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.

Reading Dunayevskaya – Philosophy and Revolution – 2

  1. ‘Part 2: Alternatives’ is a section with which I have little to disagree with (apart from point 3 above). I long ago accepted the idea of ‘state capitalism’, both as a description of Soviet society and as a description of global capitalism in the 20th century. I also rejected the idea of the leadership of a centralised, hierarchical and bureaucratic party (or union, or any other style of organisation). While I enjoyed (and still do) reading Sartre and the other existentialist coterie, I could never take seriously the idea that existentialism offered anything more than an inspiration for the individual flagging in the face of a stifling society when feeling isolated. I do however disagree with RD’s characterisation of existentialism as ‘petit-bourgeois’. I bridle at this cheap class characterisation of any ideas, since it is so redolent of Stalinism and the economic determinist concept of consciousness.
  2. ‘Part 3: Economic Reality and the Dialectics of Liberation’ is for me the most illuminating section of the book. For the first time in reading RD, I find I can recognize myself in what she is describing and analysing. The section covers the ‘noise’ around my early years of political consciousness, as well as events and movements within which I got my first practical experiences: African liberation, Biafra, the Congo, Cuba, the Civil Rights Movement, the East European Revolts and so on. Most especially, I recognize how I responded with excitement to the youth revolts of 1968, the emergence of Black Power and Women’s Liberation (though I am male and white). It was, for me, all about liberation, the prospect of self-development together with others, breaking down barriers, throwing off the shackles. I remember the slogan, ‘Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible’. This all relates back to Part One of the book and its concentration on alienation.

I warm to statements like these: ‘The reality is stifling. The transformation of reality has a dialectic all its own. It demands a unity of the struggles for freedom with a philosophy of liberation. Only then does the elemental revolt release new sensibilities, new passions and new forces – a whole new dimension.’ (p 292) After all, I have experienced this once in my lifetime and seen it happen elsewhere at other times. I hope it happens again soon and a more widespread and consistent level.

But I remain troubled that this book is not helping me to understand why all that excitement of 1968-1973 ran into the sand. Why, over the last decade or more, has the undeniably existing movement not emerged in a new way? What is holding things back? Why does society seem, if anything, to be regressing? Why is the quest for liberation so apparently helpless? Why does RD keep characterising ‘the other’ as ‘petit-bourgeois’ in this book? Isn’t she part of the same grouping as an intellectual theorist?

Reading Dunayevskaya: Philosophy and Revolution – 1

This is an extremely difficult book to read, especially if you have no prior knowledge about Hegel. It is not helped by the rather dense way in which it is written, assuming that the reader can follow the frequent use of undefined terms from Hegel’s writings. I am struck by how abstract and almost mystical is this hunt for connection between Hegel and Marx. I wonder whether I need such abstruse theorising at all in order to understand the world. Do I even need RD? Possibly in parts she is helpful. Marx in Capital is at least readable. Hegel is gobbledegook.

There are passages, when one gets away from this specialised argument, when the book is less dense, more clearly related to human experience and therefore easier to follow. Of course, this rather defeats the argument that understanding Hegel’s Logic is the key to understanding Marx, and in turn, Dunayevskaya’s conception of Marxist-Humanism. I will therefore stick with what I understand and make no attempt to follow the inscrutable. I will take it on trust that RD is honest when she says in relation to Lenin: ‘Naturally his aphorism about none being able to understand the first chapter of Capital who had not understood the whole of the Logic is not to be taken literally[1].’ I have no desire to go through an endless regressive study of philosophy back to the ancient Greeks in order to understand what is going on in my world today.

  1. I responded best to the passages on alienation (e.g. pages 87-88). The point about labour power being a commodity is crucial to understanding the inequalities of capitalist society, legally, culturally and socially, and therefore what is meant by ‘alienation’. This is not a simply economic issue about being separated from the product of our labour. We in the working class are first and foremost human beings, but we can only live if we sell our labour power. Hence, we trade our labour power as a commodity in the same way that we purchase consumer goods as commodities with the money we get from selling our labour power. [Note that some of this purchase is collective via taxation and creates another veil of obscurity.]

