‘Love and Death’; Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (2011) reviewed by Professor Timothy Snyder in The New Republic

Love and Death

 Timothy Snyder

June 9, 2011 | 12:00 am

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
Edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza
Translated by George Shriver
(Verso, 609 pp., $39.95)

Once upon a time there lived a Jewish lady, of modest stature and of a certain age, who walked with a limp and liked to sing to the birds. Through the bars on her window she would treat the titmice to a Mozart aria, and then await their call, the transcription of which she wished, as she wrote to a friend, to be the only adornment on her grave. This lady spent much of her time between 1915 and 1918 writing magnificent letters to her many female friends, to distract them from the carnage of a war that she herself had opposed from the beginning. She also translated a long novel from Russian into German, from her fourth-best language into her second-best, or, as it happened, from the language of her first lover into that of her last.

She had been unhappy in love, but had always wanted to make a man happy, to “pull down a few stars to bestow on someone for use as cufflinks,” and to bear a child. When her young friend was killed on the Western Front, she grieved quietly and kept her head up. Though she sometimes mentioned in her letters the fate of comrades whose suffering was worse than hers, on battlefields or Siberian plains, she never complained of her own time in German prison. She had a sustaining faith in the common people, above all in the downtrodden Poles to whom she felt closest, but generally in the workers of Europe, who could be trusted to turn an unwanted war into a social revolution. When the war finally ended, she exploded onto the scene of a defeated and divided Germany, calling less radical socialists the pygmies and pimps of counterrevolution, only to be murdered by the real counter-revolutionaries of the German far right. Her grave bears not the call of the titmouse but her name, Rosa Luxemburg, and the date of her death, January 15, 1919.

Soon thereafter her friends and admirers began to collect and publish her private letters, a custom that continued throughout the century, first in German, then in Polish, and now in English. Her letters to her male lovers and female friends, which constitute the bulk of this edition as of some earlier ones, are meant to show that Rosa Luxemburg was not only a doctrinaire Marxist and a ruthless revolutionary but also a human being. During her lifetime she was known as the pitiless foe of dithering comrades, the Jewish-Polish bogey of the German bourgeoisie, the Red Rosa who wanted Europe aflame. She was, of course, all of those things, just as she was, of course, a woman with feelings.

The attempt to rescue her public reputation through the ritual unveiling of her private life, which has now continued for nearly ninety years, is based upon a surprisingly sentimental, not to say bourgeois, premise. Surely only a decadent liberal would accept the traditional distinction between public life and private life, and believe that what happens in private is somehow more authentic than what happens in public. It doesn’t take a very developed dialectical mind to notice that Luxemburg’s private and public lives were very much dependent upon each other, that they formed a coherent whole, a single person. In the Polish historical collections edited in the communist period by Feliks Tych, as in the sympathetic biography written by J.P. Nettl, this question was addressed by tactful references to the secretive socialist Leo Jogiches, who for much of Luxemburg’s life was her lover and political adviser. “What do you think about all this?” she would ask him. “Write immediately!” The bulk of the letters in the first half of this collection were written to him in Polish, and have been doubly translated, first to German, then to English. Jogiches wrote to her in Russian, and his missives, like those of other correspondents, are absent.

The underlying association between politics and love cannot be deduced from Luxemburg’s letters alone, even with the help of the accompanying apparatus. The introduction contrives not to mention her Jewish origins, and it vastly understates her Polish connections. The footnotes in this book are often uninformed, or polemical, or both at once. None of her opponents is taken at all seriously; they are “nationalists” or “opportunists” or the like. Though it is almost (but not quite!) bracing to be confronted again by the terms of abuse of the old Left, they do not really cast much light on Luxemburg’s life. Some fairly major historical figures are mentioned only as people who wrote articles about or against Luxemburg. Why should we want to know that Leon Wasilewski was a leading student of the national question, and later foreign minister of Poland, known for his toleration and decency, when we can know that he wrote a “slanderous” article about Luxemburg? When Luxemburg mentions some bit of gossip about an opponent, the reader is often left with that. Why should anyone know that Ignacy Daszyński was one of the more impressive of the socialist leaders of his and Luxemburg’s generation, when we can know that someone once said that his wife was pregnant when he married her? If this book were taken literally, the figure who emerges would be someone with a sadly tumultuous love life who happened to be right on every major question of her day and was unfortunately opposed by a series of misguided nonentities, whose lives and purposes can be understood through clichés and gossip. Precisely because of her significance, Luxemburg deserves a more thorough sort of inquiry than this.

Luxemburg was perhaps the leading activist and thinker of the left wing of the Second International, the association of socialist parties that met in international congresses between 1889 and 1914 and regarded itself as a shadow government of Europe. Despite the general acceptance of Marxism, and thus the widespread belief that changes in the modes of production were bringing political revolution, it was always a bit unclear how socialists meant to resolve the question of power. On the one hand, the Second International was rhetorically committed to an international proletarian revolution brought by history. On the other, it united active political parties, and so implicitly endorsed the various national political systems in which they functioned and sometimes thrived.

About rosaluxemburgblog

I was awarded a PhD in History by Swansea University for a thesis on Rosa Luxemburg (2016). I am currently co-editing the fourth volume of 'The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg' and am a member of the Advisory Board of the International Rosa Luxemburg Society.
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