Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Luxemburg and the Organic Conception of Socialism

In the final two pieces in History and Class Consciousness, Lukacs turns his attention to the problems of socialist organisation. The final piece is a general meditation on the revolutionary party, but this, ‘Critical Observations on Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Critique of the Russian Revolution’ is, not surprisingly, a polemic against her views on the Bolsheviks. But this is not a point-by-point contestation of ‘the facts’ – it is a deep philosophical critique of her method.

The critique begins from what Lukacs argues is a misreading of the character of proletarian revolution in her remarks on the agrarian question in revolutionary Russia (or, to put it differently, what were socialists going to do about the peasantry?) Luxemburg criticised the Bolshevik solution for not laying down the prerequisites of socialist agricultural reform. Instead they did the reverse and made it more difficult in the long run. A socialist government should have centralized land ownership via nationalization. Instead the Bolsheviks adopted the peasant demand of land redistribution and stood by as it was parceled out chaotically into millions of individual plots. As far as Lukacs was concerned, it wasn’t really a question of right or wrong. What mattered was the extent to which the mass movement of peasants, in the context of dissolving bourgeois society, could be won for the revolution as opposed to the counterrevolution. Before the October revolution the land question was being resolved by the peasants themselves and was more or less an accomplished fact when the soviets became the governing power. Had the Bolsheviks turned their face against the movement, the revolution would not have been won.

Luxemburg does acknowledge it as an astute tactical move on the Bolsheviks’ part – but remained steadfast in her belief that it didn’t advance agriculture toward socialism. For Lukacs, Luxemburg’s “impatience” is an outgrowth of her overestimation of the revolution’s proletarian character. She overestimated the clarity and maturity of the Russian working class at that historical conjuncture, and therefore its ability to stamp its will on other classes. By extension Luxemburg underestimated the strength of those classes and the power their ideologies exert within the working class itself. As a result, “she constantly opposes to the exigencies of the moment the principles of the future stages of the revolution” (1968, pp.276-7).

‘Critique of the Russian Revolution’ criticises the Bolsheviks on the dispersal of the constituent assembly, the foundation of the soviet system, the red terror, and the denial of civil rights to the bourgeoisie. Lukacs response is to dig more thoroughly into Luxemburg’s method, this time by going back to her famous polemic with Eduard Bernstein. She writes, “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” (cit p.277). Luxemburg agrees with the need for revolution, for a violent break with the old order, but the way she sets up revolution – as being against the ‘political and legal arrangements’ that are preventing socialism from emerging within the womb of capitalist society – is very close to resembling a political revolution (see Legality and Class Consciousness). What Lukacs is getting at here is that Luxemburg seemingly believed that if the bourgeois barriers are removed (through revolutionary means), the socialist tendencies in the economy would be free to develop. But more than just a violent break is needed – violent social revolution, the forced expropriation of the expropriators is the necessary precursor to the society of associated producers. This is more thoroughgoing than anything Luxemburg envisaged. She overplays the mechanical or ‘organic’ movement of history relying on it to bring socialism is about.

Luxemburg’s organic conception of socialism is the root of her critique of soviet power. In the Russian revolution, and revolutionary situations before and since, soviets, or workers’ councils, have been a tried and tested method of organising the class. This reached its highest mode of expression in the early phase of the Russian revolution when the soviets seized power under a Bolshevik and Left Socialist Revolutionary coalition government. This state, the workers’ state, then organises its power against the bourgeoisie. Unlike capitalist states, which, on the whole, are reactive and tend to intervene economically and politically after the fact, the workers’ state is an
activist state. It consciously fights the class struggle and seeks to steer development in the socialist direction, which in turn will lead to further, conscious socialist construction, and thereby gradually undermining the basis for its existence. This is not socialism by decree, but, initially, the workers’ state is the primary agent for organising and building the democratically planned economy. Thus socialism comes into the world as the fruits of conscious action. It cannot be otherwise. Luxemburg did not see things this way. For her the soviet organisation of the workers’ state was “premature” – rather it is the form of governance proper to the higher phase of developed socialism.

