Leninism or Luxemburgism?

First, I just want to clarify something. In a previous post, I made some critical comments on the will to sectarianism that has so thoroughly fragmented the radical left. Yet doesn’t this blog explicitly align itself with a particular splinter-group, one based upon Luxemburg’s interpretation of Marxism? When I use the term ‘Luxemburgist’, however, the intention is not to mark myself as committed to a specific theoretico-political position and opposed to other incompatible positions. As I’ve said before, what I find compelling in Luxemburg’s ideas is the way they seem to draw together the best elements of the various splinters of libertarian socialism, and therefore have the potential to support a decidedly counter-sectarian impulse. I need to do a lot of work to defend this position, and doing so is one of the principle tasks of this blog. (I also need to defend my use of the term “libertarian socialism”, usually taken as synonymous with “social anarchism”, to characterize various forms of Marxism as well, going so far as to say that there are recoverable libertarian elements within Leninism and other paradigmatically authoritarian positions.)

Second, I want to bring up some critical comments by Ross Wolfe of The Charnel-House. Ross 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’” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/ch07.htm) or Max Shachtman’s 1938 piece “Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg” (http://www.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/archive/shachtma/1938/05/len-lux.htm).

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.

Ross makes two major points here: 1) the sharp distinction between Luxemburgism and Leninism is based less on real theoretical and strategic incompatibilities than on a revisionist exaggeration of their divergences; and 2) both Leninism and Luxemburgism were appropriate responses to their specific historical and contextual circumstances, but have limited applicability in our very different present circumstances.

With regards to 1: I agree with Ross that the terms of the distinction between Leninism and Luxemburgism have been drawn in specious ways, but this doesn’t mean we ought to collapse the distinction altogether. Basically, the distinction has been drawn from two sides: by Stalinists, who portray Luxemburg as a centrist or Menshevik traitor; and by opponents of Bolshevism who portray her as providing a critical-theoretical basis for their position. The latter position, according to Lukacs, was reinforced by Paul Levi’s publication of an unfinished set of Luxemburg’s reflections on the Russian Revolution, in which she set out criticisms on which she would later renege.

Now I don’t know to what extent Luxemburg changed the views expressed in that work, but as Lukacs says, it is ultimately unimportant when assessing the validity of the explicit claims. Lukacs goes on to challenge many of her criticisms of Bolshevik policies for being based on inadequate or incorrect information of the actual situation in Russia. Where Luxemburg criticizes various actions taken by the Bolsheviks as playing into the hands of counter-revolutionary forces, Lukacs claims that such actions were taken out of desperate necessity and not by free choice. What Lukacs doesn’t mention is that Luxemburg’s criticisms account for this possibility. Both in the aforementioned essay and in an earlier pre-revolutionary assessment of Lenin, she is very explicit in recognizing that the particular context of the Russian situation will likely force them to make non-ideal decisions, and she goes so far as to laud to courage required to risk the socialist cause on such desperate measures.

Doubtless the Bolsheviks would have proceeded in this very way were it not that they suffered under the frightful compulsion of the world war, the German occupation and all the abnormal difficulties connected therewith, things which were inevitably bound to distort any socialist policy, however imbued it might be with the best intentions and the finest principles. […]

It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t get Lenin off the hook, for there is a great danger in misrecognizing the character of strategy undertaken by necessity:

The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics. When they get in there own light in this way, and hide their genuine, unquestionable historical service under the bushel of false steps forced on them by necessity, they render a poor service to international socialism for the sake of which they have fought and suffered; for they want to place in its storehouse as new discoveries all the distortions prescribed in Russia by necessity and compulsion – in the last analysis only by-products of the bankruptcy of international socialism in the present world war.

Such a theoretical hypostatization is something which Luxemburg recognized Lenin as being prone to as early as 1904. Now again, I am uncertain as to the precise nature of Luxemburg’s shift vis a vis the Bolsheviks, but I doubt it goes further than affirming the same sentiments expressed above. If she would go so far as to side with Lenin on the necessarily centralistic character of proletarian dictatorship, it would amount to a renunciation of her most original and important contributions to Marxist political philosophy, and hence would amount to an error compared to the earlier positions with which it broke.

