History and Heartbreak: The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
When I was a child, Rosa Luxemburg’s name would sometimes be mentioned with awe in my slightly irreverent left-wing household. Who was she? I’d ask. A great socialist, I’d be told. She criticized Lenin. She was assassinated. For years I thought the Soviets had murdered her. In a sense, I wasn’t so far off. In 1931 Joseph Stalin had Luxemburg “excommunicated” from the canon of Marxist heroes. If she’d been living in his Russia she’d certainly have been eliminated. No revolutionary as independent-minded as she could fail, come the revolution, to be denounced as a counterrevolutionary.
She was born Rozalia Luksenburg in 1871 in a small city in Russian-occupied Poland to a family of secular Jews. When she was 3 the family moved to Warsaw, where the Poles hated the Russians, the Russians hated the Poles and everyone hated the Jews. Nonetheless, the Luksenburgs settled in, the children were sent to school and all went well enough until Rosa was 5, when it was discovered that she had a hip disease. She was put to bed for a year with her hip in a cast, and when she got up, one leg was shorter than the other.
There she was: a girl, a Jew, a cripple—possessed of an electrifying intelligence, a defensively arrogant tongue and an unaccountable passion for social justice, which, in her teens, led her to the illegal socialist organizations then abounding among university students in Warsaw. In the city’s radical underground, she opened her mouth to speak and found that thought and feeling came swiftly together through an eloquence that stirred those who agreed with her, and overwhelmed those who did not. The experience was exhilarating; more than exhilarating, it was clarifying; it centered her, told her who she was.
At 18—already on the Warsaw police blotter—Rosa was sent to Zurich to study, and never went home again. Although she was registered at the university as a student in natural sciences, it was at the German socialist club—with its library, reading room and lecture hall—that she got her education. There, in the autumn of 1890, she met Leo Jogiches, a Lithuanian Jew three years her elder and already a student revolutionary of local reputation. A self-styled hero of Russian radical literature, Leo was brooding, angry, remote, enamored of Bakunin’s famous definition of the revolutionary as a man who “has no interests of his own, no cause of his own, no feelings, no habits, no belongings, he does not even have a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution.” Rosa was enraptured. Leo, in turn, was aroused by her adoration. They became lovers in 1891; but, from the start, theirs was a misalliance.
From earliest youth, Rosa had looked upon radical politics as a means of living life fully. She wanted everything: marriage and children, books and music, walks on a summer evening and the revolution. Personal happiness and the struggle for social justice, she said, shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. If people gave up sex and art while making the revolution, they’d produce a world more heartless than the one they were setting out to replace. Leo, on the other hand, withdrawn and depressed—he hated daylight, sociability and his own sexual need—told her this was nonsense; all that mattered was the Cause. Yet Rosa’s longing for intimacy with him did not abate. It held her attention with the same unwavering strength as did the analysis of capital or the general strike. The irony is that it was precisely the compelling nature of this frustrating relationship that, over the next twenty-five years, would make her think hard, and yet harder, about what, exactly, this brave new world of theirs could be about.
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When it came to politics, however, Rosa and Leo were at one. The all-important source of agreement between them was that nationalism in all its forms was abhorrent; it was the international working class alone that was the hope of a socialist future. So every night throughout the early 1890s, in a furnished room in Zurich, they plotted and planned the enlightened uprising of the workers of the world, and within three years it was Rosa who was climbing up on a chair at the Third Congress of the Socialist International in Zurich, appealing for recognition of the antinationalist Polish Marxist Party, which she and Leo had just founded. In 1898 it was decided that Luxemburg—who had Westernized the spelling of her name—would move to Berlin to make her way in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), then the most powerful socialist party in Europe. Jogiches would remain behind in Switzerland, where he was still studying for a doctorate and working to build the Polish party. Never again, except for short periods here and there, would they live in the same city.
Several weeks after her arrival in Berlin, with the backing of the SPD, Luxemburg addressed Polish-speaking miners in Upper Silesia, and discovered her gift for making those who heard her feel intimately connected to the pain inherent in whatever social condition she was denouncing. As she spoke, Luxemburg could see that the men looking up at her were beginning to feel penetrated by the drama of class warfare. By the time she fell silent, they were living on a mythic scale of history and heartbreak. Afterward, they cheered and applauded, covered her with flowers and spread the news about the astonishing woman from Poland who had come to plead their cause. She returned to Berlin in a blaze of personal glory, now the darling of the party elite.
