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Monday, March 18, 2019

Responding to Red-Baiting on Marxism

Dr Tristan Ewins

A common argument on the Left is that ‘Socialism’ is not ‘Communism’ ; and this is intended to ‘deflect’ associations with Stalinist big ‘C’ Communism as it was known in the former USSR and Eastern Bloc.

Indeed, socialism is not 'Communism with a big 'C'' - in the Stalinist sense: with unending Terror and Cult of Personality.  In the authentic Marxist sense socialism  refers to a stage of economic development under which ownership of the means of production was progressively centralised under the state ; and with 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' whereby the democratic working class majority had exercised state power.  This is the 'first stage' of communism. (also known as 'socialism')  And thereafter - with abundance and the end of social antagonisms - 'the state withers away'. This is 'the higher stage of communism'.

There are  many (non-Marxist) definitions of socialism as well.  And many people – including self-identifying Marxists –  also argue for a ‘democratic mixed economy’ including a mix of markets and planning ; and of public, co-operative and other collective ownership.  And this is also seen as a kind of socialism.  (even if not strictly conforming to the original Marxist definition) These people can still sympathize with the goal of 'the higher stage of communism' ; but many (the author included) have come to seriously doubt the likelihood of its being realised.

But many of those who actually have a grasp of Marxism (most people don't) know there's nothing wrong with his notion of communism in theory. As opposed to stifling oppression , Marx’s notion of ‘communism’ envisaged a world of plenty; of cultural and social opportunity ; governed by the principle of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ ;  and where humanity transcended past conflicts: where - again, as opposed to becoming 'all encompassing' - the state (in Marx’s words) ‘withered away’.

But remember also that communism in the Marxist sense was deemed by Marxists themselves as impossible without the prerequisite of economic Abundance – with the development of the means of production first by workers under capitalism, and then furthered under socialism.

The Bolsheviks attempted a Revolution in Russia before the economic development had reached the level many other Marxists had seen as a prerequisite. In name they were pursuing communism - but the system they implemented certainly was not communist in Marx's sense.

Many Marxists understood the risks.  Effectively, the Russian Revolution could get stuck in a particularly repressive variation from 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'.  Many interpret that as meaning ‘dictatorship’ in the literal sense.  But in the authentic Marxist sense it was to be understood as a manner of applying democracy ; ie: the democratic rule of the working class majority.  (but where the revolution’s class enemies were contained or suppressed where necessary; though some Marxists such as Karl Kautsky also ended up insisting on a regime of universal liberal rights)

But the Bolsheviks attempted a Revolution in an industrially-backward nation ; dependant on an alliance of workers and peasants. That is why a lot of Marxists thought the Bolsheviks went too far – attempting to overcome their disadvantages through sheer voluntarist will and strategy.  What we ended up with was centralisation and Terror. And decades of forced industrialisation: a ‘forced march’ to achieve the economic preconditions of socialism.  In the process, Terror, Cult-of-Personality and over-centralisation saw the corruption of the Revolution and the onset of what came to be known as ‘Stalinism’. This was not ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ in  Marx’s true sense ; though certainly it was a kind of dictatorship.  Most critics of Marxism do not understand the difference.

On the other hand ; some critics of Bolshevism such as Rosa Luxemburg did not condemn the Bolsheviks for trying.  For Luxemburg specifically her criticism centred on the issue of workers’ liberties and workers’ democracy.  But by contrast, Left-Menshevist, Julius Martov also insisted on ‘mass democracy’ as opposed to ultra-centralism ; and questioned the Bolshevist path to power. For Martov Russia’s semi-feudal conditions were not a sufficient base on which to build socialism. And this was bound to result in complications later down the track. Economic development had to come first ; though in the interim he supported an alliance of socialist parties. 

Importantly: 'Abundance' itself has also proven in some senses relative ; and 'coercive laws of competition' (a concept found in Capital Vol I) can be applied to states arguably as well as to businesses.  Practically this means that both businesses and states need to promote competitiveness in order to survive. This also makes (the higher stage of) communism in Marx's sense a difficult prospect. And it makes socialism in the strict Marxist sense a difficult prospect for the same reasons. (coercive laws of competition) Hence we need internationalism in theory and practice - and to reject arguments on globalisation to the effect that 'everything is hopeless'.

There's also the concern that class struggle is not the sole source of conflict ; hence the state may never 'wither away'.

Maoism in China saw the peasants as having the leading role. Only in the past couple of decades or so the Chinese have attempted to emulate capitalist development in order to modernise.  And in terms of the scale of their economic development they have succeeded remarkably.  But there's the risk that their capitalists will one day become an effective ruling class. And then the last remnants of Chinese Communism would be over.  There’s no reason to suppose that would necessarily involve ‘democratisation’ either.

On the other hand Swedish Socialism was not clearly Marxist. Theorists like Walter Korpi wrote of a 'democratic class struggle'. Marxism held significant influence. But key socialist theorists like Ernst Wigforss did not identify as Marxist and had original ideas  distinct from those provided by the broad Marxist framework. Though fear of Bolshevism had helped to press the Swedish monarchy into supporting the Suffrage. (as with many other countries)

The rise of a ‘Communism’ clearly distinct from social democracy had originally began in 1914 with the formation of Communist parties in response to the World War. (and the failure of most social democrats to effectively oppose it)  This was a watershed moment.  The ‘Twenty-One Conditions’ (1920) of the Third International (developed after the 1917 Russian Revolution) imposed a single organisational and ideological framework for all Communist Parties ; that is, of Vanguard Parties in the Leninist sense. (parties of ‘the advanced working class’) And in the process this ruled out flexibility and adaptation to local circumstance.

The author’s personal sympathies are with the 'Left Social Democrats' - such as the Austro-Marxists. Who were definitely Marxists - and definitely not Bolsheviks or Stalinists. The key point here is that the Schism was not entirely 'against Marxism' ; it was also to various degrees 'within Marxism'.   In this sense there is not necessarily any logical contradiction between communism in the strict Marxist sense – and Revolutionary Social Democracy. Importantly therefore, the Bolsheviks could never claim a monopoly on Marxist thought.  Marxists retained crucial influence on the Left of Social Democratic parties.  In some cases (eg: Austria during the inter-war period) Marxism remained the dominant outlook.

Again: the word ‘Communism’ is deployed widely to scare people ; and many socialists (even Marxist-influenced) will not enter into any debate concerning it for fear of the impact of red-baiting, and association with the ‘once-really-existing Stalinist’ regimes of the 20th Century.
Tactically, social democratic leaders may be advised not to proclaim to the world that they are Communists.  And in all honestly, there is doubt that 'real communism' as Marx truly intended - is even possible. Or at least certainly not for a very long time into the future.