Lukacs’s criticism is not limited to accusing Luxemburg of misunderstanding the context of Bolshevik policies; he goes on to condemn her argument as lacking in dialectical rigor, especially where it offers an alternative to the Leninist conception of socialist transformation. (I don’t mean to conflate Ross’s criticisms with Lukacs’s, but Ross leaves his interpretation of the relation between Lenin and Luxemburg unspecified for the most part. Lukacs seems to want to argue that the arguments by which Luxemburg explicitly distances herself from Leninism are based on either factual or logical errors, the correction of which would considerably narrow the gap between them. Whether or not Ross wants to follow this reasoning, I think it is important to clarify Luxemburg’s criticisms and positive alternatives to Leninism, to show how they better exemplify materialist dialectics than Leninism and its Lukacsian defense, and thus to show that there is a real, non-spurious distinction between the two positions. This is not to characterize them as abstractly opposed; Luxemburgism should be understood as the determinate negation of Leninism, making explicit the inconsistencies and errors in Lenin’s political reasoning and insodoing producing a more consistent iteration of its core virtues.)

Lukacs’s main argument is that Luxemburg forgoes her characteristic dialectal rigor while criticizing Lenin in favor of a problematic “organicism” or “spontaneiesm” about revolutionary change. In the dialectical view, the revolutionary movement can only proceed by confronting a series of contradictions, recognizing the manner in which these contradictions necessarily arise from its own premises, and overcoming these contradictions by progressively reconstituting its practical and theoretical bases. Organicism, on the other hand, would entail that progressive change is a natural necessity, and the only obligation of active revolutionaries is to prevent interference that would delay or stunt this progress. The Leninist party is deemed the necessary correlate of a properly dialectical revolutionary strategy, as only a centralized authority over the movement is capable of carrying out transformations of that movement obliged by accumulating contradictions. Luxemburg, in Lukacs’s view, wants to reduce the role of such a centralist organization to safeguarding the natural and spontaneous progress of the workers’ revolution from external interference and contamination.

Throughout his essay, Lukacs plainly mischaracterizes the role of “spontaneity” in Luxemburg’s thought, disregarding its properly dialectical relation to organization. He understands the former as referring to a process that people to do not intentionally plan and initiate, but as an unintentional byproduct. “[S]he regards the form of organisation itself as something which grows and not as something ‘made’.” Yet this is a bad faith reading of Luxemburg’s actual claims if there ever was one. It is not Luxemburg, but Lukacs who forces the alternative between “growing” and “making”. For Luxemburg, the distinction is not between a spontaneous genesis that is not consciously orchestrated by people and a conscious organization that supervenes on and constrains this natural process. “Spontaneity” rather refers to political and social activity that are not strictly coordinated by an explicit strategic plan, but which constitutes the practical premises of explicit strategic coordination. This is not to say that the “unorganized” masses cannot err, nor that the role of organizations is to simply safeguard the naturally revolutionary activity of the working class. Rather, without explicit organization, the masses will generate all kinds of confusions, inconsistencies, and conflicts amongst themselves; these are settled, and the revolutionary tendencies of the masses become more explicit and directed, when they produces organizational forms of mediation and thereby overcome their internal strife. Organizations are to be understood as instruments of the working class movement, not the other way around.

Lukacs indicts Luxemburg of an inchoate organicism even in her most exemplary dialectical moments:

In the debate with Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg has incisively demonstrated that the idea of an organic ‘growth’ into socialism is untenable. She showed convincingly that history advances dialectically and that the internal contradictions of the capitalist system are constantly intensified; and this is so not merely in the sphere of pure economics but also in the relations between economics and politics. Thus at one point we find clearly stated: “The relations of production of capitalist society become increasingly socialist but its political and legal arrangements erect an ever loftier wall between capitalist and socialist society.” This implies the necessity of a violent, revolutionary break with prevailing social trends. Admittedly we can already see here the seeds of a belief that the Revolution was needed only to remove the ‘political’ obstacles from the path of economic developments. But such a glaring light is thrown upon the dialectical contradictions in capitalist production that it is hardly possible to justify such a conclusion in this context. Moreover, Rosa Luxemburg does not deny the necessity of violence in connection with the Russian Revolution. She declares: “Socialism presupposes a series of acts of violence — against property, etc.” And later, in the Spartacus Programme it is recognised that “the violence of the bourgeois counter-revolution must be opposed by the revolutionary violence of the proletariat”.

