‘The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg’ reviewed by John Green

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

Translated by George Shriver, Edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza, Verso, London, 2011. 656pp., £25.99 hb
ISBN 9781844674534

Reviewed by John Green

About the reviewer

John Green is a journalist and former trade union official. He has also written several books …


Although, the name of the Polish-born Rosa Luxemburg has been up there in the Pantheon of socialist leaders, her works have not been widely available to the English-speaking world. She was undoubtedly one of the most original thinkers in the socialist movement of her time, and revered by socialists throughout Germany and eastern Europe. Meetings she addressed were packed and her speeches electrifying. She was a beacon for women and, alongside her close friend, Clara Zetkin, she was a proto-feminist in the almost exclusively male-dominated leadership of the German Social Democratic Party.

Rosa Luxemburg was a woman of profound principle and didn’t fight shy of challenging those, even in her own movement, she strongly disagreed with. She combined a total commitment to the socialist cause with a profound realisation that such a new society, if it was to be better than capitalism, could only be built on the foundation of a genuine democracy. She was also a dedicated opponent of war as a means of settling international differences.

Her attacks on revisionism were among the most powerful and eloquent of the period. In her polemic against Eduard Bernstein she pointed out the nonsense of pure legalism by emphasising that the exploitation of the working class is an economic process that cannot be abolished or softened through ‘legislation in the framework of bourgeois society. Social reform,’ she insisted, ‘does not constitute an invasion into capitalist exploitation, but a regulating, an ordering of this exploitation in the interest of capitalist society itself.’ (Luxemburg 1986) Capital, she emphasises, is not heading for socialism, but collapse, and workers need to be apprised of the significance of such a collapse and revolution, not reform is the answer.

Luxemburg and Lenin were united in their common struggle against the reformism that threatened the fragile cohesion of the pre-war Social Democratic movement and they were also united in their opposition to the chauvinism which befell the German Social Democratic Party during the First World War.

Luxemburg also took a very strong position on the leading role of the party and conducted a public dispute with Lenin on this issue. Her distrust of his emphasis on strong central party leadership partly reflected her bitter conflict with the stifling bureaucratic structure of the German SPD.

However, her critique was made in the context of her unconditional defence of the October Revolution. Their ‘mistakes’ she insisted, grew out of the impossible conditions that confronted the Bolshevik Party as a consequence of the betrayals by the Second International and German Social Democracy combined with that party’s support for German nationalism at the outbreak of the First World War.

Perhaps her most famous utterance in the context of democracy and inner-party debate, and one that has been reiterated time and again, particularly by those opposed to Stalinist centralism, is: ‘Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenter.’ She wrote this in 1918 as part of her critical debate with the Russian Bolsheviks also in the above mentioned pamphlet. She was an impassioned advocate of free debate and discussion and was adamant that any revolution not based on such a free exchange of ideas would be doomed to stifle itself. The trajectory of the Bolshevik revolution and its eventual demise only underlines that truism.

Similarly, she had serious differences with Lenin on the national question stemming, in part, from the fact that both were compelled, by the force of objective conditions, to view this issue from different perspectives. Lenin was attempting to build a strong workers’ party in Russia, and considered it essential to establish clear water between the Marxist movement and the ‘Great Russia’ chauvinists.

Luxemburg’s position was very much influenced by her experience in Poland. There, she had been compelled to wage an unrelenting fight against the petit-bourgeois pseudo-socialist nationalists and was therefore extremely dubious about a putative ‘progressive’ role of purely nationalist movements. The historical experience of the twentieth century has largely discredited the ‘liberationist’ pretensions of so many bourgeois national movements, and tends to validate Luxemburg’s critique of the demand for national self-determination.

She maintained her opposition to nationalism to the end, and after the defeat of the International (as a consequence of the outbreak of the First World War), her views were expounded in articles published between 1916-18 in the Spartakusbriefe (Spartacus Letters) and in her polemic, Six Theses Concerning the Tasks of International Social Democracy, which was smuggled out of prison in December 1915. These Theses imparted the essence of her Junius Pamphlet (1916) and provided guiding principles for the reconstruction of an international workers’ movement. This pamphlet contained her sharpest indictment of German Social Democracy and also her most eloquent condemnation of war and the intensification of militarism. Here she, once again, differed from Lenin who realised that the First World War offered an unprecedented opportunity for the revolutionary forces in Russia. She regarded a resort to war, irrespective of the outcome, as a return to barbarism.

Notwithstanding her criticisms of certain aspects of Bolshevik policies and actions, Luxemburg left no doubt as to her immense admiration for the work of Lenin and Trotsky. Despite her ideological differences with Lenin, they remained on friendly terms and they respected each other highly.

Luxemburg held fast to her opinions on the national question to the very end, unable to make the least concession in this respect to Lenin. After the Russian Revolution when the policy of the national right of self-determination became practice she asked why it was that the Bolsheviks held so stubbornly and with such unwavering consistency to the slogan of the right of self-determination, since after all such a policy ‘stands in the most glaring contradiction to their outspoken centralism in other respects as well as to the conduct they have displayed with respect to the other democratic principles.’ She viewed the right of self-determination of nations as ‘nothing but empty petty-bourgeois phraseology and humbug.’

