Tuesday, 07 May 2013

The Urban Peripheries: Counter-Powers from Below?

by Raúl Zibechi, Chapter 15, from Territories in Resistance 

If a specter is haunting Latin American elites at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is for sure living in the peripheries of the large cities. The main challenges to the dominant system in the last two decades have emerged from the heart of the poor urban peripheries. 
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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The neighborhood is the new factory

by Liz Mason-Deese, Viewpoint Magazine 

In 2001, Argentina suffered an economic crisis, similar to the one that much of the world is experiencing today. After more than a decade of IMF-mandated structural adjustment, which only deepened poverty and unemployment, the government was forced to default on over $100 billion of public debt and declared a state of emergency in an attempt to calm public unrest. Despite a military-imposed curfew, thousands of people rushed to the streets and forced the president and other politicians out of office with the chant “que se vayan todos/ni se quede uno solo” (they all must go/not one can stay). These protests were the culmination of years of organizing in response to increasing unemployment and simultaneous reductions in welfare programs as part of neoliberal policies. Workers were taking over factories, the unemployed blocking highways, migrants occupying unused land. When joined by the spontaneous protests of the middle class in December, the mobilizations were able to overthrow the government as the president fled Buenos Aires in a helicopter. The movements were not only the largest mass mobilization in Argentina since the 1970s, but also qualitatively different from earlier movements: not interested in taking state power, nor in working more jobs and longer hours, they struggled to create new forms of life, including new forms of socio-spatial organization and the production and distribution of wealth. In the ten years following the crisis, the strongest of the movements, the Movements of Unemployed Workers (Movimientos de Trabajadores Desocupados, MTDs), has continued on this path, even as the country has recovered economically and has so far been able to resist the effects of the global crisis.
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Thursday, 04 October 2012

The Right against the city

by Antonis Vradis, Antipode

“Reclaim our cities”. “Self-organise”. “Take neighbourhood action”. Consider these slogans for a moment. Sound familiar? Indeed they should, echoing as they do a body of scholarship (e.g. Amin and Thrift 2005; Butler 2012; Chatterton 2010; Dikeç 2001; Harvey 2003; Leontidou 2006; 2010; Marcuse 2009; Mayer 2009; Simone 2005) stemming from Henri Lefebvre’s (1996) idea of the ‘Right to the City’ (henceforth ‘RttC’). Despite this common origin, interpretations of the Lefebvrian “right” have been most diverse; perhaps his own often-times abstract writing has inadvertently caused this scholarship to reach outside the confines of his own political allegiance and thought: ten years ago, Mark Purcell (2002) protested that the original RttC notion was more radical than his own concurrent literature would make it appear. But today, a reformist interpretation of Lefebvre might be the least of the worries we are faced with here, on the south-eastern shore of the Mediterranean that is the Greek territory. 
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Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Senzeni Na?

by Chris Rodrigues, Rolling Stone

By the time you read these words, the miners of Marikana will have long crossed the river Styx. Contemplate dear reader: These men with dirt in their pockets, their ears ringing with the noise of exploding lead, the holes through their bodies.

Imagine some nocturnal body of water. And a boat, with such passengers, steered by a ferryman with a sure stroke. In this version, Charon, as the Greeks knew him, doesn't require silver coins. And even if he did, he wouldn't ask anything of these rock-drill operators who, long before they were mown down, had already begun sacrificing limbs and lungs.

Perhaps this river guide, as he places a blanket over their shoulders, quotes passages from Bertolt Brecht:

"You who will emerge from the flood/ In which we have gone under/ Remember/ When you speak of our failings/ The dark time too/ Which you have escaped".

"And yet we know: Hatred, even of meanness/ Contorts the features./ Anger, even against injustice/ Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we/ Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness/ Could not ourselves be friendly".

These men are aware that they trouble so many more people now than when living with asbestos and bilharzia – they were faceless and unregarded. They are informed that the same company that point-blank refused to meet them has since offered - via one its shareholders – to pay for their funerals. When they were alive they knew that a sweetheart union had sent them up shit creek and at this moment in time - travelling down another wretched river - they couldn't care less about future promises.

In this expanse these illiterate subterranean figures are, in the phraseology of Abahlali baseMjondolo, "professors of their own suffering". They can draft PhD's on the political economy of death. They can riff better than any broker about the price of platinum. They can wax like lawyers about police statements.

But what still embitters them is their understanding that they would have to be reincarnated many times over to earn what the CEO of Lonmin did in one single year. Comparing their salary of R48 000 per annum with Ian Farmer's (2011) earnings of R20, 358, 620 amounts to an, approximately, 424 years discrepancy. Taking a recent estimate of average male life expectancy in South Africa (49.81) and deducting just 18 childhood years from that would mean even if they worked every day of their adult life - they would have to do so over 13 unlucky lifetimes!

Such is the normalisation of this capitalist metaphysics that the rival union has been universally rebuked for wanting to reduce it to a ratio of 1 year: 4.26 life spans. No wonder these strikers then entrusted the magic realism of a sangoma, for nothing today needs to be more urgently remedied than "reality".

In the old myth, Charon takes our souls to the kingdom of Hades where we appear before three tribunes who decide whether we are worthy of entry into the Elysian Fields – an altogether middle-class sounding quietus.

Instead, picture a black-sooted boatman accompanying these men to a hill on which is gathered – from across time - hundreds of thousands of spectres just like them - an infernal rabble. They are mostly young because the poor die first. Amongst them are French peasants and Haitian slaves. There are Russians with pitchforks and Spaniards with rifles. There are Naxalites and whole generations of South Africans. Yes, some with knobkerries, machetes and spears!

They are all reciting Brecht's words in the hope that they reach the ears of the living:

"But you, when the time comes at last/ And man is a helper to man/ Think of us/ With forbearance".
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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The day after the day after tomorrow

by Antonis Vradis, City

The world is watching Greece: hands on smartphones, fingers on shutter buttons breathlessly waiting to capture and tweet the iconic Fall of the Euro…

In the minds of many the images are already there, alive and vivid: locked-up ATMs, angry crowds banging at empty bank building shutters Argentina-style, an overnight return to national currencies and then… then what? The most pressing questions of course lie further ahead, yet our obsession with The Moment, it seems, has obfuscated our collective ability to grasp or even simply try to imagine what these days could look like. More importantly even, it has obfuscated that —as always— the new world is built in the shell of the old. A careful reading of events unfolding on the ground in the country at the present moment can help us trace the possible futures lying ahead of us.
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Friday, 08 June 2012

Restore Democracy! Etienne Balibar and Others Declare Solidarity With Greek Left

Following on the chain of events that, in just three years have plunged Greece into the abyss, everyone knows that the responsibility of the parties in office ever since 1974 is overwhelming. New Democracy (the Right) and PASOK (the Socialists) have not only maintained the system of corruption and privilege — they have benefitted from it and enabled Greece’s suppliers and creditors to profit considerably from it, while the European Community institutions looked the other way. In these conditions, it is astonishing that the European leaders and the IMF, posing as paragons of virtue and severity, should busy themselves in trying to restore to office those same bankrupt and discredited parties by denouncing the “red peril” as embodied by SYRIZA (the radical Left coalition) and threatening to cut off food supplies if the new 17 June elections confirm the rejection of the “Memorandum” that was clearly shown on 6 May last. Not only is this intervention in flagrant contradiction with the most elementary rules of democracy but also its consequences would be terrible for our common future. That alone is a sufficient reason for us, as European citizens, to refuse to allow the will of the Greek people to be stifled. However, the situation is even more serious. For the last two years, the European Union, in close collaboration with the IMF, has been working to strip the Greek people of their sovereignty. On the grounds of stabilizing public finances and modernizing the economy, they have been imposing a draconian system of austerity that is stifling economic activity, reducing the majority of the population to poverty and demolishing the right to work. This neo-liberal style “rectification” program has ended up by liquidating the instruments of production and creating mass unemployment. Pushing it through needed nothing less than the establishing of a State of Emergency unparalleled in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. The State’s Budget dictated by the Troika, the Greek Parliament is reduced to acting as a rubber stamp; the Constitution has been bypassed several times. This stripping away of the principle of people’s sovereignty goes hand in hand with the humiliation of the whole country. Here, indeed, it has reached its peak — but this does not only apply to Greece. All the peoples of all the member countries of the European Union are considered of no account when it is a matter of imposing a system of austerity that runs counter to all economic rationality, of combining the operations of the IMF and the ECB in support of the banking system and imposing governments of unelected technocrats on them. The Greeks have, on several occasions, make clear their opposition to this policy that is destroying the country while pretending to save it. Innumerable mass demonstrations, 17 days of general strikes in the course of the last two years, actions of civil disobedience like the movement of the “indignant ones” in Synatagma have shown their rejection of the fate to which they were being doomed, without any consultation. What response could be expected from this cry of despair and revolt? A doubling of the lethal dose and of police repression! It was then, in a context where the government had completely lost all legitimacy, that it was decided that a return to the ballot box seemed the only way of avoiding a social explosion. However, the situation is now very clear — the results of the 6 May elections leave no doubt about the mass rejection of the policy being imposed by the Troika. Now, faced with the perspective of a SYRIZA victory at the 17 June elections, a campaign of disinformation and intimidation has been launched both inside the country and at European level. It aims at excluding SYRIZA from being considered a trustworthy political representative. All means are used to disqualify it, starting by labelling it as “extremist” like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. SYRIZA has been accused of all the vices: swindling, double speech, irresponsible or infantile demands. If we were to believe this hate-filled propaganda, which is taking up a racist stigmatization of the whole Greek people, SYRIZA is endangering freedom, the world economy and the building of Europe. Therefore is it the joint responsibility of the Greek electors and of our leaders to block its way. Brandishing the threat of an exclusion from the euro and other forms of economic blackmail, a manipulation of the people`s vote is being set up. It is a “shock strategy” whereby the dominant groups are making every effort to turn the vote of the Greek people to serve their interests — that they pretend are also ours. We, the signatories of this text are unable to stay silent faced with this attempt to deprive a European people of their sovereignty, of which elections are the last resort. This campaign of stigmatizing SYRIZA must cease at once as well as the blackmail of exclusion from the euro zone. It is up to the Greek people to decide their fate, rejecting any diktat, rejecting the poisons that their “saviours” were giving them and committing themselves freely to the forms of cooperation indispensible to overcoming the crisis together with the other European peoples. We, in turn affirm that: it is time for Europe to understand the signal sent out from Athens on the 6 May last. It is time to abandon a policy that is ruining society and placing the people under ward-ship so as to save the banks. It is most urgent to put an end to the suicidal drift of a political and economic construction that is transferring government to “experts” and institutionalizes the omnipotence of the financial operators. Europe must be the work of its citizens themselves so as to save their own interests. This new Europe for which we, like the democratic forces that are emerging in Greece, hope and for which we intend to fight is that of all the peoples. In every country, there are two politically and morally antithetical Europes in conflict: that which would dispossess the people to benefit the bankers and that which affirms the right of all to a life worthy of the name and that, collectively, gives itself the means to do so. Thus, what we want, together with the Greek electors and SYRIZA’s activists and leaders, is neither the disappearance of Europe but its refoundation. It is ultra-liberalism that provokes the rise of nationalisms and of the extreme right. The real saviours of the European idea are the supporters of openness, and of the participation of the citizens, the defenders of a Europe where popular sovereignty is not abolished but extended and shared. Yes — Athens is indeed the future of democracy in Europe and it is the fate of Europe that is at stake. By a strange irony of history, the Greeks, stigmatized and impoverished are in the front line of our struggle for a common future. Let us listen to them, support them and defend them! Étienne Balibar is professor of philosophy at the Université de Paris-X. His books include "Reading Capital," "The Philosophy of Marx" and "Race, Nation, Class." Vicky Skoumbi is chief editor of Aletheia (Athens). Michel Vakaloulis is a philosopher and sociologist. continue reading

Sunday, 08 January 2012

Democracy as a Community Life

by Achille Mbembe, Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism

What might be the conditions of a radical, future-oriented politics in contemporary South Africa? Interrogating the salience of wealth and property, race and difference as central idioms in the framing and naming of ongoing social struggles, Achille Mbembe investigates the possibility of reimagining democracy not only as a form of human mutuality and freedom, but also as a community of life.
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Wednesday, 26 October 2011

No More Bubble Gum

by Mike Davis, Los Angeles Review of Books

Who could have envisioned Occupy Wall Street and its sudden wildflower-like profusion in cities large and small?

