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.
A pre-war and pre-incarceration letter to another lover (Kostya Zetkin, son of Clara) is almost entirely devoted to a rhapsodic review of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, ending with praise and thanks for some violets and a glimpse of the antics of her cat, Mimi, who features in many more missives. When jailed, Luxemburg decided with immense regret not to take the animal with her, deeming it wrong to imprison a feline. This may appear mawkish or sentimental, but consider this extract from my favorite of all her letters. Written to Sophie Liebknecht from the same Breslau jail in late December 1917, it describes some Romanian buffalo, pressed into service as beasts of burden by the German army. As they dragged their impossibly heavy load into the prison yard, they continued to be flogged with the blunt end of the whip handle by an exceptionally callous soldier:
Sonyichka, the hide of a buffalo is proverbial for its toughness and thickness, but this tough skin had been broken. During the unloading, all the animals stood there, quite still, exhausted, and the one that was bleeding kept staring into the empty space in front of him with an expression on his black face and in his soft, black eyes like an abused child. It was precisely the expression of a child that has been punished and doesn’t know why or what for, doesn’t know how to get away from this torment and raw violence … All this time the prisoners had hurriedly busied themselves around the wagon, unloading the heavy sacks and dragging them off into the building; but the soldier stuck both hands in his trouser pockets, paced around the courtyard with long strides, and kept smiling and softly whistling some popular tune to himself. And the entire marvelous panorama of the war passed before my eyes.
That dry closing sentence, I submit, acquits the letter of mawkishness and makes its register of animal torture more like that of Dostoyevsky. It also assists in pointing up the deep contrast with Lenin, who famously distrusted his emotions and tried his best to silence the appeals of nature and art. Though he did once refuse to shoot a vixen because “really, she was so beautiful,” he turned away from a performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata lest its haunting loveliness distract him from the requirements of the struggle, and only emerged from an apparent reverie at the summit of a Swiss mountain to exclaim that the damned Mensheviks were hell-bent on spoiling everything.
Ever since the 1905 upheaval in Russia, Luxemburg had suspected Lenin’s faction of what she scornfully termed a “barracks” mentality. A short while after the 1917 revolution, we find her writing a succession of letters, describing the situation in Russia as “abysmal” and the Bolsheviks as deserving of “a terrible tongue-lashing” for their repression of rival parties such as the Social Revolutionaries, and their unilateral decision to abolish the Constituent Assembly. She extends this condemnation to include the police mentality (concerning incessant foreign “conspiracies”) that underlay Soviet foreign policy. She singles out a certain “Józef” as a particular exemplar of this attitude, and with yet another shock of premonition, one discovers that this was the “party name” of her fellow Pole Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka and later considered the father of the KGB. It was during this time that Luxemburg made her imperishable defense of free speech, boldly stating that the concept was meaningless unless it meant the freedom of “the one who thinks differently.”
Still, her general optimism about the tide of revolution that obliterated the monarchs and empires that had started the war can give one a lump in the throat. Writing in December 1917, she exclaimed:
In Russia the time of pogroms has passed once and for all. The strength of the workers and of socialism there is much too strong for that … I can sooner imagine—pogroms against Jews here in Germany.
Perhaps aware that she was giving a hostage to fortune, she hastily added, “Anyhow an atmosphere conducive to that prevails here, one of viciousness, cowardice, reaction, and thick-headedness.”
This last premonition was the most sobering of all. Released from prison by the strikes and mutinies that accompanied the abdication of the kaiser, Luxemburg was propelled to the center of revolutionary politics and journalism in Berlin. In January 1919 she was arrested, and her capacious skull splintered by a rifle butt in the hands of a member of the Freikorps, the debased militia that was to form the pattern and nucleus of the Brownshirts. “In her assassination,” wrote Isaac Deutscher, “Hohenzollern Germany celebrated its last triumph and Nazi Germany its first.” Over her corpse—later thrown into the Landwehr Canal—was to step a barbarism even more ruthless and intense than any she had dared to imagine. Had Germany gone the other way, is it completely fanciful to imagine an outcome that would have preempted not just Nazism but, by precept and example, Stalinism too? However debatable that might be, one cannot read the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, even at this distance, without an acute yet mournful awareness of what Perry Anderson once termed “the history of possibility.”
This article available online at: