Marxism and historical predictions

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Be­cause Marx­ism ad­dresses it­self prin­cip­ally to his­tory, its ad­her­ents of­ten traffic in his­tor­ic­al pre­dic­tions. This was true of Marx and En­gels no less than their fol­low­ers, and more of­ten than not their pre­dic­tions turned out to be in­ac­cur­ate or mis­taken. Pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion — which Marx some­times called “the re­volu­tion of the nine­teenth cen­tury” — did not ul­ti­mately win out or carry the day. Cap­it­al­ism has not yet col­lapsed, and des­pite the peri­od­ic pro­nounce­ments of Marx­ist pro­fess­ors every time the stock mar­ket dips, none of the crises it’s en­dured has proved ter­min­al.

Karl Pop­per, Ray­mond Aron, and oth­er op­pon­ents of Marxi­an the­ory of­ten raise the fail­ure of such fore­casts as proof that its doc­trine is “un­falsifi­able.” Op­pon­ents of Marx­ism are not the only ones who re­joice at Marx­ism’s frus­trated pro­gnost­ic­a­tions; op­por­tun­ist­ic re­vi­sion­ists have also taken com­fort whenev­er things don’t quite pan out. Georg Lukács ob­served al­most a hun­dred years ago that “the op­por­tun­ist in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx­ism im­me­di­ately fastens on to the so-called er­rors of Marx’s in­di­vidu­al pre­dic­tions in or­der to elim­in­ate re­volu­tion root and branch from Marx­ism as a whole.”

Some of this is rather un­avoid­able. De­bates about wheth­er the cap­it­al­ist break­down is in­ev­it­able, the vagar­ies of Zu­sam­men­bruchs­theo­rie, ne­ces­sar­ily in­volve spec­u­la­tion about the fu­ture res­ults of present dy­nam­ics — wheth­er self-an­ni­hil­a­tion is a built-in fea­ture of cap­it­al­ism, wheth­er the en­tire mode of pro­duc­tion is a tick­ing time-bomb. Yet there have been con­crete in­stances in which the foresight of cer­tain Marx­ists seems al­most proph­et­ic in hind­sight. Not just in broad strokes, either, as for ex­ample the even­tu­al tri­umph of bour­geois eco­nom­ics across the globe.

En­gels’ very de­tailed pre­dic­tion, ori­gin­ally made in 1887, came true al­most to the let­ter:

The only war left for Prus­sia-Ger­many to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an ex­tent and vi­ol­ence hitherto un­ima­gined. Eight to ten mil­lion sol­diers will be at each oth­er’s throats and in the pro­cess they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of lo­custs.

The de­pred­a­tions of the Thirty Years’ War com­pressed in­to three to four years and ex­ten­ded over the en­tire con­tin­ent; fam­ine, dis­ease, the uni­ver­sal lapse in­to bar­bar­ism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; ir­re­triev­able dis­lo­ca­tion of our ar­ti­fi­cial sys­tem of trade, in­dustry, and cred­it, end­ing in uni­ver­sal bank­ruptcy; col­lapse of the old states and their con­ven­tion­al polit­ic­al wis­dom to the point where crowns will roll in­to the gut­ters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the ab­so­lute im­possib­il­ity of fore­see­ing how it will all end and who will emerge as vic­tor from the battle.

Only one con­sequence is ab­so­lutely cer­tain: uni­ver­sal ex­haus­tion and the cre­ation of the con­di­tions for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory of the work­ing class.

Re­gard­ing this last line, “the con­di­tions for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory of the work­ing class” un­doubtedly were cre­ated by the world war between great cap­it­al­ist powers. Wheth­er these con­di­tions were ac­ted upon is an­oth­er, sad­der story. Coun­ter­fac­tu­als aside, the fact re­mains that things could have been oth­er­wise. His­tor­ic cir­cum­stances con­spired to open up a def­in­ite field of po­ten­tial out­comes, in which in­ter­na­tion­al pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion seemed not just ab­stractly pos­sible but con­cretely prob­able.

