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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.
Time magazine nominated “the protester,” from the Arab Spring to the #Occupy movement, as “Person of the Year” for 2011. 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.” 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.
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.
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." What follows is an edited version of Greg Gabrellas's opening remarks.
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: “How did the practice and theory of Marxism, from Marx to Lenin, make possible and necessary the politics of Critical Theory?”

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