[Marxism] Meditations on a Theme from Rosa Luxemburg

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Wed Dec 3 20:52:43 MST 2008

The following four posts were written on the progressive sociologists
list, in a recemt lengthy discussion of "dialectics" which developed
there. Rosa Luxemburg is only briefly referred to, but my thinking for
these posts led me subsequently to several close rereadings of her two
speeches at the Stuttgart Conference, & I believe the spirit of those
speeches is present enough in the following to justify my subject line.


Subject: Re: [PSN-CS] What it took to win

I f leftists believe that nothing isnecessary beyond some tinkering with
the economy, some slight improvement in the Courts, and perhaps more
tactful handling of aggressive policies abroad, then we can concern
ourselves with elections, who runs, who wins. Because such marginal
changes is all that elections in and of themselves can bring about. The
most important election in U.S. history, Lincoln's, actually exhibits
the trivality of electoral politics. First, he only won because of the
fragmentation of the two parties into four presidential candidates. And
that fracturing came, primarily, because a small, very small,
non-electoral movement, the Abolitionists, had driven the southern
Slavers out of their fucking minds. As Barbara Jeanne Fields points out,
the slaves knew long before Lincoln knew that he was going to free the
slaves, because the slaves knew their owners and knew that the Union
could be saved only by a complete smashing of the Slave power. No
non-electoral and very offensive movement, including John Brown's raid
into Virginia, no Lincoln as president, and nothing to force him, were
he president, to free the sdlaves. 

Who was the most important poolitician to bring abut the Civil Rights
Act? Not liberals elected by hard campaigning by the Black Liberation
Movement but that slimeball Dirksen, who meant by his slogan, "An idea
whose time has come," that those people were going to wreck everything
if someone didn't throw them a few bonesd, and so he pushed it through
the Senate. The rioters in the northern cities were more important than
any liberal senators in getting rid of Jim Crow. 

It's not clear how conscious DP leaders over the last century have been
of their primary function in the social order, but it is overwhelmingly
clear what that function is: to absorb, deflect, splinter, and
ultimately drwon all social movements threatening the quiet rule of
capital. Social Security and the Wagner Act, in their precise form, were
defeats, not victories, for working people. They were ways of quieting
the threat represented by the Townsend dPlan and the CIO to actually
move the u.s. to the left. The anti-war movement of the '60s was
seriously compromised by the Clean-for-Gene and McGovern campaigns,
those campaigns probably resulting in  few hundred thousand more deaths
in Vietnam. 

The DP is mot a weak and unsatisfactory friend. The DP is The Enemy. The
RP eixts mostly to make the DP look good.


Subject: Re: [PSN-CS] second thoughts on dialectics

Quoted Post:   Suppose I am writing a book called "Dialectics for
Dummies".  Could you help me out by simplifying some of the posts that
you have written lately? I've made a stab at applying dialectics on the
fly to issues on PSN.  It may be rough but when dialectics is discussed
in the abstract the mind soon glazes over.  We have read some of the
same sources.  I have the glaze-over problem with Ollman.  I've read
Levin and Lewontin too and find them better. My goal is present a
dialectics that is readable, teachable, and useful. [end quoted post] 

I don't know whether what follows is dialectics or not, but I think it's
in the neighborhood, and since it's attached to some specific
suggestions for left program perhaps either supporting or refuting
arguments can bring dialectics (or historical thinking) out of the realm
of pure abstraction. (Ollman notes, if I remember correctly, that Marx &
Engels seldom referred to their 'method' as "dialectical" or
"materialist," but most often merely referred to their "historical

