Books June 2011

Red Rosa

The writings of the martyred socialist Rosa Luxemburg give a plaintive view of history’s paths not taken.
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Alex Williamson

The generally accepted verdict on 20th-century ideology—that its “totalitarian” character eclipses any of the ostensible differences between its “left” and “right” versions—is one that few wish to dispute. Indeed, the very term totalitarian was most probably coined by the dissident Marxist Victor Serge, to denote a uniquely modern form of absolutism that essentially sought to abolish the private life and the individual conscience. As with concepts, so with consequences: David Rousset’s early classic, L’Univers Concentrationnaire, foreshadowed the image of “the camp” as the place where the human surplus of brute Utopianism was disposed of, no matter what the claimed character of the regime.

This convergence or symmetry does not automatically translate into a strict moral equivalence. More people may have been consumed by the Gulag than by the Nazi lager system. Yet Robert Conquest, the preeminent historian of Stalinism, when invited to pass a judgment, found the Hitlerite crimes to be more damnable. Pressed to enlarge on this, he replied: “I simply feel it to be so.” I think the intuition of many morally intelligent people would be the same.

Another way in which a distinction might be drawn is this: we have no real record of any “dissident” writing by the minority of intellectuals who were drawn to Fascism and National Socialism. Indeed, were it not for a certain sick fascination with the pornography of violence and racism, there would be scant point in studying the political writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, let alone of Alfred Rosenberg, at all. Martin Heidegger and Giovanni Gentile may have laid down an obfuscatory barrage of pseudo-historical justification for the cult of supreme national leadership, but it survives mainly as a curiosity. Most important: it is quite impossible to imagine any terms in which they could ever have formulated a critique of Hitler or Mussolini as having betrayed the original ideals of their respective movements. The ideologies blankly forbade and foreclosed any such contingency.

By contrast, even Lenin’s wooden tome The Development of Capitalism in Russia constitutes some species of analysis and anatomy, of a kind that would be merely ridiculous to compare with the ravings of Mein Kampf. And from the many Marxists who took issue with Lenin, there proceeded a number of works of a high order of seriousness, and failing to scrutinize them would severely limit one’s knowledge of modern history. To me, the most brilliant—and the most engaging—of these Marxist intellectuals was Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born Jew who was the most charismatic figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Bertrand Russell’s first book (evolved from a series of lectures he gave in 1896) was on the character of this historic party. Wedded to a rather formalist Marxism in theory, the party in practice provided millions of workers and their families with something like an alternative society within Germany: not merely trade unions but welfare associations, educational institutions, holiday camps, and women’s associations. Strongly critical of Prussian militarism, it felt confident enough in 1912 to declare that in the event of war, it would call for strikes and protests, and endeavor to make alliances with fraternal parties in the other combatant nations. In the event, war hysteria proved so damnably potent that the majority of the Socialist International capitulated in August 1914 and voted to take part in the greatest fratricide the world had ever seen. (Lenin was so shocked by this that he at first refused to believe that the SPD had in fact deserted its position.) Luxemburg was one of the few of the party’s leaders to maintain a stance against the kaiser, and was imprisoned as a consequence. The central tranche of this collection of her letters was written during that bleak incarceration, and that great political relapse. The confusion of the moment is caught in a letter from October 1914, in which she urgently seeks instruction on the best manner of forwarding information by way of Benito Mussolini, entirely unaware that this hitherto anti-war socialist editor had deserted the cause and begun his long swing to the fanatical right.

Slightly lamed since childhood, married only to gain the formalities of citizenship, and famous for the scornfulness of her polemics, Luxemburg was easy to portray as a thwarted and unfeminine personage. But her correspondence shows her to have been an active and ardent lover, as well as a woman constantly distracted from politics by her humanism and her love for nature and literature. In a single letter to her inamorato Hans Diefenbach (whose life was to be thrown away on the western front), written from a Breslau jail in the summer of 1917, there are tender and remorseful reflections on the deaths of parents; some crisp appraisals of the style of Romain Rolland; a recommendation that Diefenbach read Hauptmann’s The Fool in Christ, Emanuel Quint; and some extended observations on the ingenious habits of wasps and birds, as observed through the windows of her cell. Another letter to him earlier in the same year is saturated with their common addiction to the works of Goethe and Schiller, and goes on to offer a spirited hypothesis of a possibly feminist Shakespeare, based on the figure of the unquenchable Rosalind in As You Like It. Her favorite word of opprobrium for the war-makers was barbaric, and it becomes plain that by this she intended no ordinary propaganda slogan, but an intense conviction that European culture itself was being outraged and profaned. She was righter even than she knew.

Her internationalism was so strong that she despised anything to do with lesser or sectarian “identities.” This led her to oppose any nationalist claims made by her fellow Poles and fellow Jews (in retrospect, perhaps, a somewhat questionable position for any German politician to have been taking). To her friend Mathilde Wurm, she wrote rebukingly:

What do you want with this theme of the “special suffering of the Jews”? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch. You know the words that were written about the great work of the General Staff, about General Trotha’s campaign in the Kalahari desert: “And the death rattles of the dying, the demented cries of those driven mad by thirst faded away in the sublime stillness of eternity.” Oh that “sublime stillness of eternity,” in which so many cries of anguish have faded away unheard, they resound within me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.

The quotation is from a conscience-stricken German soldier in the army of General Lothar von Trotha, who had in 1904 issued a general “extermination order” against the rebellious Herero tribe in what is now Namibia. One feels another crackle of premonition when reading again about this once-notorious atrocity: the imperial ethnologists in German South West Africa who conducted hideous medical experiments on the Herero included the mentors of Josef Mengele, and the first political governor of the province had been Hermann Goering’s father. Von Trotha himself became a member of a race-myth cult group calling itself the Thule Society, which was one of the seedbeds of the early Nazi Party. For Luxemburg, the hecatomb of the European war was partly a projection of the brutality of empire back into its metropolis. Her prompting was always to the enlargement of the picture: the concept of the “global” did not in the least intimidate her. Indeed, she took it as her point of departure.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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