“Red Rosa now has vanished too.
Where she lies is hid from view.
She told the poor what life is about.
And so the rich have rubbed her out.”
--Bertolt Brecht, Epitaph, 1919
Brecht’s short tribute to Luxemburg, written in 1928, during the crisis of the Weimar Republic, provides a somewhat apt introduction into the reception history of the Polish Communist. The short poem places Luxemburg into circulation by taking her out of particular context, removing the rich legacy of her polemics, critical engagements, and speeches. The circulated residue acts as a cipher, allowing for her appropriation. The reason for Brecht’s obfuscation is fairly obvious, allowing him to negotiate between the expectations placed on him by the official communist movement and his fairly idiosyncratic Marxism, but the tendency to transform Luxemburg into such a symbol goes beyond the particular situation of Brecht. Luxemburg has been taken up as a symbol for a multiplicity of movements, from critiques of the official Communist movement to feminist critics and activists and those looking for an anti-authoritarian past to redirect the New Left. The original publication of the larger collection of Luxemburg’s letters themselves fit into the rising field of history from below and the early focus of women’s studies on recovering an archive of an alternative women’s history, frequently through letters, memoirs, and other previously private documents. The current volume under consideration makes a similar claim, arguing that Luxemburg’s analysis and political legacy offers a powerful set of tools to respond to the contemporary political, cultural, and economic crises. It opens a new fourteen volume collection promises to provide dozens of essays never formally published in English. The question is, does this claim hold weight, and, if so, does this volume offer the best entrance into her critical framework?
The new edition, which includes 246 of the some 2,800 letters contained in the German edition, captures a dense set of personal and political relations. The vast majority of the early letters are written to Luxemburg’s lover and fellow party member, Leo Jorgiches, but the focus of her letters shift after 1905 to include a number of other figures in the Polish, German, and Russian social democratic milieu. Those early letters engage with the often problematic and combative relationship between Luxemburg and Jorgiches. Later letters engage with the fallout of their break up and her later relationship with Clara Zetkin’s son, Kostya Zetkin. But the letters don’t exclusively focus on her personal relationships, bringing in material from Luxemburg’s long running political association with Clara Zetkin, her often shaky relationship with SPD party leader Karl Kautsky, as well as a number of other significant social democratic figures. The initial introduction argues that the current volume will give readers the historical context to understand the various more formal writings be presented in the future, therefore allowing for a deeper understanding on the part of contemporary readers. Peter Hudis notes in his introduction, “We lose a great deal by reading Luxemburg’s works abstracted from the internal as well as external conflicts that she engaged in as she sought to chart an independent path on an array of political and economic issues.” (Hudis ix) The current volume argues that it, along with the larger publication project, attempts to place the large volume of her work within the grasp of an English speaking audience, who previously could not access the previously untranslated and unpublished work.
Luxemburg’s value as currency can’t be entirely disconnected from her own particular history. Born in Poland in 1871, she spent most of her adult life in Germany after she had to escape Poland due to her involvement in socialist agitation, leading her to play a prominent role in both the Polish and German movements, as well as having an impact on the Russian struggles. Luxemburg resisted the call for self-determination on the part of the Polish Socialist Party and the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, arguing that such a call would benefit bourgeois nationalist movements far more than the nascent socialist movement. She and Leo Jorgiches broke from the Polish Socialist Party to form another organization, which eventually became Social Democracy in the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, an organization defined by its simultaneously close and antagonistic relations with the Russian Social Democrats. She also played a significant role within several debates of the Socialist Party of Germany, arguing against the revisionist theories of Edward Bernstein along with Karl Kautsky, as well as rejecting Kautsky’s criticisms of the general strike, and eventually against the party’s approval of war credits for the First World War. That position led to her imprisonment and eventually to her part in the formation of the insurrectionary Spartacist League, which led to her assassination along with fellow revolutionary Karl Liebknecht in 1919. Through these conflicts, Luxemburg was at the center of the main conflicts of the 2nd International, constantly challenging reformist elements within these movements as well top down approaches to organizing.
However, this brief biography doesn’t give credit to her idiosyncratic role within the debates of her time. Although Luxemburg accepted the basic Marxist framework of her time, which emphasized the inevitability of the proletarian revolution, she challenged the basic presuppositions of both the dominant strains of the 2nd International as well as the premises of what would come to dominate the 3rd International. Additionally, her longer economic tract moved way from a number of orthodox readings of Marx’s critique of political economy, advancing and revising his theories concerning the question of social and economic reproduction. She also rejected the premise of self-determination that would dominate the political logic of both formations. Effectively, Luxemburg refused the common sense logic of both movements, which placed the site of struggle within the context of the nation-state form, gesturing towards a new, cosmopolitan form of struggle. This position puts her out of sync with the long series of anti-colonial movements that defined the 20th century, which has led to some of the most severe critiques of her politics. Additionally, Luxemburg refused both the parliamentarianism of the Social Democratic parties that came out of the split in the International and the vanguardist concept of democratic centralism that would come to define the movements of the Communist International. Instead, her work continually emphasized the importance of the collective self-organization of workers. Institutional structures such as trade unions and social democratic parties played a conserving and rearguard role in such actions, preserving the gains of collective action, rather than playing the vanguard role of such struggles.
She notably challenges Lenin’s concept of discipline in her lengthy essay, “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy.” She criticizes the concept of discipline of Lenin’s polemic, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, by opposing it with what she considers a genuinely revolutionary discipline.
