The letters of Rosa Luxemburg are full of fighting spirit and human warmth, and full of wide-ranging historical vision. In a single phrase she could be both ironic and in deep earnest. There is no question here of quoting her "by chapter and verse," as though all our own perplexities could be solved by consulting a woman who died in the wake of World War One. How then should Luxemburg be read? She will be an open book for some, and a closed book for others. Her words cast a circle of illumination even into our new century.
These are excerpts from letters Luxemburg wrote to Matthilde Wurm and to Sophie Liebknecht, the wife of Karl Liebknecht (see below). The full texts of those letters can be found in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis & Kevin B. Anderson. Even within prison, Luxemburg drew lines of battle, evident in her letter to Matthilde Wurm. Even within prison, she gave a measure of spiritual shelter to Sophie Liebknecht, whose husband was also behind bars. For those unfamiliar with Luxemburg's work, a bit of context is in order. In the midst of war and class struggles, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht became founders of the Spartacus League, the precursor to the German Communist Party. In 1919 they were both murdered by members of the Freikorps, a ultra-nationalist paramilitary group. A collection of Luxemburg's letters, written to Karl and Luise Kautsky, contained a preface by Luise Kautsky which is available online, and this preface contains a summary of her life and work:
"The thing that characterized her before everything else, and that gave her whole being such buoyancy, was just this: while at work or at leisure, whether stirred by the emotions of love or of hate, she was always at the same white heat; in fact, one of her favorite sayings was, 'One must be like a candle that is burning at both ends.' And this white heat that radiated from her proved contagious to her entire surroundings. She was a wizard in the art of winning persons over, provided, of course, that she cared about winning them... The outbreak of the war was terrible to her. Still more terrible did the attitude of the German Social Democracy seem to her; in fact, as she herself admitted, she was brought to the verge of insanity and almost committed suicide. The granting of war credits by the social democrats was the signal for her to part company once and for all with her former comrades from whom she had already felt herself estranged for a long time, and with a little band of like-minded followers to begin the underground work of propaganda among German workers that found expression in the so-called Spartacus Letters, which, of course, had to be issued secretly because of war censorship. Besides containing propaganda against the war, its pages were filled chiefly with the most biting criticism of the right wing and of the center of the German Social Democratic party. Through hundreds of channels the Spartacus Letters found their way into the factories, the shops, the armies of the reserve, and even out to the front.
"Rosa was able to carry on this underground propaganda for but a few months, when the 'hand of justice' was laid upon her. She was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for a speech delivered before the war, on September 25, 1913, near Frankfort-on-the-Main, on 'The Political and Economic Situation and the Task of the Proletariat.' Her address to the court on the occasion of her trial on February 20, 1915, in defense of her action has become quite famous, and has appeared in print. She spent a full year in a woman's prison in northeastern Berlin. This did not keep her, however, from continuing her activities with undaunted courage and from speaking to the outside world with the aid of friends and like-minded comrades, who undertook to smuggle out not only the Spartacus Letters but also the celebrated 'Junius Pamphlet.' In the latter Rosa attacked the war and her former comrades even more boldly than in the Spartacus Letter. This pamphlet, written in prison in April, 1915, and distributed secretly, achieved unparalleled success with all opponents of war in Germany and, in so far as it could pass the frontiers, also abroad. The wealth of ideas, the boldness of speech, the beauty of diction, and the truly revolutionary content characterize this work as one of the weightiest documents against the crime of war."
Read the full text of Luis Kautsky's preface.
EXCERPT from letter to Matthilde Wurm, written from prison, Wronke, December 28, 1916 (Editor's note, S.T.: "Here I stand, so help me God: I can do no other"-- a reference to a declaration by Martin Luther during the stirrings of the Reformation. The reference to Count Westarp is very telling in Luxemburg's letter. Count Westarp was a right wing member of the Reichstag-- and a gentleman of the old school. Luxemburg's point should not be lost: Essentially, she claimed that Count Westarp had more fighting spirit and courage than the majority of Social Democratic bureaucrats and parliamentarians. )
I want to answer your Christmas letter immediately, as long as I am in the state of rage which it has evoked in me. Yes, your letter made me seethe with rage because, despite its brevity, it shows me in every line how very much you are again under the influence of your milieu. This whining tone, this 'alas' and 'alack' about the 'disappointments' which you have experienced-- disappointments which you blame on others, instead of just looking into the mirror to see the whole of humanity's wretchedness in its most striking likeness! And when you say 'we' that now means your boggy, froggish friends, whereas earlier, when you and I were together, it meant my company. Just you wait, I will treat 'you' in the plural.