But if we can't debate these issues internally even , eventually we will be led to abandon socialism entirely. Kind of like how 'liberalism became a dirty word' for a very long time within the United States. That way we find ourselves perpetually on the back foot in response to red-baiting.
But now there's actually a resurgence of socialism in the US.  DSA – Democratic Socialists of America – has been expanding rapidly.  Demands are growing for improvement of wages, action on climate change, and for socialised medicine. These are taken for granted in many parts of the world ; but progress on these fronts is remarkable in the American instance. The question is how far this trend can be furthered (and tactical compromises will be necessary) without forsaking substance over the long term.

In the Australian context, there was once a much stronger culture of internal debate around the issue of Democratic Socialism in previous decades - and it didn't cost the Australian Labor Party elections. (say in the 70s and 80s)  Though since the 50s split the ALP had been undermined by right-wing Catholic organisations such as the Democratic Labor Party and the National Civic Council.  Those tendencies have now largely redeployed within the Liberal Party (Australia’s party of Conservatism). In the process they have abandoned ‘traditional Catholic centrism’.  They have abandoned all pretence to economic social justice in order to cement their place on the Liberal-Conservative Right in the current political milieu. That means internalising neo-liberal thinking on the economy, say as opposed to the premises of Rerum Novarum. (the Roman Catholic Church’s original 19th Century response to capitalism and industrialisation)

Parliamentary parties are always tempted by opportunism.  Though it's true that ALP Leader Herbert Vere ‘Doc’ Evatt did the right thing defending liberties when Liberal Prime Minister, Robert Menzies tried banning the Communist Party in the 1950s.   With Evatt championing liberal rights, Menzies lost the associated referendum.  Liberal rights in Australia were preserved. Evatt’s principles may have cost parliamentary votes ; but who of any principle  would say that he did the wrong thing?  Though he did not win a Parliamentary election as Leader, he will always be remembered for his stand.

Right-wing public intellectuals like Jordan Peterson are alarmed by arguments that ‘Real communism has never really been tried.’  Although the achievements for a while of kibbutzim in Israel give some idea what might be possible. If you used Kibbutzim as an example I don't think many people would be shocked

And it's possible to establish that you're influenced by Marxism without saying you're a Stalinist, a Bolshevik, a Maoist, or even a Trotskyist. A mainstream Australian economist like John Quiggin is clear that he's influenced by Marxism - though he's not a revolutionary.

Personally, I sometimes call myself a Left Social Democrat. And that's completely sincere as I've already explained earlier.  The terms ‘revolutionary social democrat’ and ‘democratic socialist’ also sincerely apply.    

On the Left we cannot (and should not) airbrush history because that's more politically opportune. But neither can our leadership always 'put on their most radical faces' when contesting elections. Still: here among the grassroots I think we have more freedom. We should use it. It may well bear fruit into the future ; so we are intellectually prepared in the event of future crises. And that is only a matter of time.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Responding to Jordan Peterson on Socialism

above:  Karl Marx (above) and right-wing public intellectual, Jordan Peterson (below)

Dr Tristan Ewins

I’ve just been watching You Tube videos featuring Canadian right-wing public intellectual Jordan Peterson making a litany of claims against Marxism: basically to the effect that Marxism is ‘essentially and inevitably totalitarian’. I intend to criticise this viewpoint at length.  But bear with me a moment while I summarise some of his arguments.

Peterson claims Marxism is politically irredeemable in any sense.  Numerous examples of Stalinism are provided to illustrate the arguments ; and to suggest an ‘essential causal link’ between Marxism and the Stalinist dystopias of the 20th Century.   Peterson makes the usual claims that Marxism leads to mediocrity and failure because it fails to reward excellence and initiative.  That it fails to accommodate the functionality of inequality in that sense of providing incentive and reward for effort and innovation.  And furthermore, Peterson argues that Marxism is a basically destructive ideology founded on envy ; and is ‘fundamentally authoritarian’ and antagonistic towards liberty.  In response to Marxist critics of Stalinism, Peterson dismissively claims that their position can be written off as suggesting ‘the utopia would have been ushered in if only they had been the dictators’.   Peterson links Marxism with atrocities having claimed millions of lives over the course of the 20th Century. From his perspective he finds it hard to grasp how some people are still claiming ‘that was not real communism’ ; and that ‘real communism deserves to be tried’.

In response,you could just as easily argue that the First World War was waged between capitalist nations ; inspired by Imperialist rivalries ; and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. Do we conclude therefore that is the only kind of capitalism possible? That is: a capitalism characterized by imperialism, aggressive nationalism and world war?  
Many Marxists have made just that conclusion.  Though by contrast Karl Kautsky suggested the possibility of an ‘ultra-imperialism’ whereby the Great Powers carved the world up between themselves in a relatively peaceful fashion.  

Yes, there is a common, historical and functional link between capitalist imperialism and war.   The drive for economic growth and political power provides a motivation to try and secure external markets in the context of Great Power rivalry. And to exploit the resources of ‘colonised’ and ‘Third World’ countries.  But ideologies around competitive individualism, market economies and so on are not essentially linked with war. Do we not distinguish between pacifist liberals and imperialist hawks under capitalism?  Nor should socialist ideologies be ‘essentially linked’ with oppression as if only one kind of outcome is possible.  

On the other hand , those ideologies (of market based competition) are often appealed to in a misleading way. Socialists can also accommodate a place for competition and markets. For some socialists the real challenge is in working out ‘the best mix’.  And that could involve a balance of competition, planning and economic democracy.  (for instance imaginably in a context of producer’s and consumer’s co-operatives ; with peoples’ democratic organisation as producers and consumers providing checks and balances against each other)

Some markets deliver the goods in terms of innovation and responsiveness to consumer need. In other instances co-operation and civic responsibility deserve to be considered as options and as motivations.  ‘Natural public monopolies’ can pass on superior cost structures to the broader economy ; assisting not only consumers – but even capitalist enterprises. There is no ‘one way’ in which to organise economies.  The ‘essence’ of capitalism is neither markets nor competition (which existed before capitalism)  : but rather capital as a form of property ; a social relationship and a process of accumulation ; a process through which the surplus value created by workers is appropriated ; with startling divisions resulting in both wealth and power. Divisions which are becoming more and more marked ; and with economic insecurity a means of disciplining the working class into submission.

Marx’s critique of capitalism focused on the intense human alienation which arose in the age of industrialisation. Extremes not only of inequality: but the brutality involved in long working hours, subsistence wages, inhuman and sometimes dangerous working conditions.  And further: the distributive injustice arising from the expropriation of surplus value: that workers were not fully compensated for the value which they created through their labours.  The division of labour under capitalism was dehumanising in that there was little opportunity for rewarding creative labour. Labour was commonly ‘broken into small, repetitive parts’ in a way which ruled out creative control or fulfilment.  For many workers this is still the reality. 
As opposed to oppression, Marxism actually aimed to extend “personal freedom”, not of isolated individuals but through mutual “association” providing “the means of cultivating [our] gifts in all directions” (Marx and Engels Selected Works, Vol. I, pp 27-28, 68).

