Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory of Revolution

“In Rosa Luxemburg, the line between emotion and intelligence re­mained strong and direct. All her life it was the task of her intellect to explain what her gut told her was true.”


Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory of Revolution
March 1987

When I was a child, and Rosa Luxem­burg’s name was spoken, I heard a thrill of awe in the speaker’s voice. Who was she? I asked. A great socialist, I was told. She criti­cized Lenin, she was assassinated. For years I thought the Soviets had murdered her. I wasn’t so far off. The German Social Demo­crats shot her in 1919, but Joseph Stalin had her “excommunicated” in 1931. Rosa Luxemburg was destined, come any revolu­tion, to be killed by the authorities or de­nounced early as a counter-revolutionary.

Much has been written about Luxemburg, almost all of it by historians or political scientists out to attack or defend her criti­cisms of the Bolsheviks; the woman herself remains shadowy, abstract. Now Elzbieta Ettinger has written a biography rich in psychological insight and sexual perceptive­ness. Rosa Luxemburg: A Life allows us to see politics emerging from the influences and predilections that shaped a remarkable personality. Ettinger has lived long and inti­mately with her subject; she persuades us that she knows her well and loves her even better. We come to believe in Rosa because Ettinger neither apologizes for her nor whitewashes her. She lets Rosa speak for herself.

She was born Rozalia Luksenburg in 1870, in a small city in Russian-occupied Poland, to a family of secular Jews. The father did business in Yiddish, but Polish was spoken at home. The Jewish holidays were observed, but the mother read Polish and German literature. Town life was domi­nated by Jewish Orthodoxy and Polish ha­tred, but the Luksenburgs wanted an educa­tion for the children. When Rosa was three years old the family moved to Warsaw, and the education of the children began in earnest.

In 1873 the Poles were a humiliated peo­ple, their country split up among Russians, Prussians, and Austrians, their language outlawed, their aristocracy impoverished, their intelligentsia scattered. In Warsaw, the Poles hated the Russians, the Russians hated the Poles, and everybody hated the Jews. Ten years before, the Luksenburgs would have been forced to live in the Jewish quarter. Now, they were free to live outside the quarter but only in certain neighbor­hoods, and only on certain streets. There were other restrictions: Jews could do busi­ness, but not enter the professions; their children could attend school, but only under a rigid quota system. The Luksenburgs set­tled in, though little Rosa was apprehensive: She felt the excitement and anger of the big city. When she was five years old, it was discovered she had a congenital hip disloca­tion (a common occurrence among female infants). She was put to bed for a year with her leg in a cast. When she got up, one leg was shorter than the other.

So there she was, among the Russians and the Poles: a cripple, a Jew, a girl, with a mind that ran ahead like the wind, a defen­sively arrogant tongue, and a hunger for the world. She went looking for what she need­ed, and she found it among the illegal stu­dent socialists of Warsaw. Here, in the so­cialist underground, she opened her mouth to speak (she was 16 years old) and, sudden­ly, thought and feeling were hers to com­mand. Just as the one who will become an artist or a scientist discovers a live connec­tion with the inner life or the physical world, so Rosa discovered in socialism her own expressive self. The experience was exhilarating. More than exhilarating, it was clarifying. The discovery centered her, and the clarity became addictive.

She was sent to Zurich to study when she was 19, and she never went home again. Zurich was crawling with socialist exiles from all over Europe. She registered as a student in natural science, but the German socialist club — with its library, reading room, and lecture hall — became her true university. In the autumn of 1890 she met Leo Jogiches, a Lithuanian Jew three years her elder and already a famous revolution­ary. To Rosa, Jogiches seemed straight out of Dostoevsky — brooding, angry, unreach­able; given to secrecy and conspiracy; bril­liant at politics, hopeless at love; devoted to Bakunin’s definition of the revolutionary as a lost man: “He has no interests of his own, no cause of his own, no feelings, no habits, no belongings, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion — ­the revolution.” Rosa was enraptured and, in his own depressed way, so was Leo. Intellectually matched, each recognized in the other the missing half. Rosa had passion and eloquence, Leo a genius for strategy. She could talk and write, he could think and plan. The deal was this: They would make the revolution together late at night in a furnished room, then she’d go out and deliver it while he directed her performance from headquarters (that is, the room); between the two of them they’d make one fantastic socialist.

