History and Heartbreak: The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg is the first volume in a projected fourteen-volume edition that will make available in English all of Luxemburg’s work: books, pamphlets, essays, articles, letters and manuscripts, many of which have never before been translated from the German, Polish or Russian in which she regularly wrote. It is wise as well as appropriate that the letters be the initiating volume, so that Luxemburg may be experienced in all her prodigious humanity before plunging the reader into titles like The Accumulation of Capital.
What we have here are 230 pieces of correspondence, written to forty-six friends, comrades and lovers, all drawn from the six-volume German edition, which contains 2,800 letters, postcards and telegrams sent to more than 150 correspondents. Letter writing was Luxemburg’s necessity: she wrote many each day, and long ones at that. Depending on whom she’s writing to, they are filled with everyday news—where she’s living, what she’s reading, thinking about, the weather, the view from her window—or with politics: events and conferences, headlines and deadlines, party relationships and problematic positions. Whether the subject matter is mundane or acute, she addresses it with a wealth of commentary, description and opinion, uniformly enriched by a surprising knowledge of art, history and literature, and always made vivid by a strength and immediacy of feeling that is everywhere visible.
It was Luxemburg’s success as a public speaker that made her think about the relation between speaking and the development of a natural style of writing. “You have no inkling of what a good effect my attempts so far to speak at public meetings have had on me,” she writes Jogiches soon after she’s come to Berlin. “Now I’m sure that in half a year’s time I will be among the best of the party’s speakers. The voice, the effortlessness, the language—everything comes out right for me…and I step onto the speaker’s stand as calmly as if I had been speaking in public for at least twenty years.” Shortly after this, she tells him, “I want [my writing] to affect people like a clap of thunder, to inflame their minds not by speechifying but with the breadth of my vision, the strength of my conviction, and the power of my expression.”
From there to a sophisticated critique of party writing was one easy step. To her comrades back in Poland putting out The Workers’ Cause, a paper she helped start, she advised, “I believe that people need to live in the subject matter fully and really experience it every time, every day, with every article they write, and then words will be found that are fresh, that come from the heart and go to the heart.”
Her regard for writing as such is a key to her considerable understanding of the relation between art and politics. In a letter to a close friend, written from prison in May 1917, only a year and a half before her death, she recalls one of life’s great experiences: “The time when I was writing the Accumulation of Capital belongs to the happiest of my life. Really I was living as though in euphoria, ‘on a high’, saw and heard nothing else, day or night, but this one question, which unfolded before me so beautifully, and I don’t know what to say about which gave me the greater pleasure: the process of thinking, when I was turning a complicated problem over in my mind…or the process of giving shape and literary form to my thoughts with pen in hand.” This is what she means when she speaks of reaching deep into oneself, to pull up the miracle of good writing that flourishes when clear thinking and expressive language feed on each other.
Rosa Luxemburg’s letters have been published in English before, but this collection, of which about two-thirds are newly translated, has delivered to us a real, recognizable human being. In the previous volumes, Luxemburg often seemed uniformly heroic; here we have her in all her strength and all her frailty. And it is in the letters from prison, more than in any others she wrote, that she emerges as one of the most emotionally intelligent socialists in modern history, a radical of luminous dimension whose intellect is informed by sensibility, and whose largeness of spirit places her in the company of the truly impressive. To one old comrade she writes, “To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life ‘on the giant scales of fate’ if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud…the world is so beautiful, with all its horrors, and would be even more beautiful if there were no weaklings or cowards in it.” With another friend, she indulges in descriptive memories of wandering in a field on a spring day, listening to the St. Matthew’s Passion in a Berlin church, hearing a beer wagon rattle down the street, looking at the flower shop and the cigar store that flank a suburban railroad station—somehow associating all this sensuality with the Cause. Hers was a spirit that never ceased responding to the world as it was—even as she fought for a world that could be. The intactness of her responsive nature, throughout the years, seems remarkable; especially so when we consider what she was up against in her life with Leo Jogiches.
From earliest times, Luxemburg had felt existentially homeless. She believed that “home” was to be found in a cause great enough to make world and self come together in a common effort to renew the human race. That effort, of course, was socialism. At the same time, she understood—really understood—that socialism had to be made, on a daily basis, from the inside out, through the internal struggle of people to humanize (that is, “socialize”) themselves, even as they worked for radical change. She knew instinctively that if socialists closed down inside, they’d become the kind of people who, devoid of fellow feeling, would make police-state socialism. This was Luxemburg’s single most important insight—that socialists must remain empathic beings throughout their revolutionary lives. Otherwise, she asked, what kind of world would they be making? Whom would it serve? And how would human existence be bettered? This meditation never left her; in fact, as the years went on it grew in size and depth. Out of it, ultimately, comes her opposition to war, her criticism of Lenin, her analysis of why she reads Tolstoy in prison instead of Marx.
And it all begins—and ends—with Leo. It was with Leo that she hungered to see this great ideal of hers come to life, with Leo that she wanted to make, in the here and now, a socialist home within themselves, through the nourishment of mutual love. Leo, however, would not play ball—and Rosa could not give it up. Hundreds of letters passed between them. For years on end, his are cold and inexpressive, consisting solely of political advice, criticism and instruction, while hers are saturated with bitter objection to his emotional stinginess. A little pastiche of her letters, written over a period of twenty years, says it all:
Your letters contain nothing but nothing except for news of The Workers’ Cause. Say something nice to me!
When I open your letters and see six sheets covered with debates about the Polish Socialist Party, and not a single word about…ordinary life, I feel faint.
It’s either the next issue, or it’s the pamphlet, or it’s this article or that one. That would all be fine if at least in addition to that…there was a bit of the human person, the soul, the individual to be seen. But from you there’s nothing, absolutely nothing…. Have you had no impressions…have you read nothing, had no perceptions that you could share with me?
Right now I’m as touchy and skittish as a hare. Your slightest gesture or inconsequential remark makes my heart shrink and seals my mouth…. I’ve had so many thoughts to share with you…. I don’t know, I don’t know how to behave, I can’t get control over the way I am in our relationship. I don’t know how to do it. I’m not capable of taking firm hold of the situation…so much love and suffering have accumulated in my soul that I throw myself at you, throw my arms around your neck, and your coldness pains me—it tears at my soul, and I hate you for it—and I feel I could kill you.
Her argument that the personal is political went unanswered. Her demand that they work to “shape a human being out of each other” met with a blank stare. Her warning that his joylessness was taking a terrible toll on them only made him turn the pages of The Workers’ Cause.