From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Rosa Luxemburg as feminist

March 8, 2018

From the March-April 2018 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we present excerpts from “Luxemburg as Feminist; Break with Jogiches,” Chapter 7 of Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, by Raya Dunayevskaya.

by Raya Dunayevskaya

Rosa Luxemburg

Luxemburg rightly refused to be pigeonholed by the German Social-Democracy into the so-called Woman Question, as if that were the only place she “belonged,” although she was a theoretician and the editor of a Polish paper as well as an activist when she arrived in Germany. Unfortunately, too many in the Women’s Liberation Movement of today reveal their attitude to be the opposite side of the same coin by disregarding this great revolutionary because she allegedly had “next to nothing” to say on women.

Another reverse put-down on the “Woman Question” is to act as if Luxemburg’s friendship with Clara Zetkin—who is recognized by all as the founder of women’s liberation as a working class, mass movement, as well as theoretician and editor of the greatest mass circulation women’s newspaper to this day—was a “burden” to Luxemburg.[1]

In any case, it was not the “Woman Question” but the fight against reformism that had brought Luxemburg and Zetkin together; this does not mean, however, that Luxemburg left women’s liberation to Zetkin, nor did Zetkin simply “follow” Luxemburg. The truth is that their revolutionary comradeship held for all positions for two long decades—from the fight against revisionism to the fight against militarism, from the fight against the bureaucratization of the trade unions to the antiwar struggle, and, of course, to the revolution itself.

There is no doubt that Zetkin was nowhere as profound a thinker as Luxemburg, but there is also no doubt that she was a genuine revolutionary. She chose to concentrate on women’s liberation, on organizing working-class women, thus becoming a model not only for the German movement but for the Russian women’s struggle from Alexandra Kollontai on; indeed, for the struggle the world over, including that in the United States. She rightly had an international reputation, based on both her activity and her theory on the “Woman Question.”

Germany, Berlin, First International Women’s day, Women demonstrating in Berlin, demanding the right to vote for women – March 19, 1911, Photograph by Haeckel Brothers (Photo by Haeckel collection/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

It becomes necessary, therefore, first to set the record straight: not only for straightening out the facts, but also for grasping what new stage of feminism was involved as it moved from total concentration on working women’s rights to opposing the capitalist system in its entirety.

Despite the fact that Luxemburg had already won the editorship of a Social-Democratic paper, she no sooner arrived in Germany in 1898 than she was immediately confronted with the fact that the male members were not ready to grant to her the same powers as to her male predecessor. Her complaint to Bebel, who was her friend at that time, did not help the situation, and in a few months she resigned. The fact that she did not make this part of the “Woman Question” did not mean that she did not record it in her own mind as such. Quite the contrary. Her friendship with Clara Zetkin was deeply rooted in their common struggle against revisionism, but Luxemburg also collaborated in the autonomous women’s movement, which Zetkin headed, and frequently wrote for Gleichheit (Equality), which Zetkin edited.

Luxemburg was quietly engaging herself in the “Woman Question” in her first 1902 organizational tour….In an article for Leipziger Volkszeitung that same year, she wrote: “with the political emancipation of women a strong fresh wind must also blow into its [Social-Democracy’s] political and spiritual life, dispelling the suffocating atmosphere of the present philistine family life which so unmistakably rubs off on our party members too, the workers as well as the leaders.”[2]

Note the year, 1902; it is a full ten years earlier than the writers on Luxemburg acknowledge that she had written anything on women, and it took all the way to our era before even that 1912 speech on women’s suffrage was translated into English.