However, this recognition of the role of violence refers only to the negative aspect, to the sweeping away of obstacles; it has no relevance to social construction. This cannot be “imposed or introduced by ukase”. “The socialist system of society,” Rosa Luxemburg claims, “should only be and can only be a historical product, born of the school of its own experiences; and — just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part — has the fine habit of always producing, along with any real social need, the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution.”

I shall not pause to dwell on the singularly undialectical nature of this line of thought on the part of an otherwise great dialectician. It is enough to note in passing that the rigid contrast, the mechanical separation of the ‘positive’ and the ‘negative’, of ‘tearing down’ and ‘building up’ directly contradicts the actuality of the Revolution. For in the revolutionary measures taken by the proletarian state, especially those taken directly after the seizing of power, the ‘positive’ cannot be separated from the ‘negative’ even conceptually, let alone in practice. The process of struggling against the bourgeoisie, of seizing from its hands the instruments of power in economic conflict coincides — especially at the beginning of the revolution — with the first steps towards organising the economy.

Yet the one-sidedness of the relation between negative and positive aspects of revolutionary change is not native to Luxemburg’s argument, which only takes on this appearance due to Lukacs’s glaring omission of its essential claims:

[S]ocialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Luxemburg does not criticize Leninist party centralism because it stunts the natural, spontaneous emergence of revolutionary organization, but because the this party, far from being the sole agent capable of guiding the movement beyond contradictions, seeks to subordinate the whole of the movement to its unitary programme, thereby preventing the emergence of contradictions internal to the movement. Explicit forms of organization must arise and change in response to such internal contradictions, rather than preceding, anticipating, and preemptively suppressing these contradictions. The point isn’t simply that reformists should be given a free voice within the movement for freedom’s sake, but that the problems with the reformist tendency must be explicitly demonstrated and overcome in practice. It is only by developing and actively overcoming its theoretical and practical contradictions that the movement will make any progress. This is quite far from spontanenism.

Lukacs is also in bad faith in criticizing Luxemburg for rejecting the soviets as a weapon, in favor of returning to the Constituent Assembly. Luxemburg’s point is that the Bolsheviks falsely understood the failure of a particular instance of representative democracy as an indictment of representative democracy tout court, rather than recognizing the possibility of the latter becoming the vital terrain of contestation within the revolutionary movement, in which various contradictory positions can explicate their incompatibilities and determine a manner of overcoming them. Her criticism of the soviets is thus obviously not directed at them in principle, as democratic councils that emerge from working class organization, but the Bolshevik subordination of the power of the soviets to a hierarchical structure that makes them mere limbs of the Central Committee. The soviets must be autonomous sites in which distinct currents within the movement can articulate themselves, and the Constitutent Assembly could have served as the venue in which emergent antagonisms amongst these currents could be not only mediated but leveraged for the progressive development of the movement as a whole.

So I think there is good evidence for distinguishing between Luxemburgist and Leninist approaches to the political implications of Marxism, and that there are good reasons to prefer the former, even if this distinction has been drawn in spurious ways in the past.

Moving on to point 2: Ross seems to whitewashe Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin as arising from an inappropriate inattention to context, and dissolving once proper attention is paid. Yet while she does admit that in certain circumstances, relatively rigid and authoritarian forms of organization might be necessary to prevent the collapse of the revolutionary movement, she is very clear that it is inappropriate to treat these extraordinary measures as the norm which all revolutionary organizations should obey. On the contrary, in her view, the revolutionary movement can only make progress by continually reproducing itself out of a diverse and vibrant internal intercourse, and by infusing its bureaucratic and parliamentary organs with the enthusiastic critical engagement of its popular constituents. While she made many concrete strategic proposals that are not directly applicable to our particular historical and social circumstances, to collapse the entirety of her political thinking into such situation-specific strategy is an grave error, tantamount to abandoning historical materialism in favor of historical relativism. Against this temptation, it is essential to insist that Luxemburg’s work is supported by political principles that are not only still relevant today, but that will continue to be relevant as long as people are committed to living in a classless society.

