On the Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg

Greg Gabrellas
Platypus Review

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This piece was originally published about two years ago in the Platypus Review. Greg Gabrellas, its author, was at that point a leading member of the organization in Chicago. He and the group have since parted ways, as happened in my case as well. I repost it here not only because it’s a good piece (it is), but also because it touches on the marginalization of Marxism within leftist politics in recent decades. Beginning in the 1960s an 1970s, Marxism came to be regarded, for better or worse, as just one strategy for emancipation among many. Some of this is quite understandable, insofar as revolutionary Marxism — not just in its Stalinist and Maoist but also its Trotskyist and left communist forms — had been vulgarized to such a point that it became little more than glorified class reductionism. Today, syncretistic approaches such as “intersectionality” have been anointed as the latest word in praxis. For his part, Greg devoted much of his own attention to problems of race relations in the US today and the persistent question of sexual liberation. Yet it’s my suspicion that it was his very dissatisfaction with these discourses that led him to the historical project of Marxism as offering a more radical vision of human freedom.

At the Marxist Literary Group’s Institute on Culture and Society 2011, held on June 20-24, 2011 at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago, Platypus explored “The Marxism of Second International Radicalism: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky.” What follows is an edited version of Greg’s opening remarks.

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Despite the contrary assertions of conservatives, Marxism as a body of thought is widely known and disseminated among activists, academics, and political intellectuals. They take Marxism to mean a theory of what is wrong in the world, and how it can be practically changed — essentially a normative political philosophy with a radical disposition. Marxism takes its seat next to feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies as a philosophy of liberation. But this view is insufficient, and would have been unthinkable to the radicals of the Second International. Moreover, Marxism today is not only practically ineffectual. It stands in the way of future developments within Marxism, and with it the possibility of socialism.

This judgment might seem surprising, perhaps even shocking, to the activists, academics, and intellectuals who consider themselves Marxists or at least sympathizers. There exist Marxist political organizations, journals, reading groups, and conferences. Activist projects continue to arise, countering imperialist war and punitive sanctions against the poor and working class, and Marxists play a definitive role in all forms of contemporary activism. But the historical optimism implicit in activism for its own sake, manifest by the slogan “the struggle continues,” condemns itself to impotence. Marxism is different from radical political theory only insofar as it is an active recognition of possibility amidst social disintegration and calamity. Marxists have forgotten that self-critical politics is the form in which progressive developments within Marxist theory take place.

At first this inward orientation might seem misplaced. But just as modern painting recovers and transforms the aesthetic conventions of previous generations, so the radicals of the Second International understood socialism to be exclusively possible through the self-criticism and advancement of the actually-existing-history of the movement. Understandably, the splotches on a Jackson Pollock painting, or the overlapping figures of a de Kooning, might confuse first-time visitors to any museum of modern art. With its historical link severed, Marxism too risks becoming unintelligible amid the chatter of contemporary theory.

For example, in The Crisis of German Social Democracy, written under the pseudonym Junius while imprisoned for her opposition to world war in 1914, Rosa Luxemburg wrote,

Unsparing self-criticism is not merely an essential for its existence but the working class’s supreme duty. On our ship we have the most valuable treasures of mankind, and the proletariat is their ordained guardian! And while bourgeois society, shamed and dishonored by the bloody orgy, rushes headlong toward its doom, the international proletariat must and will gather up the golden treasure that, in a moment of weakness and confusion in the chaos of the world war, it has allowed to sink to the ground.[1]

The “most valuable treasures of mankind” to which Luxemburg refers may be necessarily cryptic, but her phrase illuminates objective social sensibilities that have since vanished. Socialism was seen by the radical masses of workers and intellectuals alike as the fulfillment of humanity’s highest social and cultural achievements. Marxism was itself a historical achievement rendered possible by the organized politics of the working class. The task of Marxist theory was the criticism of socialist politics as a means of developing Marxism itself, and with it the possibility for new social freedoms. For Luxemburg, the project of political Marxism was not simply a matter of ideology or a political program that could be right or wrong. Socialism was, as she put it in the same pamphlet, “the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind.” In the wake of this movement’s crisis and ultimate collapse in the twentieth century, we must struggle to discern why and how this nearly forgotten generation of workers, intellectuals, and students came closest to achieving a real utopia. Continue reading