Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Rosa Luxemburg's Writings (1973)

Book Review from the January 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rosa Luxemburg. Selected Political Writings ed. and introduced by Robert Looker. Cape. £1.50.

Rosa Luxemburg was born in 1870 in Russian Poland but later moved to Germany. Very early on she made a name for herself in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as an opponent of Bernstein's Revisionism. Her pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution was an attack on the view that capitalism could be gradually transformed into Socialism by social reforms, trade-union pressure, co-ops, etc.

But she never argued that a socialist party should not advocate reforms at all. In fact she agreed with the SPD's tactic on reforms: that the working class should be encouraged to struggle for them or against specific capitalist measures in order to prepare itself for the eventual capture of political power for Socialism (see some of the articles published here in the section "Defending the Tactic"). When, in the decade or so up to 1914, she came to realise how reformism in the SPD was not confined just to Bernstein and the Revisionists but also permeated the thinking of the whole leadership, she blamed its concentrating on getting reforms through Parliament. She did not blame advocating reforms as such and in fact her answer to the danger of reformism was to involve the mass of the workers themselves instead of just a few MP's in the reform struggle by means of the "mass strike". This was a tactic she had picked up from the Russian revolution of 1905 (which she had participated in to a certain extent, most of Poland then being part of Russia).

The final bankruptcy of the SPD was exposed in Luxemburg's eyes by its notorious vote for war credits for the German government on 4 August 1914. Luxemburg began to call for a new Socialist International and eventually helped to form a new party, the Spartacus League. She herself was a determined opponent of the War and went to jail for her anti-war activities. Some of her best writings date from this period, especially the classic socialist statement against the First World War, The Junius Pamphlet (also called The Crisis of Social Democracy). Some of the articles selected here, especially "Rebuilding the International" and "Either Or", could have come from any of the SOCIALIST STANDARD  of 1915 and 1916. Indeed the first one could quite literally have done since most of it was reprinted, with a slight reservation, in our issue of September 1915.

In November 1918 the Kaiser and his government were overthrown and political power passed into the hands of pro-war Social Democrats. They pursued the policy of establishing a bourgeois, democratic state in Germany, establishing stable capitalist rule through Parliament. The Spartacus League, including Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, urged the workers to oppose this and to set up rival workers' and soldiers' councils as the first step on the long road to the capture of political power for Socialism. For the Spartacus League (unlike the Bolsheviks) did not believe in a minority seizure of power. As its 1918 pamphlet What Does The Spartakusbund Want? put it:
The Spartacus League will never assume government in any way other than through the clear unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass in all Germany, never in any other way than on the strength of the masses' conscious agreement with the views, aims and methods of the struggle of the Spartacus League.
Or, as Rosa Luxemburg herself put it:
Without the conscious will and action of the majority of the proletariat, there can be no Socialism.
Even so, some of the members of the Spartacus League were over-enthusiastic and—despite warnings from Luxemburg—were provoked in January 1919 into an armed uprising in Berlin. Loyally she went along with them. It cost her her life. On 15 January soldiers responsible to the Social Democratic Minister Noske smashed her head in.

This book selects some of her previously untranslated articles, though it omits any of those where she discusses nationalism and exposes "the right to self-determination" as a fraud. Could this be because the translator is associated with "International Socialism" and would therefore find her views on this embarrassing?
Adam Buick

My father (1997)

A Short Story from the May 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

My parents were always poor. My father was ostracised by his family for becoming a "Bolshevik" (as they chose to call it), and marrying a "common shop girl"  . . . as they chose to describe my mother. It was a "never-darken-my-doors-again" situation. In fact he did try to "darken their doors" again when he hit upon very hard times but they would not lend him any money. They would have none of him and he was to remember this with bitterness for the rest of his life. It also meant that I was never to meet my paternal grandparents or my aunt and uncle.

I suppose to some people Dad would have been an embarrassment. He was the kind of man whose main object in going to the cinema, or so it seemed, was to watch the Pathé News, make loud, caustic comments about whatever was happening on the screen, and then try to inveigle the audience into a discussion. And then again, just as soon as the film was ended and the strains of God Save The King became audible he would leap from his seat and with great ostentation usher us along the row and out of the cinema. On one or two occasions he remained seated (when most other people were standing to attention) in order to explain the rôle of the Royal Family under capitalism in a very loud voice to the people in the row behind. Dad firmly believed that all he had to do was to expound his political allegiances and most people would come round to his way of thinking. And it is true to sat that most people did tend to keep quiet whilst he bestowed on them all the benefits of this knowledge and wisdom, but I think now that this was due more to weariness than any agreement on their part.