Her attitude has to be seen also as both a continuation and a revision of the writings of Marx and Engels on the national question. In their footsteps, she considered the national movement as mainly European, attributing only small importance to the Asian and African national movements. Quite early in her political life she pointed out that the situation in Europe in general, and Russia in particular, had changed so much towards the end of the nineteenth century that the position adopted by Marx and Engels towards national movements there had become untenable. Lenin and the Bolsheviks responded to this new reality by offering self-determination to the oppressed nations within the former Tsarist Russian empire. Luxemburg died too early to see that this policy helped ensure the survival of the Russian revolution, even though it failed to ignite revolution in Germany and elsewhere as had been hoped, yet it was capable of assuring the rule of the Bolsheviks in the global context of capitalism for over 70 years.

This volume gives us 230 of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters and is an expanded version of the German selection, Herzlichst, Ihre Rosa (Laschitza 1989). It is the first volume in English of what is planned by Verso to be her complete works in 14 volumes.

Like all collections of letters not originally intended for publication, much here is concerned with her daily trials and tribulations, confidences or minor disputes with friends, comrades and lovers. They do, though, give a unique insight into her character, her deep humanity as well as her passionate commitment to the struggle for socialism. Her unsuccessful attempts to reconcile her need for personal love, stability and more domestic pleasures with the enormous demands of the struggle would be ideal material for a dramatist.

Luxemburg was imprisoned on several occasions for political activities. The earlier letters written during her incarceration in Zwickau reveal someone plagued by doubts about herself, about her lover and life in general. Later, during her imprisonment during the First World War, her letters reveal her as a woman with almost supernatural inner strength and immune to ordinary tribulations and anxieties. Many, written to close friends, were aimed primarily at lifting their spirits, giving them hope and steeling their determination to continue the struggle during a period of great difficulty for the German and European socialist movement. Her letters became a vital means of maintaining her mental health and in overcoming the stress of isolation during imprisonment.

One of her biographers, Elzbieta Ettinger, says of her letter writing: ‘The elaborately composed yet seemingly effortless letters drew their recipients into her cell. Her friends readily responded to her intellect, her friendliness, and nostalgia.… Prison did not matter, ran the underlying message; she was strong enough to support and protect her friends, to cheer them up and laugh with them. Yet between the lines, whether lyrical, angry, merry, or sad, underneath the involvement in nature, art, and literature was a despair that she could not suppress.’ (Ettinger 1987)

Up till now there has been no comprehensive publication of Rosa Luxemburg’s writings in English, and certainly not her letters, so this volume is welcome. What this collection achieves is to give us an in-depth portrait, adding flesh and blood to complement the image we have of a socialist theoretician and icon. The letters reveal an incisive mind, her immense breadth of knowledge, both inside and outside politics, her passions, her loves and her friendships. Unlike the correspondence between Marx and Engels, Luxemburg’s letters, while not uncritical, scarcely use invective or cast malicious aspersions on fellow comrades; her barbs are political ones. Interesting as they are in terms of bringing Rosa Luxemburg as a complex and fascinating woman, closer to us, they give us only a glimpse into her theoretical work and ideas about social and political processes.

While seen by many of her adversaries at the time as a woman of iron determination and as a cold-blooded militant, her letters reveal a very different individual. We are given a sense of her vulnerability, her self doubts, her spiritual needs. She led a life of almost permanent political activism, living and working for most of the time in semi-clandestinity, flitting from one safe house to another and speaking at numerous meetings and conferences. For example, in a typical fortnight during 1903, she addressed workers’ meetings in 12 different cities, and this at a time before high-speed rail travel or airlines. In between she was avidly organising and writing for political journals.

Most of the letters in this volume are ones she wrote to her close comrade and first real love, Leo Jogiches, a Russian-born revolutionary and contemporary. He was murdered in Berlin in 1919 while trying to investigate the assassination of Luxemburg and her close comrade Karl Liebknecht by German right-wing thugs. The kind of emotional torture she often underwent in her life of intense political activism left her little time for the pursuit of pure personal happiness.

Many of the other letters are to Kostya Zetkin, another of her lovers, and the son of her close friend and comrade, the celebrated German communist, Clara Zetkin. The remainder are to various leaders of the German Social Democratic movement and a few to other prominent international figures. They do, though, provide a snapshot of those tumultuous times when revolution seemed an imminent possibility almost anywhere in Europe, the feeling of being on the cusp of apocalyptic change. However, while reading them, one often feels that it would be useful to be able to refer to the articles, essays or speeches she mentions, in order to be able to fill in the missing jigsaw pieces; this should be possible once we have the other planned volumes.

What is tantalising to speculate about is what influence this incredibly talented and passionate woman would have continued to have on the international socialist movement if she had not been so callously assassinated in 1919, aged only 49. How would she have evaluated the Soviet Union and how would her own ideas have changed? Certainly her uncompromising internationalism, her insistence on the free discussion of ideas, her warnings of over-centralisation and top-down ways of working in the communist movement as well as her emphasis on democracy as the principle bedrock of socialist behaviour are as relevant today as ever, as is her principled rejection of dogma and intolerance.

Verso is to be congratulated for publishing this collection in an excellent translation by George Shriver. What is also invaluable is a glossary of individuals mentioned in the letters and very informative footnotes. The quirky Americanisms in this volume irritated this reviewer, but are really minor. There is also the odd typo which should be corrected in any future editions: e.g., footnote 311 (174), refers to Marx’s ‘Theorie der Mehrheit’ (Theory of Majority (sic)): this should read ‘Mehrwert’ (Surplus Value).

3 September 2012


  • Ettinger, Elzbieta 1987 Rosa Luxemburg: A Life (London: Harrap).
  • Laschitza, Annelies (ed.) 1989 Herzlichst, Ihre Rosa (Berlin: Dietz).
  • Luxemburg, Rosa 1986 Social Reform or Revolution London: Militant Publications

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