Luxemburgism and Historical Materialism

I think it is crucial, when dealing with schisms within the radical left, to ask how different parties understand the real process of social transformation and the way in which our conscious, ideal activity is implicated therein. Such sociological questions play a crucial role in grounding explicit political positions, and yet I’d wager they are given far less consideration amongst the most politically committed of us than they deserve. Nonetheless, the importance of these questions does not always go unrecognized. For example, while objections to Marx are often political and strategic in their focus, contesting his advocacy or implicit support of some form of authoritarianism, these are typically supported by deeper ‘philosophical’ issues with the sort of materialism Marx advocates and its stifling sociological implications.

Historical materialism is characterized as deterministic, affording no genuine role for a metaphysically substantial sense of freedom. Rather, human behavior can be explained and predicted in a purely naturalistic manner, requiring no reference to causal input from a scientifically suspect entity like “thought”. For this reason, even when social change is consciously initiated and carried through, the intentions of the individuals involved only reflect a deeper determination that is out of their hands. The only effective revolutionary project is therefore one that defers to the expertise of those able to get a scientific grasp of the necessary unfolding of historical progress.

At this point, Marxism seems to let authoritarianism in through the back door, such that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” can only be actualized in the form of the dictatorship of the scientific elite who are capable of understanding the “will” of the proletariat better than they themselves are. This has, of course, really come to pass in the form of Leninism and all its various deviations. One can be forgiven for thinking that Marxism necessarily leads to Leninism, whether Marx intended as much or not, but this is only true on the basis of a particular, contestable interpretation of historical materialism.

While it is doubtful that most non-Marxist radicals would agree that one’s political and strategic commitments should follow directly from a prior commitment to a particular theoretical understanding of social change, they nonetheless would likely agree that such an understanding should inform the former to some extent. Yet the rejection of historical materialism as such a theoretical understanding is rarely accompanied by affirmation of some other incompatible framework. At best, it is replaced by a set of unsystematized and at times unjustified claims that in their content resemble weak reiterations of Marxist idioms.

My work is primarily concerned with offering a very different account of historical materialism than the commonplace one, an interpretation that is moreover more consistent with Marx’s actual claims. On this reading, Marx’s theory of social change neither explicitly affirms a Lenin-esque authoritarianism, nor does it implicitly lean in its direction, but rather proves to be an incohate Luxemburgism.

This Luxemburgism, the same that is affirmed in the title of this blog, does not refer to Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘underconsumptionist’ attempt at a Marxist theory of economic crises (which is not to say that I find this theory wholly without merit), but to her political position which combines a Leninist demand for imminent revolutionary activity and a critique of Lenin’s vanguardist authoritarianism in favor of a genuinely democratic form of proletarian collective determination; it is close to council communism and anarchism in its insistence that the only legitimate form of politics is one rooted in the self-organization of workers, but rejects the refusal to engage in the political machinations of the existing State apparatus as well as the categorical exclusion of representative forms of democracy.

To defend the claim that Luxemburgism draws the correct political consequences from historical materialism, we have to get clear what historical materialism entails. The basic principle of historical materialism is that historical periods are to be understood in terms of a certain relatively stable coordination amongst the contemporary material forces of production, the relations of production or the relations people have to the former and to each other as mediated by the former, and the ideological superstructure or relations between people over and above those shaped purely by the material world. This schema accounts for historical change in terms of a change in the material forces of production significant enough to have become out of sync with existing relations of production, and thereby force the latter to readjust. And, because these relations constitute the real basis of the ideal (or ‘ideological’) realm, this entails an ideological shift as well.

