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"The Optimism of the Will"—Jewish Daily Forward on The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

Clara Heyworth31 March 2011

Writing on The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg for the Jewish Daily Forward, Joel Schalit notes a certain agelessness to the writing of Rosa Luxemburg:

Not just for her fellow anti-capitalists struggling to effect a proletarian revolution, but also for women striving for equality, Luxemburg's writing has a particularly contemporary quality to it, which helps disguise its actual age. Obsessed by the idea of agency, Luxemburg's theory of spontaneity predates the fierce debates about the decline of the subject in postmodern and leftist critical theories that have been standard fare since Michel Foucault.

Particularly hostile to the notion of bureaucracy, critical of the failings of "revisionist" (read Social Democratic) and Bolshevik leadership, Luxemburg aspired to a kind of revolutionary consciousness that she believed could be realized only by working people who, to paraphrase philosopher Immanuel Kant, under the right circumstances could govern themselves. Whether this is actually possible or not is a different story. Nonetheless, it was Luxemburg's firm belief that the proletariat could aspire to such that helped fuel her faith in the possibility of creating a new society.

Commenting on The Letters in particular, which spans the years 1891 to 1919, Schalit observes that throughout,

Luxemburg never loses faith in this vision of human nature. Despite going to prison, despite her conflicts with comrades and innumerable private stresses, she remains defiantly committed to her principles.

And following in the footsteps of many other reviewers, Schalit is taken by the personal insight offered up by Luxemburg's letters:

As philosophically sophisticated and interesting as her more theoretically inclined work is, The Letters is more personable, albeit memoirlike, than a comparable collection, such as Letters From Prison by her Italian junior, Antonio Gramsci. Though containing numerous ideological and theoretical digressions, this collection is as valuable for the personal information it discloses.

Indeed, The Letters has the quality of a novel:

It is [Luxemburg's particular] energy—relentless, creative and consistently probing—that makes what would be an otherwise laborious read surprisingly accessible. Paced almost like a novel, the 28 years covered by this collection pass by almost too quickly.

Visit the Forward to read the review in full.

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