But in another respect, the solution of an intellectual problem arises not much differently than when a dog who carries a stick in its mouth wants to go through a small door; he turns his head left and right as long as necessary to make the stick slip through. We do it just like this, with the difference that we do not go act haphazardly but know from experience more or less how we should go about it.”
Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities
Robert Musil’s description of the cognitive process seems especially relevant to the Left’s struggle for a better society. But is the quote’s last half-sentence really true? Do we “know from experience more or less how we should go about” changing society for the better? This question is particularly relevant in reflecting the historical experience of the Soviet Union, a history that leads from triumph to defeat. This process of reflection has been encumbered by party-loyalty: those who dared to place their fingers into the open wounds of Communist history often risked being denounced as traitors by their comrades. To make matters worse, the special emphasis that Soviet Marxists placed on (re)writing the narrative of the Soviet Union’s becoming paradoxically interferes with any attempt to explore and evaluate its actual history.
Among the events that characterize the early Soviet Union, the revolt of the sailors at Kronstadt and its suppression through the Bolshevik government seems especially salient. It can be seen as the last meaningful attempt of the worker’s and soldier’s soviets – the mainstay of the October Revolution’s victory – to correct the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, attempting to replace it with the hegemony of councils. Dissatisfied with the elimination of revolutionary-democratic institutions, the Kronstadt councils turned against the central power of the Bolsheviks, who, in their opinion, had succeeded in “luring the sons of the working people (…) into the rows of the Party through cunning propaganda and placing them into the fetters of strict discipline. Then, when the Communists felt strong enough, they silenced the other directions of socialism one by one, eventually pushing the workers and peasants away from the helm of the state, although they continued to rule the country in their name”. (Dokumente der Weltrevolution” Bd. 2, S. 28)
But the Kronstadt Uprising did not only mark a deep dissatisfaction with the increasingly authoritarian policies of the revolution’s Bolshevik leadership. As the high point in a long wave of strikes and revolts directed against wage policies, controlled economy and Red Terror, it seemed to confirm the necessity of the decisions that introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which abandoned the revolutionary program of war communism in favor of market-economic liberalization in the sectors of agriculture and small business, while retaining control over the “commanding heights” of industry, that is, the large factories producing coal, iron, electricity etc. Most obviously, these measures were meant to safeguard the integrity of power, which was threated by the increasingly dire supply situation in predominantly agrarian Russia.
But the NEP also had a global dimension: in 1917, Lenin was still arguing against the international social democratic idea that a proletarian revolution would only be possible in a well-developed capitalist country, pointing out that in Russia, where capitalism was underdeveloped, the state’s power was based upon pre-bourgeois structures, greatly increasing the chances for revolution. Once “the imperialist chain had been broken at its weakest link”, Lenin argued, the revolution would carry over to Europe. But once it became clear that the Western European revolution had failed, Lenin realized that the Russian revolution now faced the choice of giving up or going into hibernation. Kautsky commented this dilemma as follows: “Our Bolshevist comrades have staked all on the card of the general European Revolution. As this card has not turned up, they were forced into a course which brought them up against insoluble problems.” (Karl Kautsky, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, https://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1918/dictprole/ch06.htm).
To put it differently, Lenin’s practical voluntarism ran up against a historical boundary, which he attempted to break through by falling back on history as a supposedly objective process of the development of productive forces. The NEP was supposed to take over the historical task of the bourgeoisie, namely to allow the forces of production to develop as the material pre-requisite of socialism. According to Lenin, this was a task that the bourgeoisie was no longer capable of fulfilling, since capitalism had reached the phase of its own imperialist dissolution. Thus, in the summer of 1923, Lenin writes: “If a definite level of culture is required for the building of socialism (although nobody can say just what that definite “level of culture” is, for it differs in every Western European country), why cannot we begin by first achieving the prerequisites for that definite level of culture in a revolutionary way, and then, with the aid of the workers’ and peasants’ government and Soviet system, proceed to overtake the other nations?” (Vladimir Lenin, Our Revolution, 1923, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1923/jan/16.htm).
