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.)
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.