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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, who neither patronized nor manipulated the masses they led. These were people who read books, and who believed that socialism, decency, and civilization were synonymous. They are extinct today. Some died on the barricades or before imperialist firing squads, as they might have wished. Many were murdered by Stalin, going to their deaths in disbelief. The largest number went to the gas chambers at the “infernal sabbath.”

The communist leaders of today—and yesterday, come to that—are different animals altogether. They are authoritarian. With the exceptions of Mao and Chou, they don’t go in for literature or creativity, regarding culture as a reformatory. Their private lives would not seem alien to the Wilhelmine bourgeoisie of Rosa Luxemburg’s Germany, and the idea that socialism can be a subjective, moral liberation as well as an objective change in class relations would be ill received in their overfurnished drawing rooms. But that sense of personal struggle and experiment (even the Fabian Society began as the “Fellowship of the New Life”) was central to the revolutionaries of the Second International and especially to the women: Clara Zetkin (in her early days), Alexandra Kollontaj, Rosa Luxemburg. And that is the sense of these letters.

They don’t contribute much to the arguments about Luxemburg’s ideas on the nature of the party or the dialectic, or to the crucial controversy between those like the late J.P. Nettl who deny that she believed in the inevitable triumph of socialism and recent writers like Norman Geras* who suggest that the collapse of capitalism, not the automatic victory of the working class, was the “inevitable” element in her analysis. What they reveal is Rosa Luxemburg’s inner and personal politics, her lifelong attempt to make a new, “progressive” synthesis out of love and work. She was not really a feminist, preferring on the whole to trust that the oppression of women was inherent in capitalism, like racialism, and would die with it. But in her difficult and often exasperating relationship with the socialist leader Leo Jogiches, she was confronting a cluster of problems which the modern women’s movement has come to identify very clearly.

She had to overcome the guru-disciple syndrome. It’s a common enough pattern for clever women: a girl who assumes her own intellectual inferiority forms a sexual and mental bond with a man who is her teacher and authority in politics as well as her first important lover. Sooner or later, the girl begins to assert her own intellectual independence and value, sometimes—as in this case—soaring far above the “teacher-lover” in her achievement, and grows to resent his assumption of authority. This emancipation can be a shattering and prolonged struggle, which usually involves the breaking, however reluctant, of the sexual bond. Rosa Luxemburg freed herself from her early dependence on Jogiches, but managed to maintain both their sexual relationship and their intellectual partnership for sixteen years. Even when they finally broke up, with terrible bitterness, the political partnership slowly revived. They worked and fought together at the end. After the Spartacist rising in Berlin had failed, Rosa was battered to death by proto-Nazi thugs in 1919; Jogiches, also a marked victim of the counter-terror, deliberately stayed on in Berlin to search for her killers and was himself caught and butchered a few months later.

They had met in Zurich, when she was twenty and Jogiches (“my golden one”) was twenty-three. Both were exiles, Rosa from Russian Poland, Leo from Lithuania where he had been a wildly bold conspirator against the Tsardom. Both were Jewish, from middle-class families, Leo being a fairly well-off young man with an income from his father’s factory in Wilno. Both had been active Marxist revolutionaries since they were schoolchildren. He was withdrawn, aloof, coldly confident but suffering much more deeply from the powerlessness of exile. She was vigorous, talkative, passionate, but at first mistrustful of herself. “I cannot create ‘ideas’—original, genuine ideas,” complained the woman who was to become the most original Marxist thinker since Marx and Engels themselves. Leo took her on. He supplied her with ideas, until she began to think creatively for herself.

Leo Jogiches, to put it crudely, could think but was gloomily reluctant to act. The partnership which developed depended on Rosa’s writing and politicking, and the referral of almost everything she wrote or said to Leo for his approval, criticism, amendment. Two points need to be emphasized. First, Leo did not correct her simply in order to put his “little Chuchya” in her place; with part of himself, he wanted her to become a famous mind and he was, for her at least, a great editor. Second, this partnership achieved astonishing things. In their twenties, they set up the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (SDKP), a party which, in spite of its tendency to be all brilliant and learned Jewish chiefs with very few Indians, was the ancestor of the Polish United Workers’ Party which rules in Warsaw today. Rosa ran the magazine Sprawa Robotnicza and then, in 1898, moved to Berlin and embarked on her dazzling career in the SPD (the German Social Democrats). Throughout, Leo Jogiches remained editor, counselor, and lover.