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The Jews and Europe

Max Horkheimer
Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung
December 1939

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Whoever wants to explain anti-Semitism must speak of National Socialism. Without a conception of what has happened in Germany, speaking about anti-Semitism in Siam or Africa remains senseless. The new anti-Semitism is the emissary of the totalitarian order, which has developed from the liberal one. One must thus go back to consider the tendencies within capitalism. But it is as if the refugee intellectuals have been robbed not only of their citizenship, but also of their minds. Thinking, the only mode of behavior that would be appropriate for them, has fallen into discredit. The “Jewish-Hegelian jargon,” which once carried all the way from London to the German Left and even then had to be translated into the ringing tones of the union functionaries, now seems completely eccentric. With a sigh of relief they throw away the troublesome weapon and turn to neohumanism, to Goethe’s personality, to the true Germany and other cultural assets. International solidarity is said to have failed. Because the worldwide revolution did not come to pass, the theoretical conceptions in which it appeared as the salvation from barbarism are now considered worthless. At present, we have really reached the point where the harmony of capitalist society along with the opportunities to reform it have been exposed as the very illusions always denounced by the critique of the free market economy; now, as predicted, the contradictions of technical progress have created a permanent economic crisis, and the descendants of the free entrepreneurs can maintain their positions only by the abolition of bourgeois freedoms; now the literary opponents of totalitarian society praise the very conditions to which they owe their present existence, and deny the theory which, when there was still time, revealed its secrets.

No one can demand that, in the very countries that have granted them asylum, the émigrés put a mirror to the world that has created fascism. But whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism. The English hosts today fare better than Frederick the Great did with the acid-tongued Voltaire. No matter if the hymn the intellectuals intone to liberalism often comes too late, because the countries turn totalitarian faster than the books can find publishers; the intellectuals have not abandoned hope that somewhere the reformation of Western capitalism will proceed more mildly than in Germany and that well-recommended foreigners will have a future after all. But the totalitarian order differs from its bourgeois predecessor only in that it has lost its inhibitions. Just as old people sometimes become as evil as they basically always were, at the end of the epoch class rule has taken the form of the “folk community” [Volksgemeinschaft]. The theory has destroyed the myth of the harmony of interests [between capital and labor]; it has presented the liberal economic process as the reproduction of power relations by means of free contracts, which are compelled by the inequality of the property. Mediation has now been abolished. Fascism is that truth of modern society which has been realized by the theory from the beginning. Fascism solidifies the extreme class differences which the law of surplus value ultimately produced.

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No revision of economic theory is required to understand fascism. Equal and just exchange has driven itself to the point of absurdity, and the totalitarian order is this absurdity. The transition from liberalism has occurred logically enough, and less brutally than from the mercantile system into that of the nineteenth century. The same economic tendencies that create an ever higher productivity of labor through the mechanism of competition have suddenly turned into forces of social disorganization. The pride of liberalism, industry developed technically to the utmost, ruins its own principle because great parts of the population can no longer sell their labor. The reproduction of what exists by the labor market becomes inefficient. Previously the bourgeoisie was decentralized, a many-headed ruler; the expansion of the plant was the condition for every entrepreneur to increase his portion of the social surplus. He needed workers in order to prevail in the competition of the market. In the age of monopolies, the investment of more and more new capital no longer promises any great increase in profits. The mass of workers, from whom surplus value flows, diminishes in comparison to the apparatus which it serves. In recent times, industrial production has existed only as a condition for profit, for the expansion of the power of groups and individuals over human labor. Hunger itself provides no reason for the production of consumer goods. To produce for the insolvent demand, for the unemployed masses, would run counter to the laws of economy and religion that hold the order together; no bread without work.

