One hundred years of solitude
This has been a year of anniversaries: one hundred and fifty years since the Paris Commune and the birth of Rosa Luxemburg; one hundred years since the Kronstadt uprising. There have been numerous events and conferences to commemorate these events. Here I want to think about them together in an attempt to consider the importance of the fifty year period 1871-1921 and what it suggests about the century that divides us from that time.
Whatever the reality and ambiguities of the Paris Commune in practice, it indicated, as promise and threat, the possibility of socialism as an expression of autonomous working-class activity. As William Morris put it:
if to-day any one doubts that they [the Communards] were fighting for the emancipation of labour, their enemies at the time had no doubt about the matter… They saw in them no mere political opponents, but ‘enemies of society’, people who could not live in the same world with them, because the basis of their ideas of life was different — to wit, humanity, not property... And it is by that same token that we honour them as the foundation-stone of the new world that is to be.
The conception of the socialist working class as an enemy to be exterminated was the predominant response of national establishments to the threat of organised labour. But it began to lose ground in the decades that followed the Commune. Following the lead of the British state, a redrawing of the boundaries of national belonging allowed the ruling class to ‘live in the same world’ with trade unions and socialist parties. This was indicated by Britain’s closest competitors when France amnestied the Communards in 1880 and when the anti-Socialist laws were permitted to lapse in Germany ten years later.
Germany was the country in which a current within the socialist movement most self-consciously welcomed this process of national integration. Inspired by the British Fabians, the so-called revisionists within German Social Democracy considered the legality and growth of their organisations to be signs that capitalism was developing in a socialist direction.
Rosa Luxemburg emerged as the foremost critic of this current. In her most famous works, she defended what can be taken as the key legacies of 1871: the need for a rupture with bourgeois society, for working-class autonomy, and for socialist democracy. Moreover, she appreciated that the challenge posed by revisionism was indicative of something more than a formal debate about the political usefulness of ‘revolution’ as a proclaimed goal of the socialist movement. It rather expressed a direction of travel within social democracy that was making working-class political organisation increasingly compatible with the capitalist system.
The grim proof of this critique came in 1914, when socialist movements in the belligerent countries facilitated the mobilisation of forces and the organisation of the war economies. Although this precipitated a movement for communism and a revival of the Commune through the Russian Soviets, Luxemburg, who had witnessed the process and consequences of national integration up close, was pessimistic about its chances. On hearing the news of the October revolution, she wrote from her prison cell to Luise Kautsky:
Are you happy about the Russians? Of course, they will not be able to maintain themselves in this witches’ Sabbath, not because statistics show economic development in Russia to be too backward as your clever husband has figured out, but because Social Democracy in the highly developed West consists of miserable and wretched cowards who will look quietly on and let the Russians bleed to death. But such an end is better than ‘living on for the fatherland’; it is an act of historical significance whose traces will not have disappeared even after many ages have passed.
In other words, after national integration, a suicidal gesture of rupture, in the tradition of the Commune, was the only honourable option for socialists who could not live in the same world with the architects of the war. This perspective may help to explain Luxemburg’s participation in the Spartacist uprising and decision to remain in Berlin after it was crushed. But Luxemburg’s prediction here that the revolution would be destroyed from without did not come to pass. Determined not to join the ranks of the martyrs, Lenin had supposedly danced a merry jig in the snow when Soviet power endured a day longer than the Paris Commune.
Insofar as the Commune’s example of a rupture with bourgeois society, of working-class autonomy, and of socialist democracy, persisted alongside the power of the Bolsheviks, they did so largely as oppositional currents within Soviet society, which reached their culminating moment at Kronstadt. Fifty years on from 1871, the traditions of the Commune were reasserted in the Kronstadt uprising. Its ruthless suppression was a necessary precondition for the completion of the process by which the meaning of socialism was transformed from a movement of working-class autonomy and democracy to a mechanism for national integration.
For the following one hundred years, mainstream socialism, in its developmentalist and social democratic variants, has ‘lived on for the fatherland’, circumscribed to national projects that haven’t come close to the promise and threat of the fifty years 1871-1921.
But this does not mean that this has been an empty century! Undoubtedly, the multiple struggles, experiences and creations of the last hundred years mean that we have a much fuller understanding of what freedom and equality could imply than was evident in the socialist movement of 1871-1921. But none of these struggles (with isolated exceptions) have been able to combine this fuller understanding of freedom with the example of the Commune (rupture, autonomy, democracy) that made the remaking of society appear possible at that time.
Some new year’s resolutions follow to test these provisional conclusions: 1. further historical research into the last century’s ‘high points’ (particularly the 1960s, early 1970s – the new subseries of the Antifada is a promising development in this sense); 2. further interrogation of the Commune’s example and significance; 3. more thinking about what remains as meaningful activity after the apparent hundred-year-old defeat of socialism as a revolutionary possibility. As ever, thoughts, collaborations and conversations are welcome!
Happy new year,
 I recommend the recent episode of The Measures Taken podcast on this debate: https://podbay.fm/p/the-measures-taken/e/1628542800.
 Rosa Luxemburg to Luise Kautsky, 24 November 1917, quoted in J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (abridged ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 425-26.