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In one of her earliest interventions in the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), participating in the notorious theoretical “Revisionist Dispute,” in which Eduard Bernstein infamously stated that “the movement is everything, the goal nothing,” the 27 year-old Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919) clearly enunciated her Marxism: “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle.”

In the 1840s Karl Marx wrote that social revolution would involve "carrying out the thoughts of the past," in which "humanity begins no new work but consciously completes the old work". The role of revolutionary thought for Marx, in other words, involved drawing attention to how past revolutionary tasks were failing to be worked through in present political practice; of understanding the reasons why theory and practice had changed and, in turn, how this understanding could be advanced towards the (present) completion of the (old) revolution.

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little—the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS LATER, what does the crisis and split in Marxism, and the political collapse of the major parties of the 2nd International in 1914, mean for us today? The Spartacists, for example, are constantly in search of the "August 4" moment, the moment of betrayal of the proletariat's struggle for socialism by various tendencies in the history of Marxism. The Spartacists went so far as to confess their own "August 4th" when they failed to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there. So, what happened, from a Marxist perspective, on August 4, 1914, when the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) members of the Reichstag voted to finance the Prussian Empire's war budget?
On November 5, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation on the Politics of Work at the School of Art Institute of Chicago between Bill Barclay of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Chicago Political Economy Group, Lenny Brody of the Justice Party and the Network for Revolutionary Change, and Leon Fink, a professor of labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The panel was moderated by Ed Remus.

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 48 | July–August 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

If the Bolshevik Revolution is—as some people have called it—the most significant political event of the 20th century, then Lenin must for good or ill be considered the century’s most significant political leader. Not only in the scholarly circles of the former Soviet Union, but even among many non-Communist scholars, he has been regarded as both the greatest revolutionary leader and revolutionary statesman in history, as well as the greatest revolutionary thinker since Marx.

— Encyclopedia Britannica

2011—year of revolution?[1]

Time magazine nominated “the protester,” from the Arab Spring to the #Occupy movement, as “Person of the Year” for 2011.[2] In addressing the culture of the #Occupy movement, Time listed some key books to be read, in a sidebar article, “How to stock a protest library.”[3] Included were A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, The Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci, Multitude by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Žižek.


 Cover of Time magazine vol. 175 no. 28 December 26, 2011–January 2, 2012, design by Shepard Fairey.

Time’s lead article by Kurt Andersen compared the Arab Spring and #Occupy movement to the beginnings of the Great French Revolution in 1789, invoking the poem “The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement” by William Wordsworth. Under the title “The Beginning of History,” Andersen wrote that,

Aftermaths are never as splendid as uprisings. Solidarity has a short half-life. Democracy is messy and hard, and votes may not go your way. Freedom doesn't appear all at once…. No one knows how the revolutions will play out: A bumpy road to stable democracy, as in America two centuries ago? Radicals' taking over, as in France just after the bliss and very heaven? Or quick counterrevolution, as in France 60 years later [in 1848]? (75)

The imagination of revolution in 2011 was, it appears, 1789 without consequences: According to Wordsworth, it was “bliss… in that dawn to be alive” and “to be young was very heaven.” In this respect, there was an attempt to exorcise the memory of revolution in the 20th century—specifically, the haunting memory of Lenin.


1789 and 1917

There were once two revolutions considered definitive of the modern period, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Why did Diego Rivera paint Lenin in his mural “Man at the Crossroads” (1933) in Rockefeller Center, as depicted in the film Cradle Will Rock (1999), about the Popular Front against War and Fascism of the 1930s? “Why not Thomas Jefferson?,” asked John Cusack, playing Nelson Rockefeller, ingenuously. “Ridiculous!,” Ruben Blades, playing Rivera, responded with defiance, “Lenin stays!” [video clip]


 Detail of Diego Rivera, “Man at the Crossroads” (1933), mural at Rockefeller Center, New York City, photographed by Lucienne Bloch before it was destroyed on Nelson Rockefeller’s orders in 1934.

Still, Jefferson, in his letter of January 3, 1793 to U.S. Ambassador to France William Short, wrote,

The tone of your letters had for some time given me pain, on account of the extreme warmth with which they censured the proceedings of the Jacobins of France…. In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands, the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.[4]

The image of 18th century Jacobins and 20th century Bolsheviks haunts any revolutionary politics, up to today. Lenin characterized himself as a “revolutionary social democrat,” a “Jacobin who wholly identifies himself with the organization of the proletariat… conscious of its class interests.”[5] What did it mean to identify as a “Jacobin” in Lenin’s turn-of-the-20th century socialist workers’ movement? Was it to be merely the most intransigent, ruthless revolutionary, for whom “the ends justify the means,” like Robespierre?

But the question of “Jacobinism” in subsequent history, after the 18th century, involves the transformation of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century. To stand in the tradition of Jacobinism in the 19th century meant, for Lenin, to identify with the workers’ movement for socialism. Furthermore, for Lenin, it meant to be a Marxist.



There is another date besides 1789 and 1917 that needs to be considered: 1848. This was the time of the “Spring of the Nations” in Europe. But these revolutions failed. This was the moment of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, published in anticipation of the revolution, just days before its outbreak. So, the question is not so much, How was Lenin a “Jacobin”?, but, rather, How was Lenin a “Marxist”? This is because 1848, the defining moment of Marxism, tends to drop out of the historical imagination of revolution today,[6] whereas for Marxism in Lenin’s time 1848 was the lodestar.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her speech to the founding congress of the German Communist Party (Spartacus League), “On the Spartacus programme” (1918), offered a remarkable argument about the complex, recursive historical dialectic of progression and regression issuing from 1848. Here, Luxemburg stated that,

Great historical movements have been the determining causes of today’s deliberations. The time has arrived when the entire socialist programme of the proletariat has to be established upon a new foundation. We are faced with a position similar to that which was faced by Marx and Engels when they wrote the Communist Manifesto seventy years ago…. With a few trifling variations, [the formulations of the Manifesto]… are the tasks that confront us today. It is by such measures that we shall have to realize socialism. Between the day when the above programme [of the Manifesto] was formulated, and the present hour, there have intervened seventy years of capitalist development, and the historical evolutionary process has brought us back to the standpoint [of Marx and Engels in the Manifesto]…. The further evolution of capital has… resulted in this, that… it is our immediate objective to fulfill what Marx and Engels thought they would have to fulfill in the year 1848. But between that point of development, that beginning in the year 1848, and our own views and our immediate task, there lies the whole evolution, not only of capitalism, but in addition that of the socialist labor movement.[7]

This is because, as Luxemburg had put it in her 1900 pamphlet Reform or Revolution, the original contradiction of capital, the chaos of production versus its progressive socialization, had become compounded by a new “contradiction,” the growth in organization and consciousness of the workers’ movement itself, which in Luxemburg's view did not ameliorate but exacerbated the social and political crisis and need for revolution in capital.

By contrast, however, see Luxemburg’s former mentor Karl Kautsky’s criticism of Lenin and Luxemburg, for their predilection for what Kautsky called “primitive Marxism.” Kautsky wrote that, “All theoreticians of communism delight in drawing on primitive Marxism, on the early works, which Marx and Engels wrote before they turned thirty, up until the revolution of 1848 and its aftermath of 1849 and 1850.”[8]


Marxism and “Leninism”

In 2011, it seems, Time magazine, among others, could only regard revolution in terms of 1789. This is quite unlike the period of most of the 20th century prior to 1989—the centenary of the French Revolution also marked the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union—in which 1789 could be recalled only in terms of 1917. A historical link was drawn between Bolshevism and the Jacobins. In the collapse of 20th century Communism, not only the demon of 1917 but also 1789 seemed exorcized.

Did 1917 and 1789 share only disappointing results, the terror and totalitarianism, and an ultimately conservative, oppressive outcome, in Napoleon Bonaparte’s Empire and Stalin’s Soviet Union? 1917 seems to have complicated and deepened the problems of 1789, underscoring Hegel’s caveats about the terror of revolution. It would appear that Napoleon stands in the same relation to Robespierre as Stalin stands to Lenin. But the problems of 1917 need to be further specified, by reference to 1848 and, hence, to Marxism, as a post-1848 historical phenomenon.[9] The question concerning Lenin is the question of Marxism.[10]

This is because there would be no discussing Marxism today without the role of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. The relevance of Marxism is inevitably tied to Lenin. Marxism continues to be relevant either because of or despite Lenin.[11] But what is the significance of Lenin as a historical figure from the point of view of Marxism?

For Marx, history presented new tasks in 1848, different from those confronting earlier forms of revolutionary politics, such as Jacobinism. Marx thus distinguished “the revolution of the 19th century” from that of the 18th.[12] But where the 18th century seemed to have succeeded, the 19th century appeared to have failed: history repeated itself, according to Marx, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”[13] Trying to escape this debacle, Marxism expressed and sought to specify the tasks of revolution in the 19th century. The question of Lenin’s relevance is how well (or poorly) Lenin, as a 20th century revolutionary, expressed the tasks inherited from 19th century Marxism. How was Lenin, as a Marxist, adequately (or inadequately) conscious of the tasks of history?

The recent (December 2011) passing of Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) provides an occasion for considering the fate of Marxism in the late 20th century.[14] Hitchens’s formative experience as a Marxist was in a tendency of Trotskyism, the International Socialists, who, in the 1960s and early 1970s period of the New Left, characterized themselves, as Hitchens once put it, as “Luxemburgist.” This was intended to contrast with “Leninism,” which had been, during the Cold War, at least associated, if not simply equated, with Stalinism. The New Left, as anti-Stalinist, in large measure considered itself to be either anti-Leninist, or, more generously, post-Leninist, going beyond Lenin. The New Left sought to leave Lenin behind—at least at first. Within a few short years of the crisis of 1968, however, the International Socialists, along with many others on the Left, embraced “Leninism.””[15] What did this mean?


The New Left and the 20th century

Prior to the crisis of the New Left in 1968, “Leninism” meant something very specific. Leninism was “anti-imperialist,” and hence anti-colonialist, or, even, supportive of Third World nationalism, in its outlook for revolutionary politics. The relevance of Leninism, especially for the metropolitan countries—as opposed to the peripheral, post-colonial regions of the world—seemed severely limited, at best.

In the mid-20th century, it appeared that Marxism was only relevant as “Leninism,” a revolutionary ideology of the “underdeveloped” world. In this respect, the metropolitan New Left of the core capitalist countries considered itself to be not merely post-Leninist but post-Marxist—or, more accurately, post-Marxist because it was post-Leninist.

After the crisis of 1968, however, the New Left transitioned from being largely anti-Leninist to becoming “Leninist.” This was when the significance of Maoism, through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, transformed from seeming to be relevant only to peasant guerilla-based revolutionism and “new democracy” in the post-colonial periphery, to becoming a modern form of Marxism with potential radical purchase in the core capitalist countries. The turn from the 1960s to the 1970s involved a neo-Marxism and neo-Leninism. The ostensibly Marxist organizations that exist today are mostly characterized by their formation and development during this renaissance of “Leninism” in the 1970s. Even the anti-Leninists of the period bear the marks of this phenomenon, for instance, anarchism.

The New Left leading up to 1968 was an important moment of not merely confrontation but also cross-fertilization between anarchism and Marxism. This was the content of supposed “post-Marxism”: see, for example, the ex-Marxist, anarchist Murray Bookchin, who protested against the potential return of Leninism in his famous 1969 pamphlet, Listen, Marxist! In this, there was recalled an earlier moment of anarchist and Marxist rapprochement—in the Russian Revolution, beginning as early as 1905, but developing more deeply in 1917 and the founding of the Communist International in its wake. There were splits and regroupments in this period not only among Social Democrats and Communists but also among Marxists and anarchists. It also meant the new adherence to Marxism by many who, prior to World War I and the Russian Revolution, considered themselves “post-Marxist,” such as Georg Lukács.

The reconsideration of and return to “Marxism/Leninism” in the latter phase of the New Left in the 1970s, circa and after the crisis of 1968, thus recapitulated an earlier moment of reconfiguration of the Left. The newfound “Leninism” meant the New Left “getting serious” about politics. The figure of Lenin is thus involved in not only the division between “reformist” Social Democrats and “revolutionary” Communists in the crisis of World War I and the Russian and other revolutions (such as in Germany, Hungary, and Italy) that followed, or the division between liberalism and socialism in the mid-20th century context of the Cold War, but also between anarchists and Marxists, both in the era of the Russian Revolution and, later, in the New Left. It is in this sense that Lenin is a world-historical figure in the history of the Left.[16] “Leninism” meant a turn to “revolutionary” politics and the contest for power—or so, at least, it seemed.

But did Lenin and “Leninism” represent a progressive development for Marxism, either in 1917 or after 1968? For anarchists, social democrats and liberals, the answer is “No.” For them, Lenin represented a degeneration of Marxism into Jacobinism, terror, and totalitarian dictatorship, or, short of that, into an authoritarian political impulse, a lowering of horizons—Napoleon, after all, was a Jacobin! If anything, Lenin revealed the truth of Marxism as, at least potentially, an authoritarian and totalitarian ideology, as the anarchists and others had warned already in the 19th century.

For avowed “Leninists,” however, the answer to the question of Lenin as progress is “Yes”: Lenin went beyond Marx. Either in terms of anti-imperialist and/or anti-colonialist politics of the Left, or simply by virtue of successfully implementing Marxism as revolutionary politics “in practice,” Lenin is regarded as having successfully brought Marxism into the 20th century.

But perhaps what ought to be considered is what Lenin himself thought of his contribution, in terms of either the progression or regression of Marxism, and how to understand this in light of the prior history leading into the 20th century.


Lenin as a Marxist

Lenin’s 1917 pamphlet, The State and Revolution, did not aspire to originality, but was, rather, an attempted synthesis of Engels and Marx’s various writings that they themselves never made: specifically, of the Communist Manifesto, The Civil War in France (on the Paris Commune), and Critique of the Gotha Programme. Moreover, Lenin was writing against subsequent Marxists’ treatments of the issue of the state, especially Kautsky’s. Why did Lenin take the time during the crisis, not only of the collapse of the Tsarist Russian Empire but of the First World War, to write on this topic? The fact of the Russian Revolution is not the only explanation. World War I was a far more dramatic crisis than the Revolutions of 1848 had been, and a far greater crisis than the Franco-Prussian War that had ushered in the Paris Commune. Socialism clearly seemed more necessary in Lenin’s time. But was it more possible? Prior to World War I, Kautsky would have regarded socialism as more possible, but after World War I, Kautsky regarded it as less so, and with less necessity of priority. Rather, “democracy” seemed to Kautsky more necessary than, and a precondition for the possibility of socialism.

For Lenin, the crisis of bourgeois society had matured. It had grown, but had it advanced? For Lenin, the preconditions of socialism had also been eroded and not merely further developed since Marx’s time. Indeed Kautsky, Lenin’s great Marxist adversary in 1917, regarded WWI as a setback and not as an opportunity to struggle for socialism. Lenin’s opponents considered him fanatical. The attempt to turn the World War into a civil war—socialist revolution—seemed dogmatic zealotry. For Kautsky, Lenin’s revolutionism seemed part of the barbarism of the War rather than an answer to it.

Marx made a wry remark, in his writing on the Paris Commune, that the only possibility of preserving the gains of bourgeois society was through the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx savaged the liberal politician who put down the Commune, Adolphe Thiers. However, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx regarded his followers as having regressed behind and fallen below the threshold of the bourgeois liberals of the time. Marx castigated his ostensible followers for being less “practically internationalist” than the cosmopolitan, free-trade liberals were, and for being more positive about the state than the liberals.

Lenin marshaled Marx’s rancor, bringing it home in the present, against Kautsky. World War I may have made socialism apparently less possible, but it also made it more necessary. This is the dialectical conception of “socialism or barbarism” that Lenin shared with Rosa Luxemburg, and what made them common opponents of Kautsky. Luxemburg and Lenin regarded themselves as “orthodox,” faithful to the revolutionary spirit of Marx and Engels, whereas Kautsky was a traitor—“renegade.” Kautsky opposed democracy to socialism but betrayed them both.


The relevance of Lenin today: political and social revolution

All of this seems very far removed from the concerns of the present. Today, we struggle not with the problem of achieving socialism, but rather have returned to the apparently more basic issue of democracy. This is seen in recent events, from the financial crisis to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy, to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little. The need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself. Political revolution seems necessary—again.

