Dario Renzi and Anna Bisceglie, Rosa Luxemburg, Prospettiva Edizioni, Rome, 1997, pp346, Lit 30 000
ROSA LUXEMBURG, the fifth book in Socialismo Rivoluzionario’s Ritratti di Famiglia (Family Portraits) series, differs markedly from its predecessors. Due to the relevance that Luxemburg has for this group, which wants to use her ‘for our ends... for the building of a different future, that is, the most Luxemburgist in character’ (pp131-2), this book is not only greater in length, but is also split into two sections.
In the first, about one-third of the book, Anna Bisceglie has written a necessarily brief but mainly accurate biography of Luxemburg, although in places some aspects of her life are hastily presented, and not explored in their outcome or consequences. In a biography seeking to include both the political and the more personal aspects of Luxemburg, we are told, for example, of her attempts to live with Leo Jogiches in Leipzig, down to the various details of her hopeful preparations, yet not a word is said of their actual outcome (pp54-5). Elsewhere, Luxemburg’s botanical and ornithological interests take on an almost elegiac tone, but no mention is made of their very real scientific content, nor of Luxemburg’s studies in her long prison years. Bisceglie informs us that ‘many traits of Rosa’s authentic passion for plants, animals, the sun and the sky, painting, literature and artistic expression in general are more than sweet and romantic features of her personality, they are signs of her capacity to combine dialectically the particular with the universal’ (pp107-8). That’s a relief; whilst Luxemburg’s personal traits are her prerogative, one could actually forget for a moment where her political importance lies. The only genuinely amusing anecdote describes Luxemburg’s agitation at the long delay with which books sent by Luise Kautsky reached her during her stay in Italy in 1909, due to ‘the awful Italian postal service’ (p76). It is reassuring to see that — just as class struggle is a constant of capital’s rule, the Italian mail service, to this very day, has also been a defining aspect of our epoch.
We also cannot avoid remarking on the widespread use of first names when writing on Luxemburg. Whilst this is objectionable, not necessarily on pedantic grounds, but because it is atypical of the ‘register’ customarily used for studies of this kind, and it mysteriously seems to apply to Luxemburg alone as a revolutionary Marxist woman, in this book the convention at times gives rise to fairly hilarious results. In Bisceglie’s foreword, we read of her friendships ‘with Luise, with Clara, with Sonia’ (p13).
On a more serious note, some political aspects of Luxemburg’s activity are also hurriedly sketched. For example, the wide space devoted by Bisceglie to Luxemburg’s assessment of the Russian Revolution does not find a parallel when considering Luxemburg’s choice to remain in the German Social Democratic Party until the end of 1918, despite being urged by many of her own comrades to leave it. She talks of ‘a complex series of factors’ contributing to her decision, with the most important being ‘probably the link with the masses’, before she broke from it ‘only in the full swing of revolution’ (p120). Surely, no ‘series of factors’ is so ‘complex’ as to defy analysis, and it seems — also in the light of other biographies of Luxemburg — that this point has not received the attention that it clearly deserves. Luxemburg’s outspoken criticisms of the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ approach in promoting mass consciousness through organisation call for a deeper analysis of her own stance. In fact, Renzi is more outspoken, and he does point to Luxemburg’s ‘illusions in the possibility of changing the SPD from within, or later on the possibility of influencing the USPD’ (p273), and finds in this a ‘general limitation which denoted her, in her renunciation from leading an actual theoretical and political current’ (p293).
Renzi’s essay is entitled ‘The Heretic and Her Legacy’, and sets out to evaluate Luxemburg’s work and theoretical contributions. To some extent he succeeds, undeniably displaying a more balanced and comprehensive political analysis than others in SR, most notably Claudia Romanini’s Quello Strano Ottobre. Critica e Anticritica del ‘17 Bolscevico (Rome, 1997). Some chapters are well argued, such as his account of Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital, and the one devoted to the national question and to the central rôle assigned by her to the Communist International. Some important criticisms are also made, although they are rightly seen as not marring the validity of Luxemburg’s overall perspective, notably in the longer term, after her own death, and especially for our times.