Even the façade betrays the obsolescence of the market economy. The advertising signs in all countries are its monuments. Their expression is ridiculous. They speak to the passers-by as shallow adults do to children or animals, in a falsely familiar slang. The masses, like children, are deluded: they believe that as independent subjects they have the freedom to choose the goods for themselves. But the choice has already largely been dictated. For decades there have been entire spheres of consumption in which only the labels change. The panoply of different qualities in which consumers revel exists only on paper. If advertising was always characteristic of the faux frais of the bourgeois commodity economy, still, it formerly performed a positive function as a means of increasing demand. Today the buyer is still paid an ideological reverence which he is not even supposed to believe entirely. He already knows enough to interpret the advertising for the great brand-name products as national slogans that one is not allowed to contradict. The discipline to which advertising appeals comes into its own in the fascist countries. In the posters the people find out what they really are: soldiers. Advertising becomes correct. The strict governmental command which threatens from every wall during totalitarian elections corresponds more exactly to the modern organization of the economy than the monotonously colorful lighting effects in the shopping centers and amusement quarters of the world.

The economic programs of the good European statesmen are illusory. In the final phase of liberalism they want to compensate with government orders for the disintegrating market economy’s inability to support the populace. Along with the economically powerful they seek to stimulate the economy so that it will provide everyone with a living, but they forget that the aversion to new investments is no whim. The industrialists have no desire to get their factories going via the indirect means of taxes they must pay to an all-too-impartial government simply to help the bankrupt farmers and other draft animals out of a jam. For their class such a procedure does not pay. No matter how much progovernmental economists may lecture the entrepreneurs that it is for their own benefit, the powerful have a better sense of their interests and have greater goals than a makeshift boom led with strikes and whatever else belongs to the proletarian class struggle. The statesmen who, after all this, still wish to run liberalism humanely, misunderstand its character. They may represent education and be surrounded by experts, but their efforts are nonetheless absurd: they wish to subordinate to the general populace that class whose particular interests by nature run contrary to the general ones. A government that would make the objects of welfare into subjects of free contracts by garnering the taxes of employers, must fail in the end: otherwise it would involuntarily degenerate from the proxy of the employers into the executive agency of the unemployed, indeed, of the dependent classes in general. Nearly confiscatory taxes, such as the inheritance tax, which are forced not only by the layoffs in industry, but also by the insoluble agriculture crisis, already threaten to make the weak into the “exploiters” of the capitalists. Such a reversal of circumstances will not be permitted in the long run by the employers in any empire. In the parliaments and all of public life, the employers sabotage neoliberal welfare policies. Even if these would help the economy, the employers would remain unreconciled: economic cycles are no longer enough for them. The relations of production prevail against the humanitarian governments. The pioneers from the employers’ associations create a new apparatus and their advocates take the social order into their hands; in place of fragmented command over particular factories, there arises the totalitarian rule of particular interests over the entire people. Individuals are subjected to a new discipline which threatens the foundations of the social order. The transformation of the downtrodden jobseeker from the nineteenth century into the solicitous member of a fascist organization recalls in its historical significance the transformation of the medieval master craftsman into the protestant burgher of the Reformation, or of the English village pauper into the modern industrial worker. Considering the fundamental nature of this change, the statesmen pursuing moderate progress appear reactionary.

b_250241 Berlin, Ged‰chtnisfeier f¸r Rathenau

The labor market is replaced by coerced labor. If over the past decades people went from exchange partners to beggars, objects of welfare, now they become direct objects of domination. In the prefascist stage the unemployed threatened the order. The transition to an economy which would unite the separated elements, which would give the people ownership of the idle machines and the useless grain, seemed unavoidable in Germany, and the world-wide danger of socialism seemed serious. With socialism’s enemies stood everyone who had anything to say in the Republic. Governing was carried out by welfare payments, by former imperial civil servants, and by reactionary officers. The trade unions wished to transform themselves from organs of class struggle into state institutions which distribute governmental largesse, inculcate a loyal attitude in the recipients, and participate in social control. Such help, however, was suspect to the powerful. Once German capital had resumed imperialist policies, it dropped the labor bureaucrats, political and trade unions, who had helped it into power. Despite their most honest intentions, the bureaucrats could not measure up to the new conditions. The masses were not activated for the improvement of their own lives, not to eat, but to obey — such is the task of the fascist apparatus. Governing has acquired a new meaning there. Instead of practiced functionaries, imaginative organizers and overseers are needed; they must be well removed from the influence of ideologies of freedom and human dignity. In late capitalism, peoples metamorphose first into welfare recipients and then into followers [Gefolgschaften].