We cannot go into some comprehensive rendition of ‘key Marxist concepts’ here ; but in short Marxism is a plural tradition spanning the best part of two centuries.  Its prestige has declined with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.  Triumphalist proclamations of its collapse and irrelevance have had a telling effect through sheer repetition and attrition ; amidst hostility in the monopoly mass media.   In fact the world is always changing ; and ‘classical Marxism’ on its own is not enough to grasp every aspect of such a constantly changing world.  That said ; Marx still grasps the fundamentals of capitalist accumulation and exploitation ; the problems of monopolisation and class bifurcation ; and the dilemmas where exchange value is emphasised sometimes to the exclusion of use value.  (for example ; great swathes of unoccupied properties amidst widespread homelessness)  He also recognised as early as the ‘Manifesto’ of 1848 that constant change (and hence insecurity) were also ‘the essence of capitalism’ ; though Social Democracy has strived to ameliorate this through the welfare state, social wage and so on. 

Marx provides a foundation upon which further theoretical innovation can progress – often in different directions.  Every word ‘should not be taken as holy writ’.  Sometimes even fundamental and iconic ideas deserve to be revised.  But aside from the horrors of totalitarian misappropriation there are other traditions : traditions of the Democratic Left.  For instance ; of the Revolutionary Social Democracy which preceded the ‘Social Democratic/Communist Split’ of 1914.  And which survived on the Left of Social Democracy.  The great plurality of modern Marxism – and of newer traditions – such as ‘Post-Marxism’  (eg: Mouffe and Laclau), and the Critical Theory developed by the likes of Jurgen Habermas – also demonstrate a productive engagement with liberalism.

Peterson concedes that much Marxist analysis withstands criticism and maintains its appeal ; but argues that it can only have one outcome when applied in practice.  That is: totalitarian oppression and suppression of individual dignity and liberty.  These kind of claims are fundamentally ahistorical.  They look not to the specific historic conditions which saw Marxism twisted into an ‘official Ideology’ of authoritarian, and even totalitarian states.  Rather they generalise that given such degeneration became widespread over the 20th Century that it is the only possible outcome.

But let's remember also that the original (Marxist) social democrats were among the first to promote the fight for full, equal and universal suffrage at a time when the idea was unthinkable for most Conservatives and even most Liberals.  And that Bolshevist pressure contributed to the conditions whereby liberal and parliamentary democracy was widely adopted in Europe following World War One. Let's also remember Rosa Luxemburg's critique of Leninism ; and the critiques of Bolshevism from figures such as the German-based Marxist – and most prominent theorist of ‘Marxist Centrism and Orthodoxy’ ; Karl Kautsky , as well as the Left-Social Democratic Menshevik leader, Julius Martov.  In short: right from the beginning there was resistance to Bolshevist strategies from the revolutionary social democratic and libertarian communist Left. Right from the beginning there was resistance from within Marxism - on the basis that suppression of democracy and liberties ; and the progressive narrowing of decision making to an ever narrowing stratum of Party leaders – counter-acted the corrective forces of participatory democracy. And that the narrowing foundation for real power could very well corrupt the Revolution over the longer term. (as it did)  

Further ; accelerating and entrenched Terror abrogated the Marxist principles of fighting human alienation and defending human dignity.  Yes, Marx understood Terror could be inevitable in certain revolutionary contexts ; but those strategies also held certain dangers ; and pervasive Stalinist Terror became permanent and indiscriminate.
Bolshevist centralisation and Terror held the same danger of facilitating effective counter-revolution: as occurred also with the Terror in Revolutionary France ; and the transition from ‘the Republic’ to ‘The Empire’ of Napoleon.  Stalinism is understood by some as exactly that: counter-revolution. Some ‘orthodox’ Marxists (including Martov and Kautsky) also viewed radical Bolshevist voluntarism regarding the establishment of socialism without the foundation of prior capitalist economic development – as involving dangerous potential risks and ramifications. Most importantly: that while the Bolshevists engaged in a ‘bold gambit’ of pursuing revolution and withdrawing Russia from the War ; that the ultimate degeneration of the revolution (under enormous pressure from isolation and foreign intervention and destabilisation) could see socialism discredited in the eyes of many for generations.  

On the other hand: while these flaws in Bolshevist strategy can be appreciated, assumptions of ‘inevitable, irresistible and gradual progress towards democratic socialism’ were also flawed. For example, while the Austrian Revolution of 1918 did not replicate Bolshevist strategies , the failure of the Austrian Social Democrats to fully and permanently consolidate their control of the state apparatus of force when the opportunity provided actually left the way open for the undermining of democracy in Austria from within – and the eventual rise of a domestic ‘Austro-Fascism’ over the longer term.

The fact is that a more liberal capitalism is possible ; but so is a more liberal socialism. Also let's remember the ambitions of (pre-Leninist) Marxism - for whom the aim was economic development with the aim of promoting cultural growth, development and freedom. The drift of socialism into more authoritarianism and repression that occurred under Lenin - and radically accelerated and deepened under Stalin - also need to be understood in context.

Again: Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power amidst World War. The Entente responded to the loss of their former Russian ally by promoting destabilization and supporting the White Armies. Desperation accelerated: became a matter of life and death - as heating materials, food supply and so on - were threatened in the context of civil war. And so Bolsheviks such as Trotsky were led to embrace war, militarisation of labour, political repression - to prevent the collapse of the communist government – and broader social and economic disaster. Everything became justifiable because it was done in the name of the (nominally) proletarian state. But that very state became more and more divorced from any real accountability to the Soviet People in practice. Again: Democratic and libertarian communists such as Luxemburg, Kautsky, Martov (who were also significantly different from one another in important respects) did see that justifying everything and anything for the sake of the 'end cause' was a dangerous path which could lead to the discrediting of socialism for generations.

But still: why is it that the Right can judge Marxism as a whole (and in an undifferentiated way) so harshly - but has so little so say about Western Intervention in the Civil War, and the World War that led to Russian social collapse, the deaths of tens of millions;  the desperate struggles for survival under Lenin ; and ultimately that setting the preconditions for the degeneration under Stalin? Why is it there is so little historic memory of anti-Communist Cold War atrocities? (Chile, Guatemala, half a million murdered in Indonesia ; the social and psychological trauma of McCarthyist paranoia and repression)  Why the double standards and selective historic memory? If you want some idea of what socialism and Marxism COULD have been - better to look to the examples of Red Vienna under the Austrian Social Democrats during the interwar period. Look to the mass movements in Austria which promoted working class cultural growth, democratic freedoms, and the provision of social goods and services - especially in Vienna itself. As well as effective conditions of ‘dual power’ with the maintenance of the republican ‘Schutzbund’ ; a working class militia with the aim of providing an ‘insurance policy’ for the preservation of  Austrian democracy.

