By Frank Jackman
History in the conditional, what might have happened if this or that thing, event, person had swerved this much or that, is always a tricky proposition. Tricky as reflected in this piece’s commemorative headline. Rosa Luxemburg the acknowledged theoretical wizard of the German Social-Democratic Party, the numero uno party of the Second, Socialist International, which was the logical organization to initiate the socialist revolution before World War II and Karl Liebknecht, the hellfire and brimstone propagandist and public speaker of that same party were assassinated in separate locale on the orders of the then ruling self-same Social-Democratic Party. The chasm between the Social-Democratic leaders trying to save Germany for “Western Civilization” in the wake of the “uncivilized” socialist revolution in Russia in 1917 had grown that wide that it was as if they were on two different planets, and maybe they were.
(By the way I am almost embarrassed to mention the term “socialist revolution” these days when people, especially young people, would be clueless as to what I was talking about or would think that this concept was so hopelessly old-fashioned that it would meet the same blank stares. Let me assure you that back in the day, yes, that back in the day, many a youth had that very term on the tips of their tongues. Could palpably feel it in the air. Hell, just ask your parents, or grandparents.)
Okay here is the conditional and maybe think about it before you dismiss the idea out of hand if only because the whole scheme is very much in the conditional. Rosa and Karl, among others made almost every mistake in the book before and during the Spartacist uprising in some of the main German cities in late 1918 after the German defeat in the war. Their biggest mistake before the uprising was sticking with the Social Democrats, as a left wing, when that party had turned at best reformist and eminently not a vehicle for the socialist revolution, or even a half-assed democratic “revolution” which is what they got with the overthrow of the Kaiser. They broke too late, and subsequently too late from a slightly more left-wing Independent Socialist Party which had split from the S-D when that party became the leading war party in Germany for all intents and purposes and the working class was raising its collective head and asking why.
The big mistake during the uprising was not taking enough protective cover, not keeping the leadership safe, keeping out of sight like Lenin had in Finland when things were dicey in 1917 Russia and fell easy prey to the Freikorps assassins. Here is the conditional, and as always it can be expanded to some nth degree if you let things get out of hand. What if, as in Russia, Rosa and Karl had broken from that rotten (for socialism) S-D organization and had a more firmly entrenched cadre with some experience in independent existence. What if the Spartacists had protected their acknowledged leaders better. There might have been a different trajectory for the aborted and failed German left-wing revolutionary opportunities over the next several years, there certainly would have been better leadership and perhaps, just perhaps the Nazi onslaught might have been stillborn, might have left Munich 1923 as their “heroic” and last moment.
Instead we have a still sad 100th anniversary of the assassination of two great international socialist fighters who headed to the danger not away always worthy of a nod and me left having to face those blank stares who are looking for way forward but might as well be on a different planet-from me.
Every January, as readers of this blog are now, hopefully, familiar with the international communist movement honors the 3 Ls-Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, fallen leaders of the early 20th century communist movement who died in this month (and whose untimely deaths left a huge, irreplaceable gap in the international leadership of that time). January is thus a time for us to reflect on the roots of our movement and those who brought us along this far. In order to give a fuller measure of honor to our fallen forbears this January, and in future Januarys, this space will honor others who have contributed in some way to the struggle for our communist future. That future classless society, however, will be the true memorial to their sacrifices. This year we pay special honor to American Communist party founder and later Trotskyist leader, James P. Cannon, Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, and German Left Communist Karl Korsch.
Note on inclusion: As in other series on this site (“Labor’s Untold Story”, “Leaders Of The Bolshevik Revolution”, etc.) this year’s honorees do not exhaust the list of every possible communist worthy of the name. Nor, in fact, is the list limited to Bolshevik-style communists. There will be names included from other traditions (like anarchism, social democracy, the Diggers, Levellers, Jacobins, etc.) whose efforts contributed to the international struggle. Also, as was true of previous series this year’s efforts are no more than an introduction to these heroes of the class struggle. Future years will see more detailed information on each entry, particularly about many of the lesser known figures. Better yet, the reader can pick up the ball and run with it if he or she has more knowledge about the particular exploits of some communist militant, or to include a missing one.
Antonio Gramsci 1919
Revolutionaries and elections
Source: L'ordine nuovo, 15 November 1919;
Translated: for marxists.org by Michael Carley.
