Luxemburg's critique of the Bolsheviks

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Luxemburg’s critique of national liberation struggles in general and the Bolsheviks’ nationalities policy in particular was the most penetrating of any at the time because it was based on an analysis of world imperialism which went far deeper than the one developed by Lenin. In texts such as The Accumulation of Capital (1913) and The Junius Pamphlet (1915) she showed that imperialism was not merely a form of thievery perpetrated by the advanced capitals on the backward nations but was an expression of a totality of world capitalist relations:

Imperialism is not the creation of one or any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will.” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, 1915)

For Luxemburg the location of the historic crisis of capitalism was not to be found in the falling rate of profit alone, which taken by itself is being constantly offset by increasing the mass of commodities produced and sold. She argued that the specific roots of the historical crisis lay in the problem of realizing surplus value. In The Accumulation of Capital and Anti-Critique she demonstrated that the total surplus value extracted from the working class as a whole cannot be realised solely within the capitalist social relation, because the workers, not being repaid the full value created by their labour power, cannot buy back all the commodities they produce. At the same time the capitalist class (including in this case all those strata paid out of capitalist revenue) as a whole is unable to consume all the surplus because a portion of this must serve in the enlarged reproduction of capital and must therefore be exchanged. Consequently global capital is constantly forced to find consumers outside the capitalist social relation. In the initial stages of capitalism’s evolution there were still numerous non-capitalist strata inside the geographical areas of capitalist development (peasants, artisans, etc) who could serve as a basis for the healthy expansion of capital – although right from the beginning there was a constant tendency to seek markets in countries outside these enclaves: the industrial revolution in Britain was stimulated to a large extent by demand coming from British colonies. But as capitalist social relations became generalized throughout the original enclaves of capitalism the ‘push’ of capitalist production towards the rest of the world accelerated. Instead of competition between individual capitals for markets within the national framework, the emphasis was now on competition between national capitals for the remaining non-capitalist areas of the globe. This was the essence of imperialism, which is simply the expression of ‘normal’ capitalist competition on an ‘international’ scale, backed up of course by the armed state power which is the distinguishing characteristic of competition at this level. As long as this imperialist development was restricted to a few advanced capitals expanding towards a still considerable non-capitalist sector of the world, competition remained relatively peaceful, except from the point of view of the pre-capitalist peoples who were being plundered wholesale by imperialist cartels (i.e. China and Africa). But as soon as imperialism integrated the whole world into capitalist relations, as soon as the world market became completely divided up, then global capitalist competition could only assume a violent and openly aggressive character from which no nation, advanced or backward, could ‘hold aloof’, since every nation had been irresistibly drawn into the rat-race of competition over a saturated world market.

Luxemburg was describing a global historical process, a unified process. Because she understood that everything was ultimately determined by the development of the world market, she was able to see that it was impossible to divide the world into different historical departments: a senile capitalism on the one hand and a youthful, dynamic capitalism on the other. Capitalism is a unified system that rises and goes into decline as a single interdependent entity. The fundamental mistake of the Leninists was to assert that in some areas of the world capitalism could still be ‘progressive’ and even revolutionary, while it was decomposing in other areas. Just as their conception of ‘different’ national tasks for the proletariat in each geographic region betrayed a framework that begins from the standpoint of each national state in isolation, their concept of imperialism showed the same mistaken framework.

Having as her starting point the development of the world market Luxemburg was able to see that national liberation struggles were no longer possible when the world market was divided up by the imperialist powers. The first imperialist world war was decisive proof of the saturation of the world market. Henceforward there could no longer be any real expansion of the world market, but only a violent redivision of existing markets by imperialist powers robbing each other of their spoils, a process which in the absence of social revolution would inevitably lead to the collapse of civilisation. In this context it was impossible for any new nation state to enter into the world market on an independent basis, or to undergo the process of primitive accumulation outside this barbaric global chessboard. Consequently, “In the contemporary imperialist milieu there can be no wars of national defence” (Junius Pamphlet).

The very attempt of nations large or small to ‘defend’ themselves from imperialist attack necessitated alliances with other imperialisms, imperialistic expansion against yet smaller nations, and so on. All those ‘socialists’ who in World War I called for national defence of any kind were, in fact, only serving as apologists and recruiting agents for the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Although Luxemburg appears to have had certain confusions regarding the possibility of national self-determination after the socialist revolution, and although she never had the chance to develop her position in all its aspects, the whole thrust of her analysis is towards demonstrating that the productive forces evolved by capitalism had entered into violent conflict with capitalist social relations, including of course the imprisonment of the productive forces within the confines of the nation state. Imperialist wars were a sure sign of this insurmountable conflict and thus of the irreversible decay of the capitalist mode of production. In this context, national liberation struggles, once an expression of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, have not only lost their progressive content, but have been actively transformed into the imperialistic, cannibalising struggles of a class whose existence has become a barrier to further human progress.