Lenin was a figure of the struggle for socialism—a man of a very different era.[17] But his self-conception as a “Jacobin” raises the issue of regarding Lenin as a radical democrat.[18] Lenin’s identification for this was “revolutionary social democrat”—someone who would uphold the need for revolution to achieve democracy with adequate social content. In this respect, what Lenin aspired to might remain our goal as well. The question that remains for us is the relation between democracy and capitalism. Capitalism is a source of severe discontents—an undoubted problem of our world—but seems intractable. It is no longer the case, as it was in the Cold War period, that capitalism is accepted as a necessary evil, to preserve the autonomy of civil society against the potentially “totalitarian” state. Rather, in our time, we accept capitalism in the much more degraded sense of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous expression, “There is no alternative!” But the recent crisis of neoliberalism means that even this ideology, predominant for a generation, has seemingly worn thin. Social revolution seems necessary—again.

But there is an unmistakable shying away from such tasks on the Left today. Political party, never mind revolution, seems undesirable in the present. For political parties are defined by their ability and willingness to take power.[19] Today, the people—the demos—seem resigned to their political powerlessness. Indeed, forming a political party aiming at radical democracy, let alone socialism—a “Jacobin” party—would itself be a revolutionary act. Perhaps this is precisely the reason why it is avoided. The image of Lenin haunting us reminds that we could do otherwise.

It is Lenin who offers the memory, however distant, of the relation between political and social revolution, the relation between the need for democracy—the “rule of the people”—and the task of socialism. This is the reason that Lenin is either forgotten entirely—in an unconscious psychological blind-spot[20]—or is ritualistically invoked only to be demonized. Nevertheless, the questions raised by Lenin remain.

The irrelevance of Lenin is his relevance. |P

[1]. On December 17, 2011, I gave a presentation on “The relevance of Lenin today” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, broadcasting it live on the Internet. This essay is an abbreviated, edited, and somewhat further elaborated version, especially in light of subsequent events. Video and audio recordings of my original presentation can be found online at <>.

[2]. Kurt Andersen, “The Protester,” Time vol. 175 no. 28 (December 26, 2011 - January 2, 2012), available online at <,28804,2101745_2102132,00.html>.

[3]. Time vol. 175 no. 28 print edition p. 74.

[4]. Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence and other writings (Verso Revolutions Series), ed. Michael Hardt (London: Verso, 2007), 46–47. Also available online at <>.

[5]. Lenin, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904). Available online at <>.

[6]. See my “Egypt, or history’s invidious comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848,” Platypus Review 33 (March 2011), available online at </2011/03/01/egypt-or-history%E2%80%99s-invidious-comparisons-1979-1789-and-1848/>; and “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’,” Platypus Review 29 (November 2010), available online at </2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/>.

[7]. Available online at <>.

[8]. This is in Kautsky’s critique of Karl Korsch’s rumination on Luxemburg and Lenin in “Marxism and philosophy” (1923), “A destroyer of vulgar-Marxism” (1924), trans. Ben Lewis, Platypus Review 43 (February 2012), available online at </2012/01/30/destroyer-of-vulgar-marxism/>.

[9]. See my “1873–1973: The century of Marxism: The death of Marxism and the emergence of neo-liberalism and neo-anarchism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at </2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.

[10]. See Tamas Krausz, “Lenin’s legacy today,” Platypus Review 39 (September 2011), available online at </2011/08/31/lenins-legacy-today/>.

[11]. See my “Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 36 (June 2011), available online at </2011/06/01/lenin%E2%80%99s-liberalism/>; and “Lenin’s politics: A rejoinder to David Adam on Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 40 (October 2011), available online at </2011/09/25/lenins-politics/>.

[12]. See Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), available online at <>.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. See Spencer Leonard, “Going it alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left,” Platypus Review 11 (March 2009), available online at </2009/03/15/going-it-alone-christopher-hitchens-and-the-death-of-the-left/>.

[15]. See Tony Cliff, Lenin (4 vols., 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979; vols. 1–2 available online at <>); however, see also the critique of Cliff by the Spartacist League, Lenin and the Vanguard Party (1978), available online at <>.

[16]. See my “The decline of the Left in the 20th century: Toward a theory of historical regression: 1917,” Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available online at </2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/>

[17]. See my “1873–1973: The century of Marxism,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at </2012/06/07/1873-1973-the-century-of-marxism/>.

[18]. See Ben Lewis and Tom Riley, “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy,” Platypus Review 47 (June 2012), available online at </2012/06/07/lenin-and-the-marxist-left-after-occupy/>.

[19]. See J.P. Nettl, “The German Social Democratic Party 1890–1914 as a political model,” Past & Present 30 (April 1965), 65–95.

[20]. But Lenin is more than the symptom that, for instance, Slavoj Žižek takes him to be. See “The Occupy movement, a renascent Left, and Marxism today,” Platypus Review 42 (December 2011–January 2012), available online at </2011/12/01/occupy-movement-interview-with-slavoj-zizek/>.

Spencer A. Leonard and Watson Ladd

Platypus Review 46 | May 2012


Last winter, on their radio show Radical Minds on WHPK-FM Chicago, Spencer A. Leonard and Watson Ladd interviewed Ben Lewis, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and co-author and translator, together with Lars T. Lih, of Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (2011). The interview originally was broadcast on December 6, 2011. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.


Spencer Leonard: Please give a brief overview of Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle.


 Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (2011)

Ben Lewis: The book makes available in English a remarkable moment in the history of the European socialist movement—the debate at the October 1920 Halle Congress of the German Independent Social Democrats (USPD). The USPD had then around 700,000 members. It was bitterly divided over the new Soviet government, the Communist International, and the nature of the German revolution and the tasks it then faced.The split that resulted at this congress, as part of the drive to form parties affiliated to the Third International, created the new, United Communist Party (VKPD). It was a pivotal moment.

When I first came across the material, it struck me how apposite some of the discussions and debates were to mass revolutionary unity in today’s world – seeking to overcome crippling divisions and fragmentation through uncompromising political struggle. My collaborator in this project Lars Lih and I have contextualized and translated the speeches of the Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev, who spoke for around four hours, and his Menshevik opponent Julius Martov. This Congress provides an almost unparalleled insight into the self-understanding both of the Bolsheviks and the “left” Mensheviks, as well as their supporters in the German workers’ movement. The main purpose of the book, then, is to make available a debate that has been largely overlooked or forgotten. Grasping the shades and nuances of opinion at the congress, as well as the strengths and limitations of the strategic outlines advanced on both sides, is intended as a modest contribution to the sort of debates that we on the left urgently need today.

SL: What were some of the circumstances that led to the altered landscape of the German Left in the aftermath of World War I, and in particular from 1917-1921? How had the outbreak of war itself precipitated a crisis in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and, indeed, international socialism? In the introduction to the book you write, “The war and the passing of political power into the hands of the military command can be partly understood as the ruling class’s challenge to the worker’s movement. The tragedy is that the SPD was unable to rise to that challenge” (11). How did the SPD’s 1914 vote to support the Kaiser’s war ramify through the war years? How and to what extent did the working class come to recognize the consequences of that vote, of that ongoing support, and of the leadership for responsible for them? How did it lead to the crack-up of some of the most important party leaders in Germany?

BL:  In spite of its strategic disorientation and fractious nature, the German workers’ movement was enormously powerful, and its importance can be traced back to the successes of SPD in the period between the 1880s and 1914. His criticisms of its programme and its lack of republicanism notwithstanding, Marx’s friend and political legatee, Friedrich Engels, could barely contain his delight at the organization’s seemingly inexorable rise. In contrast to the “parties”on today’s far Left, this party had genuine mass influence and roots. It was not so much a political party as it was another way of life devoted to the political, cultural, and social development and empowerment of the working class. It ran women’s groups, cycling clubs, party universities and schools, churned out hundreds of newspapers, weekly theoretical journals, “special interest” magazines discussing cycling, the role of socialist academics, and even gymnastics! By 1912 the SPD had become the biggest party in Germany, with 110 Reichstag seats and 28 percent of the popular vote.

But as the party grew, so too did the gulf between its revolutionary theory and the daily practice of putting out newspapers, organizing in trade unions, and winning elections. The goal of socialism was increasingly relegated to Sunday speeches, party congresses, annual festivals, and educational events. Many party trade union leaders and functionaries, increasingly cut off from the control of the party membership, saw no further than higher wages and better conditions. Reichstag deputies aimed for minor reforms and parliamentary deals. In other words, the labor bureaucracy was gaining ground, and it found theoretical expression in the writings of the revisionist Eduard Bernstein. His writings of the late 1890s challenged the self-understanding of Marxism, as it derived from Marx and Engels, who in their lifetimes had thought him their star pupil.

Seen in that light, we can begin to understand the enormous shock felt by those who, while aware of the dangers of revisionism, had placed great hope in this movement when, on August 4, 1914, the SPD voted for war credits. Reading his copy of the Times, Lenin threw it on the floor and refused to believe the news. He could not fathom that a party of such promise had thus capitulated to the Kaiser state, though this is effectively what happened.


L: Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg; R: Paul Levi

However, it is worth noting as well that, right from the outset, many went along with this on the assumption that it was just some kind of aberration. The idea was that the party had temporarily lost its way. Karl Liebknecht, for example, who is held up quite rightly as a hero of internationalism, voted with the leadership on that fateful day. He voted for the war credits with the view that the party could be won over again to a principled opposition to imperialist war, in opposition, that is, to the interests of one’s own national state. After all, he thought, precisely such an opposition had been codified in many resolutions of the Second International. But the direct consequence of the Burgfrieden [Civil Peace] that the SPD had concluded with the military high command was an enormous clampdown on opposition to the war inside the SPD itself. The resulting political repression took different forms, ranging from a clampdown on party democracy to the SPD daily, Vorwärts, printing declarations from the German High Command threatening to shut down the publication if it broached the sensitive issue of class struggle. Indeed, Vorwärts was censored on several occasions for making the mildest of criticisms about bread distribution and other things during the war.

After the 1914 crisis, opposition emerged slowly. The party leadership and the state clamped down on the radical internationalist wing that upheld the resolutions and politics of the International. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were those most obviously involved in that activity. Yet they and their supporters were marginal. The most significant movement of opposition came from those parliamentary deputies who, like Liebknecht, had expressed doubts in private, but had at the time of the August 4th voted to put the unity of the party first. They gradually consolidated themselves into a vociferous and well known opposition, exploiting their position in parliament to speak out against the territorial annexations as the war dragged on. They exposed the horrific reality of the war as it became more and more fully manifest. This activity gave rise eventually to the USPD, which crystallized around the leadership of people like Hugo Haase. Interestingly, this new grouping accused the SPD of having abandoned its 1891 Erfurt programme. But the opposition went beyond the parliamentary delegation and the politics of its leading members to include figures such as Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, and Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Right from the start, people moved to distance themselves from the official SPD position, which had effectively become one of open collusion with the Kaiser state. Overcoming this huge shock and defeat for the workers’ movement internationally, and rebuilding that movement anew, became for them the order of the day.

SL: So one faction of the SPD supported the war outright while the rest staked out different positions over the course of the war years? Give us a sense of the timeline and the trajectory of the far Left, and of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, in particular.

BL: The birth of the USPD was not the decision to split. It was rather a decision by the party leadership to expel 33 parliamentary deputies who, in 1916, voted against further war credits. After being thus expelled from parliament, they were kicked out of the party in early 1917. The sharp increase in opposition to the war began in Germany in 1917-1918, as, of course, the war effort faltered unmistakably.

The founding congress of the USPD took place against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Hugo Haase referred to it at that time as the “light from the east.” The whole of this process, from 1917 through to Halle in October of 1920, must be seen as deriving from the impulse given by the Russian Revolution. The great events in Russia and the transformation of the Eastern front hammered home and exacerbated contradictions already latent within the German workers’ movement.

SL: Originally, the war had been sold to the German workers as a war against Russian barbarism, correct?

BL: Exactly! There is a quote from Kautsky, in which he says, “nowhere is the cause of socialism so advanced as in the land of the illiterates,” meaning Russia. When people in Germany began to recognize the truth of this, made manifest in the Russian Revolution, it had enormous ramifications. There was a burgeoning opposition to the war and, of course, at the same time conditions in Germany were deteriorating rapidly. Increasingly, the popularity of Soviets and the idea that we need to form worker’s councils grew. More and more, advanced workers wanted to “do what the Russians did.” That led to further strains on the USPD. People like Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein had joined only with the greatest of reluctance, expecting the project to fail because of the involvement of Spartacus Group, the “ultra Leftists” Luxemburg and Liebknecht. They went along with it to secure peace, with the idea that they would deal with the ultra Left later.

The most principled opposition, the Spartacus Group, was also the most marginal. Their struggle was a principled attempt to turn the imperialist war into civil war, i.e., to convert the war into an opportunity for the working class to seize power. In the run up to the fall of the Kaiser and the defeat of Germany, such questions had been posed. It was no longer just a question of solidarity with Russia, but of what to do given the collapse of the state. Given the confusion that still prevails in some quarters on this, it is worth once again stressing that the Spartacist approach was rooted in official policy of the Second International. For example, following an amendment by Luxemburg and Lenin, the 1907 Stuttgart International Congress had pledged to “utilize the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.”

SL: The SPD under the pre-war theoretical leadership of Karl Kautsky upheld the unity of working class forces. Their watchword was one class, one party. As you have stressed, in the pre-war years this party was quite impressive in its press, its instructional and recreational institutions, its electoral capacity, and its organizational strength generally. Yet, after the war we see the SPD splintering in multiple directions. And from the Communist perspective the purpose of the Halle conference was to affect the split of the USPD. So, let’s address the question of unity and splitting. What were some of the problems with unity going into the war? How did the SPD turn out to be something very different from what some had imagined it to be? How did a belated—or premature, depending on how you look at it—splinter lead to the isolation of the Spartacists and the defeat of the 1919 uprising, events that form the immediate background to the Halle Congress?

BL: The Halle Congress is about splitting, but it is equally about unity. It revolves around the rapprochement of hundreds of thousands of advanced German workers into a single organization. Still, the question is pertinent. At the time they did have to confront the issue of what was the SPD and how did it operate?

There are a number of reasons why the Spartacus opposition was marginal. Some of these relate to what I said about what the nature of the opposition to the war. Writing in Die Kommunistische Internationale, Karl Radek made the point that many workers were reluctant to oppose the war by way mass demonstrations and strikes because of the way that the state, given the politics of “civil peace,” dealt with the most radical demonstrations, i.e., those who disrupted peace at home were conscripted. Opposing the war was risky. The USPD bore the scars of this, which is why it took mainly a parliamentary form.

Before the war, Luxemburg, of course, was known as a radical, but she lacked a unique voice and public faction in the party.The Kautsky center, by contrast, had a lot of the press and commanded significant, visible support. This becomes particularly salient after the 1910 breach between Kautsky and Luxemburg. Kautsky’s tendency—with all its problems, particularly on the question of the state and the refusal to openly struggle against the trade union bureaucracy—became dominant.

The relative marginalization of the Spartacus Group also led it into some dubious tactical and strategic judgements. For example, the decision to split from the USPD to form the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in December 1918 was premised on the idea that if they stayed in the same organization with those who had just taken part in the provisional government that had cracked down on popular demonstrations, this would constitute “disloyalty” to the revolution. So, the Spartacus Group and KPD were isolated in 1918-19. The USPD, by contrast, had by 1920 grown into a real force. At one point it attracted 200,000 new members within a single three month period. And this growth was at the SPD’s expense. Because the KPD wanted to split, they were isolated. So, on the question of splitting and unity, it was a tactical consideration in terms of timing and on what basis. As the insightful German Communist leader, Paul Levi, made clear at the Second Congress of the Third International, there was a sense in which the KPD was both too late and also too early. Certainly, they had had little impact on the ranks of the USPD and the worker’s movement more generally. Only with Halle in 1920 is there a real mass split towards Communist party-ism.


A cartoon commenting on the Halle Congress, "Whether you look to the right or left, you see an Independent cleft."

SL: The post-war German government was formed by the rightists of the SPD, the representatives of the trade union bureaucracy. Eventually they helped to put down the revolution. Explain how the crisis of the Left in this period eventually resulted in this situation whereby one fraction of the working class engaged in open civil war against another.

BL: It is difficult to get our heads around exactly what happened. Certainly, the SPD came into power and crushed the revolution both at home and abroad. And, given the organization they come from, this is difficult to fathom. The problem comes (and this is clearly evident in 1914) when the majority of a Marxist political organization commits both programmatically and strategically to the preservation of the imperial state and the existing constitution.

