Love and Revolution

Comrade and Lover: Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters to Leo Jogiches

edited and translated by Elzbieta Ettinger
MIT Press, 206 pp., $12.50

My ideal is a social system in which one would be free to love everyone with a clean conscience. Striving after it, defending it, I may perhaps learn to hate.” Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote those words when she was still a Warsaw schoolgirl, never reached that Eden. But neither did she learn to hate in a personal way. Certainly, she was an intense, terrific fighter. She never overlooked an error, and never let even an old friend get away with false doctrine—as her break with her admirer and patron Karl Kautsky showed. She hit hard, used desperate language when matters were desperate. It was Rosa Luxemburg who said, after the outbreak of the First World War and when almost all her socialist comrades in Germany had abandoned their principles to support that war, that the true face of bourgeois society was

disgraced, shameful, bloodstained, filthy…the well-groomed, cosmetic mask of virtue, culture, philosophy and ethics, order, peace and constitution slips, and its real, naked self is exposed. The rapacious beast breaks loose, the infernal sabbath of anarchy erupts, and the bourgeoisie’s plague-infested breath spells the doom of mankind and culture….

How many of her moderate sympathizers must have wished the woman would not put things so “stridently”! In her fight against complacent fatalism (“revisionism”) in the German socialist party, in her misguided hostility to Polish nationality, in her resistance to the war and to German militarism, in her decision to join a German revolution which she knew was doomed and which cost Rosa Luxemburg her life, she refused to lower her voice. “Defending it, I may learn to hate.” She was hating a class. She was defending the right to seek true civilization. And civilization, to her, didn’t mean only civility and morning coffee in clean cups and express trains, but the right to culture, even the right to “love with a clean conscience.” That outburst about how “the well-groomed, cosmetic mask” can slip was more than just abuse. It was at once prophecy and profession of faith. The prophecy (there was nothing supernatural about it: her understanding of social forces and history was just better than other peoples’) identified the type of monster whose particular species was to call itself National Socialism. Rosa Luxemburg, when she talked about the alternatives of “socialism or barbarism,” meant that capitalism might collapse without giving way to socialism; in such a catastrophe, “the rapacious beast breaks loose….”

This profession of faith was typical of her, the cry of a great figure of the Second International. Elzbieta Ettinger writes in her introduction about that generation that “they had no predecessors and hardly any successors.” They were the “enlightened Europeans, many of them Jews,” who built up the splendid, hopeful revolutionary socialism of the years before 1914. These were people who believed in ideas, who did not writhe over the fate of the intellectual in action, who burst into politics borne on the flood-current of European rationality and sense of human dignity …

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