History and Heartbreak: The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

9781781681077

Vivian Gornick in The Nation:

There she was: a girl, a Jew, a cripple—possessed of an electrifying intelligence, a defensively arrogant tongue and an unaccountable passion for social justice, which, in her teens, led her to the illegal socialist organizations then abounding among university students in Warsaw. In the city’s radical underground, she opened her mouth to speak and found that thought and feeling came swiftly together through an eloquence that stirred those who agreed with her, and overwhelmed those who did not. The experience was exhilarating; more than exhilarating, it was clarifying; it centered her, told her who she was.

At 18—already on the Warsaw police blotter—Rosa was sent to Zurich to study, and never went home again. Although she was registered at the university as a student in natural sciences, it was at the German socialist club—with its library, reading room and lecture hall—that she got her education. There, in the autumn of 1890, she met Leo Jogiches, a Lithuanian Jew three years her elder and already a student revolutionary of local reputation. A self-styled hero of Russian radical literature, Leo was brooding, angry, remote, enamored of Bakunin’s famous definition of the revolutionary as a man who “has no interests of his own, no cause of his own, no feelings, no habits, no belongings, he does not even have a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution.” Rosa was enraptured. Leo, in turn, was aroused by her adoration. They became lovers in 1891; but, from the start, theirs was a misalliance.

From earliest youth, Rosa had looked upon radical politics as a means of living life fully. She wanted everything: marriage and children, books and music, walks on a summer evening and the revolution. Personal happiness and the struggle for social justice, she said, shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. If people gave up sex and art while making the revolution, they’d produce a world more heartless than the one they were setting out to replace. Leo, on the other hand, withdrawn and depressed—he hated daylight, sociability and his own sexual need—told her this was nonsense; all that mattered was the Cause. Yet Rosa’s longing for intimacy with him did not abate.

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