To understand the dynamics that led to this, we have to remember that, at least initially, the SPD-USPD provisional government was able to bring about real reforms in the post-Kaiser state. They had brought peace, of a sort. There was an eight-hour day, suffrage was extended to women and anyone over 20, etc. There was a “republic,” although certainly not the kind of republic envisioned by Marxist republicanism, even by the Kautsky of 1905 in his 1905 classic Republic and Social Democracy in France![1] These reforms may appear insignificant to us, but they were extremely important in the context of post-war dissolution and decay. So it was not simply that the new regime were murderous bastards, though, of course, they were that. But they were murderous bastards who brought about real reforms and counterpose their gradualist “sensible” approach to that of “Bolshevik putschism” and the risk of German living standards declining to those of the young Soviet state.

The 1918 provisional government essentially reflected the SPD’s understanding of socialism. This “socialism” was envisioned as arriving within the framework of the old constitutional order. It was based on the old pillars of the state bureaucracy and the military high command. So, for example, even though they formed a new “socialist” government, none of the commissars actually held ministerial posts. Most of the old ministries continued under the old appointees. One of the more ridiculous examples of this is when, the SPD sent the once great Marxist theoretician, Karl Kautsky, to watch over the affairs of the German Foreign Ministry, which was led by hated reactionary Wilhelm Solf. At the time, the Ministry was not only positioning troops to hold back the revolution at home, but also keeping troops in Eastern Europe where they did deals with the entente to hold back the Russian Revolution. Kautsky was, of course, meant to supervise (and, presumably, reverse) this. But, instead, Solf packed him off to the Ministry’s archives to investigate the causes of World War I! This, of course, was worthwhile in its way, and Kautsky wrote interesting things on the subject. But it exemplifies how the core pillars of the state apparatus remained intact. They were not, as Marx and Engels spoke of, smashed, but were allowed to continue.

The SPD understood itself as a caretaker government, gaining some concessions for the working class until such time as “order” was restored. In this period, a number of deals were signed between leading German industrialists and the trade unions. Politically, the SPD held the view that socialism could be introduced through the existing constitution. This is quite clearly nonsense, but anyone who challenged this view was subject to repression, as with the attack of General Lequis on the People’s Naval Division in Berlin in December of 1918. (Lequis was infamous for his implementation of Germany imperialist policy in South-West Africa, not least the suppression of the Herero uprising of 1904.)

Watson Ladd: The debate over the possibility of introducing socialism through the existing order goes back to the revisionist dispute in which Kautsky and Luxemburg together sided against Bernstein. How, in the decade or so after the revisionist debate, did the shift occur whereby many in the SPD, who had considered themselves followers of the “revolutionary” Kautsky, came to adopt the very position they once opposed?

BL: It is difficult to locate. Because so many have dismissed the writings of Kautsky not only after his renegacy, but also from the earlier period when, as Lenin remarked, Kautsky “wrote as a Marxist”; our understanding of this pivotal figure remains inadequate. We have to trace the development of Kautsky’s understanding of working class rule. If you go back to the polemics he and Luxemburg led against the revisionists, they both followed Marx and Engels in arguing that you could not just take over the existing state structure, but that these had to be smashed and subordinated to the will of the masses, and that a state must be made along the lines of the Paris Commune.[2] I have mentioned Kautsky’s 1905 Republic and Social Democracy in France, which is excellent. Still, it mainly focuses on the negative critique of French millenarianism and the illusions it bred in the bourgeois Third Republic.

My CPGB comrade Mike Macnair has convincingly argued that Kautsky’s conception of working class rule had always been problematic, even when his texts were the gold standard of international Social Democracy.[3] Macnair argues that Kautsky held the existence of a state bureaucracy and the bourgeois “rule of law” to be necessary in any modern state, whether bourgeois or proletarian. But the main problem with Kautsky stems from his commitment to the unity at all costs of the party with the trade union bureaucracy.[4]

This said, there are discontinuities between Kautsky the orthodox revolutionary Marxist and Kautsky the renegade. It is thus interesting to compare a text like Republic and Social Democracy in France with his later texts like Guidelines for a Socialist Action Program, which he penned in January 1919, just days before Luxemburg was murdered.[5]

After 1914, Kautsky plays quite a rascally game, if you will, with many of the concepts he once defended, such as the democratic republic. He applies them dishonestly, gutting them of the revolutionary content they had in Marx, Engels, and his own earlier writings. In 1918-19 he uses the concept of the democratic republic to justify the SPD/USPD government. At this time, he is a member of the USPD, though looking for some sort of rapprochement with the SPD. This, perhaps, helps to explain his agenda, to some extent. But tracing exactly where it came from is more problematic. It’s something I have committed myself to studying for at least a couple more years. Certainly, the Kautsky of 1919 is a watery image of the Kautsky of 1904-05.

SL: The fundamental issue at Halle was affiliation to the Third International and fusion with the KPD. How did both the Bolshevik Revolution and the failed Spartacist uprising of 1918-19 bear upon the debate?

BL: In the aftermath of the Second Congress of the Third International, the USPD after the Halle Congress essentially placed itself in the tradition of mass, openly Communist parties that no longer called themselves social democratic. The party modeled itself on Russian Bolshevism and attempted to apply the lessons of the Russian Revolution to Germany. This struggle for Communist organization was a protracted one, and went far beyond the disputes at Halle. As Lenin and Paul Levi recognized, the way to form a mass organization was to unite the vanguard of the class. This meant taking seriously the existing organizations such as the trade unions in general (dominated by Social Democrats) and the USPD membership in particular.

There were splits to the left in the young KPD, composed of people who did not want anything to do with the USPD rank and file. They thought the USPD was radically compromised after the experience of the SPD/USPD government, for example. There were also splits to the right. It wasn’t just Kautsky who was looking for rapprochement with the SPD. In February 1919 Bernstein established a center for socialist unification, which lasted for about a month. He also tried for a time to hold dual membership in the SPD and USPD. When that didn’t work out, he rejoined the SPD. So, the whole period between the opening of the German Revolution and the unity created in October 1920 is marked by the discussions that informed the original splits: What is the attitude towards war and towards the entente? Should we rebuild the Second International on a reformed basis? Do we split altogether to form a Third International?

It is worth noting the (understandable) mistrust that divided the USPD and the KPD. They had a fractious history and both sides were skeptical of each other. Nonetheless, following the formation of the Third International in March 1919, there emerged a growing, increasingly influential left wing in the USPD that looked to Moscow and thus came into increasing contact with the KPD leadership. The Russian Revolution itself was the impulse for unity, as it was in many other countries.


Title page of Lenin's 'Der „Radikalismus“ die Kinderkrankheit des Kommunismus', known in English as '"Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder,' 1920.

SL: You have referred to the Second Congress of the Third international. There, of course, Lenin’s Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder was distributed to the delegates. Against the background of Lenin’s attempt to reorient the Left after the tumultuous years of 1917-19, what was the burden of Gregory Zinoviev’s intervention at Halle? What had he come to Germany to say?

BL: Halle is the first congress where the Third International’s “Twenty-One Conditions” are debated by a mass socialist organization in Europe. These were the conditions for admittance into the International. The reasoning behind them was that, unlike in the First Congress where there were only a handful of people (some who came at great cost), the Second Congress received support and interest from mass socialist parties worldwide. There were many requests for affiliation. Zinoviev was adamant that such organizations were not simply to be absorbed into Comintern as they were. This was the role of the conditions.

Of course, not engaging the USPD as a way of winning over to Comintern 800,000 workers, “badly led as they are,” would be the worst sort of posturing. “Under no circumstances … would this congress permit intellectual dishonesty, nor will it make the slightest concessions on principle,” Zinoviev remarked. Organizing in the same party with forces who wavered on the cardinal questions addressed in the Twenty-one Conditions would risk another collapse from within like in Germany or Hungary. Moreover, given the extremity of the situation, there was no time for patient political debate. Soviet Russia was suffering under blockade. Delegates at the Second Congress were following the course of the Soviet-Polish war on a map. Miklós Horthy’s troops ran wild in Hungary, massacring working class activists of all political affiliations. The Finnish counter-revolution had, with the complicity of the German SPD, butchered a substantial amount of the Finnish working class. The British government was funding anybody and everybody set on occupying Moscow and Petrograd. In such circumstances, centrist forces only paying lip service to the cause had to be broken with. Kautsky is called out. Zinoviev was saying, “You must break with these people. Given the tasks we face, we cannot be in the same organization with them. We need clarity.” The Twenty-one Conditions were not some kind of communist baptism. Zinoviev understood that it was possible to accept 5,000 conditions and still remain a Kautskyite!

Zinoviev and the Comintern represented a clear commitment to continuing the revolution across Europe. When he arrived at Halle in 1920, he was a highly respected Bolshevik leader. He was held up as a model in that sense, and rightly so. The USPD right got Julius Martov to speak for them. He was likewise extremely well known and nopolitical lightweight.

This is Zinoviev from his four hour speech:

Menshevism or reformism is an international phenomenon. You see it in Russia, Germany, France, Italy, in America, everywhere. Comrades, it was said here, “Well, would it not be better to join together in one front against the bourgeoisie?” Certainly that would be very good and desirable. Yet unfortunately that is still impossible. The situation is the following: The working class is already strong enough that, if we are tightly united and openly fight for communism, we can bring the bourgeoisie to its knees. If the workers are still slaves, then this is because we have still not stripped off the legacy of rotten ideology from our ranks. When the working class becomes intellectually emancipated, then there is no force in the world which would dare to fight against it. (119)

The point Zinoviev is making is for the broad unity of the working class, but only on the basis of a shared commitment to the working class taking power. That was the role of the Twenty-one Conditions that Zinoviev defended in Halle. He illustrates the point saying, “If you have an army of 800 people, 200 of whom are useless and lazy, it’s better to have a disciplined army of only 600.” Perhaps this is problematic in the context of today’s left, but, certainly, it made sense at the time.

SL: What came out of the Halle Congress? To what extent did Zinoviev, the Bolsheviks, and their comrades in Germany, achieve what they set out to do?

BL: The work that Zinoviev and the left USPD put in paid off. Zinoviev does express some reservation at the end of his speech. He says that a split has been achieved, that a rapprochement of hundreds of thousands of workers has been realized within a United Communist Party (VKPD), but there is still a long way to go to win the majority of the working class.

If we want to talk of ghosts that haunt the German workers’ movement, right from 1918 onwards, it is that fundamental lesson: Revolution can only be made on the basis of a conscious majority. Despite the wonderful achievement of Halle, with some 375,000-400,000 people united around the VKPD, following the “March Action” of 1921, the party was almost in ruins. The action was an application of Comintern’s new “theory of the offensive” developed by, among others, Béla Kun and Zinoviev himself. The KPD called a general strike and, following a small local uprising led by the anarchist-influenced Max Hölz, called on the whole of the German working class to arm itself in support of this uprising. They misjudged the mood of the masses and the uprising remained confined to a minority movement in a single part of Germany. When the masses failed to heed the call, the party even used artificial means to incite mass sentiment. When workers refused to strike in the Krupp works for example, unemployed workers sympathetic to the KPD were sent in to physically drive them out. Several hundred workers were killed in the ensuing repression and the KPD lost about half of its membership. Whatever good intentions and hopes lay behind the March Action, it was one of the main factors behind the marginalization of the Communists and the failure of the German working class movement more generally. Some of Zinoviev’s rhetoric at Halle about “going on the offensive” can certainly be seen as foreshadowing such actions.

There is a kind of paradox here. On the one hand, the Bolsheviks, the Russian Revolution, and the Third International brought together revolutionary forces into a single organization, instigating and cementing its unity. But given the overriding needs of the Russian Resolution to expand in the face of its enormous problems, an unnecessary attempt to seize power was pushed through. It was not challenged by the German leadership and this led to disaster. Zinoviev must bear some responsibility for this. The positive and enduring lesson to be drawn from Halle, what must be separated from the experience of March 1921 (because they are distinct), is the coming into being of a mass communist force as part of the revolutionary wave unleashed by the October Revolution.

SL: You make some provocative comments in the book concerning the current state of the study of history as well as the current state of intellectualism, more broadly. Why is it important for us on the Left to be concerned with our history? Why can’t we simply let the dead bury the dead? Why can’t we just set aside these endless and inevitably controversial discussions about the past? Why is the Left driven back to a reconsideration of its past over and over again? What role does research play?

BL: One thing Bertell Ollman said about the book, is that while the subject may seem esoteric, the arguments on both sides have proved relevant to every debate on the Left since. Of course, many of the problems discussed at Halle had already been discussed before, under different conditions.

We do have a very rich tradition, not just in terms of the workers’ movement, but in history more generally, which we can draw upon, learn from, and, hopefully, build on. It is a cliché, but nevertheless true that those who do not study the errors of history are condemned to repeat them. That is the first thing to be said.

Marxism’s strength is that it is profoundly historical. It does not allow itself to be exhausted by the existing parameters of society. But, for Marxism, the content and dynamics of history are both susceptible to human knowledge and subject to human practice. As such Marxism attempts to locate our position within human history more generally. So hindsight is extremely important. But—that said—history, for all its treasures and riches, is also open to manifold interpretation. This is a real problem. I think some of the ways in which the Left understands its own history at the moment, given the defeats it has been through, is quite problematic.

To this day Marxist historical research is tainted by Stalinism and what I call the “Cold Warrior consensus.” There was a certain overlap between historians funded by the Kremlin and those funded by the Hoover Institute. This is seen rather clearly in the recent Lenin debate.[6] It is no exaggeration to say that my friend and co-author Lars T.Lih is breaking up the terms of this consensus.

One of the problems we have is that so many documents, records, and articles remain either untranslated, or have been subjected to Soviet doctoring. So while we can all read Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, and Stalin in English, we often cannot read who they are arguing against and why. We do not get the whole picture.

The result, fully in line with the “cult of Lenin,” is one that sees Bolshevism as the product of “big men” who concoct and deliver the revolutionary message from on high. But this obscures Bolshevism as a mass political phenomenon that trained inspiring leaders because it has an inspiring project and a robust, healthy democratic culture. Read, for example, the recent Historical Materialism anthology on permanent revolution to see just what made those like Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc., “great”—the high level of debate and polemic that unfolded in the International.[7]

That is the importance of publishing Martov alongside Zinoviev. We want to let the arguments speak for themselves. For me, simply saying “I’m with Lenin against Kautsky” or “I’m with Luxemburg against whomever,” is insufficient historically. It does not allow us to appropriate the riches of history. In many ways it is a trap.

SL: In some ways, it is history that divides the Left more than anything else. The landscape of current groups and sectarian organizations is the product of an endlessly contentious history. At one point in your introduction, you say that you hope the book will “stimulate discussion in reviews and left meetings, on internet forums, etc.” (32). Can you talk about the kinds of discussions that need to take place on the Left today? Can you reflect on working through the history of the Left today and the relationship of research to that problem?

BL: There are now several reviews of the book available to read,[8] and several more are planned. That is excellent, and at some point I hope to write a response to some of the points that have been raised.

On history, I agree that it is divisive. History should not unite the Left. This is where we reach the limits of history. Unfortunately, a lot of Left groups today are not based primarily on any agreement about today, but on certain historical positions, such as the nature of the Soviet Union, the continuing relevance of Trotsky’s Transitional Program, etc. These to me are dead ends in terms of political unity. Nonetheless, history can inform and enrich our understanding of the world today. That is what its role must be.

Political unity must be based on political ideas and a political program for the here and now. That does not mean that we forget and ignore or even downplay real historical divisions and different interpretations of key events. We live in history, and to move forward we have to look back.

The Left is divided because it is based on a very narrow view of all the bad things of the Third International, like the banning of factions, as opposed to the good lessons to be drawn, like the need for open discussion, the need for democracy, the need for ideas to unite around. At Halle, Zinoviev spoke for four and a half hours, Rudolf Hilferding for three, and Martov for an least an hour. The unity achieved was not just thrown together. It was the product of rigorous discussion and polemics around the fundamentals of Marxist political strategy. |P

Transcribed by Pac Pobric

[1]. I have translated the first three parts of this seven part series. The whole series will soon be published in a book. The three parts can be accessed online at: <>; <> and <>

[2]. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “1872 Preface to the Communist Manifesto,” available at <>

[3]. Mike Macnair, “Representation, not Referendums,” available online at: <>

[4]. For an excellent discussion of the tension between the unions and the SPD, see Daniel F. Gaido, “Archive Marxism and the Union Bureaucracy,” Historical Materialism 16.3: 115-136. It is also worth noting that the understanding of the democratic republic as the “form of the dictatorship of the proletariat” did not actually find expression in the party’s Erfurt programme. This was the main point raised in Friedrich Engels’s 1891 “Critique of the Erfurt Programme.”