There was a 'middle way' between Marxism-Leninism, and the ultimate degeneration under Stalin that followed on the one hand - and 'the social democratic Chauvinists' on the Right who rationalised support for a World War (WWI) in which tens of millions were slaughtered, disfigured and traumatised. Let's again restate how democracy was trailblazed in Revolutionary France - and the stated principles of the French Revolution inspire still. But also let's remember they faced comparable dilemmas re: revolutionary Terror in the face of destabilisation, war and invasion, starvation and so on. And the Terror eventually devoured its own; and led to a kind of counter-revolution - much as in Russia.  But we do not therefore abandon democracy on account of the fate of the French Revolution, do we? The French Revolution led to Bonapartism and Empire - But democrats never concluded that that was the only possibility arising from democratic and liberal revolution. Which is what Conservatives like Peterson effectively argue about socialism, and especially Marxism. Soviet and Eastern Bloc Socialism degenerated under very specific historic circumstances. But that was not the only socialism possible ; nor was it the only Marxism possible.

So a different kind of socialism and indeed a different kind of Marxism is possible. 

Capitalism is not 'essentially' about freedom either - especially for the most exploited. And in reality wealth polarisation suppresses opportunity rather than promoting it ; and effectively narrows the cultural, social and economic support base upon which real power rests. The capitalist Ideology often bears little resemblance to the reality. Just like Stalinism bore little resemblance to the original communist ideology. But a 'good and decent Marxism' today will also engage with liberalism. Hence the pluralism of Agonists and post-Marxists like Chantal Mouffe on one hand ; or liberal social democrats like Habermas on the other. They are radically different from one another in many respects. One (Habermasian critical theory) believes that through Reason and the application of Enlightenment principles Modernity can resolve its shortcomings with the growth of rational consensus through dialogue. The other (Agonism) sees difference of values as perhaps perpetually inevitable ; but asks how this can be accommodated via a genuine and deep liberal pluralism. But both defer in a sense at least to liberalism.

As for the final word on 'Communism' ; most of us have forgotten what communism really meant. It did not originally equate with permanent Terror, Cult of Personality and so on - nor should it do so today. It's not about an 'essential human nature' provided for under capitalism and suppressed under communism.  The ‘fate of Communism’ revolved around ethically treacherous tactical and strategic decision-making amidst some of the worst possible historic circumstances ; which saw the Marxist (formerly Social Democratic) movements diverted in many instances for decades - into the historical dead end of Stalinism. But the (Marxist) Left Social Democrats stand out still by the examples they gave and stood for as well. 

Stalinism emerges from the desperation and degeneration which occurs under conditions of permanent Terror - which in of themselves arose under extraordinary historic conditions of social and economic disintegration. It also arose in the context of war, civil war, foreign intervention, the threat of starvation - and the furious response of the Entente Powers who could not forgive Lenin for withdrawing from World War One. Without World War One – and without Western intervention - there may have been no Stalinism. Without those treacherous dilemmas and desperate historic circumstances - maybe there really could even have been a (relatively) 'peaceful march forward for socialism and democracy'. But history rarely progresses just as we would like.

Of course the ‘Marxist Centrist’, Kautsky is not without fault either ; arguing for abstention on the issue of war credits in 1914 rather than outright opposition. But by 1915 most Marxist social democrats (including Kautksy) were agitating relentlessly for a separate peace. Lenin drew a certain prestige from never compromising or conceding in the face of a War which claimed tens of millions of lives. What he was not open or honest about was the fact he could not deliver the peace which working people wanted ; because under the specific circumstances Civil War was inevitable. Lenin wanted a world revolution which ended war, repression, exploitation and capitalism permanently. What we eventually got under Stalin was a regime whose cynicism and brutality discredited Marxism in the eyes of millions for generations. Martov and Kautsky clearly understood this.

And for working people the Horror of War is similar whether in the name of Imperial Russia or the (nominally) Proletarian State. (Trotsky argued the Proletarian State made all the difference ; But after decades through which workers suffered War, Forced Industrialisation, Labour  militarisation and so on – the ‘end goals’ must have seemed like a mirage)  In any case, though, we should concede that Horrors and brutality have occurred under both capitalist and (nominally) communist regimes. It’s historic contingency more so than 'human nature' which saw the degeneration of those nominally communist regimes.

A different kind of revolutionary social democracy is possible - which draws what is best from the history of Marxism - and grapples to understand the worst of it ; that those outcomes can be avoided into the future. That also means grappling honestly with liberalism - both its insights and its limitations.  Again: it involves taking the best from the Marxist traditions ; but being open to revision and innovation where necessary.

An ‘essential’ link with personal dictatorship?

As opposed to Peterson’s arguments: if you actually read Kautksy, Martov, Luxemburg - You will see that they are NOT arguing 'things would have been different if THEY were the dictators'. If you look at Karl Kautsky for instance you will see that for him 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' was interpreted as the 'dictatorship of a class' as opposed to the dictatorship of an *individual*. And if you look further to Kautsky, Martov, Luxemburg (or Otto Bauer for instance if you look to the Austro-Marxists) - you will also see that for them this could be interpreted as a form of democratic majoritarianism. That is: the implementation of a democratic mandate provided by the working class democratic majority. But if you look to Kautsky also you will see things are more complex than this even as well. That is: the liberties of minorities are important ; and ideally that includes the liberties of your ideological rivals. Which is basically what Kautsky argued in response to Lenin. Though the worst circumstances inevitably complicate matters. (Best to avoid those circumstances in the first place if possible)

Marxism should have a future ; but it needs to 'settle accounts with liberalism'. And it needs to eschew simplistic romanticism about revolution. Desperation leads to treacherous ethical dilemmas - and ultimately can lead to degeneration into regimes such as Stalinism. But let's not be historically selective about our memories here ; let's concede that atrocities occurred under both sides during the Cold War. Western intervention could even be accused as accelerating that degeneration by escalating the sheer desperation involved. The Ideology of the 'victors' is stronger of course ; and you'd expect that given the narrow economic base upon which much cultural power rests. But those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. THAT can be applied to BOTH the Right and the Left.

‘Absolute’ Equality?

