Revolutionary Women

Marx's Daughters: Eleanor Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Angelica Balabanoff

by Ronald Florence
Dial, 258 pp., $10.00

Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar

edited and translated by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal
Knopf, 254 pp., $8.95

Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg; drawing by David Levine

The titles of both books under review have the ring of contributions to a fashionable cult: an impression confirmed in the case of the first by the anxious propitiation of the cult’s priestesses on page 10: “I have referred to the heroines of this book throughout by their first names or nicknames, not through any measure of condescension or disrespect….” The author’s sincerity is not to be doubted; he treats his subjects in the characteristic style of those eager to be counted in the ranks of the unprejudiced: self-conscious respect verging on sentimentality (page 190: “Angelica was determined to remain loyal—but to whom, to what?”).

The introduction raises portentous issues: “Almost unique among the great ideological movements of the nineteenth century, socialism numbered women among its leadership. Were they to be treated as ‘men’?…And could a movement as patriarchal in its origins…as Marxism ever adapt itself to the real, rather than the rhetorical, equality of women?” But little enlightenment on these questions is to be gained from the ensuing chaotic jumble of reflections on women and on Marxism.

The first study in Mr. Florence’s book is of a woman of middle-class background and education, whose position as Marx’s daughter encouraged her to dabble in advanced ideas, feminist and socialist, crowning her rebellion by an adulterous and unhappy union with a disreputable member of the socialist fringe. Marx’s bourgeois attitudes with regard to his own family are too well known to surprise many people, and this study is of interest only to those who want Victorian scandal and anecdote.

The other two studies in Marx’s Daughters center on the political careers of Angelica Balabanoff and Rosa Luxemburg, both daughters of well-to-do assimilated Jewish families, one Russian, the other Polish, who both devoted their lives to Marxist socialism. We are taken on a breathless tour around the monuments of Marxism—the Second International, Bernstein, Plekhanov, Lenin, Zimmerwald, Spartacus, the Comintern, with a commentary geared to journalistic cliché (“Already nationalism was rearing its ugly head.” “Nowhere was treason a popular cause in the summer of 1914”). The essay on Balabanoff has the merit of attempting to rescue from obscurity a thinker about whom too little has been written, in spite of her role in the forefront of the international socialist antiwar movement inaugurated at Zimmerwald in 1915, and her curious relationship as teacher and confidante with the young Mussolini, whom she helped in 1902 to rescue from destitution and to educate in socialism, later editing with him the Italian socialist organ Avanti.

However, there is no such justification for the essay on Rosa Luxemburg, whose importance as a theorist and opponent of Lenin’s centralism has earned her, quite apart from J.P. Nettl’s monumental biography (which makes no apology for calling her Rosa), a plethora of studies, large and small, to which this adds nothing.

Ironically, the book’s epigraph, Turgenev’s prose poem on a Russian woman…

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