Rosa with Mimi

Edward Timms

  • Rosa Luxemburg: A Life by Elzbieta Ettinger
    Harrap, 286 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 245 54539 5

‘It is only by accident that I am whirling in the maelstrom of history,’ Rosa Luxemburg wrote from prison in September 1915; ‘actually I was born to tend geese.’ The subject of this absorbing biography is Luxemburg the goose-girl, the ‘hurt child’ who, according to Elzbieta Ettinger, lurked within the ‘famous revolutionary’. Drawing on previously unknown private letters, this book portrays Luxemburg as a socially insecure and emotionally vulnerable woman. The question left unresolved is how a person so frail and fallible could have become one of the most charismatic figures in the history of revolutionary Marxism.

The story begins with Rosa’s birth in 1870 at Zamosc in the depths of the Polish provinces, the youngest child of a struggling Jewish businessman. At the age of five she was treated for a tubercular hip, which left her with a marked limp for the rest of her life. The position of the Jewish community in the Russian-governed Kingdom of Poland was precarious; a pogrom which occurred in Warsaw in 1881, after the family had moved there, was a sinister sign of the times. Culturally, too, the situation was riven by conflict. Polish was the language spoken in the Luxemburg home, Yiddish the language of commerce, Russian the language of the state education system. With whom was Rosa to identify in her struggle to escape from a constricting environment? With Adam Mickiewicz, the idealistic poet of the Polish national revival? Or with illegal socialist groups which challenged nationalism in all its forms?

It was Rosa’s exceptional intelligence which enabled her to emerge from this milieu into the great world of European politics. Supported by a modest allowance from her family, she moved in 1889 to Switzerland, traditional haven for the radical Russian and Polish intelligentsia. In socially progressive Zurich she was able to take a wide range of university courses and obtain a doctorate summa cum laude with a dissertation on industrial development in Poland. It was in Zurich during the 1890s that she was drawn into the world of Marxist politics and made the most significant personal encounter of her life: with Leo Jogiches, a wealthy political exile from Lithuania. Leo became for her both ‘comrade’ and ‘lover’, providing tactical advice and financial support in the course of a seesaw relationship vividly recorded in Rosa’s letters.

Supported by Jogiches, Rosa was able to move to Berlin (an arranged marriage that was no more than a formality enabled her to acquire German citizenship). The publication in 1898 of her brilliant pamphlet ‘Social Reform or Revolution?’ established her almost overnight as one of the leading left-wing theorists of the German Social Democratic Party (SDP). It is at this point in the story that the limitations of Ettinger’s approach begin to emerge. She makes no attempt to assess the political merits of Luxemburg’s argument, assuming (in the words of the preface) that ‘such analyses are easily accessible’. Instead we are given an exceptionally detailed picture of the fluctuations in Rosa’s emotional life.

The great merit of the book is that Ettinger has immersed herself so deeply in Rosa’s correspondence – she edited the volume of Rosa’s letters to Leo Jogiches, Comrade and Lover (1979). She paints an illuminating picture of a relationship which had to remain clandestine, since Rosa was nominally a married woman: a scandal would have jeopardised not only her own reputation but also that of the SPD. Rosa dreamed of ‘living openly as man and wife’ and of a complete sharing of ‘love and work together’. Leo was a more austere revolutionary of the type described by Bakunin: ‘The revolutionary is a lost man. He has no feelings, no habits, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single passion – the revolution.’ Though united in their dedication to the socialist cause, Rosa and Leo seem to have been temperamentally incompatible. ‘It hurt me when you wrote only of business,’ Rosa characteristically complained: ‘not a single loving word.’ But despite recurrent tensions and intermittent estrangements, Rosa and Leo remained both emotionally and politically dependent on each other for almost thirty years. Jogiches emerges from this book as a rather impressive figure – the quintessential political conspirator worthy of a biography in his own right.

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