Socialists like Eduard Bernstein never argued there would (or should) be 'perfect and simple economic equality'. As far as they were concerned there should always be recognition that there should be differences to account for varieties in skill, effort and so on. Even under socialism. (communism itself - as originally theorised by Marx - could see the full realisation of all individual material need ; but that would be very significantly into the future ; and there's the problem that 'abundance' can be conceived relatively) But the reality under capitalism today is radical and accelerating economic polarisation. We're not talking about 'functional inequality' ; we're talking about a narrowing economic and hence cultural basis for power. Which has a corrosive effect on democracy. We're talking about (in the US) an outrageous gap between the destitute and the working poor on one hand ; and the wealthy on the other. Indeed there is a yawning gap between the capitalist class and the middle income layers of the working class as well.  Meanwhile efforts are made to construct certain (largely, objectively working class people) as 'the middle class' - and undermine solidarity between these and the working poor and destitute.

So no - there should not be perfect and absolute economic equality. But nor should there be accelerating polarisation and exploitation. And nor should the working class be 'disciplined' by the threat of destitution. There should be equality in educational opportunity ; and there is a moral imperative for equality in health care ; and provision of basics like housing as 'non negotiable needs' for everybody. Cultural opportunity should also arguably be extended to society in general.  Enterprise and initiative can (and should) exist ; but how much better to have enterprise and initiative exercised with the involvement of co-operatives of working people than to have the economy - and hence culture and politics - dominated by a narrowing stratum of ultra-rich? How much better can goods and services become when working people have a clear and genuine stake in their production and provision?

Competition can be much of a motivation – but also in certain contexts a drag - on the broader economy. Competition can mean economic responsiveness. It can also mean enormous waste. The answer is a genuinely mixed economy ; preferably a *democratic* mixed economy. With natural public monopolies and collective consumption via tax.  But also where effective the competition that fires market responsiveness: which can even exist in an economy marked by a strong co-operative movement. Getting rid of economic waste (eg: the inefficient cost structures that have been involved in privatisation) can also be the basis of providing for base economic needs more efficiently ; and from that there is the possibility of going beyond the vicious circle of consumerism. That is: there is the economic basis to provide cultural opportunity for everybody. And broader cultural opportunity is more important that the dynamic of 'more, ever more' under capitalism ; where the sheer scale of economic consumerism lends stability to a system which needs perpetual growth and control of ‘external’ markets in order to offset its enormous waste. In the end that is both socially and environmentally unsustainable. Hence the need for a 'democratic mixed economy' providing a better mix of natural public monopoly, collective consumption and democratic markets.

Jordan Peterson is developing something of a reputation as an anti-Communist public intellectual.  But many of his arguments involve simplifications and distortions. Peterson has every right to denounce historical Stalinism.  Indeed he has the right (under free speech) to put his broader arguments on socialism forward as well ; even where these are so terribly misconceived.  But it is for socialists to meet Peterson and others like him on ‘the democratic battle-field of ideas’. We cannot let Peterson and others like him ‘utterly write socialism off’  based on selective examples, distortions and simplifications.  The truth of Marxism is that it is a highly plural tradition.  Much of which has been firmly grounded in the principles of liberty and democracy.  ‘Another Socialism’ is possible. And there are clear historical examples which illustrate this. This is what we need to argue in response to Jordan Peterson.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Prospects for Socialism Today

Dr Tristan Ewins

Writing in the Herald-Sun, Chris Collins (11/1/19 ) argues that the Nordic countries have never been “socialist” because they have not conformed to the original Marxist definition of the centralisation of the means of production in state hands.  In reality, though, there were always a variety of definitions, and even Marxists themselves have revised their understandings.

Socialist aspirations include ending exploitation and the class system ; and reducing inequalities to a fair level. In Marx’s words, to advance the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need’. That should include a strong welfare state and social wage ; involving not only natural public monopolies and strategic state ownership ; but also producers’ and consumers’ co-operatives, democratic funds, and a mix of competition, markets and planning.

Socialism also means building an economy focused on ‘use values’. (ie: not just maximising abstract exchange value ; eg: preserving the natural environment)  But we’re in a global economy: which means we have to live with the transnational corporations.  They are at best ‘a mixed blessing’: at times spurring innovations and job creation ; but also unacceptable inequalities in wealth and power ; as well as collusion, monopolism, planned obsolescence and so on.  But also arguably the consequence of  bourgeois dominance is that we live in a ‘One Dimensional Society’ where substantially different social alternatives are excluded from mainstream discussion. What’s needed is robust pluralism: where socialism is part of the debate ; and hence a genuine option in the broader context of democracy.

In response to writers who attempt to put Swedish Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism in opposition to one another: for key Swedish thinkers and politicians such as Wigforss, Palme, Rehn, Meidner etc the Nordic Model was definitely a kind of socialism. The 'high water mark' was with the Meidner Wage Earner Funds proposals of the 70s and 80s. That marked the end of a 'corporatist consensus' (institutionalised consultation and co-operation) which developed over several decades starting from the 1930s. The model has been in slow retreat since. But its past successes over many decades still give a sense of what is possible.

Importantly, the wage earner funds were to be structured in such a way as to compensate workers for prior wage restraint. But the extent of that wage restraint had been such that the funds would eventually deliver economic control to workers over many years. One of the biggest problems with the funds is that they focused on workers alone rather than the broader category of 'citizens'. (hence excluding pensioners for instance)  In 1983 Australian Leftists like Laurie Carmichael wanted ‘Nordic Style’ policies in return for wage restraint under the the Government of Bob Hawke and 'The Accord'.  Unfortunately nothing of the sort was actually delivered.

That said: what kind of state is in a position to deliver on socialism?

Leninists are inclined to oppose the ‘liberal bourgeois state’ to the kind of state which existed under the Bolsheviks.  A ‘workers’ state’.  Trotskyists would argue it had become a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ under the domination of Stalin.

On the other hand, by certain interpretations a genuine workers' state is a democratic state ; where we can interpret 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' as a 'manner of applying democracy' ; the 'democratic dictatorship' of the working class majority.  (widely misinterpreted, the term always referred to the democratic rule of the working class as opposed to the rule of a single man such as Stalin) The ultimate aim is to create a ‘pure democracy’ where the state represents all people ; and the class system is permanently transcended.  Finally, the State itself is presumed by Marxists to ‘wither away’ with the end of all class divisions and antagonisms.  One flaw of this thinking, however, is the presumption that over the long run 'only class antagonisms matter'  to such a degree that some kind of state power is necessary either as arbiter ; or to enforce interests.

Arguably Sweden enjoyed a decades-long 'equilibrium in the class struggle' or otherwise what Korpi called a 'democratic class struggle'. Where the class struggle was in some ways 'institutionalised' between social democrats, unions, employers.  Concessions were made based on ‘the balance of class forces’ ; but open escalation of conflict was avoided as being in no-one’s interest. Then in the 1970s and 80s the Social Democrats and the LO (‘Landsorganisationen’ ; or Swedish Trade Union Confederation) attempted to assert their democratic leverage to achieve previously unheard of economic redistribution and democratisation.  Again: even with over 80% unionisation coverage they still failed. And Social Democracy has been on the defensive there largely ever since.   If anything, this gives an idea just how difficult the struggle can be.

