In The Junius Pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that the works of Karl Marx ‘gave to the working class of the whole world a compass by which to fix its tactics from hour to hour, in its journey toward the one unchanging goal’. So for Luxemburg and radicals of her generation, Marxism was not some ossified academic discourse, but rather a living instrument of action, analysis and revolution. Few wielded this instrument better than Lenin, who was central to the Russian Revolution of 1917, the centenary of which we mark this year.
But since the time of Luxemburg and Lenin, Marxism, revolutionary socialism and all associated trends have, for a variety of reasons, been in decline. Fast forward to the present conjuncture and confusion, miscalculation and despair are hallmarks of “the Left”, such as it is. Whether it be the Civil War in Syria, the Brexit debate, the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Trump, France and Le Pen, or any other pressing issue, very many on the Left find themselves rudderless. Striking out incoherently in various directions, while reaction is everywhere on the rise.
Concretely this has led to the appalling vista whereby people who consider themselves Left, “leftist”, socialist and, in some cases, revolutionary are arguing in defence of the racist, neoliberal EU; against the leadership of Corbyn in the UK Labour Party, for imperialist interventions in Syria and other sundry, reactionary positions. In this context there is a serious need to re-calibrate our coordinates, as it were.
To begin this process, we could do worse than revisit Georg Lukacs’ 1924 work Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought. Various aspects of this work are rewarding, but in particular Lukács’ discussion of Revisionism in Chapter 4 is especially illuminating for our time. Revisionists, for Lukács, Luxemburg, Lenin and others, were those so called socialists and Marxists who had, in practice, abandoned the idea of revolutionary social change, in any meaningful sense. The sort of people, to borrow Patrick Bond’s phrase, who ‘talk left, and walk right’. For Lukács and others, interchangeable descriptors and pejoratives abounded for such people: revisionists, reformists, opportunists etc.
Lukács sets out five characteristics which reflect the ‘essence’ of revisionism, and can be summarised as follows:
i. The first is that revisionists abandon the centrality of class in their analysis of events and specific conjunctures;
ii. Secondly, revisionists abandon the Marxist dialectic. That is to say they embrace the simple, formal logic of mainstream political and cultural thought, and retreat from the central Marxist insight that ‘contradictions … are the basis and kernel of all events’;
iii. Thirdly, revisionist thought ‘always lacks historical, concrete and creative dimensions’, it is, instead, a-historical, abstract and pessimistically deterministic;
iv. Fourth, as a consequence of an a-historical, undialectical conception of society which has jettisoned the protagonistic role of social classes, revisionists come to ‘regard society as the reality which cannot essentially be changed just as much as the bourgeoisie. They no longer regard bourgeois society as historically created and therefore destined to historical decline. Nor do they regard knowledge as a means of recognizing this period of decline and of working for its acceleration, but – at best – as a means of improving the condition of the proletariat within bourgeois society. For Revisionism, all thought which points in a practical way beyond the horizons of bourgeois society is illusory and Utopian’;
v. Finally, as a result of the foregoing, revisionism is ‘tied to realpolitik. It always sacrifices the genuine interests of the class as a whole, the consistent representation of which is precisely what it calls Utopian, so as to represent the immediate interests of specific groups’.
Lukács then distils these characteristics further, and argues that the the common character of all revisionist or opportunist currents on the Left is that they ‘never regard events from the class standpoint of the proletariat and therefore fall victim to an unhistorical, undialectical, and eclectic realpolitik‘.
Having provided a useful descriptive account of revisionism/opportunism, Lukács then draws an immensely important political conclusion, he argues that:
opportunism is the class enemy of the proletariat within its own camp. The removal of opportunists from the labour movement is therefore the first, essential prerequisite of the successful start of the struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is therefore of paramount importance for the preparation of the proletarian revolution to free workers intellectually and organizationally from this ruinous influence.
For Lukács, then, confronting and challenging revisionist, opportunist and reformist tendencies within the broad Left is a political priority. A necessary step to allow us to clarify our understanding of a given conjuncture or political controversy.
Of course, as Luxemburg noted in Reform or Revolution, it ‘is obvious that revisionism does not wish to concede that its standpoint is that of the capitalist apologist’. So that many people and organisations will earnestly believe themselves to be radical, socialist or progressive, in other words to be ‘Left’, while they continue to walk right.
What is important for revolutionaries, and more importantly for the broad working class, is to be able to see through the fog and confusion that surrounds contemporary political events, and to begin to form analyses and concrete tactical positions that once again place radical transformation at the centre of politics. In this regard the compass of Marxism remains invaluable, but to develop our thinking and ideas along fruitful lines we should learn from Lukács.
We need to ensure that whatever issues or concrete controversies we face, our analysis is grounded in an understanding of the contemporary world, of capitalism, as historically contingent, riven with contradictions that impel change (one way or another), and founded, fundamentally, on the exploitation of the many (the working class, in all its diversity and richness) by the few (the capitalist class). With these simple co-ordinates as starting points, we can begin the search for the ideas, organisational forms and movements that will be necessary to build the sort of world we wish to see.