Turning to Luxemburg, Lenin, or any other revolutionary thinkers today requires a keen appreciation of the historical specificity to which they were responding. Yet Ross goes so far as to imply that there is little if anything to be salvaged from their work for contemporary purposes. This is not an approach I can endorse, as it seems to imply a stark discontinuity between the economic and political circumstances of today and a century ago, something which I think is just plain wrong, and a lack of anything like truths expressed in the work of such thinkers that transcend their historical and contextual relevance. The latter is in my view, again, a grave error, as historical materialism is as much a doctrine of the historically-specific practical conditions in which certain theoretical paradigms become plausible as of the emergence within such paradigms of ideas that transcend their specific context and thus can become involved in the active transformation of that context.

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10 Responses to Leninism or Luxemburgism?

  1. Ross Wolfe says:

    An excellent and thorough reply. I especially appreciated your specific treatment of Lukacs’ criticisms of Luxemburg. My own relationship to Lukacs’ take on Lenin and Luxemburg will be made clear in a later post, where I will elaborate my own position.

    For now, I will say that Luxemburg’s 1904 critique of What is to be Done? in her “Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy” (invidiously appended as “Leninism or Marxism?” in a 1961 English translation) is indeed a harsh condemnation of Lenin’s conception of the party as a centralized, vanguard organization. However, Luxemburg’s article was based on a number of factual errors. Lenin responded to these in his famous reply that same year, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”.

    While I don’t believe that Luxemburg ever specifically addressed Lenin’s reply (or if she did, it’s never been translated into English), she later clearly revised her earlier criticisms of the Bolshevik doctrine of party organization. Whereas in her “Organizational Questions” article she repeatedly accused the Bolsheviks of Blanquism — of being a minority party bent on dragging the masses along with them — as early as 1906 she passionately defended Lenin and the Bolsheviks from Plekhanov’s charge that their political platform amounted to Blanquism, in her piece “Blanquism and Social Democracy”. There she writes:

    We would dispute comrade Plekhanov’s reproach to the Russian comrades of the current “majority” [bolshevik/большевик of course literally means “majority”] that they have committed Blanquist errors during the revolution. It is possible that there were hints of them in the organisational draft that comrade Lenin drew up in 1902 [What is to be Done], but that belongs to the past – a distant past, since today life is proceeding at a dizzying speed. These errors have been corrected by life itself and there is no danger they might recur.

    Clearly Luxemburg no longer agreed with her prior assessment of the Bolshevik party organization, at least not on the issue of Blanquism. I think part of this owes to the emergent exigency of Russian revolutionary possibilities after 1905 and Luxemburg’s stronger personal friendship with Lenin after this point.

    Anyway, this hardly constitutes an adequate response to the points you raise in your post, and neglects many of them entirely, but I have to get going at the moment. I’ll respond more fully later.

    • reidkane says:

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Just to be clear, the Leninism vs Marxism alternative first appeared in the title of a pamphlet version of the essay long before its English translation, and while I’m not sure to what extent she was involved in this form of publication, its wrong to suggest that the alternative originated with the Anglo-American gaze.

      That first essay certainly included some inaccuracies, but I think it is wrong to suggest that her criticisms are wholly nullified by recognizing as much. To an extent, as Lenin observes, even her more general complaints can be seen as too idealistic when measured against the actual situation in Russia. Nonetheless, as she later insists, the deferral of ideals due to circumstances should not lead to their replacement by an idealization of measures taken out of necessity, including the blatantly centralist and anti-democratic policies of the Soviet Union. Even if Lenin’s early theoretical texts are not as overtly “ultra-centralist” as Luxemburg makes them out to be, in practice there is no other way to describe the Soviet Union than ultra-centralist, anti-democratic, and ultimately, a vehicle for bourgeois takeover (although these characteristics might not have been cemented until long after Lenin’s death).

      I don’t think its right to suggest that because Luxemburg retracted her portrayal of Lenin as a Blanquist, she also implicitly went back on her other criticisms of the Bolsheviks. The situation may have played out differently than Luxemburg’s reading of Lenin’s early texts may have indicated, but in the end, her ‘misreading’ (to whatever extent is was one) was rather prophetic. This is not to say that the post-Lenin Soviet Union would have succeeded if it had taken a more “Luxemburgist” direction, nor that such a direction was even an option. I do think, however, that a major factor in the failure of the Soviet Union (a failure beginning at least as early as Stalin’s rise) was the degree of centralization of power, the non-democratic character of the authority structure, and the consequent disjunction between the party and their base.

