“The proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing.” – Karl MarxBeing a product of bourgeois society, the socialist movement is linked to the vicissitudes of capitalist development.
It will assume different forms according to the changing fortunes of the capitalist system. In circumstances which are not favorable to the formation of class consciousness, it will not grow, or will practically disappear. In conditions of capitalist prosperity it tends to transform itself from a revolutionary to a reformist movement. In times of social crisis it may be totally suppressed by the ruling class. Since socialism cannot be established without a socialist movement, it follows that the destiny of the latter ultimately will determine whether socialism will ever be realized. All labor organizations form part of the general social structure and cannot be consistently anti-capitalist, except in a purely ideological sense. To acquire social importance within the capitalist system they must be opportunist, which means they must avail themselves of the given social processes to attain their goals, however limited the latter may be.
Opportunism and ‘realism’ are apparently the same thing. The former cannot be defeated by a radical ideology which opposes the whole of the existing social relations. It does not seem possible to slowly assemble revolutionary forces into powerful organizations ready to act at favorable moments. Only those organizations that did not disturb the prevailing social relations acquired any importance. If they started out with a revolutionary ideology, their growth implied a subsequent discrepancy between their ideology and their functions. Those organizations opposed to the status quo, yet organized within it, must finally succumb to the forces of capitalism by virtue of their organizational failures. This appears to be the dilemma of radicalism: in order to accomplish anything of social significance, actions must be organized.
Effective organizations, however, tend towards capitalist channels. It seems that in order to do something now, one can only do the wrong things, and in order to avoid false steps one should undertake none at all. The radical socialists are destined to be miserable: they are conscious of their utopianism and they experience nothing but failures. In self-defense, the ineffective radical organizations will put the accent on the factor of spontaneity as the decisive element for any social transformation. As they cannot change society by means of their own forces, they place their hopes in spontaneous uprisings of the masses and in a future unfolding of these activities. At the beginning of the century the traditional labor organizations–socialist parties and trade unions–were no longer revolutionary movements. Only a small left-wing within these organizations preoccupied itself with questions of revolutionary strategy and, consequently, with questions of spntaneity and organization.
This naturally involved the problem of revolutionary consciousness and of the relations between the revolutionary minority and the proletarian masses indoctrinated by capitalism. It was judged highly unlikely that without revolutionary consciousness the working masses would act in a revolutionary manner solely by the compulsion of circumstances. This problem acquired special importance due to the split in the Social Democratic Party and the crystallization of Lenin’s conceptl of the necessity of a revolutionary vanguard made up of professional revolutionaries. Aware of the factor of spontaneity, Lenin granted great importance to the special necessity of centrally organized and directed activity. The stronger spontaneous movements are, the more urgent is the necessity of controlling and directing them by means of a profoundly disciplined revolutionary party. The workers must be protected from themselves, so to speak, because their lack of theoretical understanding can very easily lead them to squander their creative powers spontaneously and to fail in their struggle.
Opposition to this point of view was maintained with great coherence by the left-wing Rosa Luxemburg.(2) Lenin, like Rosa Luxemburg, saw the necessity of combatting the opportunist and reformist evolutionism of the established labor organizations and sought a return to revolutionary policies. But while Lenin tried to achieve this by means of the creation of a new type of revolutionary party, Rosa Luxemburg preferred an increase of the self-determination of the proletariat, generally as well as in the case of the labor organizations, by way of the elimination of bureaucratic controls, and the activization of the rank and file.