Renzi points, for example, to the contradictions in Luxemburg’s thought and activities. In his view, her undeniable isolation within the movement was due not only to the theoretically superior elements in her thought, which could not be readily understood even by her own comrades, but rather that her incapacity to establish a current within revolutionary Marxism betrayed a ‘lack of a sense of timing in her vision of the building of the revolutionary organisation’ (p166). She also showed from time to time ‘moments of apparent intimistic catalepsy’ alternating with ‘exciting social thrusts’ (p159). Renzi adds that Luxemburg was unable to appreciate sufficiently that her ideas were not becoming established even amongst her closest comrades, both in the SPD and later in the Spartakus League.
We lack the necessary space to go into detail on all aspects of his presentation of her views, but despite the validity of some of Renzi’s criticisms on individual aspects of Luxemburg’s political thought, this book and other recent works by SR members contain fundamental methodological and, we could say, philosophical errors, starting with their evaluation of Luxemburg herself. In Renzi’s essay, which clearly exemplifies the problem, these limitations appear in full view. To begin with, Luxemburg is seriously misrepresented. Renzi constantly reiterates the need to consider her in her totality, both as a woman and as a political thinker. He repeatedly appeals to her special interests as the only means to evaluate her life and thought. Some quotations from Renzi will illustrate the point:
‘Rosa Luxemburg’s Marxism draws nourishment from her being a woman — it is supplied with a sensitivity, hence an activity, that is truly special, with an anthropological perception of female superiority that flows lightly but continuously in this leader’s thought and action. She would never have disclosed this, if anything she’d have vigorously refuted or ridiculed it. This would have been a sign of the times and certainly a limitation of the Marxism of her time, scientist only as far as necessary to reduce sociology to big numbers. But this lover of botany, this lover of love, this woman curious about the world, this woman striving for a communion with the entire universe could not, in the last analysis, deny everything that defined her in her shocking contradictions, in her constant, lacerating and life-giving polarisation between the private and the public sphere. If her intimate life, of which she was so jealous, intrigued and involved her without ever fulfilling her, pushing her once more toward politics, the latter — indispensable and exciting — seemed to her omnivorous and dangerous, partial and dehumanising, albeit inevitable. And was there not in this a living principle, if one still to be made sufficiently explicit, of a critique of politics, a principle alive precisely because it was part of life and because it was itself lived?’ (pp139-40)
Luxemburg was ‘... curious of people and the world, so even in circumstances that seemed about to overcome her, she succeeds in building a female microcosm around her, an open microcosm, whose members often did not know each other well, but invariably orbited around Rosa, who was its undisputed, sweet and severe queen... How can we interpret her magnetic charm, or her ability to entertain even the most difficult relations, at various levels?’ (pp163-4) Renzi argues that the key lies in a ‘tension between love for life, for people, for society, paired with an equally ceaseless need to be loved’:
‘This vital contradiction will focus on the relationship central to her life, that with Leo Jogiches, such an intense, absolute, changing, dramatic relation, collapsed and then resumed in different forms and present until the end. Rosa understood it as a total relation and wanted it to be so, [a relation] in which all aspects of life became entangled and superimposed, in which the harshness of political polemics went hand in hand with the sweetest abandon of the senses, where the precision of scientific terms melted in the dearest words of love.’ (p164)
Some doubts do cross Renzi’s mind, as he confesses that ‘these things are not suited to an official biography’. However, they are quickly dispelled, and he goes on to argue that only ‘through a biographical shock’ (emphasis and English in the original) is it possible to ‘understand her ideal sphere... Her unstoppable and ever present humanity is not an extra or a mere detail that we can overlook when trying to understand and read her.’ (p165, original emphasis)
In the end, Renzi concludes that ‘Rosa Luxemburg is a heretical personality — a woman, not by coincidence like witches were, even before being a heretic in her work’ (p301).
