Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue to Revolution 5/13 | Rosa Luxemburg and #CUonStrike: Raising Consciousness and Transforming Subjectivities

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Reading Rosa Luxemburg through the lens of the ongoing Columbia graduate student workers’ strike, #CUonStrike, raises many questions about the ways in which the act of striking and protesting can transform the lives and self-understandings of those who are on strike. I’ll propose here that this represents a third way to think about labor strikes in the Luxemburg-Bernstein debate over trade unionization and labor reform. It pays more attention to the affective and psy- dimensions of the labor movement. It suggests that the mobilization around labor reforms can foster and cultivate a more revolutionary movement for change.

Luxemburg was, of course, very attuned to the need to raise consciousness among workers and, for many years, she taught political economy to workers through the SDP school programs. Luxemburg recognized and discussed the importance of class consciousness.[i] As she wrote in Reform or Revolution, “the scientific basis of socialism rests, as is well known, on three principal results of capitalist development [including] third, on the increased organization and consciousness of the proletarian class, which constitutes the active factor in the coming revolution.”[ii]

There is nevertheless a difference between raising class consciousness and affectively transforming subjectivities.

Raising consciousness has more of a cognitive dimension. It is tied to the notion of “theoretic knowledge” or what Luxemburg also refers to as “scientific Socialism.” Luxemburg insisted that workers need to gain an understanding of economics and history, and only through that increased knowledge was there any hope of success. She emphasized that it was “in the interest of the proletarian mass of the Party to become acquainted, actively and in detail, with the present theoretic controversy with [reformism]…. Only when the great mass of workers take the keen and dependable weapons of scientific Socialism in their own hands, will all the petit-bourgeois inclinations, all the [reformist] currents, come to naught.”[iii]

By contrast, transforming subjectivities involves not only knowledge, but affect, motivation, desire. Along these dimensions, participating in a labor strike transforms people. It gives them the desire for more radical change. It politicizes along affective dimensions—not just imparting knowledge or raising consciousness, but moving them to action and further political engagement.

I mentioned at the seminar Alyssa Battistoni’s essay in N+1, Spadework. She reflects there on the experience of labor organizing during her time as a graduate student at Yale. It is worthwhile to return to that essay to get a sense of the personal transformation she underwent.

Battistoni describes the feelings she had organizing. “Nothing has ever felt more thrilling or more wrenching. Nothing has ever been harder to do, or harder to stop thinking about,” she writes. The passion, the thrill, the exhilaration transformed Battistoni and pushed her to begin to see her engagement as far broader than the labor strike. “I felt I was organizing for the future of the entire world,” she notes, as her organizing grew and expanded. “There was always a next step; I was finally beginning to realize there always would be.” Battistoni describes her own transformation:

I liked who I was when I put myself out there with other people again and again. I was braver and kinder, more generous and more confident. I wanted to live in a world where my voice mattered, where I could see the people around me as comrades instead of competitors. The union was imperfect in ways that I knew as well as anyone, but it was the closest I had come to that kind of world, and I simply could not convince myself that at that moment, for those few months, there was anything I could do that mattered more than trying to bring it into being.

It is these effects on subjectivity that raise a third alternative in the Luxemburg-Bernstein debate: not just, with the reformist Bernstein, to turn social reforms, as means, into the aim of social democratic action; nor, with the revolutionary Luxemburg, to downplay labor strikes as inadequate to achieving real social transformation[iv]; but instead to more fully appreciate the ways in which the subjective experience of the labor strike can nurture more radical passions and actions.

At the seminar, Amy Allen helpfully pointed us to two passages in Luxemburg that bear on this question. The first is a passage in Leninism or Marxism? (1904) where Luxemburg discusses the historical trajectory of the Russian uprising. She emphasizes that, on her view, the most fruitful strategic developments were the result not of centralized planning, but of spontaneous actions, street demonstrations, strikes, agitation, and meetings: “They have always been the spontaneous product of the movement in ferment,” Luxemburg emphasizes.[v] She uses the term “spontaneous” repeatedly, elsewhere describing how the strike can grow into a political demonstration “all by itself.”[vi] It is spontaneous action that leads to revolution, Luxemburg argues, on account of the fact that the forces of history anticipate the conscious understanding. Luxemburg writes:

The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process.[vii]

The sequence, then, is from spontaneous action (which first instantiates a historic process) to the expansion of revolutionary fervor, and then to a conscious understanding—a consciousness or awareness or subjective appreciation of the logic of history.

