Friday, 15 August 2008

Luxemburg, Revisionism and Revolution

In the last post on History and Class Consciousness, we looked at Lukacs' understanding of 'orthodox' Marxism. The two key themes you could take from his essay was the intimate relationship between historical materialism and the working class; and his emphasis on the necessity of grasping the totality of capitalist social relations.

His second piece in History, The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg, is a logical extension of these concerns. Lukacs found Luxemburg an important figure in the elaboration of Marxism because, he argued, she expressed the kind of orthodoxy he was keen to establish. Especially where her frequent polemics with Eduard Bernstein and the revisionists were concerned.

To recap, in bourgeois social thought, the starting point of analysis is the individual. For reasons discussed in the previous post, there are no paths linking such a beginning to the totality of the social formation. The best it would be able to do is approach aspects of it in a disconnected, fragmentary manner. By way of illustrative example, one of the primary differences between political economy and the critique of it performed by Marx is that the former analyses capitalism from a position homologous to that of the individual capitalist, while Marx proceeded from the collective class totalities that constitute the system.

This was the point of attack for the revisionists. Because Marx elaborated his theories on the basis of a hypothetical society consisting solely of bourgeois and proletarians, they argued rising living standards and a growing middle class invalidated his analysis. For Luxemburg (and Lukacs) the revisionists made the cardinal error of, as Marx once put it, mistaking the things of logic for the logic of things. Marx's theoretical construct was merely a method of exposition designed to make clear the contradictions of capitalism so that this understanding can then be applied empirically. Lukacs cites Marx's analyses of primitive capital accumulation as one example - but there are many more instances throughout Marx's body of work.

Luxemburg was not merely concerned with critiquing revisionist ideas. She resolved to analyse their material basis. Just as Marx's critique of political economy located David Ricardo's work in the rising power of the bourgeoisie, Luxemburg produced a similar analysis of revisionism. To this day, it remains the standard Marxist understanding of the collapse of social democracy into the capitalist camp. Revisionism reflected the emergence of a privileged layer within the working class who benefited from the super profits West European imperialism brought home from its access to cheap raw materials and protected markets. This expressed itself in an outlook that looked to a peaceful, reformist road to socialism.

For Lukacs, this typifies the historical materialist method. Luxemburg's analysis demonstrates knowledge of the total historical process. It shows how an ideological struggle, Marxism vs revisionism, is in fact a struggle against a section of the class whose material circumstances put them at odds against the rest. As Lukacs summarises it (also speaking of Lenin's State and Revolution)
To ensure that the problems under consideration will arise before us dialectically, they provide what is substantially a literary-historical account of their genesis. They analyse the changes and reversals in the views leading up to the problem as it presents itself to them. They focus upon every stage of intellectual clarification or confusion and place it in the historical context conditioning it and resulting from it. This enables them to evoke with unparalleled vividness the historical process of which their own approach and their own solutions are the culmination. (1968: 35)
Lukacs already touched on the junking of materialist dialectics by the revisionists in the previous essay. In their abandonment of socialism as a real movement in society, as a process tied up with the experience and consciousness of the working class, revisionist socialism either becomes fatalist (socialism will happen (or not!) regardless) or ethical (socialism as a 'nice idea' that can be promoted through self-improvement and 'education). With varying permutations over the last century, revisionism in the form of social democracy, British Road Stalinism, Eurocommunism and 'Post-Marxism' sees no socialist potential in the working class. Marxism, because it deals with class totalities and class relations argues differently. Class consciousness and socialist politics are always latent and in certain circumstances, such as economic and/or political crisis, necessity can call it into being. Lukacs says
... the moment when the class consciousness of the proletariat begins to articulate its demands, when it is ‘latent and theoretical’, must also be the moment when it creates a corresponding reality which will intervene actively in the total process ... The form taken by the class consciousness of the proletariat is the Party. (1968: 41)
Luxemburg appreciated this understanding of class consciousness. Unlike those who freeze Lenin's 1902 arguments about workers being only capable of "trade union consciousness" into a dogma to justify their particularly elitist practice of the vanguard party, Luxemburg argued that workers could be spontaneously revolutionary. In fact, it follows that organisation is more likely an effect of the revolutionary process than its cause. The organisation - the revolutionary party - is endowed by the development of class struggle as the bearer of the most fully worked out form of proletarian class consciousness. Its mission is to fulfil the historical vocation of its class, to enable it defeat the bourgeoisie and capital and lay the basis for the new socialist society. However, even though the party develops through class struggle it cannot assume a tight relationship between it and the class. At every juncture the party must seek to merge itself with the class. It has to fight to ensure the struggles and energies unleashed by the revolutionary process finds expression in the politics and strategies the party espouses. If the party can win the trust of the mass it has earned its place at the head of the revolution.

Once again, owing to the terminology of the day, there is an implied inevitability about this. The problem is one can read a certain uniformity into the way class consciousness unfolds and construct a linear progression from the first primitive actions of the newly-proletarianised machine breaker to the brink of socialist revolution. If such a schema was the case, why aren't we now enjoying the fruits of almost a century of global socialism? Lukacs does address the problem of uneven and "false" consciousness in his subsequent essay, which we will visit in the next post on History.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.


Dave Riley said...

Maybe I'm jumping ahead but Lukacs excellent essay on Lenin -- Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought -- is a good antidote to Luxembourg's dedicated spontaneism. In practice she suffered the test of her own theories and the Spartacus came together a bit late in the day to save her from being murdered or to seize the political initiative. Of course Lukacs at the time -- in the Hunguarian Revolution -- was an even worse spontaneist! Both suffered from the impulses of ultra leftism (and Lenin's pamphlet on that topic was aimed at Lukacs and Co.)

So it is very hard to separate these polemics from their author's bio.

Phil BC said...

Dave, it's yet another Marxist classic on my 'must read' list. I wonder if I'll ever get round to reading all three volumes of Capital cover to cover at this rate!

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, Luxembourg would not have destroyed the power of the Soviets, butchered the sailors of Kronstadt and destoyed any hope of real Socialism.

Bordiga Lives

Phil BC said...

Of course Luxembourg wouldn't have, it's army wasn't big enough ;)

Phil said...

Luxemburg and Liebknecht almost certainly wouldn't have, but I wouldn't put it past Bordiga. If it comes down to the party or the soviets...