Rosa Luxemburg: A Life,
By Elzbieta Ettinger
Pandora, 1995. 325 pp., $22.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
It is a frustrating feature of the later films of the Marx Brothers that the Marxist funny business keeps getting interrupted by the romantic plot. Elzbieta Ettinger's biography of Rosa Luxemburg unfortunately compounds this problem — the romantic interest pauses for only brief interludes of Luxemburg's Marxist politics.
For a Marxist theoretician and revolutionary fighter of Luxemburg's status — the equal of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky — Ettinger's approach does not help us to critically assess Luxemburg's contribution to revolutionary strategy in capitalist societies which are dominated politically by trade union and parliamentary reformism.
Rather, Ettinger's book gives us Home and Away on location in Warsaw, Zurich and Berlin at the turn of the century. Born in Poland in 1870 to a middle class Jewish family, the hurt and lonely Rosa, suffering from Congenital Hip Dislocation, searches for Love. She marries the insidious Russian revolutionary Leo Jogiches, who coldly uses Rosa for the revolutionary cause because he couldn't write and "needed a pen. That pen was Rosa."
Rosa is surrounded by insensitive, calculating Leninists and conspirators whom Ettinger despatches with a few killer adjectives — "tyrannical" (Jogiches), "arbitrary and dogmatic" (Clara Zetkin), "dictatorial" (Lenin). In what reads like a bad TV script for Revolution Place, hearts sink and eyes fill with tears as Rosa and Leo spat, and as Ettinger announces that, for Rosa, "there is another man in her life!" — Clara Zetkin's son Costia.
Luxemburg's famous pamphlet of 1898 — Social Reform or Revolution — which brilliantly argued for revolution against the reformist vision of Eduard Bernstein in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) — receives all of half a page before we are plunged back into the world of romance and its discontents. Luxemburg's later polemic with "the Pope of Marxism", the SPD leader Karl Kautsky, who gradually abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric for parliamentarism and support to German imperialism in World War I, is again mere background to Rosa's love life. Luxemburg's courageous antiwar agitation in Germany is a brief entree to Rosa's affair with her defence lawyer, Paul Levi. And so it goes.
If the romantic bits in the Marx Brothers were toe-cringingly bad, the political bits in Ettinger are no better. Ettinger uses the Marxist revolutionary Luxemburg to do a job on Leninism in the way that many reformists, liberals and anarchists have attempted over the years. Ettinger tries Lenin before a kangaroo court, allowing Lenin no defence, levelling charges of "ultra-centralism", "dictatorship of the party/leader", "terrorism", the "complete elimination of democracy" and the usual bucket-load of hate at the Bolsheviks. At the same time, Ettinger both praises Luxemburg for her alleged "credo of the superiority of spontaneity over 'organised action'" and puts her to rights when criticising Luxemburg's alleged "mystical" faith in the revolutionary nature of the working class.
Why let the facts get in the way of good political abuse! Well, there are a few reasons. Lenin and Luxemburg differed on some issues, particularly on the role of the revolutionary party, and the right of Poland and other countries to national self-determination. They often debated fiercely, and the air was blue with phrases like "doctrinaire obstinacy".
They debated, however, as revolutionary Marxists who shared the common framework of the need for the working class to overthrow capitalism and seize power, emphasising different strategic routes to the same goal, which they also modified with experience as the best revolutionary leaders do. Lenin's heavy-handed centralist prescriptions for party organisation of 1904, for example, were gladly corrected in the heat of revolution in 1905 and 1917, when mass revolutionary struggle meant greater freedom of operation, and internal democracy, for an illegal, underground party.
Luxemburg, too, later withdrew some of her most vehement criticisms of the Bolsheviks, recognising that the sheer pressure of events (famine, embargo, invasion, civil war, the exhaustion of the working class) had forced the Bolsheviks into unpalatable restrictions on democracy within the working class and the party, to prevent the loss of working class power and nightmarish counter-revolution. Luxemburg, however, always warned against turning the necessity of hard circumstance into a virtue, as indeed did most Bolsheviks, but less consistently.
Lenin's emphasis on the role of the revolutionary party and its leadership, and Luxemburg's stress on the spontaneity of the masses in struggle, were strongly influenced by their respective political environments.
Lenin, in a Russia without strong, conservative union bureaucracies or a labour reformist party, and with an abundance of workers' volatile struggles and uprisings, took spontaneity as a given and focused instead on the need to organise and discipline this elemental force towards the struggle for power.
Luxemburg, however, was active in a Germany with a massive labour party and solidly established trade unions, with their entrenched conservative officialdom and advanced bureaucratism. "Spontaneity" became her battle cry, but she did not abandon the need for a revolutionary party to turn this to good effect.
The "gulf" between Lenin and Luxemburg on spontaneity and a revolutionary party is usually exaggerated, but Luxemburg's residual disagreement with Lenin was based on a theory which proved inadequate in the test of the failed German revolution of 1918-19. Too late did she decide to form a revolutionary party separate from the SPD which organised the most revolutionary workers into a disciplined party of insurrection. Whereas the Bolsheviks restrained a premature uprising in July 1917, striking successfully in October, Luxemburg's Spartacus League and Communist Party were too new, too inexperienced and too loose to resist being swept along in a premature revolution in January 1919, when the SPD leaders and the military conspired to crush the revolution and murder Luxemburg.
Unfortunately, readers will have to go elsewhere than Ettinger's book for a balanced consideration of the political Luxemburg and her revolutionary strategy. Her fascinating personal life, her sensitive letters, would then read less like a melodramatic Hollywood production and would add to a rounded portrait of Luxemburg the woman, lover and revolutionary fighter.