Notes on Rosa Luxemburg at 150

by | 12 Oct 2021

Simone Weil was fascinated by Rosa Luxemburg, reading her brought her joy. In the 1930s, in European left-wing circles, Luxemburg had an aura; a woman with a rigorous mind, a fighter, a revolutionary, a martyr – her name, when it was pronounced, appeared to glitter. And in ’68 and the following years, young men and women of the radical left read and annotated her books. Luxemburg made the idea of a communism different to that imposed in the USSR dance before their eyes, a desirable communism, revolutionary – and this appealed to them – but anti-bureaucratic, even democratic; a communism that did not abandon the concept of a party as vanguard of the proletariat even though she had a profound trust in the spontaneous movement of the masses, a necessary movement but not a blind one; and then she was anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, pacifist. The libertarian left, the anarchists, had been arguing continuously with her even after the Second World War. They thought of her as a sister blocked by the bonds of a senseless fidelity; Daniel Guérin, libertarian socialist, even as late as 1971, engaged with her, despite her absence, on the revolutionary spontaneity and the general strike. Lelio Basso’s[1] book, Socialism or Barbarism, dedicated to her, was republished recently (Edizioni E/O, 2021). How will it be read today, when the richness of her intellect endures as little more than a metaphor for an innocent communism (if only because it never had time to become incarnate in a power-structure) and as a famous woman who stood alone inciting to battle, a reputation which reflects Joan of Arc and Delacroix’s revolutionary icon – whereas in truth she never was alone, there were always significant other women in the German Social Democratic Party not to mention her correspondents such as her slightly older friend Clara Zetkin[2] or Mathilde Wurm[3] a few years her junior.

Today, Rosa Luxemburg, is an inset snapshot in the long and cursory hagiographic catalogue of distinguished women from Hypatia to Kamala Harris. But is that all? The 150th anniversary of her birth gives us the chance to find her again. It’s true that her worldview and the ways of narrating it, the expectations of the future, the concept of history are all changed beyond recognition. The fracture of 1989 and the surrounding decade is so profound, that looking at the lived experience of Rosa Luxemburg sometimes feels like a contemplating a barbaric period from inside a sibylline head, numinous and silent. But for this woman who was among the inventors of communism, is there no more to say? In truth, the barbarism of which she wrote has never been defeated.

Weil was particularly fascinated by the prison letters (published in France in 1933). She thought of Rosa Luxemburg’s love for the world, her powers of observation, her serenity as pagan, or more precisely stoic. Stoicism was that mode of fully living the historic condition but without anguish. Weil was also attracted by the completeness of Rosa’s life, the fact that she did not simply dedicate herself to thought and action, but also made space for contemplation and compassion.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamosc in the province of Lublin in south-east Poland. After the Congress of Vienna, Poland was divided into three areas controlled by Austria, Germany and Russia. Zamosc was under Russian control. It was a harmonious city of porticos, of Renaissance origin, planned by an Italian architect and Rosa’s home looked out on the great market square. She was born in 1871 to a well-to-do and cultured Jewish family. The Jewish presence in Zamosc was not exactly small; around the time of her birth about 40% of her fellow citizens were Jews, nevertheless, the memory of the pogroms was vivid. These were years when, throughout Europe, the daughters of bourgeois Jewish families emerged from their houses and took part in social and political life. Emma Goldman[4] was a coeval; Angelica Balabanoff[5] was born near Kiev in 1878 – to name but two.

Rosa was a brilliant student, flourishing in a cultivated family in which one read the Old Testament and the classics out loud. In her youth she was already active in socialist politics. She took part in waves of violently suppressed strikes and subsequently fled to Switzerland where she attended university. In her thesis on industrial development in Poland, presented at Zurich, she took a position in opposition to the Polish Socialist Party, declaring her hostility towards efforts to bring about the reunification of her country, in full knowledge that an independence movement would slide inevitably into nationalism, by definition authoritarian and anti-worker. Her orientation was internationalist from the very beginning.

By 1898 she was in Germany, in the Social Democratic Party (SPD). If the SPD presented itself at the time as a Marxist and revolutionary party, the sirens of reformism and parliamentarianism were seducing its leaders and the revolution was slowly transforming into an objective which was glittering and prestigious but infinitely embarrassing. Rosa was a revolutionary.