John Carpenter could have, and did. Almost a quarter of a century ago (1988), the master of date-night terror (Halloween, The Thing), wrote and directed They Live, depicting the Age of Reagan as a catastrophic alien invasion. In one of the film’s brilliant early scenes, a huge third-world shantytown is reflected across the Hollywood Freeway in the sinister mirror-glass of Bunker Hill’s corporate skyscrapers.

They Live remains Carpenter’s subversive tour de force. Few who’ve seen it could forget his portrayal of billionaire bankers and evil mediacrats and their zombie-distant rule over a pulverized American working class living in tents on a rubble-strewn hillside and begging for jobs. From this negative equality of homelessness and despair, and thanks to the magic dark glasses found by the enigmatic Nada (played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), the proletariat finally achieves interracial unity, sees through the subliminal deceptions of capitalism, and gets angry.

Very angry.

Yes, I know, I’m reading ahead. The Occupy the World movement is still looking for its magic glasses (program, demands, strategy, and so on) and its anger remains on Gandhian low heat. But, as Carpenter foresaw, force enough Americans out of their homes and/or careers (or at least torment tens of millions with the possibility) and something new and huge will begin to slouch towards Goldman Sachs. And unlike the “Tea Party,” so far it has no puppet strings.

In 1965, when I was just eighteen and on the national staff of Students for a Democratic Society, I planned a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank, for its key role in financing South Africa after the massacre of peaceful demonstrators, for being “a partner in Apartheid.” It was the first protest on Wall Street in a generation and 41 people were hauled away by the NYPD.

One of the most important facts about the current uprising is simply that it has occupied the street and created an existential identification with the homeless. (Though, frankly, my generation, trained in the civil rights movement, would have thought first of sitting inside the buildings and waiting for the police to drag and club us out the door; today, the cops prefer pepper spray and “pain compliance techniques.”) I think taking over the skyscrapers is a wonderful idea, but for a later stage in the struggle. The genius of Occupy Wall Street, for now, is that it has temporarily liberated some of the most expensive real estate in the world and turned a privatized square into a magnetic public space and catalyst for protest.

Our sit-in 46 years ago was a guerrilla raid; this is Wall Street under siege by the Lilliputians. It’s also the triumph of the supposedly archaic principle of face-to-face, dialogic organizing. Social media is important, sure, but not omnipotent. Activist self-organization — the crystallization of political will from free discussion — still thrives best in actual urban fora. Put another way, most of our internet conversations are preaching to the choir; even the mega-sites like MoveOn.org are tuned to the channel of the already converted, or at least their probable demographic.

The occupations likewise are lightning rods, first and above all, for the scorned, alienated ranks of progressive Democrats, but they also appear to be breaking down generational barriers, providing the common ground, for instance, for imperiled, middle-aged school teachers to compare notes with young, pauperized college grads.

More radically, the encampments have become symbolic sites for healing the divisions within the New Deal coalition in place since the Nixon years. As Jon Wiener observed on his consistently smart blog at www.TheNation.com: “hard hats and hippies — together at last.”

Indeed. Who could not be moved when AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who had brought his coalminers to Wall Street in 1989 during their bitter but ultimately successful strike against Pittston Coal Company, called upon his broad-shouldered women and men to “stand guard” over Zucotta Park in the face of an imminent attack by the NYPD?

It’s true that old radicals like me are quick to declare each new baby the messiah, but this Occupy Wall Street child has the rainbow sign. I believe that we’re seeing the rebirth of the quality that so markedly defined the migrants and strikers of the Great Depression, of my parents’ generation: a broad, spontaneous compassion and solidarity based on a dangerously egalitarian ethic. It says, Stop and give a hitch-hiking family a ride. Never cross a picket line, even when you can’t pay the rent. Share your last cigarette with a stranger. Steal milk when your kids have none and then give half to the little kids next door — what my own mother did repeatedly in 1936. Listen carefully to the profoundly quiet people who have lost everything but their dignity. Cultivate the generosity of the “we.”

What I mean to say, I suppose, is that I’m most impressed by folks who have rallied to defend the occupations despite significant differences in age, in social class and race. But equally, I adore the gutsy kids who are ready to face the coming winter on freezing streets, just like their homeless sisters and brothers.

Back to strategy, though: what’s the next link in the chain (in Lenin’s sense) that needs to be grasped? How imperative is it for the wildflowers to hold a convention, adopt programmatic demands, and thereby put themselves up for bid on the auction block of the 2012 elections? Obama and the Democrats will desperately need their energy and authenticity. But the occupationistas are unlikely to put themselves or their extraordinary self-organizing process up for sale.

Personally I lean toward the anarchist position and its obvious imperatives.

First, expose the pain of the 99 percent; put Wall Street on trial. Bring Harrisburg, Loredo, Riverside, Camden, Flint, Gallup, and Holly Springs to downtown New York. Confront the predators with their victims — a national tribunal on economic mass murder.

Second, continue to democratize and productively occupy public space (i.e. reclaim the Commons). The veteran Bronx activist-historian Mark Naison has proposed a bold plan for converting the derelict and abandoned spaces of New York into survival resources (gardens, campsites, playgrounds) for the unsheltered and unemployed. The Occupy protestors across the country now know what it’s like to be homeless and banned from sleeping in parks or under a tent. All the more reason to break the locks and scale the fences that separate unused space from urgent human needs.

Third, keep our eyes on the real prize. The great issue is not raising taxes on the rich or achieving a better regulation of banks. It’s economic democracy: the right of ordinary people to make macro-decisions about social investment, interest rates, capital flows, job creation, and global warming. If the debate isn’t about economic power, it’s irrelevant.

Fourth, the movement must survive the winter in order to fight the power in the next spring. It’s cold on the street in January. Bloomberg and every other mayor and local ruler is counting on a hard winter to deplete the protests. It is thus all-important to reinforce the occupations over the long Christmas break. Put on your overcoats.

Finally, we must calm down — the itinerary of the current protest is totally unpredictable. But if one erects a lightning rod, we shouldn’t be surprised if lightning eventually strikes.

Bankers, recently interviewed in the New York Times, claim to find the Occupy protests little more than a nuisance arising from an unsophisticated understanding of the financial sector. They should be more careful. Indeed, they should probably quake before the image of the tumbrel.

Since 1987, African Americans have lost more than half of their net worth; Latinos, an incredible two-thirds. Five-and-a-half million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United Sates since 2000, more than 42,000 factories closed, and an entire generation of college graduates now face the highest rate of downward mobility in American history.

Wreck the American dream and the common people will put on you some serious hurt. Or as Nada explains to his unwary assailants in Carpenter’s great film: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…. and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
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On the Wall Street Occupation

by Richard Pithouse, SACSIS

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's novel about the Great Depression, Tom Joad, the novel's central character, a man who has been made poor and who is on the run from the law, tells his mother in the climactic scene that: “I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin' fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'. And I been wonderin' if all our folks got together....”
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Friday, 23 September 2011

The Weight of the Poor: Cornel West interviews Frances Fox Piven

The professor Glenn Beck loves to hate speaks with Cornel West about waitressing, black nationalism, how the radical right helped her define her politics, and why she’s gloomy about America’s future.

The conservative media stalwart Glenn Beck may be partially responsible for reinstating Frances Fox Piven into mainstream sociopolitical discourse. Nary a mention of Piven goes by without referring to Beck’s tirades against her and social activist Richard Cloward, Piven’s late husband and collaborator, as well as the death threats made against her by users of Beck’s website The Blaze. He has repeatedly targeted Piven as a catalyst for, among other things, the “unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system” and “an overarching left-wing plot” against America. Due to one essay in particular, which she wrote over forty years ago, Beck has stated that Piven is “the enemy of the Constitution.”

Unfortunately for Piven, the controversy surrounding her scholarship largely exists because her most zealous critics never fail to distort her findings. Peter Dreier of Dissent astutely points out that her studies on protests encourage not the use of violence as a measure of civil disobedience but rather “the combined power of voting and grassroots protest to bring about change.” In her attempts to empower the disenfranchised and understand the impetus behind social unrest, she has been blamed for seeking to completely uproot America’s democratic ideals while, in fact, she strives to make the best of America accessible to more people. Among other works, Piven’s notorious 1966 Nation article “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty” and her 1972 book Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (co-written with Cloward) have been cited by conspiratorial demagogues as leading to Obama’s election to the presidency and the successful passage of his healthcare plan. More reasonably, her works reflect an activist attitude that forgoes passive resistance as a mode to bring about greater societal change.

For a sense of Piven’s legacy in less sensationalist and alarmist terms than Beck’s, The New Press has assembled a series of Piven’s writings into the new volume Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?: The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate. Spanning a vast scope of issues, ranging from welfare and voter rights to progressive reform, the book is a welcome introduction to her ideas. As a bonus, it features an illuminating interview by Cornel West, featured below, that reveals integral details of her upbringing and illustrious career. It covers topics ranging from biographical tidbits (she was accepted to the University of Chicago at fifteen, on a tuition scholarship, no less) to her views on the role of the United States in today’s geopolitical landscape, culminating in her self-identification as a “radical Democrat.” The crux of Piven’s message, however, is that “social action” entails “solving social problems,” including poverty and welfare rights.

Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “[S]he always said exactly what was on her mind even if that meant publicly upbraiding [colleagues] for statements she found condescending to the poor.” A group that Piven co-founded with Cloward, Human SERVE, had its aims incorporated into the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. “Within months [of meeting her],” writes Ehrenreich, “she had convinced me that the highest feminist priority was the defense of the poorest of the poor, that is, women on welfare.”

Clearly, for all the verbal threats and vitriol she receives from her critics, Piven still believes that actions speak louder than words.

