For Rosa Luxemburg's 150th birthday, we republish Katherine Connellly's interview with Dana Mills on her contribution to revolutionary thought.
KC: Dana, thank you so much for giving up your time to talk to us today about your new biography of Rosa Luxemburg. I wanted to start with a really beautiful quote that you pick out from one of her letters:
‘I want to affect people like a clap of thunder, to inflame their minds not by speechifying but with the breadth of my vision, the strength of my conviction, and the power of my expression.’ (p.28)
I think that’s also a very good description of the way in which you convey Rosa Luxemburg in this book. It reflects what she was like, the kind of world she yearned for and her view of emancipation. There’s a fantastic part at the beginning where you describe her love of literature and her love of nature and her brightness – both in terms of her intellect and temperament – against the dark times in which she was organising. You present us right from the first pages with a Rosa Luxemburg that the reader wants to sit down and talk with. So I wanted to ask you first of all how did you first encounter Luxemburg and what did that mean to you?
DM: So, first of all, thank you for having me. I met Rosa first as an activist. I’m a pro-Palestinian Israeli lefty activist and a Jewish woman who is critical of nationalism and so Rosa’s always been this role model for us.
We actually studied her; my undergraduate was in Political Science in Tel Aviv and we studied her as an economist which is interesting because when I started teaching myself in the UK I found she’s taught much less. She’s kind of missing intellectually.
So I first met her as an activist then as a theorist but more specifically – in terms of being a subject – really I started looking at radical Jewish women about six years ago and I’m especially interested in Jewish women who are critical of nationalism. Again, for me as an Israeli lefty that’s something that for me politically was really important.
There’s something interesting for me specifically about her internationalism, her perception of the world and her understanding of action and empathy: the world and how you act within it.
I started thinking specifically how do we act for justice from a specific place without necessarily having access to the entire world? I think that’s a question that really resonates with where we are right now. I mean we’re all kind of locked up; I’m doing this interview with you online because no one can really go anywhere.
We’re affected by a global disease that is affecting people all around the world, reminding us that we share humanity, we share vulnerability, we share mortality but we also share organising techniques. When I started on the book 3-4 years ago, there were already resonances, you saw different uprisings: the Polish and Argentinian reproductive rights protests, the women’s marches in the US and in Chile. It was a moment in which people responded to challenges in a similar way despite being geographically separate.
Rosa didn’t travel; she was ill; she was disabled; she was very confined for most of her life. I think she’s a very timely subject for lockdown because a lot of her writing was done in a prison cell. And she had an imaginative power to think about places that she never saw. She wrote about South Africa, she wrote about the American South, she wrote about Australia, she wrote in 1902 about Martinique.
And I felt, especially in the polarisation of the late 2010s and people becoming more and more engrossed in their little bubbles, that Rosa was really a good role model: you can affect people – really like a clap of thunder. I think that was what really drew me to her and still does.
KC: I hadn’t thought about her as a revolutionary in lockdown! Often when we think about Rosa, she’s presented in relation to people she had very sharp disagreements with – and we’ll come on to talk about that – but we talk less about her friends, and particularly her female friendships. But your biography puts a lot of emphasis on this.
DM: This kind of harks back to your work and that of Rachel Holmes [KC and RH have both written on Sylvia Pankhurst; RH has written on Eleanor Marx] whose work has been really important to me in thinking what feminist biography can do for us in 2020. All of us are activists ourselves and I have a lot of women activists in my circles. When you sit and think who do you draw on for strength – when you have to address a meeting, or edit something controversial – more often than not it’s your girlfriends rather than the guy you’re dating or your political enemy.
When I was researching, I was thinking a lot about political women I know and who they confide in and turn to for support. And I really wanted her to be of our time in that way.
I spent some time in her archive in the wonderful International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam and you really see when you look at her papers that the percentage is very much 60-70% letters to her women friends, and 30% to whoever was her boyfriend of that time.
This is a very short biography: it’s 50,000 words; it’s meant to be an introduction; an opening up of a conversation. It’s nowhere near an exhaustive biography. I really thought what could my contribution be as an activist who’s writing about her and I imagined her standing in those rooms, as a short, disabled Jewish woman with very little going for her. I mean she didn’t have the Marx or the Pankhurst families rooting for her. Rosa was an outsider in every way.
You see it in photos too. There’s a really beautiful photo, used often and one I include in the book, of her speaking alongside a portrait of Lassalle – but then you notice that Clara Zetkin is sitting there. And when she was murdered, the thing that was found in her purse was a letter from Clara. It shows you something about her priorities and who she was thinking about in her very last days.
