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You are here: Platypus /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.

One comment

  • Posted 12 years ago

    The following compendium of quotations from prior readings was circulated by Ian to other reading group leaders, ahead of last Sunday’s (2/8) meetings on Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution:

    “No coarser insult, no baser defamation, can be thrown against the workers than the remark “Theoretical controversies are for the intellectuals”.” — Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution?

    From: Leszek Kolakowski, “The Concept of the Left” (1968)

    “[T]he Left strives to base its prospects on the experience and evolutionary tendencies of history; whereas the Right is the expression of capitulation to the situation of the moment. For this reason the Left can have a political ideology, while the Right has nothing but tactics.”

    “The desire for revolution cannot be born only when the situation is ripe, because among the conditions for this ripeness are the revolutionary demands made of an unripe reality.”

    From: Theodor Adorno, “Imaginative excesses” (orphaned from Minima Moralia, 1944-47)

    “The belief that the blind play of means could be summarily displaced by the sovereignty of rational ends was bourgeois utopianism. It is the antithesis of means and ends itself that should be criticized. Both are reified in bourgeois thinking, the ends as ‘ideas’ the sterility of which lies in their powerlessness to be externalized, such unrealizabitly being craftily passed off as implicit in absoluteness; means as ‘data’ of mere, meaningless existence, to be sorted out, according to their effectiveness or lack of it, into anything whatever, but devoid of reason in themselves. This petrified antithesis holds good for the world that produced it, but not for the effort to change it.”

    From: Cliff Slaughter, “What is Revolutionary Leadership?” (1960)

    “This implies [economic determinism] that politics is only the froth of history, whereas Marx was quite clear that it is in the sphere of politics that men become more or less conscious of the economic contradictions and fight out the issues. Precisely in politics, in the struggle for state power, is the decisive conflict fought out. Trade union and industrial struggle is a school of the politics for the working class, in the older capitalist countries decades of trade union struggle were necessary precludes to real class conflict; but the overthrow of political power and the institution of proletarian dictatorship is a qualitatively different question. For this, organization of a more advanced character, and therefore theory of a much wider and deeper character, is required.”

    From: Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution? (1900/08)

    “What, above all, is the external characteristic of these practices? Hostility to “theory.” This is quite understandable, for our “theory,” i.e. the principles of scientific socialism, imposes clear marked limitations to practical activity — concerning the aims of this activity, the means of struggle applied, and the method of struggle. It is thus natural for those who only run after practical results to want to free their hands, i.e. to split our practice from “theory,” to make it independent of theory.”

    “It is not true that socialism will arise automatically and under all circumstances from the daily struggle of the working class. Socialism will be the consequence only of the ever growing contradictions of capitalist economy and the comprehension by the working class of the unavoidability of the suppression of these contradictions through a social transformation. When the first condition is denied and the second rejected, as is the case with revisionism, the labor movement is reduced to a simple cooperative and reformist movement, and the moves in a straight line towards the totally abandonment of the class standpoint.”

    “For [Bernstein], the working class is a mass of individuals, divided not only politically and intellectually, but also economically. And, according to him, the bourgeoisie does not group itself politically in accordance with its inner economic interest, but only because of external pressure, from above and below.”

    “In a word, democracy is indispensable not because it renders superfluous the conquest of political power by the proletariat but, on the contrary, because it renders this conquest both necessary as well as possible.”

    From: Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis of German Social Democracy (AKA the Junius pamphlet, 1915)

    “Marx says: “. . . the democrat (that is, the petty bourgeois revolutionary) [comes] out of the most shameful defeats as unmarked as he naively went into them; he comes away with the newly gained conviction that he must be victorious, not that he or his party ought to give up the old principles, but that conditions ought to accommodate him.” The modern proletariat comes out of historical tests differently. Its tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only school mistress. Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey — its emancipation depends on this — is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.

    “The last forty-five year period in the development of the modern labor movement now stands in doubt. What we are experiencing in this critique is a closing of accounts for what will soon be half a century of work at our posts.”

    “Scientific socialism has taught us to comprehend the objective laws of historical development. Men do not make history according to their own free will. But they make history nonetheless. Proletarian action is dependent upon the degree of maturity in social development. However, social development is not independent of the proletariat but is equally its driving force and cause, its effect and consequence. [Proletarian] action participates in history. And while we can as little skip a stage of historical development as escape our shadow, we can certainly accelerate or retard history.”

    by Chris Cutrone (Author) on February 11, 2009 8:52 am

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