What we need is a democratic state which is not a medium for direct OR indirect bourgeois rule. Nicos Poulanztas wrote about a 'logic of the class struggle' which 'imprinted itself upon the state field'. I'm not a structuralist (as Poulantzas was) ; but in a way that makes sense. The state tends to defend bourgeois interests ; but not totally. It is not a 'simple instrument'.  It is much more complex than that.  Rather, it has its own internal contradictions and internal struggles. What we need is a state which is fully committed to the implications of democracy: as opposed to the direct or indirect rule of the bourgeoisie.

The problem is that capitalism is supported by a clear majority of states ; as well as by the transnationals which are an expression of and foundation for global bourgeois dominance. Even assuming a state which breaks POLITICAL bourgeois dominance at a local level ; there are still the remainder of bourgeois states internationally; and global bourgeois economic power ; and economic co-dependence. 

Think about revolutionary France. The Revolution was diverted into Bonapartism.  (the rule of the French Emperor, Napoleon I) And eventually with the Congress of Vienna there was total Restoration of the "Ancien Regime" in France, and the consolidation of monarchies and their traditional bloodlines elsewhere in Europe. Liberal Democracy did not really take hold through much of the world until the Bolsheviks put much of the European bourgeoisie under such pressure as to implement the crucial concession of universal suffrage.  This had long been a key Social Democratic and Marxist demand. We're talking about a period spanning over 100 years. (throughout which we had other revolutions and struggles ; eg: 1830, 1848, 1871) Thereafter the bourgeoisie and its representatives have spent another 100-odd years thinking of ways to divide the working class against itself to prevent it from realising the potential of the suffrage. The splintering of the working class culturally and economically has made it increasingly hard to realise the solidarity we need to bring about the change we want.  Narratives on ‘political correctness’ and ‘left elites’ have just this effect ; and sometimes by neglecting class interests we play into the bourgeoisie’s hands.

Critics of socialism often declare that they don’t want ‘statism’ or state domination.  And this they associate with socialism.  Well, no - we don't want Stalinist-style 'statism'. (though I hate the term 'statism' as it is commonly used to stigmatise any place for the state ; even a democratic state) But 'wresting capital by degrees' from the bourgeoisie still sounds like a good idea - if done properly – and if only it were possible.  The problems of exploitation and economic polarisation still demand our attention as practical and moral questions.  And after all, radical redistribution of wealth is what the Swedes were attempting with the Meidner wage earner funds in the 1970s and 1980s .

Arguably the Mixed Economy represents progress towards that goal.  Though the ‘mixed economy’, social wage and welfare state can be supported by far more ‘moderate’ forces who want nothing more over the long term than to ameliorate inequality and ‘save capitalism from itself’.

"Wresting capital by degrees" from the bourgeoisie can imaginably involve a mix of public, co-operative and other democratic ownership - as opposed to 'Stalinist Statism'. But the process cannot be finished because bourgeois interests reinforce each other globally.  Currently, there is no (acceptable) ‘way out’ of capitalism. But if we mobilise we can at least force compromises which are in workers' and citizens' interests. And we can convince the bourgeoisie that compromise is sometimes in its own interests. (again ; 'saving capitalism from itself')  For example: natural public monopolies can reduce cost structures not just for citizens/consumers/workers – but also for business.  And a state-owned savings and loans bank (with a charter promoting competition and ethical banking) could inject competition into the sector of benefit both to business, and to most ordinary people.

Importantly - forcing compromise through struggle is in some ways more involved than just 'gaming the system'. Over the long term who knows what's possible? Again: think about Revolutionary France - and the hegemony of liberal democracies which only finally arose more than 100 years later.  We can only hope it will not take a catastrophe such as the First World War was to provide enough impetus to drive qualitative change ; to challenge the class system and the ‘defacto rule’ of Capital.

If anything the Global Financial Crisis gave a sense of capitalism’s enduring instability ; and that (should another crisis occur) radical interventions may be necessary ‘to save the system from itself’.  But public dissatisfaction with “bailouts at the peoples’ expense” may drive strategic socialisations sooner than we think.

Socialism is not ‘inevitable’ as the old Marxist Centrists used to insist.  We cannot anticipate all the policy innovations which may help ‘save the system from itself’.  But over the long term a more generalised breakdown cannot be ruled out either.  Socialists need to stand prepared for all manner of contingencies.  Global organisation and dialogue are necessary to best prepare for those contingencies.   That means not responding to discourse on ‘globalisation’ as an excuse for defeatism.   It means working out the possibilities of domestic social democracy/democratic socialism ; but also building the organisation and dialogue necessary to give rise to internationalist responses.   The current Socialist International is not an effective vehicle for this.  Can it be reformed?  Or do we need new forms of international organisation and dialogue?

Friday, January 25, 2019

Reflections on Australia Day 2019

Dr Tristan Ewins

The other day I happened upon a Facebook meme which argued that even if all white Australians are not personally responsible for the original dispossession of the Indigenous Australian peoples, they have benefited from it.  And they have a responsibility to set things right. 

There's a lot of truth here ; Though it's not just white people who benefit ; it's the whole of non-indigenous society. All non-Indigenous Australians have a responsibility to put things right. Economic and cultural empowerment. A genuine Treaty process.

At the end of the day we want Australia "to belong to all of us". But Sovereignty was never ceded. A reconciled nation is something that needs to be negotiated. And a Treaty cannot be merely 'tokenistic'. It has to address Indigenous grievances past and present. It has to set things right - permanently.

Some critics on the Right argue that Left proponents of Indigenous Rights (including on a Treaty)  want to 'divide' the country. But that's the whole point of democracy. Recognition of ideological and social divisions ; and provision of a democratic process to give them expression – and (to an extent) to resolve those. Though the urge to suppress all social conflict can lead to a kind of fascism.  ‘National unity’ can be a watchword for the suppression of dissent. In order for democracy to avoid being overly-authoritarian we need support for civil rights as well ; and tolerance of civil disobedience ; and support for industrial liberties.

For Australia Day, though, we need to consider our history and our values closely. Uncritical militarism is dangerous ; can lead to unthinking support for any and every war we're dragged in to.  There is far too little reflection on the catastrophe of Australia’s participation in World War One.  And Billy Hughes’ attempts to enforce conscription when the nation was already being bled dry on the battlefields of Europe.