Over the next two decades, Luxemburg wrote books, essays and articles on one aspect of radical politics or another; engaged regularly in long speaking tours across Europe; taught in the party school; and grew into one of the most articulate and influential members of the SPD’s increasingly troublesome left wing. The SPD was, essentially, a theory-driven, centrist party devoted to the workings of its own organization and to the achievement of socialist progress through parliamentary change. Luxemburg, on the other hand, believed heart and soul that capitalism in all its forms had to be eradicated—through nothing less than the spontaneous uprising of rank-and-file workers—if there was ever to be a social democracy. For Luxemburg, the words “general strike” were definitive. For the SPD elite, they were words that sent shudders up the collective spine. It was in fiery opposition to her conservative comrades that she wrote her most insightful works.
Soon, however, the internal splits within international socialism were to become painfully moot, as Europe drifted toward war in 1914, and German, French and Austrian social democrats prepared to support not the international working class but the war effort of their own countries. The mental paralysis of the theoretical socialists was overwhelming, and Luxemburg all but had a nervous breakdown. Along with colleagues Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin, she broke with the SPD and took to speaking out, in loud objection to the war. In 1915 she was arrested (open opposition to the war had become illegal in Germany), and spent the next three years in prison.
She’d been in prison many times before, and it had always been something of a lark—visitors, books, good food, furnished cells—but now the party, in more ways than one, was over. Her hair turned gray and she began to grow confused, not in her mind but in her spirit. Nevertheless, she read—Tolstoy, not Marx—and wrote incessantly. In the summer of 1918, still in prison and now in distress over what was happening in Russia as well as in Europe, she completed a pamphlet called The Russian Revolution, which to this day qualifies as one of the most stirring documents in modern political thought. Luxemburg was a diehard democrat. Never for a moment did she think democracy should be sacrificed to socialism, and in this brief work—the work of one ever mindful of what a human being needs to feel human—she laid out her impassioned insights on the danger to democracy that the Bolshevik Revolution posed.
Luxemburg had met Lenin at the turn of the century, and had been immensely drawn to him. Temperamentally, she felt more at home with him than with the urbane and theoretical Germans. She loved his fierce intellect, his fantastic willpower, his shrewd grasp of Russian reality. But early on, she sensed that if he could make a revolution it would be a troubling one. In 1904 she had written a paper on the Russian social democrats in which she objected to their growing glorification of the proletariat at the expense of the intelligentsia, and even more strongly to the idea of all authority being gathered in a single revolutionary party. Lenin, she said then, “concentrates mostly on controlling the party, not on fertilizing it, on narrowing it down, not developing it, on regimenting, not on unifying it.” This, she thought, did not bode well. Now, in 1918, the revolution had come, the Bolsheviks had assumed power and she was in a state of active dismay. A year after Lenin had taken control, and only six months before her death, she wrote from her prison cell:
[Lenin] is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree…draconian penalties, rule by terror…. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free exchange of opinions, life dies out in every public institution and only bureaucracy remains active…. Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party, no matter how numerous, is no freedom. Freedom is always freedom for the one who thinks differently.
Luxemburg was released from prison in Breslau on November 8, 1918, and went immediately to Berlin. The city reflected the dangerous chaos into which Germany’s defeat had plunged the country: streets filled with armed citizens, drunken soldiers, open criminality. With Jogiches and Liebknecht at her side, Luxemburg immediately went to work to help found the Spartacus League (ultimately Germany’s CP), in the hope that it would become the revolutionary group that could achieve a peaceful socialist takeover. But all such hopes were doomed; in whichever direction one looked, there was only cynicism and despair. In a desperate attempt to save the rapidly failing monarchy, the newly elected chancellor, a corrupted social democrat, had made a secret deal with the army to rid Germany of its ultra left—no matter the human cost. The Spartacists had turned violent as well: they wanted power, and they wanted it now. Luxemburg felt like she was staring into space.
On January 15, 1919, the police came for her. She thought she was being returned to prison, and was actually relieved; the last two months had been a waking nightmare. She got into the car without a protest, was taken to army headquarters for purposes of identification, then returned to the car, where she was shot in the head. Within hours Liebknecht met with the same fate. Two months later, Jogiches was beaten to death in an army barracks on the edge of the city. The men who killed all of them—with the blessing of the government—were members of the Freikorps, the illegal paramilitary organization that, fourteen years later, would form the nucleus of Hitler’s Brownshirts.