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Jean Jaurès, one hundred years after his assassination

Jean Jaurès

Leon Trotsky
Kievskaya Mysl
July 17, 1915

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A
 year has passed since the death of the greatest man of the Third Republic. Events the like of which history has not previously known have welled up almost as if to wash away Jaurès’ blood with new blood and to divert attention away from him and to swallow up even his memory. But even the very greatest events have only partially succeeded in this. In France’s political life a great void has been left behind. New leaders of the proletariat answering the revolutionary character of the new era have not yet arisen. The old leaders only make us remember the more clearly that there is now no Jaurès.

HUMA

The war has thrown on one side not only individual figures but a whole era with them: the era during which the present leading generation in all spheres of life had been educated and brought up. Today this departed era on the one hand attracts our thoughts by the obstinacy of its cultural heritage, the uninterrupted growth of its technology, science and workers’ organizations; and on the other seems petty and characterless in the conservatism of its political life and in the reformist methods of its class struggle.

After the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune (1870-1871) a period of armed peace and political reaction set in. Europe, if one excluded Russia, knew neither war nor revolution. Capital developed on a mighty scale outgrowing the framework of nation-states and overflowing into the remaining countries and subjugating colonies. The working class built its trade unions and its socialist parties. However the whole of the proletarian struggle of this period was impregnated with the spirit of reformism, of adaptation to the existing order and to the nation’s industry and the nation’s state power. After the experience of the Paris Commune the European proletariat did not once pose the question of the conquest of political power in a practical, that is, a revolutionary way. This peaceful, “organic” character of the era reared a whole generation of proletarian leaders thoroughly steeped in distrust for the direct revolutionary mass struggle.

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When the war broke out and the nation-state embarked on its campaign with all its forces armed to the teeth, this generation could without difficulty place the majority of the “socialist” leaders down on their knees. The epoch of the Second International has thus ended with the violent wrecking of the official socialist parties. True they are still standing as monuments to a past age and supported both indirectly and forcibly by the governments. But the spirit of proletarian socialism has fled them and they are doomed to collapse. The working masses who have in the past accepted the ideas of socialism are only now, amid the terrible experience of the war, receiving their revolutionary baptism of fire. We are entering upon a period of unprecedented revolutionary earthquakes. New organizations will be brought to the fore by the masses and new leaders will stand at their head. Continue reading

Ernst Friedrich, War against war (1924)

Susan Sontag
The New Yorker
Dec. 9, 2002
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WARNING: Extremely graphic violence.

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For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war. Fourteen years before [Virginia] Woolf published Three Guineas — in 1924, on the tenth anniversary of the national mobilization in Germany for the First World War — the conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich published his Krieg dem Kriege! [War Against War!].

This is photography as shock therapy: an album of more than one hundred and eighty photographs mostly drawn from German military and medical archives, many of which were deemed unpunishable by government censors while the war was on. The book starts with pictures of toy soldiers, toy cannons, and other delights of male children everywhere, and concludes with pictures taken in military cemeteries. Between the toys and the graves, the reader has an excruciating photo-tour of four years of ruin, slaughter, and degradation: pages of wrecked and plundered churches and castles, obliterated villages, ravaged forests, torpedoed passenger steamers, shattered vehicles, hanged conscientious objectors, half-naked prostitutes in military brothels, soldiers in death agonies after a poison-gas attack, skeletal Armenian children.

Almost all the sequences in War Against War! are difficult to look at, notably the pictures of dead soldiers belonging to the various armies putrefying in heaps on fields and roads and in the front-line trenches. But surely the most unbearable pages in this book, the whole of which was designed to horrify and demoralize, are in the section titled “The Face of War,” twenty-four close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds. Continue reading

1914 in the history of Marxism

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review
May 6, 2014

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At the Platypus Affiliated Society’s annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago April 4-6, 2014, Chris Cutrone delivered the following President’s Report. An edited transcript of the presentation and subsequent discussion appears below. A full audio recording is available online.

