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.

Rosa Luxemburg thought that she had seen in the Russian revolution of 1905 a pattern which a future, more successful, revolution might follow. During the next years she became one of the most eloquent advocates of the revolutionary general strike as among the best means of making the revolution. She thought that what she had seen in Russian Poland was a spontaneous demonstration by the mass of the people of their potential power to bring government to a standstill by a general strike and so prepare the way for the overthrow of the regime. “The masses were driven into the revolution,” she wrote in a pamphlet, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906), “not a trace of union organization, and step by step they built and strengthened their organizations in the course of the struggle.”

To the day of her death she remained unflinchingly optimistic about the possibilities of a spontaneous mass movement and the efficacy of the general strike. The leaders of the German Social Democratic party remained unconvinced: “Generalstreik ist Generalunsinn” (“General strike is general nonsense”), Bebel was fond of repeating. But if Luxemburg’s faith in a spontaneous general strike was one of the growing number of issues on which she disagreed with the party leadership, it was also one of several points on which she differed from Lenin, now beginning to make his name as a rising man on the left of the international socialist movement. They disagreed about the economic theory of capital accumulation, but, more important, Luxemburg’s insistence that a successful revolutionary movement must be spontaneous, her belief that the mass of the proletariat would know when the moment for action had come and that they could not and should not be forced into making a revolution by their leaders and against their own instincts, was the opposite of the theory of the centralized disciplined revolutionary party that Lenin was developing in the years before 1914.

This was a difference of view that was to persist; and in 1918, for all Luxemburg’s admiration for the success of the Bolsheviks in seizing power, she was to write in a pamphlet which some of her colleagues begged her not to publish,

Socialism by its very nature, cannot be dictated, introduced by command…. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free exchange of opinions, life dies out in every public institution and only bureaucracy remains active…. Infact, then, it is a clique—certainly a dictatorship, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but that of a handful of politicians.

Elzbieta Ettinger may well be right when she says, “Nothing was ever so painful to write as her assessment of the Russian Revolution”; and Rosa Luxemburg’s dilemma about the relative importance of discipline and organization in revolution on the one hand and spontaneity and democracy on the other has never been resolved—as indeed the recent student demonstrations in China remind us.

However, although critical of Lenin’s conception of the authoritarian party, Rosa Luxemburg was herself rigidly insistent on the need for intellectual consistency and very intolerant of those who disagreed with her view of what the correct theoretical line should be. Her attacks on her opponents were skillful, scathing, and brilliantly written, and turned many former friends—notably the official theorist of the German party, Karl Kautsky—into bitter enemies; it has even been suggested that it was the virulence of Luxemburg’s attack that drove Kautsky into a breakdown requiring a stay in a sanitarium, just as there was gossip to the effect that she was causing the breakdown of his marriage (his wife Luise was one of Rosa’s closest friends).

Rosa’s gifts as a journalist, pamphleteer, and political orator always ensured her large audiences among the German socialists, for whom a political meeting was as much a form of entertainment as a revolutionary act. The size of her audience may not necessarily be evidence of the influence of her ideas but simply of the fact that you could be sure of an exciting evening if Rosa was speaking. Her reputation rapidly became an international one, especially after she started to suffer from her revolutionary work. Her first experience of prison—for a speech criticizing the Kaiser—was in 1904. She was becoming more and more involved in campaigning against militarism and calling for effective socialist action to prevent a European war, the outbreak of which seemed increasingly likely from 1905 onward. At the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart in 1907 she succeeded, in collaboration with Lenin, with whom she was at the time comparatively friendly, in inserting a revolutionary coda to the composite resolution on militarism and war:

Should war break out…it is the duty of socialists…to do all in their power to use the economic and political crisis to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.

It was a doctrine to which both Luxemburg and Lenin remained faithful in their respective ways after 1914.

Luxemburg’s internationalism was one of the most important aspects of her thought and action; and in turn it was part of her faith that a successful revolution would solve all problems. Thus she and Jogiches had split the Polish Socialist party on the question whether the political independence of the Polish state should take priority over the social revolution. She was convinced that, as Marx and Engels had stated in the Communist Manifesto, the working man had no country, so that the Polish worker had more in common with a German or a Russian worker than he did with a member of the Polish bourgeoisie or aristocracy. She was equally convinced that it was wrong to make a special issue of anti-Semitism. “For the followers of Marx,” she wrote, “the Jewish question as such does not exist, just as the ‘Negro Question’ or the ‘Yellow Peril’ does not exist. Only,” she went on, “a fundamental transformation of the capitalist system can eliminate the radical attacks on ‘Jewry.”‘

She has been criticized for indifference to the sufferings of the Jews in Russia; and it is true that her determination to escape from her own background made her refuse to treat the persecution of the Jews as different from any other form of persecution. (It was only reluctantly that she supported the campaign on behalf of Dreyfus, for example.) In fact she could not escape her own origins. Although she could speak of one of her German colleagues as an “obese, bearded Jew,” she was herself constantly the victim of anti-Semitic slights and innuendoes as well as being criticized for being a foreigner from Poland, to say nothing of being a woman.

Her attitude to the movement for the emancipation of women was not dissimilar to her attitude toward the Jews: once the revolution had been achieved all these injustices would disappear, and in the meantime it was wrong to treat the feminist cause in isolation. Since her days in Zurich she had been a great friend of Clara Zetkin, the leading feminist in the German Social Democratic party: and indeed for five years, from 1907 to 1912, Costya Zetkin, Clara’s rather unsatisfactory son, was Rosa’s lover—an episode which Ettinger analyzes with considerable sensitivity. Rosa herself likened it to something out of the pages of Stendhal, and it must have complicated Clara’s relations with Rosa, who was fifteen years older than Costya. But she was always slightly contemptuous of Clara’s feminism: “Clara is good to me, as usual, but slightly meshugge over that feminist stuff, doesn’t address general ideas.”