The 23-year-old Rosa climbed up on a chair at the Congress of the Second Socialist International and appealed for recogni­tion of the anti-nationalist Polish Marxist Party she and Leo Jogiches had just found­ed. This is how she was remembered at the meeting: “Small, with a disproportionately large head, she had a fleshy nose in a typically Jewish face.… [S]he walked with a pronounced limp, heavily, haltingly. At first glance she didn’t make an agreeable impres­sion, but after a short while one saw a wom­an bursting with life and spirit, endowed with a remarkable intellect.… She de­fended her cause with such magnetism in her eyes and in such fiery words that the majority of delegates, captivated and spell­bound, voted in favor of accepting her mandate.”

When she was 28, Rosa and Leo decided that she would move to Berlin to be close to the center of European socialism, the pow­erful German Social Democratic party. He would remain behind and direct her prog­ress from Zurich. Three weeks after her ar­rival, she addressed Polish-speaking, workers in Upper Silesia. Speaking more eloquently than ever before, Luxemburg made the workers feel that they lived on a grand scale of deprivation and injustice, history and heartbreak. They cheered and ap­plauded her, covered her with flowers, and spread the news about the astonishing wom­an from Poland. She knew then — and for the rest of her life — she had the power to hold a crowd. She returned to Berlin in a blaze of personal victory, the darling of the party elite. Karl and Luise Kautsky became her family, Clara Zetkin her best friend, Au­gust Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht her respectful colleagues.

This early success in the German party was a joy to her. When she’d first arrived in Berlin, she’d written Leo of her determina­tion to be brave and courageous, but she also kept reporting migraine headaches and stomach cramps. Now, after Upper Silesia, she was exultant, felt sexually desirable and gloriously intelligent. Also bold and funny. When Karl Kautsky suggested that she help him edit the fourth volume of Das Kapital, she refused and wrote to Leo: “Knowing full well that neither our contemporaries nor posterity would ever learn of my silent contribution to Marxism, I told him straight out, I’m nobody’s fool! Of course, I put it in an elegant form… I advised him to buy a Remington typewriter and teach his wife to type.”

Leo, meanwhile, sitting in Zurich, fainting with hope and ambition for her progress, was not impressed (he never was). He re­sponded only with letters of criticism, correction, and instruction. (“You missed some spelling errors,” she replied scornfully. “You also missed the point.”) But the letters flew back and forth, an endless attempt by each of them to control and manipulate, seduce and provoke.

She and Leo had become lovers in the summer of 1891, and they were to remain locked in an extraordinary symbiosis for the rest of their comparatively short lives. She wanted everything: sex and literature, marriage and children, walks on a summer eve­ning and the revolution. He hated daylight, sociability, and sex. He lay on the bed in the furnished room, chain-smoking, depressed for weeks and months on end, waiting for the revolutionary structure to form itself so he could exercise power behind the scenes. She accused him of coldness and rigidity, he accused her of frivolity and lack of disci­pline. She said personal happiness and the revolution were not mutually exclusive. He told her sternly this was nonsense.

He shut her out of his inner life, and Ettinger shows beautifully how the longing for intimacy with Leo held Rosa’s attention with the same unwavering power as did the revolution. Had he denied her consistently, she would have left him, but he didn’t: He gave her just enough to keep her coming back for more. He feared losing control over her, she feared losing contact with him. Each wanted from the other what the other could never give, but neither stopped want­ing it.

Thousands of letters passed between them. These letters are the relationship. He sends political analysis, she sends a demand for love. He sends advice, criticism, instruc­tion, she sends a storm of abuse over his emotional stinginess. “Your letters contain nothing but nothing except for The Work­ers’ Cause,” she rails at him early in their relationship. “Say something nice to me!” Ten years later she is writing: “When I open your letters and see six sheets covered with debates about the Polish Socialist Party, and not a single word about ordinary life, I feel faint.” This goes on letter after letter, year after year. She couldn’t believe that Leo would not finally respond to her request that they “shape a human being out of each other other,” live a regular life of mutual work and open love, devoted in harmony to the task before them. They remained as they were for 25 years: he depressed and withholding, she hungry and demanding.

