Rosa Luxemburg’s letters reveal an emotional depth, a love of nature and a sensuality light years away from the implacable cold-hearted revolutionary she’s remembered as.
One might say that love has always had its part to play in Rosa Luxemburg’s extraordinary life. At age 19, she smuggled herself out of Poland by means of a sentimental ruse: posing as a love-struck Jewish girl prohibited by her family from marrying a Catholic suitor, she melted the hearts of a set of priests, who smuggled her to Zurich hidden beneath a straw bed. As ever, Rosa – 1, convention – 0.
Thanks to her status as a political icon, Rosa Luxemburg means different things to different people. Her face – imposing, intelligent, stern – once gazed out from innumerable banners and posters in the GDR. For East Germans, she was little more than a symbol of the communist cause, voided of any real humanity by the machinations of propaganda. Westerners, meanwhile, saw her as “Bloody Rosa”, directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds. While opinion is much less polarised today, Rosa’s life is still open to interpretation, and therefore exaggeration. Was she a nerdy economic scientist? A workaholic? A cold-blooded academic? A radical consumed by the cause?
Cold-blooded, it appears now, she most certainly was not. Her early stroke of romantic ingenuity in fleeing Poland may just have been a bravura tactic, but Rosa’s later emotional life burned with an unbridled intensity. How do we know? Thanks to the vast number of Luxemburg’s poetic and heartbreaking letters to her lover Leo Jogiches, which Holger Politt, an expert from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, calls the “most valuable body of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters”, a picture is emerging of a woman who was as passionate as she was intelligent. Rosa Luxemburg wrote around 1000 letters to Jogiches, a Polish-Lithuanian fellow Marxist radical. They met and fell in love when Luxemburg was 20 and Jogiches 23, and their union produced a Paris-based Polish revolutionary publication, Sprawa Robotnicza (“The Workers’ Cause”). In late 1893, they jointly founded the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). But their personal letters are another beast altogether.
“Why haven’t you come here! If I could kiss your sweet mouth now, I wouldn’t be scared of any work. Baby…” writes Rosa. In the same letter, almost in the same breath, she adds: “I like your proclamation very much except for a few short phrases… send me the issue of Atheneum [a Warsaw literary magazine] with the tariffs and the clippings.” Amazingly, Luxemburg approaches her complex, fervid, headlong relationship with Jogiches with the same burning intensity she adopts for her politics. The letters are painful to read: Luxemburg is never physically with Jogiches, since he is in Poland and Lithuania while she writes and makes speeches in Zurich and Berlin. Nor do they seem to be emotionally with each other. She constantly complains of his iciness: “Your letters contain nothing, but nothing except for ‘The Workers’ Cause’, criticism of what I have done, and instructions about what I should do.” The angst and longing are palpable.
Most of all though, her letters are sexy. Her most pained complaints sizzle with an erotic frisson. “Dyodyo [pet name], I can’t wait! I want it now! My golden one, I can’t stand it any longer! … Dyodyushky, let me kiss your sweet mouth and the tip of your nose! May I touch it with my little finger?” For many, such endearments are hard to picture coming from the stern lips of the GDR’s poster child. But the lesser-known truth is that Rosa, the woman, was a real champion of sexual liberation in her personal life. While she considered herself Jogiches’ “wife” until their split in 1907, they were never formally married, and she took a lover as their relationship tailed off. Lovers plural, in fact. Her letters document at least three – including her attorney – over her adult years (we can infer that there were probably more, less serious liaisons as well). None of these unions were legally sanctified, and her behaviour was certainly not within the bounds of respectability for the time. She even had a lengthy and intense relationship with Kostja Zetkin, her close friend and collaborator’s son. Rosa Luxemburg seems to have championed a kind of “free love”, avant la lettre. In fact, her romantic life seems to have been structured by the same moral code as her politics. In one of her last love letters to Jogiches she writes, “If you no longer love me, then you must tell me openly … You owe it to the concept of having truth in life.” For her, sexual frankness and personal autonomy went hand in hand.