At the root of their troubles was Leo’s sullen, pessimistic nature. His exile and his helplessness were like ulcers. Rosa rapidly identified the source of his coldness and of his reluctance to offer her any emotional token unless it was twisted out of him.

You’re an angry man, and, having finally figured you out, I’m as sure of it as night follows day. I’ll wipe that anger out of you, so help me God. I’ve the right to do it because I’m ten times better than you and, because I’m aware of it, I’ve all the more right to condemn this trait in you. I’ll terrorize you without pity until you soften and have feelings and treat other people as any other simple, decent man would. I love you above anything else in the world and at the same time have no mercy for your faults.

She was enraged by his inability to take from her—“you gave me three cents’ worth more love today than I gave you yesterday. So what?” When she sent him a birthday present from Berlin, he wrote back saying that “you know I don’t like presents.” She threw up her hands: “When will I change you for the better, when will I tear this damned anger out of you?”

When she moved to Berlin, Leo stayed behind in Zurich, working at an interminable doctoral thesis which he never completed. Years went by, relieved by joint holidays and meetings, before she could persuade him to leave Switzerland and join her. His pride, his suppressed envy at her growing glory in the socialist movement, stood in the way. Rosa had foreseen this. “My success…is likely to poison our relationship because of your pride and suspicion…that’s why I am having second thoughts about moving to Germany. If, after mature consideration, I should come to the conclusion that I have either to withdraw from the movement and live in peace with you in some godforsaken hole, or else move the world but live in torment with you, I would choose the former.” This was a flash of sentimental rhetoric, uncommon with Rosa. Her decision—as Ms. Ettinger says, the only one she could make—was in the event to move the world and try to live in peace with Leo Jogiches.

It could never be peaceful. Rosa had in any case a taste for emotional grand opera, only stimulated by Leo’s habit of leaving the theater when she began a particularly impassioned aria. He must have been a frustrating man. The underlying strength of their love for each other, a combination of sexuality and political comradeship, alone accounts for the fact that two people who irritated each other so sharply and so often stayed together for sixteen years. In turn, her motherly fussing, her anxiety that he should eat properly and go for healthy walks, must have stung the self-pitying dignity of this “Dostoyevskyan” figure. (None of his letters to Rosa survived, it seems, beyond a couple of scribbled notes. He, on the other hand, scrupulously kept all hers, nearly a thousand of them of which these are only a fraction.)

Without consciously admitting it, Leo Jogiches was out to make his lover pay emotionally for her success. Rosa suffered, as she became aware of a protective numbness forming about her heart. She wrote from Berlin, puzzled: “I feel as though something had died inside me. I feel no fear, no pain, no loneliness; I’m just a corpse.” Leo, fearing she meant that she no longer loved him, seems to have written a desperate reproach. She returned a curious, ingenuous letter (Elzbieta Ettinger is right in saying that she wrote these letters as if she were talking, without the revision and careful construction we find in her journalism and polemics) which began by suggesting that her work was at fault, that work had made “my psychological states unimportant. Indeed it almost repels me that they exist.”

But then she turns to a different explanation: Leo’s absence.

If you were here, if we lived together, my life would be normal, and it’s possible that I would like Berlin and a walk in the Tiergarten could please me. Now, frankly, I’ve no pleasant experiences. It doesn’t make any difference to me whether it rains or shines. I walk the streets without paying the least attention to shop windows or people. At home, all I can think of is things to be done, letters to be written, and I go to bed as indifferent as I get up. After all is said and done, the real reason is very simple—you are not here.

As she goes on, her mood lifts. She talks about her latest articles, about election prospects. Her sister is coming to visit, her brother has won a prize. She has turned her room upside down, and everything looks prettier. She ends: “When will you ever see it?! Write soon!! I kiss you on the nose and on the mouth….”

