In the summer of 1938, Partisan Review began publishing its fifth volume: it had been a terrible spring, with Hitler’s forced “Anschluss” with Austria; and like our own summer of 2017, there was a growing map of dread reaching across Europe and the USA. Trump’s threats of nuclear war are keeping us up at night, and Hitler’s troops were knocking on doors in the night.
The experiences of 1938 are not only relevant to the present Trumpocracy, but also to the Partisan’s Review own historical horror at the years when Stalin killed off most of the heroes of the October Revolution. They were assassinated in the purges and Soviet principles, eroded over the following decades, were structurally weakened. Volume V includes pieces on the “The Soviet Cinema: 1930 – 1938”; (Dwight Macdonald, issues 2 & 3); Victor Serge’s reflections on “Marxism in our Time (issue 3”; and a piece by Trotsky on “Art and Revolution” (issue 3); and a look back to 1915 in Knoxville by James Agee (issue 3). What else is there to do when you are waiting for the crisis but to think about the way it may have come about…. There is certainly a lot of that going around this summer of 2017.
SO, Volume V, issue 1, begins with a selection of letters by Rosa Luxemburg written from prisons in Leipzig, Wronke, and Breslau between July, 1916 and October, 1918. The letters were written to Sonia Liebknecht, the wife of Luxemburg’s political partner, Karl Liebknecht, with whom she founded the Sparticist League and the German Communist Party.
left to right: Rosa Luxemburg, Sonia Leibknecht with husband Karl and children, and Karl Leibknecht.
Partisan Review, remember, in 1938 was seen by the CPUSA as a Trotskyist journal, and as Mary McCarthy told it, being a Trotsky supporter during the Moscow Trials and through WWII meant being a traitor to the Party. So it isn’t surprising that Trotsky and his intellectual and revolutionary comrades are present and accountable in this volume of PR. Victor Serge, a member of the Left Opposition with Trotsky, was expelled in 1929, and went to Paris and then to Mexico,where he died in 1947. We will look at his essay on contemporary Marxism later in this blog.
Trotsky was also a friend to Rosa Luxemburg, and in 1932 he wrote a polemical piece for the Militant, “Hands off Rosa Luxemburg” (August, 1932) in which he made the case for Luxemburg’s revolutionary politics before her death in 1919. In that essay, Trotsky takes us back to the period of discussion and debate between Lenin and Luxembourg, and rescues her from being called a ‘centrist’. As you may know, the German CP was riven within by arguments between and against Kautsky and Bernstein, and Trotsky’s article is, in 1932, to remind the revolutionary reader of Luxemburg’s 1909 statement:
Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten, “I have dared!” [AJ: Ulrich von Hutten was a 16th century German Humanist who campaigned against the Papacy, and whose motto was: “I have dared to do it”] After which, Trotsky ends the article “Yes, Stalin has sufficient cause to hate Rosa Luxemburg. But all the more imperious therefore becomes our duty to shield Rosa’s memory from Stalin’s calumny that has been caught by the hired functionaries of both hemispheres, and to pass on this truly beautiful, heroic, and tragic image to the young generations of the proletariat in all its grandeur and inspirational force.”
Luxemburg’s letters published by Partisan Review, June, 1938. Assassinated along with Karl Liebknecht almost twenty years earlier by the remnants of the Imperial German Army and militias called the Freikorps — German mercenary militia in existence since the 18th century — after the Sparticist Uprising in Berlin failed, in 1919 — the heavy criticism of Luxemburg from Communists and from the right — and a sense of her’s having been a failure of heroic and tragic dimensions is counterpoised to these letters of intimacy which show us her as a reader, writer, and enthusiast of everyday life and of human possibility. There is a gauze of nostalgia in Trotsky’s article of 1932, and in this group of letters, translated by a familiar Partisan Review writer, Eleanor Clark.
Jacqueline Rose recently, in Women in Dark Times, presented a view of Luxemburg as a woman who was constantly pushing past the limits of conventions — even those of revolution itself — makes redundant the distinction between the woman of the letters and the leader of revolutionary theory and action — which sends a message of a distinctively feminist ‘wildness’ that might be marshalled again today in a new wave of feminism. As often happens with such speculation, its very articulation is a stimulant in those ‘dark times’ — the title Hannah Arendt borrowed from Brecht for her generation and that Rose quotes for her book’s title for these dark times. Rose’s argument is that from the wilder shores of feminism, there is an outrageousness that cannot be controlled. You can read and admire Rose’s call for revolutionary enthusiasm — but it is difficult to hear her own voice in these parts — a voice which is usually anxious to maintain a rigour with respect to psychoanalysis, feminism, and our own dark times. But Rose’s essay is a good introduction to learning how to see the personal joy that Luxemburg has, as a gift of imaginative force and that pushes her ideas towards joy as well.
In one of her prison letters, Luxemburg writes to Sonia, “you ask, ‘to what end all this?’ [AJ: the current state of the revolutionary torment they are both experiencing, on a grand scale and in small, almost muted, experiences of daily events and daily routines]. “To what end?” — It is a question that has nothing to do with a conception of the totality of life and its forces. To what end are there titmice in this world? I don’t know. But I rejoice that there are…” And while her choice of favourite writers and poets may be of some cultural interest, it is her imaginative writing, shaped by reading about the natural world, and passages of remembering her own sensations in the world, outside of prison, that makes present to us her vitality. She writes to Sonia from prison in Breslau:
“What I wish for you is real and palpable joys. I would like to communicate to you too my own inexhaustible inner joy, so that I can be at peace thinking of you, and that you may pass through life in a mantle embroidered with stars, that will protect you from all that is mean, trivial, and agonising in experience.”
It is certain that it is exhilarating to read these letters, and it is fine that Rose helps make that exhilaration available in her discussion. After the letters themselves, Dwight Macdonald contributes what he calls “A NEWSREEL” — (much like DosPassos’s in USA), in which the excerpts from The New York Times aim to walk silently between the violence of Luxemburg’s murder in the news story, and their contempt for Luxemburg and Liebknecht in the ‘editorial’ on the same day:
“Regrettable as is the manner of death, the work of private violence, not the law, that came to Dr. Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, it was to be expected, and does a summary, if irregular, justice to the fomenters of robbery, murder, and anarchy. These two leaders, the man violent but weak, the woman a termagant of the familiar revolutionary type, have perished miserably by the sword they drew.”
The collage that Macdonald assembles in his “newsreel” draws an ironic line under the words of Zinoviev, who writes to the German Communist Party, “Comrades, your struggle is hard. But your victory is sure. After the night comes, inevitably, the morning; and the impotent and infamous regime of the traitorous ‘Social Democracy’ will inevitably give way to the dictatorship of the heroic German proletariat.” But Zinoviev would be one of the first to be tried and executed in the Moscow Trials of August 1936. (you can read more about the Moscow Trials on this blog — check in archive —
Read Luxemburg’s letters from prison to Sonia Liebknecht –https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/letters-sophie.htm
However, for reasons I don’t understand, the website of the archive of PR is out of action today, so I can’t give you the link to the letters as they appear in issue 1 of Vol. V. As soon as the archive is functioning again, I will add it here.