Saturday, August 17, 2013

Facing Barbarism

For some time now--basically, since I wrote this--I've had to face a dilemma each I've set out to write the biography of Rosa Luxemburg requested by my daughter. One of Luxemburg's best known watchwords was "socialism or barbarism". It seemed as though, either I could write the book and end on a forced and insincere note of optimism, as if the fight for socialism in the sense that Luxemburg understood it were still plausible. Or the book could be a confession, addressed to my daughter's generation and all to come, that my generation and all that came before were unequal to the challenge that she posed. Neither seemed attractive, and so the writing on that project has been at a standstill for three months now.

It occurs to me, however, that there have been other times in history when the liberatory potential of an earlier period, having gone unrealized, gave way to "the common ruin of the contending classes," as Marx and Engels put it in their manifesto. The decay of Mauryan Empire in India or the Han Dynasty in China, or the immense destruction wrought on African civilizations by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, with my eurocentric education, the example with which I have the greatest familiarity is the decline and fall of the Roman empire. At its height there were several rebellious figures and incidents that can still be recalled today: the Gracchi, Spartacus, and a certain Judean Zealot known as Jesus of Nazareth.

The reputations of the former two were revived through the recovery and dissemination of the classical Roman histories, and did not once again gain wide popularity until the American slave revolts of the 18th and 19th centuries and the European proletarian movements of the 19th. But the latter, in spreading widely through the declining Roman world and becoming the state ideology of its inheritors, survived also to inspire many of those who rebelled during the "Dark Ages"--Bogomils, Cathars, Waldensians, Fraticelli (extreme Franciscans)--in the name of imitatio Christi.

What I am proposing, though, is not to make of Luxemburg or any other martyrs of the socialist cause the center of a religious or quasi-religious cult. After all, part of the ethics I propose, to begin to make sense of what is to be done in our coming decline into post-capitalist barbarism, is a respect for science. What is of lingering value in Marxism was precisely the effort to develop a scientific understanding of human social development, not through the abstraction a ahistorical laws from the current state of affairs, but the demonstration of the transitoriness of that state of affairs. Luxemburg, more than most Marxists of her period (the end of the Second International) exemplifies a scientific approach, in that she was the least prone to argument from authority, the most likely to negate specific conclusions of Marx's when the facts and the method pioneered by Marx seemed to call for such negation. And if, what is needed for the historical period into which we are heading is a certain type of ethics, then among the ways to foster such ethics, particularly among the young, is to promote historical figures whose actions exemplify them.

In her universalism, her intellectual rigor, and her horror of violence, there are few figures from the early 20th century who are more apposite to the challenges of the 21st than Rosa Luxemburg. A book showing that will be the kind of book I try to write.

One thing that helps is that, when I began this project, my daughter was still reading only picture books, and that is the type of biography I had envisioned. She has now moved on to chapter books, so in rewriting and extending what I have so far, I can pitch it to a higher level. The challenge will be getting it done quickly enough that, by the time I finish it, she hasn't already given up on me and taken up J.P. Nettl's magnum opus on her own.

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