[5]. My translation and introduction to this text can be read at <> and <> respectively.

[6]. A collection of links in the recent debate on Phan Binh’s critique of Tony Cliff on Lenin, can be found here: <>. An expanded version of a talk delivered by Ben Lewis on this debate is available at: <>. A transcript of the complete discussion of this debate in which Lewis participated at the 2012 Platypus International Convention is forthcoming in the Platypus Review.

[7]. Daniel F.Gaido and Richard B. Day, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

[8]. E.Haberkern, Solidarity, <>; Socialist Standard  <>; and Francis King, Twentieth Century Communism, <>.

Greg Gabrellas

Platypus Review 38 | August 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At the Marxist Literary Group’s Institute on Culture and Society 2011, held on June 20–24, 2011 at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago, Platypus members Chris Cutrone, Greg Gabrellas, and Ian Morrison organized a panel on "The Marxism of Second International Radicalism: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky." The original description of the event reads: "The legacy of revolution 1917-19 in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy is concentrated above all in the historical figures Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, leaders of the Left in the Second International (1889-1914) — what they called 'revolutionary social democracy' — in the period preceding the crisis of war, revolution, counterrevolution and civil war in World War I and its aftermath. In 1920, Georg Lukács summed up this experience as follows: '[T]he crisis [of capital] remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. . . . Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society. As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. . . . inhumanity and reification.' Nonetheless, these Marxists understood their politics as being 'on the basis of capitalism' itself (Lenin). How were the 2nd Intl. radicals, importantly, critics, and not merely advocates, of their own political movement? What is the legacy of these figures today, after the 20th century — as Walter Benjamin said in his 1940 'Theses on the Philosophy of History,' 'against the grain' of their time, reaching beyond it? How did Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky contribute to the potential advancement and transformation of Marxism, in and through the crisis of Marxism in the early 20th century? How can we return to these figures productively, today, to learn the lessons of their history?" An audio recording of the event can be found at the above link. What follows is an edited version of Greg Gabrellas's opening remarks.

DESPITE THE CONTRARY ASSERTIONS of conservatives, Marxism as a body of thought is widely known and disseminated among activists, academics, and political intellectuals. They take Marxism to mean a theory of what is wrong in the world, and how it can be practically changed—essentially a normative political philosophy with a radical disposition. Marxism takes its seat next to feminism, queer theory and critical race studies as a philosophy of liberation. But this view is insufficient, and would have been unthinkable to the radicals of the Second International. Moreover, Marxism today is not only practically ineffectual. It stands in the way of future developments within Marxism, and with it the possibility of socialism.

Photograph from the Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz by Herbert Hoffmann of Rosa Luxemburg in Stuttgart in 1907.

This judgment might seem surprising, perhaps even shocking, to the activists, academics and intellectuals who consider themselves Marxists or at least sympathizers. There exist Marxist political organizations, journals, reading groups and conferences. Activist projects continue to arise, countering imperialist war and punitive sanctions against the poor and working class, and Marxists play a definitive role in all forms of contemporary activism. But the historical optimism implicit in activism for its own sake, manifest by the slogan “the struggle continues,” condemns itself to impotence. Marxism is different from radical political theory only insofar as it is an active recognition of possibility amidst social disintegration and calamity. Marxists have forgotten that self-critical politics is the form in which progressive developments within Marxist theory take place.

At first this inward orientation might seem misplaced. But just as modern painting recovers and transforms the aesthetic conventions of previous generations, so the radicals of the Second International understood socialism to be exclusively possible through the self-criticism and advancement of the actually-existing-history of the movement. Understandably, the splotches on a Jackson Pollock painting, or the overlapping figures of a de Kooning, might confuse first-time visitors to any museum of modern art. With its historical link severed, Marxism too risks becoming unintelligible amid the chatter of contemporary theory.

For example, in The Crisis of German Social Democracy, written under the pseudonym Junius while imprisoned for her opposition to world war in 1914, Rosa Luxemburg wrote,

Unsparing self-criticism is not merely an essential for its existence but the working class’s supreme duty. On our ship we have the most valuable treasures of mankind, and the proletariat is their ordained guardian! And while bourgeois society, shamed and dishonored by the bloody orgy, rushes headlong toward its doom, the international proletariat must and will gather up the golden treasure that, in a moment of weakness and confusion in the chaos of the world war, it has allowed to sink to the ground.[1]

The “most valuable treasures of mankind” to which Luxemburg refers may be necessarily cryptic, but her phrase illuminates objective social sensibilities that have since vanished. Socialism was seen by the radical masses of workers and intellectuals alike as the fulfillment of humanity’s highest social and cultural achievements. Marxism was itself a historical achievement rendered possible by the organized politics of the working class. The task of Marxist theory was the criticism of socialist politics as a means of developing Marxism itself, and with it the possibility for new social freedoms. For Luxemburg, the project of political Marxism was not simply a matter of ideology or a political program that could be right or wrong. Socialism was, as she put it in the same pamphlet, “the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind.” In the wake of this movement’s crisis and ultimate collapse in the twentieth century, we must struggle to discern why and how this nearly forgotten generation of workers, intellectuals and students came closest to achieving a real utopia.

If the intervening history has rendered this historical optimism suspect, then it is to Luxemburg’s lasting credit that she passed judgment on the failure of the Left before barbarism itself had the last word. By declaring Social Democracy a “stinking corpse” in 1915, with its resignation in the face of national chauvinism and a looming world war, Luxemburg purposefully cast “the last forty-five year period [1870-1915] in the development of the modern labor movement…in doubt.”[2] Luxemburg’s readers must have found this judgment shocking, since it corresponded to the rise of mass democratic parties and trade unions—historically new institutions, but ones that seemed to many socialists to ensure their political victory. That a disciplined leader of the revolutionary movement could criticize the foundation of the modern labor movement itself illustrates the keen historical integrity of Luxemburg’s Marxism. Fortified by her theoretical will to “self-criticism, remorseless, cruel,” she politically challenged and tried to demolish the regressive political and ideological tendencies within her own movement.[3] She saw these as symptoms of the bourgeois social order in decline. Unable to contain the contradiction between the immense capacity to generate wealth and the intensifying fragmentation and attenuation of individual freedom, bourgeois society became repetitive, caught in the mythological repeat of the failure of revolution. This posed both a problem and an opportunity for the revolutionary left, which participated in mass institutions but only as a means to furthering human freedom by reconstructing society on a wholly new basis.

But the “crisis of German Social Democracy” revealed the extent to which the Left had become its own worst enemy. Rosa Luxemburg sought to crystallize this trauma, rendering it available to theoretical diagnosis and intervention. Her criticism was a necessary political attempt at achieving the historical consciousness required for the realization of socialism. For example, in her final political work she understood herself and her comrades on the Left to be returning, under changed conditions, to a moment of revolutionary potential occupied much earlier by the authors of The Communist Manifesto. She observed in 1918, at the founding congress of the German Communist Party (KPD), “the course of the historical dialectic has led us back to the point at which Marx and Engels stood in 1848 when they first unfurled the banner of international socialism. We stand where they stood, but with the advantage that seventy additional years of capitalist development lie behind us.”[4] Luxemburg argued that the Left had lived for many years in the dark shadow cast by the failure of revolution in 1848. While industrial development spurred the development of wealth-generating machines on an ever-expanding scale, the working class organized itself on an increasingly collectivist basis that threatened to compromise the emancipatory impulse behind Marx’s politics. Henceforth, “Marxist” politics was defined by its attempt to overcome the dead hand of this history.

Marxism, for Rosa Luxemburg, was not simply an insight into the ‘objective’ laws of capitalist development; rather, it was a kind of immanent knowledge, itself bound up in that very development. Her life’s work might be described as an ongoing attempt at “revolutionary cognition,” in which her politics were inextricable from her most inspired theoretical contributions.[5] In this work she was continuing the project of Marx and Engels, for whom the proletariat does not enter the historical arena preformed, but develops in a form suitable to revolutionary consciousness. According to The Communist Manifesto, the workers of the early period of bourgeois society do not recognize themselves as a class, but with the emergence of the factory system and large-scale industry, and after the labor process is thoroughly transformed by machinery, “the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes.” In other words, class struggle is not the default of bourgeois society, but its achievement.

This achievement marks the turning point in history, for although the bourgeoisie protects its own interests, it nevertheless comes into conflict with itself as a class. It finds itself in a “constant battle,” surrounded on all sides by global competition with other producers. Hence it “sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for its help, and thus, to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education.” The proletariat, in turn, gradually rises above its own divisions of a class through political agitation for social reform: “It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions of the bourgeoisie itself.”[6] This movement is complemented by the bourgeoisie’s own disintegration as a class, in which “a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole,” break away and join the proletariat, “the class that holds the future in its hands.”[7] It is this process of social disintegration and re-formation through class struggle that Marx and Engels suggested socialism would be achieved. They described it as, “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”[8]

If social disintegration continued well after the failed revolutions of 1848, for which Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, so too did the growth of class-conscious political organization that transformed the modern world. Marxist theorists sought to understand the new possibilities opened up by parliamentary Social Democracy, and hoped to push the natural tendency forward. It seemed that history was on the side of socialism. This was the context of historical optimism in which the German Social-Democratic Party was formed in 1875. Luxemburg intervened in the so-called “revisionist controversy” with her pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution? in order to clarify the real historical stakes of this confusion. Since the foundation of the Second International, political policy, which was more often than not informed by Marxian theory, came up against the immediate interests of the trade union leadership, which viewed its own immediate struggles as taking priority over the “political” decisions made by the congresses. Although the modern Social-Democratic parties were united within the Socialist International, organized constituencies within the parties—notably the parliamentary delegations and the trade union leadership—could create friction and block implementation of socialist strategy. An early instance of this was the protest of German trade union leaders against the International’s decision to call a workers’ holiday on May Day in 1890, shortly after the Haymarket massacre. This political tendency found an unlikely supporter in Eduard Bernstein, a longstanding member of German Social Democracy and one of its foremost Marxist theorists.

Bernstein argued that the very success of the social-democratic Left made Marx’s “revolutionary” predictions, and his politics, obsolete. The development of credit and cartels had stabilized capitalist crises; the trade unions had begun to increase wages; and universal democracy could gradually be brought into being by legislative reforms. Luxemburg criticized Bernstein’s one-sided approach to historical reality. By abandoning Marx’s own approach of viewing society as a whole, Bernstein preferred to view certain social phenomena, like credit, as disjecta membra, dislocated fragments. He failed to consider working-class politics integral to the reproduction of capitalist society, which logically led him to political fatalism and unwarranted historical optimism. Although some of her arguments are sharp criticisms of Bernstein’s interpretations of facts, Luxemburg’s central critiques strike at the heart of the issue: how the conditions of immediate struggle in bourgeois society point beyond themselves to a socialist future.

In her pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution?, Luxemburg took aim at the notion that immediate gains that lead to forms of “social control,” such as labor legislation, are in themselves the content of socialism. Why insist on some fantastical ideal when we can make progressive changes to improve working conditions in the here and now? But Luxemburg was not satisfied: such struggles are, she insisted, a “labor of Sisyphus”—necessary as defensive measures, but inadequate to eliminate exploitation in the social system predicated on the compulsion of wage earners to sell their labor. She struggled against the political and ideological tendency, internal to the socialist movement itself, of pushing up and defending bourgeois society, but from the perspective of the immediate interests of the working class, voiced by the trade unions. Luxemburg was not against workers’ self-organization as such. But she called on Marxists to recognize that the new forms of organization were potentially straitjackets on bourgeois society in decline and not the dawning of socialism.

Rosa Luxemburg’s role in the revisionist dispute reinforced the saliency of Marxism within the Marxist movement. In place of revolutionary consciousness, Marxist theory became increasingly absorbed by a regressive immediacy of working class politics. The result was not simply a struggle of Marxists against trade-union leaders, but a struggle within Marxism itself. Luxemburg and her allies, including Lenin in the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, took their “orthodoxy” to demand constant attention to the historical whole of humanity, not individual parts. Her work clearly underscores the political significance of theoretical matters. She herself insisted, “No coarser insult, no baser defamation, can be thrown against the workers than the remark ‘Theoretical controversies are only for intellectuals.’”[9] The betrayal of revolutionary politics, indicated by acquiescence to inter-imperial war, vindicated Luxemburg’s bitter struggle to overcome the emerging ideology which opposed the revolutionary change sought by the Left wing of the Second International.

By the time of the German Revolution in 1918, in which sailors’ mutinies resulted in the formation of Councils of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies led by reluctant Socialists who had just recently inherited state power, Luxemburg identified a distinct need to transfer the masses of workers from their membership in the German Social Democracy to the revolution. What for us appears as a philosophy of history was, for her, the development of a Marxist politics worthy of the name. She wrote, “The first illusion of the workers and soldiers who made the revolution was: the illusion of unity under the banner of so-called socialism.”[10] By raising broader theoretical problems that inevitably influenced the nature of capitalist society and the revolutionary process itself, Luxemburg was not merely an organizer—she gave conscious form to the previously latent crisis in bourgeois society, providing political leadership in the struggle to construct a new social world.


Peer into a high-powered telescope, and you can witness the auratic glow of an archaic cosmic explosion—the origins—racing away from us at light speed. A similarly spectral shockwave marks the horizon of modern political experience, and it is also cataclysmic, though it goes largely unnoticed. The trauma includes the unnecessary suffering and death wrought by the miscarried socialist revolutions of the twentieth century, the failure of which made possible the unprecedented mass slaughter in Nazi death camps—humanity’s self-immolation; it is the past that weighs heavier than ever like a nightmare on our brains. The Left in its various political manifestations is not exempt: the accumulating catastrophe is everything we say, do, and think. We can try to escape from this nightmare, and move on, we can try to discard Marxism, even ideology itself. But we cannot forget what we do not fully remember. And yet that smudge of light we see in our telescopes, nearly invisible to the naked eye, is about as hazy and irrelevant to our contemporary concerns as Marxism. How is it possible that this now discarded relic can help illuminate our present?

The Ancients once used the stars in constellation to find the proper place of humanity in the cosmos. Looking back to the moment of Luxemburg’s murder, we survey the ruins of a historical accomplishment unprecedented in the history of humanity. If we capture a glimpse of the Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg, it is antiquity to our own. Nonetheless, perhaps it is an important part of the constellation we need. Christopher Lasch once wrote that radicals after the New Left could only relate to the past through either blind rejection or complete identification with exemplary predecessors. Both tendencies are pathological. Lasch likens this to a personality disorder in psychoanalytic theory, in which a fraught relationship to one’s childhood, the lack of a Golden Age of youth, leads either to mania or depression, or perhaps both. Considering the problems confronting Marxism today, there are no easily drawn conclusions to be made, but rather ways of questioning the world that elucidate and advance historical tendencies now forgotten.

The Renaissance painters and philosophers looked to the ruins of Greek and Roman civilization to nourish their burgeoning self-consciousness and cultural achievements, heralding the dawn of a new age while rediscovering and transforming the value of the old. So we might still recognize in our times the wreckage of humanity’s highest hopes, crystallized in the failure of the Marxist project in general, and of Rosa Luxemburg’s Marxism in particular. But to do so we must see in ourselves—in every protest, every demonstration, and every factory takeover—the obstacle, insofar as it occludes historical consciousness and ensnares us in the immediacy of our present. We are not at the verge of a new beginning, but the tail end of an epoch-making project that once sought to change the world. Since the historical continuity is broken, this project can be taken up again only if we can somehow bring forgotten historical tendencies to consciousness—to render the faint memory of revolutionary socialism intelligible through self-criticism. While our own capacity to pose theoretical problems in the present is confounded, we might instead allow the past to ask questions of the present. Looking backwards is now the only way to move forwards. |P

[1]. Rosa Luxemburg, “The Crisis of German Social Democracy (The Junius Pamphlet)”, 1915, available online at <>.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Rosa Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation,” in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, eds. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 363.

[5]. J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 336.

[6]. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978), 481.

[7]. Ibid., 481.

[8]. Ibid., 482.

[9]. Rosa Luxemburg, “Social Reform or Revolution,” in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, eds. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 130.

[10]. Luxemburg, “Our Program,” 367.