      In general, I think the Bolsheviks, however nobel their cause, were doomed from the start, insofar as their revolutionary ambitions focused disproportionately on the seizure of State power and the imposition of socialism from above. For me, Luxemburgism means that such political ambitions should be subordinated to economic struggle, to the gradual constitution of a base of power in the hands of local worker’s councils that, at a certain point, will create conditions under which State power cannot but fall to the share of the proletariat. “Overthrow” of the State apparatus should be the “final act of the drama”, the culmination of a mature economic struggle, not the other way around.

      • Ross Wolfe says:

        No problem. In elaborating my position in response to your post, however, my reply was beginning to reach a length that would be absurd for a comment. So I decided instead to post the full response as an entry on my blog. I feel that this exchange has been productive.

      • Ross Wolfe says:

        Metaphysically speaking, I would not say that the principle of democratic centralism “inevitably” led to the rise of someone like Stalin (by necessity, that is). Of course, it can’t be denied that centralism contained the possibility of a Stalin, since this was the reality which eventually actualized. There were a number of historical contingencies that facilitated this development, not the least of which was the failure of the European proletariat to successfully seize power, largely the consequence of the betrayal of Second International Social-Democracy. Luxemburg was entirely correct on this score. Of course one can’t speak too certainly of counterfactual possibilities, alternate histories and the like. But it is nevertheless my feeling that this moment — in the aftermath of the Great War — constitutes the most concrete opportunity for revolutionary emancipation that has been seen to date.

        Your definition of Luxemburgism seems to me a reasonable one; it’s a helpful clarification. Yet I am not sure to what extent calling for workers’ councils would be appropriate in the present moment. I understand you’re not saying that we should, necessarily. The problem, as I see it, is one of social consciousness. Even on an immediate, unreflective level, there really is no longer a widespread global anti-capitalist sentiment on the “Left,” except often in horribly reactionary or regressive ideological forms. Islamic extremism, for example, is extremely hostile to social and cultural modernization, the commodity-culture of capitalism, and the desacralization and secularization that comes with it. This even as they use state-of-the-art weapons and modern tactics. It can thus be said to be ideologically anti-capitalist, though its reactionary status can hardly be questioned. On the Left, ecological activists and multiculturalists don’t really seem to be interested in realizing a fundamentally different social system, but rather just a more sustainable and tolerant or inclusive version of liberal democracy.

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

  3. reidkane says:

    Yet I am not sure to what extent calling for workers’ councils would be appropriate in the present moment. I understand you’re not saying that we should, necessarily. The problem, as I see it, is one of social consciousness.

    I’m not ‘calling’ for workers’ councils, as social conditions aren’t generally ripe for them. The goal is first to ripen social conditions, and while shifting consciousness is an inevitable element of this, it is not the principle problem. The problem is one of the practical relationships people have to their material conditions of existence, and to each other as mediated by these conditions. A proper shift in these relations can occur without a corresponding shift in consciousness, but aiming to change consciousness alone won’t get us anywhere. (I don’t mean to suggest that you advocate the latter, but such an approach is implied when one disconnects questions of social consciousness from those of the practical material constitution of social existence.)

    If I think ‘workers’ councils’, or some modern version of them, are essential and need to be employed, it is because they amount to the elemental form of reconstituted relations of production that must go hand-in-hand with a reorganization of productive forces. Nonetheless, they cannot be instituted abstractly but must be formed alongside the propagation of new modes of using one’s existing economic/material resources and new ways of relating to others on the basis of their economic situations. To simplify matters, workers must become convinced that they should use whatever economic means they have to struggle against the existing mode of production rather than to survive or succeed in that system’s terms, and that they should regard each other as allies rather than competitors and capitalists as enemies rather than benefactors. This is easier said than done of course, but its obviously not impossible. And consciousness is not a negligible factor here by any means, but I think the general approach should involve demonstrating that such a different employment of one’s means, whatever they might be, is feasible, that there is already an existing network of relations, however meager, that can support and intensify this alternative use, and that the preferability of this approach can be demonstrated in terms people already consciously accept and rely on by showing how certain basic presumptions contain contradictory implications.

