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Comrade and Lover: Rosa Luxemburg's Letters to Leo Jogiches, edited by Elzbietta Ettinger

Revolutionary Ardor

Comrade and Lover: Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters to Leo Jogiches.
by Elzbieta Ettinger.
MIT Press. 206 pp. $12.50.

The career of Rosa Luxemburg spanned the final decade of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th, during which time she played a guiding role in the development of the European socialist movement, both in her native Poland, and more importantly, in imperial Germany. As a student, then as a journalist, speaker, and organizer, finally as an economist and theoretician (The Accumulation of Capital), she rose to dizzying heights, all the more remarkable for her being a woman, a Jew, and (in Germany) a foreigner. By 1904 she was one of the leading figures of the Second International, in whose commemorative photographs she is so easy to pick out—always the same tightly-corseted dresses and the ridiculously wide-brimmed hats, a kind of gemütlich version of the Kaiserin.

During World War I she belonged to the tiny minority of Ger man Social Democrats who opposed participation in that conflict, and she spent some time in prison before being liberated on the fall of the imperial regime in November 1918. A few weeks later she helped to found what subsequently became the German Communist party, and she began laying plans for an insurrection which would continue in Germany what Lenin had already begun in Russia. In January 1919, she was brutally murdered in Berlin by right-wing thugs; the recipient of these letters, Leo Jogiches, met death at the same hands not long afterward.

The correspondence in this fascinating little book, superbly translated and very helpfully edited by Elzbieta Ettinger, covers only the years 1893 to 1914; it is sufficient, however, to plot the course of a deep personal drama. Leo Jogiches was, like Rosa Luxemburg, of Polish-Jewish parentage, although of somewhat more comfortable social and economic circumstances. Scion of a wealthy industrial family in Vilna, from whom he received regular and generous remittances, he never found it necessary to live by his pen or the platform. The two met in Zurich in 1890, where both were students. After an idyllic affair which lasted several years, they parted, living together only for brief (and mostly tempestuous) periods thereafter. In 1898, Rosa Luxemburg moved to Berlin, where she obtained German citizenship through an unconsummated marriage of convenience; much of her subsequent relationship with Jogiches was confined to the mails. (This book is but a tiny selection from a huge, three-volume set; unfortunately, none of Jogiches’s responses has survived.)

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The letters fall into four quite distinct biographical periods. In the first (1893-97), Rosa Luxemburg is not only Jogiches’s lover, but his ardent disciple in politics and philosophy. These letters reveal—with at times embarrassing explicitness—a passionate young woman quite willing to acknowledge frankly her emotional and physical needs. She repeatedly complains, for example, that his replies are full of nothing but dreary political talk, not a word about “us.” In the second period (1898-1900), she begins to find an identity of her own in the ranks of German social democracy, but still longs for a meaningful personal life with her lover, who remains in Switzerland, ostensibly to complete work on his doctorate (he never did). In the third (1900-06), Rosa Luxemburg and Jogiches are finally together in Berlin, but the early magic of their relationship proves impossible to recapture. Instead, their life is an inferno of fights and reconciliations, against the background of which (and perhaps not unrelated to their domestic difficulties), Rosa Luxemburg begins to overshadow her lover decisively in the worlds of politics and journalism; now it is she whose letters are “all business.”

In the final section (1907-14), Rosa Luxemburg has broken with Jogiches and taken up with a man twenty years her junior, the son of the German Marxist (and later Communist party luminary), Clara Zetkin. By this time the tone of the letters ranges from coldly hostile to crisply businesslike; at times she even refers to Jogiches in the third person, in order to avoid having to select between the familiar Du and the formal Sie, which, given their past relationship, would have been quite ludicrous. Even so, there are brief periods of comradely reconciliation, particularly in several remarkable letters from prison which Rosa Luxemburg, for reasons of censorship, was required to phrase as if they were intended for another woman. Throughout the entire life of their relationship, the one thing which does not change is Rosa Luxemburg’s dependence upon Jogiches for financial support; her appeals for money are quite open and undisguised in the early periods; in the final phase, they are made in the name of “the party.”

