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Master of Arts


Theory and Criticism


Carmichael, Thomas


This thesis opens with a discussion of Rosa Luxemburg’s notion of “spontaneity,” which departs from a consideration of Luxemburg’s scientific socialism, the inevitability of capitalist collapse, and her assertion of socialism as the objective response to the contradictions of capitalism. For Luxemburg, then, spontaneity refers to the way in which proletarian consciousness forms in response to these conditions. The second chapter argues that Luxemburg’s notion of spontaneity represents what Walter Benjamin would call an historical articulation of the past, which is an articulation of the present and its struggles in terms of their historicity. I develop this argument through a close reading of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” with particular attention paid to Benjamin’s notion of “weak messianism,” the historical burden of past generations’ failed revolutionary hopes that the present carries. The third chapter considers the second volume of Alfred Döblin’s November 1918 and the question of history’s commensurability.

Summary for Lay Audience

This thesis examines three different representations of collective action, which is action undertaken by a group of people with the intention of achieving a common objective. The first chapter discusses Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg was a scientific socialist, someone who believed that capitalism is an inherently contradictory economic system. We experience capitalism’s contradictions as economic meltdowns or crises such as the Great Recession of 2008. Scientific socialists believe these contradictions doom capitalism to collapse, but that socialism is the scientific response to this inevitability. The chapter turns to Karl Marx’s discussion of scientific socialism in order to understand how Luxemburg conceived of the link between the contradictions of capitalism and collective action which arose in response. Luxemburg calls this link “spontaneity,” which is associated with collective action that seems to erupt spontaneously. For Luxemburg, such activity demonstrates how consciousness, how we perceive the world, forms in relation to the contradictions of capitalism and inspires collective action. The second chapter argues that Luxemburg’s notion of spontaneity represents what Walter Benjamin calls the historical articulation of the past; for Benjamin, we do this when we discuss something in terms of its historical development. Luxemburg did exactly this when she discussed seemingly spontaneous action in terms of its historical development. Such “articulations” shine a new light on events, for instance, which then changes how we understand and respond to those events. For Luxemburg and Benjamin, understanding collective action as an expression of capitalist oppression is what made social revolution possible. The final chapter analyzes the second volume of Alfred Döblin’s four-part novel, November 1918. The novel seems to ask whether it is actually possible for a revolution to take place which would permanently end oppression, as it looks into history and sees many efforts to achieve freedom all leading back to oppression.