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.

Ettinger also charts Rosa’s more transient love affairs: with Costia, the son of her SPD colleague Clara Zetkin, an idealistic young man 15 years her junior; with Peter Levi, her defence counsel in a spectacular political trial – they had a brief and intense affair in 1914; and Hans Diefenbach, the doctor with whom she conducted her ‘last romantic affair’ in her letters from prison. Newly discovered letters enable Ettinger to correct some of the misconceptions about Rosa’s emotional life which crept into the otherwise exemplary biography by J.P. Nettl (1966), although even she cannot confidently identify the mysterious ‘W.’ with whom Rosa had an affair in 1905. But she shows that Rosa’s life was also enriched by a number of affectionate relationships with women, most of them members of the socialist movement like Luise Kautsky and Sonja Liebknecht.

These emotional encounters are brought to life through copious quotations from Rosa’s correspondence. The picture they give is of a woman both passionate and insecure. There are moments of melodrama, with the insanely jealous Leo pursuing her through the streets of Berlin with a pistol. The overall impression is of a woman who was all too human, who suffered from overwork, stress, depression and sleeplessness and, like other women, had to put up with headaches and menstrual pains, and agonised over whether it was possible to combine the desire to have children with the demands of her career. Above all, we are shown a person who longed for bourgeois domesticity. She was delighted when at last she had an apartment of her own, took great pains over the choice of clothes and furniture, enjoyed dinner parties, had problems with domestic servants, and was happiest when curled up at home with Mimi, her cat. However revolutionary her politics, Ettinger observes, ‘her personal values remained traditional’; and she was never able to resolve her frustrated craving for a child.

All this is very salutary as an antidote to the myth of the heroic revolutionary. Too often, as Ettinger reminds us, Luxemburg has been seen as a ‘spiritual giant, immune to personal tribulations and anxieties’. These more intimate letters ‘reveal the real person – plagued with doubts about herself, about her lover, about life’. The problem with this approach is that it so easily veers towards the opposite extreme. The aspirations of a political leader are reduced to the terms of personal insecurity and emotional frustration, with Ettinger insisting that the fears and dreams of the famous revolutionary remained those of ‘the hurt child and the desperate adolescent’. ‘It was Zamosc and Warsaw, not Zurich or Berlin as commonly believed, that shaped her,’ we are told. ‘At 19 Rosa was fully developed intellectually and emotionally.’

There are two dangers in this kind of psychologising. The first temptation is for the biographer to claim a privileged insight into character and motivation which is actually unattainable. ‘It is not difficult to imagine what was going on in Rosa’s mind,’ Ettinger writes in an early section dealing with the Warsaw pogrom of 1881. Such formulations cross the line which divides scholarly reconstruction from imaginative fiction. It is certainly conceivable that ‘the pogrom left Rosa with a permanent scar.’ But in the absence of supporting evidence one should be wary of such categorical assertions. Unfortunately, Ettinger takes the fact that Luxemburg did not subsequently make any significant reference to that pogrom, and indeed attached no importance to her Jewish origins, as proof that she was haunted by a specifically Jewish sense of insecurity. But if Luxemburg had been so deeply scarred by that childhood trauma, she would scarcely have had the courage to return to Warsaw to help lead the revolution in 1905, at the risk of imprisonment and the firing-squad.

Empathy, as Bernard Crick pointed out in his biography of George Orwell, is no substitute for evidence. The assumption that one can enter so completely into another person’s mind may endow a scholarly biography with the undertones of a romantic novelette: ‘The fear that she had destroyed Jogiches haunted her; could she have broken that man, so strong, so invincible? It was like a bad dream. Somehow she would get him back.’ More seriously still, it leads to a depoliticisation of the subject, as public attitudes are presented as a sublimation of private insecurities: ‘Lonely and sick at heart, she ... sought in humanity the wholeness and security that her parental home and her lovers had failed to give her.’

