The Revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg

The-Letters-of-Rosa-Luxembur Sheila Rowbotham in The Guardian:

George Shriver's new translation of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg is the most comprehensive collection of her correspondence yet to appear in English. It transports us directly into the private world of a woman who has never lost her inspirational power as an original thinker and courageous activist in first the Marxist Social Democratic party, and then the German revolutionary group, the Spartacist League. She suffered for her convictions; jail sentences in 1904 and 1906 were followed by three and a half years in prison for opposing the first world war. Her brutal death at the hands of the militaristic Volunteer Corps during the 1919 workers uprising in Berlin has contributed to her mystique: she is revered as the revolutionary who never compromised. This collection of her letters reveals that the woman behind the mythic figure was also a compassionate, teasing, witty human being.

Annelies Laschitza, one of the volume's editors, observes in her introduction that the revelation in 1956 of Stalin's purges, along with new waves of activism during the 60s and 70s, reawakened interest in Luxemburg. My generation of left-libertarians did indeed hail Luxemburg's defiance of Lenin's “night-watchman spirit”. Against his emphasis on the centralised party, many of us were drawn to Luxemburg's conviction that workers' action brought new social and political understandings.

Luxemburg's criticism of Marxism as dogma and her stress on consciousness exerted an influence on the women's liberation movement which emerged in the late 60s and early 70s. When I was writing Woman's Consciousness, Man's World during 1971, I drew on her analysis in The Accumulation of Capital (1913) of capital's greedy quest for non-capitalist markets, adapting it as a metaphor for the commodification of sexual relations and the body.

The awkward truth, however, was that Luxemburg herself had never identified with the feminist movement of her day. Moreover, she maintained a semi-detached relationship with the socialist women whom her friend Clara Zetkin organised in the Marxist Social Democratic party in Germany. Though she would be profoundly moved when they came to meet her from prison in 1916, and when they filled her flat with precious luxuries such as tea bags, cocoa, flowers and fruitcake, Luxemburg always carefully avoided being categorised as a “woman”. Her resistance was partly strategic; she was determined not to be sidelined within the party. But it was also bound up with her theoretical conviction that class struggle was the key to change, along with a strong aversion to being regarded as a victim.