Rosa Luxemburg wrote around 1000 letters to Leo Jogiches. They reveal a woman as passionate as she was intelligent.
It may have been quite impossible for Rosa’s body not to feature in her politics. Dana Mills, an Oxford-based scholar whose new critical study of Luxemburg will appear in 2020, reminds us that Luxemburg was“a tiny Jewish woman who walk[ed] with a limp” and had a gold tooth. She stood out – and not always in a good way. Her experience of her body indelibly coloured her experience of politics: she both had to prove herself as a woman, orating from chairs and demolishing men’s arguments, and also distance herself from her gender and her heritage by retaining a veneer of respectability and staying away from the question of women’s suffrage. Rosa Luxemburg may have been a supremely intelligent and rational person, but these letters ultimately show that she also felt everything, both physically and emotionally.
It’s not just Rosa’s erotic yearning for Jogiches that makes the letters thrilling for afficionados, either. Though she was clearly aflame with passion for him, her writings also show us that her love for others was as intense. Rosa Luxemburg is characterised by a unique Feinfühligkeit (delicacy of feeling), as Julia Killet, head of the Bavarian office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, puts it: “She saw the little things in life … You can observe an insane level of compassion for all living things, and also for nature.” In Zurich, Rosa had meant to study natural sciences (see page 8) before turning her talents to politics. She produced a dazzling herbarium (see page 7), and Rosa’s longest and deepest relationship was arguably with her beloved cat, Mimi. Politt, too, sees this attentiveness and empathy as a crucial part of Rosa’s politics. “She went on her bike … [to] the sanatorium for a period of six weeks. She felt that she needed to cook for her mortally ill father.” In a letter to Jogiches, Rosa details that her father consumes “nine [eggs] a day”; “He gets up at five or five-thirty in the morning, so I too must get up, rub him with cold water (doctor’s orders), make tea.”
Luxemburg’s correspondence was also a gold mine for Kate Evans, the author of the graphic biography Red Rosa (2015), which was translated into German to great acclaim this year. Evans’ expressive black-and-white panels and on-the-nose Rosa humour (often drawn directly from her letters) are graphic indeed: they go so far as to depict Rosa naked and, as it were, in the act, in a welcome fleshing-out (literally) of a figure we generally only know for her intellectual contributions. Evans cites, with affectionate bafflement, a moment she feels illuminates Rosa’s profound empathy: “I’ll tell you what my favourite thing is: she fed wasps in prison. Who feeds wasps? That says something really profound about a person.” Perhaps it’s cliché to draw attention to a love of “all creatures big and small”, but Luxemburg’s deep-seated attentiveness and fellow-feeling are obvious in each of Evans’ depictions of her. “I’d describe her as a poet, but she never actually composed poetry.” Still, Evans concludes Red Rosa with one of Luxemburg’s last and most poetic letters, to her secretary Matilde Jacob (here as translated by Paul Frölich): “My tombstone may have only two syllables on it: “tsvee tsvee” (zwi zwi). That’s the call of the tomtits, and I can imitate it so well that they come running here right away. It’s usually a clear, fine sound, as sparkling as a steel needle. But imagine! For some days now there’s been a very small warble in this tsvee-tsvee, a tiny chest-note. And do you know what that means? That is the first rustling of the coming spring.” (Sadly, her wish wasn’t fulfilled. Instead her grave reads a rather prosaic “murdered Jan 15, 1919”).
Rosa’s relationship with Jogiches did not last. They split acrimoniously, and he continued to harass and even stalk her long after, a detail that is frequently glossed over by historians. What is also swept aside is Rosa’s own controlling behaviour toward her lovers: in Red Rosa, she asserts that she’s entitled to control Jogiches because she is “10 times better” than him, without even a hint of irony. Rosa’s relationships were mutually complicated, and far from paradisiacal. Nevertheless, the letters remain an invaluable window into her emotional life, and a unique testament to the way her keen sensitivity and passion shaped her intellect. In the darkest of times, Rosa Luxemburg observed, felt deeply, and listened for the coming spring.