Capitalist society says that we are all free and equal – but the need to sell our labour power is absolute and in turn absolutely denies us our freedom as human beings with creative potential. As human beings in free association with others, we would naturally incline to find social and personal ways to secure our well-being and to express our creativity and self-development. We still attempt to do that in capitalist society, but we are constantly thwarted, corralled and thrown back. In capitalism, this desire is channelled into the need to get a job, and therefore to become educated, to develop skills both practical and social to improve our labour power (and increasingly we are also forced to fund this, most notably by higher education students having to take out crippling loans to fund their qualification chase). If there is money to spare after meeting the basic necessities of life, we may also use that to expand our self-development. We may try to become artists or writers, but we are forced to sell this as well, because that is the inexorable logic of capitalism. We purchase our leisure, relaxation, health and free expression as commodities.

Yet, we still retain our basic humanity, because we are still human beings, not labour automatons – hence the sense of alienation that affects us and sometimes drives us mad. It is impossible to be a true human being in capitalist society, even for the capitalists. At all times, at all levels, social relations are reduced to the sale and purchase of commodities. It does not matter if this is bread to survive or our third luxury yacht.

  1. RD asserts the issue of national self-determination as the critical point of disagreement between Lenin on the one hand and Stalin and Trotsky on the other (she doesn’t mention Luxemburg here, who also had distinct views, but that appears in her next book). How is this squared with the Red Army’s invasion of Poland or the role of the Red Army in the Ukraine against Makhno and other regional nationalist groups (1919-1921)? Was this an attempt to substitute war for revolution?
  2. She also goes on to the subject of leadership again, correctly criticising Stalin and Trotsky, but absolving Lenin whose theoretical writings seemed to advocate turning to the masses all the time, implying that the leaderships were always lagging behind. Once again – this does not square with the treatment of the WO, who specifically advocated this approach but were bureaucratically silenced by Lenin! I can accept the idea from experience. The major theoreticians of the New Left in the UK devised their left-reformist May Day Manifesto exactly 50 years ago. The movement that actually emerged the following year blew it away. I witnessed the change on the streets: in 1967 at Easter I attended the annual CND March from Aldermaston to London, which passed off in a good-natured cheerful fashion, keeping to the left-hand side of the road. The following March, we assembled in Trafalgar Square against the Vietnam War and the place was a sea of red flags. As the marchers set off, they immediately occupied both sides of the road and, when we arrived at Grosvenor Square in front of the US Embassy, it was bedlam and our contingent was just in time to witness a hopeless Cossack-style charge by mounted police against the crowds who had taken over the Square. Something other than reformism was in the air (which, of course had fizzled out by the following year).

[1] P&R p 105

Reading Raya Dunayevskaya: 1. Marxism and Freedom

Reading Marxism and Freedom

In general, I have little problem with Raya Dunayevskaya’s concept of Marxism-Humanism and how she arrives at her conclusions. I have a general problem with a major sub-thesis of the book: the role of revolutionary leadership. Throughout chapters 1-4, RD constantly refers to Marx criticising revolutionary leaders, e.g. ‘There would have been no revolution in 1848 if it had depended on the revolutionary leaders’. Should we not therefore be asking: what exactly do revolutionary leaders contribute to the process by which the working class achieves its emancipation? How do we place Lenin, Dunayevskaya and, indeed, Marx, in that question?

There are also some specifics with which I have difficulty, most notably her description of Lenin’s arguments and decisions after 1917 and the almost hagiographical tone she uses whenever she refers to Lenin. I think this suggests an ambivalence on Dunayevskaya’s part in relation to the role of revolutionary leadership.

I can concede that the attempt of the Bolsheviks to hold onto the gains of 1917 in the face of overwhelming odds was in difficulties almost from the start and doomed after the failure of the German Revolution in 1923. I can therefore also concede that mistakes would be made in trying to deal with such impossible circumstances and that, of all the Bolsheviks about whom we know, Lenin was by far the most intelligent in the leading cadres. [We know somewhat less about those in the lower ranks, that being one of the problems of history. There may have been better and younger comrades who perished or were silenced later.] However, there was one juncture in 1920-21 when Lenin could have taken a different line, opening possibilities I will outline later in these notes.

First, we should understand that Dunayevskaya’s accounts of the post-revolutionary events are second hand. She was not present and not directly involved. She was born Raya Shpigel on 1 May 1910 in the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire and emigrated with her family to the USA as a child. When very young she joined the revolutionary movement there and was a member of the US Communist Party until expelled in 1928 for supporting Trotsky. She broke with Trotskyism after a short period serving as his secretary in exile.

