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Red Rosa

Rosa Luxemburg: A Life

by Elzbieta Ettinger
Beacon Press, 286 pp., $24.95

It is easier to sympathize with unsuccessful revolutionaries than with successful ones. For all the admiration which, for example. Lenin’s intelligence, ruthless determination, and revolutionary charisma may inspire, he is ultimately judged by the kind of society to which his revolution gave rise and which led to Stalin’s arbitrary tyranny and the heartless bureaucratic oppression of Stalin’s successors. But the case of the failed revolutionaries of the early twentieth century—Antonio Gramsci, say, or Rosa Luxemburg, or even Trotsky—is very different. They not only appear as martyrs to the revolutionary cause but also as symbols of a revolution that might have turned out differently.

Rosa Luxemburg is particularly interesting because, in addition to her utopian ideas about the nature of revolution and her rigorous Marxist analysis of militarism and imperialism, she was a woman of passionate personal feelings and deep unpolitical enthusiasms—for music and poetry, flowers and animals. She has not only become a political symbol of what is seen, rightly or wrongly, as an alternative type of revolution to that of Lenin, she has also become a legendary character, a heroine to be commemorated in art, as in R.B. Kitaj’s painting The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg (1960), or recreated in the recent sensitive and imaginative film Rosa Luxemburg by Margarethe von Trotta. It is not surprising that there should now be a new biography which emphasizes that she was, in Elzbieta Ettinger’s words, “a person of flesh and blood, with strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and nightmares.”

It is now over twenty years since the late J.P. Nettl published his two-volume biography of Rosa Luxemburg, a monumental work of sociology as much as history, which does full justice to her theoretical and political activities as well as to her personality. Since it was published, however, not only has the Luxemburg myth grown in size as people have seen in her the symbol of a socialist revolutionary whose ideas would, it is thought, not have ended in dictatorship and tyranny, but also a great deal of new material about her life has become available, particularly in Polish. In addition, recent scholarly studies of her attitude toward the Jews1 and of her association with Karl Liebknecht in the last years of her life2 have thrown light on important aspects of her career.

The strength of Elzbieta Ettinger’s book lies especially in her use of the new Polish material; and in particular it gives a convincing account of Rosa Luxemburg’s relations with the elusive Leo Jogiches, her lover for many years and after that a close political associate and friend until the end of her life. Although the author sometimes writes a little romantically and cannot always resist the temptation to be melodramatic by hindsight (“She had sixty-seven days to live…. She had fifteen more days to live”), she gives a vivid picture of Rosa’s contradictory and passionate nature and of her eventful personal life; “brilliant and courageous, she still was racked by insecurity and disappointments.”

The contradictions in Rosa Luxemburg’s character are already inherent in her family background. She was born in 1871 in Zamosć, a town in Russian Poland, the youngest of five children of a not very successful Jewish timber merchant; and although her mother came from a long line of Orthodox rabbis, the family was no longer strictly Orthodox. When she was three years old, and the father’s fortunes were declining rapidly, the family moved to Warsaw where she grew up until she broke away to study at the University of Zurich. Wrong treatment for a hip injury as a child left her lame for life.

Her reaction to the mixture of cultures in which she grew up—Yiddish, Polish, Russian (she attended an exclusive Russian-speaking high school)—was to dissociate herself from each of them, in the sense that she became a convinced internationalist, believing in a socialist future in which all such differences would disappear. While still at high school she began to read Marx and Engels and was already a member of a clandestine revolutionary group. Fear of arrest led to her being smuggled across the German border and then to her move to Zurich. (One story is that she was helped over the frontier by a village priest who believed her to be escaping from an oppressive Jewish family in order to be baptized and marry a Christian lover.) By 1890 she was enrolled in the university, studying botany and zoology, which she later abandoned for law and economics.

In Zurich she encountered the two most important influences in her life: she deepened her theoretical knowledge of Marxism and became actively involved in both Polish and international socialist politics; she also met and became the lover of Leo Jogiches; and indeed then and subsequently her personal and political development were inextricably involved with each other. Elzbieta Ettinger does much to make the shadowy figure of Jogiches more concrete than he is in previous accounts. He came from a well-to-do Jewish family in Wilno. His father died when he was a child and he was left well-off financially, so that he was able personally to subsidize his revolutionary activities. The famous Russian Marxist Plekhanov with whom he, and consequently Rosa, had a bitter quarrel, complained that Jogiches was using his money to establish himself as the equal of Plekhanov, who always had an exaggerated view of his own importance.

