Women’s History Month Profiles: Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg's understanding of revolutions as an interaction between organisation and spontaneity led her to a unique form of libertarian-marxism

Continuing our Women’s History Month Profiles,  award-winning campaigning journalist Beatrix Campbell profiles political scientist-revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, whose understanding of revolutions as an interaction between organisation and spontaneity led her to a unique form of libertarian-marxism: She famously asserted “Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.”

With the images, and above all the voices of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya ringing in our heads, and the modest nobility of  the crowds’ tenacity, co-operation and inventiveness, the world has been reminded of what revolution sounds like.

It isn’t necessarily an insurrection, it doesn’t always sound like a football crowd, and it isn’t an event – though a series of spectacles undoubtedly punctuates its processes.

These are some of the glimpsed lights hovering around renewed interest in Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919): a neglected heroine, a martyr, a theorist whose oeuvre has not been fully available in English, a woman who was never easily enlisted as a feminist champion,  because she wasn’t,  and a Marxist pioneer.

These are some of the reasons why in recent decades she has seemed to belong to a rough, faraway time, the pre-history of  modern democracies.

It is to be hoped that her story will be revisited as she has things to tell us. She wasn’t a feminist  (more accurately she was ambivalent, though she championed and loved women)  because Marxism was always, inexcusably, a rather inhospitable field for feminism; she didn’t like the sight of women on bicycles. Her priority was class.

Her revolutionary project was part of the great tumult of European politics in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  

Rosa Luxemburg’s place should be secured by a great project to get all her work translated and published. The first text to emerge is published by Verso,  ‘The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg’, edited by George Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza.

Though this new book is easiest for readers caught by Marxism and the revolutionary decades between the 1890s and the 1920s, it also has gems for any reader interested in what it feels like to be a revolutionary leader in scary, tempestuous times.

The surprise in these letters is her contemplation, nay her joy in the air, in the sounds of the garden and the city, the ‘quiet, pensive weather’, in birds, the fragrance of rain, in a friendly mouse.

Her letters hum with her imperative to share with her correspondents the moment she is in, and the beings and sounds sharing her space. She is a poet of the domestic space, the stuff of everyday life that gets between the border of inside and outside.

There’s a lot of it, never repetitive, always beautifully written.   She and her contemporaries were Europeans moving between the continent’s great cities, Zurich now, Berlin then, Geneva, Warsaw….corresponding with each other about the minutiea of feeling and small spaces – sometimes prison cells – and great events; the embryonic organisations being built with a singular purpose: to understand and overthrow capitalism.

Everyday life was perilous and often exhausting. Imagine the endless comings and goings at railways stations, awaiting loved ones, no one arrives, back the next day….finding a flat in a new city, avoiding the police, routine arrests.

She had been one of the founders of Poland’s Social Democratic Party. Together with her comrade Karl Leibknecht she helped found the German Communist Party. She was Jewish and, like so many of her comrades, endured fierce anti-semitic abuse.

Imagine then the volcanic aftermath of  World War I. In response to a general strike, the social democratic government calls in the ferocious right wing Freikorps militia whose soldiers capture and execute hundreds of radicals. They beat Rosa Luxemburg and her comrade Karl Leibknecht in Berlin in 1919. A few months later they also murder her great companion Leo Jogiches.

Her body was believed to have been hauled out of a canal a month later. But in 2009 a forensic pathologist discovered the preserved body of a woman in Berlin’s Charite hospital. Unlike the body buried as the supposed Rosa Luxemburg, this body showed ‘astounding similarities’ to Luxemburg who had a dislocated hip and one leg shorter than the other.   

Rosa Luxemburg was unusual: she was a woman, she loved many men but she was the servant of none; she was tiny; she was clever and cultured. She was a theorist her put scholarship at the service of the revolution.

She resisted the Leninist template of revolutionary organisation as a centralist spear. She thought that revolutions were processes not events, that they threw up their own means of organisation. In that she may have become closer  – had she lived, and had she had the opportunity to connect with Italy – to the approach theorised in Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which is concerned not so much with the shape of the political party as a military weapon, but with politics as an organic, multi-dimensional process anchored in popular cultures.  

Turn to Luxemburg for an early attempt to push and stretch the theory of Marxism. And turn to Luxemburg for a poignant feel for the effort and ingenuity of theoretical work as part of revolutionary activity, as a quest, a journey to know the world in order to change it.

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