photo by SG

Monday, May 9, 2011

Luxemburg and Organizational Centralism

I read this tonight and it's really gotten me thinking and I'm trying to respond to it here because it's an issue that I often talk about in the context of the IWW.

"Centralism in the socialist sense is not an absolute thing applicable to any phase whatsoever of the labor movement. It is a tendency, which becomes real in proportion to the development and political training acquired by the working masses in the course of their struggle." -Rosa Luxemburg, "Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy," 1904

Luxemburg here is responding to Lenin and the Iskra group's ideas about centralism as a way of dealing with the ineffectiveness and lack of organization of the Russian Marxist movement of the time. Lenin proposes a kind of centralism which makes all the parts of the party subservient to a Central Committee in all the decisions that it makes. As history shows, he ended up achieving his aim and the bloody story of Stalinism is part of that legacy. But this isn't just an "I told you so" prediction by Luxemburg that later-day radicals can cheer about, as we so often do about Bakunin's similarly prescient statements about Marx and his party-form organization. Luxemburg is responding to a real concern and she's doing so in a way that I think is really smart.

As I understand it, the revolutionary movement in Russia at the time was very divided and tiny, much of it underground and completely autonomous from other branches within the same party. Since the failure of substitutionist terror campaigns of the Narodniks in the 1870s, the political wing of the revolutionary movement was weak, while economic actions by workers and peasants were on the upswing. Likely, though I can't prove it, the Social Democrats in a certain city or region had more contact with other revolutionaries in other groups within their area than with the party across the country. I think this is likely due to the underground nature of their organizations due to the repressive atmosphere of the Tsarist regime at the time. I'd also guess that part of that isolation came with a lack of an idea of how a national party could act, which is what Lenin was trying to answer with his proposal of ultra-centralism.

In this way, though the analogy is a bit clunky, the situation resembles our own a bit. Since the substitutionism of the New Left failed in the 1970s, we have been divided and tiny, mostly speaking with people in our own cities, often across different radical movements, with limited national or international coordination. Repression is not our primary issue for English-speaking North America at this time (though we shouldn't pretend it doesn't happen to us and our comrades) but we also lack a sense of how a national or international organization could work. Like the Russian Social Democrats, we have a formal organization that connects us, the IWW, but only in limited ways do we actually use that organization. Or said better, the IWW sometimes has weak organizational ties across branches, leading us to pursue localism instead of internationalism.

What Luxemburg proposes as centralism is very different from Lenin's proposal and I think it's really interesting to see centralism as a tendency instead of a policy. Tendencies expand and contract, they provide a pole to think around and about, made up of different individuals at different times for different reasons. Favorably comparing her German party to the Russians later in the article, she comments upon how the German organization can be "supple, yet firm." A centralist tendency, not used like a capitalized Tendency in a party, but in the sense of "I tend to like waking up early on weekends but not on week days" is a movement, in the sense of walking, towards a kind of decision-making within an organization. I've long joked that I'm an anarcho-centralist in the IWW, without really knowing what that means, but I'm pleased to hear that one hundred years earlier, Luxemburg was seriously proposing centralism as something like it.

I also like that she says that it becomes real in proportion to the nature of struggle and the participants in struggle. For Luxemburg here centralism, which is itself a complicated word with lots of bad connotations there days, becomes useful when the participants in class struggle find it useful, not when it is decided by leadership that it is useful. Here again, the "development and political training" that makes centralism useful to the working class movement does not come from intellectuals in the party, but from lived experience of struggle.

I've been thinking and talking a lot recently with my fellow workers about ways to improve our local branch's administration and organizational culture. We may not agree on many details of that yet, but I definitely think that we are moving towards a shared idea of what Luxemburg might call centralism, though I doubt calling it that in our union would be a popular move. Still, what I think she does well and what I hope to incorporate into my thinking is explaining a level upon which centralism, and more broadly the question of organization itself, depends on the kinds of experiences of struggle that workers have and the kinds of organs they create based on those struggles. Rather than looking to ideology to pick an organizational form that suits us, we should look to our experiences and draw from them conclusions about the ways that we can move forward and build up our organizations.

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