Cornel West: Let me begin by saying that it is an honor for me to be in conversation with the one and only Frances Fox Piven. She is, to me, a living legend, part and parcel of a very rich intellectual and political tradition. If I could tease out three themes in your work, one would be the very subtle historical and social analysis of the past and present; two, a profound commitment to the dignity of ordinary people, of everyday people, poor and working people; and three, concern about changing the world, both inside electoral politics and social movements outside of electoral politics. All three of these themes are interwoven throughout your corpus. I want to know, from early on in your life, where do you think those themes actually come from?

Frances Fox Piven: I think that the commitment to poor and working people comes from my family. My mother and father were immigrants from Belarus, a fact posted repeatedly on right-wing blogs as if that makes me suspect. My father came here about 1917, when he was a teenager, my mother in the early twenties. They brought with them a political perspective that was broadly socialist. They had almost no formal education, although they spoke and wrote at least four languages.

I remember my father explaining, “A capitalist system is a dog-eat-dog system.”

Cornel West: You rent the store?

Frances Fox Piven: Yes. And you open by 7 a.m. to sell some rolls. In those days, all these little delicatessens had huge paper bags of hard crusty rolls left outside the front door at dawn. My father would go at seven, open the store, and he would stay there until three in the morning to sell another quart of milk.

Cornel West: This was in New York City?

Frances Fox Piven: In New York City. We lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. That was an immigrant neighborhood then as it is now. At the time though, it was mainly Irish, Italian, some Eastern European Jews. My father worked all the time. But his lifelong interest was in politics. That’s what he thought about. He worked all the time but what he thought about was politics. I didn’t see him too often because he came home so late and he was gone when I woke up in the morning. But every once in a while I would see him and he would sit me down and what would he talk to a three- or four-year-old about? Politics. Really, he talked to me about politics. I remember my father explaining, “A capitalist system is a dog-eat-dog system.” And another time he explained, “You can’t believe anything you read in the capitalist press.” This especially puzzled me because my father always read the newspaper. “Well, why are you reading the newspaper, Daddy?” He said, “I read between the lines.” I couldn’t read yet, but for weeks I tried hard to read between the lines.

Cornel West: [Laughs.] Now how did this feed into your education as an undergraduate and your training as a graduate student?

Frances Fox Piven: Well I went to public school at P.S. 148. And then I went to Newtown High School. And at some point when I was in the sophomore year my brother came home and he persuaded my mother and father that they should let me apply to the University of Chicago, which was accepting applications from sophomores.

Cornel West: Fifteen years old? Sixteen years old?

Frances Fox Piven: Fifteen I was then. And so I did. My brother had struck an agreement with my father that if I got in and if I got a scholarship, I could go. And my father went along with my brother.

Cornel West: So you were accepted into the University of Chicago at fifteen?

Frances Fox Piven: Yeah.

Cornel West: That reminds me of Susan Sontag, Richard Rorty. The same program, very precocious, very, very sharp. And what was it like when you arrived, given your rich background?

Frances Fox Piven: It was very confusing to me.

Cornel West: In what sense?

Frances Fox Piven: Nobody in my family or in my neighborhood used the language that they used at the University of Chicago. I remember the first time I heard the word “value” repeated again and again by my professor. Value to me was the price of a frying pan.

Cornel West: [Laughs.]

Frances Fox Piven: I mean a frying pan was a good value or not a good value. When I went to the university, for a very long time I didn’t know the difference between beef and lamb and pork because we ate this kind of food so rarely in my household. I knew a category called “meat.” It’s like how Eskimos have so many different kinds of snow. We have one category called “snow.” Well, I had one category called meat. Mostly we ate soup and potatoes.

Cornel West: Now were there any professors there in Chicago who just really helped you? Who allowed your imagination to flourish?

Frances Fox Piven: After the first quarter, when I saw that I could pass exams with good grades, I stopped going to school.

I was a neurotic kid. I decided that just sitting there was a waste and that I should at least be getting some experience.

Cornel West: Is that right?

Frances Fox Piven: Yeah.

Cornel West: So you are reading on your own?

Frances Fox Piven: Or not reading on my own. I thought that experience was very important, Cornel.

Cornel West: But how are you passing these exams? This is Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel.

Frances Fox Piven: Do you know about multiple choice?

Cornel West: You still had to know something from those books to pass those exams.

Frances Fox Piven: Let me tell you Cornel...

Cornel West: [Laughs.]

Frances Fox Piven: I didn’t really start reading seriously until I was much older. I was having trouble concentrating. I was a neurotic kid. I decided that just sitting there was a waste and that I should at least be getting some experience. So I took all sorts of jobs. I needed the money because my father wasn’t giving me any money. I had a tuition scholarship and that was all. So, I worked in all-night places like the Hobby House. You know, fast-food places. I worked as a waitress. I had to learn how to be a waitress, so I worked at Stouffer’s first. Stouffer’s would hire young women right off the ship. Mainly Irish young women. And they would teach you how to be a waitress. They were so patronizing. But I did that so I could learn to waitress elsewhere.

Cornel West: This is while you were at the University of Chicago?

Frances Fox Piven: Yes. You had to learn how to carry a lot of plates on your arms in those days. Nowadays I never see wait people who can do that trick. You know, three dinner plates and three cups of coffee. But we had to do that. Stouffer’s taught me how to do that. Then I quit and went to work mainly for truck-stop-type restaurants because they tipped much better. And then I got a job for a while working as a camera girl in these jazz clubs in the Black Belt. In Evanston and on West 63rd street. And I wore dark pancake [foundation].

Cornel West: Is that right? As an undergrad at the University of Chicago? You had to be one of the few students at University of Chicago working in those kinds of jobs. Who were you talking to at the time? So what happened was, you immersed yourself in the culture of working people early on while you are at this highly elitist institution of higher learning.

Frances Fox Piven: But I also talked to my fellow students because I was working nights and had time during the day to hang out in the coffee shop and talk to other students. And you know it was very high-falutin’ talk. I enjoyed it. And then I would go to work. So my time at the University was mainly spent in the coffee shop, sparring.

Cornel West: And passing the exams.

Frances Fox Piven: And I passed the exams. I never lost my scholarship.

Cornel West: On to graduate school. Now what was that like?

Frances Fox Piven: Well that was different. When I went to graduate school, I went into a program called Social and Economic Planning. It was an interdisciplinary program that had originally been started by Rexford Tugwell, who had worked in the New Deal, and who had then served as governor of Puerto Rico for a while when they were promoting the Operation Bootstrap program in Puerto Rico—a program with mixed consequences, I think. Nevertheless, the idea of the program was to spur the economic growth of underdeveloped areas. It was economic and social development. I chose that program because I thought that was useful work and also something I could do. I was still having such trouble reading. I couldn’t concentrate. I thought I could get by as a planner. In graduate school, they wanted me to produce papers. Since I really was blocked, I couldn’t produce the papers. In my first quarter, I got three incompletes in my three courses. I registered again for another three courses in the second quarter, but then I decided to quit. I went to work for The Free Press. Not The New Press, but The Free Press.

Cornel West: [Laughs.]

Frances Fox Piven: I had been enrolled in a course in urban politics. And the professor was Edward Banfield. Do you know that name?

Cornel West: Oh yes. The Un-Heavenly City.

Frances Fox Piven: Yes. This was before he wrote that book. I had been in the course and came a few times, but there is no point in coming to class if you don’t do any of the reading. So I started cutting classes and he sent another student to ask me why I wasn’t coming back to class. He said he had enjoyed my comments and questions. When I decided to drop out, I went to see him because he had sent this nice message to me. I said to him, “I’ve got three incompletes. I’m not going to class. I’m going to have six incompletes. There’s no point to this. I think I should go to work at a different kind of job.” And he put me in touch with Jerry Kaplan, who was a self-made guy who had started The Free Press. Jerry Kaplan made me an assistant editor, which was a phony title because the only other people working there were the stock boy and the secretary. I worked there for a year—or maybe eight months. And they proposed that I go to New York to open a publishing office where I could be the person who dealt with the authors. And the authors were people like Talcott Parsons and Erving Goffman. The Free Press was publishing Weber and Durkheim. Nobody else was.

Cornel West: Parsons was translating Weber.

Frances Fox Piven: So, that offer was very tempting, but my boyfriend of the time persuaded me to go back to school instead. And I did. I went back to school.

Cornel West: This is the richest stuff. You haven’t written a memoir, have you?

Frances Fox Piven: No, because it’s not interesting to me to write about it.

I had no intention of becoming an academic. How could a person who was having trouble reading become an academic?

Cornel West: It is very interesting. It’s your formation. Let’s go back now to this connection between the subtle historical and social analysis and the dignity of poor and working people. When does that first surface with real potency in your mind and in your work?

Frances Fox Piven: In the 1960s, I think. I think I carried with me the influences of my family, the view that capitalism was bad because it created a wolf-eat-wolf or dog-eat-dog society, especially for little people. I think I understood that perfectly well. I remember when I was a really small child, I tried to figure out exactly what a capitalist was and I decided it was like my Uncle Phil. He owned a neighborhood restaurant and not only a restaurant, but a little delicatessen and bakery attached to the restaurant, so together that seemed pretty big. So … that’s what a capitalist was.

Cornel West: That’s a good example. [Laughs.]

Frances Fox Piven: I talk a little about this in my introduction to “Low Income People and the Political Process.” I finished my degree in 1962, I believe. I had no intention of becoming an academic. How could a person who was having trouble reading become an academic? I certainly wanted to be honest about what I could do and what I couldn’t. And, besides, I was interested in social action. I didn’t necessarily mean movement action at that time. I meant social action. I meant solving social problems. Before I actually got my degree I was invited to cooperate with a new program on the Lower East Side called Mobilization for Youth. It was actually started as a juvenile delinquency program, but it became the model for the community action part of the poverty program that followed somewhat later. At first they asked me to write a chapter for their proposal on what Mobilization could do about dilapidated housing in the area. And then when it actually seemed they would get funding, they asked me if I wanted to write the history of the project. I didn’t have another job so I agreed, but on the stipulation that I would be guaranteed independence in writing the history. I didn’t want the directors—Richard Cloward was one, George Brager another, Jim McCarthy was the third one—I didn’t want them to be able to influence or control the history. They agreed. So, in 1962, I went to work on the Lower East Side.

Cornel West: [Laughs.] When I think of Frances Fox Piven, beyond intellectual integrity and political courage, and moral sensitivity to poor and working people, I think of three works: Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare and Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. And I’ll tell you, a favorite of mine is The New Class War. I think that text also needs to be reproduced in our present situation. The New Class War. Because it’s to be read alongside Robert Lekachman’s Greed Is Not Enough Reaganomics. The two best books on the Reagan era and what we’re up against. When you wrote about Fannie Lou Hamer, I felt you had to have some connection with her.

Frances Fox Piven: I worshipped her but I never met her.

Cornel West: Tell me more.

Frances Fox Piven: Well, I heard the accounts of how she had been brutalized, how she had suffered. I knew she was a poor woman from the rural South. And I thought her courage was awesome. I also liked the way she sang. And you know what else? One of my best friends was June Jordan.

Cornel West: The June Jordan?

Frances Fox Piven: And June loved Fanny. During those years, June and I were really very close. There were times when we were not so close, although we remained lifelong friends. We had big arguments, too. June wrote about those arguments in one of her autobiographical books.

Cornel West: With the cover when she’s a little girl?

