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…

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