RD constantly praises Lenin’s observations on how the nascent workers’ state was being distorted by bureaucracy and how leading members of the Communist Party were responsible for these adverse changes. What she (and Lenin himself) seem oblivious to is that Lenin was himself at the centre of both the Party and the State and its developing bureaucracy. Critical of others, he was less critical of himself. He rightly condemned Trotsky’s advocacy of militarising the working class and of the administrative turn of mind that lay behind it, as he was also right to condemn the machinations of Stalin and his henchmen. The problems came to a head in the debates about the role of the trade unions in economic organisation, coincidental with the Kronstadt Mutiny and the emergence of the Workers’ Opposition.

The leader of the latter faction was Shlyapnikov, a Bolshevik trade unionist. He argued in 1920 that the trade unions, through an All Russian Congress of Producers, should be given responsibility for economic development. This was in turn taken up by the Workers’ Opposition, which included other Bolsheviks such as Alexandra Kollontai. Essentially Lenin reduced the debate to a conflict between Trotsky’s militarism and Shlyapnikov’s ‘anarcho-syndicalism’, as RD and Lenin characterise it. Close examination of the documents produced by Shlyapnikov show that this is a false characterisation. He was at pains in his Theses to the 9th Party Congress of 1920 to place the CP at the heart of political leadership, with the Producers in their organisations operating under CP direction to bring about the necessary economic changes and improvements that the workers and peasants were themselves best placed to achieve, and had been achieving despite problems until that date. What Shlyapnikov hoped to achieve by this was summed up in the final thesis 28: ‘to protect the Party from the rush into it of alien careerist elements’. In other words, the whole emphasis of the Theses was to counter the development of the very bureaucratic distortions about which Lenin fulminated by placing the democratic organisations of the (admittedly small) working class at the centre of the key parts of the economy.

The Theses of the Workers Opposition of 1921 built upon these ideas and on the foundations of decisions along these lines made at earlier Congresses, by incorporating the greatest possible workers’ democracy into economic organisation. Where Shlyapnikov and the WO were coming from is clearly outlined in an appeal to the Communist International in 1922, pointing out that the Party was only 40% workers and 60% non-proletarian[1] and that the latter were using all and every means to silence the former in the supposed interests of ‘unity’. This document explicitly rejected the accusation of ‘anarcho-syndicalism’ that had been levelled against them[2].

What was Lenin’s role? He took the ‘middle way’ between Trotsky and Shlyapnikov, incorporating both factions and viewpoints into the centre of the Party and then told everyone to shut up in the name of ‘Party Unity’. Maybe that seemed a sensible, pragmatic response at a time when the revolutionary gains were at huge risk. Silencing the leading proponents of the working class within the Party at the same time as suppressing the Kronstadt Revolt by force of arms (led by Trotsky) would however produce exactly the wrong result. It empowered the bureaucratic elements, whose particular skill was working in the shadows.

Those of us, with the benefit of hindsight, who have had experience in more recent decades of the suppression of debate within Communist Parties and Trotskyist organisations in the name of ‘unity’, presented as ‘democratic centralism’ and ‘party discipline’, know and recognize how this tactic works and how it debilitates the liveliest and most creative members in favour of those who progress through the ranks by dint of silent acquiescence. If you want to know how Lenin therefore led directly to Stalin, look no further.

In all fairness, however, it should be admitted that, even had Shlyapnikov and the Workers’ Opposition been supported by Lenin, the revolution would still have failed. The difference may have been that the result was not Stalinism and that, consequently, the concept of communism might not have been sullied for countless generations. The revolution might have failed honourably.

Debate please, and less about the details of 1920-22 than about the principles at stake.

[1] If this was the case with the Party in general, across Russia, how much more might it have been evident in the centre?

[2] Throughout I have used the versions of these documents found in the on-line Marxist Internet Archive.

We Make Our Own History

Review: We make our own history: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen (Pluto Press, London 2014)

For an exponent of ‘history from below’, the title has an immediate appeal. To a degree, the book suffers from being presented partially to fulfil the academic necessity of publishing research work. The language used is sometimes overly technical which can be off-putting to the general reader, especially with the earlier chapters. But it is worth persevering. One strength that arises from this form of presentation is that it is well referenced and there is an extensive bibliography to lead the reader on to other discoveries. Given the approach of the authors, there are some odd omissions: no mention of Raya Dunayevskaya, whose Marxist Humanism is echoed frequently, nor of some of the critics of Marxism such as Cornelius Castoriadis or Murray Bookchin, whose work would have seemed very relevant, and later works by David Harvey, Paul Mattick and others that cover the experience of the 2008 recession.