Frances Fox Piven: No. I’ve forgotten which book it was, but in this essay June was angry at me. She names me, probably. She says that I kept changing the correct political line we were supposed to have. First I’m a nationalist, well, I was sort of a nationalist. I was very sympathetic to black nationalism in the ’60s and ’70s. And June was an integrationist when I first met her. I met her because she wrote me an angry letter after an article that Richard and I had published criticizing, even mocking, efforts at housing integration, in particular. We said in effect you’d have to live a million years to achieve that goal, so in the meantime, why not at least build some decent housing in the ghetto? She wrote me an angry letter and I said, “Oh, come on over, we’ll talk about it.” And we became friends.

Cornel West: [Laughs.]

Frances Fox Piven: So I was the nationalist, she was the integrationist.

Cornel West: So, you’ve got the black woman who’s the integrationist, and this progressive white Jewish sister who supports black nationalism. That’s fascinating.

I’m a radical Democrat. And I’m a radical Democrat about economic matters and political matters. Everything I’ve ever tried to do is well-encompassed by that term.

Frances Fox Piven: But then in the ’70s—is this too early for you Cornel? Do you remember the Jewish-black fights in Crown Heights in the ’70s? They were really brutal. Of course, our call for redeveloping the ghettos instead of preaching integration was not heeded. But, I didn’t mean by that call let’s have a race war between Jews and blacks. June got caught up in that. We had bad fights about it. That was when she said, “She’s always changing her mind.” I didn’t think I was changing my mind.

Cornel West: There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind if you think something’s right at a certain moment. It’s just if you are consistent in terms of the same themes that we talked about. Let me ask you, how do you, account for the fact that you’ve been able to sustain your calling as intellectual activist? From the 1980s to 2000, you’ve got a major shift. Leftist intellectuals moving to the right, or to the center. I’m sure you must’ve had many friends who began with you in the 1960s and ’70s on the left, who ended up liberal, then neo-liberal and neo-conservative. How do you account for your holding onto the radical democratic vision?

Frances Fox Piven: Well those are my beliefs. How do you account for why other people changed their beliefs? I haven’t changed much. I never said I was a communist, for example. I never said I was a socialist, Cornel. Because I thought that was a pretty ambiguous term and I didn’t know exactly what it meant.

Cornel West: For example, in our work with DSA, you have a number of persons identifying as radical Democrats. How would you describe yourself politically and ideologically?

Frances Fox Piven: Well, recently, I finally decided I needed to give my politics a name. I had never thought it was important for me to give myself a name. But I think Glenn Beck and the right-wing blogs carrying on with all of the name-calling—anarchist, communist, socialist—persuaded me. I decided I ought to decide what the right name was. And I’m a radical Democrat.

Cornel West: That’s the term I’d use.

Frances Fox Piven: I’m a radical democrat. And I’m a radical Democrat about economic matters and political matters. Everything I’ve ever tried to do is well-encompassed by that term.

What did excite me was the spirit of the project. The idea that you could transform a big neighborhood, the Lower East Side of New York.

Cornel West: I guess that’s that. A radical Democrat and a deep Democrat; we share that identity. I like the suspicion of the “isms.” Let me ask an off-the-wall question, what is your relationship to the arts when it comes to music?

Frances Fox Piven: You know, Cornel, I have almost no relationship to music. That will horrify you.

Cornel West: But you’re musical in your lectures. You’re musical in your life.

Frances Fox Piven: Cornel, I think that I’m actually physically handicapped. I have an auditory handicap. I can’t remember or imitate a tune. I’m very bad at languages for that reason. I like it when people sing. I like the beat.

Cornel West: You like Fannie Lou Hamer singing!

Frances Fox Piven: I love Fannie Lou Hamer. I think The Producers is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. But I’m very unmusical. When people ask me to go to a concert, I don’t go. I think the fundamental cause is genetic. My sister, my daughter, most of my nephews are also pretty unmusical. One nephew actually trained himself to sing, despite the enormous obstacle—it was like climbing a mountain. It’s very hard if you don’t have the auditory capacity. I’m sorry, Cornel, I don’t want to disappoint you.

Cornel West: I’m telling you, from your lectures, there’s a power that flows that has a musicality, a rhythm, and a tempo.

Frances Fox Piven: Thank you, brother.

Cornel West: Now, let’s say a word about brother Richard. I think, for example, of that powerful moment, at the Graduate Center. How were you able to come together? You constituted, for me, a kind of exemplary twosome and married couple of the radical Democratic left. There’s nobody else that comes close. How did you meet? How did you sustain it?

Frances Fox Piven: Richard originally hired me at Mobilization for Youth. I had met him once or twice before that through other people. But he hired me and I found Mobilization very exciting. Really exciting. It gripped me. It’s not that I was particularly convinced by their social science-y approach. They were going to do a demonstration project in this neighborhood to test out the theories of delinquency and opportunity put forward in a book that Richard wrote with Lloyd Ohlin. That wasn’t really what they were doing. If they were testing something, it was what all of the different professionals who claimed to have a capacity to undo poverty were doing. There was a kind of coalition of professionals: manpower trainers, social workers, settlement house professionals, educators, group workers. That didn’t so impress me, but what did excite me was the spirit of the project. The idea that you could transform a big neighborhood, the Lower East Side of New York. That you could make available job opportunities to the kids in the neighborhood; that you could hammer at the local school district and get the teachers to visit the parents. Those were the sorts of things that they were trying to do. That you could have what were called “group work programs” for teens in storefronts. But you know, that meant you made a storefront available to teenagers, including a mimeograph machine. They could do stuff. The people who were attracted to Mobilization were largely lefties who wanted to do something.

Cornel West: Now were you and brother Richard already moving in a radical democratic direction or were you mutually influencing each other and moving to the left together? How did that take place?

Frances Fox Piven: Richard and I had different backgrounds. Richard came from a northern Baptist background. His father was a northern Baptist minister. Richard may have been critical of social work, but he was in the best sense a social worker. Something I admire by the way. Do you know Gus Newport? Gus Newport also came to that memorial for Richard.

Cornel West: The mayor?

Frances Fox Piven: Of Berkeley. Gus Newport brought me a photograph of Richard when Richard was about nineteen years old. Gus was in the picture. Gus was about seven. It was a picture taken at an interracial camp that Richard and a buddy of his had started in Rochester. They had found out that the YMCA only used their summer camp in July, and they arranged to rent it in August. They organized what they called an “interracial camp,” and, of course, hardly any white kids came. I think in that picture there was one little white kid. Gus Newport was one of the kids at the camp, and his mother was a counselor. That’s what a good social worker would do, right? He would arrange a summer camp for the kids who aren’t going to get to summer camp any other way. At Mobilization for Youth, there was also a community organization program. I ended up working almost all the time at the community organization program. That’s how I got involved in rent strikes. Richard, George Brager, and Jim McCarthy used to say something to me that I’m probably not remembering exactly right. “You can’t use Caesar’s gold to fight Caesar.” It’s a classical expression that I’m not saying right, but that’s the meaning.

Cornel West: Like Audre Lorde’s expression: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Frances Fox Piven: Right. They’d say that to each other, and they’d say that to me. I thought rent strikes were a good way to approach the housing problems of the Lower East Side. There were people ready to go on rent strikes. I remember in ’63, a year later, Mobilization for Youth rented a train to take people from the Lower East Side to the march for jobs and freedom in Washington, August 1963. I thought, something is happening. Something was happening. On a late summer night, on the Lower East Side of New York, and in other neighborhoods too, you could just sense the people were…

Cornel West: Beginning to wake up?

Frances Fox Piven: Yeah.

The only way to change American society, and indeed I think this is true of other societies as well, is for people to discover the power latent in the cooperative roles that they play in a range of institutions.

Cornel West: Here we are, on April 5, 2011, and you come up with this idea and are kind enough to call me to co-host a teach-in at Judson Memorial Church with 269 colleges and universities throughout the nation. Which is to say social movements are still part and parcel of your conception of who you are as a public intellectual, a democratic intellectual, and as an activist. You are an exemplary teacher with students all around the country and the world. It’s hard to go to an American Political Science Association meeting and not see a Frances Fox Piven student somewhere teaching, somewhere having impact, somewhere building on your legacy. How do you perceive your legacy after some forty or fifty years of unbelievable vision, courage, and service to poor and working people?

Frances Fox Piven: Well I don’t think about legacies. I don’t think about my legacy. But, what is distinctive about both my intellectual work and my life’s political work? I believe that the only way to change American society, and indeed I think this is true of other societies as well, is for people to discover the power latent in the cooperative roles that they play in a range of institutions. It’s like the old IWW song, “It is we who tilled the prairies, laid the railroads, built the cities… ” And we could add suckled the babies. The IWW was trying to discover and show its people that they play an important role in the society. And show them that the way they are insulted, abused, and oppressed is unjust, but not just that it’s unjust; it’s because they play an important role that they can change the society. That role is potential power. What they do when they go to work, when they obey the laws, or when they don’t obey the laws—is a source of power. I think it’s the question of the power of the oppressed that has been the central question in my life, both as an analyst and as an activist.

Cornel West: And the degree to which those oppressed continue to resist and remain resilient. I recall coming across a line by the late Charles Tilly when he said, “The conditions for the possibility of social movements have been called into question in the twenty-first century.” And I said to myself, my god, a society in history without social movements, for me, is very difficult to live in. Now of course, northern Africa has already proved him wrong.

Frances Fox Piven: Well, I thought he was wrong, and I think he was also wrong to say that we didn’t have social movements until the development of the nation-state in Western Europe. I don’t think that’s true, either. He defined a social movement by its relationship to the nation-state, which seemed to make such an assertion true. I don’t define it that way. I generally talk about protest movements, not social movements. A protest movement occurs when large numbers of people are seized by the hope that they can act to improve their own condition, and dare to defy the rules that ordinarily govern their life to push for those improvements. That’s a protest movement. Of course, there are other kinds of social movements too.

Cornel West: I would say that, even though my dear sister Fran does not like to talk in terms of legacy, I think that the future of this country depends in part on how it responds to the legacy of Frances Fox Piven. What I mean is, if we don’t keep track of the dignity of poor and working peoples, if we don’t highlight their resiliency, and take seriously their voices, and their viewpoints, then American democracy has no healthy future. And Frances Fox Piven’s work, which is not an isolated voice, it’s a voice within a collective tradition of voices. But it is her legacy. In her generation, she was able to accent those voices and that dignity in a way that was very, very, very distinctive. And to that degree, so much is at stake in terms of what American democracy will look like. Which builds on the themes that she just noted, in terms of what is distinctive about her work.

Frances Fox Piven: I think that we’re at an alarming moment in American political development and maybe in world political development, because the United States is so influential. If the trends of the last thirty or forty years are not halted and reversed—and those trends include increasingly inequality, a crumbling public life, a disintegrating public infrastructure, an exhausted ecology, and a huge war arsenal, and more and more war making—then I’m rather gloomy about the prospects for the American future and the harm that the United States could do to the world. But I think it might be reversed. There are no guarantees. It might be reversed. But if it’s reversed, I think it will be because of the rise of oppositional movements from the masses of people in the middle and at the bottom, who have been made to pay the cost in their economic well-being and in their community life, and really in their culture and mental life, too. Think for example of the degradation of democratic discourse in the United States as a result of floods of propaganda. If this can be reversed, I think it will be because of the rise of new protest movements.

