On Rosa Luxemburg

I wanted to mark the anniversary of Luxemburg’s murder, but I do not want to reduce her into a tragic figure, certainly not one whose theoretical contributions and criticisms of Leninism, Gramscian national-populism or social democracy are obscured in a gesture of self-serving memorialisation.

She was, in my view, the most important and intelligent of Marxist theoreticians of the early twentieth century, and still towers above most. She stood firm against the appeal of nationalism and empire, broke with a naturalist and categorical account of value theory and proposed a theory of radical complexity, denounced cultish authoritarianism while observing a humility toward movements. She was not always right I think, but she was smarter and braver than the rest.

From “Oikopolitics, and Storms,” The Global South 3:1 (Spring, 2009), pp. 66-82.

In 1904, in a short article in Le Socialiste titled “In the Storm,” Rosa Luxemburg insisted that the storm of war, no less than the destiny and zoning of Europe in the geopolitical distribution of war and peace were being played out not “between the four walls of the European concert, but outside it, in the gigantic maelstrom of world and colonial politics.” (p.74)

[…] For Benjamin, as with Schmitt, there is no inscription of the civil without barbarity and, it might be added, no citizen without the foreigner – though they had very different ideas about each. But it is Luxemburg who notes the way in which contingency is transformed into necessity, specifically through a forgetting of its finite conditions in the encounter without which neither appropriation nor property (nor its accounting or protection) would be possible. (p.75-76)

From “Encoding the Law of the Household and the Standardisation of Uncertainty.” In E. Armano, A. Bove, & A. Murgia (eds), Mapping Precariousness, Labour Insecurity and Uncertain Livelihoods: Subjectivities and Resistance (pp. 210-226).

Unlike Hayek, Luxemburg, trained in mathematics and statistics, treated (statistical) patterns as the operational effects of a methodological apparatus and its metrics and not as naturally occurring forms of providential design. Indeed, Luxemburg put forward a theory of the spontaneous emergence of order and dynamic complexity well before Hayek. (p.216)

From “Art of Life, Art of War: Movement, Un/Common Forms, and Infrastructure,” e-flux, #90, April 2018.

img_2194Lenin regarded Clausewitz as “one of the greatest writers on the history of war, whose thinking was stimulated by Hegel.” But it is Gramsci who takes up the concepts of “war of position” and “war of maneuver” in the context of his criticisms of Rosa Luxemburg’s 1906 pamphlet “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions”—referred to by Gramsci as “one of the most significant documents theorizing the war of maneuver in relation to political science.” The terminology since attributed to Gramsci comes from Jomini’s Art of War. It is there that “the system of positions” is distinguished from the “pivots of maneuver” or “pivots of operation.” […]

For Gramsci, spontaneity is the absence of organization and characteristic of the “history of the subaltern classes,” whom he saw as lacking a conscious sense of linear time, liable to fall upon tradition and for this reason understood as a force that can be appealed to through an affirmative recourse to Sorelian nationalist myth. By contrast, Luxemburg’s argument concerns the attribution of causal priority and the simplification of complexity that arises from a dichotomy between spontaneity and organization—some sixty years before the publication of Hayek’s “Theory of Complex Phenomena.”

The immediate target of Luxemburg’s criticism is what she described as an “abstract, unhistorical method of observation” that treats “the mass strike [as] a purely technical means of struggle, which can be ‘decided’ at pleasure and strictly according to conscience, or ‘forbidden’ … according to decision.” Put simply, the tactics or methods of struggle are not the instruments of political will as they are from a Clausewitzian perspective. As Luxemburg puts it, “the element of spontaneity” plays a role, not because struggles are less advanced, but because there is present in every instance of struggle a complex range of “factors [that] react upon one another in such a way that no single act can be arranged and resolved as if it were a mathematical problem.” […]

But if, in The Accumulation of Capital, Luxemburg insisted that the circuit of capital (the extended reproduction of total social capital) was a necessarily open system, her characterization of revolution is remarkable. “The revolution,” she says, “is not a maneuver of the proletariat in an open field, but a fight in the midst of the incessant, crashing, displacing, and crumbling of the social foundation.” To which she adds that “the element of spontaneity plays such a pre-dominant part, not because the Russian proletariat are ‘uneducated,’ but because revolutions do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them.” […]

Implicit in Luxemburg’s approach is a sense for the divergence between the classical logic of properties and that of algebraic functions that arguably reflects her training as a mathematician. What I take from Luxemburg’s insights is that the “creative instant” may indeed be radically open but it is not cut adrift from conflicts over foundations. Still, as such, it also suggests an opening in the seemingly tautological circuit that, in law and economics, legitimates property claims but, at the same time, therefore also marks a contested threshold of appropriation that may (or may not) restore the foundation of property rights. That is, it involves an apparatus of exploitation (that is also a method of observation, experiment, and measure) in which utility is not the underlying, primordial substance that indicates a metaphysical concept of life (one that obscures the abstract encoding of this or that “way of life”). Rather, it involves a historically specific process of appropriation, the entry or switching points of “socially recognized standards of measure” that selectively foster ways of living, and whose logistical move from contingent base points in both colonial and frontier circumstances is called forth by the relative absence of well-defined, bounded categories that otherwise presumably ground the categorical steps of the common forms of oikonomia. […]

… where, following Hegel, many Marxists might draw a distinction between the ideal form of capital and a phenomenology of capitalist societies which more or less closely approximated to the ideal form, Luxemburg insisted that repetition and (capitalist) reproduction were not the same. For her, the circuit of capital implied, necessarily, an open if cramped system—in her terms, the circuit involved the extended reproduction of total social capital, one that presupposed a frontier of exploitation and colonial warfare. This is a crucial insight which, among other things, breaks with the hold of concepts of fatal necessity—not by offering a speculative alternative whose imagination as an “alternative” purports a false transcendence, but by highlighting the workings of a mechanism of selection or a “radical instant” that is historically specific, and whose outcomes are not given in advance.


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