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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/note on recent readings: Slaughter, Nettl, Luxemburg

note on recent readings: Slaughter, Nettl, Luxemburg

After the recent discussion of Luxemburg's pamphlet on Reform or Revolution? (1900/08), there might be some confusion regarding the relationship between Luxemburg's formulations and the raison d'etre of Platypus as an organized project today. -- What is the point of reading Luxemburg today?

Whereas Luxemburg was critiquing Eduard Bernstein and other "revisionists'" arguments that the development of capitalism had made proletarian social revolution superfluous or even harmful, Luxemburg was arguing that such historical "development" must be seen as symptomatic of the growing and deepening crisis of capitalism, and that the organized Marxist social-democratic labor and political movement must be seen as part of that history, part of that crisis.

Rather than diminishing the importance of the Marxist political point of departure, as Bernstein had hypothesized, for Luxemburg, the development of the proletarian socialist movement, as part and parcel of and inextricably bound up with the development of capitalism, had only gained in saliency, had only grown in political importance.

Luxemburg understood Bernstein's "revisionism" in a two-fold sense: theoretically and psychologically. But in both senses as a matter of ideology. Theoretically, the bankruptcy of bourgeois thought had caused it to collapse into Marxism. Psychologically, the apparent convergence of liberalism and ("Marxist") socialism meant the attempt to avoid, as a matter of political practice, the growing crisis of capitalism. Hence, Bernstein's assumption of the gradual "evolution" of capitalism into socialism, whereas Luxemburg emphasizes the crucial crossroads at which modern society had arrived: in the language of her later Junius pamphlet (The Crisis of German Social Democracy, 1915), borrowed from Engels, "socialism or barbarism!"

It was precisely this crossroads of socialism or barbarism that the "revisionists" denied, and that Luxemburg had to reestablish in order to grasp the crucial role that Marxism as an organized political tendency could and indeed needed to play for the emancipation of humanity beyond capital.

But Luxemburg was writing in a very different time from ours. Where Luxemburg attributed "revisionism" -- the impulse to liquidate Marxist socialism back into liberalism -- to the fear that the dawning crisis and depth of the tasks revealed by the development of the international socialist workers' movement engendered among what she called the "petit bourgeois" intellectuals adhering to the workers' movement, she confidently characterized this as a passing malady.

More fundamentally, however, Luxemburg pointed to the deeper conflict within the working class itself, between apprehending its interests in a "petit bourgeois" vs. "proletarian" way.

This is the essence of Luxemburg's accusation that Bernstein et al. had collapsed back into liberalism, but under the guise (and as a tendency) of avowed, self-conscious "Marxism."

For a workers' movement without a Marxian revolutionary politics is just liberalism, despite whatever "Marxist" verbiage or consciousness with which it might clothe itself.

So Luxemburg was calling attention to and theoretically elucidating the danger that the workers' movement (however avowedly "socialist" or even "Marxist" it thought itself) would relapse back into liberalism, precisely as the political tasks it faced were revealed in all their breadth and depth. What later thinkers in the Frankfurt School critical theoretical tradition would characterize as the "fear of freedom" underlies this perpetual danger of opportunism (as opposed to inadequate explanations like "selling out," etc.).

Today, by contrast, we face not a world in which the depth and breadth of the task of a social politics that could point beyond capitalism has been revealed, but in which it is deeply obscured and hidden.

We lack the developed workers' movement of Luxemburg's time (i.e., 2nd International Marxist socialism) that could simultaneously reveal the task of anticapitalist politics, as well as provide the means for succumbing to the danger of abdicating this task (through labor reformism etc., co-optation to the capitalist state, etc.).

And we lack the consciousness that such a politics is desirable, let alone possible or necessary. "Marxism" has consumed itself in the abdication of the task it historically set for itself, and it has buried the truth of the modern of society of capital in the sepulcher of its own demise.

Nevertheless, read properly, the history of Marxist socialism offers some clues into such necessities, possibilities, and desirabilities of a Marxian politics, a politics derived from Marx's recognition of the problem of capital.

We cannot, as Luxemburg could, point to the class polarization of society as an underlying reality with which a Marxian politics could grasp actual possibilities -- and to which such a politics contributed the emergence and development.

Rather, we are left with a more obscure task, revealing that there was ever a point to the Marxian characterization of modern society as capitalist. We are back to square one in this sense, not at Luxemburg's moment of culminating crisis in thought and potential action, but deeply lost in the accumulated barbarism that has necessarily resulted from the failure of historical revolutionary Marxism.

Sectarian "Marxists" read Luxemburg merely as an eloquent defense of "revolution" against "reformism," but as Luxemburg herself pointed out, it is only the reformists who separate and oppose the struggle for fundamental transformation from reforms. The apparent contradiction between reform and revolution is itself a product of the degeneration of effective practical political agency and consciousness.

Whereas Luxemburg had a movement to critique and goad on, we only have a history that haunts us, and one that becomes dimmer over time, demanding fundamental recognition and potential elaboration of an available, if rendered temporarily obscure, framework for asking in our present what is necessary, possible, and desirable for transforming our world.

Rather than waiting for some "objective" crisis of capitalism that, according to the senile "Left" will supposedly do our work for us, while it continues to never ever come, we are tasked by Luxemburg and her fellow historical revolutionary Marxists to explore what we can actually do to advance the crisis of modern society, to make it take the form of a political crisis over its direction and potential resolution.

Platypus, initially, has taken up this task as a matter of conscious recognition of the problem that needs to be addressed, of basic orientation towards the true horizon of potential possibility to be explored.

While it might appear that Luxemburg's practical revolutionary Marxist politics was proven wrong and hopeless by history, it's not as if her debating opponents, e.g., Bernstein, fared any better, in theory or practice.

Whereas Bernstein et al. offered nothing that could address the history that followed, which did not lead to socialism, Luxemburg's clear warning about the threat of regression has been actualized, and for precisely the reasons she had recognized.

This doesn't mean following Luxemburg's (et al.) script, but rather her spirit. It is why we, and not the ostensible "Marxists" who supposedly follow her more strictly, are answering her (and her historical Marxist cohort's) call, and hopefully not too late.