Third Annual Platypus International Convention

Opening plenary

Chris Cutrone, Andrew Feenberg, Richard Westerman, and Nicholas Brown

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

The opening plenary of the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, held April 29–May 1, 2011 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was a panel discussion between Nicholas Brown of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chris Cutrone of Platypus, Andrew Feenberg of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and Richard Westerman of the University of Chicago. The panelists were asked to address the following: “Recently, the New Left Review published a translated conversation between the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer causing more than a few murmurs and gasps. In the course of their conversation, Adorno comments that he had always wanted to ‘develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin, while keeping up with culture at its most advanced.’ Adorno, it seems, was a Leninist. As surprising as this evidence might have been to some, is it not more shocking that Adorno’s politics, and the politics of Critical Theory, have remained taboo for so long? Was it really necessary to wait until Adorno and Horkheimer admitted their politics in print to understand that their primary preoccupation was with maintaining Marxism’s relation to bourgeois critical philosophy (Kant and Hegel)? This panel proposes to state the question as directly as possible and to simply ask: How did the practice and theory of Marxism, from Marx to Lenin, make possible and necessary the politics of Critical Theory?” The full audio recording of the event is available at the above link.

Opening remarks

Waiting for history: Horkheimer and Adorno’s theatre of the absurd

Andrew Feenberg

IN 2010 the New Left Review (NLR 65) translated a dialogue between Horkheimer and Adorno on “a new manifesto.”[1] This dialogue, which took place in 1956, is only understandable against the background of Marx and Lukács’s interpretation of the theory-practice relation. In this talk I will try to explain how that background blocks the production of the manifesto and reduces discussion of it to absurdity. But first, let me show how Horkheimer and Adorno set up the problem.

Their dialogue is a strange document. The pretension to update the Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels in 1848 is astonishing, particularly given the silliness of much of their talk. For example, what are we to make of the first exchanges on the misplaced love of work, which then devolve into a conversation about the anal sounds emitted by a motorcycle? The dialogue returns constantly to the question of what to say in a time when nothing can be done. The communist movement is dead, killed off by its own grotesque success in Russia and China. Western societies are better than the Marxist alternative that nevertheless symbolically represents an emancipated future. Horkheimer is convinced that the world is mad and that even Adorno’s modest hope that things might work out someday stinks of theology. Horkheimer remarks, “We probably have to start from the position of saying to ourselves that even if the party no longer exists, the fact that we are here still has a certain value.” In sum, the only evidence that something better is possible is the fact that they are sitting there talking about the possibility of something better.

Horkheimer asks, in this situation, “In whose interest do we write?” “People might say that our views are just all talk, our own perceptions. To whom shall we say these things?” He continues, “We have to actualize the loss of the party by saying, in effect, that we are just as bad [off] as before but that we are playing on the instrument the way it has to be played today.” And Adorno replies, cogently and rather comically, “There is something seductive about that idea—but what is the instrument?” Although Adorno remarks tentatively at one point that he has “the feeling that what we are doing is not without its effect,” Horkheimer is more skeptical. He says, “My instinct is to say nothing if there is nothing I can do.” And he goes on to discuss the tone and content of the manifesto in such a way as to reduce it to absurdity: “We want the preservation for the future of everything that has been achieved in America today, such as the reliability of the legal systems, the drugstores, etc. This must be made quite clear whenever we speak about such matters.” Adorno replies, “That includes getting rid of TV programmes when they are rubbish.” Contradicting himself, Horkheimer concludes the recorded discussion with the grim words, “Because we are still permitted to live, we are under an obligation to do something.”

In 1955, shortly before this exchange occurred, Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot. The speculations of Vladimir and Estragon anticipate Max and Teddie’s absurdist dialogue. Vladimir says, for instance: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed….But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”[2]

This introduction to the discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno’s text may seem unfair. Do they deserve my mockery? “Yes and no,” to quote Horkheimer. In one sense their text is already self-mocking. The lighthearted tone of many of the exchanges shows them to be well aware of the literal impossibility of carrying out their project. Horkheimer claims that the tone in which the manifesto is written must somehow overcome its futility in the present period when it can have no practical effect. Something similar takes place in the dialogue. The tone reveals what cannot be explained adequately about the contradiction between the existential situation of the speakers and their project. But they do try their best to make the contradiction explicit.

The obstacle is their conception of the relation of theory to practice. Adorno points out that Marx and Hegel reject abstract ideals and reconstruct the concept of the ideal as the next historical step. This means that theory must be tied to practice, to real historical forces. As Horkheimer later says: “Reality should be measured against criteria whose capacity for fulfillment can be demonstrated in a number of already existing, concrete developments in historical reality” (55).

But, Adorno argues, Marx and Hegel did not live in a world like ours in which the unwillingness to take the next step blocks the actual realization of utopia. Under these conditions, the temptation to utopian speculation returns, but the pressure to meet the Hegelian-Marxist historical desideratum blocks the further progress of thought. Horkheimer concludes that, “the idea of practice must shine through in everything we write” without any compromise or concession to the actual historical situation, a seemingly impossible demand. This yields what he calls “a curious waiting process,” which Adorno defines as, “in the best case…theory as a message in a bottle” (56, 58).

What is most peculiar about this exchange is the refusal of these two philosophers to derive a critical standard from philosophical reflection once history can no longer supply it. This is what Habermas would do later: admit the breakdown of the Hegelian-Marxist historical approach and establish a properly philosophical basis for critique. If no “next step” lights the way, perhaps ethics can do the job in its place. But Horkheimer and Adorno insist on the importance of situating their thought historically both in terms of their own position and the absence of a party and a movement. As Horkheimer notes, “We have to think of our own form of existence as the measure of what we think.” How can critique negate the given society since that society is the critic’s sole existential support? The critic is the highest cultural product of the society. In the absence of any realistic alternative his capacity to negate the society justifies it. He can neither escape from history into the transcendental, as Habermas would have it, nor can he rest his historical case on the progressive movement of history. No wonder the dialogue wavers between the comic and the portentous.

How did Marxism end up in such a bind? As I mentioned at the outset, I believe this question leads back to Marx and Lukács. Lukács’s important book History and Class Consciousness contained the most influential reflection on the relation of theory and practice in the Marxist tradition. He renewed the Hegelian-Marxist historical critique of abstract ideals that underlies the dilemma at the heart of the dialogue. This text was known to Horkheimer and Adorno and its impact on their own reflections is obvious.

Lukács introduces the problem of theory and practice through a critique of an early text in which Marx demands that theory “seize the masses.” But, Lukács argues, if theory seizes the masses it stands in an external relation to their own needs and intentions. It would be a mere accident if the masses accomplished theoretical goals. Rather, theory must be rooted in the needs and intentions of the masses if it is to be really and truly the theory of their movement and not an alien imposition.

Lukács takes up this theme at a more abstract level in his critique of Kantian ethics. In Lukács’s terms, the antinomy of theory and practice is an example of the more general antinomy of value and fact, “ought” and “is.” These antinomies arise from a formalistic concept of reason in terms of which theory and practice are alien to each other. This concept of reason fails to discover in the given facts of social life those potentialities and tendencies leading to a rational end. Instead, the given is conceived as fundamentally irrational, as the merely empirical, factual residue of the process of formal abstraction in which rational laws are constructed. Lukács explains, “Precisely in the pure, classical expression it received in the philosophy of Kant it remains true that the ‘ought’ presupposes an existing reality to which the category of ‘ought’ remains inapplicable in principle.”[3] This is the dilemma of bourgeois thought: political rationality presupposes as its material substratum an irrational social existence hostile to rational principles. The rational realm of citizenship, illuminated by moral obligation, stands in stark contradiction to the crude world of civil society, based on animal need and the struggle for existence.

But, if this is true of bourgeois theory, what of the theory of the proletarian movement? Is Marxism just a disguised ethical exigency opposed to the natural tendencies of the species? This is the flaw of heroic versions of communism, which oppose morality to life. Demanding sacrifice for the party, the next generation, and the “worker,” conforms precisely to the bourgeois pattern Lukács criticizes. This is not Marx. Starting from the Hegelian critique of abstract ethics, the early Marx arrived at a general concept of revolutionary theory as the “reflection” of life in thought.

There is for example a letter to Ruge in which Marx writes: “Until now the philosophers had the solution to all riddles in their desks, and the stupid outside world simply had to open its mouth so that the roasted pigeons of absolute science might fly into it.” Instead, philosophy must proceed from actual struggles in which the living contradiction of ideal and real appears. The new philosopher must “explain to the world its own acts,” showing that actual struggles contain a transcending content that can be linked to the concept of a rational social life. “We simply show it [the world] why it struggles in reality, and the consciousness of this is something which it is compelled to acquire, even if it does not want to.” “The critic,” Marx concludes, “therefore can start with any form of theoretical and practical consciousness and develop the true actuality out of the forms inherent in existing actuality as its ought-to-be and goal.” This is what Horkheimer meant by his remark that society must be measured against “concrete developments in historical reality.” As Marx writes elsewhere, “It is not enough that thought should seek to realize itself; reality must also strive toward thought.”

Marx’s later writings are ambiguous, conserving only traces of this reflexive theory of consciousness, as for example in this brief passage in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. . . . What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drives the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.[4]

This passage invites revision to say that the proletariat too confronts “problems” that are “solved” theoretically by Marxism in a way that reflects the similar practical solution to which its life circumstances drive the class. Unfortunately, the later Marx did not make such an application of this suggestive remark. Instead, he proposed the historical materialist theory of the “determination of thought by being.” This deterministic language leaves open the question of the relation of Marxist theory to proletarian class consciousness.

This is the question Lukács addressed. He needed to show that Marxism was not related in a merely accidental manner to the thought and action of proletarians, that it is not a scientific “consciousness from without,” for which the proletariat would serve as a “passive, material basis,” but that it was essentially rooted in the life of the class. His misunderstood theories of reification and class consciousness relate to the form in which the social world is given immediately to the consciousness of all members of a capitalist society. Lukács writes that “in capitalist society reality is—immediately—the same for both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.” And again: “The proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the reification of every aspect of its life.” However, the experience of reification differs depending on class situation. It is interesting that Lukács cites as evidence for this one of the few Marxian passages on alienation to which he had access. “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.”

Bourgeois and proletarians experience the “same” alienation, Marx claims, but from different vantage points. Similarly, Lukács remarks that where the capitalist perceives lengthening the work day as a matter of increasing the quantity of labor power purchased at a given price, for the worker this “quantity changes into quality.” The worker goes beyond the reified quantitative determinants immediately given in the reified form of objectivity of his labor because he cannot ignore the real qualitative degradation of life and health associated with them. Thus, “the quantitative differences in exploitation which appear to the capitalist in the form of quantitative determinants of the objects of his calculation, must appear to the worker as the decisive, qualitative categories of his whole physical, mental and moral existence.”

The proletariat sees beyond immediacy in the act of becoming (socially) self-conscious. This self-consciousness penetrates beneath the reified form of its objects to their “reality.” This more or less spontaneous critique of reification gives rise to everyday practices that can be developed into the basis of a revolutionary movement by union and party organizations.

Lukács thus claims that the workers’ response to the reification of experience under capitalism is the foundation on which Marxist dialectics arise. In a sense one could say that Marxism and the proletariat share a similar “method,” demystifying the reified appearances each in its own way—the one at the level of theory, the other at the levels of consciousness and practice. Where the theory shows the relativity of the reified appearances to deeper social structures, workers live that relativity in resisting the imposition of the reified capitalist economic forms on their own lives. Both theory and practice lead to a critique of the economic and epistemological premises of capitalism. As Marx himself writes in Capital, “So far as such criticism represents a class, it can only represent the class whose vocation in history is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes—the proletariat.”

Marx and Lukács established the methodological horizon of Marxism for the Frankfurt School. This is the background against which Horkheimer and Adorno discuss their new manifesto. They accept the critique of pure theory; but now that the proletariat no longer supports a transcending critique of society, any concession to practice drags theory back into the realm of everyday political wheeling and dealing or, worse yet, into complicity with the murder of millions by totalitarian communist regimes. As Adorno remarks, “What is the meaning of practice if there is no longer a party? In that case doesn’t practice mean either reformism or quietism?”

There appears to be no way out of the trap set by the tension between norm and history, now that the revolution has failed. To return to the “roasted pigeons of absolute science,” that is, to some sort of utopian or transcendental thinking, is now impossible. But there is no way to anticipate the “next step” of history toward a better world. Horkheimer poses the dilemma in two contradictory propositions, saying, on the one hand, “Our thoughts are no longer a function of the proletariat,” and, on the other hand, that “Theory is theory in the authentic sense only where it serves practice. Theory that wishes to be sufficient unto itself is bad theory.”

Is there no alternative within the Marxist framework? In fact there is an excluded alternative occasionally evoked in the course of the dialogue. This alternative, referred to derisively is Marcuse, who hovers like Banquo’s ghost over the conversation. Adorno comes closest to articulating this position and is pulled back by Horkheimer each time. At one point he remarks, “I cannot imagine a world intensified to the point of insanity without objective oppositional forces being unleashed” (42). This will turn out to be the thesis Marcuse hints at in One-Dimensional Man and develops in An Essay on Liberation. But Horkheimer rejects this view as overly optimistic. A bit later Adorno refuses to accept that human nature is inherently evil. “People only become Khrushchevs because they keep getting hit over the head” (44). But again Horkheimer rejects the hope of a less repressive future and even ridicules Marcuse by claiming he expects a Russian Bonaparte to save the day and make everything right.

What are we to make of this ghostly presence of a Marcusean alternative? It seems to me that these remarks already anticipate and condemn Marcuse’s openness to the return of the movement in the form of the New Left. Where Horkheimer and Adorno ultimately rejected the New Left, Marcuse took the Hegelian-Marxian- Lukácsian plunge back into history. Adorno was sympathetic to the movement at first but eventually condemned what he called its “pseudo-activism.” Marcuse was well aware that the New Left was no equivalent to Marx’s proletariat, but he tried to find in it a hint of those “objective oppositional forces” of which Adorno spoke in 1956. In this way theory might be related once again to practice without concession to existing society, although also with no certainty of success.

Marcuse’s important innovation was to recognize the prefigurative force of the New Left without identifying it as a new agent of revolution. We still live under the horizon of progressive politics established by the New Left; its issues are still ours although of course transformed in many ways by time. But the most significant impact of the New Left is on our identity as leftists. The New Left invented a non-sectarian form of progressive opposition that defines the stance of most people on the Left today.

Much to Marcuse’s surprise, on his 80th birthday, Beckett published a short poem as a tribute to him. The poem recognizes the obstinacy required by the seemingly impossible demands of the Frankfurt School’s stance toward history. Here is the poem:

pas à pas
nulle part
nul seul
ne sait comment
petits pas
nulle part

step by step
not a single one
knows how
tiny steps

Lukács’s party and social praxis

Richard Westerman

THE FOUNDATIONAL TEXTS of Critical Theory, Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness [HCC] and Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, were the products of a crisis in European Marxism. Both published in 1923, they represented a response to both failed and successful revolutions: whilst the Bolsheviks had taken control of Russia despite its relative underdevelopment, Communist governments in Hungary and Germany had rapidly been toppled due to a lack of popular support. Notably, both Lukács and Korsch had served in these governments—Lukács himself on the front lines with the Hungarian Red Army. Though memorably condemned as “Marxism of the Professors” by the nascent Soviet orthodoxy, the deeply philosophical readings of Marx that Korsch and Lukács developed were very much the product of their personal involvement in and response to practical revolutionary situations.

The fact that these books were written, as Lukács observed, as “attempts, arising out of actual work for the party, to clarify the theoretical problems of the revolutionary movement” is usually forgotten.[5] This is evident in the reception of the concept of reification. Loosely, reification describes a social pathology in which individuals understand society and social relations through fixed, unalterable laws, with the result that they feel isolated and unable to change society. It is usually—wrongly—assumed that Lukács’s solution is an updated version of German Idealism, according to which the proletariat suddenly realizes that it is the creator of this objective world, and so spontaneously reappropriates its creation to free itself. As a result, Lukács’s account of the role of the party in the final essay of HCC is read through this misinterpretation of reification, and he is accused of paving the way for a centralized state controlled by an authoritarian party. On this standard interpretation, Lukács apparently believes that because the proletariat hadn’t realized that it was the subject of history, the revolutionary party simply needed to act for them. He is seen as endorsing a Blanquist party that would deteriorate into post-revolutionary dictatorship.