The second is a passage from The Mass Strike where Luxemburg is describing the lessons of the Russian Revolution of 1905. Here again, Luxemburg emphasizes the importance of the historical circumstances by contrast to the role of subjective reflection. Luxemburg puts to the side the subjective dimensions—“abstract speculation” or “subjective criticism”—and instead focuses on and “only” on the “objective investigation of the sources of the mass strike from the standpoint of what is historically inevitable.”[viii] Her point is that the emergence of the mass strike cannot be fabricated or decided upon—it must erupt from social conditions. Luxemburg explains:

If anyone were to undertake to make the mass strike generally as a form of proletarian action the object of methodical agitation, and to go house-to-house canvassing with this “idea” in order to gradually win the working class to it, it would be as idle and profitless and absurd an occupation as it would be to seek to make the idea of the revolution or of the fight at the barricades the object of a special agitation.[ix]

These passages, wedded to a materialist philosophy of history and to the inevitability of revolution, suggest a slight disjuncture between the objective reality of revolution and the subjective experience—precisely the gap that the third approach to the Luxemburg-Bernstein debate would focus on.

After the seminar, I returned to Luxemburg’s writings with this problematic in mind, and did find at least one passage that resonates with the thesis I am trying to develop here. It comes from Luxemburg’s writings on The Mass Strike, where she notes, regarding the uprisings in Russia:

The sudden general rising of the proletariat in January under the powerful impetus of the St. Petersburg events was outwardly a political act of the revolutionary declaration of war on absolutism. But this first general direct action reacted inwardly all the more powerfully as it for the first time awoke class feeling and class-consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock. And this awakening of class feeling expressed itself forthwith in the circumstance that the proletarian mass, counted by millions, quite suddenly and sharply came to realize how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism. Thereupon, there began a spontaneous general shaking of and tugging at these chains.[x]

This passage comes close to what I am reaching for, especially the idea of an “electric shock” and the “tugging at the chains.” Luxemburg remains somewhat tied to a more cognitive interpretation. She uses the notion of “realizing,” which is still a bit more cognitive than affective. But this passage is nevertheless far closer to the third way. In fact, Luxemburg here mentions not only “class-consciousness” but also “class feeling.”

It is precisely this idea of “class feeling” that accompanies “class-consciousness” that I sense could offer a third path to the Luxemburg-Bernstein debate: certain forms of reformist organizing can serve to ignite more radical passions for social transformation. Luxemburg may be right that “trade unions” themselves “cannot suppress the law of wages.”[xi] But she may fail to see the way in which trade unionization and strikes over labor conditions can stimulate and foster more radical desires for social transformation. Her critique—namely that “Under the most favorable circumstances, the best they can do is to impose on capitalist exploitation the ‘normal’ limits of the moment. They have not, however, the power to suppress exploitation itself, not even gradually”[xii]—may not pay sufficient attention to the affective dimensions of protest.

In the end, the debate should not be about reform or revolution, exclusively, but about the ways in which labor strikes and reforms can lead to revolution.[xiii] It should be about reform and revolution through the lens of raising consciousness and transforming subjectivities. It should be about the ways revolution and reform can work together, in coalition. In this way, it might also be possible to imagine a third path in the other famous Luxemburg debate, the Luxemburg-Lenin debate, that harmonizes with Lenin’s pragmatism and his call for revolutionaries to engage in coalition building and coalition politics—what became known as “united front tactics”[xiv]—as the only way, on his view, to ensure real social transformation and the withering of the state.[xv]

