Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rosa Luxemburg. Abridged Edition. By J.P. Nettl.

If we only read about individuals whose worldview confirms our own, we learn little. By this logic, the assemblage of contradictions which produce a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg will be vastly instructive. She was an independent woman, whose sheer personal drive led her to create national organizations, edit leading periodicals and influence Marxist party politics in several nations. All of this was accomplished during a time when women were considered by men to be intellectually inferior and hardly worth hearing. In spite of this independence, she “was not interested in any high-principled campaign for women’s rights.” In her mind, “the inferior status of women was a social feature which would be eliminated only by the advent of Socialism” (Nettl, p. 415). At times, Luxemburg expresses the purest motives of a life dedicated to serving what she sees as a noble purpose; a purpose for which she sacrificed her life. At times, she reveals stark personal ambition and strategy with comments like “in a year or two…I shall occupy one of the foremost positions in the party” (Nettl, p. 90). There are passages in Rosa’s writings where she counter-intuitively justifies her acceptance of worker suffering for her revolutionary goals as evidence of her compassion: Her chilly prediction, that advocacy of a 1905 general strike will mean that “the masses will die of hunger” and “some blood will be spilt,” is explained away with the rationalization that people who worry about such consequences “haven’t got the least contact or feeling for the masses” (Nettl, p. 212). However it is not only her contradictions that will invite a reader to expose themselves to a differing worldview. Few Western readers are Marxists; especially during a period where the Soviet Union has fallen and most existing, self-described “Communist” nations (Vietnam, China, Laos) are simply dictatorships fostering Capitalist economies. Examining an idealistic individual, who saw economic injustice and believed that Marxism was the answer, permits access to a mindset quite different from our own. It is our willingness to understand (whether or not we agree) that permits intellectual and personal growth.

Peter Nettl completed an academic, two-volume study of Luxemburg in 1966. But between his pre-1966 research and 1969, the political zeitgeist had changed. The United States was in the midst of upheaval concerning an imperialist Vietnam War, a more militant Civil Rights Movement and a general mistrust of authority. It was in this context that Nettl revised his book, cutting its length in half and providing commentary relevant to the late-Sixties protest movements. In the abridged edition, released in 1969, he is clear in his intention to foster and instruct dissent. “The purpose of this shortened version of my  work is to enable a wider audience to have access to her life and ideas…I unashamedly address this edition to anyone interested in using this rich fund of ideas, this rich life of action and experience, for their own purposes” (Nettl, p. xiii). In spite of his “for their own purposes” claim, Nettl speaks to protesters with an eye to converting them to Marxism. “Youth, mostly students; racial minorities, a few dissident intellectuals—these form the new ‘proletariat’ … there is no good reason why such groups should not form, and act like, a proletariat in a perfectly Marxist sense” (Nettl, p. x). His conclusion reiterates this goal: “Those…who hold that the revolutionary steps to progress must lead directly from highly developed capitalism to Socialism…will all find no better guide for inspiration than the life and work of Rosa Luxemburg” (Nettl, p. 499). In service to these ends, Nettl emphasizes elements in this earlier activist’s views that would resonate with his 1968 audience. He devotes long passages to her anti-imperialism (Nettl, p. 163), and her objections to authoritarianism (Nettl, p. 198). A reader’s ability to examine the period in which Nettl is writing and his objectives, adds a meta-biographical dimension to one’s understanding of this book. It can be read both for its’ late-19th/early-20th century biographical content, and for the understanding one may glean about the 1960s.

Because the purpose for this project was largely political and polemical, there is a dearth of illustration regarding the subject’s personal life. We learn the details of her childhood, her relationships, her friendships and the progress of her existence, but that is all. Nettl’s comprehension of Luxemburg’s life events and thought is extensive, but presented in a punctilious manner. In his narrative, Rosa moves but she does not breathe. This is not a book for the sentimental; it is a book for the intellectual who is concerned with theory, historical development and political process. Readers inclined towards the latter mode will find this work satisfying.


Nettl, J.P. Rosa Luxemburg. Abridged Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.