Professional book reviewers, particularly recently, often attempt to bring a current affairs element into whatever new title they’re reviewing. You see phrases like ‘a disturbing portrait of a world that seems not entirely confined to the realm of fiction,’ ‘dramatic scenes that would not look out of place in the pages of today’s newspapers,’ ‘a warning of a nightmarish scenario that today seems all too possible’ – try looking for this yourself, you’ll see that I’m right as often as I’m wrong. Frequently these stabs at universalism seem inane and half hearted. But the general effect is achieved – the title under review now looks ‘timely’ and ‘relevant’.
I’ve used this rhetoric myself of course, and reading the correspondence of Rosa Luxemburg I cannot escape the cliché. There is something about Luxemburg that always feels here, that feels now, and it’s not entirely because of the politics – violent and confused as they were in Luxemburg’s time. I should say I only have a very broad understanding of events in Europe between 1891-1919, and came to Luxemburg’s letters expecting to lose myself in the activist forest of revolution, denunciations, theory and composite resolutions.
But the letters turned out to be a striking and addictive read. Great political thinkers are not always great writers (try Gramsci’s stuff if you don’t believe me) but reading Luxemburg is to be consistently blown away by her forensic intelligence and her clarity of expression and thought. She was tough, and faced with equanimity her frequent prison sentences for political non-offences. She had no time for ideological fools in the male dominated activist left (‘And with such people we’re supposed to turn the world upside down?’) and was not afraid to speak up. Enduring a Social Democratic meeting in an ‘obscure tavern on the corner of Menzel and Becker Streets’ she reports that ‘Karolus cleared his throat and began to lecture on the subject of value and exchange value… in such a unpopularised way that I was absolutely amazed. And so it went for about an hour. The poor things struggled desperately against yawning and falling asleep. Then a discussion began, I intervened, and immediately everything became quite lively.’
Not that there’s nothing to argue with here. Time and again Luxemburg affirms her faith in ‘the objective logic of history, which tirelessly carries out its work of clarification and differentiation.’ This leads her into lapses of ‘don’t rock the boat’ revolutionary conformism: during the early Leninist terror of 1918 she admits that ‘One would like to give the Bolsheviks a terrible tongue-lashing, but of course considerations do not allow that.’ Luxemburg implores a friend in April 1917 that ‘Don’t you realise it’s our own cause that is winning out triumphantly there, that World History in person is fighting her battles there and dancing the carmagnole, drunk with joy?’ As it turned out, History was dancing the mortata.
Is it an insult to dwell on Luxemburg the person? I don’t think so. A huge part of the correspondence is by nature on her relationships with others – her friendships and love affairs are at least as complicated as was the political situation at that time. She was clearly the kind of woman it’s easy to fall in love with – and she wrote the best ‘btw you’re dumped’ signoff ever, dismissing one crestfallen fellow with ‘Now you are free as a bird, and may you be happy. Principaccia no longer stands in your way. Fare thee well, and may the nightingales of the Appenine Hills sing to you and the wide-horned oxen of the Caucasus greet you.’
We see so much of Luxemberg domestically: arranging flowers, painting, playing with her cat (an intermittent delight in the letters: ‘Mimi is a scoundrel. She leaped at me from the floor and tried to bite me’) and complaining about the laxity of her domestic servants (perhaps forgetting on such occasions the role service workers had to play in the Women’s Question and the struggle of the proletariat). Even in prison she keeps herself occupied by making friends with the birds and wasps that fly in and out of the exercise yard, and cultivates little gardens on whatever patches of green space are available to her. Had she been born in 1971 instead of 1871, she’d likely be organising book groups, writing NS columns, instagramming the Trump demos and bitching about Waitrose substitutions.
Luxemburg can make you laugh at such moments. She travelled widely, and saw with fresh eyes the little quirks and discordancies of an unfamiliar landscape. She enjoys visiting the Italian Riviera, but its soundscape drives her crazy: ‘Frogs – I can put up with them. But such frogs, such a far-reaching, self-satisfied, blown-up croaking, as if the frog was the number one and absolutely most important being!… Second: the bells. I appreciate and love church bells. But this ringing every quarter of an hour, and such a light-minded, silly, childish ding-dong-ding – ding-ding-dong, which can make a person quite idiotic.’ When Lenin visits her in 1911, her cat attacks him: ‘when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger.’ (Go, Mimi!)
What comes through the most, though, is Luxemburg’s force of life and joy at being alive, and this is what makes her timely and relevant, over the distance of a century or so. From a letter in 1916:
To be a human being is the main thing, above all else. And that means: to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life ‘on the great scales of fate’ if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud. Oh, I don’t know any recipe that can be written down on how to make a human being, I only know that a person is one, and you too always used to know when we walked together through the fields of Südende for hours at a time and the red glow of evening lay upon the stalks of grain. The world is so beautiful, with all its horrors […]