Surprisingly few of Lukács’s interpreters have recognized that he actually envisages a much more democratic party. The central reason for this common misrepresentation is a failure to understand adequately what Lukács means by his central concept of reification, and the way it shapes his theory of party organization. Most interpretations of Lukács think reification is a mistake made by a thinking subject—even if the mistake is attributed to social reasons. The party would then try to correct this mistake. Reification does not, however, describe an epistemology; from the outset, it describes a type of praxis. Lukács’s party isn’t there to play the role of a wise leader to guide the proletariat—it’s there to provide a locus for genuinely dereified, and thus dereifying praxis. Rather than a Blanquist cadre of professional revolutionaries, Lukács’s party is essentially a more institutionalized version of Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike.

I am going to start by tracing the roots of the problem Lukács is trying to solve to Marx’s critique of the distinction between state and civil society in “On The Jewish Question” [OJQ], and showing how this problem clearly could not be solved by a vanguardist party. I’ll then consider Lukács’s own position: I’ll argue that his vision of the party sits somewhere between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, in that he sees the formal organization provided by the party as essential for real proletarian class consciousness. Finally, I’ll suggest a few ways in which this might provide a model for the sort of democratic activity that might provide a counterweight to existing social and political structures.

Marx’s OJQ, written in response to Bruno Bauer’s pamphlet on the question of full Jewish emancipation within the German state, radically reinterprets the meaning of social freedom. Arguing that the secularization of the state would only mean the reproduction of religious division at the level of society, Marx questioned the Hegelian division of state and civil society. Civil society, for Hegel, was the realm of particular satisfaction and immediate social unity: the individual was tied to other individuals through an economic system of needs, rationalized through social institutions built on this basic necessity. In contrast, the state was the realm of rational freedom, in which citizens were united as rational universal individuals. For Marx, this was an alienated form of freedom: first, it meant that political forms seemed to come from an impersonal universal force of reason, rather than free human action; second, it treated the categories of social existence as invariable, necessary, and open only to knowledge, not change. Marx proposed, therefore, that we bring heaven down to earth and make society itself into the realm of freedom by transforming social relations themselves. Real freedom thus means collective control over such relations.

It’s this sort of freedom that Lukács sees in party activity. But I think it should be obvious at once why a party that sought to carry out revolution on behalf of the proletariat would be unable to realize it. Such a party would reduce the working class to the role of spectators, just as unfree as before. In fact, Lukács is extremely clear in his rejection of such a top-down party, and it’s hard to see how an honest and rigorous reading could come up with any other conclusion. He states explicitly that “even in theory, the communist party does not act on behalf of the proletariat,”[6] lest it reduce the masses to “a merely observing, contemplative” attitude that leads to “the voluntaristic overestimation of the active significance of the individual (the leader) and the fatalistic underestimation of the significance of the class (the masses).”[7] And he repeatedly uses the word “reification” to caution against fixing any one organizational form and insulating it from criticism or change by the masses. Lukács could not be more clear: a top-down, proto-Stalinist party would represent a return to the lack of freedom of capitalist society.

Lukács draws heavily on Rosa Luxemburg, which was perhaps rather an unusual tactic in 1922, when the success of the Bolsheviks seemed to indicate a clear victory for Lenin’s idea of a disciplined cadre of revolutionaries. The mass strike in which she vested such hopes was supposed to bring about the spontaneous development of class consciousness by forcing all strata of the working class into organizing themselves. Luxemburg’s party plays a very secondary role, little more than a sort of secretarial role in fact, and certainly not any kind of leadership.

Nevertheless, Lukács also repeatedly praises Luxemburg for her insights. He explicitly endorses her criticisms of Western European parties who underestimated mass action, and thought only an educated party was ready to assume leadership.[8] However, he suggests that she makes the opposite mistake, and criticizes her for “underplaying of the role of the party in the revolution.”[9] As we’ve seen, he doesn’t think this role entails “leadership” in a conventional sense, so to understand what Lukács means, we need to look a little more closely at his definition of reification.

Most interpretations of Lukács take reification to be an epistemological error. The problem they think Lukács identifies is that the categories that capitalist society is construed in are too abstract and formal. As a result, they think his project is to replace such categories with more substantial ones that “accurately” reflect the qualitative underlying reality. Unfortunately, this interpretation doesn’t withstand a close reading of the text.[10] Reification—Verdinglichung, “thingification”—doesn’t refer to a problem of abstraction, of quantity opposed to a qualitative substrate—but rather to the undialectical ossification of forms as things that cannot be changed. This is clear enough in the central essay of the book, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” Here, Lukács presents an interpretation of what he calls “bourgeois” philosophy, the classical German thought of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. He identifies the epistemological preoccupation of such philosophy: it starts from the separation of subject and object; therefore, its central question is, How far can our knowledge and its forms match up with a reality that is external to consciousness? This epistemological standpoint, Lukács argues, reduces us to mere spectators of society: we think it is only possible to grasp it through predetermined forms. Lukács’s problem with this isn’t that the forms are wrong – rather, it’s the very attempt to separate subject, object, and consciousness from one another. We can see what Lukács means by “reification” in the more detail in the way he talks about the party.

In the first place, Lukács’s party essentially serves as the institutional form of proletarian class consciousness. Without a party, such consciousness would be formless and immediate; the proletariat needs to give an institutional form to its self-consciousness in order to understand itself properly. The party, therefore, is the form that the revolutionary proletariat gives itself. The leading sections of the working class organize themselves in a party. As Lukács puts it, “the organizational independence of the communist party is necessary, in order that the proletariat can see its own class consciousness, as a historical form … so that, for the whole class, its own existence as a class can be raised to the level of consciousness.”[11] Whereas a Blanquist party would be there to tell the workers what to think, the Lukácsian party embodies the proletariat in its organizational forms. Moreover, these forms aren’t just a representation of what is already there – a more or less accurate representation of an underlying substrate of labor or essence. Rather, Lukács states that the party is the proletariat’s “act of self-conscious becoming.” It’s only by taking on form for itself that the proletariat really becomes a class.

Furthermore, the close ties Lukács establishes between form and existence indicate how reification could return as a problem in the organization of the party. Though tactical concerns play some role in organization, this should not result in the imposition of certain forms in the name of exigency. Rather, what’s crucial is that forms come from the self-organization of the proletariat. “The emergence of the communist party,” as he says, “can only be the consciously-performed work of the class-conscious workers.”[12] As a result, organization is not a once-and-for-all action: Lukács is not trying to replace one set of (abstract, quantifiable, capitalist) forms with other, more “authentic,” or “qualitative” forms. To do this would be, he suggests, to risk the return of reification—which he identifies with the organizational structures of party leadership. For Lukács, it’s not so much what the party does that matters, but more the opportunities it affords proletarians to become actively involved in shaping the forms of their existence. He writes, “insofar as the communist party becomes a world of activity for every one of its members, it can overcome the contemplativity of bourgeois man.”[13]

Lukács identifies the party as the practical overcoming of reification. “Organization is the form of mediation between theory and practice.”[14] Like Luxemburg, he rejects a Blanquist party that takes control on behalf of the workers. But he goes beyond Luxemburg in his insistence on some kind of fluid institutional form for proletarian consciousness, without which it would be vague and ineffective. Dereification, therefore, is necessarily practical—it means deliberate engagement in practices that give form to one’s own existence. The party is practical consciousness, the embodiment of such forms in a way that allows for their transformation.

Although Lukács’s account rests very specifically on the conditions of the industrial working classes and the phenomenological construction of proletarian self-consciousness, I think his fundamental concept of dereified praxis can help inform progressive democratic organization more generally. Even within current social and political forms, the idea of reification can be used to critique universalist discourses of rights, starting from a fixed standpoint that makes it impossible to negotiate the boundaries of citizenship or group membership in any substantial way. More radically, though, Lukács’s party provides a model for broad-based social action. Democratization would, for Lukács, entail much more comprehensive involvement in forming our social relations than just reformation of legal and political categories. We should understand social forms through the idea of practices—that is, structured, repeatable interactions that acquire a certain significance or meaning within the totality of a culture. It is these practices that become reified. Rather than seeing them as things that we do, things that are recharged with meaning only because we continue to practice them, we wrongly treat them as fixed and immutable. Social practices can seem almost divinely sanctioned. Alternatively, we might come up with a supposedly scientific theory that explains such practices in terms of an eternal, unchangeable human nature that inevitably develops into specific social forms. We seem only able to interact in these ways.

Dereification would entail a deliberate transformation of these practices: we should, Lukács would argue, treat our practices as things we can adapt to circumstances. We cannot recreate social forms at will out of nothing—but at the same time, by recognizing that forms as practices are things we do, we can open them to steady transformation. At the suggestion of Sourayan Mookerjea, I’d like to point to the alter-globalization example, as a model. Alter-globalists welcome the growth of global interaction and cooperation that current development has generated. However, they reject neo-liberal ideas that such development can only take place in one way, determined by scientifically-knowable economic processes. Alter-globalization therefore tries to develop alternative social practices, orienting itself towards positive redefinition of social interaction, not the unthinking rejection of internationalism.

Lukács’s model of the party also indicates ways such activity needs to be carried out: it must be a grassroots movement with a deliberate orientation towards the problem of its own organization. That is, emancipatory movements shouldn’t view themselves as instrumentally-oriented towards attaining a particular end; rather, they need to devote much of their energy to themselves, and to shaping the ways in which they hold together as organizations. In doing so, they afford their members an opportunity for the very sort of dereified praxis that Lukács aspires to.

To sum up: Lukács’s understanding of the revolutionary Party aims to fulfill some of the emancipatory goals of Marx’s OJQ. Rather than a centralized cadre of professional vanguardists, Lukács’s party is shaped by Luxemburgian aspirations of grassroots self-organization. By interpreting the party as the conscious form of social relations, Lukács indicates the importance of some objective presentation of our practices, if we are to understand our social existence properly. But he also suggests a new definition of praxis. The very act of self-organization, or of consciously modifying the practices that make up our social and cultural totality is, for Lukács, the essence of revolutionary praxis. If we accept certain ways of interacting as eternal and unchangeable, we succumb to reification. Only by constantly struggling against the ossification of our practices into unchangeable forms can we hope to be emancipated.

Adorno’s “Leninism”

Chris Cutrone

THE POLITICAL ORIGINS of Frankfurt School Critical Theory have remained opaque, for several reasons, not least the taciturn character of the major writings of its figures. The motivation for such reticence on the part of these theorists is itself what requires explanation: why they engaged in self-censorship and the encryption of their ideas, and consigned themselves to writing “messages in a bottle” without immediate or definite addressee. As Horkheimer put it, the danger was in speaking like an “oracle;” he asked simply, “To whom shall we say these things?”[15] It was not simply due to American exile in the Nazi era or post-World War II Cold War exigency. Some of their ideas were expressed explicitly enough. Rather, the collapse of the Marxist Left in which the Critical Theorists’ thought had been formed, in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia and the German Revolution and civil war of 1918–19, deeply affected their perspective on political possibilities in their historical moment. The question is, in what way was this Marxism?

A series of conversations between Horkheimer and Adorno from 1956, at the height of the Cold War, provide insight into their thinking and how they understood their situation in the trajectory of Marxism in the 20th century. Selections from the transcript were recently published in the New Left Review (2010), under the title “Towards a New Manifesto?” The German publication of the complete transcript, in Horkheimer’s collected works, is under the title “Discussion about Theory and Praxis,” and their discussion was indeed in consideration of rewriting the Communist Manifesto in light of intervening history. Within a few years of this, Adorno began but abandoned work on a critique of the German Social-Democratic Party’s Godesberg Programme, which officially renounced Marxism in 1959, on the model of Marx’s celebrated critique of the Gotha Programme that had founded the SPD in 1875. So, especially Adorno, but also Horkheimer, had been deeply concerned with the question of continuing the project of Marxism well after World War II. In the series of conversations between them, Adorno expressed his interest in rewriting the Communist Manifesto along what he called “strictly Leninist” lines, to which Horkheimer did not object, but only pointed out that such a document, calling for what he called the “re-establishment of a socialist party,” “could not appear in Russia, while in the United States and Germany it would be worthless.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer felt it was necessary to show “why one can be a communist and yet despise the Russians.” As Horkheimer put it, simply, “Theory is, as it were, one of humanity’s tools” (57). Thus, they tasked themselves to try to continue Marxism, if only as “theory.”

Now, it is precisely the supposed turning away from political practice and retreat into theory that many commentators have characterized as the Frankfurters’ abandonment of Marxism. For instance, Martin Jay, in The Dialectical Imagination, or Phil Slater, in his book offering a “Marxist interpretation” of the Frankfurt School, characterized matters in such terms: Marxism could not be supposed to exist as mere theory, but had to be tied to practice. But this was not a problem new to the Frankfurt Institute in exile, that is, after being forced to abandon their work in collaboration with the Soviet Marx-Engels Institute, for example, which was as much due to Stalinism as Nazism. Rather, it pointed back to what Karl Korsch, a foundational figure for the Institute, wrote in 1923: that the crisis of Marxism, that is, the problems that had already manifested in the era of the Second International in the late 19th century (the so-called “Revisionist Dispute”), and developed and culminated in its collapse and division in World War I and the revolutions that followed, meant that the “umbilical cord” between theory and practice had been already “broken.” Marxism stood in need of a transformation, in both theory and practice, but this transformation could only happen as a function of not only practice but also theory. They suffered the same fate. For Korsch in 1923, as well as for Georg Lukács in this same period, in writings seminal for the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were exemplary of the attempt to rearticulate Marxist theory and practice. Lenin in particular, as Lukács characterized him, the “theoretician of practice,” provided a key, indeed the crucial figure, in political action and theoretical self-understanding, of the problem Marxism faced at that historical moment. As Adorno remarks, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin” (59). So, the question becomes, “faithful” in what way?

Several statements in two writings by Horkheimer and Adorno’s colleague, Herbert Marcuse, his “33 Theses” from 1947, and his book Soviet Marxism from 1958, can help shed light on the orientation of the members of the Frankfurt School towards the prior politics of “communism,” specifically of Lenin. Additionally, several letters from Adorno to Horkheimer and Benjamin in the late 1930s explicate Adorno’s positive attitude towards Lenin. Finally, writings from Adorno’s last year, 1969, the “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” and “Resignation,” restated and further specified the content of his “Leninism” in light of his critique of the 1960s New Left. The challenge is to recognize the content of such “Leninism” that might otherwise appear obscure or idiosyncratic, but actually points back to the politics of the early 20th century that was formative of Adorno and his cohort. Then, the question becomes, what was the significance of such a perspective in the later period of Adorno’s life? How did such “Leninism” retain purchase under changed conditions, such that Adorno could bring it to bear, critically, up to the end of his life? Furthermore, what could Adorno’s perspective on “Leninism” reveal about Lenin himself? Why and how did Adorno remain a Marxist, and how did Lenin figure in this?