Lenin and Luxemburg’s differences on the party question turn on the conscious and organic perspectives. Lenin and the Communist International insisted upon the organisational independence of revolutionaries to better contest for the leadership of the working class. For Luxemburg the struggle against opportunism and reformism should remain within the mass workers’ parties. These bodies had been thrown up organically by class struggle and were, therefore, the mass repositories of proletarian experience. Social democracy (as was) provided a party home for all kinds discontented anti-capitalist elements of non-proletarian origin as well. In a revolutionary situation, she supposed the spontaneous revolutionary spirit of the class would well up and cause the entire working class to join battle simultaneously, dragging all its social democratic allies in its wake.

Unfortunately, Luxemburg’s commitment to the organic perspective of organising workers meant she overlooked the extent to which the mass workers’ parties had been compromised by the first world war, despite her frequent and trenchant polemics with revisionist elements.
The fact was that almost without exception an influential section of the leadership in the workers’ parties openly went over to the side of the bourgeoisie while another group was tacitly and secretly in league with it. That both these groups have succeeded in retaining their hold on the crucial strata of the proletariat both intellectually and organizationally must be made the point of departure for the analysis of the situation and the tasks of the revolutionary workers’ party (p.288).
The lesson to be drawn from this that ideological struggle in the mass parties would not resolve the situation. They cannot be “reclaimed”. Nor will the working class adopt a revolutionary leadership as a result of the blind play of capitalist laws of motion. It has to be consciously fought for, and this is only possible if the revolutionary party has the freedom and independence to intervene in struggle and win over the working class by virtue of its actions (more about communist organisation in the final post).

The organic conception of socialism is a tendency that needs combating. In Luxemburg’s case, her commitment to revolutionary politics was able to mitigate its effects. But she was very much on the extreme left wing of this tendency. For others of a more centrist or reformist persuasion, the organic conception of socialism was a recipe for fatalism and non-activity. However, it is tempting to suggest that Lukacs makes the opposite error – that his emphasising the conscious basis of socialism is another way of advancing an essentially voluntaristic perspective. I think this would be a mistake. Throughout
History and Class Consciousness Lukacs has philosophically sketched out a conception of the working class struggling through history and gradually becoming aware of its position in capitalist society, its interests, and the possible destiny that awaits it. Trade unions, labour parties and communist parties are milestones in the development of this consciousness. The argument could be made that this process of becoming is itself an organic process driven forward by blind social forces. But Lukacs is absolutely clear that the class-conscious proletariat is the fundamental prerequisite of socialism. There comes a historical point where conscious activity has to take over if the socialist potential capitalism has made possible is going to be realised.

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


Phil BC said...

Previous posts on History and Class Consciousness can be viewed below:

Lukacs and Orthodox Marxism

Luxemburg, Revisionism and Revolution

Class Consciousness and False Consciousness

Commodities and Reification

Structure of Bourgeois Philosophy

Overcoming Reification

Capitalism and Historical Materialism

Legality and Class Consciousness

directionlessbones said...

I'm intrigued by the following:

it seems like demanding nationalisation of land rather than redistribution is a much less 'organic' thing - acceding to the peasantry's demands for their own little parcels of land would seem to be an 'organic' response to the level that they had reached.

So in that sense, the two things Luxembourg is being criticised for seem like opposites.

Also, though, "The organic conception of socialism is a tendency that needs combating" seems odd to me. If this conception is basically a rival to Lenin's "activist" conception, then it looks to me like Lenin's conception has done an vast vast amount of harm to communism through the 20th century, in Russia, in China, in Greece, in France, everywhere where Stalin managed to steal the word 'communism'. So it seems kind of misplaced to identify Luxembourg as the 'danger' we need to avoid.

L. A. Mortler said...

I think painting Luxembourg’s critique of Bolshevism as imbued with an organic conception of socialism, does the work a bit of a disservice.

Consider the closing lines of her critique:

“It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!”

This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism.”

Roobin said...

"The organic conception of socialism is a tendency that needs combating" seems odd to me."

It would have seemed odd to Lenin as well. One of the most tragic misreadings we've had to endure is the What Is To Be Done Lenin = antispontaneity. His real argument was spontaneous resistance to capitalism, wherever it comes from (perhaps Lenin's most lasting beneficial contribution was the expansion of the revolutionary subject) should be given form and lasting substance.

The nationalisation of land in Russia was just one example of this idea in practice.

skidmarx said...

'they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!”'

I meant to quote that as well.