Interview conducted April 5, 2011. This interview originally appeared in Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?: The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate by Frances Fox Piven. Copyright © 2011 by Frances Fox Piven. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
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Monday, 22 August 2011

What more could we want of ourselves!

by Jacqueline Rose, The London Review of Books

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza, translated by George Shriver
Verso, 609 pp, £25.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 1 84467 453 4

We live in revolutionary times. I cannot imagine now what it would have been like to be thinking about Rosa Luxemburg if the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had not taken place. I do not know whether it would have been easier or more difficult. But one thing revolutionary moments do is force us to revise our sense of time, stretching us between past and future, as we comb backwards for the first signs of upheaval, and look forward to see what is to come. For many observers, but mainly those in power, the uncertainty is a way of stalling the movement of revolution, curbing its spirit by calling it to account in advance for a future that it can’t predict or foretell. These are the fear-mongers, who point to a range of monstrous outcomes – say, anarchy or Islamic control – as a way of discrediting what is happening this moment, now; who manipulate the dread of a terrible future (and the future may always be terrible) to dull the sounds of freedom.

Rosa Luxemburg was not one of them. Writing to Luise Kautsky on 24 November 1917 from Breslau prison, where she had been held because of her opposition to the war, she praised Kautsky for still holding on to the ‘groping, searching, anxious’ young woman inside her – Kautsky was 53 at the time. When Kautsky visited Luxemburg in prison in May, her inner torment, her ‘restless, dissatisfied searching’ had been evident in her eyes (younger than the rest of her, Luxemburg insists, by 20 years): ‘How I love you precisely for that inner uncertainty!’ For Luxemburg this was as much a political as a personal virtue. ‘Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions,’ she wrote, again from Breslau prison, in her 1918 essay ‘The Russian Revolution’, socialism is ‘something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future’. There was something radically unknowable at the core of political life. She could be tyrannical in her dealings with others, but – perhaps for that very reason – she hated nothing so much as the attempt to subject the vagaries of public and private life to what she saw as over-rigorous forms of control. To the immense irritation of her opponents and detractors, she elevated uncertainty to a principle, a revolutionary creed. It is, as I see it, the thread that runs through her unwavering belief in democracy and freedom, as well as in socialism. Uncertainty is what allows us to see how these three depend on each other, and is the link in her life and thought between the public world of politics and the intimacies of the mind.

The letters in this new volume, more than two-thirds of which haven’t previously been translated, give us fuller access in English than we have had before to Luxemburg’s personal and political life. The selection is based on the German collection, Herzlichst Ihre Rosa (‘Warmly yours, Rosa’), edited by Georg Adler and Annelies Laschitza, published in 1989, which consisted of 190 letters from the first five volumes of the Gesammelte Briefe. From the sixth volume of the Briefe, the English edition adds a further 40. In addition to photographs, the German edition also included images of paintings and botanical specimens collected by Luxemburg but not reproduced here. The images allow us to see more clearly how versatile her talents were: in Laschitza’s list, revolutionary Marxist; propagandist, teacher and speaker; stylist and rhetorician; lyricist and word-artist; translator and linguist; painter and botanist. For Luxemburg, letter writing was a daily task (there are 2350 letters in the first five volumes of the Gesammelte Briefe). It was, one feels reading this collection, the way she spoke to others and to herself. She was also a polyglot, writing in Russian, Polish, German and English. An earlier collection of 1979, Comrade and Lover, edited by her biographer Elzbieta Ettinger, had the advantage of translating the Polish letters directly from the originals (in this new collection all the letters have been translated from German).

That the letters survived is remarkable: a tribute to the colleagues, friends and lovers who dispersed them across several continents to save them from the ravages of the world wars. Sophie Liebknecht’s collection, the famous Letters from Prison, which appeared in 1920, disappeared only to be reissued in Germany immediately after the defeat of Hitler. As Laschitza puts it, the preservation and publication of the letters attests to the ‘strife-filled’ history of Luxemburg’s reception. It was not until the 1980s that the Gesammelte Briefe were published in the German Democratic Republic by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism under the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party – a fact not without irony, given the ambivalence of Lenin’s response to Luxemburg. In Britain, the appearance of the letters marks a beginning. Verso is planning to issue her Complete Works in 14 volumes, making the entire body of writing available for the first time in English. The moment has clearly come for a return to Rosa Luxemburg.

How far should revolutionary thinking be allowed to go? Everything Luxemburg touched she pushed to an extreme – jusqu’à outrance, ‘to the outer limit’, to use her own phrase, the slogan she proposed to her lover Leo Jogiches. ‘We live in turbulent times,’ she wrote in 1906 to Luise and her husband, Karl Kautsky, also from prison, this time in Warsaw, convicted of aiming to overthrow the tsarist government. ‘All that exists deserves to perish,’ she wrote, quoting Goethe’s Faust. It is of course the whole point of a revolution that you cannot know what, if anything, can or should survive. For Luxemburg the danger was as real as it was inspiring. ‘The revolution is magnificent,’ she wrote, again in 1906. ‘Everything else is bilge’ (the German quark, which has since made its way into English, literally means ‘soft white cheese’). But whatever the conditions in which she found herself – in Warsaw, she was one of 14 political prisoners crammed into a single cell – she never lost her fervour: her joy, as she put it, amid the horrors of the world. ‘My inner mood,’ she wrote after listing the indignities of her captivity, ‘is, as always, superb.’ ‘Enthusiasm combined with critical thought,’ she wrote in one of her last letters, ‘what more could we want of ourselves!’ She had the relish and courage of her convictions (although ‘conviction’ might turn out to be not quite the right word). There is no one, I will risk saying, who better captures the spirit – the promise and the risk – of revolution than Rosa Luxemburg.

In January 1919, after the defeat of the Spartacist uprising in Germany, Luxemburg was murdered by government henchmen, the proto-fascist Freikorps which included many future Nazis. Two years later, Clara Zetkin, the renowned socialist feminist and one of Luxemburg’s closest friends and key correspondents, returned to Germany from a visit to Moscow with instructions from Lenin recommending the publication of Luxemburg’s collected works – despite her ‘errors’, Lenin said, she was an ‘eagle of the revolution’. One manuscript, however, he wanted burned: ‘The Russian Revolution’, the essay Luxemburg had written in 1918 from her prison cell. (She almost invariably welcomed prison sentences as an opportunity for thought, and some of her most eloquent letters were written from prison.) The essay would be published in 1922 by Paul Levi, her former lawyer and, some say, briefly her lover. He chose his moment carefully, preparing the manuscript only after the Kronstadt uprising of 1921, one of the first people’s revolts against the Bolshevik regime.

In fact there was no limit to Luxemburg’s praise for the Revolution. It was, she begins her essay, the ‘mightiest event’ of the war: ‘its outbreak, its unexampled radicalism, its enduring consequences’ were the strongest rejoinder to the ‘lying phrases’ of official German Social Democracy, which had represented an essentially imperialist war as a battle to liberate the oppressed people of Russia from the tsar. The day her former revolutionary allies, the parliamentary faction of the German Social Democratic Party, voted in favour of the munitions budget in August 1914 was, it is generally agreed, the darkest day of Luxemburg’s life – according to Zetkin, both she and Luxemburg seriously contemplated suicide. Instead of uniting against war and in their own shared interests, the workers of the world would now be drenched in one another’s blood. In response to the tragedy, she suggested – with the biting irony that was a hallmark of her speeches and writing – an amendment to the famous ending of The Communist Manifesto: ‘Workers of the world unite in peacetime – but in war slit one another’s throat!’ The Revolution of 1917 had overthrown the tsar, exposed German Social Democracy’s hypocritical capitulation to an imperialist war, and put paid to the belief that Germany, or rather Central Europe, was the advanced civilisation, the properly industrialised society from which the backward Russians had everything to learn.

If Luxemburg was hated by her Social Democratic peers, it was at least as much for her unconcealed enthusiasm for what was happening in Russia as for her opposition to the war, of which her revolutionary comrades – ‘of late lamented memory’ as she scathingly puts it – had become the willing, murderous accomplices. Much of the hostility towards her was pure chauvinism. Luxemburg was born in Zamosc in Russian-occupied Poland in 1871; her family moved to Warsaw when she was three (one of her earliest political memories would have been the pogrom of 1881). Assimilated Jews, they belonged neither in the Jewish community, which rejected them, nor with the Poles, whose predominant political mood was a fervent anti-Russian nationalism with which Luxemburg would never identify. She was always an outsider. She arrived on the doorstep of the German Social Democratic Party as a young Jewish woman radical in 1898. The misogyny her presence provoked would become legendary (the best account is given by Adrienne Rich). And although she never self-identified as Jewish, being Jewish is something with which she was always identified. As Ettinger puts it, ‘she represented a nation the Germans considered inferior and a race that offended their sensibilities.’ None of that was altered – in many ways it was exacerbated – by the fact that she rapidly rose up the party echelons to become a star. In the words of Hannah Arendt, she ‘was and remained a Polish Jew in a country she disliked and a party she came soon to despise’.

It is a peculiarity of Luxemburg’s thought – one of her unique contributions – that her critique didn’t temper her enthusiasm for revolution but intensified it. In ‘The Russian Revolution’, the two main areas of dispute between her and the Bolsheviks were land distribution (which she feared would create a new form of private property) and national self-determination (on which more later). The core issues, however, were democracy and freedom. ‘Revolutions,’ she had already said, admonishing Lenin in her essay ‘The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions’ (1905), ‘do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them.’ The previous year she had accused him of subordinating Russia to the ‘servile spirit of the night-watchman state’. As she acknowledged in ‘The Russian Revolution’, no one knew better than Lenin that socialism demands a ‘complete spiritual transformation in the masses’, but, she continued with uninhibited ruthlessness, he was ‘completely mistaken’ in his chosen means: ‘decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror’. (You can see why he wanted the manuscript burned.)

The demand for a constituent assembly had been a central plank of Bolshevist agitation, but in 1917, on the point of seizure of power, the demand was dropped. There is always a risk that democracy will throw up the wrong result – that surely is the point. For Lenin, the elections following the October Revolution, in which ‘the peasant masses’ had returned Narodnik and Kerensky supporters to the assembly, indicated the limits of democracy in a revolutionary situation. For Luxemburg, this was a betrayal of everything the Bolsheviks had been fighting for, and risked strangling the Revolution at birth. ‘As Marxists,’ she cites Trotsky, ‘we have never been idolisers of formal democracy.’ ‘Nor,’ she snapped back, ‘have we ever been idolisers of socialism or Marxism.’ For Luxemburg, freedom of thought (against idol-worship of any kind) was integral to democracy. In a speech of 1907, with Stalin apparently in the audience, she described slavish adherence to The Communist Manifesto as ‘a glaring example of metaphysical thinking’ (at another point she describes Marxism as a ‘gout-ridden uncle afraid of the breeze’). In fact she had always insisted that in conditions of rampant inequality, formal democracy was a hoax. Only under socialism would true democracy have a chance to be born. Without democracy, no socialism. It is the non-negotiable political aim:

The remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure: for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people.