We are today far more attuned to these questions of transforming subjectivity as a result of the affective turn in social theory and the writings of contemporary critical thinkers like Judith Butler, who developed theories of performativity, Michel Foucault, who turned to practices of the self in his later work, Pierre Hadot, who explored spiritual exercises that transform subjects, and others brilliant thinkers like Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, and Eve Segdwick. Foucault’s emphasis on the subject as the necessary third element to his theory of knowledge-power—especially clear in his “Modifications” section at the beginning of Volume 2 of his History of Sexuality—helped inaugurate a conceptual wave of scholarship on questions of subjectivity, affect, and consciousness. Amy Allen’s own work on integrating psychoanalysis into critical theory, especially her most recent book Critique on the Couch: Why Critical Theory Needs Psychoanalysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), provides guidance here. Daniel Wyche’s forthcoming book, The Politics of Self Overcoming (Columbia University Press, forthcoming), also provides insight here.

As a result of the turn to subjectivity in critical theory, we are in a far better position today to develop a third path in the reform-revolution debate. This debate is equally important in the abolition context where there is so much controversy over reformist versus non-reformist reforms.[xvi]

The central question is one of “becoming”: How does one become more revolutionary, more radical, more ambitious of social transformation? How does one come to conceive of oneself as a more revolutionary agent? To address these questions, we can draw on multiple strands of worldly and critical philosophy that explore this question of becoming—from Lauren Berlant’s writings on Cruel Optimism and their own creative critical praxis, their parades of the politically depressed, where they would convene friends and colleagues, and march through the streets of Chicago in bathrobes and slippers making us all feel that “it might be political,” to Foucault’s genealogies of the desiring subject or of madness, to theories of the “passage à l’acte,” not so much in the Lacanian psychoanalytic sense, but in the more political Sorelian sense, to Gramscian notions of cultural hegemony. Somewhere in the interstices of these different brilliant critical theories, we may find ways to articulate a new method to explore how people become more radical and revolutionary… The experience of #CUonStrike suggests, perhaps, that one way is through labor organizing.

We will return to these questions of consciousness-raising and subjectivity in our seminar Revolution 9/13 with Robin D.G. Kelley on March 23, 2022, when we will read Angela Davis and Cedric Robinson on the question of radical consciousness. Please join us for that!

Also, incidentally, Battistoni draws heavily in her essay Spadework on Stuart Hall’s discussion of Gramscian hegemony. In discussing the resistance to seeing oneself as a revolutionary subject, she quotes Hall’s discussion: “ ‘A tiny bit of all of us is also somewhere inside the Thatcherite project,’ Hall had warned in 1988. ‘Of course, we’re all one hundred per cent committed. But every now and then — Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration—we go to Sainsbury’s and we’re just a tiny bit of a Thatcherite subject.’ ” We’ll be turning to Stuart Hall next at our seminar Revolution 6/13 on January 19, 2022, with Kendall Thomas on critical race theory. So, let’s not say goodbye, let’s say see you soon and …

Welcome to Revolution 6/13!


[i] See, e.g., Luxemburg, Mass Strike, 112, 156; Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 9.

[ii] Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 9.

[iii] Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 5.

[iv] See, especially, Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 20-21.

[v] Luxemburg, Leninism or Marxism, 85.

[vi] Luxemburg, Leninism or Marxism, 85.

[vii] Luxemburg, Leninism or Marxism, 86.

[viii] Luxemburg, Mass Strike, 108.

[ix] Luxemburg, Mass Strike, 108-109.

[x] Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 121.

[xi] Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 21.

[xii] Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 21.

[xiii] We more often hear the argument that reforms serve to co-opt revolutionary sentiment—that small reformist victories defuse revolutionary ferment. We discussed this trope last year at Abolition Democracy 2/13 with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in conversation with Angela Davis’s philosophy of history. As I wrote back then, “there is a need for sequential movement work, recognizing the fact that progress is an iterative and not unidirectional process. A stage of success requires reevaluation and reorientation. It may not turn out to have been the right path, even if successful. It requires a step-by-step, situated reassessment. It calls for new approaches that are specified and articulated in the face of new challenges.”

[xiv] Robert C. Tucker, introduction to Lenin’s “Left-Wing Communism—An Infantile Disorder, 550, in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology (Norton, 1975), 550.

[xv] Lenin, The State and Revolution, p. 379 in the Tucker Anthology.

[xvi] On “non-reformist reforms,” see footnote 8 here.