Amongst the tasks of today’s revolutionary movement are those of ‘establishing theoretically the historical task for the oppressed classes, by understanding their composition, how they can initiate a new politics, how they can harmonise class demands with national demands, how women can, by affirming their superiority, give a decisive contribution to self-emancipation, how a culture of liberation can come to exist’ through an understanding of the national question (p255). Renzi identifies in this question the weakest point of Luxemburg’s thought. The reason becomes clear if one looks at SR’s recent publications. In a long article in the party’s theoretical journal, Socialismo o Barbarie, Renzi has theorised a central rôle for the question of immigration/emigration as a starting point for the entire emancipatory enterprise. The self-emancipation of immigrants will be achieved by the immigrants themselves, together with the other oppressed classes, and as a special part of the latter. A crucial rôle in this process is assigned to the vanguard of the immigrants, who in becoming a vanguard transcends the status of immigrants and takes on a crucially important historical task, in defining the entire horizon of liberation, and in the creation of a revolutionary Marxist party. Renzi is clearly disappointed about the little time Luxemburg had for the national question. One suspects that, whether she was right or wrong about Poland, she would find even less time for Renzi’s new proposals today.
What emerges from the scenario presented by this book is, as should be abundantly clear, that it is a very problematic picture, so let us try to put things into their right perspective.
Firstly, Renzi should have lent a more careful ear to his own nagging doubts: much of this stuff should never find a place in a serious biography or political essay. His style, in places more at home with the genre of romantic literature, serves Luxemburg poorly. Yes, Rosa Luxemburg was unquestionably a woman and, equally unquestionably, she had to face a certain degree of isolation and discrimination in an almost universally male political environment, and at the hands of the society of the time.
Furthermore, Luxemburg had every right to demand absolute personal freedom for herself in her private intellectual interests as well as in her personal and intimate relationships. Indeed, arguing otherwise would amount to a misunderstanding of Marxism as a whole, and of what it aspires to. Before and after her, from Marx and Engels through to Lenin, Trotsky, Serge and generally all the best revolutionaries the movement has ever produced, a multiplicity of interests was always cultivated, from music to literature, to science, to art. How could it be otherwise? How could a less than fully-fledged personality grasp with the necessary sensitivity all the facets of that most total of issues, the emancipation of humanity?
Each individual has his or her own defining traits. It is of course undeniable that Luxemburg possessed great intellectual and personal depth, but this is precisely why her political thought reached the heights of an ‘eagle’, in Lenin’s assessment. However, just as Luxemburg had many dimensions to her, the danger in following Renzi is to conclude that others, most notably Lenin and Trotsky, were much more one-dimensional individuals, perhaps mere strategists and technicians at best.
Renzi’s opinion of the superiority of Lenin’s thought to that of Trotsky is debatable, but where does all this lead us? We could either point to Lenin’s varied interests, to his love for Beethoven and so on, or we could say that Renzi’s repeated appeals to Luxemburg’s alleged ‘humanism’ amount to nothing concrete. Apart from their absurdity — what does he mean by ‘humanism’ and why should Luxemburg have it unlike, say, Lenin, if we consider what this term means philosophically— all this leads in the end to a gross and patronising misinterpretation of Rosa Luxemburg.
Quite where the ‘female superiority’ element emerges from her thought is unclear. Should we now turn her retrospectively into some sort of feminist icon? What then are we to make of her refusal to focus and dedicate herself to women-specific issues within the party? Could we perhaps sink deeper into psychoanalytic quicksand, and attribute her activity to her incapacity ‘to fit in’, to her wish ‘to be loved’? What are we then to make of her often frustrating relationship with Jogiches? Perhaps she had masochistic tendencies? (Incidentally, coming to informed conclusions on Lenin’s and Trotsky’s thought has never proved impossible without referring to, say, Inessa Armand or Frida Kahlo.) And, above all, precisely what aspects of her ‘femininity’ make her a political thinker of great importance for our times? The answer is: nothing at all, actually.
The reason why Luxemburg could not be ignored by the movement despite often being the only woman at meetings, congresses and so on was not her femininity, but the superiority of her theoretical analysis. Her ‘sweetness’ did not stop the rifle butt that killed her. She was killed because of her dangerous ideas.