Nowadays, it is difficult to put oneself in Rosa’s frame of mind, to imagine her state of expectation, when the disappointment of the communist experience is taken as a settled fact, when the distrust of change, the common sense of the dangers which accompany the management of power are widespread and established, the concept of revolution seems like an old toy with a superficial shimmer, something risible which above all produces nostalgia. But the entire 19thcentury was a period of violent upheavals (after the French Revolution came 1830, then ’48 and the Comune) so it was not difficult to imagine that things would change in that way. And in the twenty years that preceded The Great War, the form taken by class struggle – general strikes, terrible repression, true and actual revolution (despite failure in Russia in 1905), gave the impression that Marx’s predictions were about to be fulfilled and indicated to the social democratic parties a role as the vanguard of history. 

During her years in the SPD up until 1914 Luxemburg fought with every means at her disposal against cowardly and reformist tendencies, her principal rhetorical adversary being Bernstein[6].  The conflict over the strategy of general strike had been going on for years, Rosa praising it as a possible action superior to parliamentary action, valorising its revolutionary implications; the SPD leadership fearing it for precisely this reason, because of the impossibility of controlling it; Rosa accusing them of thinking like guardians, of functioning as conservatives. In these years she wrote in the social democratic newspapers; she participated in the party congresses; she published books and pamphlets (Social Reform or Revolution of 1899; The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions of 1906; The Accumulation of Capital of 1913); she identified the necessity for empire and colony inherent in capitalism; she maintained that working class consciousness was formed in struggle and for this reason every instrument of democracy was fundamental, the freedom to be critical was indispensable, and conversely that by imposing its leadership the elite will ensure that power remains with the elite (this insight contrasts with Lenin). From 1907 she taught at the Party school – economics, the history of socialism and the phases of the class struggle which for her meant ‘formation through struggle’. She was, right until the end, an internationalist and a pacifist and she experienced the SPD vote for war bonds as a catastrophe, which implied that the SPD, in common with most of the social democratic parties of Europe, chose loyalty to fatherland over class loyalty.

Luxemburg wrote to Hans Diefenbach[7] in November 1914:

‘My state of mind has improved since the beginning. Not that I see things more rosily, or that there are reasons to be joyful, on the contrary. But the brutality of the first shock that one undergoes becomes blunted when the shocks become quotidian. It’s very obvious that the Party and the International have split, completely split, but it is exactly the extent of the disaster, a world historic tragedy, which can only be confronted with an objective historic critique without the angry personal gestures; it is useless, ultimately, to tear ones hair’.

So Soltanto Che Si È Umani – Lettere 1891-1918[8]

This spirit, this capacity to restore perspective and a centre of gravity even after the most violent blows, the capacity to remain steady at the centre of life emerges from all of her letters but above all from the letters from prison. Luxemburg was in and out of prison – they put her in preventative arrest in advance of a protest or they imprisoned her after a public appearance. If in all the letters one senses irony, a taste for provocation, a profound culture, it seems that in prison her writing became even more agile, lighter, with a more profound attentiveness:

‘Dear God (she wrote to Hans Diefenbach in 1917) do I not have enough reasons to be grateful and happy when the sun shines and the birds sing that ancient song whose meaning I have understood so well? Someone who has made me see reason is a little companion of whom I send you an image […] his name is Hippolais[9] in German, ‘a bird of the pergola’, or ‘the garden jester’ […] This bird is a decidedly singular eccentric. For example, he doesn’t produce a song or a melody like the others, but he is a born haranguer of the people. He directs forceful addresses to the garden in a powerful voice, carried into the air on dramatic excitement: brusque passages, an emotional crescendo. He makes increasing demands, he maintains more and more courageous propositions, his contradiction of opinions no one has expressed are fiery, he beats down a door and immediately shouts: “What did I tell you! What did I tell you!”. Immediately afterwards, having solemnly notified everyone: “You’ll see!! You’ll see!!”’  

(I could not avoid thinking, reading these words, of the little birds in Elsa Morante’s The World Saved By Children and also in her History which sing “A joke, it’s a joke, everything is a joke”. Who knows if it is a direct debt? It certainly seems so).