In your melancholy view, I have been complaining that you people are not marching up to the cannon's mouth. 'Not marching' is a good one! You people do not march ; you do not even walk; you creep. It is not simply a difference of degree, but rather of kind. On the whole, you people are a different zoological species than I, and your grousing, peevish, cowardly and half-hearted nature has never been as alien, as hateful to me, as it is now. You think that audacity would surely please you, but because of it one can be thrown into the cooler and one is then 'of little use!' Oh, you miserable little mercenaries! You would be ready enough to put a little bit of 'heroism' up for sale-- but only 'for cash,' even if only for three mouldy copper pennies. After all, one must immediately see its 'use' on the sales counter.
For you people, the simple words of honest and upright men have not been spoken: 'Here I stand, I can't do otherwise; God help me!' Luckily, world history, up until this point, has not been made by people like yourselves. Otherwise, we wouldn't have had a Reformation, and we would probably still be living under the ancien regime.
As for me, although I have never been soft, lately I have grown hard as polished steel, and I will no longer make the smallest concession either in political or personal discourse. When I think of your heroes, a creepy feeling comes over me... I swear to you: I would rather do time for years on end-- and I do not mean to say here, where after all compared to those previous places, I am in heaven, but rather in the joint on Alexanderplatz where, morning and night without light, I was squeezed between the C (but without the W) and the iron cot in an 11 cubic meter cell and where I recited my Morike-- than (excuse the expression) 'struggle' along with your heroes, or, generally speaking, have anything to do with them! Even Count Westarp would be better-- and not because in the Reichstag he spoke of my 'almond-shaped velvet eyes,' but because he is a man.
Let me tell you, as soon as I can stick my nose outside again, I will chase and hunt your company of frogs with trumpet calls, cracks of the whip and bloodhounds-- I was going to say like Penthesilea, but by God, not one of you is an Achilles!
Do you have enough now for a New Year's greeting? Then see that you remain a Mensch! Being a Mensch is the main thing! And that means to be firm, lucid and cheerful. Yes, cheerful despite everything and anything-- since whining is the business of the weak. Being a Mensch means happily throwing one's life 'on fate's great scale' if necessary, but, at the same time, enjoying every bright day and beautiful cloud. Oh, I can't write you a prescription for being a Mensch. I only know how one is a Mensch, and you used to know it too when we went walking for a few hours in the Sudende fields with the sunset's red light falling on the wheat.
The world is so beautiful even with all its horrors, and it would be even more beautiful if there were no weaklings or cowards. Come, you still get a kiss, because you are a sincere little dear. Happy New Year!
EXCERPT from letter to Matthilde Wurm, written from prison, Wronke, February 16, 1917 (Editor's note, S.T.: Luxemburg's reference to "this particular suffering of the Jews" will shock some readers, but two facts should be kept in mind: the date she wrote her letter, and the fact that she was an ardent internationalist. She was, of course, also a Jew from Poland. Here we do touch upon a problematic aspect of Marxist universalism. The German left, for example, was not able to fully comprehend the elements within German Nazism which were not subject to a "scientific" class analysis. The full force of antisemitism and of sexual reaction were thus better comprehended by "heretics" such as Hannah Arendt and Wilhelm Reich).
Received letter, card and biscuits-- many thanks. Don't worry, despite the boldness of your parry, even to the point where you declare war, I will remain as fond of you as always. I had to smile: you want to 'fight' me. Young lady, I sit tall in the saddle. No one has yet laid me low, and I would be curious to know the one who can do it. But I had to smile for yet another reason: because you do not even want to 'fight' me, and also you are more dependent upon me politically than you would wish to believe. I will always remain your compass, because your straightforward nature tells you that I have the most infallible judgement-- because with me all the annoying side issues are forgotten: anxiousness, routine, parliamentary cretinism, which cloud the judgement of others. Your whole argument against my watchword-- 'Here I stand, I can't do otherwise!'-- amounts to the following: Good, so be it, but the masses are too cowardly and weak for such heroism. Ergo, one must fit tactics to their weakness and to the axiom: 'Walk softly, and you'll walk safely.'
What a narrow historical view, my little lamb! There is nothing more mutable than human psychology. The psyche of the masses like the eternal sea always carries all the latent possibilities: the deathly calm and the roaring storm, the lowest cowardice and the wildest heroism. The mass is always that which it must be according to the circumstances of the time, and the mass is always at the point of becoming something entirely different than what it appears to be. A fine captain he would be who would chart his course only from the momentary appearance of the water's surface and who would not know how to predict a coming storm from the signs in the sky or from the depths! My little girl, the 'disappointment over the masses' is always the most shameful testimony for a political leader. A leader in the grand style does not adapt his tactics to the momentary mood of the masses, but rather to the iron laws of development; he holds fast to his tactics in spite of all 'disappointments' and , for the rest, calmly allows history to bring its work to maturity. With that, let us close the debate. I will gladly remain your friend. Whether, as you wish, I am to remain your teacher, that depends on you...