Rosa Luxemburg is fundamental for the entire Marxist revolutionary movement, and she should be read, re-read and studied. Her own vicissitudes as an individual and as a woman can, as with any thinker, man and woman alike, enrich and widen our understanding, but by themselves they cannot explain her work and historical importance for future generations. This applies to all fields of human endeavour, from literature to political activity: how and, more importantly, why should we explain the universal value of a Tolstoy if we simply stop and judge, for example, his relationship with the women in his life, from a moral perspective?
Despite her aspirations, despite her unquestionable dedication to the revolutionary cause, Luxemburg met with unsatisfactory situations and had to accept them, did make compromises in her personal relations, and showed some weaknesses and contradictions. These should not be denied à la Renzi, not because they were components of her ‘femininity’, but because they were the result of her society and times, and, crucially, because she transcended them in her works and activity, up to her tragic death.
In this, Luxemburg understood her own life in a totality. Clearly, however, even in 1998, there are still many who are simply unable or unwilling to think of her as a political thinker in her own right, fully belonging to the Marxist revolutionary movement and its history as a whole, and to let her work speak for her.
Terry Brotherstone and Geoff Pilling (eds), History, Economic History and the Future of Marxism: Essays in Memory of Tom Kemp, Porcupine Press, London, 1996, pp370, £35.00/£14.99
READERS OF this journal will need no introduction to the late Tom Kemp (1921-1993), and this Festschrift in his honour containing papers by colleagues and other respected academics will be universally welcomed as a suitable mark of respect for Kemp as a scholar and Socialist. Whilst the bulk of the 12 essays are contributions to the fields of scholarship indicated by the title, the first chapter (by the editors), the last chapter (‘1956: Tom Kemp and Others’ by Brotherstone) and the appendix (a short note by Peter Fryer) also offer us insights into the man and the Marxist militant. There is also a bibliography of Kemp’s most substantial publications.
For me, a highlight of the book is Brotherstone’s chapter on 1956. Through marshalling the recollections of Kemp, Fryer, Pearce and Saville, he is able to pose such interesting questions as what predisposed these Communist Party members to break from Stalinism, and why only a minority of those who left the Communist Party in 1956 sought out the Trotskyist alternative. Why was it New Left Review and not Labour Review that became the main focus of left wing intellectual work? This chapter also includes extracts from Kemp’s war diaries.
As befits Kemp’s work as an economic historian, most of the other contributions broadly fit into that framework; however, a couple of papers towards the end are more about philosophy and method. Geoff Pilling provides a well-documented study of the contradictions of postwar capitalism, ending with the current crisis in Britain and its political implications. Michael Turner and Donald Woodward give us a fascinating account of the loss of ‘common’ use rights in England amidst the ravages of the enclosures, whose effects impoverished the rural poor and made them wage-dependent. David Richardson and EW Evans discuss the importance of the profits from Britain’s imperial trade, including that in slaves, in creating the conditions for industrial primacy. Theodore Koditschek, in an impressively documented and fluently written study, surveys the rise of a distinctively Marxist British social history, whose outstanding work he takes to be EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. He then considers the current crisis of confidence amongst Marxists provoked by, amongst other things, the ‘post-structuralist’ challenge. He argues that ‘a serious examination of the historical dynamics of gender and nationality in the development of modern capitalism is not only compatible with historical materialism... the best and most insightful work on these topics has been conducted in a systemic and materialist, rather than a narrowly culturalist or post-structuralist, frame’.
Richard Farnetti argues that Japanese investment in Britain has not increased employment. In the course of his paper he makes a very important point, namely, that the success of the Japanese ‘model’ exemplified by Toyota, utilising such apparently neutral technical devices as ‘just-in-time’ sourcing, had a hidden premise — the destruction of the Japanese trade union movement. Once this is understood, the way is open to admit a paradoxical thesis — that Henry Ford is the true progenitor of Toyotaism! (Farnetti draws here on a French paper by Robert Boyer.) The argument is that Ford’s vision was never realised in the USA because the motor giants became bogged down in a series of major labour struggles, and were unsuccessful in disciplining the American working class sufficiently to force it to accept full-scale flexibility. Only in Japan was this vision achieved. (This should give pause to those categorising Japanese industry as ‘post-Fordist’.) As Farnetti points out, the Japanese have been careful to choose sites in Britain where they anticipate the workforce will be sufficiently docile to accept their methods. The next chapter, by Stuart Coupe, is an empirically-based study of South African industry under apartheid. Then come Leonard Gnomes on French financial policy between the wars, and Keith Gibbard on the failings of the French ‘Regulation School’.
