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Rosa tinted glasses: The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman review The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

Kaitlin Staudt10 May 2011

Robert Turnbull reviews The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg for the Times Literary Supplement, discussing the book's resonances with contemporary issues:

[The letters] reveal the struggle that Luxemburg undertook to rise to the top of European political life, and the effects of her efforts on her physical and mental health, in an era when women, especially Jewish women, were not expected to play a part in public life ... Luxemburg's correspondence reveals an extraordinary range and breadth of concerns and interests, from her exchanges with numerous European socialist leaders, including Lenin, Leo Jogiches, Clara Zetkin and others, to sharp disputes with her colleagues ... There are contemporary resonances, too. For example, we find Luxemburg writing to Karl Kautsky in 1906 that "the Achilles heel of the movement in St. Petersburg, as it is with us in Poland, the colossal unemployment which is spreading like a terrible plague."

The New Statesman also highlights the contemporary and ongoing relevance of Luxemburg's writing:

Here is a woman determined to hold up under difficult circumstances. If her experience of prison was mild - much of her last sentence was spent under quasi house arrest - it was the need not to lose her ideological faith that mattered, and with it her faith in the goodness of life. These she pursued despite ill-health that left her with a permanent limp. Her letters from prison, long ago published in a book of that name, have carried her name forward since she died. They exude her likeable personality and a love of nature, glimpsed in the prison garden or through the window of her cell, inspired by German Romantic poetry.

She writes in March 1918:

"World history nowadays certainly reads like a bad book, a sensationalist novel in which glaring effects and bloody deeds pile up with gross exaggeration and in which one sees no real people but just wooden puppets in action. Unfortunately one cannot simply throw this bad book away, one has to grit one's teeth and go through it. Nevertheless ... not for one moment do I have any doubts about the ongoing dialectic of history."

That is Rosa to a tee: the writing generous, visionary and rich in metaphor, but the conclusion essentially wrong. She believed that the working class, and later the international proletariat, would eventually wake up to their task, whereupon revolution would be spontaneous. Human nature might fall short of goodness in the interim, but history was moving towards a time when people would behave better. 

Visit the New Statesman to read the review in full.

The article in the Times Literary Supplement is available to subscribers behind the paywall.

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