In prison, Rosa became impassioned by Shakespeare and she thought a great deal of Goethe, but she recognised a greater role for culture than merely to bring her comfort in her cell. In 1916 she wrote to Franz Mehring[10]:

‘You have saved from the world of the bourgeoisie – bringing it to us, in the world of the disinherited – that which remained of the marvellous treasures of bourgeois intellectual culture. With your books and your articles you have united indissolubly the German proletariat not just with classical German philosophy, not just with Kant and Hegel, but with Lessing, Schiller and Goethe’.

During the war years Rosa Luxemburg was in prison. And in 1916, the Spartacus League was founded, its programme framed in a document which Rosa made available to her comrades from her prison cell. In April 1917, the crisis of German social democracy grew ever more acute; the centre and the left abandoned the SPD and founded the USPD, the independent social democratic party. In 1917, when the Russian Revolution happened, Luxemburg was again in prison in Breslavia. On the basis of such information as she could find, she wrote about it. 

When she was released in 1918 she was just two months away from death. In a Germany, much reduced by defeat, exhausted, humiliated, starving, a provisional government was formed with three SPD ministers and three from the USPD. A revolutionary wave passed through the country, workers and soldiers councils were formed. The government tried, by every means possible, to control and frustrate the actions of the councils. In the meantime, it tolerated the formation of anti-worker paramilitary corps. Rosa Luxemburg was doubly in a minority position – against the government on one side, and against the extremist drive of the Spartacists on the other. At the congress of councils the Spartacists had very little weight. Luxemburg, Liebknecht[11] and Jogiches[12] maintained it was necessary to participate in the Constituent Assembly, but with the foundation of the KPD, the German Communist Party, in 1919 they renounced their positions. These were months of impressive agitation, more or less spontaneous. On the 5th of January there was an enormous demonstration in Berlin and on the 6th the revolutionary committee proclaimed the revolution. Despite her defeat Rosa Luxemburg was in the thick of it, in full consciousness; faithful to her idea that the role of leaders was to be with the masses, she did not abandon the insurgents. 

On the 15th of January, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered by the Freikorps, the paramilitary anti-worker and anti-socialist formation.

A few years before, Rosa Luxemburg had written to Mathilde Wurm, her friend and advocate of social democracy: ‘you[13] would be completely ready to sell “a pinch of heroism”, but only “for cash” […] the accounting ledger requires that “the nature of the purchase” must always be clear. The words of the honest and simple man were not uttered for you: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. What God will come to my aid”. But still it was Rosa who said in 1915, with all her irony and her taste for life which by now we know well, writing from prison to Louise Kautsky[14]: ‘It really is necessary that someone should believe me when I say that, essentially, I was destined to mind geese and that if I vault into the turbines of history it is purely by mistake.’

Carola Susani is a prizewinning Italian novelist and member of the editorial board of the Italian literary journal Nuovi Argomenti.

William Wall is an Irish novelist and poet.

Originally published in Nuovi Argomenti #7 of 2021, Rome.

© In the original Carola Susani 2021

The translation is Creative Commons

[1] Italian Marxist, antifascist,  journalist and politician. Interned by Mussolini.  Died 1978.

[2] Prominent Marxist theorist and communist activist and feminist. Died Soviet Union 1933. 

[3] SPD and USPD politician and journalist. Died, allegedly by suicide, in London 1935. 

[4] Anarchist, born in Russia in 1969, subsequently emigrated to the USA and died there in 1940

[5] Socialist notable for her stay in Italy here she was an important figure in leftwing politics, and also for her book The Traitor Benito Mussolini, a biography of the dictator whom she knew personally during his socialist period

[6] Marxist theoretician and revisionist member of the SPD.  Died Berlin 1932.

[7] Physician and close friend of Luxembourg. Died at the front 1917.

[8] Translator’s note: I can find no translation of this volume but see The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, Verso 2013,]

[9] Probably a warbler.

[10] Historian, journalist and leading member of the Spartacus League. Said to have died of a broken heart after the death of Rosa Luxemburg.

[11] Founding member of the Spartacus League. 

[12] Polish Marxist and companion of Rosa Luxemburg.  Murdered by Freikorps 1919.

[13] The Italian verb is in the second person plural indicating, in the context, a group, tendency or party, but also Mathilde Wurm and her husband Emanuel who, as members of the USPD gave qualified support to the war effort. The letter admonishes the Wurms – ‘Fortunately the history of humanity was not made by people like you…’

[14] Prominent Jewish Marxist. Murdered Auschwitz 1944.


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