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International Socialist Review, January-February 1969


George Saunders

Introduction to Rosa Luxemburg’s
Life of Korolenko


From International Socialist Review, Vol.30 No.1, January-February 1969, pp.7-10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Here is a half-forgotten article on a secondary figure in turn-of-the-century Russian literature. To be sure, its author is the eminent personality Rosa Luxemburg. But why should it merit republication and reading today?

There are at least four reasons why this work by the martyred European Marxist has much to teach us in these times when bourgeois scholars are largely content with unhistorical and one-dimensional literary criticism and when Soviet criticism continues to be disfigured by the discredited and stultifying demands of “socialist realism.”

  1. This is a classic of Marxist cultural criticism.
  2. It offers an informative review of the history and social role of Russian literature in the nineteenth century, and of its contrasts with the rest of European literature.
  3. By way of example, it stands as a condemnation of the dogmatic precepts and practices of the Stalinist school of literary criticism.
  4. It provides a vital model of how the Marxist method can be skillfully and flexibly applied so that justice is done both to the sociological and the artistic qualities of literary productions.

Rosa Luxemburg wrote the article as a preface to her translation, from Russian into German, of Vladimir Korolenko’s autobiographical novel Istoriia Moego Sovremennika (A History of My Contemporary). She undertook this work during her imprisonment for socialist opposition to the imperialist war from 1915 to 1918. The preface was written July 1918 in Breslau Prison, from which she was released the following November after the German Revolution. It is one of the last products of her pen (she was assassinated in January 1919) and the ripest expression of her talents in the field of cultural criticism.

The present version is reprinted from the winter 1943 issue of the now defunct New Essays: A Quarterly Devoted to the Study of Modern Society, with minor editorial corrections.

Rosa Luxemburg rarely wrote on literary subjects. When she had the opportunity, why did she choose to deal with a lesser light of Russian literature rather than one of its towering geniuses? She sought to get at what was essential rather than exceptional in that great national body of literature.

In a letter to her publisher written from prison she explained:

“Your idea that I should write a book about Tolstoy doesn’t appeal to me at all. For whom? Why? Everyone can read Tolstoy’s books, and if they don’t get a strong breath of life from them, then they won’t get it from any commentary.”

It was only at her publisher’s insistence, in fact, that she wrote the present article.

Much of her commentary touches on non-literary questions. She has many a cutting remark aimed at the conservative officialdom of the German Social Democracy. Her remarks on modern “civilization’s” penchant for making scapegoats of minority peoples, too, has international relevance today. Passages of interest on other topics are written in her characteristic tone of uncompromising revolutionary morality that caused Lenin to speak of her as “an eagle,” despite certain minor political disagreements he had with her.

Luxemburg’s basic proposition concerning Russian literature under czarism – that its unique quality flowed from its spirit of opposition to the regime – is a point worth considering in evaluating any literature today, and first of all, Soviet literature, even though regimes of an opposite class nature are involved.

What does Luxemburg mean by “opposition to the regime”? She refers to the attitude of nonacceptance of the status quo, of constant questioning and challenging of fundamental assumptions. This organic spirit of opposition flowed from the extreme tensions of social life in old Russia. The title of a famous and popular poem by N.A. Nekrasov expressed this literature’s nearly universal dissatisfaction with the regime: Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia?

The rebellious mood of the best literature under czarism, which refused to accept “things as they are,” became a force in Russian life undermining the ideological and moral foundations of absolutism. “It created in that huge prison, the material poverty of czarism, its own realm of spiritual freedom” and “by educating generation after generation” became a “real fatherland for the best of men, such as Korolenko.” With very much the same words, one could describe the role of the best in Soviet literature today as it challenges the basic assumptions of the bureaucratic regime.

Luxemburg’s view of the political function of art also sheds light on the contemporary Soviet literary scene.

Authentic Marxism, as opposed to its Stalinist caricature, never called upon art to serve narrow political ends. The harm that a narrow utilitarian approach can do was illustrated by a recent significant event in Soviet life.

A congress of Soviet writers was held in May 1967 to celebrate the accomplishments of half a century since the October Revolution of 1917. It was only the fourth such congress in over 30 years and its timing underlined the importance current officialdom attaches to literature’s function in Soviet society.

Ironically, the most significant development at that “jubilee” congress was the demand raised for an end to censorship in a courageous open letter by novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This occurrence dramatized the crisis at the heart of Soviet literature. Much of Soviet economic, social, and cultural life is fettered by the requirements of a privileged bureaucracy that has taken over arbitrary direction of the proletarian state. While preserving the nationalized property and, in its own inefficient way, developing and defending the planned economy, this heavy-handed bureaucracy restricts the creative forces of the revolution.

Just as Soviet workers are denied an independent voice in major economic and political decisions, the creative artists are utilized to “fulfill plans” handed down from above. Their orders are, in general, to glorify the ruling layer and popularize its policies of the moment. In short, literature and the arts are called upon to perform narrowly utilitarian political functions, and censorship tends to exclude any work not conforming to that role.

Luxemburg’s view is a far cry from this bureaucratic approach, which is masked under the tide “socialist realism.” Likewise, in the early nineteen-twenties Lenin and Trotsky argued against the infantile and dogmatic advocates of the essentially utilitarian and undialectical notion of “proletarian culture.”

While Luxemburg singles out “opposition to the regime” as the “chief characteristic” of the old Russian literature, she does not mean by that that its sole concern was to take sides in the political struggles of the day. She refers to something much deeper and broader.

“Nothing of course could be more erroneous than to picture Russian literature as a tendentious art in a crude sense, nor to think of all Russian poets as revolutionists, or at least as progressives. Patterns such as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘progressive’ in themselves mean very little in art.”

If we bring this up to date for Soviet literature, we might say,

“Nothing is more erroneous than to require that literature be tendentious in a crude sense or that all writers be revolutionists or progressives; such patterns produce little in the way of art.”

Luxemburg’s discussion of Dostoyevsky clarifies the point: “With the true artist, the social formula that he recommends is a matter of secondary importance: the source of his art, its animating spirit, is decisive.” Although Dostoyevsky promoted outspokenly reactionary ideas, his novels about the distressing dilemmas of human existence have a liberating effect. “His thoughts and emotions are not governed by a desire to hold on to the status quo.” He is agonized by and revolts against the existing social labyrinth; he has an implicit vision that something better is possible. The animating spirit of Dostoyevsky’s art, which enabled it to reach his contemporaries, continues to affect us as powerfully, while the wrong solutions for social problems he recommended remain incidental and do not destroy the worth of his work as a novelist.

Under Stalin, both Dostoyevsky’s works and any friendly commentary on them such as Luxemburg’s were virtually banned. They violated the needs of bureaucratic utilitarianism.

Today, Luxemburg’s comments on Dostoyevsky could be applied very aptly to the case of the imprisoned Soviet author Sinyavsky. Many have noticed certain reactionary, especially religious and anti-Marxist, tendencies in his writings. But his animating spirit is one of rebellion, of critical thought, of nonacceptance of dogma, of searching for something new and better. The suppressed and semi-suppressed works of an entire layer of present-day Soviet writers like Sinyavsky and Solzhenitsyn have created a new “realm of spiritual freedom” in defiance of the censorship and all-pervading conformism. This body of unorthodox literature is again helping to form a new generation of revolutionists who face the task of bringing about full socialist democracy within the workers’ state.

Life of Korolenko, by Rosa Luxemburg

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