To be clear, I am no longer a member of Platypus, and do not agree with all of its interpretations. Nor the opinions of its individual members necessarily reflect my own. That said, I find Cutrone’s article here excellent.

Lot 3207 TELINGATER, SOLOMON BENEDIKTOVICH & ILYA FEINBERG. 1914-go. [The Year 1914.] Moscow- MTP, 1934.

One hundred years later, what does the crisis and split in Marxism, and the political collapse of the major parties of the 2nd International in 1914, mean for us today?

The Spartacists, for example, are constantly in search of the “August 4” moment, the moment of betrayal of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism by various tendencies in the history of Marxism. The Spartacists went so far as to confess their own “August 4th” when they failed to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there.

So, what happened, from a Marxist perspective, on August 4, 1914, when the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) members of the Reichstag voted to finance the Prussian Empire’s war budget?

Two things: the parliamentary representatives of the SPD went against past resolutions to vote down the war effort of the German government; and the disorganization of the SPD leadership, what has been called the effective but illegitimate takeover of the party by the parliamentary delegation. No legitimate political authority of the party sanctioned this action. In all respects of principle and practice, the SPD was destroyed as a political organization as it had existed up to that point.

August 4, 1914, has been called — by the Spartacists — the first great internal counterrevolution in the history of Marxism. This is entirely true.

But it was a counterrevolution conducted not merely by the leadership of the SPD, however they may have abetted it, but rather by the Reich’s government against the SPD membership.

What was the specific character of this counterrevolution, and how was it made possible?

There was a famous pair of sayings by the SPD’s chairman, Bebel: “Not one man or one penny for this rotten system!” and “If it’s against Russia, I myself will pick up a gun!”

The German High Command, in preparation for war, took aim precisely at the contradiction between these two statements by Bebel.

The German High Command wielded the specter of counterrevolution through occupation by Tsarist Russian troops against the SPD in order to prompt their preemptive counterrevolution, which they saw as an act of self-preservation, as the lesser evil. Furthermore, they thought that getting behind the war would allow them to (somehow) control it, to make the government dependent on them and so wrest political concessions from it, perhaps even undermining it, in political favor of the proletariat.

This was not an unreasonable judgment. The question is whether their compromise was too much, whether the act of ostensible self-preservation was in fact actually an act of self-destruction. Continue reading

My chemical warmance

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The last days of mankind

Act III
Scene 45-A
Karl Kraus

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(The Begrudger and Optimist in conversation.)

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BEGRUDGER:
In the past war was a tournament for the few who had power. Now it’s an industrial-armaments-driven threat to the entire world.

OPTIMIST: The development of armaments can’t possibly be allowed to lag behind the technological advances of the modern age.

BEGRUDGER: No, but the modern age has allowed mankind’s imagination to lag behind his technological advances.

OPTIMIST: I see. So wars are fought with the imagination?

BEGRUDGER: With imagination nobody would fight them.

OPTIMIST: Why not?