In 1897, Eduard Bernstein delivered the first severe blow of revisionism to Marx. Rosa determined to answer it. She and Leo worked feverishly (in it together, then as ever) to clarify their ideas and her writing. (“Speed is essential… Help!” she had written him, and he did.) “Social Reform or Revolution” appeared in seven newspaper installments in September 1898, and was immediately declared a comprehensive refutation. Rosa was elected editor-in-chief of one of the major socialist papers in Berlin.

She settled down in Berlin, taught at the party school, wrote and lectured endlessly for socialism and the revolution. Her writing is distinguished by a knowledge of art, histo­ry, and literature, her speech made vivid by strength and immediacy of feeling. Her criticism of party writing is amazing. “I think that with every new article,” she advises her comrades back in Poland, putting out The Workers’ Cause, “one should experience the subject matter through and through, get emotionally involved, every single time, every single day. Only then will the old, familiar truths, expressed in words new and bright, go from the writer’s heart to the reader’s heart… The goal I set for myself is never to forget to reach deep into my own self, to be enthusiastic, inspired every time I put pen to paper.”

Because she never failed to “reach deep into her own self,” Luxemburg’s sense of the revolution remained remarkably whole and alive to the touch. She never lost sight of what she was fighting for, what socialism meant to her, what price she was willing to pay for it. Her position was often lonely but always independent. She thrived on the independence. Then suddenly it turned to isolation.

Her faith in international socialism grew desperate as Europe drifted toward war in 1914, and the mental paralysis of the theoretical socialists became apparent. Once the war broke out, German, French, and Austrian Social Democrats, one and all, abandoned the idea of the international working class and supported their own countries. ­Luxemburg remained adamantly opposed to the war — any war. She broke with the German party and helped found the Spartacus League, the self-declared only true Left. (Later, Clara Zetkin said that at the time Rosa had been on the verge of suicide.)

All was in chaos, the left plunged in disaster like the whole of Europe, everyone scattered and running. Rosa was arrested for the third time and sent to prison in 1915, where she remained until the end of World War I. Always before, prison had been something of a lark — visitors, books, good food, fur­nished cells — but now it was different. The party, in more ways than one, was over. Slowly, she was worn down. Her hair turned gray, and she began to grow confused in spirit and will. Her letters from prison are still filled with her changing moods, but beneath the life-giving excitement over nature, art, and history, a current of despair had begun to flow. Nevertheless, she read and wrote incessantly (Rosa Luxemburg depressed is like a thousand others operating on all cylinders), and in the summer of 1918, while still in prison, she completed a 60-page pamphlet called The Russian Revolution that has insured her place in modern political thought.

She knew Lenin well, and from the beginning was immensely drawn to him. She loved his fierce intellect, his fantastic will­power, his shrewd grasp of Russian reality. She felt more at home with him than with the urbane and theoretical Germans. But early on she sensed that if he could make a revolution, it would be a troubling one. In 1904, she wrote a paper on the Russian Social Democrats in which she said no to glori­fication of the proletariat and distrust of the intelligentsia, and above all no to the gath­ered authority of the party. Lenin “concen­trates mostly on controlling the party, not on fertilizing it,” she wrote, “on narrowing it down, not on developing it, on regiment­ing and not on unifying it.” This, she thought, did not bode well. When the revo­lution came, and the Bolsheviks assumed power, how she suffered. Those close to her begged her to remain silent, but she could not. A year after Lenin had taken control, and only six months before her death, she wrote from her prison cell:

[Lenin] is completely mistaken in the means he employs: decree, the dictatorial power of a factory overseer, Draconian penalties, rule by terror… 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… [Lenin and his comrades] have contributed to the cause of international socialism whatever could possibly have been contributed under such fiendishly difficult conditions. The danger begins, when they make a virtue of necessity… Freedom only for the supporters of the government… only for the members of the one Party, no matter how numerous is no freedom. Freedom is always for the one who thinks differently.

Now, indeed, she was alone.