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This collection is obviously of considerable value to any student of Rosa Luxemburg, but quite possibly it will be of even greater interest to those who would understand the phenomenon of German social democracy in the period before World War I. For one thing, they point to the existence of an intra-history of that movement which has yet to be written. In her letters, Rosa Luxemburg unintentionally reveals that pre-war German socialism—for all its revolutionary rhetoric and aspirations—was in many ways a perfect mirror-image of the stultifying Victorian order it sought to overthrow—complete with its own “high society” (the Kautskys, the Bebels, the Eisners), its time-serving mediocrities, predictable trajectories of advancement, exaggerated concern for rank and precedent, petty rivalries, jealousies, and conspiracies. In fact, by figuratively squinting a bit, it is not all that difficult to “read” Rosa Luxemburg’s rise in terms not very different from that of a young woman in today’s corporate world—carrying on a perpetual debate within herself (and with others) on the proper proportions of assertiveness and femininity necessary both to get ahead and to find personal fulfillment. One cannot help wondering how many potentially able and energetic collaborators Wilhelmine Germany blindly pushed into the socialist opposition; while the depth of Rosa Luxemburg’s own ideological commitment is not to be doubted, where, after all, could an ambitious young woman (and an outsider at that) have found a “career” in that society, except within the ranks of the party?

These letters also show that socialists had their own vision of the good life, but far from reflecting the dreams of Karl Marx, it bore a surprising resemblance to that already enjoyed by the hated bourgeoisie. Here is Rosa Luxemburg (March 6, 1899):

Our own small apartment, our own nice furniture, our own library; quiet and regular work, walks together, an opera from time to time, a small, very small circle of friends who can sometimes be invited for dinner; every year a summer vacation in the country, one month with absolutely no work! . . . And perhaps even a little, a very little baby?

There is much talk in this book about apartments, hats, gloves, dresses, china, flatware, flowers, the difficulty of finding good servants, as well as the recurring theme of children. “I constantly feel the need for a child—sometimes it gets unbearable. You,” she reproaches Jogiches, “probably could never understand this” (December 17, 1899). In one of the most wrenching passages in the entire correspondence, she describes how a little girl came up to her in a park and buried her face in Rosa Luxemburg’s ample skirts; the great revolutionary frankly confessed to Jogiches that she had trouble resisting an impulse to kidnap the child for her own. Rosa Luxemburg could not know, of course, that in the fullness of time it would be considered somewhat improper for a Marxist feminist to utter such statements, even in camera, but of course she had the good fortune to live in a sort of prelapsarian period of both the socialist and women’s movements, when everything and anything could seem both possible and reconcilable.

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In the introduction, the editor of these letters, like so many admirers of Rosa Luxemburg, suggests that her death deprived European Marxism of a priceless fund of conscience. To this end she reproduces the famous statement in which Rosa Luxemburg criticized Lenin and Trotsky to the effect that

socialism, by its very nature, cannot be dictated, introduced by command. . . . [Lenin] is completely mistaken in the means he employs. . . . In reality the power is executed by a dozen outstanding minds while the elite of the working class are now and then invited to meetings in order to applaud the speeches of the leaders and to approve unanimously proposed resolutions. In fact, then, it is a clique, certainly a dictatorship, not, however, the dictatorship of the proletariat, but that of a handful of politicians.

This is supposed to show, apparently, that Rosa Luxemburg represents a severed link with “socialism with a human face.” In reality, however, Rosa Luxemburg herself was an unyielding practitioner of “democratic centralism,” and if she found Lenin’s experiment unimpressive, it was because, as a consistent Marxist, she could not accept the possibility of socialism in a backward, largely nonindustrial country. It was in Germany that she placed her hopes for the “true” socialist revolution; she died in the effort to bring it to birth.

At the time of her murder, Rosa Luxemburg was only forty-nine years old. Thus it is not difficult to think that—had she emerged from the bloody days of 1919 Berlin—she might have survived into the 1930’s. But it is hard to imagine where her subsequent career would have led. Had she remained in Germany, she would have perished at the hands of the Nazis. Had she fled to the Soviet Union, as did many leaders of the German Communist party after 1933, it is extremely likely that, as a woman of independent temperment and considerable intellectual integrity—and as a cosmopolitan Jew as well—she would have perished in Stalin’s purges. Nor is it easy to conceive of her joining Trotsky in Mexico, or taking refuge in England or the United States to tend a socialist archive or lecture at universities.

Perhaps mercifully, Rosa Luxemburg vanished almost simultaneously with her pre-war world, one in which, as an outsider, she could find a place only in a movement of outsiders (the SPD). After 1919, both the Second and Third Internationals became identified with governments and their policies. Tragic as was the manner of her death, at least it rescued her from the compromised bourne of choice to repose in a socialist pantheon, where the nettlesome issues of freedom and necessity, order and movement, means and ends, need never be confronted or resolved.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.




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