Measuring the Depths

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Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1926
Monument to Rosa Luxemburg & Karl Liebkneckt,
later demolished by Hitler

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As a continuation of my last post, the focus of which was more to specifically spell out the relationship between the revolutionary thought of Lenin and Luxemburg, the present entry is meant to clarify the relevance of looking at the thought of past revolutionary figures in general.  It will begin with a further examination of some statements made by the Luxemburg that were quoted in the last post.  This will help explain my position on a separate but related issue that I have discussed with Reid Cane of The Luxemburgist.  While originally this was included as part of the last post, I have decided to modify it in order to post it as a standalone entry, both for reasons of length and since its content is fairly distinct from that dealt with in the last one.

Returning to the passage cited toward the end of the last entry (beginning with “[e]verything that happens in Russia…”) from The Russian Revolution, we may take note of the language Luxemburg uses to characterize the European proletariat.  Her stress on the “failure” of the international proletariat and its “betrayal” of the Russian revolutionaries, along with the “bankruptcy” of international socialism, highlights another point of contention that has arisen between Reid and myself.  In the comments section to his recent “Note on Popular Right Ideology”, I stated my belief that the glaring deficiencies of Leftist politics in the present day should be of greater concern to the Left than the perennial opportunism of the Right.  Reid correctly noted in his replies that concern for one should not preclude concern for the other, and explained that his interest in the Tea Party movement was not in order to simply discredit it but understand it as a distorted expression of class consciousness.  His explanation shows that I mistook his preoccupation with the Tea Party movement to be the result of a perception that this movement constitutes a great threat. With regard to his prior point, I accordingly clarified that I certainly did not mean that one had to choose whether to worry about the Right or the Left.  I suggested, rather, that Leftist thought and the political project of the Left in general had undergone an extreme regression in the course of the 20th century (Platypus’ “Decline of the Left” thesis), and that this should be the Left’s foremost concern.  To this, Reid responded:

I have to admit, I find your defamatory comments about the existing Left (and those of Platypus more generally) to be extremely discouraging. These people are our allies, and while I may disagree with a lot of what they say and do, the way to make that evident is not through condescension, but by expressing critical solidarity, by joining them and trying to steer them in other directions where appropriate, and where there is too great a divide or too much stubbornness, to demonstrate in practice what is wrong with their approach. I agree that its a shame that we are no longer witness to the sort of working class mobilization of the earlier part of the last century, but I don’t count this fact as either a cause or effect of “regression in Leftist consciousness”. The left hasn’t regressed, we’ve been brutally beaten down, silenced, defamed and overwhelmed for a century, and the disorganized and splintered remnants that persist today, however “backward” their thinking may be at times, are not symptoms of the Left’s decadence and degeneration but the first flares of its rekindling.

Though there is great poetry expressed in this last line, I’m afraid I can’t agree with Reid’s optimism.  Reid is most certainly right to note that the Left has for well over a century often “been brutally beaten down, silenced, defamed and overwhelmed.”  But the failure of the Left is not explainable solely by the strength of its enemies.  In large part, its failure must be traced to its inadequate theorization of historical reality, its misrecognition of objective possibilities, its celebration and support of seemingly progressive political movements that are in fact reactionary, down to its outright betrayal of its own interests.  Repression surely exists, but at some point the Left must hold itself accountable for its failures and work through the history of its defeats.  The refusal to do so means that these mistakes go on unresolved — that their pernicious ramifications remain unexamined.  Revisiting these defeats does not mean that the Left must simply eulogize the great movements of the past or lament the opportunities that they missed.  Rather, a working through of the troubled legacy of the Left is necessary for its reconstitution.