I was thinking what especially now what it means to be a woman leader on the left, and what it means to be a woman outsider leader on the left, so someone like AOC [American Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] who I think has a lot of resonances: a barmaid who came from the Bronx; who’s working-class; who doesn’t have a lot of party or family mechanisms behind her. She has the squad. Rosa had Luise Kautsky and Clara Zetkin and Mathilda Jacob – it’s a squad, it’s just a 100 years earlier! It’s something that I did very intentionally, so thank you for picking up on that.
KC: You stress just how early and how remarkable it is that as an outsider, Rosa makes a huge impact in socialist debates where the socialist movement was seen to have achieved more than anywhere else – in Germany – against a revisionism of Marxism (this idea that socialism could be created through gradual reforms of capitalism, not through its revolutionary overthrow). Why do you think these revisionist ideas emerged around the time that they did and what was the basis for her opposition to them? How was she able to see through its flaws?
DM: There’s a shifting of power within the Second International. We’re talking about several years after Engels and Eleanor Marx die. So the two people who defended revolutionary Marxism are no longer there. And Eduard Bernstein, who was Engels’ most famous student, comes out with this series of pamphlets saying revolution is not feasible at the moment.
The International was organised according to parties, not individuals. That’s really important – so you had blocks of influence. The SPD [the German Social Democratic Party of which Luxemburg was a member] was the biggest in the Second International and it was really leaning more towards the centre and more towards the right.
And she saw that through its tendencies towards imperialism and compromising on other issues.
But I think specifically the response to Marx was a very clear theoretical cut at that point. In the book I quote from her supervisor in Switzerland – she was one of the first women to get a PhD in economics (in law officially, but in political economy really) – and he says she came to me already a thorough Marxist. Franz Mehring called her the best brain after Marx and I think there is something there. She was really the brain that took over Marxism. I think intellectually she really got through the cracks of how Marx understood capitalism.
At this time she’s a young woman and she’s fairly unknown. She’s known in Polish radical circles for her opposition to nationalism, but not widely beyond that. And she writes to Leo Jogiches who’s then her partner and she says this is how I’m going to make my mark. So this is her as a politician who’s very sure of herself, who knows this is a moment when I can intervene.
And she actually did what she said she would do: become the woman leader of the left of the SPD. It was astounding to me from the gender point of view. Eduard Bernstein was like a household member of the Marx family, he was very close personally to Engels. But she didn’t care, she just decided this is a place where she could influence and she was just going to go for it. And that was something she did throughout her career.
Obviously out of this debate comes Reform or Revolution and it’s still an enduring text. There’s so many things that still ring very true today: you don’t compromise; you don’t say no to revolutionary change; you think of how to spread the revolution and how to educate through that action.
KC: I think you rightly emphasise in the book that her starting point is always what’s in the interest of the working class in struggle. Would you say that she learns that from observing and analysing working-class struggle in practice?
DM: She didn’t go to factories and write notes. She does go to the field in some places (the 1905 revolution in Russia, but only at the end), but I think again she’s really able to write about struggles without observing them. Most of her mature writing is done in prison.
It’s very clear that she was an outsider. She was middle class, it’s important to say that she wasn’t working class, but she was in communities that were strongly disenfranchised. Especially as a Polish citizen of the Russian empire and a Polish Jewish citizen of the Russian empire means she’s twice discriminated against.
Something I tried to do was look at her childhood and how she develops political consciousness. It goes back to my previous point about empathy, you can organise and understand class struggle without being working class in the strict sense of the term. She was always very insistent on that.
I think what is key is her understanding of consciousness being transformed through the struggle itself, which is very different to the way that Bernstein was writing. She uses the concept of the masses, which is an amorphic group of people that is beyond the working class. I think when Marx writes about the working class and when she writes about the working class, it’s a very specific economic term. When she writes about the masses, it’s basically everyone who can be galvanised and be motivated for action.
But she was different from her British equivalents – Sylvia Pankhurst or Eleanor Marx – she wasn’t a working-class organiser. Credit’s due where it’s due, but she did not do that.
I think the other side – and that’s where I felt very empathetic towards her – is that she just really enjoyed intellectual challenge. She was incredibly clever, she was really the brains of the International at that time and she got to the core of Marx in a way that very few people did before or, I would say, after.
I think she knows her flaws, she tries to organise and she’s sent on lecture campaigns – she’s a good speaker and everyone says the moment she opens her mouth you have to listen to her. But she wasn’t the person to go round and fundraise and start the grassroots organisation.