Despite these small reservations, the main strength of the book is that both authors have been immersed in recent activism, principally in Ireland and India, so their insights derive from practice as much as theory. Their experiences have led them to reject ‘institutionalised forms of Marxism’ in favour of another Marxism being possible, grounded in practice. They have tested their ideas among activist gatherings and social movement conferences, though perhaps they needed testing in more challenging conditions. This takes nothing away from their fundamental argument in favour of an organic, developmental conception of resistance and rebellion that creates its own theories through practice and self-reflection.

They make a useful distinction, drawn from Gramsci, between ‘common sense’ (ways of doing things imposed by the status quo and operating within the dominant consensus) and a deeper ‘good sense’ that builds from people’s real experiences and desires and challenges the boundaries of ‘how things are’. [p 74]

They provide a useful analysis of different forms of ‘social movement from below’ at different stages of development from the specifically local to the more generalised. Perhaps their most useful insight however is to describe the power structures of the status quo as ‘social movements from above’ – immediately reconceptualising the dominant culture as contested, temporary and fragile. The local and particular, through intelligent networking, can therefore begin to articulate an alternative and go on to develop a new narrative that can confront the dominant structures.

They note that social movements, grounded in everyday realities, always go well beyond the limited abilities of a political party, to institute grassroots, self-organised change. When this becomes self-reflexive, it becomes praxis and we enter the complex dialectical process, between social movements from above and below, and within each of these spheres, since these processes are uneven and sometimes contradictory. There is great hope in this way of seeing the world.

Tucked away on page 76 is an insight that may be worth developing further. The authors paraphrase from Lichtermann’s 1996 volume, The Search for Political Community. Describing different types of movement, they make reference to environmental groups in the US: ‘middle class, mostly white, US Green participants found themselves largely isolated from the cultures they were born into and needed to construct new activist communities as a means of social support’. Is this why people gravitate more easily to left and Green parties and structures than to grassroots movements? Is this why they then substitute sectarian factionalism for real community engagement, which in turn deepens their estrangement? Something for many activists to reflect on.

Red Ellen Wilkinson

Just finished reading ‘Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist’, by Laura Beers (Harvard University Press, 2016). Whatever your specific political persuasion, I urge you to read it and to persevere with its 450 pages of extensive detail. This year will be the centenary of her death from an accidental overdose of pills on 6 February 1947, at which time she was the Minister for Education in the Attlee Government and one of the architects of the experiment in social engineering from 1945. She helped create the foundations of the world in which I grew up.

Ellen was born in Manchester on 8 October 1891, not far from the area described by Engels in his ‘Condition of the Working Classes in England’, though in a slightly more upmarket neighbourhood. She became one of a generation of working-class intellectuals imbued with the ideals of socialism, feminism and internationalism. She campaigned for votes for women from an early age, was a dedicated trade union organiser all her life, helped found the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), became a long-serving Labour MP for Middlesbrough East and Jarrow, organised the Jarrow Crusade, campaigned against fascism in the 1930s and on behalf of Republican Spain and helped in the foundation of the UN and UNESCO. She worked tirelessly and this book shows in great detail just how hard that was and how, in the end, it broke her physically. She gave her life for the working classes. If there is to be a statue to her, as has been suggested, it is long overdue and may it replace one of those bronze men on horseback.

I won’t pretend to agree with everything that Ellen stood for, but I salute her intentions and her bravery and the way she fought. Most of us mortals fall well short. What this book illustrates, step by step, and decision by decision, is the way in which the desire for ‘something better now’ can distort the longer aims and divert the most militant among us. Time and time again, Ellen allowed her principles to be set aside in order to get some small measure of vital improvement for working class lives in the immediate present. Her story is an object lesson and an archetype of how staunch and genuine socialists in the Labour Party in the UK gradually triangulate their way to becoming divorced from the working class while purporting to be representing their best interests. For every reform she won, large or small, there was an equal and opposite compromise where she turned against her own principles and blocked the tide.

This is the road that has led via Blair to Brexit, via Clinton and Obama to Trump, via the integration of neo-liberal principles in EU institutions to the rise of a new fascist menace in Europe. It is matched by similar tendencies across the globe. It is to be hoped that this process quickly produces its opposite and superior reaction: a world-wide movement for the liberation of working people from the fetters of globalised Capital. This time: let the working class be its own force for liberation.

Saying that, let me take nothing away from ‘Red Ellen’ – she did what she believed was right in the circumstances of her times. Would that the present-day Labour Party had more MPs and members like her, whatever the limitations of that organisation.