How far should revolutionary thinking be allowed to go? Everything Luxemburg touched she pushed to an extreme – jusqu’à outrance, ‘to the outer limit’, to use her own phrase, the slogan she proposed to her lover Leo Jogiches. ‘We live in turbulent times,’ she wrote in 1906 to Luise and her husband, Karl Kautsky, also from prison, this time in Warsaw, convicted of aiming to overthrow the tsarist government. ‘All that exists deserves to perish,’ she wrote, quoting Goethe’s Faust. It is of course the whole point of a revolution that you cannot know what, if anything, can or should survive. For Luxemburg the danger was as real as it was inspiring. ‘The revolution is magnificent,’ she wrote, again in 1906. ‘Everything else is bilge’ (the German quark, which has since made its way into English, literally means ‘soft white cheese’). But whatever the conditions in which she found herself – in Warsaw, she was one of 14 political prisoners crammed into a single cell – she never lost her fervour: her joy, as she put it, amid the horrors of the world. ‘My inner mood,’ she wrote after listing the indignities of her captivity, ‘is, as always, superb.’ ‘Enthusiasm combined with critical thought,’ she wrote in one of her last letters, ‘what more could we want of ourselves!’ She had the relish and courage of her convictions (although ‘conviction’ might turn out to be not quite the right word). There is no one, I will risk saying, who better captures the spirit – the promise and the risk – of revolution than Rosa Luxemburg.
This isn’t anarchy – Luxemburg is very precisely calling for elections and representative parliamentary forms. Her demands were specific: freedom of the press, right of association and assembly (which had been banned for opponents of the regime). Anything less, she insisted, would lead inevitably to the ‘brutalisation’ of public life. For her, politics was a form of education: in many ways its supreme, if not only true, form. As she had argued in relation to women’s suffrage in 1902, the well-tried argument that people are not mature enough to exercise the right to vote is fatuous: ‘As if there were some other school of political maturity … than simply exercising those rights!’ Not even the revolutionary party in Russia at the time of the mass strike could be said to have ‘made’ the Revolution: it had had ‘to learn its law from the course itself’.
How could you possibly believe that a revolution can or should be mastered or known in advance if you are in touch with those parts of the mind which the mind itself cannot master and which do not even know themselves? ‘There is nothing more changeable than human psychology,’ she wrote to Mathilde Wurm from Wronke prison in 1917: ‘That’s especially because the psyche of the masses, like Thalatta, the eternal sea, always bears within it every latent possibility … they are always on the verge of b, ecoming something totally different from what they seem to be.’ Thirteen years earlier she wrote to her friend Henriette Holst: ‘Don’t believe it’ – she has just allowed herself a rare moment of melancholy – ‘don’t believe me in general, I’m different at every moment, and life is made up only of moments.’ The shifting sands of the revolution and of the psyche are more or less the same thing.
Jacqueline Rose in the LRB - for subscribers, so I'm being bad, very bad. I'm reminded, as I am every two weeks, that the money I pay for a subscription is the best bet I've made all year -- which contributes, after all, to the payment of people I want to read. It seems selfish, though, to have kept the subscription to myself; I should have taken out 20 subs and bestowed them on deserving cafés. Or something. Do YOU have a café you frequent, which would be improved by provision of the LRB? Too cash-strapped to provide? Drop me a line.
I've been a professional writer for a mere 15 years. I've been a reader since the age of 2. I wish I wish I wish I wish I wish bien pensants somewhere somehow had colluded to get the things I should have been reading to me somehow.