Social injustice does not figure in this scheme as a motive for political action. The emphasis on personal emotion and on the lure of domesticity implies that Luxemburg herself was not immune to that embourgeoisement which was so characteristic of the SPD leadership. Debates with Leo about social propriety were ‘no less spirited’ (we are told) than their discussions of the Prussian military budget. ‘Here in Germany,’ Rosa writes in a letter, ‘radishes are served with cheese after dinner.’ So persistent is Ettinger’s emphasis on personal matters that political commitments fade into the background. Even the chapters dealing with Luxemburg’s imprisonment focus primarily on what it felt like in her solitary cell: did she miss her cat, long for her friends, dream of her lovers? Sometimes we are in danger of forgetting that these events had wider implications.

Luxemburg was held in prison for almost three and a half years between 1914 and 1918. She was imprisoned because – almost alone among the leadership of the SPD – she was absolutely committed to the campaign against militarism. Although Ettinger devotes one chapter to this ‘War on War’, she understates its significance. The ‘War on War’ was not merely a feature of the crisis years 1913-14, but dates back to 1898, when Luxemburg (in a prophetic section of ‘Social Reform or Revolution’) identified militarism as a ‘driving force of capitalist development’ and as ‘the capitalist disease’. She repeatedly returned to this theme, notably in 1907 at the Stuttgart congress of the Socialist International: ‘Wars between capitalist states are the result of their rivalry for world markets. The never-ending armament race of militarism is one of the chief implements of bourgeois class-rule.’

Such sentiments were shared by other members of the Socialist International, but Rosa Luxemburg was exceptional in that she never wavered in her campaign and was ready to go to prison for her beliefs. In February 1914 she was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment for arguing, in a major political speech, that the German people should not let themselves be ‘dragged helplessly into a war’. ‘If they think we are going to lift the weapons of murder against our French and other brethren,’ she is reported to have said, ‘then we shall shout: “We will not do it.” ’ In this context, Luxemburg’s celebrated theory of the ‘Mass Strike’ must be understood as a strategy for paralysing the state at the moment of declaration of war. The SPD leadership lacked both her courage and her convictions: six months after applauding the diatribe against militarism which she delivered during her trial, they voted unanimously in the Reichstag in support of war credits. And while anti-militarists like Luxemburg (and later Karl Liebknecht) languished in jail, the majority of the SPD continued to support the Kaiser’s war until the autumn of 1918.

Even in prison Luxemburg continued her crusade. Her pamphlet ‘The Crisis of Social Democracy’, written during her first spell of imprisonment and published in Switzerland in 1916, is a passionate attack on war itself, not only on the failures of her own party. She summed up the fundamental duplicity of institutionalised Marxism in the caustic phrase: ‘Workers of the world unite – in peacetime; but in war – slit one another’s throats!’ Her indictment of war is, however, still framed by the Marxist conception of competitive capitalism as the motor of military imperialism.

From the perspective of the late 1980s, this insistence on capitalism as the cause of conflict may seem to have an antiquated air. But Luxemburg’s view of war as the outcome of intensified competition between military-industrial systems still has applications for the rivalry between Soviet state capitalism and the corporate capitalism of the West. Now, as then, the amount invested in military projects can be seen as grossly disproportionate to the needs of national security. This does not merely apply to the United States and the Soviet Union, each of which is currently estimated to devote over 25 per cent of its gross domestic product to military projects. Nominally allied countries like Britain and France compete even more fiercely to sell armaments in the Third World. Selling arms abroad is seen as the key to export-led industrial prosperity. In this sense, as Luxemburg argued in 1898, militarism remains one of the driving forces of capitalist economic development.

Luxemburg’s critique of war had both a political and an ethical basis. Her respect for the sanctity of individual life was as strong as her hatred for the collective power of the state. It is at this point, perhaps, that we approach the secret of her double life, as sensitive woman and militant agitator. Her public life was not some kind of compensation for personal disillusionment. On the contrary, her irrepressible capacity for love in the personal sense seems to have been the source of her political vision, of her ability to envisage a community based on co-operation and affection, not on exploitation and conflict. Her conception of socialism was thus the exact opposite of Lenin’s and she clashed with him on numerous occasions. Where he espoused armed insurrection led by professional revolutionaries and an authoritarian Communist Party, she saw a revolution in which the masses would seize power by sheer weight of numbers. Her critique of Leninism, from the early pamphlet ‘Leninism or Marxism?’ (1904) through to her posthumously published critique of ‘The Russian Revolution’, is sustained by the same militant humanism as her denunciations of war.

