Wednesday, 20 March 2013

More on Luxemburg

Another in a series of articles this blog will be carrying as the IS Network embarks on a wide-ranging discussion and debate about the IS tradition and the way forward for the left. Each piece reflects the views of the author, not a collective position taken by the IS Network.

Guest post by Roobin

The first, most obvious thing to say is thank you to Tim for kicking this off. The process of recuperation from the SWP Debacle starts with people sharing their thoughts, if necessary in depth and at length. The blog and the forum needs more of this.

Rosa Luxemburg does matter, but not for the reasons Tim gives. I find the question of what kind of organisation revolutionaries need to be fantastically dry. The recent debates have been no different. Loyalist arguments returned again and again to buzzwords and ideas centralism, discipline, submit to the authority, accept the vote etc. A party must justify its existence. Why should I join? How are you different from the rest? If you have to define a party by its internal regime it’s a sure sign that party is merely self-perpetuating. Put simply, what kind of organisation do revolutionaries need? What’s the best shape for a peg?

The interesting thing about Luxemburg and what relates her thought to our predicament is how she asked the right questions but did not find satisfactory answers. Luxemburg’s political life was defined by the Second International, which operated from 1889 to 1914. The last third of the 19th Century was a period of stability and frustration. After practically a century of turmoil, somewhere between the end of the American Civil War and the foundation of the German Empire, all that was molten turned to stone. 

A number of popular ideologies foundered in the new age, Chartism, Blanquism, Jacobinism1 and so on, but Marxism survived. It survived because its bearers, particularly those in Germany adapted their outlook. They faced not only a stabilised capitalism and a strengthened state but also an extended franchise, as the empire tried to incorporate rather than exclude the working class. 

The strength of the enemy was a given. JP Nettl’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg describes time and again how the SPD’s leaders created a vacuum around the party as a way of preserving its revolutionary mission. It rejected the capitalist society every year, voting down the annual budget in the Reichstag2.

We know this changed from a strategy of adaption to a strategy of self-preservation. The Social Democratic Party was part of the capitalist structure, even if a negative part, a state within the state. 

We face a similar problem today. Every movement against this or that aspect of capitalism seems to be of no avail. Both the institutions and processes of capitalism seem impervious to outside influence. The SPD leadership sought to build by decreasing the friction with official society. Rosa Luxemburg’s outlook and strategy was the opposite. She argued the apparently smooth process of capital accumulation was still based on exploitation and violence, and would therefore undermine the current stability. She also promoted immediate ways of breaking through the stalemate (though perhaps we might see this as a contradiction). 

Luxemburg sought to build through, friction, polemic and conflict, and that is what’s key. It is consistent throughout her thoughts.

A Quick Glance

We should go back to her argument with Lenin, even if only to park it to one side. I think Lars Lih has fairly conclusively proven Luxemburg’s polemic was a straw argument, even if it was unintentional, based on one man’s account of the 1903 RSDLP conference. 

Most of what she argues in the debate is incontestable. I’ll take a famous quote: “The errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee”3. Who could argue against that? Why, sir, you’d worse than Stalin. Except, even if it was the case in early 20th century Russia, are we seriously going to argue today that knowledge and experience are unmediated? Wouldn’t the cleverest central committee have something to offer? Doesn’t this put us an ace away from the reactionary proposition that theory serves practice?

But it very clearly encapsulates her preoccupation: change comes through conflict. This is almost the Mass Strike summed up in four words. The Russian Revolution of 1905 aroused great interest in the European workers movement. Luxemburg shone a spotlight on a new feature of the revolutionary movement, and tried to apply it to western conditions. The mass strike was a means for workers to break through capitalist autonomism:

Already in November 1902 the first genuine revolutionary echo followed in the shape of a general strike at Rostov-on-Don. Disputes about the rates of pay in the workshops of the Vladicaucasus Railway gave the impetus to this movement. The management sought to reduce wages and therefore the Don committee of social democracy issued a proclamation with a summons to strike for the following demands: a nine-hour day, increase in wages, abolition of fines, dismissal of obnoxious engineers, etc. Entire railway workshops participated in the strike. Presently all other industries joined in and suddenly an unprecedented state of affairs prevailed in Rostov: every industrial work was at a standstill, and every day monster meetings of fifteen to twenty thousand were held in the open air, sometimes surrounded by a cordon of Cossacks, at which for the first time social democratic popular speakers appeared publicly, inflammatory speeches on socialism and political freedom were delivered and received with immense enthusiasm, and revolutionary appeals were distributed by tens of thousands of copies. In the midst of rigid absolutist Russia the proletariat of Rostov won for the first time the right of assembly and freedom of speech by storm. 