The major problem plaguing the interpretation of this principle is an ambiguity as to the character of the determining relation of productive forces to social relations, and precisely where to situate ourselves in terms of this relation. Are we simply passive vehicles driven and directed by our material constitution? There have been roughly three approaches to this question. The first is a straightforward deterministic interpretation, according to which social relations (both productive and ideological) are simply reflections of material forces, bearing no causal efficacy of their own. Yet this would seemingly contradict Marx’s Hegelian emphasis on the analytical importance of the form of appearance, and thus the implied, though yet undetermined, autonomy of the latter. The second emphasizes this relative autonomy, and so to the autonomy of conscious social activity, but does so in an imprecise and haphazard way: it may leave unspecified the precise character of the relation, or it may go so far as to attribute a causal power to appearance, consciousness, thought, etc that is on par with that of materiality. Yet in taking the latter course, one must either strive to show how this causal power can be accounted for in material terms, and thereby reduce social relations to a particular subset of material relations of force, or one must renounce the metaphysical commitment to materialism.

The third approach overcomes these deadlocks by affirming the autonomy of social relations, appearance, the whole ideal realm, while refusing to characterize this autonomy in metaphysical terms. The material relations that constitute productive forces are thoroughly deterministic and causally complete unto themselves; we can characterize them as ‘objective’ because the way they are is independent of the ways in which we understand them. Insofar as we are material entities, we can in principle be thoroughly explained in objective terms, as loci of material force. Yet our self-understanding is by no means limited to such an objective, scientific characterization. First and foremost, implicit in our practical engagement with the world is a rudimentary understanding of what we can and ought to do vis a vis the objects we encounter, including other people. This understanding corresponds to the particular shape taken by material-practical relations at a given time; it is a way of characterizing or representing to ourselves our objective, material situation. While this ideal characterization is derived from our objective situation, it is not itself objective, insofar as it is simply the way in which we take things to really be, and by no means necessarily amounts to an adequate or accurate representation. Moreover, this non-objectivity is not simply due to the failure of representation, but follows from the fact that something is added to the objective state of affairs: normative attitudes as to what ought to be done. (I owe this sense of objectivity and non-objectivity to Pete Wolfendale, whose work has been so significant for my understanding of Marx that my project might be described as simply applying his insights to the interpretation of historical materialism.) This is the case at least as long as people relate to things and to each other in terms of property, such that someone has the right to determine how others ought to behave vis a vis a particular object, how it is proper to treat that object.

Relations of production are the non-objective reflection of objective, material relations. As such, they form the infrastructure for more elaborate sorts of non-objective relations between people. The ideological superstructure is made up of genuinely non-objective modes of understanding, characterizing, or relating to people and things; it is the set of ways of “taking things to be the case” that are not implicit in our material-practical relations, that cannot be traced back to what is objectively the case, but that arise from that addition to the latter of things that are only the case for us, or things that are the case only insofar as we take them to be the case. Such attitude-dependent “facts” are not for that reason invalid. They are socially valid, holding true for the society that takes them to be true, even if they are not objectively valid, or true independent of whether one takes them to be true.

A crucial consequence of this approach is that the whole ideal realm of thought, appearance, and theoretical knowledge is only developed as the explication of the understanding implicit in our material-practical situation. Attitude-dependent normative statuses derive from and supervene on attitude-independent material relations, and superstructural normative statuses supervene on productive relations as the elementary level of normativity. Nonetheless, this supervenience does not invite reduction, insofar as the ideal realm of attitude-dependent normative statuses does not depend only upon objective truths, but also upon socially-valid truths. Socially-valid truths might have some objective content, but this only in addition to their non-objective content. Nonetheless, it can happen that the objective situation changes so drastically as to force a change in socially-valid concepts in a degree determined by the proportion of objective content they bear. So, for instance, a significant shift in the material practical relations by which society continuously reproduces itself would cause a corresponding shift in the implicit understanding we have of those relations, and consequently, in the fundamental norms regulating how we are to practically conduct ourselves in relation to people and things. For historical materialists, this has significant implications for how to understand the real process of social transformation.

