Monday, 27 January 2020

Rosa Luxemburg and 1905 (2005)

Rosa Luxemburg and 1905
Written By: David Renton
Date: January 2005
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 23: Lent 2005 

The London Socialist Historians Group organised a seminar at the recent European Social Forum in London. It was held on the Saturday morning, with about fifty people in the audience.

Our title was 'Rosa Luxemburg and 1905'. We wanted to encourage discussion about Luxemburg, because we feel that her history has been neglected in recent years. We also wanted to draw attention to 1905, as we are rapidly approaching the hundredth anniversary of this year of mass strikes in Russia, when Leon Trotsky first came to prominence, and when workers in St. Petersburg developed the workers' council, or Soviet.

Stefan Bornost from the German paper Linksruck spoke first. He described how Luxemburg arrived in Germany, as a refugee from Poland, and how she came to prominence in the movement. He talked about her anti-war politics, and her commitment to the goal of revolution.

The second panellist was Colin Barker, who concentrated on Luxemburg's pamphlet on 1905, The Mass Strike. He described it as a work of social movement theory, and a rare piece of research, written from the inside, arguing for more movements of this kind. Luxemburg's key insight, Barker argued, was to perceive that in really big mass movements, the traditional divide between political and class issues tended to break down. The alternative to the bureaucratism of parliamentary politics, Luxemburg suggested, was the spontaneous uprising of the crowd. In his concluding remarks, Barker asked whether Luxemburg had in fact been right? Should not the events of 1918-9 and Rosa's death be taken as evidence of a failed strategy?

The final speaker was Richard Greeman, from the Victor Serge Centre in Moscow. He responded to Barker's concluding remarks by arguing that 1905 should represent the truth of a different model - one based on spontaneous uprising, the network rather than the party. There had been many 1905s, Greeman argued, or movements like it, including 1936 in Spain, 1956 in Hungary, 1968.

The subsequent debate concerned the utility of 1905 as a model for present-day socialist or anti-capitalist practice – with some people in the audience arguing strongly for more diffuse structures of organisation, and other speakers arguing for a more centralised model. Probably the sharpest comment came from Ian Birchall of the London Socialist Historians Group, who observed that when historians talk about spontaneity they usually mean that they haven't yet found out who did the organising.

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