Also, she really suffered from ill health and depression all her life. Her first imprisonments are around the first Russian Revolution 1905 after that you see a decrease in her health and her ability to go and be in the field. I think it was a matter of her knowing her limits, though still working extremely hard – I mean look at how much she wrote, nevertheless, and while in prison! But physically she was constrained more than we know.
German specialists I spoke to, especially Jürn Schütrumpf who is a very esteemed writer on her, said that in Germany they wouldn’t talk about her depression until a very late stage. They liked to talk about her emotional depth, but she did suffer what we know as depression and for days she was immobilised and she didn’t do much. So, there’s that element of how much physically is she able to go and take lessons from the working-class and some of it physically and emotionally she wasn’t able to.
KC: Thank you, it’s a very human insight. I wanted to ask you about imperialism, which we have already alluded to a bit. In the book you describe this question as ‘central to her time’ (p.93) and again it’s one of the major fault lines that emerges in the debates within the SPD. What do you think changed around this issue since the time that Marx was writing? And what today does Luxemburg’s experience teach us about the importance of anti-imperialism to the socialist movement?
DM: Her intervention on imperialism is very calculated. She notices it’s a growing issue in the SPD, it’s important to say at that point it’s not seen as a problem. People support imperialist policies and call themselves socialists and they don’t see that as a contradiction.
In terms of the change from Marx’s time, one of the biggest changes is the SPD becomes a very large party in the German parliament and gains disproportionate influence. If you’re interested in politics, you want your party to gain more influence. But at the same time she sees more and more sway to the centre and the right, and there’s an intimate connection between the SPD’s revisionism and imperialism.
And this was a calculated emphasis I made in the book because we all know what happens when parliamentary parties become centre right and may gain influence on policies but also give up on principles.
They give up on all these notions that are there in the pure Marxist writings saying that the fight against capitalism must be global; that oppression and exploitation of someone elsewhere will feed into exploitation of the working-class in your country. She sees that as an opportunity to intervene.
There’s also the intellectual challenge of her going to a problem she saw in Marx, particularly in Volume 2 of Capital, and she loved that. In most of her previous biographies, which I should add were apart from one written by men, they say of this period of her life “oh, she was so miserable because she broke up with her partner”. And then there’s this letter I found that she wrote to Clara Zetkin where she said “this was the happiest time of my life”!
So, maybe not so much. Maybe writing on Volume 2 of Capital is the way to go when you’re sad when your relationship breaks down. That’s an element of this being important for her personally: she’s rebuilding herself, she’s out of her first relationship, she’s an organiser, she’s very famous, she doesn’t have to defend herself – it’s a very different Rosa to the Rosa of the revisionism debate.
And the last layer of this is the anti-war strand which is really, really important. She sees the SPD more and more shift towards supporting militarism. She was always an anti-militarist, she always said the only people who benefit from wars are capitalists.
Where we are now? We know economically her argument wasn’t true. She made an argument against Marx that has since been falsified.
But there’s something that she talks about in terms of capitalism’s need to find a place to expand that I think is at its core important for us to think about and specifically the need to make any anti-capitalist struggle also anti-imperialist.
Especially nowadays when production is so global. We saw the factories collapse that make Primark goods and we see industries of workers who are trafficked in Turkey or in China that sustain western capitalism. So I think it’s about saying if you’re an anti-capitalist you can’t just talk about the factory closing down in your home town – that’s important and you go and campaign for that also – but you can’t say ‘I don’t care about these other countries, they’re far and not relevant.’
Why don’t we look at the world at large and how we can influence each other? The mirror side of looking at how capitalism expands is also looking at strategy and organisation from other places. And clearly this is the moment to do it. This is the moment when the entire world is dealing with the same problem and some countries are doing it well and we’re not talking about them and we’re not looking at them for examples.
KC: Luxemburg’s ideas have been contested ever since her death, especially her critique of developments in Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. I think you very rightly insist that Luxemburg’s huge respect for what was achieved in Russia is very often just overlooked and that she can’t be co-opted as this anti-Leninist as so many have sought to do. I wondered if you might say something about how you think Luxemburg has been misused in this way and why this isn’t really a very fair interpretation of what she was saying?
DM: There’s two elements to that. The first is that Lenin and Luxemburg were two people who had complex lives and Leninism and Luxemburgism are tendencies that I think have little to do with the people themselves. People who took his theories and her theories and made them into something different are not the carriers of their message. Especially when we consider with the problematics of reception and with Stalinist interventions in her archive and in his – there’s an element of distortion of both their archives.
