The Left has engaged in the futile pursuit of “moving the NDP to the left” since 1933, achieving pretty much the same result as a dog chasing its tail. Anyone who today still harbours hope that the NDP will change in ways the Left would like ought to join New Democrats Anonymous.
Debating the NDP
Like a routed army, battered by the defeats it has suffered in recent years, much of the left seems to be in wholesale retreat, indiscriminately abandoning not only the useless dogmas of Leninism and social democracy, but the principles and analytical tools it will need to re-group in the future.
Thinking About Self-Determination
I see Rosa Luxemburg as the Marxist who did the most to carry on
Karl Marx's own theoretical-revolutionary praxis in the period after
the death of Marx and Engels. In a time when the socialist movement
was evolving in directions increasingly removed from Marx's positions
-- Social Democratic reformism on the one hand, and Leninist bureaucratic
centralism on the other -- Luxemburg was the leading exponent of
a Marxism in the spirit of Marx.
One indication of this, paradoxical at first glance, is that she
was one of the very few leading Marxists who did not treat Marx's
writings as holy writ. Whereas the Marxist orthodoxy of the time,
in all its variations, based itself on the assumption that a quote
from Marx was conclusive proof of the correctness of a position
- debates too often took the form of a battle of competing quotes
or competing interpretations of Marx's writings -- Luxemburg was
unafraid to say that Marx and Engels had been wrong about specific
In this, she was very much in the spirit of Marx himself. Marx
was relentlessly critical, always seeking new knowledge and deeper
understanding, never feeling that his own understanding of any subject
was adequate -- hence his well-known difficulties in finishing any
work because he was never finished investigating the subject matter
in its infinite ramifications. It was Marx who scoffed "I am
not a Marxist" and who said that "Since it is not for
us to create a plan for the future that will hold for all time,
all the more surely what we contemporaries have to do is the uncompromising
critical evaluation of all that exists, uncompromising in the sense
that our criticism fears neither its own results nor the conflict
with the powers that be." Luxemburg's Marxism was critical
and 'Marxist' in that thorough-going sense.
Luxemburg saw the dangers posed by reformism and Leninist centralism
sooner than anyone else. She joined battle with Bernstein's revisionism
in 1898; her book Social Reform or Revolution is in my opinion still
the most powerful critique of social democratic reformism ever written.
She warned that the results of adopting this approach would be disastrous,
and in 1914 the collapse of Social Democracy and the Second International
proved how correct her warnings had been.
She also saw the dangers inherent in Lenin's organizational theories;
her 1904 critique, Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy,
warned that "the ultra-centralism asked by Lenin is full of
the sterile spirit of the overseer. It is not a positive and creative
spirit. Lenin's concern is not so much to make the activity of the
party more fruitful as to control the party - to narrow the movement
rather than to develop it, to bind rather than to unify it."
In 1917, after the Russian Revolution, she warned of the danger
of dictatorship, answering Trotksy's dismissive comment "We
have never been idol worshippers of formal democracy" replying
that "All that that really means is: We have always distinguished
the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy;
we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and
lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of format equality
and freedom - not in order to reject the latter but to spur the
working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather,
by conquering political power, to create socialist democracy to
replace bourgeois democracy - not to eliminate democracy altogether.
But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the
promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created;
it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy
people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of
socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with
the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction
At the same time, she recognized that in conditions of civil war
"it would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and
his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances
they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary
dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy...
The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and
want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics
forced on them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend
them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics."
She argued, nonetheless, that the situation in revolutionary Russia
demanded intensive political debate and activity, and insisted that
"Freedom only for supporters of the government, only for the
members of one party - however numerous they may be - is no freedom
at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who
thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of 'justice'
but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in
political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and
its effectiveness vanishes when 'freedom' becomes a special privilege."
Luxemburg is one of the few theoreticians of the time whose works
always seem fresh and pertinent to me when I return to them.
Central to Luxemburg's importance for me is her revolutionary perspective.
She supports pressure for reforms within capitalism, but is utterly
clear that reforms cannot bring about fundamental change, that socialism
can only come about through revolution, and that the activity of
socialists and socialist organizations must always be oriented to
the ultimate goal of revolution, no matter what the exigencies of
the present situation.
Equally important is her approach to the question of organization and strategy. She did not believe in organizational panaceas, did not believe that one form of organization was the objectively correct model. Instead, she believed in a principled tactical flexibility, adapting tactics and organizational forms to the situation while remaining clear about goals and principles. She strongly believed in the importance of political organization, but did not believe that a political organization could direct the political struggle along pre-determined lines; rather, she believed that effective organization was as much the product of struggle as its instigator.
May 16, 2000
También disponible en español: Rosa Luxemburg's contribución al Marxismo.
Aussi disponible en français: La contribution de Rosa Luxembourg envers le Marxisme.
Also available in Portuguese: O Contributo de Rosa Luxemburg ao Marxismo.