But Plekhanov was not entirely wrong when, in a letter to Engels, he described Jogiches as a miniature edition of Nechaev (“une miniature Ausgabe de Nechaieff“)—the unscrupulous Russian anarchist whose association with Bakunin in the 1860s had introduced a new note of conspiracy and violence into the revolutionary movement. Like Nechaev, Jogiches enjoyed a clandestine life and was a conspirator by nature, using many pseudonyms, preferring always to exercise influence in the background, and reluctant to play any public role. His passion for secrecy extended to his private life: during the seventeen years he was Rosa Luxemburg’s lover he refused to be openly recognized as such or to live with her.

She, on the other hand, regarded her self as married to him and assured her family in Poland, with whom she always maintained an affectionate if rather distant relationship, that she was indeed married, referring to him as Uncle Leo to her nephews and nieces. In fact she contracted a marriage of convenience in 1898 with Gustav Lübeck, the son of her Zurich landlady and a German citizen, in order to obtain the right to live in Germany—a move probably undertaken at Jogiches’s suggestion; and, as sometimes happens in such cases, the marriage proved harder to end than had been at first expected. It was five years before it was dissolved, and Ettinger suggests plausibly that Jogiches, who was handling the legal aspects in Zurich, may have had a hand in this delay.

There were clearly many causes of strain in the relationship. Leo refused to settle into a bourgeois way of life or provide Rosa with the children she longed for, and it is both pathetic and ironic to see the famous Marxist revolutionary writing to her lover, “I’ve two vases with violets on the table and a pink lamp-shade…and new gloves, and a new hairbrush and I’m pretty.”

But in addition to these personal difficulties there was a fundamental problem to do with their political activities, a problem only resolved after many years and the end of their sexual relationship. In the Zurich days it was Jogiches who was the politically and intellectually dominant partner, teaching Rosa Marxist theory, deciding on their political line in the Polish Socialist party which they were in process of splitting. But Rosa Luxemburg’s gifts as a theorist and, above all, as an orator soon made her publicly famous in a way Jogiches was never to be. She was already attracting attention at the congress of the Second International in Zurich in 1893, and by the end of the decade she was one of the bestknown figures in the international socialist movement as well as in the Socialist parties of Poland and Germany. “Everybody at the Congress [of the German Social Democratic party] treats me with great consideration,” she wrote in 1900, after her arrival in Germany. “I was asked to speak in big cities all over Germany.”

From then on she was one of the stars of the socialist movement. Her reputation as a Marxist theoretician was above all due to her part in the bitter debates in the German Social Democratic party from 1898 to 1903 over Eduard Bernstein’s call for a revision of orthodox Marxist doctrine. The revisionist controversy gave Rosa Luxemburg what she needed: a chance to satisfy her considerable ambition, an opportunity to indulge in the ruthless personal polemics at which she excelled, and, above all, an occasion to reassert her unswervingly rigid theoretical position. Elzbieta Ettinger does not attempt to assess Rosa Luxemburg’s work as a theorist: “No attempt was made here…to give a comprehensive analysis of her writings; such analyses are easily accessible” (perhaps she might have told us where). And yet the ideological passion and doctrinal rigor are as central to her biography as her passion for Jogiches and her longing for another kind of life. While it is right to stress her charm, cultivation, and sensibility it is also worth remembering that there was another side to her character, so that one of her Polish political opponents could describe her as a “pedantic and quarrelsome person with her mechanistic interpretation of Marxism.”

She was always to insist, as she did in her controversy with Bernstein, that society could not be changed or “capitalist class domination” broken by reforms but only by revolution. Although her own revolutionary activity was of necessity largely limited to words, it was action that she preached and longed for. Since bourgeois rule was based, in her view, on illegal use of force, it was no use trying to change it by legal means (an aspect of her teaching which may in part account for her popularity among student revolutionaries fifty years after her death).

In her mature political career she was to demonstrate both her love for abstract theoretical discussion, especially about economics, which was to bring her into conflict with Lenin at the time of the publication of her major theoretical work, The Accumulation of Capital, in 1913, and her practical devotion to revolution. “We cannot just stand with our arms crossed and wait for the historical dialectic to drop its ripe fruit into our lap,” she once exclaimed impatiently. And it was characteristic of the slightly patronizing and flirtatious attitude toward her adopted by the leaders of the German Social Democratic party that when she returned from Poland after taking an active part in the revolution of 1905 and made a fiery speech at the German party congress, August Bebel, the party’s most influential elder statesman, remarked that he found himself involuntarily looking down at his boots to see if he was already wading through pools of blood.

  1. 1

    Robert S. Wistrich, Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky (Barnes and Noble Books, 1976).

  2. 2

    Helmut Trotnow, Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919): A Political Biography (Archon Books/Shoe String, 1984).

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