István Mészáros deals with the way History has been conceptualised, from the time of the Greeks to the present. He argues that only Marxism provides a genuine historical consciousness, and that bourgeois consciousness in one way or another suppresses questions of historical temporality for ideological reasons. He pays particular attention to Vico, Hegel and Hannah Arendt.
I come last to Cyril Smith’s challenging paper, ‘Hegel, Economics and Marx’s Capital’. Smith correctly argues that Marx was not an ‘economist’ devoted to ‘explaining capitalism’ better, but wanted to expose and oppose the inhuman power of capital. In passing, he remarks that the so-called ‘three sources’ (German philosophy, British political economy, and French Socialism) were in fact targets of Marx’s criticism. (This is true: Marxism is not their sum total; it is the outcome of making each negate the others; Marx’s synthesis was truly original in superseding all its sources in locating their failings in their social and historical limits.) Smith’s paper turns on questions of method, and, in particular, he scrutinises the claim that Marx simply ‘applied’ Hegel’s dialectic. Lenin thought this; but Smith’s main source is recent work in this vein by Tony Smith (for example, his The Logic of Marx’s Capital, 1990). (I am going to resolve the problem of the coincidence of Smiths by hence forward taking the liberty of using their first names.)
The crucial problem with such a claim is that according to Hegel’s own account, his logical categories were not empty forms but were inseparably connected with their content. Cyril asks pertinently: ‘But in that case how could Marx have “applied” Hegel’s method to his own very different content?’ (I have made this point myself; and I have my own answer to it, which Cyril neglects to notice.) According to Tony, Hegel did not apply his own method correctly, but Cyril thinks something deeper is involved. He charges Tony with misunderstanding the work of both thinkers in presenting Marx’s Capital as ‘a systematic theory of economic categories ordered according to a dialectical logic taken over from Hegel’. Cyril believes Tony thereby reduces the whole thing to yet another interpretation of the world. More subtly, Cyril argues that such a split between a logic and its application means that logic cannot investigate itself, and that Hegel in both his logic and his phenomenology tried to make thought thus self-reflexive.
Turning now to Cyril’s own reading of Capital, he argues that the critique of political economy consists at bottom in showing how it naturalises forms which are essentially crazy. However, Cyril runs into trouble because, with Marx, he has to acknowledge these forms have ‘objective validity’ in our epoch. As such their necessity must be explained; so after all Marx ‘does seem to follow what Tony Smith calls “the systematic ordering” of the categories of political economy, for he developed his critique of them in the order in which these are given in bourgeois society’. So ‘explanation’ comes back in. Cyril is not able to articulate coherently the explanatory and critical moments of Marx’s enterprise. Not that this is easy. Marx wrote in a letter to Lassalle that his presentation of the system was at the same time a critique of it. Elsewhere I have tried to show how this could be so. (In citing my work on page 243, Cyril gives entirely the wrong reference: correct is ‘Hegel’s Logic and Marx’s Capital’ in Fred Moseley’s Marx’s Method in Capital, Humanities Press, 1993.) But Cyril claims my reading is based on a mistranslation. In truth it is not; rather, we disagree about what Marx means by ‘the system of bourgeois economy’. I take it to refer to the ‘objectively valid’ lunacies that Marx intended to trace and criticise; but Cyril thinks it means the body of work called ‘political economy’ — this is supposed to be the target of Marx’s critique. Cyril says that Marx was not ‘criticising’ the capitalist system, but was intent on overthrowing it (p244). This makes no sense to me: in passing Marx makes critical remarks about political economy as a body of theory, but his main target was capital itself; in describing it as exploitative and the value-form underpinning it as ‘crazy’, what else was Marx doing but criticising it?
In conclusion, Porcupine Press is to be congratulated on publishing a volume of such high scholarly standard; it is to be hoped that it will be acquired by all libraries.