One clear explanation for Adorno’s “Leninism” was the importance of consciousness in Adorno’s estimation of potential for emancipatory social transformation. For instance, in a letter to Horkheimer critical of Erich Fromm’s more humane approach to Freudian psychoanalysis, Adorno wrote that Fromm demonstrated “a mixture of social democracy and anarchism . . . [and] a severe lack of . . . dialectics . . . [in] the concept of authority, without which, after all, neither Lenin’s [vanguard] nor dictatorship can be conceived of. I would strongly advise him to read Lenin.” Adorno thought that Fromm thus threatened to deploy something of what he called the “trick used by bourgeois individualists against Marx,” and wrote to Horkheimer that he considered this to be a “real threat to the line . . . which [our] journal takes.”[16]

But the political role of an intellectual, theoretically informed “vanguard” is liable to the common criticism of Leninism’s tendency towards an oppressive domination over rather than critical facilitation of social emancipation. A more complicated apprehension of the role of consciousness in the historical transformation of society can be found in Adorno’s correspondence on Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936. There, Adorno commended Benjamin’s work for providing an account of the relationship of intellectuals to workers along the lines of Lenin. As Adorno put it in his letter to Benjamin,

The proletariat . . . is itself a product of bourgeois society. . . . [T]he actual consciousness of actual workers . . . [has] absolutely no advantage over the bourgeois except . . . interest in the revolution, but otherwise bear[s] all the marks of mutilation of the typical bourgeois character. . . . We maintain our solidarity with the proletariat instead of making of our own necessity a virtue of the proletariat, as we are always tempted to do—the proletariat which itself experiences the same necessity and needs us for knowledge as much as we need the proletariat to make the revolution. I am convinced that the further development of the . . . debate you have so magnificently inaugurated . . . depends essentially on a true accounting of the relationship of the intellectuals to the working class. . . . [Your essay is] among the profoundest and most powerful statements of political theory that I have encountered since I read [Lenin’s] The State and Revolution.[17]

Adorno likely had in mind as well Lenin’s What is to be Done? or “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In the former, Lenin (in)famously distinguished between “trade union” and “socialist consciousness.” But in the latter work, Lenin described the persistent “bourgeois” social conditions of intellectual work per se that would long survive the proletarian socialist revolution, indeed (reiterating from What is to be Done?) that workers became thoroughly “bourgeois” by virtue of the very activity of intellectual work (such as in journalism or art production), including and perhaps especially in their activity as Communist Party political cadre. For Lenin, workers’ political revolution meant governing what would remain an essentially bourgeois society. The revolution would make the workers for the first time, so to speak, entirely bourgeois, which was the precondition of their leading society beyond bourgeois conditions.[18] It was a moment, the next necessary step, in the workers’ self-overcoming, in the emancipatory transformation of society in, through and beyond capital. Marxism was not extrinsic but intrinsic to this process, as the workers’ movement itself was. As Adorno put it to Horkheimer, “It could be said that Marx and Hegel taught that there are no ideals in the abstract, but that the ideal always lies in the next step, that the entire thing cannot be grasped directly but only indirectly by means of the next step” (54). Lukács had mentioned this about Lenin, in a footnote to his 1923 essay in History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” that,

Lenin’s achievement is that he rediscovered this side of Marxism that points the way to an understanding of its practical core. His constantly reiterated warning to seize the “next link” in the chain with all one’s might, that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment, his dismissal of all utopian demands, i.e. his “relativism” and his “Realpolitik:” all these things are nothing less than the practical realisation of the young Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.[19]

This was not fully achieved in the revolution that began to unfold from 1917 to 1919 in Russia, Germany, Hungary, and Italy, but was cut short of attaining the politics of the socialist transformation of society. Thirty years later, in the context of the dawning Cold War following the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, Marcuse’s “33 Theses” tried to take stock of the legacy of the crisis of Marxism and the failure of the revolution:

[Thesis 3:] [T]o uphold without compromise orthodox Marxist theory . . . [i]n the face of political reality . . . would be powerless, abstract and unpolitical, but when the political reality as a whole is false, the unpolitical position may be the only political truth. . . .

[Thesis 32:] [T]he political workers’ party remains the necessary subject of revolution. In the original Marxist conception, the party does not play a decisive role. Marx assumed that the proletariat is driven to revolutionary action on its own, based on the knowledge of its own interests, as soon as revolutionary conditions are present. . . . [But subsequent] development has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. Only in the theories of the communist parties is the memory of the revolutionary tradition alive, which can become the memory of the revolutionary goal again. . . .

[Thesis 33:] The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory.[20]

As Marcuse put it in 1958, in Soviet Marxism,

During the Revolution, it became clear to what degree Lenin had succeeded in basing his strategy on the actual class interests and aspirations of the workers and peasants. . . . Then, from 1923 on, the decisions of the leadership increasingly dissociated from the class interests of the proletariat. The former no longer presuppose the proletariat as a revolutionary agent but rather are imposed upon the proletariat and the rest of the underlying population.[21]

Adorno’s commentary in conversation with Horkheimer in 1956, in a passage not included in the New Left Review translation, titled “Individualism,” addressed what he called the problem of subjectivity as socially constituted, which he thought Lenin had addressed more rigorously than Marx. Adorno said that,

Marx was too harmless; he probably imagined quite naïvely that human beings are basically the same in all essentials and will remain so. It would be a good idea, therefore, to deprive them of their second nature. He was not concerned with their subjectivity; he probably didn’t look into that too closely. The idea that human beings are the products of society down to their innermost core is an idea that he would have rejected as milieu theory. Lenin was the first person to assert this.[22]

What this meant for Adorno was that the struggle to overcome the domination of society by capital was something more and other than the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists. It was not merely a matter of their exploitation. For it was not the case that social subjects were products of their class position so much as bourgeois society under capital determined all of its subjects in a historical nexus of unfreedom. Rather, class position was an expression of the structure of this universal unfreedom. As Horkheimer wrote, in “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom,”

In socialism, freedom is to become a reality. But because the present system is called “free” and considered liberal, it is not terribly clear what this may mean. . . .

The businessman is subject to laws that neither he nor anyone else nor any power with such a mandate created with purpose and deliberation. They are laws which the big capitalists and perhaps he himself skillfully make use of but whose existence must be accepted as a fact. Boom, bust, inflation, wars and even the qualities of things and human beings the present society demands are a function of such laws, of the anonymous social reality. . . .

Bourgeois thought views this reality as superhuman. It fetishizes the social process. . . .

[T]he error is not that people do not recognize the subject but that the subject does not exist. Everything therefore depends on creating the free subject that consciously shapes social life. And this subject is nothing other than the rationally organized socialist society which regulates its own existence. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible, it is most important that their origin be brought to the light of day so that they do not continue being unfavorable to him. Not only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.[23]

Such a clarification of what would constitute a progressive-emancipatory approach to the problem of capital was cut short by the course of Marxism in the 20th century. It thus also became increasingly difficult to “bring to the light of day” the “origins” of persistent social conditions of unfreedom. In many respects, the crisis of Marxism had been exacerbated but not overcome as a function of the post-World War I revolutionary aftermath. This involved a deepening of the crisis of humanity: the Frankfurt Institute Critical Theorists were well aware that fascism as a historical phenomenon was due to the failure of Marxism. Fascism was the ill-begotten offspring of the history of Marxism itself.

A decade after 1917, Horkheimer wrote, in a passage titled “Indications,” that,

The moral character of a person can be infallibly inferred from his response to certain questions. . . . In 1930 the attitude toward Russia casts light on people’s thinking. It is extremely difficult to say what conditions are like there. I do not claim to know where the country is going; there is undoubtedly much misery. . . . The senseless injustice of the imperialist world can certainly not be explained by technological inadequacy. Anyone who has the eyes to see will view events in Russia as the continuing painful attempt to overcome this terrible social injustice. At the very least, he will ask with a throbbing heart whether it is still under way. If appearances were to be against it, he will cling to this hope like the cancer patient to the questionable report that a cure for his illness may have been found.

When Kant received the first news of the French Revolution, he is said to have changed the direction of his customary stroll from then on.[24]

Despite what occurred in the unfolding of developments in 20th century history, Horkheimer and Adorno never reversed course. Are we yet ready to receive their messages in a bottle?


Nicholas Brown: It does seem to me that these three papers are essentially raising the same question—though not explicitly. So that is the one I am going to ask. I confess I never finished the Adorno-Horkheimer dialogue, precisely because of the Beckettian flavor. They are obviously dealing with an impossibility there, which is how are you going to maintain fidelity to Lenin without a party, without a viable party to affiliate with or without a concept of party that is operative. Of course the question then becomes: What is to be done when there’s nothing to be done?

There is a tragic version of this in Negative Dialectics, where Adorno knowingly throws in his lot with the Stoics and frames his own position as essentially a stoic position, knowing better than, or as well as, anyone that the entire ethical force of the Phenomenology of Spirit, which Marx inherits, is the impossibility or the complicity of the stoic position.

The self-effacement of their language is similar to what in the Phenomenology of Spirit is the unhappy consciousness—which oscillates precisely for the same reason as Adorno. Because their unhappy consciousness is incapable, in the words of Chris quoting Lukács, of seizing the next link; because there is no next link—which is again the problem of the party.

So that brings us to the question of the “party” in Lukács. My question for Andrew is, What do we do—what is to be done—without a party? You seem to suggest that Marcuse offers an answer.

Richard shows that, for Lukács, “the party” is not so much a thing, necessarily, as it is a concept. The party is that thing that mediates between the subject in history. The moment we deny epistemology, the moment we deny ontology, the moment we deny Kant, the moment we deny representation, both as a philosophical and a political concept, we are in this Hegelian universe and there becomes an obligation to find “the party,” “the next link,” or “a mediation.” It is that obligation that Adorno finds himself unable to fulfill. That is both the comedy and the tragedy of Adorno. So my question for you is the same: What does the philosophical concept of the party look like today? Your answer is a sort of autonomist, Negrian answer, which seems to be me to be an unsatisfactory solution, since Hegel is waiting for Hardt and Negri as well. That the subject is a fiction but nonetheless a fiction that is necessary—rather like a party is necessary.

And so, Chris, it seems that in Marx, in Lukács, and certainly in Adorno and Marcuse, there is an unresolved tension between the notion of universal unfreedom and the notion of exploitation. The latter, within our present moment has to do with fragility and who is and who is not protected from the winds of history, which is not quite the same question as universal unfreedom and disalienation. The notion of disalienation, the romantic side of eruptions in Marx, in Lukács, and in the Frankfurt school, seem to be what needs to be abandoned in favor of the more hard-headed emphasis on exploitation. If, for the Frankfurt School, the ideal was the next step or link in the chain, what does the Hegelian idea mean in the present?

AF: What I like about Marcuse is that he was able to separate two things, which for Marx, Lukács, and Lenin were essentially connected. One of those things was the subject of revolution and the other was the force able to dereify at least some portion of the social reality. In the classical Marxist conception, it’s the workers who dereify, by their refusal to submit passively to the forms in which their lives are cast, and it’s also the workers who are going to create the new society. What Marcuse realized was that you could have one without the other. You could have dereifying gestures, express solidarity with them, and articulate them theoretically without any confidence at all that those making such gestures were capable of overthrowing the society and creating a new society. After the events of May 1968 in France, it was clear that that a historically new type of opposition had arisen, so I think he was right to try and join Marx’s theory to that opposition. I think that is still a significant alternative to the despair of Adorno and Horkheimer or, on the other side, to the attempts to revive a traditional Marxist proletarian party.

RW: My answer to “what is to be done” is that it’s not really our place to say. I think that would be Lukács’s response. I think the party, or any form of organization, rather than being viewed as the instrument, is more to be seen as the way in which the multiplicity of wills become, not necessarily one, but at least learn to think of themselves as united. Not so much for the specific decisions by which they come to practical action, but more about the self-organization, the institutional forms they give themselves.
I think Lukács’s critique of Hegel and, indeed, bourgeois philosophy in general, stems from the idea of a subject; the idea that we should conceive of action as a subject acting on a world and recognizing himself. What he sees in the party is the entity, if I can use such an ontologically reifying term, the entity that is a subject in so far as it manifests itself objectively through its organizational forms. That is slightly different from conceiving the party as the agent.

CC: What we are discussing is political form. In other words, the party is a form. What we are talking about is the party as mediation: the mediation of theory and practice, a mediation of subject and object positions.

On the notion of the Hegelian ideal as the next step for Horkheimer and Adorno, I would offer something speculatively, not literally: Andrew noted the fundamental ambiguity of the late Marx with respect to the way he conceived philosophy as a young man. But I would argue that the question of mediation recurs. The critique of political economy is not merely an analysis of “bourgeois” forms, but rather an analysis and critique of the incipient consciousness of the workers’ movement. The workers’ movement inherited political economy, bourgeois critical consciousness, but only when the thought of the bourgeoisie itself had grown vulgar. Marx commends Adam Smith for being willing to present society as self-contradictory. So I would situate the question of what is the next step with respect to the question of the critique of capital. How then would one rearticulate Marx’s own political praxis with his theoretical critique of capital, which is the Hegelian attempt to raise social form to the level of self-consciousness, for working class militants, who were coming up against certain very determinate obstacles in their political practice in the wake of the revolutions of 1848. There was a “meeting,” if you will, to put it back in Adorno’s more traditional terms, of the intellectuals and the workers, around the question of what is the purchase of the critique of capital.

Post-60s, there was a return to Marx: there was a return to the Hegelian Marxism with respect to the critique of capital. If we describe ourselves as intellectuals, then the very point would be to ask, “How can these ideas find traction?” Korsch says that the crisis of Marxism threatens to break the umbilical cord between theory and practice; this means that these are two separate things. I would stress mediation in the concept of form, over the liquidation of theory and practice in the concept of form or party.

Q & A

If we as Marxists, communists, or would be radicals/revolutionaries, are not in a position to speak, then we should ask: What would be required to transform ourselves into those that could speak? How can we write like Lenin and Mao? I was struck by the Adorno-Horkheimer dialogue; Horkheimer was certainly not alone in attributing the deaths in the Great Leap Forward to Mao and Stalin. What if instead of putting their messages in a bottle, Horkheimer and Adorno had sent their messages to China, and hadn’t prematurely written off that actual revolution?

RW: There isn’t a prohibition on “speaking” as such. But it depends on whether we’re speaking ex cathedra or from within something else. I agree with Habermas in his insistence that when we’re talking about these things we have to participate on an equal level with everyone else. A danger that Lenin himself noted, in those final furious letters demanding that the party should stay as far away as possible from the soviets, was that in all likelihood honest workers and peasants would be either intimidated or look in awe at the wise men from Moscow. What we should do to be able to speak, then, is deny who we are, if anything. I think that is always the danger for anyone speaking with any badge of authority. It leads to this kind of intellectual leadership problem where precisely the freedom that people like Marx envisage is sidelined.

AF: I disagree! There are no ignorant peasants any more. Those who are the most vociferous in opposing any intellectual authority are themselves intellectuals. So, that’s just another theory! I don’t know that there is a problem, really; it’s more a question of, “Is there anyone who is willing to listen?” rather than, “Are we oppressive in putting forward our views?” That’s my conclusion, from having participated in the good old days, in many struggles over this question of authority.

CC: In terms of the self-transformation of intellectuals, it isn’t a problem of who’s speaking, but rather of what’s being said. I would introduce another kind of Leninist category, namely, “tailism.” There is a problem of articulating historical consciousness and empirical realities. I want to return to an issue that was raised by both Andrew and Richard that I thought was very helpful with respect to reification. What Lukács meant by reification was the Second International, the socialist workers’ movement, as it had been constituted in that historical juncture. And this is why he was sympathetic to Luxemburg, because Luxemburg critiques that party form in the Mass Strike pamphlet, in which she argues that social democracy had become an impediment or obstacle to the workers’ movement in, I would say, a subject-object dialectic: the workers’ movement generated itself historically into an object of self-critique.

Now, why Horkheimer’s afraid of China is the apparent “revolutionary” success of what he and Adorno considered to be counter-revolution, namely, Stalinism. Having lived through the 30s and the transformation of Marxism in Stalinism, to see Stalinism flourish as the Marxism of the post-World War II period, they could only regard as a sign of the regression of Marxism itself. Now, why didn’t they send their “messages in a bottle” to intellectuals in China? Because it would have been a sure-fire way of getting those Chinese intellectuals executed on the spot. We could read their statements as evincing an anti-Chinese bias prime facie. But there is a dialectic there. As Horkheimer says, well, what about the fact that 20 million Chinese are going to die, but after that there won’t be any more starving Chinese? He asks what do we make of that? What Horkheimer and Adorno had in mind is that, had the success of the revolution that had opened in 1917 spread to Germany, had it spread beyond, a revolution in China as took place in 1949, with all the sacrifices and the calamities that it entailed, would have been unnecessary. This was their image of emancipation; their concern was that the conditions of barbarism were being confused for the struggle for emancipation.

NB: On the space of intellectuals, when there is a mass movement, the situation of the intellectual is both much easier and much more difficult. It is easy because you know what to do but the project of transformation that you’re talking about is hard. The problem we’re facing is a different one, which is that there is no mass movement. And to the extent that there is one, it’s a totally corrupt, right-wing one.

Adorno very clearly throws in his lot with the West, so it’s not a matter of getting Adorno to actual Chinese dissidents, it’s a matter of the question: Did Adorno have to, that clearly, throw his lot in with the West and so clearly server links with actual existing socialism? That question is a little less clear-cut than whether it would have been beneficial to have Chinese dissidents parroting the Adornian line.

Kant demanded that we think politically, in that we are forced to comment on society as members of that same society; we are obligated to contribute to the development of society. Lukács saw that only through the party can society continue developing, therefore the question of individual responsibility in history seems somewhat misplaced. It is only the party that, having the ability to shape history, is obligated to think about history. Can it be that this is what motivates Lenin and Luxemburg when talking about the party? That is, when Luxemburg worries about the vote in the Reichstag about the war credits, the concern is about the decline of the party and the need to reconfigure the party to affect history?

RW: I disagree. Lukács doesn’t think that the party can change history, it is the class that can change history. The party brings the class about. The party might be the starting point but it’s emphatically not the end-point. To say the party changes history directly would give it the kind of heroic role that, I think, Lukács is trying to avoid.

