What more could we want of ourselves!

Jacqueline Rose

On the occasion of the publication of a reader of her work by Duke University Press and of this essay, Paul Myerscough interviewed Jacqueline Rose in front of an audience at the London Review Bookshop. An audio recording of the interview can be found here.

We live in revolutionary times. I cannot imagine now what it would have been like to be thinking about Rosa Luxemburg if the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had not taken place. I do not know whether it would have been easier or more difficult. But one thing revolutionary moments do is force us to revise our sense of time, stretching us between past and future, as we comb backwards for the first signs of upheaval, and look forward to see what is to come. For many observers, but mainly those in power, the uncertainty is a way of stalling the movement of revolution, curbing its spirit by calling it to account in advance for a future that it can’t predict or foretell. These are the fear-mongers, who point to a range of monstrous outcomes – say, anarchy or Islamic control – as a way of discrediting what is happening this moment, now; who manipulate the dread of a terrible future (and the future may always be terrible) to dull the sounds of freedom.

Rosa Luxemburg was not one of them. Writing to Luise Kautsky on 24 November 1917 from Breslau prison, where she had been held because of her opposition to the war, she praised Kautsky for still holding on to the ‘groping, searching, anxious’ young woman inside her – Kautsky was 53 at the time. When Kautsky visited Luxemburg in prison in May, her inner torment, her ‘restless, dissatisfied searching’ had been evident in her eyes (younger than the rest of her, Luxemburg insists, by 20 years): ‘How I love you precisely for that inner uncertainty!’ For Luxemburg this was as much a political as a personal virtue. ‘Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions,’ she wrote, again from Breslau prison, in her 1918 essay ‘The Russian Revolution’, socialism is ‘something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future’. There was something radically unknowable at the core of political life. She could be tyrannical in her dealings with others, but – perhaps for that very reason – she hated nothing so much as the attempt to subject the vagaries of public and private life to what she saw as over-rigorous forms of control. To the immense irritation of her opponents and detractors, she elevated uncertainty to a principle, a revolutionary creed. It is, as I see it, the thread that runs through her unwavering belief in democracy and freedom, as well as in socialism. Uncertainty is what allows us to see how these three depend on each other, and is the link in her life and thought between the public world of politics and the intimacies of the mind.

The letters in this new volume, more than two-thirds of which haven’t previously been translated, give us fuller access in English than we have had before to Luxemburg’s personal and political life. The selection is based on the German collection, Herzlichst Ihre Rosa (‘Warmly yours, Rosa’), edited by Georg Adler and Annelies Laschitza, published in 1989, which consisted of 190 letters from the first five volumes of the Gesammelte Briefe. From the sixth volume of the Briefe, the English edition adds a further 40. In addition to photographs, the German edition also included images of paintings and botanical specimens collected by Luxemburg but not reproduced here. The images allow us to see more clearly how versatile her talents were: in Laschitza’s list, revolutionary Marxist; propagandist, teacher and speaker; stylist and rhetorician; lyricist and word-artist; translator and linguist; painter and botanist. For Luxemburg, letter writing was a daily task (there are 2350 letters in the first five volumes of the Gesammelte Briefe). It was, one feels reading this collection, the way she spoke to others and to herself. She was also a polyglot, writing in Russian, Polish, German and English. An earlier collection of 1979, Comrade and Lover, edited by her biographer Elzbieta Ettinger, had the advantage of translating the Polish letters directly from the originals (in this new collection all the letters have been translated from German).

That the letters survived is remarkable: a tribute to the colleagues, friends and lovers who dispersed them across several continents to save them from the ravages of the world wars. Sophie Liebknecht’s collection, the famous Letters from Prison, which appeared in 1920, disappeared only to be reissued in Germany immediately after the defeat of Hitler. As Laschitza puts it, the preservation and publication of the letters attests to the ‘strife-filled’ history of Luxemburg’s reception. It was not until the 1980s that the Gesammelte Briefe were published in the German Democratic Republic by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism under the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party – a fact not without irony, given the ambivalence of Lenin’s response to Luxemburg. In Britain, the appearance of the letters marks a beginning. Verso is planning to issue her Complete Works in 14 volumes, making the entire body of writing available for the first time in English. The moment has clearly come for a return to Rosa Luxemburg.

How far should revolutionary thinking be allowed to go? Everything Luxemburg touched she pushed to an extreme – jusqu’à outrance, ‘to the outer limit’, to use her own phrase, the slogan she proposed to her lover Leo Jogiches. ‘We live in turbulent times,’ she wrote in 1906 to Luise and her husband, Karl Kautsky, also from prison, this time in Warsaw, convicted of aiming to overthrow the tsarist government. ‘All that exists deserves to perish,’ she wrote, quoting Goethe’s Faust. It is of course the whole point of a revolution that you cannot know what, if anything, can or should survive. For Luxemburg the danger was as real as it was inspiring. ‘The revolution is magnificent,’ she wrote, again in 1906. ‘Everything else is bilge’ (the German quark, which has since made its way into English, literally means ‘soft white cheese’). But whatever the conditions in which she found herself – in Warsaw, she was one of 14 political prisoners crammed into a single cell – she never lost her fervour: her joy, as she put it, amid the horrors of the world. ‘My inner mood,’ she wrote after listing the indignities of her captivity, ‘is, as always, superb.’ ‘Enthusiasm combined with critical thought,’ she wrote in one of her last letters, ‘what more could we want of ourselves!’ She had the relish and courage of her convictions (although ‘conviction’ might turn out to be not quite the right word). There is no one, I will risk saying, who better captures the spirit – the promise and the risk – of revolution than Rosa Luxemburg.