The people, like their representatives, would continue to grow and change. Trotsky’s view rules out the possibility that the latter might be influenced by the former. It shuts down the future, freezing us in place and time, like the image of the heavens which shows us ‘the heavenly bodies not as they are when we are looking at them but as they were at the moment they sent out their light-messages to the earth from the measureless distances of space’. She was, as the letters confirm, a word-artist – the pointed wings of swallows wheeling in the sky outside the prison ‘snipped the blue silk of space into little bits’. For Luxemburg, there is no politics without a poetics of revolution. If you want to understand the revolution, look to the stars.

This isn’t anarchy – Luxemburg is very precisely calling for elections and representative parliamentary forms. Her demands were specific: freedom of the press, right of association and assembly (which had been banned for opponents of the regime). Anything less, she insisted, would lead inevitably to the ‘brutalisation’ of public life. For her, politics was a form of education: in many ways its supreme, if not only true, form. As she had argued in relation to women’s suffrage in 1902, the well-tried argument that people are not mature enough to exercise the right to vote is fatuous: ‘As if there were some other school of political maturity … than simply exercising those rights!’ Not even the revolutionary party in Russia at the time of the mass strike could be said to have ‘made’ the Revolution: it had had ‘to learn its law from the course itself’.

The course of politics is therefore incalculable. This is Luxemburg’s famous theory of spontaneity, which has roused the ire of critics who only get the half of it, if that much. What Luxemburg is insisting on, as I see it, is that the unprecedented, unpredictable nature of the revolutionary moment be carried over into the life that follows, the period after revolution has taken place – this is why organisation was for her always subservient to spirit. What, we might ask, would our political landscape look like if it placed at the core of its self-definition the unlimitable, potentially outrageous – jusqu’à outrance – processes of revolutionary life? ‘New territory. A thousand problems,’ she wrote in ‘The Russian Revolution’: ‘Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescent life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to life creative force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts.’ It works both ways of course: it is a definition of democracy that mistakes can be seen. ‘In a totalitarian regime,’ Hosni Mubarak said in an interview in 1994, ‘you never know the mistakes that are made. But in a democracy, if anybody does something wrong, against the will of the people, it will float to the surface. The whole people is looking.’

Luxemburg wrote ‘The Russian Revolution’ on the eve of the Spartacist uprising. We read it now with knowledge of the uprising’s brutal outcome, but we can still register Luxemburg’s passionate endorsement of the energy and potential of the people. She is talking about aliveness – what the psychoanalyst Michael Parsons recently described as the true meaning of faith, which is also wholly unpredictable (there is no formula for the psychic conditions under which it will survive or be destroyed). Failure never diminished Luxemburg’s faith, which is why I think she didn’t die in despair. Failure was unavoidable. It had to be seen, not as the enemy, but as the fully-fledged partner of any viable politics. The ‘ego’ of the Russian revolutionary who ‘declares himself to be an all-powerful controller of history’ cannot see that the working class ‘everywhere insists on making its own mistakes’. Strikes that end without any definite outcome, ‘in spite, or rather just because of this’, are of greater significance as ‘explosions of a deep inner contradiction which spills over into the realm of politics’.

Listen to the vocabulary. What matters is what explodes and spills, what erupts. Her key term for describing political struggle is ‘friction’. Luxemburg is not a party manager. She doesn’t compute, calculate or count costs and benefits in advance. She doesn’t hedge her bets. This doesn’t stop her being single-minded. She is asking for what might seem a contradiction in terms: a political vision directed unerringly at the future which also recognises that the world will surely err. ‘It would be regrettable,’ she wrote to the Russian Marxist Alexandr Potresov in 1904, ‘if firmness and unyieldingness in practice necessarily had to be combined with a Lenin-style narrow-mindedness of theoretical views, rather than being combined with broadness and flexibility of thought’ (you could be firm and flexible at the same time). The mistakes made by a truly revolutionary workers’ movement, she wrote in ‘Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy’ in the same year, are ‘immeasurably more fruitful and more valuable’ than the infallibility of any party. The greatest mistake a revolutionary party can make is to think that it owns the history which it has done something, but only something, to bring about. Luxemburg is taking a swipe at omnipotence and perfectibility together. The sole way for the revolution – for any revolution – to usher in a genuine spirit of democratic freedom, where all views are by definition imperfect and incomplete, is to recognise the fallibility at the heart of the revolutionary moment itself. The only flawless revolution would be a dead revolution. Or, as Lacan would put it, Les non-dupes errent, which can be roughly translated as: ‘Anyone who thinks they’ve got it right is heading down the wrong path’ – or ‘without mistakes, you’re going nowhere.’

So how far should revolutionary thinking go? Infinity was not a metaphor for Rosa Luxemburg. In 1916, the British astronomer O.R. Walkey claimed to have discovered the centre of the universe. The idea of the universe as a ball – ‘a kind of giant potato dumpling or bombe glacée’, as Luxemburg wrote to Luise Kautsky – is ‘certainly rubbish’, a ‘completely fatuous petty-bourgeois conception’. ‘We are talking about nothing more and nothing less than the infinity of the universe,’ she wrote (her vision never more far-reaching than when in a prison cell). There is of course a geopolitical dimension to my question. It was part of the dynamic of Luxemburg’s thinking that, like capital itself, it did not stop anywhere. She was one of the first Marxist theorists of globalisation (or of ‘historical-geographical materialism’, in David Harvey’s more recent phrase). Her unfinished Introduction to Political Economy, based on her lectures at the Social Democratic Party school in Berlin from 1907 to 1914, included a chapter titled ‘The Dissolution of Primitive Communism: From the Ancient Germans and the Incas to India, Russia and Southern Africa’ (that just about covers it).

As it spreads, ‘ever more uncontrollable’ and ‘with no thought for the morrow’, to the outposts of what would become empire, destroying all non-capitalist forms in its train, capital offers the gargantuan, deformed reflection of the expansiveness, the unceasing flow, of revolutionary life. Marx himself had proposed the endless extension of capital, but to Luxemburg’s mind he failed to provide an adequate account of it, most notably in Volume II of Das Kapital, which excluded foreign trade. In her account, he did not see clearly enough that the problem of accumulation – how to dispose of surplus capital in a productive way – could not be contained by the industrialised world. ‘Capital,’ she wrote in The Accumulation of Capital, ‘must begin by planning for the systematic destruction and annihilation of the non-capitalist social units which obstruct its development.’ Capital ‘ransacks the whole world … all corners of the earth, seizing them, if necessary by force, from all levels of civilisation and from all forms of society.’

Luxemburg didn’t idealise non-capitalist societies, recognising in ‘primitive communism’, for example, the elite-based forms of inequality, the encroachment of inheritance and property, the wars of conquest with their in-built drive to the oppression of conquered peoples. Militarism – she took the Incas and Sparta as her examples – was the key to exploitation, a form of foundational violence; hence her revulsion at Germany’s slide into militarism and war. But, she wrote in ‘The Dissolution of Primitive Communism’, there is one thing that primitive social forms ‘cannot tolerate or overcome’: contact ‘with European civilisation, i.e. with capitalism. For the old society, this encounter is deadly, universally and without exception.’

It is Marxism’s central credo that capitalism contains the seeds of its own collapse: the destructiveness of capital heralds its defeat. On this Luxemburg never relented, not even when the old order was reasserting itself with such murderousness all around her in the last months and days of her life. Lukács put this best when he said that Luxemburg’s writing transformed the last flowering of capitalism into ‘a ghastly dance of death, into the inexorable march of Oedipus to his doom’. In this she was a true daughter of Marx, even if some would say it was his greatest error (comparable to believing that the people unfailingly correct their own mistakes). Critics have argued that Luxemburg underestimated the adaptability of capitalism, its ability to pull itself up by its bootstraps, as it could be said to have done in the complacent aftermath of the banking-led credit crisis of 2008. In fact this issue was central to the argument she had in 1898 with Eduard Bernstein about revisionism. The crises or ‘derangements’ (her word) of capitalist economy, she said then, were the very means by which capitalism perpetuates itself. In any case, these critics are missing the point. Whatever Luxemburg is talking about, she is also talking about knowledge and truth, about what is struggling, against the debilitating façade of bourgeois life, to be understood. Precisely because of its unerring and malicious canniness, capitalism is unable to hide its ugliness from the world (periodically revealing that ugliness is simply the obverse of its inhuman powers of endurance). But this is also the reason people will turn to revolution, not just, to use Marx’s terms, because of the clash between the forces and relations of production, but because the mind always has the power to expose and outstrip injustice. Or to put it more simply – as we have witnessed so powerfully in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain over these past months – there comes a moment when the people decide they have had enough.

Even out of the greatest disasters, something will be born (disaster is never simply disaster, failure never simply failure). Remember her description of the strike as an explosion of a deep inner contradiction that ‘spills’ into the realm of politics. In 1902, a volcanic eruption on the island of Martinique left catastrophe in its wake: ‘mountains of smoking ruins, heaps of mangled corpses, a steaming, smoking sea of fire wherever you turn’. ‘In the ruins of the annihilated city,’ she wrote in a newspaper article, ‘a new guest arrives, unknown, never seen before – the human being.’ It was, for Luxemburg, the revenge of the earth against the tyrannies and abuses of the world. She had nothing but contempt for the statesmen who were rushing to commiserate hot from the ravages of empire and the bloody suppression of domestic revolt: ‘Mt Pelée, great-hearted giant, you can laugh; you can look down in loathing at these benevolent murderers, at these weeping carnivores.’ Always there is a political lesson to be learned – and to this extent there is something of Brecht, one of her great admirers, in Luxemburg. The volcano had been rumbling for some time, but ‘the lords of the earth, those who ordain human destiny, remained with faith unshaken – in their own wisdom.’ They are the real dupes of history. Luxemburg is talking about hubris, capitalism as inflicting the supreme form, not just of physical, but of mental bondage. For the same reason, slavery’s greatest evil was the ‘exclusion of slaves from mental life’. Her 1907 essay on the topic ends with a promise: ‘In the socialist society, knowledge will be the common property of everyone. All working people will have knowledge.’ The lords of the earth, like the centralist dictators of party policy, make the fatal error of thinking knowledge belongs to them alone.

This is why teaching was so important to her. Although she was first reluctant to take it on, she came to view her classes at the party school in Berlin as one of her most creative activities (they also spawned many of her most important writings). Education was the strongest rejoinder to tyranny, especially education in the human sciences. She had lived through a period in Poland when revolutionary writings had to be smuggled over the border from Russia and most humanities teaching took place more or less underground (we should take warning). It meant, Ettinger writes, that the humanities acquired a ‘spiritual meaning alive to this day’. ‘We have tried to make clear to [the students] from first to last,’ Luxemburg said in a speech in Nuremberg in 1908, ‘that they will not get from us any ready-made science, that they must continue to go on learning, that they will go on learning all their lives.’ This is politics as continuing education. Learning takes on the colours of revolution – endless, uncontrollable life.