Luxemburg’s ability to see that the bourgeoisie of any nation could only operate within the imperialist world system led her to sharply criticize the national policies of the Bolsheviks after 1917. Acknowledging that the Bolsheviks’ granting of national independence to Finland, the Ukraine, Lithuania, etc. was carried out with the intention of winning the masses of those nations to the Soviet power, she pointed out that, in fact, exactly the opposite had occurred:

One after another, these ‘nations’ used the freshly granted freedoms to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian revolution as its mortal enemy, and under German protection, to carry the banner of counter-revolution into Russia itself.” (Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 1918)

The idea that in the epoch of proletarian revolution, indeed on the very borders of the bastion of the revolution, there could be a congruence of interest between proletariat and bourgeoisie, was sheer utopia. No longer could the two classes derive any mutual benefit from the ‘independence’ of the nation. Now it was a fight to the death. The great perniciousness of the slogan of national self-determination was that it gave the bourgeoisie an ideological cover to pursue its class interests, which in such a period could only be the crushing of the revolutionary working class. Under the slogan of national self-determination the bourgeoisie of the countries bordering Russia massacred communists, dissolved the soviets, and allowed their territories to be used as a beachhead for the armies of German imperialism and the White reaction. Even in bourgeois terms, national self-determination for these countries was a mockery, because as soon as they broke away from the Russian Empire, the small nations of Eastern Europe fell under the heel of German or other imperialisms (and since then have been tossed from one imperialism to another until settling down under the wing of ‘Soviet’ imperialism). Not only did the Bolsheviks’ national policies give a free rein to the counter-revolution in the border nations, but on a wider scale they were to add a great ideological weight to the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie of the League of Nations, to the Wilsonians and others, whose own version of national self-determination was at that time entering into decisive conflict with the demands of international communism. And indeed since that time the Bolsheviks’ assertion of a ‘right’ of national self-determination has been used by numerous Stalinist, neo-fascist, Zionist, and other charlatans to justify the existence of any number of petty imperialist regimes.

When Luxemburg was formulating this critique, she was writing as a revolutionary expressing her profound solidarity with the Bolsheviks and the Russian revolution. And indeed so long as there was life in that revolution, so long as the Bolsheviks were attempting to act in the interests of the world revolution, their national policies (among other things) could be criticised as the mistakes of a revolutionary workers’ party. In 1918, when Luxemburg wrote her critique of their methods, the Bolsheviks were still pinning all their hopes on a proletarian revolution breaking out in the West. But by 1920, with the tide of revolution receding everywhere, the Bolsheviks were showing clear signs of losing confidence in the international working class. Henceforward, more and more emphasis was to be put on uniting the Russian revolution with the ‘national liberation movements’ in the East, movements that were seen to pose a dire threat to the imperialist world system. From the Baku Congress in 1920 to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922 this emphasis steadily increased, while a growing amount of material aid was doled out to nationalist movements of many different complexions. The disastrous consequences of these policies barely penetrated the minds of the Bolshevik bureaucracy, which was becoming less and less able to distinguish the immediate national advantage of Russia from the interests of the world proletariat. Consider the case of Kemal Ataturk. Despite the fact that he had executed the leaders of the Turkish Communist Party in 1921, the Bolsheviks continued to see a ‘revolutionary’ potential in Ataturk’s nationalist movement. Only when the latter openly sought to compromise with the Entente imperialisms in 1923 did the Bolsheviks begin to reconsider their policy towards him, and by this time there was nothing revolutionary at all in the foreign policy of the Russian state. And Kemal was no accident but simply an expression of the new epoch, of the utter irreconcilability of nationalism and proletarian revolution, of the complete inability of any faction of the bourgeoisie to stand independently of imperialism. Similar Bolshevik policies ended in fiascos in Persia and the Far East. The ‘national revolution’ against imperialism was a dangerous myth that cost the lives of countless workers and communists. From then on it became more and more clear that national movements, far from challenging the hegemony of imperialism, could only become pawns in the imperialist chess game. If one imperialism was weakened by this or that national movement, then another imperialism would surely gain.

The next inevitable step was for ‘Soviet’ Russia herself to enter unambiguously into imperialist competition with the established capitalisms. With the world revolution in disarray, with the Russian proletariat decimated by civil war and famine, its last great attempts to regain political power crushed at Petrograd and Kronstadt, the Bolshevik Party had ended up as the managers and overseers of Russian national capital. And since in the epoch of capitalist decadence national capitals have no choice but to expand imperialistically, the foreign policies of the Russian state from the middle twenties, including support for ‘national liberation movements’ can no longer be seen as reflecting the mistakes of a proletarian party, but as the imperialist strategies of a great capitalist power. Thus when the Comintern’s policy of alliance with the ‘national democratic revolution’ in China led directly to the massacre of the Chinese workers after the Shanghai insurrection of 1927, it is incorrect to talk of ‘betrayals’ or ‘mistakes’ on the part of Stalin or the Comintern. By sabotaging the insurrection of the Chinese workers they were simply fulfilling their class function as a faction of world capital.