    On the Left, ecological activists and multiculturalists don’t really seem to be interested in realizing a fundamentally different social system, but rather just a more sustainable and tolerant or inclusive version of liberal democracy.

    Again, I find your pessimism about the Left to be disconcerting and uncalled for. I agree that the majority of leftists today, be they straighforwardly liberal or not, tend to miss the big picture of socio-economic transformation. What we should be doing is not bemoaning their regressive ideas and attitudes, but establishing solidarity with them, expressing in a constructive and respectful way our criticism of their approaches, and working to show them how our approach provides a more comprehensive response to the problems they only address in a relatively superficial manner.

  4. Ross Wolfe says:

    In terms of the social conditions necessary for the (re)constitution of workers’ councils (or whatever organizational mode might be required for the realization of a postcapitalist, emancipated society), I would agree with your assessment that these conditions are presently unripe. Nevertheless, I would still contend that on a strictly objective level, speaking only in reference to the material means of production, the necessary conditions for a revolutionary transformation of society have existed since at least 1871, and possibly even earlier. That is to say, the productive forces of society and the means for the distribution of their goods had already developed to such an extant that, even at this early point, enough could be produced to satisfy the vital needs of all of humanity. Since this time, social productivity has vastly increased. The amount of material wealth that society could potentially provide for its members has of course likewise increased. This is why I emphasize the importance of social consciousness and the subjective dimension of revolutionary transformation, because at a purely objective level, the means of production necessary to achieve this transformation have existed for a long time.

    Yet social consciousness is not something that can changed at a whim, and it often becomes so encrusted with reified conceptions of social reality that it acquires a quasi-objective character (to borrow a phrase from Moishe Postone). Society appears to us in an alienated form, as something existing in itself — apart from us, outside of our control, and fundamentally unknowable: a noumenal Ding an sich. And for all intents and purposes, it is all these things so long as consciousness fails to take possession of it. The few forms in which the social totality becomes intelligible to us, the rules by which it appears to operate, tend to reflect the objective configuration of society at any given moment, even if only its surface features are understood. These are, of course, almost invariably naturalized as simply “the way things are”: immutable, transhistorical, and essentially unchangeable. So you are right to say that social consciousness is mediated by the “practical material constitution of social existence,” insofar as the fetish forms that congeal in consciousness mirror the shifting social relations of production (and circulation).

    As for the task of reawakening a global anti-capitalist consciousness, whether it should be accomplished by encouraging workers to form new social relationships or by directly appealing to their self-understanding, I am unsure which course of action is best. To be sure, I would be the last person to advocate the facile consciousness-raising tactics of much contemporary social activism, handing out pamphlets and trying to “raise awareness” about some issue. For the most part, this long ago became self-parody. But discovering an alternative to this practice is difficult. As Luxemburg said in her Junius Pamphlet, there is “no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show [the proletariat] the path to follow.”

    The problem, as I’ve suggested, is that the imagination of a society fundamentally different from the one we have has been lost. There are many historic reasons for this loss, but few on the Left seem to want to examine them, to understand why past attempts to realize a better society have failed. In fact, by and large the Left seems to have lost its historical self-understanding altogether. I’m not sure, however, if the best way to correct these ahistorical tendencies tendencies on the Left is by gently guiding them along so that they can better recognize the “big picture of socio-economic transformation,” as you rightly put it. While some might be responsive to it, I’ve found that even those who do express interest in adopting an adequate, Marxian theory of society often just awkwardly or haphazardly tack it on their pre-existing Leftist beliefs. They attempt to adapt it to whatever they already understood to be “progressive,” as almost just a further justification for what they believe. In my experience, it generally doesn’t matter to them how incompatible their ideas might be with a genuinely Marxist approach.

    Though it may seem pessimistic, the position I adopt when it comes to the Left (and Right, also) tends to be one of ruthless critique. It’s more or less identical to the position adopted by Platypus, which some of their members have referred to as a “pessimism of the strong,” quoting Nietzsche. I’ve tried to explain my stance on this score in connection with Luxemburg in a recent entry on my blog, since my attitude actually derives from some thoughts she expressed on the matter. Anyway, sorry if this comment has been overlong.