Luxemburg did not want to be master of the revolution, she wanted to be its teacher (the worst insult, she once said, was to suggest that intellectual life was beyond the workers’ reach; similarly, the tragedy of the war was the thousands dying in the trenches ‘in mental darkness’). Or even its psychoanalyst: in the ‘great creative acts of experimental, often of spontaneous, class struggle,’ she wrote in her 1904 critique of Lenin, ‘the unconscious precedes the conscious.’ This is not of course – or I would say not yet – the Freudian unconscious. In fact it is axiomatic in Marxism that history unfolds invisibly beneath the surface of political life; hence the counter-stress on consciousness (at the core of Lukács’s disagreement with Luxemburg), the belief in the Party as the sole purveyor of historical truth. This is not her vocabulary: ‘Something is moving inside me and wants to come out,’ she wrote to Jogiches in April 1899 in one of her most celebrated letters, not included in this volume but cited in the introduction.

In my “soul”, a totally new, original form is ripening that ignores all rules and conventions. It breaks them by the power of ideas and strong conviction. I want to affect people like a clap of thunder, to inflame their minds, not by speechifying but with the breadth of my vision, the strength of my conviction, and the power of my expression.

So, how far – to repeat my question once again – should revolutionary thinking be allowed to go? Luxemburg’s most famous formula, ‘Freedom is always the freedom to think otherwise,’ also comes from ‘The Russian Revolution’, which, contra Lenin, I seem to be treating as a type of last testament. The German is die Andersdenkenden, which means more precisely ‘those who think otherwise’, with its implication of thinking against the grain, thinking the other side of the dominant or, I would add (pushing it perhaps, but then again perhaps not), conscious thought. What happens when you allow thought, like revolutionary life, to proliferate and grow, to spread without inhibition wherever it will? In a letter of 1907 to her new young lover, Clara Zetkin’s son Kostya (Clara appears not to have objected to the liaison), Luxemburg complains of depression because she has got out of the habit of thinking. The editors of this collection add in parenthesis ‘systematic or intensive thinking’, but these words don’t appear in the German original, which simply has Denkeweise – ‘the way or path of thought’. For Luxemburg, thought, to be free, can go anywhere.

That is why, in my view, she was so hated. Not just a woman and a Jew, she was also partly crippled, walking with a pronounced limp (after a misdiagnosed childhood illness). She never talked about it, except possibly in her anonymous antiwar ‘Junius Pamphlet’, smuggled out of prison in 1915, where, in attacking the war for reducing the labouring population to the ‘aged, the women, the maimed’ she may be invoking an older image of herself. She never belonged. ‘A severe criminal stands before you, one condemned by the state,’ she announced in February 1914 to the protesters who had gathered outside the court in Frankfurt after her trial for inciting public disobedience against the imminent war: ‘a woman whom the prosecution has described as rootless’. She took pride in being, in the words of the prosecutor, ‘a creature without a home’. She couldn’t hide – and never wanted to. But the obliqueness of her position, her status as an outsider, also gave her a freedom to think the un-thought, to force the unthinkable into the language of politics. I have long believed this to be one of feminism’s supreme tasks, what it has to contribute to political understanding. I now realise that, without knowing it, I got the idea from Luxemburg.

Lacan situated the language of hysteria as only a quarter turn from the language of psychoanalysis because in hysteria, the membrane between conscious and unconscious life is stretched to transparency, almost to breaking point. The point isn’t to join in the chorus of insults directed at Luxemburg by diagnosing her as a hysteric (she was accused of far worse in her lifetime). In fact Lacan’s remark is a tribute: he is imputing to the hysteric a rare proximity to her or his own psychic truth. But the peculiarity, even eccentricity of Luxemburg’s position as a Jewish woman at the heart of revolutionary socialism meant that she could take political thinking to task, strip it of its façade, unleash what she described in a letter to Luise Kautsky in 1917 as ‘powerful, unseen, plutonic forces’ at work in the depths. Gorky’s The Lower Depths was one of her favourite plays. She went twice to its Berlin opening in 1903 and wrote to Clara Zetkin that she would continue going as long as her finances would permit.

How could you possibly believe that a revolution can or should be mastered or known in advance if you are in touch with those parts of the mind which the mind itself cannot master and which do not even know themselves? ‘There is nothing more changeable than human psychology,’ she wrote to Mathilde Wurm from Wronke prison in 1917: ‘That’s especially because the psyche of the masses, like Thalatta, the eternal sea, always bears within it every latent possibility … they are always on the verge of becoming something totally different from what they seem to be.’ Thirteen years earlier she wrote to her friend Henriette Holst: ‘Don’t believe it’ – she has just allowed herself a rare moment of melancholy – ‘don’t believe me in general, I’m different at every moment, and life is made up only of moments.’ The shifting sands of the revolution and of the psyche are more or less the same thing.

It is in this context that the correspondence is so crucial: not as the sole repository of intimacy, but because it shows the ceaseless traffic between the personal and political. For Luxemburg it was a radical failure of politics not to be in touch with the deepest parts of the self. ‘Do you know what gives me no peace nowadays?’ she wrote to Robert Seidel in 1898: the fact that people, ‘when they are writing, forget for the most part to go deeper inside themselves’. ‘I hereby vow,’ she continued, ‘never to forget when I am writing … to go inside myself.’ She was talking about the language of the party press – ‘so conventional, so wooden, so stereotyped’. But that isn’t all she is talking about. The question of the inner life was at the heart of her relationship with Jogiches. To put it bluntly, he didn’t seem to have one. There is no gender cliché that doesn’t spring to mind when thinking about Leo Jogiches. Constitutionally incapable of writing himself, he wielded Luxemburg, in Ettinger’s words, like a pen. He was her puppet-master. A brilliant organiser (to give credit where it is due), he was the spirit behind Polish revolutionary socialism. But he could never fully access the German revolutionary circles to which his lover’s meteoric entry gave him a pass. He seems not to have wanted to be seen in her company, certainly not to be seen as living with her (only partly, it appears, for her protection). He didn’t want the life of a couple, and although she pleaded for a baby – and later, when it was too late for her to have one biologically, to adopt – he refused (we only have her account as his letters have not been preserved). ‘As soon as I am aware of you in the same room,’ she wrote in 1899, ‘all my initiative evaporates immediately, and I “wait” for what you are going to say.’ His endless instructions leave a ‘single, indelible impression on me, a feeling of uneasiness, fatigue, exhaustion and restlessness that comes over me in moments when I have time to think about it.’ The one plus is that if he had agreed to live with her more fully, we wouldn’t have had these amazing letters, which pour into the void of their shared and unshared life.

Repeatedly she reproaches him for writing to her only about party and political matters, for neglecting all matters of the heart. All she sees around her is Sprawa (‘The Cause’, the name of their party journal, for which she did much of the writing). She could cope with all of that, if ‘in addition to that, alongside of that, there was a bit of the human person, the soul, the individual to be seen.’ But from him ‘there is nothing, absolutely nothing,’ whereas for her it is ‘quite the contrary’, as she encounters a ‘whole crowd of thoughts and impressions at every turn’ (once again she is making a plea for the myriad nature of thought). But she could also be merciless. At one point, when he declines into a depression while caring for his dying brother, she accuses him of ‘senseless, savage spiritual suicide’.

Jogiches lived for the cause, a cause she reproaches for destroying all that is finest in a human being – she is careful to warn Kostya Zetkin off politics. For Luxemburg, the only point of the cause was to increase the human quotient of happiness for which man was created ‘as a bird for flight’. ‘I have the accursed desire to be happy, and would be ready, day after day, to haggle for my little portion of happiness with the foolish obstinacy of a pigeon.’ Again these are not quite metaphors: ‘Sometimes, it seems to me,’ she wrote to Sonja Liebknecht in 1917, ‘that I am not really a human being at all, but rather a bird or beast in human form.’ ‘No other couple in the world,’ she wrote in one of her most poignant letters, ‘has such possibilities for being happy as we have.’ But Jogiches was incapable of grasping the mobility of the soul, the freedom of thought and affect in which alone such happiness could consist. It was for her the condition of all relationships, the inviolable rule of friendship: ‘I don’t want to know just the outer, but also the inner,’ she wrote in 1898 to Robert and Mathilde Seidel.

At the core of their struggle was the issue of power (his drive to master the world the mirror of his mastery or refusal of the inner life). ‘You have too much faith in the magic power of the word “force” in both politics and personal life,’ she wrote to him in 1899. ‘I, for one, have more faith in the power of the word “do”.’ Jogiches needed her success, but he hated it. ‘My success and the public recognition I am getting are likely to poison our relationship because of your pride and suspicion,’ she wrote as early as July 1896, two years before she moved to Berlin. But she is passionately involved with him, in many ways lives through and for him for the 15 key years of their affair. She submits to him, or at least says she will, and ties herself in knots trying to please him; she also relies on him for inspiration, fact-checking, editing of her work – one of my favourite moments is when, on receiving his changes to one of her articles, she writes that she ‘almost had a fit’. She also turns the tables:

I’ve been letting it run through my head a little, the question of our relationship, and when I return I’m going to take you in my claws so sharply that it will make you squeal, you’ll see … I have the right to do this because I am ten times better than you … I am now going to terrorise you without any mercy until you become gentle … Learn to kneel down in spirit a little … You must submit, because I will force you to through the power of love.

How can we not see in this struggle a rehearsal, or the grounds, of her later critique of Leninism? He was mentoring her. His entire correspondence systematically displays one ‘huge unpleasant thing’, like the letters of ‘a teacher to his pet pupil’ (Ettinger, translating directly from the Polish, uses ‘schoolmaster’, which makes the link to Lenin stronger). He could be violent. When she started her affair with Zetkin he threatened to kill her (it was not an idle threat: he showed up with a gun and followed her down the street). He insisted on retaining the keys to the flat they once shared. He exerted over her the terrorising, draconian, power of the night-watchman state. For Luxemburg, passion – like politics – was a question of freedom. ‘Blessed are those without passion,’ she wrote to her last lover, Hans Diefenbach (the affair was conducted by correspondence from prison), ‘if that means they would never claw like a panther at the happiness and freedom of others.’ ‘That,’ she continues, ‘has nothing to do with passion … I possess enough of it to set a prairie on fire, and still hold sacred the freedom and the simple wishes of other people.’ ‘You must let me do what I please and how I please,’ she wrote to Jogiches near the end of the affair: ‘I simply live the life of a plant and must be left just as I am.’ True passion stakes no claim. Like democracy, it does not own, control or master the other. It lets the other be. ‘I am only I once more since I have become free of Leo.’

There are a number of ways of thinking about the relationship between Luxemburg’s political and private lives that I think are misconceived. The most common is that the correspondence reveals the human being, the woman, behind the steely revolutionary: they show that Rosa Luxemburg was also ‘sensuous and full of laughter’ (as a Guardian sub-editor put it). There is nothing more sensuous than Luxemburg’s writings on revolution, and laughter for her could be as political as anything else. (Remember Mt Pelée in Martinique looking down and laughing at the weeping carnivores.) When the Frankfurt prosecutor asked for her immediate arrest in 1914 on the grounds that she was bound to take flight, she retorted: ‘I believe you, you would run away; a Social Democrat does not. He stands by his deeds and laughs at your judgments.’ Gillian Rose is surely right that Luxemburg raised facetiousness to a new political art. Nor do I accept Ettinger’s view that Luxemburg’s political identity hardened – as well it might have given the way the world was turning – mostly as a way of compensating for failure in her personal life. I don’t view her personal life as a failure. Unlike her biographer John Peter Nettl, I don’t see the years after her break-up with Jogiches as the ‘lost years’. Nor do I consider that, as Adrienne Rich suggests, Luxemburg’s life is evidence that a woman’s ‘central relationship can be to her work, even as lovers come and go’. I don’t think we have to make the choice. What interests me is not any notion of hierarchy between her public and private lives, but rather their profound intermeshing. And, through that, what her immersion in the dark night of the soul brings – like Martinique, like revolution – to the surface of politics.