Our productive relations are forced to change due to a certain extent of change in our objective situation. Furthermore, superstructural relations will also be forced to change as the crisis increasingly spreads from their smaller objective part to their larger non-objective part. As fundamental non-objective truths are increasingly impinged by the seismic shifts in objective circumstances, the crisis will cascade out into the superstructural truths that cite them as premises. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the validity of concepts is completely relative to contingent modes of social organization. We are capable of tracking the objective structure of the world in a way that is resistant to historical shifts in social organization, employing genuinely objectively-valid concepts. The possibility of such universal concepts depends upon the manner in which we attribute objective validity. Objectively valid concepts are not compromised by changes in the material-practical organization of our objective situation because they do not confuse social necessity — that something ought to be the case because our commitments oblige us to make it the case — with objective necessity — that something must be the case because it is required by its objective structure. Dramatic transformations of the material-practical organization of our objective situations may reveal some allegedly objective concepts to be invalid insofar as they attributed objective necessity to what was in fact an historically contingent shape of social relations, which only appeared to be necessary from a socially-embedded prerogative. Our concepts are vulnerable to revision so long as they attribute objectivity not only to their objective content, but also to the non-objective social necessity they prescribe. (To be more precise, we ought to distinguish between two kinds of revision to which allegedly objective concepts are subject: critical revision on the grounds of confusion of objective and non-objective contents, and scientific revision on the grounds of empirical evidence forces a reevaluation of objective content.)

The very activity of explicitly distinguishing between objective and non-objective validity, and of critically discriminating scientific from non-scientific truth, is itself a historically contingent organization of material-practical relations. It only becomes available at a particular “stage of development”, and depends upon the coordination of the practical reproduction of this activity and the institution of its social necessity. This practice involves the subtraction or “bracketing out” of non-objective contents. Yet such contents are not eliminated; they must be retained in order to institute the social necessity of this practice. What is thus clear is that scientific activity does not have a privileged place over and above the unscientific self-consciousness of the proletariat; rather, scientific activity is only possible on the basis of the critical operation social consciousness performs upon itself, an operation that, once it reaches the science of economy, can only be properly performed by the proletariat.

While Marx may be a determinist, this entails neither the unreality of freedom nor the necessity of subordinating political activity to some scientific authority, be it that of biopolitical technocrats or a revolutionary vanguard. On the contrary, determinism only holds within the objective sphere, from which the non-objective sphere is relatively independent. We can be more or less practically free or unconstrained by social prohibitions and obligations and by historically contingent relations of force without being free from the chains of material causality; nonetheless, freedom can have a real significance for us without also having metaphysical significance. Moreover, scientific authority, while real, is only possible as a consequence of practico-critical activity, an activity that becomes politically revolutionary when it takes the economic structure of society as its object. Far from requiring political activity to submit to scientific authority, the latter is only a status instituted on the basis of the critical practice that discriminates between scientific and unscientific claims. This already amounts to a reversal of Leninist vanguardism.

We must therefore remember that Marx’s determinism is an economic determinism: society is fully determinate insofar as it is material, but its material character significantly includes the practical force exerted by humanity upon its world (labor). Our place in the schema is not on the side of relations of production, determined from without by material forces that constitute the “essence” of which we are the appearance. Rather, we are embedded in productive forces as much as productive relations; the two are merely different ways of understanding the same object, in objective and non-objective terms respectively. Our non-objective “internal” understanding of our practical existence may be subject to change due to changes in our objective situation, but we are ourselves part of and a significant force within this situation, and so change is not something that happens to us, but a movement of which we are a part. Instituting a critical evaluation of the economic structure of society is a historically contingent potential for social organization that we can seize upon, and that has been available to us at least since Marx’s time.

A further consequence that I cannot adequately defend here, and hence will simply assert with the the promissory note of future explanation, is that such critical activity has the effect not only of purifying science of unscientific presuppositions, but also of purging the ideal sphere of illegitimate claims to authority, justified by false appeals to objectivity. Fully realized critical activity (that is, when applied to social science, especially political economy) becomes revolutionary because it involves the practice of ceasing to recognize unjustified authority claims, including property rights. Individual freedoms like the right to property depend upon the collective institution of these rights, and if this institution is to be determined without unjustified forms of authority constricting collective decision-making, there must be a genuinely egalitarian form of productive relations such that all have an equal say in social institutions (economic and otherwise). Unjustified inequalities in wealth, for instance, are an impediment to such egalitarianism, and possessing exorbitant wealth to the detriment of others counts as unjustified form of authority to be critically liquidated. Thus, the same movement that produces a genuinely scientific political economy must also produce a form of social organization wherein a materially-equal population partake in collective determination of social institutions.

