Rosa Luxemburg

ROSA LUXEMBURG: Letters from Prison

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.
-Che Guevara

In the middle of her journey, Rosa Luxemburg, revolutionary and charismatic speaker, writer, and theorist for the international socialist revolution, enters a dark cell. In the middle of her journey, that darkness did not, for the most part, enter her.

Biographer Eric Bronner writes of the lyrical power and poetic proportions of her writing as she shifts her attention from the International to the intimate world of insects, plants, and birds in the Wronke Prison. To fill the time, she reads constantly, writes articles and letters, translates books, recites passages to herself at night from Shakespeare and Goethe, and embraces the limited but still sensous world she inhabits.

Margarethe von Trotta’s film, Rosa LuXemburg, opens as Luxumberg paces back and forth in the snow in the prison yard, a crow hopping beside her. The camera cuts to her cell as she gazes at the blue-tits perching on the bars of her cell window. Her writing desk fills the tiny cell.

According to Bonner, Luxemburg embodies what philosopher Ernst Bloch has termed a “militant optimism.” In her writing, Luxemburg’s challenge to us is twofold: to refuse subjection to laws and systems we had no part in constituting, and to create a just, equitable, and humane world, a world in which personal happiness can also exist. Like the Russian writer, Vladimir Korolenko, whose work she translated, Luxemburg believes that we are obliged to demand a measure of happiness, even in the face of brutal oppression.

In the midst of life’s storms, it is Luxemburg’s militant optimism that allows her to find mystery and beauty in everything. When she writes that the nightingale outside her cell “sang as if intoxicated, as if possessed, as if wishing to drown the thunder, to illuminate the twilight,” she could have been writing about herself.

Towards the end of her life, she wrote her friend, Mathilde Wurm, outraged by the phrase: “the sublime silence of eternity.” For Luxemburg, eternity is neither silent nor sublime, but reverberates with the unheard voices of suffering. Luxemburg dedicated her life to listening to those reverberations and to creating a socialist movement whose primary goal was to alleviate exploitation and misery.

“I am at home wherever in the world there are clouds, birds, and human tears.”

Luxemburg’s journey was cut short by the German right-wing, who murdered her in 1919 two years after her release from prison. In its unflinching honesty and fierce compassion, her writing helps us to comprehend that the existing world is not the only one possible. Her work offers us the challenge not only to change that world but to recreate it.


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