By contrast with Lenin, Luxemburg was an incorrigible idealist – in both senses of the word. Her Marxism was inspired by ethical ideals, and she believed that ideas can change society. We should not be misled by the frequent references in her writings to economic determinants and objective historical forces. ‘I am and want to remain an idealist,’ she insisted in a letter to Leo early in her career. The central concept in her political theory is ‘consciousness’. Long before Lukacs she identified class-consciousness as the key to the political future. On this concept hinges the fundamental alternative which she defined in 1898: ‘Social Reform or Revolution?’ Since Luxemburg is often identified with a facile notion of ‘spontaneous revolution’, it must be emphasised that this process involved a strenuous programme of political education. Her whole life was devoted to consciousness-raising, and she was a tireless pedagogue. She was one of the most charismatic public speakers in the SPD (in 1903 she gave 12 speeches in a period of 14 days, addressing audiences of over a thousand for up to two hours). And she seems to have been most fully alive pen in hand, composing the next letter, lecture or political article.

The concept which establishes the continuity of Luxemburg’s career is the born teacher, not the hurt child. Her facility for assimilating knowledge is reflected in her outstanding grades both at school in Warsaw and at university in Zurich. And when she became a lecturer at the SPD Party School in Berlin, her courses were truly inspirational. Classes on political theory or the accumulation of capital were enlivened by vignettes drawn from Shakespeare, Goethe or Tolstoy. She took an interest in each of her students and was willing to carry on individual tuition after hours. Consciousness-raising was something she practised in every sphere of life, not just in her political work. She was always trying to improve people, not least herself: ‘I promise myself,’ she wrote from prison, ‘to live life to its fullest as soon as I’m free.’ Her letters to friends and lovers abound in such exhortations.

It is this capacity for enhanced experience which gives her letters, particularly those written from prison, their incandescent quality. Immured in the fortress at Wronke in 1916, she saw it as her task to write cheer-up letters to friends who were free. And at the touch of her pen the mundane details of prison routine undergo a spiritual transfiguration. Given that German was her third or perhaps fourth language, her eloquence is stunning. Her biographer detects in the most famous of these letters an element of self-dramatisation: written to lift the spirits of less resolute comrades, they ‘created and perpetuated a myth’. The ‘real’ Rosa Luxemburg, according to Ettinger, was the one who wrote to Leo Jogiches advising him about refurbishing his wardrobe – ‘Please, no heavy or hairy fabrics.’ This is like arguing that the ‘real’ Goethe was the one who wrote to his wife about washing the curtains.

A heightened perception of life was one of Luxemburg’s greatest gifts: but in practical terms it was a source of disillusionment. Reality – both personal and political – could never live up to her exalted expectations. It is this feature too which links her private life with her public career. Leo could never live up to her vision of him as the ideal comrade and lover, nor could the ineffectual Costia become the great writer she imagined him to be. Even more spectacular were the failures, on the public plane, of the Social Democratic Party and the German proletariat. Although she had a shrewd sense of the weaknesses of the SPD leadership, Luxemburg cultivated throughout her life an idealised image of the proletarian masses as agents of historical transformation. It is because of this wishful thinking that she failed where Lenin succeeded.

The image of her failure nevertheless remains as potent as that of Lenin’s success. Released from prison at the end of 1918, she was clubbed down by a soldier’s rifle butt during the Spartakus rising of January 1919, and then shot and dumped in a canal. The violence of her death throws into relief the principles of non-violent revolution for which she lived. She was equally opposed to capitalist exploitation and Communist dictatorship, and dreamed of a political order based on democratic socialism and international co-operation. As a Marxist who believed in participatory democracy, her ideas are ripe for rediscovery in the Eastern bloc, not least in the country of her birth. And readers in Western countries cannot afford to ignore her identification of the militarised economy as the endemic disease of a system on course for self-destruction.