Does rejecting Leninist vanguardism means we must also reject the strategic emphasis on the dictatorship of the proletariat? Or is there a formulation of this concept consistent with the interpretation of historical materialism posed above? If the politicization of the proletariat does not require its deference to the “scientific” authority of a vanguard, then this dictatorship should not take the form of a technocracy of the vanguard, and certainly not an autocracy of their executive. Rather, our interpretation would require that the whole of the proletariat become organized through egalitarian collective decision-making processes, and thus collectively act as dictator. Yet this would be nothing but a democracy of the prolateriat. (While one may still retain suspicion of a democracy that is still qualified by its restriction to a particular group, there is nothing in principle that prevents non-proletarians from joining the proletariat; they need only give up their unjustified authority and material advantage and thus become a materially-equal member of society.)

A full elaboration of my interpretation of historical materialism will require a far broader account of the relation of Marx to Hegel and Kant, and how he can therefore be read in light of Robert Brandom’s normative pragmatics, and Pete Wolfendale’s fundamental deontology. (I have ventured a very preliminary attempt at this here.) Nonetheless, I hope this has at least laid the groundwork for an interpretation of historical materialism that does not fall prey to either scientism or indeterminism, and that therefore avoids Leninism and leads instead toward political Luxemburgism.

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12 Responses to Luxemburgism and Historical Materialism

  1. Pingback: Luxemburgism and Historical Materialism | Planomenology

  2. great lake swimmer says:

    some very interesting stuff reid, I am liking the new blog idea as well, keep it up

  3. Pingback: The Luxemburgist « Deontologistics

  4. Ross Wolfe says:

    The so-called “split” between Lenin and Luxemburg over party organization has been historically exaggerated from Paul Levi down to the New Left and continues to survive into our own time, despite numerous interventions to correct it. Luxemburg, while she undoubtedly had problems with the Bolshevik doctrine of vanguardism at first, later came to see its appropriateness to Russia’s situation at the time. This is according to Clara Zetkin and all of her closest confidants, and is corroborated by her later writings before her death that are clearly supportive of the October Revolution. Please see Lukacs’ excellent 1921 essay “Critical Observations on Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Critique of the Russian Revolution'” ( or Max Shachtman’s 1938 piece “Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg” (

    As far as the applicability of either Lenin’s or Luxemburg’s political interpretation of Marx to the present time is concerned, I’d say we’re fairly far removed from any position in which their slogans or tactics or even analyses of capitalism would be relevant. Both combated revisionism in their own time, and recognized an unprecedented opportunity for the realization of a postcapitalist, emancipated society. But our own historical situation has regressed significantly from the political consciousness and international leftist movement that existed in their day, and so I’d be reticent to look to either one’s specific prescriptions. If anything, I would say they are exemplary in their diagnosis of their own time, even if the project of world revolution they attempted ultimately proved a failure.

  5. Ross Wolfe says:

    This is also a useful treatment of the issue. One of my more recent entries takes up the problem of organization and spontaneity dealt with by Lenin and Luxemburg in relation to the standpoint of Kantian morality as well. You might find that interesting.

  6. Ross Wolfe says:

    Sorry to triple post on the subject, but I forgot one of the most insightful reflections on the relationship between the thought of Luxemburg and Lenin:

    Not only was the exaggerated split between Lenin and Luxemburg a product of New Left anti-authoritarian (and therefore superficially anti-Leninist) historiography, but even before then it was set up by the Stalinists as a justification for Stalin’s expulsion of Luxemburg’s former colleagues from the Party.

  7. Ross Wolfe says:

    Cool. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  8. Pingback: Leninism or Luxemburgism? | The Luxemburgist

  9. Pingback: A Response to Reid Cane’s “Leninism or Luxemburgism” « The Charnel-House

  10. Pingback: Comments on Capitalist Realism (Part 1) « Deontologistics

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