Start with my favorite sentence in Marx (from Grundrisse): "The anatomy
of man is a key to the anatomy of the ape." We are in the realm of what
Ollman calls "doing history backwards," and which I would argue is the
_only_ mode of historical thinking. Which means, of course, that if we
are to think of the present as history we must, somehow, think of it
from the perspective of the future. Is that possible? At least without
engaging in stupid crystal-ball gazing (as in the financial advice
columns, etc, or as in punditry in general. I think so. I think Marx did
it for example in _Capital_, because the perspective of that volume is
in fact that of a post-capitalist society. Marx abstracted from the
struggles of workers against the burgeoning capitalism of his day a
_very_ vague sense of a communism of the future. (And he never did get
sdpecific, on principle I believe:d that is, he never retracted the
sneer of his youth against the writing of recipes for the cook ships of
the future. But he did see that that vague "anatomy of communism" was a
key to the anatomy of capitalism. And that (of course enabled by his
training in Hegelian dialectics) allowed him to see that capitalism was
a uniquely _historical_ 'object' -- it was a WHOLE, in a way that had
been true of no social order in the past and (we hope) will be true of
no social order of the future. (The latter point is Marx's basis for
asserting thathuman history -when we make our own history- will only
begin with the rise of communism). That is why Hegel's "The truth is the
whole" is applicable to capitalism as it is not to other past and future
social systems (and of course is only partially applicable to
capitalism, for the dynamic within capitalism to commodify the whole of
human life runs against material boundaries -- one cannot commodify the
state, the family, education, a good deal of daily life. That leaves
immense room for contingency even in the systematic horror of
capitalism. But that systematic horror, in so far as it is (or is
constantly thrusting towards beeing) a Whole is a whole constituted by
the unity of capital/labor, by the distribution of living human
activity, and the interconnection of the whole of human activity, by the
drive for surplus labor. That is the unity of opposites, the set of
internal relations which makes the labor of a Kohls clerk in Wichita a
unity with the labor of Chinese peasants. 

[Do not lose sight, in what follows, of the remarks on contingency
above. The works of Stephen Gould, including his final _Structure of
Eveolutionary Theory_, are of great importance on underlining and
explaining the importance of contingency even within a rigorous
dialectical whole such as capitalism.) 

To politics. Rosa Luxemburg: "The final goal is everything. The movement
is nothing." (Quoted from memory.) Consider the parallel to "The anatomy
of man is a key to the anatomy of the ape."  Red Rosa is not telling us
to forget the struggle in the present - all the difficulties of being an
ape :-). She is not asking us to simply focus on some future utopia. She
is declaring that we can understand and act in the present only by
seeing it illuminated (as all of capitalism was for Marx) by seeing it
from the perspective of a hypothesized future goal. If we keep our eyes
fixed on the present, we will vainly struggle to _ever_ escape from that
endless present. We will never act, we will onl react mindlessly. 

But there are small wholes and big wholes;  small "final goals" and big
final goals. And we do start with a very general survey of the present
(and did Marx with the opening sentences of capital: immense
accumulation of commodities. (He did NOT go on to do an empircal
sociolgoical or economical detailed analysis of that accumulation.)
Politically, (as radical leftyists) we find the present to be
constituted by a rather large but very miscellaneous collection of
radicals but THERE IS NO LEFT, only tesn of thousands of leftists,
gathered at most into the most varied local groups or 'larger'
grouplets. What is what we might call the "immediate final goal" from
which that present (not described in more detail) cann be perceived.
>From the perspective of a 'unified' left, acting in some minimally
coherent fashion. (Say in the year 2013.) "Unified" is in scare quotes
because I do not know, I don't think anyone should presume to know or to
dictate, the organizational form of that unity. It won't be of the 2d or
3d international type; perhpas some sort of pretty loose coalition, but
allowing it to make sense at least to _talk_ of strategy and tactics. 
(It is simply bizarre at the present time to talk about "tactical
voting" or "left pressure" on Obama.) We're not talking about the Second
Congress of the RSDLP; perhaps not even something as ephemeral as its
first congress -- but _something_ that lets radicals begin to say "we"
with some meaning.) 