The 1905 Revolution was as great a turning point in Luxemburg’s life as in history itself. Her whirlwind of activities and energizing participation in the ongoing revolution are well enough known. The exhilaration of also being with her lover [Leo Jogiches] in that period may not be quite as well known but was by no means kept hidden. But once one confronts the fact that the highpoint of their relationship led to its end, we hear one long story of just how “strictly” personal this matter was. The fact that Luxemburg did keep it private is no help to anyone grappling with it. The greater truth of shying away from any serious analysis, however, is not due to its “strictly personal” nature. There surely was gossip galore surrounding the breakup, and the reasons given for it ranged from a simplistic “triangle” attribution to slanderous insinuations that the sharp difference between the openness of Luxemburg’s activities and the more disciplined behavior of such a consciously organization person as Jogiches led the Okhrana to discover their whereabouts and arrest them. The true reason others shy away from analysis, to this writer, is not so much the personal nature of their relationship as it is the failure to understand their attitudes to the ongoing revolution, insofar as their individual organizational tasks were concerned.


Heretofore, Luxemburg, who had very little interest in organization, and Jogiches, who was “all organization,” did not find this difference to be in any way divisive of their love relationship. There was one letter from Paris in which Luxemburg asked for more specific data on internal disputes or factions, but the matter was not pursued.[3]

It is clear that once she reached Germany, she was acting independently on the question of organization as well as theoretically. Further, she asked Jogiches to stop “baring your teeth,” since his Polish-Russian organizational ideas, which concerned a little group of “seven and a half,” simply were not applicable to a mass organization like the German. In no case did it interfere with their intimate relations.

Things changed altogether when both were participating in an ongoing revolution. When Luxemburg first reached Poland at the end of 1905, nothing seemed to have changed. She seemed happiest because she was both part of an ongoing revolution and with her lover. Subtly, however, something was changing, changing radically. For one thing, her appreciation for the spontaneity of the masses was not just theory; the organizational consequence was fantastic: spontaneity had transformed their small organization into a mass party! Heretofore, Luxemburg had analyzed spontaneity as the revolutionary way to oppose trade union bureaucracy, without in any way lessening her belief in the need for a vanguard party. Where “masses” had before meant, for her, mass party, such as the German Social-Democracy, now, seeing masses in motion doing nothing short of shaking the tsarist empire exhilarated her beyond anything she ever felt in the German Social-Democracy. She now had proof that it was not she but the masses in motion who were “a land of boundless possibilities.” In a word, it was not only intellectually and as pamphleteer that she was reaching new heights, but organizationally. No doubt, she no longer considered Jogiches’s organizational expertise as sacrosanct, but we have no record of their dispute on the subject of needed underground work under tsarism and needed openness in revolution. What we do know is that the tensions led to a breakup of their intimacy, without in any way breaking up their revolutionary political activity.

On revolution, as on the Man/Woman relationship, it’s all too easy for Marxists to quote abstractions rather than to dig deep into the dialectic of the concrete. And women in the Marxist movement find it a great deal easier to quote how serious Clara Zetkin was on the Man/Woman relationship at the founding of the Second International in 1889, when she addressed it thusly: “Just as the male worker is subjugated to the capitalist, so is the woman by the man, and she will always remain in subjugation until she is economically independent.” But when it comes to the effect of the Man/Woman relationship, not only in economic but in personal terms as well as in terms of revolution, they just bow out.

And yet it was there, just there, that something new was emerging. A birthtime of history manifests itself not only in great social changes but in original characters, and Luxemburg was an original. Her further self-development was reaching new heights without leaning on Jogiches for either theory or organization. A new historic period had been reached—and differences in the attitude to revolution appeared, not because one wished to play a different “role” than the other, but because the revolution is an overwhelming force that brooks no “interference” from anyone. Luxemburg needed to be free, to be independent, to be whole.

The revolution, for Luxemburg, was an overpowering force; imprisonment had not dampened her ardor, and, although her questioning of Jogiches’s authority organizationally did not dampen her love for him, it was precisely then—after the imprisonment and separation from Jogiches—that she was most creative. In herself, she found a rare fusion of the political, the personal, and, yes, the organizational. For one thing, the first product of that historic event and experience, the 1905 Revolution—its summation in The Mass Strike—became her greatest pamphlet, an analysis that would remain as ground for the 1919 German Revolution. It was written while Jogiches was still in prison, and Luxemburg was in Kuokkala, where Lenin and other Bolsheviks were endlessly discussing the revolution they had just lived through and which they still believed would be revived.

