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“Rosa Luxemburg's letters, with all their exquisite details, read as well as any novel”

Clara Heyworth 4 March 2011

In a beautifully crafted review, which manages to get across what so many love most about The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, Kaye Cain-Nielsen (for Idiom) writes, 

The Letters, with all their exquisite details, read as well as any novel: we learn how Luxemburg's Persian cat, Mimi, behaved in the presence of Lenin; how much money she borrowed to keep her numerous publications in the hands of intellectuals and workers; which volumes of German literature she craved; and we hear her pleading with friends to take care of her rent while she was in prison for inciting crowds to riot. Even when some of the details threaten to drag, Luxemburg's sudden, lyrical moments and proverbial winks at her intended audience suggest thrilling secrets. We feel her grinning, her wrist undulating furiously as her hands fight to keep pace with her thoughts.

So revealing are Luxemburg's letters, so delightfully candid, that Cain-Nielsen is moved to say,

Reading [them] one sometimes feels like a voyeur. Tender love notes are mixed in with daily triumphs and tragedies, accounts of visits with friends, what was for breakfast, nervous missives to one lover written while hiding from another, romantic longings, and multiple self-deprecating jokes about her small stature and ungainly looks. At five hundred and twelve pages, this collection, the most complete available in English, returns the personal struggles of Rosa—often omitted by earlier editors—to the life of Luxemburg. And somewhere in between hearing of an invigorating walk and watching her curate male affection to assure the publication of her writings, it becomes clear why Verso begins its fourteen-volume complete works of the Polish-born, German revolutionary on such an intimate note: here is a radical portrait for the internet generation. And here's hoping they pay close attention.

Even a sombre reference to Luxemburg's early death becomes a positive observation:

One reason why reading hundreds of pages of largely personal correspondence is so invigorating is because Luxemburg's mind never had a chance to slow with age. Even when complaining of exhaustion, she writes with such energy as to suggest that she never stopped thinking.

Though while "tracking Luxemburg's relationships with men is fascinating," and "personal or political [The Letters] are beautiful, powerful, and succinct,"

There is also a certain lingering sadness as Rosa could never quite master the exchange of love—the proportions are always off—and her slightly more than occasional longings for a bobo [child] remained unfulfilled.

And, having warned us of on the dangers of seeing Luxemburg through the prism of gender (or ethnicity), Cain-Nielsen writes,

this collection will intensify the reader's appreciation of Luxemburg as a writer and as a historical figure. This volume does not lend any landmark insight into Luxemburg's political thought, nor does it stand alone as a triumph of feminism. What it does instead is provide an essential portrait of a committed intellectual.

The review concludes, quite rightly, with comments on the contemporary uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, highlighting the role of the working class:

This year, revolutionary action dominates world news. American media overwhelming characterize demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Morocco (the list will undoubtedly expand in coming days), as youth revolts. The most attractive point of comparison between recent demonstrations to oust dictatorial leaders and/or spark political reforms may be the youngness of the protesting masses. However, members of the working class—not just "young people" in general—are spearheading the current political motion. The revolutions we are witnessing today have thus far been leaderless—something Rosa, wary at the turn of the 20th century of the rise totalitarian power, would have likely approved of.

Visit Idiom to read the review in full. And join us for book's launch in New York on March 14th where Rosa's letters will be brought to life by the great Deborah Eisenberg.

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