But that amorphous unity would have principles that would in principle
(though not at all at first in practice) unite the whole working class,
not the narrowly conceived class-as-identity which most past socialist
movements have given us and which sociolgists and working-class studies
give us. A working class conceived prurely as a process and a
relationship to capital. What would unite (remember, in principle)
_that_ class. Many secondary demands of course -- but what unites
illegal migrants in a chicken-factory and 300K software engineers? My
answer: Time and disregard of national borders. It is the capitalist
command of TIME, of living human activity, at whatever level of pay and
under whatever working conditions, that constitutes the degradation of
the working class under capitalism. And so there is our hypothetical
future which lets us see the present, these demands: 

1. Four-day (24 hour) wori week. 

2. Open borders. 

See those demands as the center of an immense effort at internal
education as a left (a loose but in some sense unified left) grows
around these demands. (And of course many other demands focused on
particular conditions, but only thse two demands carry with them the
unity-in-principle of a working class that can overthrow capitalism (or
even begin again to fight for decency within capitalism.) The
educational effort is internal because it will reach only those who have
been (more or less) incorporated into the left through engagement in
concrete struggle. Concrete struggle generates the need to know, to
understand the conditions of that struggle and its meaning. It will (and
has in the past) open up the individual to collective learning through
which she finds the meaning of struggle precisely in participation in
the international struggle against capitalism. Incidentally, most people
in such struggles, even at a high level, won't think of themselves as
"communists" or "revolutionaries" or "marxists." Those who do have to
keep the final goal (an ever receding one) in mind, but not impose it in
a party line on the rest: M&E had gotten that far in the Manifesto when
they proclaimed that Communists had no sectarian aims. 

I hope I have opened up a few topics worth thinking about.


Subject: Re: [PSN-CS] an alternative to "antagonistic contradiction"

A couple undeveloped observations. 

1. There is an important passage in Anti-Duhring in which Engels answers
Duhring's charge that in a certain passage in Capital Marx arrived
dialectically at his conclusions there. Engels says NO. First Marx
arrived at his conclusions by historical investigation, and ONLY THEN
did he observe that the facts uncovered happened to illustrate one of
Hegel's dialectical principles. I think a number of Marxist scholars
have concurred with a generalization of this point: Dialectics is not
and cannot be a method of discovering new truths. One cannot deduce
anything about the actual world through dialectics. 

2. Dialectics only work when the object of investigation is in some
sense a _whole_. Hence Hegel's argument that the truth is the whole.
That requires that there _be_ a whole.  Russell & Whitehead, for
example, differed on precisely this point. Whitehead argued that the
cosmos was a whole and could be (must be) grasped through internal
relations. Russell said no the cosmos is a collection of electrons
mechannically inter-related. (This is not quite correct; I'll try later
to look up a more accurate account.) So before one can begin a
dialectical account, one must _first_ determine if the object of
inviestigation is a whole or a collection. (Note that Margaret Thatcher
firmly believed that the human world was a collection: "Society does not
exist, only individuals and families.") I think it is at least arguable
that in reference to any other historical era than that of capitalism
she would be partly correct. (Of course she is focused on capitalism, so
is simply wrong.) That is, in European feudalism, for example, the
activity of a given feudal lord did not necessarily affect the meaning
of any actions not part of his feudal domain. If he found a way of
increasing the 'productivity' of his vassals, that did not change the
meaning of the labor of vassals in the domain of some other feudal lord.
Hence there was no dialectical relationship. And dialectics probably
does not help to clarify studies of European feudalism.


Subject: Re: [PSN-CS] an alternative to "antagonistic contradiction"

martha gimenez wrote: "But the capital-labor   contradiction is
unresolvable within   the existing mode of production and this   is
manifested in the endemic   nature of labor conflicts in capitalist
social formations." 

And we see here, I believe, the actual content of the phrases, rather
empty in themselves, "unity of opposites" and "things change into their
opposite." Capital and Labor are, at a very deep level, identical.
Capital IS labor. Labor IS capital.  Put another way, capitalism (_in
tendency_*) is a whole in a deep sense, in _contrast_ to other social
orders that preceded or (hope) may follow it. Under capitalism (in
tendency) labor in a plastics factory in podunk, usa,  can transform the
very meaning of the life of a laboroer in little town, france, because
the labor of each is only a part of a real abstraction, total suplus
value.  This total subordination of the labor of each to the labor of
all is the terrible tyranny of capitalism. 

The tyranny of that unity/contradiction can only be resolved by the
elimination of both! That is, in a classless society. To each according
to her needs / From each according to her ability frees individual human
acts  from the reduction of all human activity to abstract labor 
(bourgeois equality). The individual's act becomes meaningful in itself,
in the present (the here and now),


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