Paul Frolich (essay date 1948)
SOURCE: A preface to Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work, translated by Johanna Hoornweg, Monthly Review Press, 1972, pp. xiii-xx.
[In the following essay, Frolich explains how and why he collected material for his survey of Luxemburg's life and work.]
The first edition of [Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work] was published in Paris at the end of August 1939, a few days before the outbreak of the Second World War. The book is a child of the German Emigration and bears the marks of its origins. The author left Germany at the beginning of 1934 after his release from a concentration camp. At the time he thought that the material which he had been gathering for many years to prepare for the Collected Works (Gesammelte Werke) of Ross Luxemburg was in safe hands. Somehow, however, it got lost or fell into hands which would not let go of it. Among these papers were manuscripts and letters of Rosa Luxemburg; almost all of her works published in German, Polish and French; Volume v of the Gesammelte Werke, already typeset and ready to be printed, which contained her writings on imperialist politics; political and private letters to Rosa; a number of notes and many other items. Outside Germany only a part of the losses could be made good, and it became necessary to do without many papers which would have been useful in describing background details and personalities.
Despite these unfavourable circumstances, however, the book had to be written. Rosa Luxemburg's name has become a symbol in the international working-class movement. Yet little is known of her work today, and even those who are generally well-versed in socialist literature are acquainted with mere fragments of her writings. The publishing of her literary remains ran into frequent obstacles and—because of the factional fighting within the Communist International—into determined (even if never openly admitted) opposition. It could therefore not be completed. Thus whole areas of her work, a knowledge of which would have been of great significance in assessing her views, were forgotten. In the disputes of the various parties and tendencies in the working-class movement many teachings of the master were misconstrued, and many maliciously distorted. It seemed that if any socialist literature could be salvaged and brought out of hiding in a post-Nazi period, it would prove to be only rubble. There was a danger that only a faded memory or a deceptive legend of Rosa Luxemburg's historical achievements would be left.
The biographical works published about her either served a limited purpose, such as the one by Luise Kautsky, or they disregarded essential sectors of Rosa's life-work, such as the one by Henriette Roland-Holst. Both authors were very close to Rosa, and depicted her personality with much warmth and understanding. However, because both of them after all advocated views decidedly different from Rosa's, they could not succeed in presenting her ideas correctly and in doing justice to her political work.
One person would have been eminently qualified to revive Rosa Luxemburg's life and work: Clara Zetkin. The two of them had worked together for decades. Each was a strong person in the light of her own development and worth. They came from different backgrounds and each was influenced by other experiences. Nevertheless, in the intellectual disputes and political battles they had arrived at the same views and decisions. Of the leading socialists who survived Rosa, no one knew Luxemburg, the person and the fighter, better than Clara Zetkin; no one was more familiar with the battlefield, the historical circumstances, and with the identity of friend and foe in the skirmishes. Moreover, she knew the specific motives behind many of the decisions, motives which would have remained hidden to a researcher forced to make a judgment based on documents alone. What a biography of Rosa by Clara Zetkin would have provided can be surmised from the essays and pamphlets she wrote to commemorate her friend. Until her death on 20 June 1933, however, Clara Zetkin devoted herself completely to the tasks of the daily struggle, and declared again and again that she was thereby fulfilling the obligation she felt for her fallen comrade-in-arms.
The victory of fascism in Germany and the resulting effort to analyse the causes of the severe defeat of the proletariat led not only German socialists to make a more thorough study of the teachings of Rosa Luxemburg. Indeed, one could speak of a Luxemburg-Renaissance in the international working-class movement. The more the interest in her work grew, the deeper the gaps in the available material were felt to be. However, it was evident that it would not suffice merely to republish the lost writings insofar as they were at all accessible. The attempt now had to be made to provide an overall presentation of her ideas and actions using her own views as a starting-point. To define and work out as clearly as possible the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg was the chief task which the author set for himself. He therefore had carefully to consider his presentation and to let Rosa herself speak whenever the opportunity arose, even if the narrative flow might suffer from the break. He was thereby hoping to serve those readers whom he kept constantly in mind while working on the book—active socialists interested in theoretical and tactical problems.
That the book could be written at all was due above all to the efforts of the distinguished publisher and tireless defender of the deprived and the downtrodden, Victor Gollancz. It was his publishing company which, in the spring of 1940, brought out the English edition of the book in Edward Fitzgerald's excellent translation. It had an astonishing success in wartime England.
The book puts the reader back into a time that is past. In the three decades since Rosa Luxemburg's death the world has undergone cruel changes. Those January days of 1919 when the German Revolution was dealt a decisive blow marked, in fact, the end of an epoch of the working-class movement, a period which had begun with the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Laws and had been characterised by an almost uninterrupted socialist advance. Even in times of serious internal upheaval, such as the years of the First World War, this advance had continued, for, as the new experiences and problems were worked out intellectually, new heights of knowledge and insight were reached, and new moral strengths acquired in the more bitter struggles. Since then the conditions under which socialists have had to work have become increasingly more complicated and more difficult. It is true that working-class organisations everywhere grew impressively in size and that significant successes were obtained in individual struggles. However, the working-class movement remained divided by a deep rift; it became crippled by violent internal struggles, and its fighting morale weakened. The general development went from failure to defeat, finally ending in the terrible catastrophe for the whole proletariat brought on by German fascism. In this period of decline the old comrades-in-arms of Rosa Luxemburg felt more and more keenly how sorely the movement lacked her advice, her leadership, and her example. Today anyone trying to assess the difficulties facing the working class in all countries and particularly in Germany, and to grasp the dangers currently confronting all of mankind, becomes aware of the need of our times for a person with Rosa Luxemburg's clarity and boldness.
An attempt should be made to investigate how, under the cataclysmically changed conditions of today, Rosa Luxemburg's ideas, and particularly her tactical teachings, might be used in a fruitful way. However, this is not possible in a preface, even in bare outline form. The first prerequisite for such an undertaking would be a thorough analysis of all the characteristic social and political phenomena of our times. But it should be emphasised that Rosa Luxemburg never looked upon the results of her theoretical work as ultimate truths or as tactical models to be pressed to fit changed conditions. In a speech delivered to trade-union members in Hagen (October 1910) she herself said:
The modem proletarian class does not conduct its struggle according to a schema laid down in a book or in a theory. The modem workers' struggle is a fragment of history, a fragment of social development. And it is in the midst of history, in the midst of struggle, that we learn how we must fight … The first commandment of a political fighter is to go with the development of the times and to account always for any changes in the world as well as for any changes in our fighting strategy.
For her there was no dogma or authority which commanded blind obedience. Even the mere thought that her own ideas should not be subject to...
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