This view continued to provide a point of reference for the Soviet economy for decades to come. Throughout the 1920s-30s, beginning in the period of the NEP and continuing through the reign of Stalin, the Soviet state attempted to mirror the development of productive forces in the heavily industrialized capitalist West, invoking the metaphor of a tool that would only need to be used properly. As this economic policy progressed, it became clear that the organization of concrete labor would need to draw upon the Taylorist techniques of discipline and rationalization, whose only criterion is productivity. In other words, it would need to realize the proletariat as an objectified proletariat instead of anticipating its complete abolition through a process of political subjectification. Obviously, the demands of the sailors at Kronstadt prefigure this objectification of political subjectivity. The sailors at Kronstadt voted against the state in favor of the councils and in favor of their own emancipation. The councils located emancipation within the production process and not in some external instance. The productive process of society, the form and context of labor that is meant to ensure the reproduction of society as a whole, is the political arena of conflict for both the individual and society at large.
For Lenin, however, the emancipation of individuals was no more than a byproduct of the emancipation of the forces of production. In taking this view, he relegated the process of development into the one-sided sphere of objective being, degrading the insights and consciousness of subjectivity to nothing but a purely passive reflection and reproduction. Thus, history becomes little more than a case study for a theory of nature, whose scientific insights approach the absolute truth in an evolutionary progression. Since the party simply applies and implements the laws of nature, its actions gain an unimpeachable scientific basis. Pure theory can be realized in a pure praxis, a praxis that applies the discovered truth in reality. In this way, Leninism reduces the notion of praxis to the administrative-institutional implementation of the Party’s theoretical insights. As such, the institutions of the proletarian revolution became redundant, and in the worst case, counter-revolutionary.
Kronstadt was so dangerous to Leninism because it called both the Bolshevik notion of the party as well as its claims to power into question. Its central demand – “All Power to the Soviets and not to the parties!” – destroyed the social myth according to which the Bolshevik state had placed power into the hands of the people. Any independent articulation of workers’ demands through self-organized councils – and the demystifying, delegitimizing effect of this expression – represented no less of a danger than the military threat of revolt. Since the advent of scientific socialism meant that the proletariat need to conform to party-norms, the proletariat now had to prove that it was really revolutionary in conforming to the Party’s decrees. For this reason, the Bolsheviks could not see their suppression of the Kronstadt Uprising as a betrayal of the working class; instead, the workers had betrayed themselves in rising against their “objective” interests, which were embodied by the Party. From this view, the singular proletarian did not only become meaningless in his real social praxis, but even interfered with the unity of the revolutionary will. This antagonism could only be smoothed out by a centralistic organizational principle from the top down (Lenin). Consequently, at the 10th Party Congress, held simultaneously to the Kronstadt Uprising, the Party voted to ban factions within its own ranks.
To Marx, writing 53 years earlier, such centralist principle of organization seemed highly suspect: “Were it [i.e. a centralist organization] possible — I declare it tout bonnement to be impossible — it would not be desirable.” (Marx to J. Baptist von Schweizer 1868, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1868/letters/68_10_13.htm)
Following this line, Rosa Luxemburg countered Lenin’s demand for “democratic centralism” with the concept of “self-centralism”: “[The proletarian movement] spreads and develops in accordance with the following dialectical contradiction. The proletarian army is recruited and becomes aware of its objectives in the course of the struggle itself. The activity of the party organization, the growth of the proletarians’ awareness of the objectives of the struggle and the struggle itself, are not different things separated chronologically and mechanically, as in a Blanquist movement, but are only different aspects of the same process. On the one hand, putting the general principles of struggle aside, there do not exist for the Social Democracy detailed sets of tactics which a Central Committee can teach the party membership in the same way as troops are instructed in their training camps. On the other hand, the range of influence of the socialist party is constantly fluctuating with the ups and downs of the struggle in the course of which the organization is created and grows.” For Luxemburg, organization is a process. She finds that “the Marxist version of socialism cannot be fixed by any rigid formula in any field, including that of the organizational question.” (Rosa Luxemburg, Organizational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy, 1904, https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/ch01.htm). She sees a departure from obedience to authority – including the authority of one’s own organization – as a necessary prerequisite to liberating the political subjects’ organizational phantasy, dissolving the logic of alienation in the process.
