Sheila Rowbotham reviews The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg for the Guardian, bringing into relief the portrait of Luxemburg's passionate political and personal life painted by the letters:
George Shriver's new translation of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg is the most comprehensive collection of her correspondence yet to appear in English. It transports us directly into the private world of a woman who has never lost her inspirational power as an original thinker and courageous activist in first the Marxist Social Democratic party, and then the German revolutionary group, the Spartacist League. She suffered for her convictions; jail sentences in 1904 and 1906 were followed by three and a half years in prison for opposing the first world war. Her brutal death at the hands of the militaristic Volunteer Corps during the 1919 workers uprising in Berlin has contributed to her mystique: she is revered as the revolutionary who never compromised. This collection of her letters reveals that the woman behind the mythic figure was also a compassionate, teasing, witty human being.
Citing Luxemburg as an influence on her own work, Rowbotham, the author of Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century and Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, untangles Luxemburg's ambivalent relationship with the feminist movement of her time:
Luxemburg's criticism of Marxism as dogma and her stress on consciousness exerted an influence on the women's liberation movement which emerged in the late 60s and early 70s. When I was writing Woman's Consciousness, Man's World during 1971, I drew on her analysis in The Accumulation of Capital (1913) of capital's greedy quest for non-capitalist markets, adapting it as a metaphor for the commodification of sexual relations and the body
The awkward truth, however, was that Luxemburg herself had never identified with the feminist movement of her day. Moreover, she maintained a semi-detached relationship with the socialist women whom her friend Clara Zetkin organised in the Marxist Social Democratic party in Germany. Though she would be profoundly moved when they came to meet her from prison in 1916, and when they filled her flat with precious luxuries such as tea bags, cocoa, flowers and fruitcake, Luxemburg always carefully avoided being categorised as a "woman". Her resistance was partly strategic; she was determined not to be sidelined within the party. But it was also bound up with her theoretical conviction that class struggle was the key to change, along with a strong aversion to being regarded as a victim.
Though "Luxemburg's role as an international revolutionary figure took her to places from which women of her class were usually barred," Rowbotham notes that "Luxemburg was emphatically not a "new woman"— she "did not defy the conventions of gender openly, she simply circumnavigated them when it suited her to do so." Rowbotham suggests that Luxemburg's refusal to be defined in this way:
was rooted in her own experience. Luxemburg was born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1871; her father was a timber merchant, her mother was descended from a distinguished line of rabbis and scholars. While the Luksenburgs observed Jewish holidays, they sought assimilation; difference was to be denied. Nevertheless antisemitism, endemic in daily life, was sometimes unleashed in terrifying pogroms. As a schoolgirl, the young Rosa could sense her apartness from her classmates, not only because she was a Jew, but because a childhood illness had left her lame. She dressed carefully to conceal her limp and focused intently on books and ideas.
Indeed, Luxemburg's letters chronicle the complexity and independence of their creative, eloquent writer who declared "I want 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." Rowbotham comments, fascinatingly, on the particular significance of writing for Luxemburg:
An admirer of good journalism, she grumbles about the flat jargon in Social Democratic newspapers, yet worries that she is not "a real writer" because she has never found writing easy.
She found it so hard because, as she explains to Henrietta Roland Holst in 1904, she wanted to convey "the living spirit of the movement". The dynamism was not just a matter of form - it imbued her thinking. Ideas take shape from within specific contexts and span out as she writes. This makes it difficult to pigeonhole Luxemburg. The Communist party would retrospectively label her as an advocate of a naive spontaneity. But while she saw action as generating a transformed consciousness, her letters testify to her belief in the need for revolutionary organisation too.
The many letters addressed to Leo Jogiches also show that for Luxemburg, love was entwined with her political activities, and "in letter after letter she struggled to balance engagement in external action with inward reflection":
Steeped in the history of the French revolution, she was intrigued by the polarities personified by Robespierre the ascetic and Danton the sybarite. In her letters to Jogiches she encompasses both extremes. She is at once passionate, sensuous, politically dutiful, bantering and acutely perceptive ... Luxemburg knew she bewildered him with her contrary impulses for autonomy and commitment.
Their political connection proved to be historically fateful. Jogiches operated easily within the Polish Marxist movement, but recognised that any influence he might have within the upper echelons of the German Social Democrats depended on the brilliant and personable Luxemburg. Braving Berlin in 1898, Luxemburg duly sent Jogiches informative reports.
Ironically, the woman who hated splits was constantly embattled. Dangerously isolated, she went on fighting. As the years passed, it came to seem to others as if she had been somehow marked by destiny. Characteristically she accepted this with the minimum of pomp, remarking laconically to Luise Kautsky from jail in April 1917 that she was "'on leave' from World History". Prison allowed for reflection and, as the revolution in Russia erupted, individuals no longer seemed so important.
Luxemburg wrestled with a dilemma that troubled many of her contemporaries on the left and still resonates today: how to validate human beings' ability to change capitalist society, while giving weight to the force of historical circumstances. Her letters reveal a taut oscillation. Proletarian internationalism was being routed by war, yet she wrote on 11 February 1915: "Ça ira - it will go on."...
And so it did, and does "go on", albeit in fits and starts, and with one step forward and several backward. Coincidentally The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg reaches us at a time when the peoples of the Middle East are asserting their aspirations for political, economic and social emancipation with formidable courage. The "living spirit" Luxemburg nurtured so strenuously has, once again, taken to the streets.
Visit the Guardian to read the review in full.
The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg will be launched in London with a series of events:
On Monday 7 March at the Swedenborg Society is a panel discussion on Luxemburg's life, letters and legacy. With chair Susie Orbach, award-winning playwright David Edgar, writer and cultural historian Lesley Chamberlain, and Dr Lea Haro, an editor for the collection, with readings by Dame Harriet Walter.
On Tuesday 8 March at the London Review Bookshop is an International Women's Day discussion about Rosa Luxemburg, socialism and feminism. With Dr Nina Power, author of One-Dimensional Woman, Dr Lea Haro, Lisa Appignanesi and chair Natalie Hanman, editor of Guardian Comment is Free.
On Wednesday 9 March at the ICA is a film screening of Margarethe von Trotta's Rosa Luxemburg (1986) film screening followed by Q&A with the director as part of Birds Eye View Film Festival 2011.