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New Left Review I/125, January-February 1981

Norman Geras

Classical Marxism and Proletarian Representation

The names of Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg have often been linked, sometimes with good reason and sometimes also without. It has been said, wrongly, that they shared before 1917 a common view of revolutionary prospects in Russia, Luxemburg like Trotsky supporting the idea of permanent revolution. With better foundation it has been noted that there was, in their respective tactical inferences from the events of 1905, a shared and early awareness of the organizational inertia and conservatism then taking shape within European socialism and a like belief in the efficacy of mass struggle as the antidote to this. Partisans of the self-activity of the masses, they put their faith in it in face of the dangers of party bureaucracy. Perhaps the most frequent association of the two revolutionaries has been by reference to the similar criticism they directed at Lenin—in the name precisely of proletarian self-activity—in 1904, following the Bolshevik-Menshevik split. That is the subject of the present article. For, if the fact of this common criticism is widely known, the two works in which it was articulated are differentially so. The full measure and the details of their congruence have not been generally accessible because Trotsky’s Our Political Tasks had to wait some three-quarters of a century before it became available in translation in the major European languages. Until very recently what was known of it, save by a small number of scholars, was known second-hand: some of its ideas; a few quotations; one passage in particular on the logic of political ‘substitutionism’, oft-cited, usually from Isaac Deutscher’s work. Given the extent to which the diffusion of Trotsky’s writings has depended on the efforts and resources of his own followers, the fate of Our Political Tasks is not really surprising. That its republication was accorded no priority stood in continuity with the reticence towards it of Trotsky himself. In fact, in the works of his later years there are only a couple of direct references to this youthful polemic. In one, he speaks of it as immature and mistaken in its criticism of Lenin, although he does allow that it justly characterized the mentality of some of the party activists, of the day, for whom the principles of centralism had come to displace any need to rely upon the workers. In the other, his judgment is severe without qualification. On the question of organization Our Political Tasks, according to Trotsky, ‘developed views very close to those of Rosa Luxemburg’ and her views on organization are described by him as ‘errors’. [1] Leon Trotsky, Stalin, London 1947, p. 62; and ‘“Trotskyism” and the psop’, in Leon Trotsky On France, New York 1979, pp. 233–34.

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