Rosa Luxemburg’s example, illustrated above by her unsentimental appraisal of the failure and betrayal of the European proletariat and the bankruptcy of parliamentarian Social-Democracy, should serve to show that a commitment to the Left’s substantial responsibility for its own shortcomings is of paramount importance to the realization of its historic mission.  Indeed, in her legendary Junius Pamphlet, Luxemburg’s 1915 treatise on “The Crisis of German Social-Democracy,” she addressed this issue exactly:

In the midst of this witches’ sabbath [of political anarchism] a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social Democracy has capitulated. To deceive ourselves about it, to cover it up, would be the most foolish, the most fatal thing the proletariat could do.

Marx says: “…the democrat (that is, the petty bourgeois revolutionary) [comes] out of the most shameful defeats as unmarked as he naively went into them; he comes away with the newly gained conviction that he must be victorious, not that he or his party ought to give up the old principles, but that conditions ought to accommodate him.”  The modern proletariat comes out of historical tests differently.

Its tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only schoolmistress.  Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors.  The aim of its journey — its emancipation depends on this — is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors.  Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it. [my emphases]

Since Luxemburg’s time, the Left has suffered many more devastating defeats.  Capitalism, reborn in its neoliberal form, continues its dynamic flow essentially unabated.  Trade unionism, though it has faded in importance since the collapse of the Fordist triumvirate of “Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor,” remains by and large safely within the limits of bourgeois-conservative ideology.  The continuous fracturing of the Marxist Left into ever-smaller sectarian groups, an issue Reid is concerned with as well, has diluted the strength of international anti-capitalism even further.  Dogmatically adopting the platforms and slogans of the great leaders of the past (Marx, Lenin, Trotskii) or quibbling over interpretations of their old organizational doctrines, these groups blind themselves the fact that conditions no longer correspond to the party programs and revolutionary strategies that these thinkers laid forth.

This is what I meant when I wrote in a comment on Reid’s blog that “[a]s 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.”  These remarks were critiqued by Reid in his latest blog entry.  Since they admittedly stood in need of some elucidation, I bear some responsibility for not making myself clearer.  Reid’s response to my assertion runs as follows:

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.

I do not believe that “there is little if anything to be salvaged from [the] work [of Lenin and Luxemburg],” though it might seem otherwise from what I wrote in my comment on Reid’s blog, which he cited.  This is my own fault; I should have explained myself better.  It should be apparent even from the fact that I am discussing these figures at such great length, however, that I do not consider either thinker’s work to be irrelevant to the present moment.  What I meant was that Lenin’s and Luxemburg’s specific prescriptions — many of their slogans, their proposals for party organization, and even their Hilferdingian analyses of the monopoly capitalism and imperialist expansion of the late-19th and early-20thcenturies — were historically situated, and that the conditions to which most of them corresponded no longer exist.  Though certainly there is some continuity between the neoliberalism of today and the late-imperialist capitalism of their time, I would say that we inhabit vastly different circumstances (politically more so than economically).  Some of their political theories might still retain an immediate relevance to the present situation, but what I find far more valuable in their work is to see how they responded to the historical exigencies of their epoch.  Furthermore, I find in their relentless criticisms of the degenerate forms of Leftist politics that existed in their day (anarchism, populism, Bernsteinian revisionism, Economism, Menshevism, Kautskian opportunism, etc.) a precedent for my own critique of bad tendencies that currently prevail on the Left.  For to express any sort of solidarity with some of the ostensibly Leftist groups today, even a “critical solidarity,” can be too much of a compromise in many instances.  Luxemburg herself was radically intolerant of dangerous tendencies existing within German Social-Democracy; remember, she did not simply demand at the 1898 Stuttgart Conference that Bernstein and his followers be rebuked, but rather called for their unconditional expulsion from the party.

Despite our disagreement over this issue, I nevertheless appreciate Reid’s thoughtful response to my position, and hope that this helps to better explain where I stand on these matters.  You can access Reid’s blog by clicking on the link listed on the right of my page.

4 thoughts on “Measuring the Depths

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  2. Pingback: Measuring the Depths « The Charnel-House

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