CC: I would say that the political party, or the agency of political mediation, can’t, itself, emancipate society. However, it can certainly block that emancipation, and so be thought of negatively. The importance of the party hinges on the issue of historical consciousness. So where I’m more in sympathy with Luxemburg’s critique of the SPD in its political collapse is her charge that the party is responsible for history, negatively. She is saying that the party has been part of bringing history to this point of crisis, and it is the party that is tasked with self-overcoming in its form of mediating political agency.

First: I find the Lenin described—mediated through Adorno and Lukács—completely unrecognizable from the Lenin of the collected works. But what I recognize as being described as Lenin in Adorno and Lukács is the resolution of the Second and Third Congresses of the Comintern on the role of the political party in the proletarian revolution. Does this not encapsulate a false history of the Bolshevik party? A history of the Bolshevik party that projects back the character which the Bolshevik party assumed between 1918 and 1921, under the civil war conditions, onto the pre-history of the Bolshevik party before 1917?

Second: For Marx and Engels, consistently, from the 1840s through to Engels’s death, with a brief interlude in the period in the First International when they were in alliance with the Proudhonists, the issue as stated in the 1871 Hague Congress Resolution what that, “the working class cannot act except by forming itself into a political party.” How do the attempts to make Marx more Hegelian satisfactorily account for this political aspect of Marx and Engels’s interventions?

CC: Maybe the difference that you see between the Lenin that you would recognize and the Lenin of official Comintern Leninism is the difference that you then raise between Marx himself, in his own political practice, or Marx and Engels, and the sort of Hegelianized Marx that you find in Lukács and Adorno.

Lenin has a specific contribution in the history of Marxism that can’t be ignored, namely that he’s the great schismatic of Marxism, he divided Marxism.[25] That is precisely what esteems him in Adorno’s eyes. His is not a minority vanguard view; it is about politics in the working class. What Lenin introduces in the Second International is the idea of competing working class parties that all claim to be anti-capitalist, revolutionary, and Marxist. The crisis of Marxism refers to the political controversies within Marxism. To deny that is to say that politics is only “the workers vs. the capitalists” and not an intra-working class phenomenon. The Kautskyan party, the “one class, one party” idea, that vis-à-vis the capitalists the workers are of one interest, and the attempt to be the “party of the whole class,” denies that the content of political emancipation can be disputed among the workers and among Marxists of different parties.

AF: It seems to me that the position Lenin took could not be easily explained or justified in terms of Marxist theory, and that what someone like Lukács was engaged in doing in 1923, or Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks, was an attempt to ground that practice in Marxist theory by finding the missing link. There are many different statements in Lenin, in his early work, that don’t add up to a theory of what he was doing. But he knew what he was doing, and it had a significance historically, as Chris has just explained. So the question could be asked separately from the historical facts of whether Lenin was doing the right things in terms of Marx’s theory. Lukács recognized that Lenin had done something historically important and tried to figure out how to revise or interpret the theory in such a way that it could encompass what he had done. Lukács did make an important advance theoretically in terms of understanding how there could be a connection between the working class, Marxist theory, and the political parties that represent workers; how there could be a connection grounded in an ontological relation, a relation to reality that would be shared at different levels, in different ways, between these different instances of the movement. That is a very important theoretical idea, which I don’t think you can find in Marx or Engels or in Lenin, but is necessary to make sense of what happened, historically.

RW: Lukács is very clear that he wants the party, ultimately, to grow into a mass-based movement. But in the interim, he explicitly states in the essay on party organization, every different school, every different take on the very question of what the party should do needs to give itself organizational forms. He’s all for a broad, pluralist sprouting of different practices, which, I think, undermines the idea of a single, concentrated, vanguardist party. This might risk radical sectarianism, but at least it avoids reification, from Lukács’s perspective.

NB: Whether Lukács and Adorno got Lenin right, is not the same question and is usefully distinct from the question of whether Lenin was politically useful, and what is to be done today. On the Hegelianization of Marx, you can’t “Hegelianize” Marx, because Marx is more Hegelian than Hegel!

I take it that the primary thrust of the argument that Adorno is a Leninist is to enlist the Leninist Adorno in the project of reconstituting the Left. What is the utility of Adorno as Leninist?

CC: Adorno enlisted himself to the Leninist project. He says so: “I want to be faithful to Lenin.” What is the content of that? He said this when 99.99% of Leninists in the world would not have accepted that Adorno was being faithful to Lenin in any way. So I would turn the issue around and say that I am interested in the Lenin that becomes visible through Adorno. When Adorno says “a strictly Leninist manifesto,” it’s not that this is against Luxemburg. It’s the Lukácsian attempt to grasp what the Second International radicals had in common. Why did Luxemburg call herself a Bolshevik? She wrote an essay in the last months of her life titled “What is German Bolshevism?” In other words, “This is what we want. Why are we with the Bolsheviks?” Hers was comradely criticism—that’s the point. So I am interested in how this history of Marxism looks, specifically through Adorno’s eyes, through Lukács’s eyes, through Korsch’s eyes; we would be remiss to ignore the insights that they had into that history.

AF: At this moment in history, we know so little about the forces of opposition, their potential, and where they’re going to come from next, that we won’t have the theoretical basis and the basis in practical experience that the socialist movement had at the time when these parties were formed and developed. Under present conditions, we need to try and find sources of opposition and tensions around the reifying power of the institutions wherever they appear, even if they don’t look or appear to be political. We would prematurely close things down trying to have a theory and a party that was trying to direct struggles.

CC: What is meant by the party? On the one hand, the formation of a party of a recognizable type from history, at the present moment, would foreclose possibilities. On the other hand, I have my own reservations about the Hardt-Negri moment that we’re in with respect to movementism, which sees the party as the road to Stalinism. If we say that the earlier socialist movement had an accumulated historical experience, then we have to say that, for a generation, we’ve been denied that. So we’re left saying, “OK, something like a party?” to expand the notion of “form.” What Richard is pointing to, in terms of the concept of form, is very important. The danger is in applying it too broadly, in what I raised earlier as tailism, as a justification for what we’re already doing. That’s a danger that I would resist at one end. At the other end, I agree that it would be precipitous and still-born to try to implement a party in a historical-model kind of way.

RW: The institutional memory of a party is crucial; I think that its absence has led to a disastrous collapse in progressive thought. I stressed the Luxemburgian elements in Lukács, earlier. This is where Lukács critiques Luxemburg, rightly, because a party can form this institutional memory.

To address Andrew: we don’t really know what forces there are there. The act of forming or supporting the formation of parties is one of the ways we can find out. I refer back to what I said earlier about Lukács and his insistence that every position should try and develop its own organizational forms. That’s how we get to know. If we treat it as a purely sociological question, I think we risk falling back into the same reified standpoint of just collecting facts, rather than engaging in practice. Encouraging the development of parties, of institutional forms in various ways, is a way in which those oppositional forces can really come to be. Without that, the forces wind up less coherent and less aware of their opposition.

Without a push for the formation of a party, without a strong stance on a need for leadership, how can we apply these various theories practically to the working class? The conditions that existed in the 50s, 30s, or 20s are not what we have today. Without a party, without leadership, what hope do we have?

RW: I’d hesitate with that phrasing; it is dangerous to talk about applying theories to the working class. The leadership issue strikes at that. It was alluded to before, but I think the Tea Party is quite successful, for all of its obvious incoherencies and absurdities, precisely because of its lack of a leader and the dispensability of their totemic figures. There are voices, but there is no one leader, so there are a number of different Tea Parties. One of the reasons it’s so successful is that it is widespread, diffuse, and decentralized.

AF: Of course if we had a party that had authority and that was listened to, we’d be in much better shape. But how do you get there?

CC: What works for the Right cannot work for the Left. There’s a fundamental difference between the Right and the Left—that the Right thrives on incoherence in a way that the Left cannot. I would also say rather polemically, or in a jaundiced fashion, that the Tea Parties are the true children of the New Left.

The idea of theoretical leadership, in the sense of theory that is applied, is precisely something that the Marxist tradition wanted to overcome. That is what they understood as a “bourgeois” notion of theory or epistemology. Going all the way back to Kant, however, there was already the idea of a self-conscious practice: it’s not about the abstract application of theory to practice. Already with Kant—and there’s a continuity, I think, between Kant and Hegel and Marx—the point is to try to raise existing practices to self-consciousness. This is quite different from crafting a theory and applying it to reality.

Concluding remarks

AF: I think that the Left still lives under the horizon of demands and dissatisfactions that emerged in the 1960s and 70s. Movements like environmentalist movements, feminist movements, many other kinds of protest that have emerged in remote areas of society, such as medicine, come under the kinds of categories elaborated in the New Left to articulate these new kinds of dissatisfactions. That is the contribution that Marcuse made; Adorno and Horkheimer did not contribute to that because they viewed the New Left as a rather minor blip on the horizon. And I’m actually extremely puzzled by the eclipse of Marcuse’s thought on the Left and the rise of this new vision of the Frankfurt School as Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer. To me, it signifies a certain lack of political seriousness that people pass over the only one who actually engaged with the kind of leftism that we are capable of today.

RW: I’d also like to conclude by responding to the “lack of political seriousness.” The reason for people like Adorno and Benjamin coming back is that much of the academic reception has been done in literature departments or it’s been done through cultural studies. I think the reason is precisely that there is a lack of direct engagement and direct activity. The importance of engagement and some form of practice, with some degree of leadership that one attributes to it—a theoretical form of praxis—is the crucial thing, I think.

CC: I would end with a bid to take Adorno seriously as a political thinker and not just as a literary figure. Certainly, he does say, “Music and art are what I know and so they are what I write about.” But he was being a bit falsely modest. His work made a very strong intervention in German sociology, introducing both American empirical sociological technique and the Durkheimian approach, as opposed to a Weberian approach, to the question of modernity and capital. In his correspondence with Marcuse in 1969, in which there was bitterness around the controversy stirred up by the New Left, Adorno says to Marcuse: “Look, it’s the Institute. It’s the same Institute. It’s our old Institute.” And Marcuse responds: “How could you possibly claim that the Institute in the 60s in the Federal Republic of Germany is what it was in the 30s?” To this Adorno could only say, “What about my books?” In other words, “What about the books that the Institute’s existence has allowed me to write?” That is, Adorno was a lone champion of Hegelian Marxism within German sociology and philosophy, as such his works are powerful statements about, and try to keep alive, the kind of insights that had been gained by the earlier Marxist tradition of Lukács and Korsch in the aftermath of the crisis of Marxism and the revolutions of the early twentieth century.

So I would defend Adorno against his devotees. The Adorno that flies in the humanities is a sanitized Adorno, a depoliticized Adorno, an Adorno with the Marxism screened out, or the Marxism turned into an ethical critique of society. Whereas I think Adorno has a lot more to say about the problem of theory and practice that is politically important. |P

Transcribed by Gabriel Gaster

Andrew Feenberg

[1] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” trans. Rodney Livingstone, New Left Review 65 (September–October 2010). Hereafter cited within the text.

[2] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), 51.

[3] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 160.

[4] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Saul K. Padover. Originally published in 1852. Available online at <>.


Richard Westerman

[5] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), xli.

[6] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, ii.505: “Auch theoretisch handelt die kommunistische Partei nicht stellvertretend für das Proletariat.”

[7] Ibid., ii.496: “die voluntaristische Überschätzung der aktiven Bedeutung des Individuums (des Führers) und die fatalistische Unterschätzung der Bedeutung der Klasse (der Masse).”

[8] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 297-8.

[9] Ibid., 275.

[10] See, for example, Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism (New York: Seabury, 1979).

[11] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, ii.504: “die organisatorische Selbständigkeit der kommunistischen Partei ist notwendig, damit das Proletariat sein eigenes Klassenbewußtsein, als geschichtliche Gestalt, unmittelbar erblicken könne; . . . damit für die ganze Klasse das eigene Dasein als Klasse ins Bewußtsein gehoben werde.”

[12] Ibid., ii.517: “das Entstehen der kommunistischen Partei nur das bewußt getane Werk der klassenbewußten Arbeiter sein kann.”

[13] Ibid., ii.515: “indem die kommunistische Partei zu einer Welt der Tätigkeit für jades ihrer Mitglieder wird, kann sie die Zuschauerrolle des bürgerlichen Menschen . . . wirklich überwinden.”

[14] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 299.


Chris Cutrone

[15] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, New Left Review 65 (September–October 2010): 46. Hereafter cited within the text.

[16] Adorno to Horkheimer, March 21, 1936, quoted in Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. Michael Robertson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994 [1986]), 266. Moreover, Adorno wrote that, “If one is concerned to achieve what might be possible with human beings, it is extremely difficult to remain friendly towards real people…a pretext for approving of precisely that element in people by which they prove themselves to be not merely their own victims but virtually their own hangmen.” See Adorno to Horkheimer, June 2, 1941, quoted in Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 268.

[17] Theodor W. Adorno, “Correspondence with Benjamin,” New Left Review I/81 (September-October 1973): 66-68.

[18] As Lenin wrote in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder: “The most shameless careerism . . . and vulgar petty-bourgeois conservatism are all unquestionably common and prevalent features engendered everywhere by capitalism, not only outside but also within the working-class movement. . . . [T]he overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the conquest of political power by the proletariat — [creates] these very same difficulties on a still larger, an infinitely larger scale.” Available online at <>.

[19] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 221n60.

[20] Herbert Marcuse, “33 Theses,” in Technology, War, and Fascism, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge, 1998), 217, 226–227.

[21] Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 149.

[22] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “Diskussion über Theorie und Praxis” (1956), in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 19, Nachträge, Verzeichnisse und Register (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1996), 71, quoted in Detlev Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 233.

[23] Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926-31 and 1950-69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52.

[24] Ibid., 72-73.

[25] See Chris Cutrone, “Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 36 (June 2011).

June 20–24, 2011
Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago

Marxism and the bourgeois revolution

Spencer Leonard, "Marx’s critique of political economy: Proletarian socialism continuing the bourgeois revolution?"
Pamela Nogales, "Marx on the U.S. Civil War as the 2nd American Revolution"
Jeremy Cohan, "Lukács on Marx’s Hegelianism and the dialectic of Marxism"
Moderator: Chris Cutrone

The "bourgeois revolutions" from the 16th through the 19th centuries -- extending into the 20th -- conformed humanity to modern city life, ending traditional, pastoral, religious custom in favor of social relations of the exchange of labor. Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that, in contradistinction to the clerical 1st Estate who "prayed" and the aristocratic 2nd Estate who "fought," the commoner 3rd Estate "worked:" "What has the 3rd Estate been? Nothing." "What is it? Everything." Kant warned that universal bourgeois society would be the mere midpoint in humanity's achievement of freedom. After the last bourgeois revolutions in Europe of 1848 failed, Marx wrote of the "constitution of capital," the ambivalent, indeed self-contradictory character of "free wage labor." In the late 20th century, the majority of humanity abandoned agriculture in favor of urban life -- however in "slum cities." How does the bourgeois revolution appear from a Marxian point of view? How did what Marx called the “proletarianization” of society circa 1848 signal not only the crisis and supersession, but the need to fulfill and “complete” the bourgeois revolution, whose task now fell to the politics of “proletarian” socialism, expressed by the workers’ call for “social democracy?” How did this express the attempt, as Lenin put it, to overcome bourgeois society “on the basis of capitalism” itself? How did subsequent Marxism lose sight of Marx on this, and how might Marx’s perspective on the crisis of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century still resonate today?

audio recording

The Marxism of Second International radicalism: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky

Chris Cutrone, Lenin
Greg Gabrellas, Luxemburg
Ian Morrison, Trotsky
Moderator: Spencer Leonard

The legacy of revolution 1917-19 in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy is concentrated above all in the historical figures Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, leaders of the Left in the Second International (1889-1914) -- what they called “revolutionary social democracy” -- in the period preceding the crisis of war, revolution, counterrevolution and civil war in World War I and its aftermath. In 1920, Georg Lukács summed up this experience as follows: “[T]he crisis [of capital] remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. . . . Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society. As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. . . . inhumanity and reification.” Nonetheless, these Marxists understood their politics as being “on the basis of capitalism” itself (Lenin). How were the 2nd Intl. radicals, importantly, critics, and not merely advocates, of their own political movement? What is the legacy of these figures today, after the 20th century -- as Walter Benjamin said in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “against the grain” of their time, reaching beyond it? How did Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky contribute to the potential advancement and transformation of Marxism, in and through the crisis of Marxism in the early 20th century? How can we return to these figures productively, today, to learn the lessons of their history?

audio recording