BEGRUDGER: Because then the exhortations of a mentally retarded doublespeak, born of a decrepit ideal, would have no scope to befuddle people’s brains; because then we would be able to imagine the most unimaginable horrors and would know beforehand how short a step it is from all the gaudy phrases and rapturous flag-waving to the field gray of despair; because the prospect of dying of dysentery for the fatherland, or losing both feet to frostbite, would no longer mobilize maudlin pathos; because at least a soldier could march away to war with the certain knowledge that he would become lice-infested for the fatherland. Because we would know that mankind has invented the machinery of war only to be overpowered by it, and because we would not eclipse the madness of that invention with the even greater madness of letting ourselves be killed by it. With imagination we would know that it is a crime to expose our lives to misfortune, a sin to reduce death to a lottery, that it is an act of folly to manufacture battleships when torpedo boats are built to outwit them, to make mortars when trenches are dug to ward them off, and folly to drive mankind into rat holes to escape his own weapons, so that peace can only be enjoyed in an underground world henceforth. With imagination to replace the media, technology would not be the source of life’s afflictions and science would not seek life’s destruction. Heroic death hovers in clouds of gas and our traumas are measured in a newspaper’s column inches! Forty thousand Russian corpses, enraptured by barbed wire, could only make an item in the late edition, to be read out to the dregs of humanity by a soubrette in the interval of an operetta cobbled together from those words of self-sacrificial weaponmongery, “I Gave Gold for Iron,” just so that the librettist could make a curtain call. Never was there a greater display of a paucity of community spirit than now. Never was Lilliputian pettiness on a more epic scale the makeup of our world. Reality is reduced to the dimensions of a newspaper report, panting as it struggles to keep up with reality. The journalist whose columns confuse the facts with his own fantasies stands in the way of those facts and makes them more fantastical. And so sinister are the machinations of the press and its agents that I find myself almost believing that every one of those miserable specimens who afflicts our ears with inescapable and interminable shouts of “Extra! Special Edition!” — is responsible for instigating a universal catastrophe. The printed word has empowered a vacuous humanity to commit atrocities that its own imagination can no longer comprehend, and the curse of mass circulation returns those atrocities to a media that generates ever-regenerative evil.[2] Everything that happens, happens to those who describe it but have never experienced it. A spy, led to the gallows, walks the long way round to provide the newsreel camera with engaging scenery; he has to stare into that camera for another take to ensure his facial expression satisfies the audience. Don’t let me follow this train of thought as far as mankind’s own gallows — but I have to, I am its condemned spy, heartsick from the horror of the void this tide of events reveals not only in men’s souls but even in their cameras!

OPTIMIST: Unpleasantness is the inevitable concomitant of great things. Maybe it’s possible the world didn’t change on the night of the 1st of August 1914. However, it seems very clear that imagination does not feature among the human qualities war finds useful. But if I understand you right, don’t you deny that modern war has any room for human qualities anyway?

BEGRUDGER: You do understand me right; it allows no room for them at all, because the reality of modern warfare can only exist by virtue of the negation of any human qualities whatsoever. And there are none left.

OPTIMIST: So what is left?

BEGRUDGER: There is human quantity, numbers, human quantities that are evenly depleting themselves as they seek to prove that they can’t compete with quantities of mechanical firepower which are utterly revolutionary in nature; because even mortars can overwhelm humanity en masse. Mustering the evidence, it is the lack of imagination alone that makes possible, inevitable, what remains of mankind’s machine-power revolution.

OPTIMIST: If the quantity of people is evenly depleted, when does it end?

BEGRUDGER: When the two lions are left with nothing but their tails. Or if, by some miracle, that doesn’t happen: till, in terms of sheer numbers, the larger party is left with the advantage. I shudder at having to hope for that. I shudder even more at the terrifying prospect of ideals-to-die-for triumphing. Continue reading

El Lissitzky,Proposal for a monument to Rosa Luxemburg (1919)

A response to Reid Cane’s “Leninism or Luxemburgism?”

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IMAGE: El Lissitzky, Monument
to Rosa Luxemburg (1919)

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The following is a response to some critical remarks made by Reid Kane on his blog, The Luxemburgist, in an entry entitled “Leninism or Luxemburgism?”.  Reid was responding in this post to some comments I’d made on a different entry, in which I objected to his opposition of Vladimir Lenin’s articulation of a Marxist politics to that of Rosa Luxemburg.  These are, after all, two organizational models that have frequently been held up as antithetical.  I asserted that their split had been grossly exaggerated by both Stalinists seeking to discredit Luxemburg’s former colleagues and anti-authoritarian/anti-Bolshevik tendencies in the New Left, who exalt Luxemburg as an heroic “alternative” to Lenin.  Reid provides a thoroughgoing, reasoned critique of my objection, maintaining that it is not enough to ignore their differences merely because their disagreements have been blown out of proportion.  In this I cannot but agree.  The differences between Luxemburg and Lenin cannot simply be glossed over.  And so, though this topic has been dealt with countless times by writers on the Left, I feel it is not too much to add my own thoughts on the matter here, in response to Reid’s excellent post.

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