This process-character seems to have realized itself in today’s notion of the “multitude”. This multitude claims to have adapted its non-hierarchical networks to the changed conditions of production under post-Fordism and to have drawn its lessons from the objectification of the proletarian subjectivity. It is the promise of a revolutionary subject that replaces the notion of class. The (un-)truth of the multitude lies in its ahistorical, eternal quality: as always, the position of the the oppressed in social whole predestines them to dispossession and exploitation, to the expropriation of their “natural” productivity. Since every singularity is part of this productive organism, it knows that it has been subjected to injustice by the very nature of its being. This philosophy now replaces the concrete analysis of the capitalist conditions of production.
Productivity replaces the notion of labor that traditional Marxism reifies, suggesting a comprehensive universal whole. However, this totality loses its contours as capitalism. Thus, the multitude fails to address the fact that productivity is no force of nature, but always appears as a social form, only becoming a dynamic leit-motif under capitalism. What does the theory of the multitude result in, other than a reanimation of the classical theory of exploitation, which sets its goal as the liberation of work and productivity, excluding the question as to the goal of work itself, thus cutting off the political subject as something that sets its own goals without dissolving in the principle of production? Production is sacrosanct. It is not called into question, but negotiated affirmatively as a counter-principle. All the subject needs to do is to appropriate production as property. The notion of exploitation itself remains indistinct, dissolving as a general feeling of moral expropriation. Labor-power as a product disappears with the mystifying expansion and valorization of the notion of productivity. The discontent with the historical revolutionary subject of the “working class” now makes way for its abnegation.
In reality, it seems obvious that the Taylorist rationalization of labor has not simply been displaced by the new economy, but continues to assert itself through the introduction of discipline to its flexible structure. At the same time, this process of rationalization is also pushed ahead by classical industrial production, which is often only relocated in terms of place. The multitude, however, does not speak of wage labor anymore: it is a youth movement that has subscribed to the pipedream of a post-industrial society in which there is nothing but immaterial labor. In this sense, it is no multitude at all, but a Eurocentric project that prevents any internationalist critique and organization. The multitude sees the traditional worker’s movement as little more than an image of the outdated models of Fordism and Taylorism. This is not only insufficient on the level of social analysis, but also denies the fact that worker’s movements have always understood themselves as counter-projects to Fordism, as an anticipation of its future, and of its dissolution. What remains is the singularity’s struggle for recognition as a worker (e.g. the demand for adequate pay for domestic work, the recognition of art as labor etc.). The subordination of the individual to alien purposes through the existing production process is affirmed through the special praise of immaterial labor, while its ephemerality and flexibility are fused with ideology of self-sufficiency, self-engagement, decentralization, and mobility in order to stand up against the growing introduction of discipline to this sphere.
In correspondence to post-Fordism, the subject of the multitude is meant to diversify itself in social mobility. Yet, in mirroring this mobility, it relinquishes any chance of moving beyond the here-and-now. The new media – which are supposed to obey the principle of nonhierarchical networking – empower the multitude, the many, the crowd to form networks and affinities. But all too often, these linkages are based on formalistic acts that can be abandoned and replaced, depending on which part of the crowd the subject identifies with at a given moment. In this sense, the democratic, postmodern, hybrid, horizontal structure of such encounters is no longer anchored to the ground of politics, so that the multitude has rid itself of the necessity for legitimating its political goals. The multitude proclaims: “the final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.” (Bernstein) Rosa Luxemburg countered this claim by pointing out that the final goal of the social democratic movement differs from that of the bourgeoisie. (But her claim was founded upon class-consciousness, upon whose historical guarantee one can no longer rely.) Struggle is fragmented, and the unity of the working class only constitutes itself in revolution. One could follow Luxemburg insofar as the unity of the subject is no prerequisite of leftist politics but is something that it only anticipates. Its realization is still tied to the final revolutionary goal.
Kp-Berlin is a group of political activists from Berlin. It was founded in January 2004, emerging from the dissolution of the Antifaschistische Aktion in Berlin at that time. Kp-Berlin has its origins in the struggle against right-wing radicalism and racism in Germany, but advocates a reflexive, self-critical relationship to this struggle, setting the rising strength of nationalism in Germany into the context of the broader social struggle emerging today. Its interventions include both public manifestations at demonstrations or concerts, as well as publications and conferences on theory. (For examples, see https://www.kommunismuskongress.de/ or https://www.kapitalismus-reloaded.de/ Nov. 2005). Theses on the self-definition of the group Kritik und Praxis Berlin have been published at https://www.kp-berlin.de/.