That you now have neither time nor interest for anything except the 'single issue,' namely the quandary of the party, is calamitous. For such one-sidedness also clouds one's political judgement; and above all, one must live as a full person at all times.
But look, Lady, since you so rarely get to open a book, at least read only good books and not kitsch like the 'Spinoza-novel' which you sent me. What do you want with this particular suffering of the Jews? The poor victims on the rubber plantations in Putamayo, the Negroes in Africa with whose bodies the Europeans play a game of catch, are just as near to me. Do you remember the words written on the work of the Great General Staff about Trotha's campaign in the Kalahari desert? 'And the death-rattles, the mad cries of those dying of thirst, faded away into the sublime silence of eternity.'
Oh, this 'sublime silence of eternity' in which so many screams have faded away unheard! It rings within me so strongly that I have no special corner of my heart reserved for the ghetto: I am at home wherever in the world there are clouds, birds and human tears...
EXCERPT from letter to Sonja Liebknecht, written from prison, Mid-December, 1917
To Sophie Liebknecht,
Karl has been in Luckau prison for a year now. I have been thinking of that so often this month...
Last night my thoughts ran this wise: 'How strange it is that I am always in a sort of joyful intoxication, though without sufficient cause. Here I am lying in a dark cell upon a mattress hard as stone; the building has its usual churchyard quiet, so that one might as well be already entombed; through the window there falls across the bed a glint of light from the lamp which burns all night in front of the prison. At intervals I can faintly hear in the distance the noise of a passing train or close at hand the dry cough of the prison guard as in his heavy boots he takes a few slow strides to stretch his limbs. The grind of the gravel beneath his feet has so hopeless a sound that all the weariness and futility of existence seems to be radiated thereby into the damp and gloomy night. I lie here alone and in silence, enveloped in the manifold black wrappings of darkness, tedium, unfreedom, and winter-- and yet my heart beats with an immeasurable and incomprehensible inner joy, just as if I were moving in the brilliant sunshine across a flowery mead. Do not think that I am offering you imaginary joys, or that I am preaching asceticism. I want you to taste all the real pleasures of the senses. My one desire is to give you in addition my inexhaustible sense of inward bliss. Could I do so, I should be at ease about you, knowing that in your passage through life you were clad in a star-bespangled cloak which would protect you from everything petty, trivial, or harassing...
Sonichka dear, I had such a pang recently. In the courtyard where I walk, army lorries often arrive, laden with haversacks or old tunics and shirts from the front; sometimes they are stained with blood. They are sent to the women's cells to be mended, and then go back for use in the army. The other day one of these lorries was drawn by a team of buffaloes instead of horses. I had never seen the creatures close at hand before... The buffaloes are war trophies from Rumania... They had been unmercifully flogged... Unsparingly exploited, yoked to heavy loads, they are soon worked to death. The other day a lorry came laden with sacks, so overladen indeed that the buffaloes were unable to drag it across the threshhold of the gate. The soldier-driver, a brute of a fellow, belabored the poor beasts so savagely with the butt end of his whip that the wardress at the gate, indignant at the sight, asked him if he had no compassion for animals. 'No more than anyone has compassion for us men,' he answered with an evil smile, and redoubled his blows... You know their hide is proverbial for its thickness and toughness, but it had been torn. While the lorry was being unloaded, the beasts, which were utterly exhausted, stood perfectly still. The one that was bleeding had an expression on its black face and in its soft black eyes like that of a weeping child... Far distant, lost forever, were the green, lush meadows of Rumania. How different there the light of the sun, the breath of wind; how different there the song of the birds and the melodious call of the herdsman. Instead, the hideous being at one with you in my pain, my weakness, and my street, the fetid stable, the rank hay mingled with moldy straw, the strange and terrible men-- blow upon blow, and blood running from gaping wounds. Poor wretch, I am as powerless, as dumb, as yourself; I am longing.
Meanwhile the women prisoners were jostling one another as they busily unloaded the dray and carried the heavy sacks into the building. The driver, hands in pockets, was striding up and down the courtyard, smiling to himself as he whistled a popular air. I had a vision of all the splendor of war!...
Write soon, darling Sonichka.
(A postscript): Never mind, my Sonyusha; you must be calm and happy all the same. Such is life, and we have to take it as it is, valiantly, heads erect, smiling ever-- despite all.