Colonisation was a trauma for Indigenous peoples and that needs to be remembered. But the 'old' Australian culture should not be 'airbrushed' either. There's the spirit of Eureka. There are cultural figures like Henry Lawson who championed the sufferings of the working class and the downtrodden.  There were cultural icons like Ginger Meggs. Australia also democratised ahead of Britain, and provided full, universal and equal suffrage. (including women’s suffrage). Federation (the formation of the modern nation) was peaceful.

Pre-multiculturalism Australia had a culture. In part it involved deference to Britain and Empire.  That led to the catastrophe of over 60,000 dead from the First World War.  But it was more than that as well. We need to incorporate the old culture with the newer multiculturalism ; and preserve a central place for the appreciation of First Nations.  A bit like a Hegelian dialectical spiral where the old is forever preserved in the new.

But remember also that tens of thousands of Australians died fighting fascism in World War II. Prisoners of War of the Japanese endured horrific hardships in Changi and on the Thai-Burma Railway. Be-headings, starvation, torture. The mateship they developed was not some 'toxic masculinity'. It helped them survive in a bond of comradeship and shared hardship.

And let's not forget the women who contributed to the fight against Japanese Imperialism and fascism either. Vivian Bullwinkel for instance ; who was the sole survivor of a Japanese massacre of nurses ; driven into the sea and machine-gunned.  As well as testifying regarding Japanese War Crimes, she did crucial work supporting repatriated soldiers after the War.

The history of Australian Communism ; and of other socialists more broadly - can also be thought of as part of Australia's legacy. (and indeed an international legacy as well) I think we can be proud of Evatt's fight against the domestic McCarthyism. Of Whitlam's reforms. Of the Communists' fight against destitution, evictions and so on during the Depression. That our Communists overwhelmingly broke from Stalinism ; for instance, took a stand against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. That for a while we had a very strong mixed economy ; a highly progressive tax system ; and a very strongly regulated labour market.  For a time there was even a strong element of  ‘bipartisan consensus’ there: before the 1970s supply shock (mainly the rise in the price of oil) saw neo-liberalism and attacks on workers embraced in an effort to restore profits.

Mostly people want to enjoy a kind of national identity. We have to contest the meaning and form of that identity. Again, the danger is unthinking militarism and creeping authoritarianism.  But the Australian military needs a sense of its history, traditions, values.   This is crucial for democracy.  Given the history, that should overwhelmingly include anti-fascism. 

The idea of an 'egalitarian Australia' is almost dead in terms of practical implementation. Over decades it has been ‘emptied out’ into privatisation, labour market deregulation, ‘user pays’ and ‘small government’.  But it's well-worth reconstructing a national identity where the fight is on to retrieve older egalitarian traditions and policies.  It’s worth contesting national identity rather than ‘vacating the field’ and giving the Right ‘a free hand’.

On Facebook, also, more Conservative participants were arguing about ‘assimilation’ of indigenous peoples and migrants.

In response I argued: 

I wouldn't want to assimilate Indigenous peoples full stop. 'Assimilation' suggests minorities abandoning their old identity and culture to 'fit in' with broader society. I'd hope a Treaty would include a commitment to help preserve Indigenous culture and identity. But that we have a *shared* Australian identity *as well*. Think of Cathy Freeman when she won gold and did a lap of honour wielding both the Australian flag and the Indigenous flag. Shared cultural elements are the basis for common ground and engagement. I believe in an *integration* which is compatible with multi-culturalism. What's necessary is effective dialogue, mutual recognition and mutual understanding.   We need to develop mutual respect; and the kind of genuine, active and deep solidarity necessary to fight for a qualitatively improved social and economic system. That is (for me) democratic socialism.

But we have to remember the 'old' Australian culture as well. Pre-multi-culturalism Australia was not a 'blank slate' as some people like to suggest.

Indigenous peoples could also have their own advisory parliament ; which would communicate their needs and demands to the Federal Parliament. Establishing such an elected advisory body could contribute to reconciliation ; and frameworks for the practical development of a Treaty.

Technically you can have nations within nations. That can potentially lead to divisions re: nationalistic antagonisms. (that’s not to say people should ‘forget’ their ethnic origins)  But I think the Indigenous First Nations example is unique. They had their national identities. And the authorities of the day tried to take those identities away from them.

January 26th (marking the arrival of the First Fleet) is a divisive date on which to hold ‘Australia Day’.  It is suggestive of the notion that ‘real’ Australian history only began with colonisation.  Colonisation was a watershed moment – and that will never change ; but nonetheless the date should be switched if we are serious about reconciliation. 

On the other hand, some kind of ‘national day’ will likely be preserved.  And yet the meaning of that day will be – and perhaps must be - contested.   There is cause for shame from some chapters of Australian history.  There are also causes for pride.  Australia Day must be a time for reflection on all of this.  And to consider the form an egalitarian and just Australian nation might perhaps take into the future.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Remembering Rosa Luxemburg 100 Years Since Her Murder

above: socialist revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnkecht

Dr Tristan Ewins


Comrade Marcus Strom alerted me and many others on Facebook that yesterday (15/1/19) was the 100th Anniversary of the brutal murder of Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht ; and the dumping of their bodies in the Landwehr Canal in Berlin.  Liebnecht was an outstanding orator and leader.  Meanwhile, Rosa Luxemburg (a Jewish Communist ; born in Poland – but migrating to Germany where the class struggle appeared the most advanced) is the best remembered today.  This is largely because she is survived by a plethora of theoretical and practical political-literary work – much of it still relevant for the Left.  

The broad example of the slide into war ; and the murder of Rosa and Karl is still instructive today of the dangers of certain kinds of ‘social patriotism’.  In 1914 the parliamentary caucus of the SPD (German Social Democrats) voted in favour of war credits – to fund the War.  This was against the standing policy of the Second International.  Specifically it was the right-wing leadership of the Social Democratic Government following the 1918-19 Revolution who ordered the murders.  For genuine socialists, the names “Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann” will forever live in infamy.  And deservedly so.

It is disturbing to think that the SPD was perhaps the leading Social Democratic Party in Europe in 1914 – and yet it crumbled under pressure at the first real hurdle.  Many socialists – including Karl Liebnecht and Rosa – tried to agitate against the coming blood-bath. Rosa was imprisoned for the duration of the war after distributing anti-war material.  For years social democratic parties had talked about internationalism in the instance of a conflict. But in practice the German trade unions had been subverted ; had embraced a kind of ‘ethno-nationalism’. 

And they effectively fell into line in return for a handful of reforms.

Therefore perhaps there was no social or economic basis for stopping the war.  But the capitulation of the SPD parliamentary caucus set a demoralising example – which resulted in the split in the Social Democratic movement ; with the most uncompromising anti-war elements re-forming as Communist parties.