Until then, Jogiches had occupied an important role in editing Luxemburg’s manuscripts, but his hand is nowhere to be seen in this work. Whether one has this or a different interpretation of the relationship of the revolution to their relationship to each other, the period in which it happened cannot be rewritten. The fact that both Luxemburg and Jogiches were such objective politicos that they acted as one at the next (1907) Congress—where Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and all the other tendencies met to draw conclusions and draw up perspectives for the future—does not and cannot restore the former Man/Woman relationship, nor change the ground rules, either of the Man/Woman called Luxemburg and Jogiches, or of revolution. After the breakup with Jogiches, Luxemburg herself put it most succinctly, when she wrote: “I am only I, once more, since I have become free of Leo.”[4]

To scrupulously follow Luxemburg’s life, in revolution or out, leaves no doubt whatsoever that, no matter how intense her love for Jogiches was, including even the fact that both were revolutionaries with the same theoretical and political goal, no cataclysmic change in her relationship with Jogiches would any longer direct her life.

How could anyone conclude, then, as J. P. Nettl does, that “At the beginning of 1907 a major upheaval took place in her affairs, perhaps the most important in her whole life. Her relationship with Jogiches underwent a complete change and with it her entire outlook on life and people.” How could anyone designate the period of Luxemburg’s great, independent self-development as “The Lost Years—1906-1909”?

That is Nettl’s title for Chapter 9 of his biography of Luxemburg. These were the years in which Luxemburg summarized the events of the revolution so fundamentally that she expected the party to apply them to the German scene. The party didn’t. But, for Luxemburg, they remained the universal form of revolution.

This was also the period when she was her most brilliant self in two critically important conferences—the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in London and the Second International Congress in Stuttgart. In London she elaborated her position on the 1905 Revolution as initiating new twentieth-century revolutions and not just repeating what Marx had achieved in 1848. And at Stuttgart, so important was she to the world Left that the entire Russian delegation—Lenin, Trotsky, Martov (on this all the tendencies acted as one)—authorized her to speak in their name on the crucial antiwar amendment. Furthermore, 1907 comprised not only those historic happenings, but also that of the Socialist Women’s Conference, where she reported on the work of the International Socialist Bureau in a way that would hardly have pleased its members….

Finally, it was the period when she became the only woman leading theoretician at the prestigious Party School. She attributed her work on the Accumulation of Capital to her experience at the school….Her greatest intellectual accomplishments occurred after the break.

To say that her whole life was changed because of the breakup is a typical male attitude, i.e., thinking that a woman’s life stops when the break in a love relationship occurs. It does not help us to understand Luxemburg either as a revolutionary theoretician or as a most original character in her personal life, a personal life that ventured on many uncharted courses.

[1] See Henriette Roland-Holst, Rosa Luxemburg: ihr Leben und Wirken (Zurich: Jean Christophe Verlag, 1937).

[2] Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, 1(2):185.

[3] In this letter (included in Stephen Bronner’s The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg and dated “probably 3/25/1894”), Luxemburg writes: “Your chivalrous explanation that I should not worry about practical things, since they surely will have been settled without bothering me, can only be given by a person who does not know me at all. Such an explanation might suffice for Julek [Marchlewski] so that he wouldn’t worry since he has weak nerves, but for me such a procedure—even with the addition, ‘my poor little bird’—is insulting to put it mildly.”

[4] Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, 1:383.

Celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month and learn:

How women started the Russian Revolution of 1917
What were women’s contributions to the revolution in Portugal in 1974
♀ That 100,000 women marched for abortion rights in Italy and brought down the government in 1976        

Get both  Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Liberation: Reaching for the Future 
and Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution 

both by Raya Dunayevskaya

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