Rethinking Spontaneity: Re-reading Luxemburg through Gramsci & Benjamin

Walter Benjamin
✆ Cornelie Statius
Alex Levant  |  The relationship between spontaneity and conscious control has been central to the question of political organization since the beginning of the international workers’ movement. Many of the old debates between Anarchists and Marxists, and within Marxism itself, had to do with the issue of how to best formulate this relationship. Those debates have a renewed significance in light of the recent shift away from traditional party and state-focused approaches toward more decentralized methods of resistance to capitalism.1

Prompted by the bankruptcy of social democracy and a general suspicion of centralized control, this shift has been accompanied by a celebration of people’s spontaneity. In response, some commentators have re-asserted the continued centrality of the state, as well as the limits of spontaneous resistance.2 But what does spontaneity mean? When we celebrate spontaneity and espouse suspicion toward centralized co-ordination, what are we celebrating? Conversely, when we point out the insufficiency of
spontaneity, what exactly are we referring to? Despite the vast differences between these approaches, spontaneity tends to be understood in quite similar ways – as something that happens…well, spontaneously, i.e. without planning. Spontaneous activity seems to mystically appear from time to time as a force to be celebrated, encouraged, channelled, directed, harnessed, feared, quelled, etc. It appears that both advocates and critics of privileging spontaneity over conscious control tend to use the same mystified conception of what spontaneity is.

Luxemburg’s Ambivalence and Her “Errors”

One of the most interesting advocates of the importance of spontaneity was Rosa Luxemburg. She appears to straddle both poles of the divide between spontaneity and conscious control. Although she was acutely aware of the need for a centralized party apparatus – she worked for years inside the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and was a founder of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) – she consistently argued for the centrality of spontaneity in the workers’ movement. This apparent ambivalence has puzzled a number of Luxemburg scholars over the years. On the one hand, she appears to have argued that the contradictions of capitalism lead to its demise, and that the unfolding of this process moves workers into action. This view would make the role of an organization created for that purpose rather irrelevant. On the other hand, she clearly believed in the need for such an organization to intervene in this process. Some commentators have resolved this apparent paradox by locating a disjuncture between her political economy and her activist writing. Others have argued that these two perspectives speak to distinct moments in her political development.3 In general, however, she has been received, albeit critically, within the camp of the revolutionary socialist movement.4 I say critically received because almost all scholarship on Luxemburg from a revolutionary socialist perspective, no matter how praiseworthy, includes a section on her “errors”.

These “errors” are said to arise from a fatalistic conception of history. A considerable number of comradely critics have critiqued her for underestimating the role of the party and overestimating the spontaneous activity of workers in the struggle for socialism.5 Her fatalism has to do with the notion that workers’ spontaneity arises in response to “elemental forces of economic development.” Consequently, she has often been critiqued for being economistic, or what today is often called economic reductionism.

However, it may be possible to give Luxemburg a more generous reading. This requires an understanding of why she placed such great importance on workers’ spontaneity and a rethinking of what spontaneity is. She understood spontaneity as the initiative of the working class in response to its objective conditions.6 The reason she valued spontaneity, is because unlike the leadership of the SPD, which increasingly advocated the parliamentary route to socialism, she saw the workers’ own initiative as the only means to achieving such a fundamental social transformation.

Her focus on workers themselves as opposed to their representatives, advocates, and leaders, as the necessary agents of fundamentally transforming bourgeois society recalls Marx’s own approach. The Provisional Rules of the First International, written by Marx in 1866, likewise argue that: “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”7

For Marx, this principle of self-emancipation was understood by Marx as the only realistic route to a socialist society. Rather than a blueprint originating in the mind of a socialist visionary, the specific form of socialist society was to be produced through the long struggle of the oppressed. He believed that through this process of struggle, not just society, but also the oppressed themselves would be transformed in fundamental ways. Consequently, self-emancipation was, for Marx, absolutely central to his understanding of socialism.