The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg

If you're a socialist, you need to know about Rosa Luxemburg. Either way, you must respect her courage. Born in 1871 into a well-off Polish merchant family in Russian-occupied territory, she became a thorn in the side of Lenin and Stalin long before they destroyed the dream. She wrote and published a critique of Marxist economics, was an impressively emancipated intellectual, and wrote letters from prison, for which she is most admired. Based in Berlin, she was repeatedly incarcerated by the Prussian authorities, the last and longest stint occurring from June 1916 to November 1918. Co-leader with Karl Liebknecht of the proto-communist Spartacist League, which fomented revolution in Germany in the chaos following the First World War, she died with him in a double contract killing carried out by right-wing radicals in January 1919.

From the moment her body was fished out of the Landwehr Canal in Berlin, her political history invited praise and rejection. The Spartacist uprising was a fiasco. Interest in her alternative vision of a workers' state sparked by revolution flickered in Weimar Germany, but then Hitler outlawed communism of any stripe. In Soviet Russia, whose founding father Lenin she castigated for using terror, she became persona non grata when, in 1931, Stalin labelled her as the source of the idea of permanent revolution (Trotsky only borrowed it).

From then on, orthodox communist Europe wouldn't touch her, except very belatedly. Her independence from Moscow, her non-association with violence and her fortunate detachment by history from all the party horrors that followed the Bolshevik Revolution made her an important figurehead for the European new left in the 1960s. That was also the case with the British new left, but she remained relatively isolated from it, whereas in postwar Germany, as social democracy thrived after 1969, she became a central figure. In 1974, the Social Democratic Party put her head on a postage stamp.

An ongoing project to publish her collected works and letters in English has been masterminded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which, since it was established in 1990, has allowed once-excluded East Germans to catch up with her achievements. Rosa's fellow Pole Leszek Kolakowski, the eminent historian and philosophical analyst of communism who died less than two years ago, thought her theoretical writing lacked coherence and her activist position bore no fruit. In fact, the fruit is in the optimism of the rather literary letters, which were not in Kolakowski's remit.

Here is a woman determined to hold up under difficult circumstances. If her experience of prison was mild - much of her last sentence was spent under quasi house arrest - it was the need not to lose her ideological faith that mattered, and with it her faith in the goodness of life. These she pursued despite ill-health that left her with a permanent limp. Her letters from prison, long ago published in a book of that name, have carried her name forward since she died. They exude her likeable personality and a love of nature, glimpsed in the prison garden or through the window of her cell, inspired by German Romantic poetry.

The complete letters, which draw on archives opened after the collapse of communism, do not, to my mind, add much to this picture. Indeed, they demand a good deal of patience from the reader, who has to wait 300 pages for the late phase to begin. But they do include her correspondence with her successive lovers Leo Jogishes and Kostya Zetkin, and undoubtedly, with their 783 footnotes, they will be required reading for Luxemburg devotees.

Kolakowski's subtle philosophical judgement was that the warmth and spontaneity of her character prevented Luxemburg from seeing how doctrinaire she was. The historical materialism she inherited from Marx counts against her today. She writes in March 1918:

World history nowadays certainly reads like a bad book, a sensationalist novel in which glaring effects and bloody deeds pile up with gross exaggeration and in which one sees no real people but just wooden puppets in action. Unfortunately one cannot simply throw this bad book away, one has to grit one's teeth and go through it. Nevertheless . . . not for one moment do I have any doubts about the ongoing dialectic of history.

That is Rosa to a tee: the writing generous, visionary and rich in metaphor, but the conclusion essentially wrong. She believed that the working class, and later the international proletariat, would eventually wake up to their task, whereupon revolution would be spontaneous. Human nature might fall short of goodness in the interim, but history was moving towards a time when people would behave better. I see her as a late-Enlightenment figure, culturally conservative, politically progressive, theoretically now a dinosaur. But her legacy has been absorbed in so far as we in Britain, and in Germany rather more, live today with a state-supported social conscience.

The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg
Edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis and Annelies Laschitza
Verso, 512pp, £25

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "Motherland: a Philosophical History of Russia" (Atlantic Books, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world