Except of course they hadn’t:

It goes without saying that there was a massacre here. The disputes over wages in the Vladicaucasus Railway workshops grew in a few days into a political general strike and a revolutionary street battle. As an echo to this they’re followed immediately a general strike at the station of Tichoretzkaia on the same railway. Here also a massacre took place and also a trial, and thus even Tichoretzkaia has taken its place in the indissoluble chain of the factors of the revolution4.

One of the things we always must allow for, if we are to use authority by quotation, is context. The Mass Strike was in many ways an internal document, written for an SPD readership. It would have seemed odd in the middle of a discussion about the Russian Revolution to have thrown in a reminder “we must also build the party”, no SPD member would have needed reminding.

Even so we notice there is a certain mechanism here. The mass strike is lightning fast. It organises our side and scatters the enemy and destroys all capitalist certainties. But again it’s not quite true. There have been bureaucratic mass strikes. There have been mass strikes that have been reigned in by union/party bureaucracies. There have been mass strikes that have dissipated and those that have been beaten off the streets (i.e. the ruling class was not fatally disorganised). Gramsci was very apt when he described a theory of class struggle based around the mass strike as like a theory of war based around artillery5.

There is a similar mechanism at work in The Accumulation of Capital. It is a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating book. It starts from the observation that Marx’s explanation of the reproduction of aggregate capital in Capital Volume Two is incomplete. 

In a fully capitalist society, consisting of capitalists and workers (and those that attend to either group) there is no way to realise surplus value generated. In Luxemburg’s scheme the solution is for capitalism to grow into the non-capitalist surrounds. Luxemburg cited the trend after the depression of the 1870s toward colonialism, which exported surplus capital (and surplus population) and restored the general rate of profit. The crunch comes when the non-capitalist surrounds are completely incorporated, when the world is completely colonised. What happens then? The struggle to re-divide colonial possession begins.

And World War One happened… so far so good for the theory. But then capitalism lingered for another 100 years. Taking capital out of immediate circulation does indeed reverse the tendency of the rate of profit to decline, but that doesn’t mean you’re negating it as capital, that you are taking it outside capitalism, otherwise long-term fixed investment is outside capitalism, the welfare state is outside capitalism, war is outside capitalism. 
Drawing non-capitalist societies into the system did indeed lead first to stabilisation then to further turmoil and conflict. It did not lead to the dramatic, apocalyptic simplification of class struggle, implicit in the Junius Pamphlet. Lenin was right when he predicted revolutionary nationalism as a major factor in 20th Century politics.

Our situation

What should we take from all this? To begin with it’s probably a negative proposition. I remember in SWP conference 2006 a comrade responded to John Molyneux’s argument about the stability of capitalism, “John says capitalism is stable but things can take off just like that”. I remember thinking to myself, “yeah, trouble is they never do”. They then produced a bastardised version of the mass strike argument. 

Class struggle today is exceptionally mediated. Instants of open class struggle are not unequivocally transforming. If it was ever common it is now rare for our side to be able to land an unequivocal blow on the capitalist class. Europe is going through an age of mass strikes against austerity. Greece has seen dozens of them in recent years, yet according to Alex Tsipras Greece is on verge of a humanitarian crisis6. It takes more than spectacular movements of people to effect lasting change.

We should take the Gramscian view. War of manoeuvre rarely yields meaningful results, especially when it has not been reinforced by war of position. In this case it means chasing mass strikes (the SWP industrial strategy for too long) will not result in long term gains for the socialist movement. We will see rebuilding happen through aggregation of smaller struggles, consistent argument and long-term organisation… perhaps that’s what Rosa Luxemburg would argue in our place too.

