Of the material that is published and currently available in English, this includes an assessment of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz from 1898; a review of Franz Mehring’s biography of Schiller from 1905; the essay “Tolstoy as Social Thinker,” which first appeared in 1908; and “Life of Korolenko,” which she wrote in Breslau Prison in 1918 and was published posthumously in 1919 as the introduction to her German translation of Vladimir Korolenko’s History of My Contemporary.
These collectively form an impressive counterpoint to the straw-person version of Marxist literary analysis as crudely reductive. They showcase a consistent attention to aesthetic and formal issues while also locating authors, movements, and texts in their historical conditions of production and reception; unlike a great deal of contemporary criticism, they restore what Edward Said referred to as “the messier precincts of ‘life’ and historical experience” to studies of literature.5Edward Said Introduction Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Boston: Harvard UP, 2000), xviii-xix.
Luxemburg’s orientation on the specific value of each work is evident across the range of her political and personal writing: whether reaching for a line from Goethe to illustrate a complex step in the reproduction of capital, or identifying the ability of the great Russian novels to reveal the hidden processes of the tsarist empire, Luxemburg is acutely aware that the literary arts have a power and affect unlike any other mode of communication: she draws attention to the particular characteristics of genres and works, and highlights their emotional and sensual impact.
This can be seen frequently in the letters, for example when she describes the impact of reading a verse from Goethe: “it’s as if with parched lips I were sipping a delicious drink that cools my spirit and heals me, body and soul.”6Quoted in Subhoranjan Dasgupta, “Rosa Luxemburg’s Critique of Creativity and Culture,” Institute of Development Studies (Kolkata, May 2009), 6-7).
Or when she recounts the comfort she draws from the poems of Krasińkski: “in their sound they are the purest music…I read them mostly for their tone and color.”7Adler et al, Letters, 272.
Or comparing the comedic possibilities of George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderers to Shakespeare: ‘“it wafts into one’s face the giggly hobgoblin of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”’8Quoted in Dasgupta, 8.
And in the formal literary criticism, too, contra the oft repeated claim that Marxist criticism is by definition reductive, the formal and emotional specificity of each work is primary. As Subhoranjan Dasgupta writes in his lovely 2009 work “Rosa Luxemburg’s Critique of Creativity and Culture,” Luxemburg “emphasizes one of the basic tenets of enlightened Marxian aesthetics: artistic engagement or literary production always enjoys a high degree of autonomy.”9Dasgupta, 8.
At the same time, Luxemburg traces the relationships between cultural production and the shifting balance of class forces: she both looks to creative literature for particular historical insights and turns to history to understand artistic developments. And there is nothing reductive or mechanical about this method; rather we are given nuanced and specific analyses of the reciprocal push and pull between socio-historical forces and the cultural developments that are shaped by and in turn shape them.
One of the finest examples is her account of the poet Adam Mickiewicz. In the 1898 essay she calls him “a master at once of lyric and epic, both the bard of national love and yearning and the objective portrayer of the nation’s past.”10 Rosa Luxemburg, “Adam Mickievicz,” Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political and Literary Writings: Revolutionary History 10.1 (2009), 14. She locates the source of this power in the historical convulsions that gave rise to Romanticism: A “new intelligentsia” was born out of the 1831 popular revolt against Tsarism, and this formed the basis for the Romanticism that displaced the derivative Classicism that had previously held sway:
While the classicists could offer only shelf upon shelf of a grey mass of mediocrities and soulless manipulators of form, Romanticism, overnight as it were, conjured up whole constellations of glittering young talent from the womb of society, and, as the most brilliant star of this dawn twilight, the mighty genius of Adam Mickievicz arose in the firmament of Polish literature.11 Ibid, 13.
Revolutionary social forces gave rise to fresh artistic vision and formal innovation. But as is suggested in that paradoxical phrase “dawn twilight,” this brilliance was short lived, and “soon after the rising was defeated, the nightingale of Polish nationalism fell silent.” His last major work, Master Thaddeus or Pan Tadeusz, was “the last great monument to Polish nationalism.”12 Ibid, 15.
Luxemburg thus sees creative literature’s potential to be a repository for revolutionary struggle. In her review of Mehring’s biography she writes of the emancipatory possibilities of Schiller’s poetry, and locates this firmly in the working class movement:
Schiller’s role in the intellectual growth of the revolutionary proletariat in Germany is not so much rooted in what he himself imported into the working-class struggle for emancipation through the content of his poems, but rather the reverse; it consists in what the revolutionary working class deposited in Schiller’s poems based on its own world-view, its striving and its feelings.13“Review: Mehring on Schiller,” Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political and Literary Writings, 17.