What do conscious revolutionaries expect of the elections, those workers and peasants who consider the Parliament of deputies elected by universal suffrage (of the exploiters and the exploited) according to territorial constituencies, the mask of the bourgeois dictatorship? Certainly, they do not expect the conquest of a half plus one of the seats and a legislature which is characterized by a shower of decrees and laws which tend to round off the corners and make easier and handier the cohabitation of the two classes, that of the exploiters and that of the exploited. They expect instead that the electoral strength of the proletariat will manage to bring into Parliament a solid core of Socialist Party activists, and that this will be numerous and hardened enough to form a stable and strong government, to thus force the bourgeoisie out of democratic equivocation, out of legality and bring about a rising of the deepest and widest layers of the working class against the oligarchy of the exploiters.
The conscious revolutionaries, the workers and peasants who are now convinced that the communist revolution will only come about through the dictatorship of the proletariat incarnate in a system of workers’ and peasants’ councils, have struggled to send many socialist deputies to Parliament, because they have reasoned in this way:
The communist revolution cannot be realized with a single blow. If even a revolutionary minority should manage, by violence, to take over power, this minority would the day after be brought down by the counter blow of the mercenary forces of capitalism, because the unabsorbed majority would allow the flower of revolutionary power to be massacred, would allow all the evil passions and barbarities excited by corruption and capitalist gold to overflow. It is thus necessary that the proletarian vanguard organize materially and spiritually this indolent and slow majority, it is necessary that the proletarian vanguard bring about, with its methods and its systems, the material and spiritual conditions in which the owning class will no longer manage to peacefully govern the great masses of men, but will be constrained, by the intransigence of the socialist deputies controlled and disciplined by the party, to terrorize the great masses, to strike blindly and to make them revolt. An end of such a kind can only be pursued today through parliamentary action, understood as action which tends to immobilize the Parliament, to rip the democratic mask from the double face of the bourgeois dictatorship and show it in all its horror and its repugnant ugliness.
The communist revolution is a necessity in Italy more for international reasons than for reasons inherent in the development of the apparatus of national production. The reformists and the whole gang of opportunists are right when they say that there do not exist in Italy the objective conditions for revolution: they are right in so far as they think and talk like nationalists, in so far as they conceive of Italy as an organism independent of the rest of the world, and conceive of Italian capitalism as a purely Italian phenomenon. They do not conceive of internationalism as a reality living and functioning in the history of capitalism as much as in that of the proletariat.
But if instead Italian reality is conceived of as inserted in an international system, as depending on this international system, then the historical judgment changes and the practical conclusion to which every conscious socialist must come, every worker and peasant who feels the responsibility of the revolutionary mission of his class, is this: it is necessary to be prepared, it is necessary to be armed for the conquest of social power. The fact that the revolution is imposed by the conditions of the international capitalist system makes the task of the Italian revolutionary vanguard more difficult and complicated, but these complications and these difficulties should push us to be better trained and prepared, they should not lead to illusions and scepticism.
Just so: the revolution finds the great Italian popular masses still unformed, still pulverized in an animal swarm of individuals without discipline and without culture, obedient only to the stimuli of the stomach and of barbaric passions. Just so the conscious revolutionaries have accepted the electoral struggle: to create a primordial form and unity in this multitude, to join it by a link of action to the Socialist Party, to give a sense and a glimmer of political conscience to its instincts and its passions. But also thus the revolutionary vanguard does not want these multitudes to be deceived, to make them believe that it possible to overcome the current crisis with parliamentary action, with reformist action. It is necessary to harden the separation of the classes, it is necessary that the bourgeoisie demonstrate its absolute incapacity to satisfy the needs of the multitudes, it is necessary that they be persuaded through experience that there exists a clear and raw dilemma: either death by hunger, the slavery of a foreign heel on the neck which forces the worker and the peasant to crumple on the machine or on the sod of earth, or a heroic effort, a superhuman effort of the Italian workers and peasants to create a proletarian order, to suppress the owning class and eliminate every cause of waste, low productivity, indiscipline, disorder.
Only for these revolutionary reasons has the conscious vanguard of the Italian proletariat descended into the electoral lists, has planted itself solidly in the parliamentary market. Not for a democratic illusion, not for a reformist tenderness: to create the conditions for the triumph of the proletariat, to ensure the right outcome of the revolutionary effort which is directed towards installing the proletarian dictatorship incarnate in the system of councils, inside and outside Parliament.