For all her success as an orator and writer, Rosa Luxemburg was often isolated within the German Social Democratic party; and in her personal life she was also lonely. The relationship with Jogiches seemed to come to an end, as he discovered to his intense anger when he returned to Berlin after escaping from a Russian prison, although their friendship was later to revive as a comradely political and intellectual cooperation. By 1912 Costya Zetkin had moved away from her. In 1914 she had a short passionate affair with Paul Levi, who was to be one of the founders of the German Communist party, again a man much younger than herself. Levi remained devoted to her until the end of her life, and indeed after her death when he tried hard to bring her murderers to justice. In her last years she was looked after jealously by her secretary Mathilde Jacob; but one can’t help feeling that by now her warmest feelings outside politics were centered on her cat Mimi.

Yet it was from this position of comparative personal isolation that Rosa Luxemburg was to embark on the most dramatic and notorious period of her life. By the time war broke out in 1914 her violent speeches against militarism had led again to her prosecution and although in 1914 she was acquitted at one of her trials, she had already been condemned to a year’s imprisonment on an earlier charge, so that, after the failure of an appeal and a further postponement because of ill health, she began her sentence in February 1915. Within five months of her release in 1916 she was arrested again and was kept in “protective custody” until November 1918.

During these years of imprisonment, however, she was achieving her greatest fame and staking her claim to be one of the leaders of the German revolution. Her pamphlets—the so-called Juniusbroschüre and her contribution to the Spartacus letters from which her party took the name of Spartacists—sounded a clear call to end the war and make a revolution, and she was already acquiring a symbolic importance both for her supporters and her opponents.

During her agitation against the war she began to work closely with the man whose name has been associated with hers ever since, Karl Liebknecht. It was an odd relationship; they certainly were never lovers as gossip then and subsequently maintained, and Rosa rather despised his volatile temperament and lack of theoretical rigor. (He was a romantic radical rather than a true Marxist.) Their backgrounds were very different. He was the son of Wilhelm Liebknecht, the cofounder with Bebel of the German Socialist party; and from his youth Karl seemed destined for leadership, only to be rejected because already before the war his violent antimilitarism had become an embarrassment to the cautious party bosses. He was a member of the imperial parliament and in December 1914 was the first person to vote against the credits which the government needed for carrying on the war. Like Luxemburg, he spent most of the rest of the war in jail, and like her he became a popular symbol of uncompromising opposition to the slaughter.

Liebknecht and Luxemburg were released from their prisons in a situation of the utmost confusion. They found themselves swept into the leadership of what must have seemed to Rosa Luxemburg a mass movement of the kind that she had always regarded as the essential base for a successful revolution. In fact, however, it soon became clear both that the Spartacists, who in December 1918 became the German Communist party, were in a minority even on the left and that they lacked any sort of organizational apparatus which might have enabled the leaders to control the sporadic popular outbreaks in Berlin and elsewhere. Whereas in Russia in 1917 the framework of government had collapsed and Lenin had in the Bolshevik party a means of seizing power, in Germany the form of government had changed but its structure was intact, and the Socialists who had come to power were already striking a bargain with the army and other reactionary groups in order to maintain order in the streets.

The final stage of the drama of Luxemburg and Liebknecht is well known. Early in January 1919 the growing unrest in Berlin became open violence in protest against the government’s dismissal of the left-wing chief of police. The revolutionary leaders—independent socialists, communists, and others—seemed uncertain what they were trying to do in this confused situation. It was clear that there was no chance of their seizing power and taking over the government; but any negotiation with the authorities seemed like a betrayal. As Luxemburg wrote on January 8, rather overoptimistically, “The masses are ready to support any revolutionary action, to go through fire and water for socialism. But they need clear guidance and ruthless determined leadership.” And this is just what they did not have. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were the victims of their own revolutionary rhetoric and of Rosa’s faith in the spontaneous revolution. They felt obliged to go along with an uprising which they must have realized was doomed to failure, even if, in public at least, Rosa refused to give up hope: “A future victory will blossom from this ‘defeat.’…Tomorrow the revolution will rear its head once more and announce…amid the brass of trumpets, ‘I was, I am, I always will be.”‘ On January 15, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who had gone into hiding, were discovered and arrested; later they were murdered, and Rosa Luxemburg’s body thrown into the Landwehr Canal from which it was not recovered until four months later.

Rosa Luxemburg’s life ended in failure. Her utopian vision of the spontaneous revolution bore little relation to the realities in Germany in 1918, which were better appreciated by the shrewd politicians in the German Social Democratic party whom she had spent much of her life attacking. But then they were no more successful either. A study of Rosa Luxemburg is hard to write. It must bring out the range of her activities in both the Polish and German socialist movements and the place of those movements in European society. It must analyze her theoretical writings—and her ideas about imperialism are of considerable originality and interest. It must explain the contrast between the success of her oratory and the failure of her political practice. It must give an account of a remarkable and fascinating woman with a complex private life and a tragic fate. Perhaps this is impossible to achieve. But at least Elzbieta Ettinger has provided us with many clues to help us understand Rosa’s troubled, sensitive, and impetuous nature and her reactions to the tumult of her time.

This Issue

March 26, 1987