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.