‘Why,’ Luxemburg writes to Kostya Zetkin in 1907, ‘am I plunging again into dangers and frightening new situations in which I am sure to be lost?’ If politics for her is at moments a torment, it is also a compulsion. When she reproaches Jogiches for his immersion in the cause, she is also reproaching herself, with the difference – and for me it makes all the difference – that internally Luxemburg takes full measure of the force to which she submits. In the same letter to Zetkin – she is in London for the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democracy Party – she describes ‘an indistinct desire’ stirring somewhere ‘in the depths’, a longing to embrace the ‘shrill chords’, to ‘plunge’ into the whirlpool of London at night (the German stürzen, used both times, means ‘to plunge, to stream, to fall’). The street is full of staggering drunkards and ‘screeching’ flower girls ‘looking frightfully ugly and even depraved’. Here Luxemburg seems to be anticipating Virginia Woolf’s ‘Street Haunting’ or Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (there is more than one way to be a ‘watchman of the night’). It’s always consoling to think that if you open the inner portals of your mind it will be flooded with light, but the whole point of venturing down such paths is that you can’t know where they will lead. Luxemburg is tempted by what she can’t control. It is no coincidence that her thoughts here so uncannily resonate with her belief in the unknowable spirit of revolution. For her deepest insights into both aspects of her life, Luxemburg plumbs the same source.

It is often argued on the left that the darkness and fragility of psychic life are the greatest threat to politics. Instead, through Luxemburg, we might rather see this life as the shadow of politics, or even its handmaiden, an unconscious supporter in the wings. It is not unusual, as we discover reading the letters, for Luxemburg to find herself in parts of the mind where she doesn’t wish to tread. Joyous, she was also permanently dissatisfied with herself. She knew all too well about the link between creativity and psychic pain (the ‘gnawing and painful, but creative spirit of social responsibility’). Contemplating the possibility of mental illness – being driven mad by Jogiches would perhaps be more accurate – she describes the sensation of thinking and feeling everything ‘as though through a screen of tracing paper’, the feeling of her thoughts ‘being torn away’. At another moment, she writes that her life has always felt as if it were taking place somewhere else, ‘not here where I am’, in another scene – psychoanalysis would call this eine andere Schauplatz (‘another stage’) – somewhere ‘far away, off beyond the rooftops’.

In one of his best-known images, Freud used the mystic or magical writing pad to describe the psyche as a set of infinite traces. The mind is its own palimpsest. It cannot be held to a single place. You never fully know yourself or the other. Luxemburg laments that she can scarcely be her own ‘adviser or counsellor’, but how could she be, she continues, given how extraordinarily difficult it is even for the closest friends to know and understand each other, given the fact that language so often fails. There is no way to capture the truth behind the words. ‘One may perhaps have an excellent understanding of the actual words, but the “lighting” [die Beleuchtung],’ she wrote to Robert and Mathilde Seidel in 1898: ‘Do you know what I mean?’ A year earlier she had included these lines from her favourite Polish writer, the Romantic poet and dramatist Adam Mickiewicz, in a letter to Jogiches:

If the tongue were true to the voice and the voice to the thought,
How then could the word keep the lightning of the thought in bounds.

Words deceive because thought is boundless. ‘Do you know what I mean?’ she beseeches her friends. How could they? When she has just laid on the page the fragments of her own failed understanding?

For psychoanalysis, it is axiomatic that our conscious utterances betray us: something always escapes. There is a point, Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, where all dreams plunge irretrievably into the unknown. The only chance of even getting close is to let the mind drift where it will. ‘The dream-thoughts to which we are led by interpretation,’ he wrote, ‘cannot, from the nature of things, have any definite endings; they are bound to branch out in every direction into the intricate network of our world of thought.’ Like revolution or the mass strike, we might say. This is Luxemburg: ‘It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth.’

Which is why Freud’s only instruction to patients – the sacrosanct but some would say increasingly neglected founding principle of analysis – was to free-associate, to say whatever, however strange and unpredictable, came into their heads. For Freud the ungraspable nature of the human mind summoned up the necessity of freedom. ‘The method of free association,’ Christopher Bollas writes, ‘subverts the psychoanalyst’s natural authoritarian tendencies.’ It is a new method of thinking, he continues, which unleashes the ‘disseminating possibilities that open to infinity’. Infinity as infinity (the universe with no centre). As with revolution, you have to risk lifting the lid. The world must be allowed to fall apart in order – perhaps – for it to recover itself. First horrified, appalled, almost broken by the vote for the war, Luxemburg then realised that in order to move further, ‘all of this will still have to disintegrate and come apart more.’ She was, of course, writing at the same time as Freud. Out of the unconscious, Luxemburg lifts something I would call an ethics of personal and political life.

Luxemburg’s disagreement with Lenin can also be seen in these terms. As Nettl puts it in his biography, ‘Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, who groped for new and deeper causes hitherto unknown for a moral and political cataclysm on a unique scale, the mere understanding of which taxed her greater powers to the full, Lenin was merely preoccupied by the size of the problem.’ Luxemburg is offering a counter-erotics of revolution (no coincidence, surely, that for recent feminist psychoanalytic thought, female sexuality is boundless).

Jusqu’à outrance – beyond the limit. There is one more crossing to make. The unconscious knows no national boundaries. Far from being a petty-bourgeois or Eurocentric concept, Freud’s universalism was at least partly his advance-guard riposte to those who would castigate psychoanalysis as a German and/or Jewish science. The question of nationalism shadowed the emergence of psychoanalysis as much as it did the revolutions of the times. It was something that Luxemburg lived to the quick. When she left Poland as a young woman of 18, already at risk of arrest for her association with underground revolutionary groups in Warsaw, she crossed the border hidden under straw in a peasant’s cart. A local Catholic priest agreed to organise her flight when he heard that this Jewish girl wishing to be baptised in order to marry her lover had to flee to avoid the violent opposition of her family. She would cross and recross national boundaries for the rest of her life. When she later moved to Germany, she arrived, according to Ettinger, ‘carrying the bundle of her Jewish family’s letters, party instructions to introduce herself as a Pole, and the marriage certificate that changed her citizenship from Russian to German.’

Where, if anywhere, did she belong? ‘Predictably,’ Ettinger writes, the Polish Socialist Party ‘pointed to Luxemburg’s Jewish origin as inevitably blinding her to the real needs and wishes of the Polish nation. The same was said in 1970, at a symposium in Warsaw commemorating the 100th anniversary of her birth.’ (In 1910, the Polish nationalist newspaper Independent Thought maintained that her physical disability was an example of the degeneration of the Jews.) Rootlessness is also an asset, however. Luxemburg came from a world, in the words of Arendt, in which ‘a universal humanity and a genuine, almost naive contempt for social and ethnic distinctions were taken for granted.’ ‘One aspect of Rosa’s internationalism,’ Nettl writes, ‘was to prefer the foreign.’ ‘I do see the strengthening of international feeling,’ she wrote to Henriette Holst in 1904, ‘to be, in and of itself, a means of fighting against bigotry and ignorance.’ The world, she said, should strive for Goethe’s ‘universalism of interests’.

This is why she had no time for the concept of national self-determination, which was so central in her dispute with Lenin (and not only with him). It was the fervent nationalism of the official Polish Socialist Party which led Luxemburg and Jogiches to split off and form the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania in 1893. ‘The nation as a uniform social-political whole,’ she observed in 1908, ‘simply does not exist.’ She would have no truck with the Jewish Socialist movement, the Bund, which fought for the recognition of Jews as a national minority, and which Jogiches supported (it was one of their few political disagreements). She could not see the Jews as a special case. ‘What do you want with this particular suffering of the Jews?’ Luxemburg wrote to Mathilde Wurm in 1917 in one of her most controversial letters, not included in this collection, ‘The poor victims on the rubber plantations in Putumayo, the Negroes in Africa with whose bodies the Europeans play a game of catch are just as near to me … I have no special corner of my heart reserved for the ghetto; I am at home wherever in the world there are clouds, birds and human tears.’

To say that Luxemburg was impatient with her Jewishness would be an understatement. She refused to read the Dreyfus affair as a Jewish matter, seeing it in terms of the struggle of socialism against militarism and clericalism. And yet that is not the whole story. Her letters are peppered with Yiddish, although more than once she uses the word ‘kike’. For Arendt, it is paradoxically her cosmopolitanism that shows how deeply identified she was with her Jewishness (a majority of the anti-nationalist breakaway Polish party were Jews). If she was at least partly in flight from it, it also returned, unbidden, to her. In the ‘Junius Pamphlet’ she compares socialists opposing the war to ‘the Jews whom Moses led through the desert’ (she is paraphrasing Marx). She also has moments of startling prescience, writing to Sophie Liebknecht in the midst of the war that, although the time for pogroms in Russia was over, in Germany they might be about to begin. The ‘Junius Pamphlet’ ends with her reciting the murderous refrains of the war – ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ – which ring out as the soldiers and workers of France, Germany, Italy and Belgium grapple ‘in each other’s death-bringing arms’. For Luxemburg, nationalism was violence. The war taught her how exciting, virulent, mind-numbing, patriotism could be. In Arendt’s eyes, it is this inclusive, borderless vision that makes Luxemburg a true European, passionately engaged till the end of her life ‘in the destinies’ – note the plural – ‘of the world’. It meant, among other things, that she could see through the rhetoric of war. It is a ‘distorted form of bourgeois hypocrisy’, she wrote in the ‘Junius Pamphlet’, ‘that leads each nation to recognise infamy only when it appears in the uniform of the other.’

If freedom is the freedom to think ‘otherwise’, then the question is: to which others are you willing to accord the right to be free (instead of imputing infamy to them as a prelude to killing)? Luxemburg’s universalism is the flipside of her openness to the other, however far it takes her. One day in 1917, walking through the prison courtyard in Breslau, she noticed a military supply wagon driven by water buffaloes instead of horses. Wild beasts brought from Romania, they were ‘accustomed to their freedom’ and had to be ‘beaten terribly before they grasped the concept that they had lost the war’. Pushed beyond endurance, they mostly perished (there were said to be at least a hundred of them in Breslau alone). As she watched a soldier flailing the buffaloes, one bleeding animal drew her attention: ‘I stood before it, and the beast looked at me; tears were running down my face – they were his tears.’ Luxemburg didn’t wail and moan from the sidelines but catapulted herself into the place of the beast – two years later she would be clubbed, shot and thrown into the river. But she never loses her sense of irony. The soldier struts the yard, smiling and whistling a popular tune to himself: ‘And the entire marvellous panorama of the war passed before my eyes.’
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