Luxemburg was released from prison on November 10, 1918, and went immediately to Berlin. The city was in chaos: armed citizens, drunken soldiers, fighting everywhere, Germany’s defeat a rage and a confu­sion from which the people could not emerge. In a desperate attempt to save the failing monarchy, a Social Democrat had been named chancellor, but Friedrich Ebert was like no Social Democrat any of them had ever known. Luxemburg felt she was staring into space. With Jogiches and Karl Liebknecht at her side, she struggled to make the fledgling Spartacus League into the revolutionary group she yearned for, thinking it would assert socialist authority peacefully. Her efforts were doomed. Ebert had made a deal with the army to rid Germany of the ultra Left, and then the young Spartacists themselves had turned rancid. They wanted power now, and they wanted it violently. Day by day, Luxemburg watched control slip from her grasp, along with every hope of a democratic Left. On January 15 the police came for her. She thought she was being returned to prison and was actually relieved; the last two months had been a waking nightmare. She got into the car without a protest. She was taken to army headquarters for identification, then re­turned to the car, where she was shot in the head. Her body was dumped in a Berlin canal. Two months later, on the trail of her murderers, Leo Jogiches was beaten to death in an army barracks on the edge of the city. The men who killed them both were members of the Freikorps. Fourteen years later they became the Nazi police.

Ettinger focuses with skill and intelli­gence on Luxemburg’s relationship with Jo­giches, returning again and again to their unceasing struggle. She persuades us that here, in the letters Rosa wrote to Leo over 25 years, the power and originality of Luxemburg’s political spirit are to be found, maturing and taking shape. Ettinger em­phasizes — and rightly — Luxemburg’s sense of displacement, the depth of homelessness that made her believe “home” was to be found in a great cause, one that would allow world and self to merge, and emerge. She also tries to explain why, for Luxemburg, the cause had to be socialism.

Rosa’s early life had made her violently anti-nationalist and she was, I think it safe to say, a self-hating Jew and a self-hating woman as well. She carried her lack of sym­pathy for the Jews into more than one polit­ical battle, and her distaste for Clara Zet­kin’s feminism was notorious. She takes her place beside Karl Marx and Simone Weil, whose hatred of their own Jewishness is startling to read of now but understandable when taken in the context of its moment. These were people who longed to stand on the stage of the world. Jewishness dragged them down into the provincialism of a de­spised social reality without a movement of protest grand enough to satisfy large emo­tional ambitions. And if Jewishness was the ghetto of social protest, imagine how wom­en’s rights must have struck Luxemburg. Only if she’d been born 50 years earlier (or later), and on the other side of the Atlantic, might feminism have inspired her with a sufficient sense of grandeur.

So she made the socialist movement her home. As they all did. Everyone who came to Marxist revolution felt the same urgent stirrings driving them on. Luxemburg, how­ever, was one of the few who understood early (Kollontai was was another, Bukharin an­other) that it was home they were looking for. Socialism was to be the home human beings had been denied, the civilized and civilizing atmosphere where the brutishness of life would be dissolved, where defensive behaviors would cease and unresponsiveness die out.

She understood also that socialism had to be made from the inside out. She knew that if the socialists gave up sex and literature while they were making the revolution, there would be no home to occupy when they got there. What she wanted with Leo, in the here and now, was that they make a socialist home within themselves, for each other, to keep alive the promise of a new world. She knew that if they went under­ground inside themselves, they’d end up making police-state socialism.

This was Luxemburg’s single most impor­tant insight: The revolutionaries must re­main human throughout their struggle. Oth­erwise, what kind of revolution would these angry, repressed people make? Whom would it serve? And how would life be better after­wards? These thoughts never left her. They are there, year after year, in her letters to Leo, in the reasons she gives for wanting them to be close and to love each other freely. Out of these thoughts comes her op­position to war, her criticism of Lenin, her description of why she reads Tolstoy instead of Marx in prison. In Rosa Luxemburg, the line between emotion and intelligence re­mained strong and direct. All her life it was the task of her intellect to explain what her gut told her was true.

Perhaps Jogiches did her a favor. He kept her lonely throughout all the years of politi­cal tumult. In her loneliness she never stopped being hungry for life. She equated her hunger with the life force of democracy, the spiritual value of the revolution. If she had “come home” with Leo, she might have grown fat and contented and, her hunger abated, not felt it necessarilry to keep feeding knowledge that grew like a weed inside her. Then again, perhaps not. It’s hard to imagine Rosa inert. She was born to respond to the world and to make it respond to her.■

ROSA LUXEMBURG: A Life By Elzbieta Ettinger Beacon Press, $24.95