1. A good example – the opening chapter of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary captures the largely pointless (certainly fruitless) turbulence of anarchist Paris. 
2. August Bebel’s slogan: “not one man not one penny for the system”.
5. His comments open up the intriguing notion: even if you hold onto the revolutionary goal, the outcome of instants of open class struggle, just like battles in regular war, depend much more the period of material and ideological preparation than on the acts themselves.

IS Network members can join the discussion on the forum


  1. I'd like to make two quick points on this.

    Firstly, I think we could be too quick to dismiss the importance of Luxemburg's contribution to the debate on party organisation. There has been a constant theme within the labour movement, with the traditional social democratic parties, the Stalinist Communist parties, and most Trotskyist organisations, in that they have had top-down, often bureaucratic versions of party democracy. The reaction to this in recent years, particularly in the youth movement, has been to look for alternatives. A democratic, bottom-up version of socialist democracy has something to offer to that debate.

    A second point is that I think Roobin misrepresents Luxemburg's ideas about the mass strike as mechanistic- "The mass strike is lightning fast. It organises our side and scatters the enemy and destroys all capitalist certainties. But again it’s not quite true. There have been bureaucratic mass strikes. There have been mass strikes that have been reigned in by union/party bureaucracies. There have been mass strikes that have dissipated and those that have been beaten off the streets (i.e. the ruling class was not fatally disorganised). "
    It should be pointed out that in The Mass Strike Luxemburg went into great detail about the limitations of bureaucratic mass strikes. Any over-emphasis on the centrality or potential of mass strikes can be put down to the excitement due to witnessing the power of the mass strike in action in 1905, and polemical rigour when taking on the reformists in the SPD who were sticking to the "orthodoxy" of dismissing mass strikes in favour of parliamentary activity.

  2. Well, it's not polemical rigour in one sentence to say, "in the midst of rigid absolutist Russia the proletariat of Rostov won for the first time the right of assembly and freedom of speech by storm" and the next say "it goes without saying that there was a massacre here".

  3. It's should say "Why, sir, you’d be worse than Stalin". Only now do I see the spelling mistakes. Pah!

  4. It is certainly an unfair libel on Engels to claim that he supported "dismissing any self-activity of the working class in favour of the "tried and tested method" of building a mass parliamentary party"...

  5. I was going to say "source please". I know he made comments about the obsolescence of barricades in the 1895 intro to The Class Struggles in France.

  6. Where are your comments going, Tim?

  7. I think you don't sufficiently deal with the substance of Luxemburg's critiques of Lenin in the initial piece, a critique I suspect that would be of a great deal of use in thinking about the effective ethical collapse of the SWP.

  8. There was no real substance in Luxemburg's critique of Lenin (not really the subject anyway). It is the most arid part of her writing. Also, Lenin has very little to do with the SWP, let alone it's ethical collapse.

  9. You've asserted this a couple times, but you haven't really engaged with her argument to prove so. In many ways, Luxemburg's argument can help understand the process that the SWP went through the 1980's and 1990's, as it responded to the conservative tide by metaphorically building up its own barricades. After all, a lot of what Luxemburg discusses is the way that Lenin tries to shore up the party against the contemporary phenomenon of 'revisionism' Also, a cursory glance at the recently republished and expanded collection of Luxemburg's letters shows a deep engagement with not only the SPD, but also the Polish Party, and the highly interconnected Russian Party. One of the interesting aspects of the letter is precisely its exposure of the porousness of those boundaries.

  10. "Her" argument? You know there's a time and space limit to all this? I have read substantial amounts of her work and several biographies. You do have to take my word for that, but it is also true. Lenin's argument, by which we mean What is to Be Done is tangential to revisionism. I point to Lars Lih's work, which should be the consensus on early Russian socialism, which builds a substantial argument: Lenin's aim was not defeating revisionism, which never took root in Russia, but reorganising the RSDLP to better frustrate the efforts of the Okhrana... and let's also be clear, Lenin did not lead to Kimber.

  11. I don't have to take your word for it. I've read the essay by Luxemburg. Incidentally, the essay isn't a response to What is to be Done, but is in response to another piece which defends the forms of centralized discipline introduced by Lenin. (I think What is to be Done is a much more interesting text.) I'm aware of Lih's arguments, which I am sympathetic with, but seem to be used to remove any responsibility on the part of Lenin for the behavior of a party that he was a central member of. I think that's fairly problematic.