Rosa Luxemburg had a great longing for what she thought of as “normality”: a comfortable, affectionate, settled life with enough money to buy a nice hat, a well-bound edition of Goethe, food and wine for dinner parties with friends. She wasn’t a Bohemian in her tastes, and she wasn’t an ascetic either. She wrote in 1904 from prison to “Leonia” (jail rules forbade correspondence with men):

That you live such a lonely life is insane and abnormal, and I take a very dim view of it. My present mood makes me hate such “asceticism” more than ever. Here I keep grasping greedily at each spark of life, each glimmer of light…. I promise myself to live life to its fullest as soon as I’m free, and you, you just sit there overflowing with riches and, like St. Anthony in the desert, live on wild honey and locusts! You’ll turn into a barbarian, my dear girl, and when I come out of prison your Nazarene bloodlessness will clash violently with my Hellenic full-bloodedness!

The mention of Leo’s riches is relevant; he kept her going with his private income, and this is another theme of her letters. She wasn’t parsimonious. Pretty hats were a faiblesse. A pity for us: the enormous feathered bonnets of the time, which she always wore when speaking outdoors, even to workers, overshadowed her features and make good photographs of her rare.

Her solid faith in “normality” gave her hope that she could have at last a normal life with Leo Jogiches. She evaded the subject of marriage, or perhaps only the word. But she could write: “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…. And perhaps even a little, a very little baby? Will this never be allowed? Never?” She admits the impulse to kidnap a little girl who bumped into her in the park. Then: “We will both work, and our life will be perfect! No couple on earth has the chance we have. With just a little goodwill we will be happy, we must.”

Rosa had achieved her part of the delicate task of separating the guru from the lover, of transforming an authority into a comrade. It was Leo Jogiches who could not follow her, in the end. Slowly she grew weary of his remoteness and touchiness, and weary of the job of holding him back from what she called “spiritual suicide.” There came eventually a time of challenges and ultimata. “Your letter made it clear that only your lack of wanting to prevents you from moving to Berlin; there are no other unfathomable reasons. If a person feels no need for a permanent union, it is, I think, simply a lack of inner courage to carry on a marital relationship at a distance or on fleeting visits.” And a more ominous hint: “Here in Berlin I constantly see the kind of women men live with, how those men worship them and yield to their domination, and all the time, in the back of my mind, I am aware of the way you treat me. After a long time I finally understood that you had lost all sensitivity to me, to my inner being.”

What was all that about? Reading these letters, so passionate and often so propitiatory, one can easily forget that Leo Jogiches was about the only man in the revolutionary movement who could stay unimpressed when Rosa Luxemburg turned the full blast of her personality toward him. She was becoming immensely famous. She was detested and revered. Men in the movement eagerly read her work, and shuddered at her rebuke. In Berlin, there were many such men ready to “worship” her and to yield to her domination. Rosa was not indifferent to worship, a flavor she had never tasted in her relationship with Leo.

And in the end, she left him for a worshipper. There was one mysterious love affair, followed by a desperate, transient reconciliation with Leo. Then they were both imprisoned in Poland in 1905-1906. Rosa was released. Leo later contrived to escape, but when he returned to Berlin he found that she was living—in “their” flat—with Clara Zetkin’s twenty-two-year-old son Konstantin. Years of miserable guerrilla warfare ensued. Leo insisted in working in his study in the flat, leaving only at night. Rosa tried vainly to keep him out, bought a revolver after some particularly awful scenes, and eventually moved out with young Zetkin to another apartment. And yet, incredibly, their political partnership re-emerged. Within a few years, Rosa was again sending him her manuscripts and asking his advice. Notes about settling debts, couched in the nastiest alimonese, alternated with letters about the proofs of The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa’s latest book, which Leo was correcting.

The war came, and the Russian Revolution, and then the German Revolution of 1918 and the hopeless Spartacist risings. In revolution and in death, these two were not divided. One could say that Rosa had failed with Leo Jogiches, and yet a relationship which lasted for so long, which gave so much happiness and made possible so much heroic and valuable work in order to prefigure a new world where passion and personal independence did not fly apart can’t properly be called a failure. Of all Rosa Luxemburg’s words to Leo Jogiches, tenderly translated from lovers’ Polish by Ms. Ettinger (and this was no easy task), I will remember these: “How badly we need each other! By God, no other couple has a task like ours: to shape a human being out of each other.”

  1. *

    Norman Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (New Left Books, London, 1976).

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