Visitors to the house, young and old alike, he attempted to engage in political debate, a debate he invariably won hands down because he had done masses of reading on the subject, but also because few people ever wanted to argue with him in the first place, when he naturally assumed that they did. In other words he never missed an opportunity to inform, and he did this lengthily and with patience and humour. But as he had behaved in this way for as long as I could remember he was an embarrassment to me. But for my mother it was different. Mum would ask "Must you bring politics into everything? Could we just go for one day in this house without a lecture on the evils of capitalism?" In this I thought she was unreasonable. I thought him wonderful, eccentric and handsome as the only little girl in the family would.

During the time that my father was a road-sweeper he was responsible for one of the more leafy, posher areas of south-east London. I lived in this area for a time and was to meet some of the residents who as soon as they heard my name would enquire if I was Jock's daughter, and then I would soon learn of Dad's attempts to convert whoever-it-was to socialism. From what they said he spent as much time preaching as he did sweeping. I have no evidence that he ever fully converted anyone but I have no doubt that he made a lasting impression.

Yet as I grew up a coolness developed between us. My politics changed. I no longer saw the Russian revolution in the same way and the Hungarian uprising of 1956 put a completely different complexion on the way I thought of socialism. My father could never accept the revelations about Stalin; he was ageing, becoming too ill to analyse events. He felt let down, betrayed. Now instead of hanging on to his every word I berated him. I chided him with feeding me the wrong information for so many years. I made it clear that I considered his lifetime principles to be a sham. His punishment was twofold, my behavoiur was unforgivable, and when he died the rift between us had not been healed. He must certainly have felt that he had been betrayed not only by his parents and his politics but by his only daughter too! And yet this dear man inspired me to read, to question and to be a socialist. What more could he have taught me?
Heather Ball


The Case Against Censorship (2006)

Editorial from the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
The fuss over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed has not been the only recent event that has raised the issue of free speech. There was also the governments failed attempt to make it more difficult to criticise religion. There were the trials of the BNP leaders and of the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza. The elected mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was required to appear before an unelected body with the power to eject him from office for a remark made to a journalist from the gutter press. David Irving was arrested in Austria for holocaust-denial. All these were attempts  either by law or by direct action  to punish people for expressing an opinion.
We in the Socialist Party have always insisted on the advantages, for the advancement of the cause of socialism, of the fullest possible freedom of expression of political and social ideas, including when these take the form of religion (since all religions hold views on how society should be organised and are in this sense political). No view should be prevented from being expressed. And no view (not even religion) should be exempt from being criticised.
We have always practised what we preach. We opposed the banning of the Daily Worker in 1941. We have criticised the policy of no platform for fascists as censorship by direct action. We have debated against fascists and Islamists, exposing their views before their followers to the withering criticism of the socialist case.
The main case against censorship is that it considers that people are too ignorant to decide for themselves and so must be protected from hearing certain views. All censors, actual or would-be, consider themselves a cut above the rest. They are not corrupted by reading Lady Chatterlys Lover but their servants would be.They are not affected by reading anti-Christian or anti-Muslim writings (as the case may be) but their followers would be. They are not affected by a BNP rant but other, less enlightened people would be.
Since ideas are thrown up by social conditions censorship never works to suppress them anyway. The Catholic Church was not able to prevent the rise in Europe of the secular, practical materialism generated by capitalism and has been forced to accommodate itself to this. The same fate awaits Islam, which seems to want to rival Catholicism for the title of the worlds most intolerant religion. At the moment its clerics are desperately trying to hold back the spread of capitalist secularism  and still have the power to mobilise fanatical mobs to rage against a few harmless cartoons  but, as capitalism progresses more and more in the areas where they now dominate they too will lose influence, painfully slow as this is turning out to be.
In any event, Socialists are opposed to the attempts made by Muslim clerics to prevent and punish criticism of their religion. We are under no obligation to respect the religious dogma of these obscurantists that places the so-called prophet Mohammed beyond criticism, not that he has anything relevant or sensible to say for 21st century conditions.
The last refuge of those who favour censorship is the proposition that people should be legally banned from insulting each other. It is true that if you want to persuade someone to change their views insulting them is not the best way to begin. But you cant legislate for good manners or good persuasive techniques. To allow one side in an argument to cry youve offended me and appeal to the law to silence the other side would mean an end to free speech.
Our answer to all censors is to reaffirm that workers are quite capable of judging for themselves, quite capable of sorting out the wheat from the chaff and working out which ideas accord with their interests and which do not. The best condition for the emergence of socialist understanding remains free and frank discussion.