So I’ll say something about her relationship with him, and then her and the Russian Revolution and then the pamphlet [Luxemburg’s The Russian Revolution] which I think is really important because people always go at that and I’ve already been critiqued for that in the book. And I’m still standing by my interpretation.
Rosa and Lenin were both leftist leaders; she was supportive of him very early on; they had overall a warm relationship – that’s something that I realised from the letters – you see that mutual respect in the correspondence.
KC: You mention her 1918 Christmas card to Lenin!
DM: Yeah, and that’s the thing – you don’t send your political enemies Christmas cards, let’s just say that! And I think my best moment in writing the book – and this is also for our comrade Jodi Dean who helped me a lot with this – was her letter to Clara Zetkin where she says that Lenin came over and was really nice to her cat Mimi. That’s not an animosity, if she’s writing that he was nice to her cat they got on well. So there’s the personal relationship between two leaders on the left in a very difficult time. Both of them were organising against a lot of constraints that we’ve just discussed.
She also wasn’t a politician in the way that Lenin was and I think that’s really important to accentuate. She was always a left-wing outlier and he was a leader – it’s a very different position to speak from.
In terms of the Revolution, she was interested in Russia for a long time as were Marx and Engels obviously. She wrote extensively on the first Revolution [in 1905], she went over there, she understood the conditions in Russia very well, and she was interested in Russian literature (when she was in prison during the First World War she edited a text about Korolenko). She always supported the Bolshevik policy over the Mensheviks – there’s no debate there at all.
She was really interested in building class consciousness from the grassroots and I think for her when the revolution becomes too centralised and when there’s intervention in how to mobilise beyond the first stages of the revolution then she becomes critical and she writes what we know now as the pamphlet The Russian Revolution.
There were a lot of arguments where she changed her mind. But she makes similar arguments about the importance of freedom of speech and participatory democracy on the left from her very early writings. And I think it’s really important here to remember her education and the Polish rebel who saw the leaders of the party she’d supported as a teenager being executed for their opinions. So to say that she would have changed her mind about freedom of speech is not being attentive to the arc of her life.
She didn’t publish the pamphlet when she wrote it. For the reasons that I think she knew it would be badly received, she knew it would be used in the way that it was then abused. But it’s not that she changed her mind; you write things and you think that’s not the right way, that’s not the right moment to publish it. There’s no evidence that she changed her mind though. That was something that people, especially Clara Zetkin and Paul Levi, said after her death in order to reconcile things with her Russian comrades.
I think it’s really important to say that she was a defender of democracy on the left, and a defender of democracy in Marxism. She wasn’t always a democrat herself, she didn’t practice what she preached always, but she really defended that theoretically and she was always the first person to call out centralist tendencies, especially when freedom of speech was suppressed. I think the question of what the left is able to endure is a very timely one. Is the left going to go in the same way that the authoritarian right is going and to say this opinion is not easy for us to endure so we’re just going to silence it?
One thing I really tried to do in the biography is show that she always defended democracy; it’s not that in 1917 she suddenly says “ah! But what about democracy?” At every single moment in her life you can see that she’s the advocate of democratic process of building the institutions through the revolutionary moment. When you look at the emergence of revolution through strikes, through popular uprising – of course there was a party, the party was important – but she’s really interested in the grassroots democracy and that’s what she’s trying to defend.
KC: Perhaps where we might disagree is over some of those criticisms of the revolution. Luxemburg certainly believed that she was defending the importance of democratic principles in her opposition to the substitution of the Constituent Assembly by the Congress of Soviets. But isn’t what’s going on here the replacement of a bourgeois democratic institution with a working-class controlled democratic institution? Are the Bolsheviks not decisively dealing with a problem that’s haunted revolutionaries ever since 1848 in France when the potential for independent working class revolution became clear? Isn’t this about different versions of democracy?
DM: I think yes and no. So yes, it’s different versions of democracy.
But the question is, how much are we willing to concede in that process? It was really important for me to say she saw processes as they were starting out. I mean, Lenin was not Stalin and what happens after Lenin dies clearly is not his nor the Bolsheviks’ nor Trotsky’s vision. So it’s not to say “oh look the Bolsheviks are authoritarian” but she does insist on something that I think it is very crucial which is to say when you start suppressing civil liberties in revolutionary movements this will not end well.
That’s actually really, really important.
She was part of a party her entire life. After she quits the SPD she founds the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). It’s not that she underestimated the need for a party that organises and mobilises the working class. But I think the question is: when do you say this critique we are not willing to live with, and we’ll find ways that are institutionalised, that will be well argued, but will find ways to suppress certain forms of critique? And I think it’s a very radical view. She was in some ways more radical than where the revolution was going. In hindsight I do think that she recognised centralist tendency within the Bolshevik party, the party that we know later became the mainstream.