In January 1919, after the defeat of the Spartacist uprising in Germany, Luxemburg was murdered by government henchmen, the proto-fascist Freikorps which included many future Nazis. Two years later, Clara Zetkin, the renowned socialist feminist and one of Luxemburg’s closest friends and key correspondents, returned to Germany from a visit to Moscow with instructions from Lenin recommending the publication of Luxemburg’s collected works – despite her ‘errors’, Lenin said, she was an ‘eagle of the revolution’. One manuscript, however, he wanted burned: ‘The Russian Revolution’, the essay Luxemburg had written in 1918 from her prison cell. (She almost invariably welcomed prison sentences as an opportunity for thought, and some of her most eloquent letters were written from prison.) The essay would be published in 1922 by Paul Levi, her former lawyer and, some say, briefly her lover. He chose his moment carefully, preparing the manuscript only after the Kronstadt uprising of 1921, one of the first people’s revolts against the Bolshevik regime.

In fact there was no limit to Luxemburg’s praise for the Revolution. It was, she begins her essay, the ‘mightiest event’ of the war: ‘its outbreak, its unexampled radicalism, its enduring consequences’ were the strongest rejoinder to the ‘lying phrases’ of official German Social Democracy, which had represented an essentially imperialist war as a battle to liberate the oppressed people of Russia from the tsar. The day her former revolutionary allies, the parliamentary faction of the German Social Democratic Party, voted in favour of the munitions budget in August 1914 was, it is generally agreed, the darkest day of Luxemburg’s life – according to Zetkin, both she and Luxemburg seriously contemplated suicide. Instead of uniting against war and in their own shared interests, the workers of the world would now be drenched in one another’s blood. In response to the tragedy, she suggested – with the biting irony that was a hallmark of her speeches and writing – an amendment to the famous ending of The Communist Manifesto: ‘Workers of the world unite in peacetime – but in war slit one another’s throat!’ The Revolution of 1917 had overthrown the tsar, exposed German Social Democracy’s hypocritical capitulation to an imperialist war, and put paid to the belief that Germany, or rather Central Europe, was the advanced civilisation, the properly industrialised society from which the backward Russians had everything to learn.

If Luxemburg was hated by her Social Democratic peers, it was at least as much for her unconcealed enthusiasm for what was happening in Russia as for her opposition to the war, of which her revolutionary comrades – ‘of late lamented memory’ as she scathingly puts it – had become the willing, murderous accomplices. Much of the hostility towards her was pure chauvinism. Luxemburg was born in Zamosc in Russian-occupied Poland in 1871; her family moved to Warsaw when she was three (one of her earliest political memories would have been the pogrom of 1881). Assimilated Jews, they belonged neither in the Jewish community, which rejected them, nor with the Poles, whose predominant political mood was a fervent anti-Russian nationalism with which Luxemburg would never identify. She was always an outsider. She arrived on the doorstep of the German Social Democratic Party as a young Jewish woman radical in 1898. The misogyny her presence provoked would become legendary (the best account is given by Adrienne Rich). And although she never self-identified as Jewish, being Jewish is something with which she was always identified. As Ettinger puts it, ‘she represented a nation the Germans considered inferior and a race that offended their sensibilities.’ None of that was altered – in many ways it was exacerbated – by the fact that she rapidly rose up the party echelons to become a star. In the words of Hannah Arendt, she ‘was and remained a Polish Jew in a country she disliked and a party she came soon to despise’.

It is a peculiarity of Luxemburg’s thought – one of her unique contributions – that her critique didn’t temper her enthusiasm for revolution but intensified it. In ‘The Russian Revolution’, the two main areas of dispute between her and the Bolsheviks were land distribution (which she feared would create a new form of private property) and national self-determination (on which more later). The core issues, however, were democracy and freedom. ‘Revolutions,’ she had already said, admonishing Lenin in her essay ‘The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions’ (1905), ‘do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them.’ The previous year she had accused him of subordinating Russia to the ‘servile spirit of the night-watchman state’. As she acknowledged in ‘The Russian Revolution’, no one knew better than Lenin that socialism demands a ‘complete spiritual transformation in the masses’, but, she continued with uninhibited ruthlessness, he was ‘completely mistaken’ in his chosen means: ‘decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror’. (You can see why he wanted the manuscript burned.)

The demand for a constituent assembly had been a central plank of Bolshevist agitation, but in 1917, on the point of seizure of power, the demand was dropped. There is always a risk that democracy will throw up the wrong result – that surely is the point. For Lenin, the elections following the October Revolution, in which ‘the peasant masses’ had returned Narodnik and Kerensky supporters to the assembly, indicated the limits of democracy in a revolutionary situation. For Luxemburg, this was a betrayal of everything the Bolsheviks had been fighting for, and risked strangling the Revolution at birth. ‘As Marxists,’ she cites Trotsky, ‘we have never been idolisers of formal democracy.’ ‘Nor,’ she snapped back, ‘have we ever been idolisers of socialism or Marxism.’ For Luxemburg, freedom of thought (against idol-worship of any kind) was integral to democracy. In a speech of 1907, with Stalin apparently in the audience, she described slavish adherence to The Communist Manifesto as ‘a glaring example of metaphysical thinking’ (at another point she describes Marxism as a ‘gout-ridden uncle afraid of the breeze’). In fact she had always insisted that in conditions of rampant inequality, formal democracy was a hoax. Only under socialism would true democracy have a chance to be born. Without democracy, no socialism. It is the non-negotiable political aim:

The remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure: for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in