This is my review of Rosa Luxemburg: A Life (Life and times) by Elzbieta Ettinger.
For years I knew of Rosa Luxemburg only as a communist agitator who was assassinated.
This excellent biography which deserves to be much more widely praised and available, portrays her as a remarkably intelligent woman who from the 1890s made herself famous in Europe as a talented journalist and charismatic orator, spreading the cause of socialism. Although she had several lovers, the main influence in her life was Leo Jogiches, who financed her and acted as her mentor at the beginning of her career. An intense man, happiest when organising conspiracies, he was unable to commit to her in the settled home, with marriage and children, which she craved.
Ettinger analyses what influenced Rosa to identify so strongly with the cause of workers, and to reject nationalism: her status as a Jew, a Pole -i.e. brought up in a divided and occupied country-, her lameness, and her observation as a child of poor families living nearby.
Active in the social democratic parties of Poland and Germany, she dared to challenge Lenin, condemning the centralised nature of Soviet communism, whereas she believed that true revolution could only come from the workers themselves. Eventually, her ideas cost her several grim years in prison. It was her role in founding a German Communist Party in the anarchy following the end of the First World War which led to her murder in 1919. Perhaps naively, she did not seem to realise that many workers are motivated most strongly by the desire for material goods.
Rosa was not very interested in "women's movements" since she had the confidence to follow her natural interests, and basked in the admiration she received from the largely male circles in which she moved.
Ettinger does not hide her flaws. In her professional life, Rosa descended into bitter and undignified arguments with some colleagues. On a personal level, her emotionally open letters show her to be at times neurotic or domineering, and she was often too busy to find time for her family, not bothering to visit her dying mother and leaving her ageing father's letters unanswered. The ludicrous lengths she went to hide her affairs – pretending to her family that she was married to Jogiches- have to be accepted in part as a sign of the times.
A minor criticism is that, perhaps to avoid getting bogged down in political theory, Ettinger does not explain the evolution of Rosa's political thinking clearly enough, but the main points shine through, together with her independence and energy.