  5. Ross Wolfe says:

    Just to clarify my last comment, the development of the productive forces and networks of transportation I described in the first paragraph can be regarded as accomplishment of the capitalist social formation, the fulfillment of its historic task. The great paradox of capitalism is that it contains this emancipatory potential even as it oppresses us.

    In the second paragraph, the point I’m getting at about subjectivity and the role of consciousness in humanity’s self-mastery of society and history is summed up by two fairly well-known quotes from Marx and Engels. First, there is Marx’s famous remark near the outset of The 18th Brumaire:

    Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

    And Engels, though he usually falls well short of Marx’s greatness, has some excellent lines on humanity finally making its own history, from Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

    The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.

  6. John L says:

    “Lukacs is also in bad faith in criticizing Luxemburg for rejecting the soviets as a weapon, in favor of returning to the Constituent Assembly. Luxemburg’s point is that the Bolsheviks falsely understood the failure of a particular instance of representative democracy as an indictment of representative democracy tout court, rather than recognizing the possibility of the latter becoming the vital terrain of contestation within the revolutionary movement, in which various contradictory positions can explicate their incompatibilities and determine a manner of overcoming them. Her criticism of the soviets is thus obviously not directed at them in principle, as democratic councils that emerge from working class organization, but the Bolshevik subordination of the power of the soviets to a hierarchical structure that makes them mere limbs of the Central Committee. The soviets must be autonomous sites in which distinct currents within the movement can articulate themselves, and the Constitutent Assembly could have served as the venue in which emergent antagonisms amongst these currents could be not only mediated but leveraged for the progressive development of the movement as a whole.”

    I’ll be honest and say that there is an awful lot I disagree with in your essay, but the things wrong with this passage exemplify them. You discuss near the start of your article Lukacs’ criticism that Rosa didn’t take into account the actual situation in russia, and insist that she did. But the quote above demonstrates that you, following in Rosa’s footsteps in this regard, do not uinderstand the situation that existed in russia.

    The Utopian notion that the constituent assembly might come to represent some sort of popular discussion forum, bringing out the contradictions in the revolutionary movement seems to me farcical. The CA would have become an HQ for reaction, dominated not by the working class, whose natural seat of power was the soviet and who were at the is point in time being annihalted in the civil war, but the middle class, dominated by the remnants of the mensheviks and SRs, and by some of the most backward elements of the anarchists. These forces were not part of some broad revolutionary movement with disagreements over how to proceed with the revolution. The SRs and Mensheviks had put themselves firmly on the other side of the barricade from the revolution, by their attempt even before october 1917 to subvert the soviets and eliminate the bolsheviks with their death squads.

    The point you make about the soviets becoming limbs of the bolshevik CC rather than genuine representations of workers self organisation completely misses the point. They were such mass democratic organs before the civil war. the civil war all but wiped out the revolutionary working class. The absorption of the soviets in the Bolshevik apperatus was acknowledged and resisted by the Bolshevik leadership but was unavoidable.

  7. reidkane says:

    “You discuss near the start of your article Lukacs’ criticism that Rosa didn’t take into account the actual situation in russia, and insist that she did.”

    Nope.

    “But the quote above demonstrates that you, following in Rosa’s footsteps in this regard, do not uinderstand the situation that existed in russia.”

    Didn’t make any claims about the situation in Russia. My claims were strictly about Luxemburg’s text and Lukacs’s mischaracterization thereof.

    “The point you make about the soviets becoming limbs of the bolshevik CC rather than genuine representations of workers self organisation completely misses the point. They were such mass democratic organs before the civil war. the civil war all but wiped out the revolutionary working class. The absorption of the soviets in the Bolshevik apperatus was acknowledged and resisted by the Bolshevik leadership but was unavoidable.”

    Not my point, Luxemburg’s point. Moreover, you are the one missing the point, which is that this centralization ought not have occurred. If the Bolshevik leadership agreed that with this prescription, it is of course understandable that circumstances intervened to make it impossible, but it is not so clear why this affirmation is absent from their theoretical writings.

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