1978-08 Rosa Luxemburg: revolutionary, feminist [Dunayevskaya]

August 9, 1978

« The revolution is magnificent, and everything else is bilge. » – Rosa Luxemburg

Dear Sisters:

Because the dialectic never fails to reveal facets one has never thought of at the start of writing, I hesitate to write to you something on Rosa Luxemburg when the work on it AS A BOOK has not yet begun. But because the urgency of the very idea of a philosophy of revolution-Marx’s-compels confrontation, no matter how dissatisfied I may be with my articulation of this topic when I have not worked out what is in my head, I will be brave enunciating it.

Take the quotation at the top. No doubt some of today’s women theorists who refuse to grapple with Rosa’s theories on the ground that she didn’t write on Women’s Liberation are using that magnificent quotation as « proof » of her playing down women’s uniqueness, as if revolution and women were opposites! The truth is that no greater proof could be given of how TOTAL was her concept of revolution as the way, the only way, of uprooting exploitative, racist, sexist society.

Just recently I found a letter that Rosa had written to Hans Diefenbach from prison on, of all things, a review of a performance of Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT. She was so enamored with the review by a Dr. Morganstern that she quoted it at length: « ‘This is by no means the only case where Shakespeare draws this type of assured young woman: in his work, one encounters several of this sort. We do not know whether he ever met a woman like Rosalyn, Beatrice, or Portia, or whether he had models to work from, or whether he created pictures from his longing. But this we definitely know. From these characters, there speaks his own belief of woman. His conviction is that woman can be so magnificent because of her special nature. At least for a time in his life he extolled woman as few poets did. In woman he saw a force of nature working which culture could never harm…' » Then Rosa comments: « Isn’t this a fine analysis? If you know what an insipid, dried up, queer fish Dr. Morganstern is in private! But his psychological penetration is what I would wish for the future creator of the German essay. »

Although this has nothing to do with theories of revolution and very little to do with women’s « role »-nor even the question of women’s suffrage for which Rosa did fight and did write about, although you wouldn’t think so from women’s theorists’ disregard of her-I wished to call attention to it. This is NOT because it is one of the rare things in which she did speak of women, since the women it speaks about are not those working class women and socialist women with whom she worked. Rather, it is about women as characters in literature by one genius of a dramatist who certainly was no « proletarian revolutionary, » and the reviewer she quotes whom she considers « insipid. » Why, then, did she pay attention to it, and why did I single it out? It has to do with the multidimensionality of Rosa Luxemburg, both as revolutionary and as human being, that she is concerned, in writing from prison to a young socialist, that he be concerned that « the future creator of the German essay » have « deep psychological penetration » of women as « magnificent »!

In a word, when she writes of revolution which is « magnificent, and everything else is bilge, » it doesn’t mean the downplaying of women. Rather, it is the totality she aspires for « future. » The point, especially for us today, is not any counter-position of revolution and woman. Quite the contrary. The real point-and that’s why I have changed the title of the projected book on Rosa Luxemburg and the relationship to Marx’s theories, from Marx’s theory of revolution to Marx’s PHILOSOPHY of revolution-is that so long as we only talk of theory, we are talking only of the immediate task of revolution, that is to say, the overthrow of capitalism. But when we talk of a philosophy of revolution, we do not mean only the overthrow of capitalism, but the creation of a new society. ONLY WHEN WE HAVE THAT IN MIND CAN THE REVOLUTION BE TRULY TOTAL.

At the same time, what is most comprehensive in the projected work is that the very « taking up » of Marx’s philosophy of revolution means that we have the opportunity of considering a very specific revolution, [the Russian Revolution of] 1905, in which all three great revolutionaries-Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky-were active. Each singled out what he/she considered the greatest achievement of that revolution and then built on that as preparation for the future revolution. It is this BUILDING ON that we wish to break down for our age.

There is no doubt that Rosa was so enamored of the proletariat as revolutionary that she seems to subsume the woman in her concept of revolutionary. But there is equally no doubt whatsoever that she both worked closely with Clara Zetkin in all aspects of the women’s movement, from suffrage to anti-imperialism. And indeed, the majority in such crucial industrial centers like Hamburg were adherents of her theories and activities in the anti-war movement. There is further no doubt that the letters she wrote to women, again especially from prison, were of such profound nature that they reveal her whole philosophy. Take the letter I have often quoted, to Mathilde Wurm:

« I swear to you, let me once get out of prison and I shall hunt and disperse your company of singing toads with trumpets, whips and bloodhounds-I want to say like Penthesilea, but then, by God, you [all?-RD] are no Achilles. Had enough of my New Year’s greeting? Then see to it that you remain a human being… to be human means throwing one’s life « on the scales of destiny » if needs be… »

That’s the point, the whole point.

Marx’s 1844 Essays were unknown to Rosa Luxemburg. But there is no doubt of the fact, the profound fact, that Marx’s whole new continent of thought that began with revolution-so TOTAL and deep a revolution as to begin with the Man/Woman relationship as the most basic one of all that needed total reorganization-was also Rosa’s concept. When Marx stressed that that relationship needed uprooting in all class societies (indeed, I am ready to say in ALL PREVIOUS SOCIETIES), it is proof of how total was Marx’s concept of tearing society up at its roots. So totally new was his philosophy of revolution on that relationship that even under primitive communism, which he much admired when discovered by Henry Lewis Morgan in the communal life among the Iroquois-ANCIENT SOCIETY-Marx sensed women’s enslavement. He was certainly impressed with the communal life and with how much greater was woman’s role there than under capitalism. Nevertheless, much more was needed in the creation of a new Man/Woman than « modernization. » Marx is the one whose extensive notes Engels used the year after Marx died for his THE ORIGIN OF THE FAMILY, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND THE STATE. But, where Engels only glorified primitive communism, as if all it needed were a sort of « updating, » Marx, the genius who discovered a whole new continent of thought in developing his philosophy of revolution, sensed in the family structure nothing short of elements of « slavery, » of « serfdom. »

(This is not the place to develop the difference between Marx and Engels and why one-Marx-is the genius who discovered a whole new continent of thought while the other-Engels-no matter how talented and how close a collaborator of Marx, was not that founder. But here, since it is also grounded on the Man/Woman relationship, the women can reach something totally new if they work it out multidimensionally and dialectically.)

Rosa’s whole life as a revolutionary, as a theoretician, as a multidimensional woman, was so preoccupied with the spontaneity of revolution that, not only as against « the educated » but also revolutionary theoreticians who thought they need « to teach » revolution to the masses, she focused instead on the great truth that, as she put it, « revolution cannot be schoolmastered. » Neither on the revolution’s nor on spontaneity’s « magnificence » was it a question of « throwing out » the need for theory. There may have been a playing down of « philosophy » as if that were « abstract, » but never any playing down of theory of revolution.

What concerns us now is to see what impulses we can « catch » in the newest development of the Women’s Liberation Movement of today, women who would feel emboldened to become collaborators with us in the writing, in the activities, to, at one and the same time, develop what is most immediate (be it ERA or a strike, or any single case) and, at the same time, dig so deeply both in their experiences and in our theories as to find common ground for universal as well as individual self-development…

There surely is some time in everyone’s life when one wants to reach for something of the future. I do not doubt that in the present historic stage women want to reach for that total uprooting of this sexist, racist, exploitative society. Let’s begin there.


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