She was the best dialectician of her time. If you are a dialectician then you allow the contradictions to generate something new – that’s dialectics in a nutshell – and I think that’s also the connection between her intellectual legacy and the political insistence on freedom of speech. Because if you silence debate, if you silence opposition, you will not move to the next stage, the revolution will not develop.
KC: You were writing this as more material is being discovered and translated. There are also some really wonderful photographs in this book, photographs that I’ve never seen of Luxemburg and even one of the tree that she planted in prison! Could you share with us what insights you feel this new material provides us with and how exciting it was to read things that other people haven’t yet had the opportunity to read?
DM: The first thing I need to say is we still don’t even come close to knowing the range of what she wrote – there’s stuff being discovered all the time. Which is really exciting and also daunting.
There were certain issues on my mind when I was writing. Specifically, that she wrote a lot of things on Poland, and in Yiddish on Jewish organising, and generally on working-class organising but in different languages that we’re just discovering. So a lot of what we have now in German and Russian and Polish are a very small part of her archive. There are amazing texts being discovered all the time.
For many years she was either being posed as a ‘self-hating Jew’ or as someone who is ashamed of her Polish background and it was clear to me that she was not. There’s a lot of cultural pride and she never forgets where she’s from; there’s always the connection to the culture and to things she loved from home.
And in terms of Jewishness, it’s clear that it’s part of who she was. And she also paid the price for that. In the same way that she had sexism turned against her, she had antisemitism turned against her.
As I said, I’m a member of the board of the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg. In English, I should say, because the German one is already supposedly complete – but it’s not complete. It’s a massive project, we don’t even know how it’s going to end. There’s so much wealth of knowledge that we just don’t have yet. So, for instance, the book that I used a lot in writing on the Russian Revolution was literally published a year before I finished my book. So I have this amazing book, reports from the ground on the 1905 revolution, that just came out and I was lucky to have it but until then no one had read it. Things like that really influenced how I looked at her.
The photographs came from the International Institute for Social History which has really astonishing stuff: letters from prison and the photograph of the tree! There’s a photograph of one of her best friends holding her cat. When she was in prison there was a nominated cat caretaker.
There were some things in which she was problematic and there’s some things in which obviously she still resonates today. I think especially with the things that you see in her personal letters. And her drawings. She was a self-trained artist, painted a lot, drew a lot, really remarkable artwork. It’s a very different image to the one who threw fists with Lenin. I think I tried to show her flaws as a human being as well as her empathy and her personal connections to those around her.
KC: Well you do it absolutely beautifully. The final thing that I wanted to ask about is Rosa now. The end of last year and the beginning of this year was one of mass strikes around the world, and I wondered if you could tell us what you feel is the importance of Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas today?
DM: I think there are several lessons that I wanted to put at the centre of the book. I was thinking about what democracy entails, how we fight for democracy and not separating that from the working-class struggle. I think there’s the idea that we do class organising and then we talk [separately] about civil liberties. For Rosa it was both, all the time, together. We need to see how our democracies are shrinking and how the far-right has really transformed what we expect of our democracies, which she definitely wouldn’t accept.
But also there’s the importance of building consciousness through organising. She really understood that when you’re on the street, when you’re agitating in a revolution, that’s when consciousness begins to build. I think it’s astounding looking at what’s going on right now. In my homeland of Israel there’s been a wave of protests ever since March, including during the lockdown, of people standing socially distanced and raising pro-democracy signs, on the streets. People ask why are you doing that? Consciousness is built through those moments of going through the streets and holding a sign.
We saw that in the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. I was writing the book throughout the Corbyn campaign, myself going door-knocking, talking to people and you really saw how people were getting politicised through organising. I think it’s important to stress that we don’t wait for the revolutionary moment, we create the revolutionary moment. And it is through this ceaseless organising that she did throughout her life.
Dana Mills’ ‘Rosa Luxemburg’ is published by Reaktion Books Ltd in their Critical Lives series.
Before you go...we need your help
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
More articles from this author
- Karl Marx and the Paris Commune
- International Women's Day: a working class, socialist history
- The fight for women's liberation - Marxism and Women's liberation extract
- Rosa Luxemburg: an interview with Dana Mills
- ‘And seem a saint, when most I play the devil’: Johnson’s dangerously misleading Covid broadcast
- Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel - book review
- Is revolution possible in the twenty-first century? – explainer