“We misuse words and we practice self-deception when we apply the same term – discipline – to such dissimilar notions as: 1. the absence of thought and will in a body with a thousand automatically moving hands and legs, and 2. the spontaneous coordination of the conscious, political acts of a body of men. What is there in common between the regulated docility of an oppressed class and the self-discipline and organization of a class struggling for its emancipation?”
Luxemburg radically opposes the top down approach taken by Lenin, arguing that its organizational logic, its concept of discipline, draws on and uncannily replicates the structures of capitalist domination. She opposes this with a concept of discipline that she links with class militancy created in the atmosphere of free association and self-organization. This alternative version of discipline is dependent on a concept of organization based in experimentation, risk, and failure. The revolutionary capacities of the proletariat are produced within this laboratory of experimentation, rather than through the guidance and dictates of a central committee. It is this aspect of Luxemburg’s politics that constitutes the most significant aspect of her legacy, aligning itself with the participatory democracy of the New Left, and offering a substantially different vision of a socialist vision than the one offered by the tarnished vision of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The effort to resurrect Luxemburg’s legacy through the publication of this expanded edition of the letters can only be understood within this context. If the publication of the initial set of letters was linked to the study of the subterranean documents of an insurgent subaltern in the history from below tradition and the feminist claim that ‘the personal is political’, than why begin the new publication of these new works with an expanded set of letters?
The new edition makes a number of claims for this choice, ranging from their literary quality to the theoretical and political questions that the letters touch upon. But the strongest argument made concerns the context that the letters bring to Luxemburg’s political writings historically and psychologically. While I agree with this basic premise, I’m not sure that the letters offer the ideal introduction to those internal and external conflicts. The letters are certainly evocative at times and the complex negotiations and conflicts with her lover and partner Leo Jorgiches provide interesting material for feminist analysis. However, the letters are fragmentary, often influenced by censorship of prison, and often assume a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader. Certainly, the editors of the new edition provide footnotes for the letters and a glossary of historical figures and organizations, but this work cannot provide the context that one could find in a good biographical or historical survey of the period. The current volume could have made up for this deficiency by including a historical sketch of Luxemburg, but aside from a short but useful history of the publication history of the letters written by the editor of the German edition, Annelies Laschitza, very little is given on the history of Luxemburg or her times within the introductory material and certainly not a biography.
If the collection of letters doesn’t offer a useful introduction to Luxemburg for either a casual audience or an audience interested in getting to know her ideas, one could conceivably ask the question whether it has any value outside of the raw materials for historians, biographers, and critics of Luxemburg’s political and economic theories. I’m tempted to accept that interpretation. The focus on Luxemburg’s letters strikes me as another attempt to empty her of the particular analytical framework that defines her polemical and analytical works in order to circulate her within contemporary debates. However, this transformation of Luxemburg into contemporary currency loses out on the density and complexity of her analysis. At the same time, Luxemburg’s collection of letters resists this transformation into empty symbol. While this material lacks historical context, it allows for an exploration of Luxemburg’s interpersonal relations that cut across the Social Democratic Parties of Germany, Poland, and Russia. This deep interconnection between the various socialist and social democratic parties not only gestures towards the strength of the 2nd International, but also toward the porous quality of the now seemingly naturalized borders of the European nation-states involved. It is a reminder of the relative novelty of the form, a form that Benedict Anderson reminds us has its origin in the 19th century.
The letters also deeply tie Luxemburg into the concerns and conflicts of her times through her personal, literary, and historical interests. At a personal level, Luxemburg’s perspective on femininity troubles the feminist appropriations of her work. As Sheila Rowbotham notes in her review of the letters, Luxemburg’s relationship to the nascent feminist movement remained detached and ambiguous, refusing the role of the ‘new woman.’ Her relationship to the patriarchal elements of the party was defined by complex negotiation, rather than rebellion. The letters also contain a strong literary dimension to them, both in a complex series of references to novels and poetry, and their expressive quality. Critic Walter Jens, referenced in the introduction, connects the quality of Luxemburg’s prose to the early expressionist work of Robert Musil and Rainer Maria Rilke, but the strong thread of 19th century romanticism, as well as the work of Goethe is a more likely influence on her prose style. Each of these introduces a dimension of interiority not contained in Luxemburg’s other work, a dimension that simultaneously establishes Luxemburg’s singularity, as well as mooring her to 19th century literary and personal constructions of the self.
The complex fragments represented by these letters become significant because they place Luxemburg in her time, and allow for a critical rereading of her polemical and theoretical writings. Despite some of the difficulties with context, that exploration is worth the time, introducing a subjective framework for that work, continually returning that work to its time, despite its singularity. However, they don’t provide a substitute for that work, which still provide the key to Luxemburg’s continued importance. It gestures towards the trace of a historical materialist tradition that avoids the dual traps of reformist revisionism and the stagnant authoritarianism of what would become the Marxist-Leninist tradition. For all of the literary quality of the collection of letters, it only hints at the analytical power contained in that writing, which reads in sharp distinction to the romantic and expressionist qualities in the letters. Within the context of the contemporary crisis, the reprinting of her public and political work will be of far greater value than the current volume of letters.
Anderson, Benedict R. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. Print.
"Rosa Luxemburg: Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy (Part 1)."
Marxists Internet Archive. Web. 07 July 2011. <http://marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/ch01.htm>.
Rowbotham, Sheila. "The Revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg | Books | The Guardian." Latest News,
Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. Web. 07 July 2011.