Right Social Democrats ; people like Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann ; were sold on ethno-nationalism in Germany since the start (of the war). They capitulated again when some social democrats argued the war should only be supported insofar as it was concerned with ‘national defence' ; and never be allowed to turn into 'a war of conquest'.  But the German Army hierarchy demanded open ended support for the war instead.  Again, in 1914 the caucus rolled over entirely. 

Karl Kautsky – the leader of the ‘Marxist Centre’ – and for a time the most authoritative Marxist intellectual in Europe and the world -  argued for a symbolic abstention on the issue of war credits.  But this gained little traction.  Lenin was to revisit Kautsky’s position following the October 1917 Russian Revolution, branding him a ‘Renegade’.  But more on Kautsky later.

The real worry is how the unions remained so conservative at the start of the war. And swallowed militarist nationalism hook, line and sinker.  In any case the war was to destroy those same unions ; as worker’s organisation collapsed in the face of total war mobilisation. It shows that achieving intellectual leadership of a socialist movement is not enough unless socialist, anti-imperialist and internationalist values can be successfully imparted to a broader base. As well as a willingness to fight when the situation demands it.

Who knows what motivations drove the German Social Democrats to support war in 1914? Fear of imprisonment or execution? Fear of the organisational destruction of the party? (False) assumptions the war would be short? Penetration of the caucus by government agents? Again: many social democrats insisted that support for the war be withdrawn once it became 'a war of conquest'. But the reality was that the Army had the guns. Again: the parliamentary caucus folded in the face of military pressure.

But what many Leninist and Stalinist critics do not recognise is that by 1915 the 'Centrists' (ie: as in the Marxist Centrists) had began agitating for peace at Zimmerwald.  Those people argued for a separate peace. So did the Revisionist Socialist, Eduard Bernstein. By comparison, Lenin argued for civil war - to turn the war into Revolution across all Europe if possible.  For all Lenin’s criticisms of Karl Kautsky – by 1915 he (Kautsky) was himself openly fighting against the war.  The critiques of Bolshevism by such diverse figures as Luxemburg, Martov and Kautsky – are still worth reading today as we grapple with the meaning and legacy of the Russian Revolution and its eventual descent into Stalinism. (though many critics under-play the severity of the conditions faced by the Bolsheviks ; and the role of Western intervention in fuelling the centralisation and resort to Terror which opened the way for Stalinism ; That includes destabilisation and support for the White Armies – which meant the threat of starvation and heating fuel shortages for ordinary Russians )

Rosa Luxemburg is famed for her unique, libertarian Marxist contributions to socialist theory and practice.  Her theory of the ‘spontaneity of the masses’ is more nuanced than shallow critics would allow for ; positing a dialectical relationship between Party leadership and proletarian initiative. She recognised early on the potential of the Mass Strike.  Also, she feared the consequences of over-centralisation within the Bolshevik Party for any revolution ; and particularly the substitution of the Party – and later the Central Committee – for real, grassroots and participatory proletarian democracy.  For her there could be no compromise or ‘middle way’ between Reform and Revolution.  She was a strong critic of Revisionism ; including the positions of Eduard Bernstein.

But there are traditions of Left Social Democracy which are not stained by that. For instance the Austro-Marxists.  The Austro-Marxists built a participatory counter-culture (workers’ sports, radio stations, libraries, forums, orchestras) ; and progressively funded public housing and amenities like laundries and pools for workers.  They even maintained their own militia to defend ‘the democratic path to socialism’.  This contributed to the sense that ‘Red Vienna’ was ‘a showcase of Social Democracy’. Though they also made certain fatal mistakes (eg: letting go of their grip on the state apparatus of force in the 1920s) which made it easier in the end for fascists to seize power in 1934.

So as against Rosa Luxemburg I believe a ‘middle way’ of ‘revolutionary reforms’ is possible. But on the 100th Anniversary of her death it is better to honour her very significant legacy.  The legacy of her bravery and self-sacrifice.  Of her intellect ; her uncompromising values ; her commitment to the working class and her faith in what she believed to be the coming revolution.

On the other hand, the example of the 20th and early 21st centuries (including the rise of fascism ; and also of neo-liberalism) appear to have put paid to a sense that some ‘inevitable teleology towards socialism’ can be counted on.  Historical outcomes are far more contingent and uncertain than the old Marxists were willing to admit.  Even though the continuation of neo-liberal capitalism is likely to cause intense human suffering – with increases in the intensity of labour ; and further cyclical crises and class bifurcation. And environmental crises also.  Perhaps old Marxist claims to ‘inevitability’ provided morale and confidence.  (as Kautsky put it – “the proletariat’s belief in its own strength”) 

But while there is *hope*, notions of inevitability can no longer be maintained.  Barbarism is as likely as socialism ; and that itself is a good reason to fight.

Rosa’s fears were realised in the end as Bolshevism gave way to Stalinism.  For Communists it is instructive to read her critiques of Bolshevism to get a sense of the dangers associated with Stalinism.  And also even with Trotskyism and Leninism.  Trotsky wrote of a ‘Soviet Thermidor’ in his critique of Stalinism, ‘The Revolution Betrayed’.   But in reality Trotksy supported the same policies of centralisation which led to a situation akin to the demise of the French Revolution - with the rise of the Napoleonic Empire in the place of the Republic.  (Stalin is seen as a ‘Bonpartist’ figure) ; Only Stalin’s repression of his own people – and his Terror against them - was far more extensive than under other ‘Bonapartist’ regimes.

Compared not only with Stalin – but also with Lenin and Trotsky – Luxemburg stands for a kind of libertarian communism.  To this day the leadership she provided with her activism and her writings – set a redemptive example for a Left which is often accused of ‘authoritarianism’ or ‘totalitarianism’.  Luxemburg  was a democrat and libertarian-revolutionary-communist ; and an uncompromising opponent of the wholesale slaughter of War ; and the Imperialist designs of the ‘Great Powers’.

My personal inclination is more towards the example of the reformed relative (Marxist) centre following World War One.  Especially the Austro-Marxists.  (though I am critical of them on certain counts as well)  But Rosa’s steadfast bravery ; her self-sacrifice in pursuit of peace, and for the liberation of the working class ; should always be honoured on the Left.

Today’s Left needs to engage with past Social Democracy (and Communism) if it is to understand its past ; draw the necessary lessons ; and better plan for its future. This should also include a consideration of the sources of the split in Social Democracy in 1914 ; and the historical ramifications of that. Rosa Luxemburg ; and others like Karl Korsch ; showed that a different kind of (libertarian) communism is possible. 

A different kind of social democracy is also possible: committed over the long term to the pursuit of ‘revolutionary reforms’ which would deepen democracy, transform the economy , and over time challenge the class system.

May Rosa Luxemburg (and Karl Liebknecht) always be honoured and remembered on the Left.