Christopher Hitchens is a divisive figure for many on the Left. But despite some of his politically problematic positions, his knowledge of the Marxist canon—Trotsky's thought in particular— is a welcome antidote to those public intellectuals who wholly dismiss Marxism as an unwelcome chapter in the triumphant narrative of democratic liberalism. Hitchens refers to precisely this intellectual repudiation in his review of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg in the Atlantic. The generally accepted verdict on twentieth century ideology, he writes, is "that its 'totalitarian' character eclipses any of the ostensible differences between its 'left' and 'right' versions." Scholars who castigate Marxism without scrutinizing the serious variances and debates within it risk severely limiting their knowledge of modern history. In this milieu, one figure who has earned and deserves public attention is Rosa Luxemburg, who, for Hitchens is
... the most brilliant-and the most engaging-of these Marxist intellectuals was Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born Jew who was the most charismatic figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Markedly different from the clinical writings of other European Marxists—the coldest scientific Marxism—Luxemburg was known for her humanism and joie de vivre. Through her correspondence with lovers, friends and comrades, we discover a figure deeply moved by not only politics, but art, literature and nature. As Hitchens notes:
Her correspondence shows her to have been an active and ardent lover, as well as a woman constantly distracted from politics by her humanism and her love for nature and literature. In a single letter to her inamorato Hans Diefenbach (whose life was to be thrown away on the western front), written from a Breslau jail in the summer of 1917, there are tender and remorseful reflections on the deaths of parents; some crisp appraisals of the style of Romain Rolland; a recommendation that Diefenbach read Hauptmann's The Fool in Christ, Emanuel Quint; and some extended observations on the ingenious habits of wasps and birds, as observed through the windows of her cell.
While they shared the same political project, there were deep rifts between Lenin and Luxemburg—with Luxemburg accusing Lenin of upholding a "barracks mentality" of socialist progress. Her most famous tongue-lashing for the early Soviet Union came in her defence of free speech: "Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently."
For Hitchens it is Luxemburg's revolutionary optimism but also her deep despair—a melancholy for the barbarism to come— that "can give one a lump in the throat." Her untimely death marks the twentieth century's violent degeneration, or as Hitchens puts it,
Over her corpse-later thrown into the Landwehr Canal-was to step a barbarism even more ruthless and intense than any she had dared to imagine. Had Germany gone the other way, is it completely fanciful to imagine an outcome that would have preempted not just Nazism but, by precept and example, Stalinism too? However debatable that might be, one cannot read the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, even at this distance, without an acute yet mournful awareness of what Perry Anderson once termed "the history of possibility."
Visit The Atlantic to read the review in full.