Reading Dunayevskaya on Rosa Luxemburg

Raya Dunayevskaya, Rose Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, (Humanities Press and Harvester Press, New Jersey and Sussex, 1982)

Much of the early part of the book on Luxemburg comprises a taking apart of her book on Accumulation of Capital as being based on false premises and a mistaken reading of Marx. I have no basis on which to disagree with this assessment. Much more important in my view are the issues over which Luxemburg differed from Lenin around Nationalism and Organisation.

Nationalism and National Liberation

There is a tell-tale phrase on page 52 of RD’s book on Rosa Luxemburg. She is referring to the disagreement between Lenin and Luxemburg on the question of nationalism and national liberation. Referring to Lenin in the period after the October Revolution in Russia she uses the phrase: ‘after he, himself, had come to power.’ I seem to recall that the Bolshevik slogan was ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ – not ‘All Power to the Bolshevik Party’, let alone ‘All Power to Lenin’. Maybe just a clumsy phrase, but adding to the impression of almost uncritical devotion to Lenin on the part of RD.

More importantly, in the discussion on the question of nationalism, I would query Lenin’s assertion (based on pure theory at the time, rather than evidence) that the emergence of movements of national liberation against imperialist powers would call ‘to come on the scene, namely, the socialist proletariat.’ Even if, once upon a time, proletarian organisations joined in national liberation actions such as the Easter Rising in 1916, the longer-term result was the consolidation in Ireland of a reactionary, regressive, Catholic dominated State in the South and a parallel reactionary, Orange and Unionist dominated State in the North. The labour movement did not become more socialist or more revolutionary either in Ireland or wider British society, but distinctly less so and divided against itself. This has been paralleled throughout the history of the 20th century and into the 21st, as there is barely a single example of a ‘liberated’ nation that has not become an oppressive dictatorship, such as those in Africa and Asia, or has spawned extreme right-wing demagogues such as those in the former Soviet Zone of Eastern Europe. In the former imperialist nations, nationalism has tended to rear its ugly head. Where is this socialist proletariat? Luxemburg may have got some of her precise arguments wrong at the time, but she was not wrong in principle. Nationalism of all sorts divides the working classes: it never unites them, nor encourages them towards socialism.

Whatever may have been the justification behind support for national liberation movements by Lenin and his Communist successors in the 20th century, it is certainly no longer a valid argument in the 21st century. My view is that Lenin based his theory largely on an opportunistic reading of the situation within the Russian Empire and the specific circumstances of the World War at the time – this is why he picked out the Easter Rising in Ireland as an example. By the second half of the century, the argument around national liberation owed more to the foreign policy requirements of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China: it certainly had no contribution to make to the emergence of a revolutionary proletariat anywhere. The experience today is that nationalism is a toxic poison for which the only antidote is uncompromising internationalism: examples, Hungary, Turkey, Trump’s USA, Zimbabwe, South Africa etc., etc. ad nauseam.

Organisation and Spontaneity

Nationalism was just one point of disagreement with Lenin. The other major one was on the relationship between spontaneity and organisation. RD quotes Luxemburg’s Mass Strike: “A rigid, mechanical, bureaucratic conception will only recognize struggle as a product of a certain level of organisation. On the contrary, dialectical developments in real life create organisation as a product of struggle.” (p 61) The existing evidence at the time was that the revolution arises more or less spontaneously, regardless of the existence or not and more often than not despite the existence of so-called revolutionary parties (something Marx himself reiterated, with RD’s agreement), and then proceeds to create its own forms of organisation: the Paris Commune, the Soviets or Workers’ Councils, and so on. RD, however, claims (p 60) that spontaneity is not enough on its own as it does not produce ‘a philosophy of Marx’s concept of revolution’. RD suggests that the failure of the 1905 Revolution was down to that.

Frankly I am even more confused than ever as to exactly what the revolutionary proletariat is able to achieve in RD’s view and what has to be outsourced to some intellectual leadership cadre – in which case, who exactly are they and which one of the Heinz 57 varieties of putative leaderships in current existence would qualify? Presumably only RD and her successors (who have also recently divided).

I can only assume, given RD’s worship of Lenin, that she sees this ‘leadership’ coming from some personal saviour in one of the revolutionary organisations. In this sense, the Soviets were created by the proletariat and then taken over by the Bolsheviks. I cannot but see this as a form of opportunism and one that beheads the proletarian movement and prevents them from making and learning from their own mistakes (as Luxemburg posits). It remains a moot point as to whether the intervention of the Bolsheviks ensured that they ‘did their best in the circumstances of what was forced on them 1917-23’ or whether that was first step that allowed, once again, the counter-revolution to emerge from within the revolution itself.

In today’s circumstances, there are too many competing fragments of what passes for a socialist movement, each embattled behind some rigid theoretical demarcation line and more interested in parasitism on spontaneous movements while competing amongst themselves for dominant influence. Many of them are, or have been, the product of some particular individual controlling his own fiefdom and using ‘democratic centralism’ as his weapon against internal dissent. When some hapless young person feels the first stirrings of revolutionary consciousness they frequently fall into the webs and snares set by these cults and sects rather than being able to freely associate with their own workmates and neighbours to develop their ideas. Instead they are made to feel inadequate until they have absorbed the great leader’s theories and/or fully accepted the rigid tenets of the particular group. Most likely outcome, they either become a fully-fledged cult member or, more often, become disillusioned, depressed and drop out.

Combating this is a Promethean task, which only a spontaneous uprising can accomplish by blowing them all away. Readers may gather this particular ‘old red fogey’ is talking from bitter experience. After reading RD’s three major texts, I have found in them little to encourage me to follow her constant refrain of returning to Hegel’s dialectic, though I have some sympathy with her aim of rescuing the Humanism of Marx from the Marxists. I guess I will look elsewhere.


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