systems in which they functioned and sometimes thrived.

Indeed, the more comfortable socialist parties were with the status quo at home, the more influential they were in the International. French socialists, operating within a democratic republic, could afford to be concerned with questions such as the legitimacy of a socialist taking up a ministerial post. In Germany, the socialist party performed extremely well in parliamentary elections, though in an empire where parliament counted for very little. Thus German socialists, vaguely confident about the future, tended for the time being to build a kind of alternative civil society around labor unions and other organizations. Karl Kautsky, the leading German Marxist thinker of the day and the editor of the immensely influential Die Neue Zeit, was the master of revolutionary quietism. He maintained that a scientific Marxist understanding of society proved that the revolution was inevitable, but that Marxists could not know in advance just what form the revolution would take. Thus we might as well keep on as we have been, and not ask ourselves any very difficult questions.

It was the East Europeans, people such as Luxemburg, who tended to cause problems for the Second International. Their parties were illegal rather than embedded in political systems, and they themselves were often forced to work in emigration, tugging at the hearts and purse strings of French and German comrades. Since the Russian Empire was autocratic and possibilities for political action were close to nil, Russian, Polish, and Jewish socialists tended to take revolution seriously. Hounded by the Okhrana, the Russian imperial secret police, they tended to become masters of conspiracy themselves.

The Russian Empire was multinational, with large numbers of Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians in its western borderlands, and so socialists there all confronted, whether they wished to or not, the national question. Would the socialist revolution embrace the entire Russian Empire at once? Would it begin in its more industrialized regions, such as the great textile city Łódź, where there was certainly class tension but where the population was Polish, Jewish, and German (but not Russian)? Should socialists support national independence on principle, to weaken the Russian Empire, or not at all? Should they resist national fragmentation so that capitalist industrialization could take root in a continental economic zone and generate a large revolutionary proletariat? These were all questions that French and German socialists tended to find tiresome, because they were irrelevant to electoral competition in national political systems; but they were crucial to any revolutionary from the Russian Empire.

Luxemburg cut her teeth on the national question in the Russian Empire. She was born in 1871 in Zamość, a beautiful Renaissance town inhabited by Jews and Poles, ruled from Petersburg, with Ukrainians in the hinterland. Forced to abandon her studies in Warsaw after her associations with a socialist group were discovered, she emigrated to Zurich in 1889 and began a doctoral dissertation about Poland’s economic development. In her view, since the partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth century by Petersburg, Berlin, and Vienna, the part of the country attached to the Russian Empire had become organically connected to Russian markets. Thus its separation, she implied, would be inherently reactionary from a Marxist perspective, slowing economic growth and thus the development of the working class.

Yet the letters reveal that the argument about Polish independence was as much or more political, or even personal, than it was economic and ideological. In Zurich, Luxemburg met Jogiches, who agreed with her that national self determination was a reactionary distraction from the revolutionary cause. Their opponents were a rival group of Polish student socialists in Paris, who represented the Polish Socialist Party. They took the opposite view: that Polish national independence was progressive, since it would create the precondition for a functioning democratic republic and thus for socialism. Their intellectual leader, Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, also had a Marxist argument, which led to a very different conclusion than Luxemburg’s.

Industrialization, Kelles-Krauz maintained, created not only social classes but also nations. As people who spoke the same language were uprooted from the countryside and found themselves in the strange and alienating factory town, they would cling to each other and to their language, and come to see themselves as belonging to a national group. Regardless of whether or not a given nation had a recognized tradition of statehood, the forces of modernization would inevitably bring about national consciousness, and with it the tendencies to consolidate a national narrative around social history and to form a literary language from a spoken one. Thus in Eastern Europe rising Polish national awareness would inevitably be accompanied by Ukrainian, Jewish, and other national movements. Zionism was the crucial case for Kelles-Krauz, since his argument was that national politics depended neither on the possession of territory nor the tradition of statehood, but rather on modernity and folk language. He predicted a Jewish nationalism based around Yiddish.

The stakes in this dispute, though carried out between graduate students with unfinished dissertations, were high. Polish socialists such as Luxemburg and Kelles-Krauz were condemned to seek the political (and financial) support of the French and German parties. French socialists in the middle of the 1890s were confused by the issue of Polish independence, and this Polish dispute, largely conducted in French by both Luxemburg and Kelles-Krauz, was really about them. French socialists liked to think of themselves as full of solidarity for oppressed nations such as Poland—but the French Republic was a military ally of the Russian Empire. Like the entire French political class, socialists were terrified of the German armies that had defeated France in 1870. The alliance with autocratic Russia, though perhaps ideologically distasteful, seemed to guarantee the security of France—and thus, French socialists reasoned, the sustenance of the Republic, the future of socialism, human liberation generally, and so on.

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