Time warp and Rinse and Repeat – Trotskyism Vs Neo-Kautskyism

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27/06/2020 by socialistfight

Ot how the counter-revoliution is dressed up as revolution via Karl Kautsky, Hal Draper, Lars T Lih and the Jacobin magazine, to mention a few.

Time Warp

By Gerry Downing Weekly Worker June 18 2020

More defence of the Renegade from The Jacobin, April 2019; Luise and Karl Kautsky, 1902, Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care), By ERIC BLANC, “Karl Kautsky’s vision for winning democratic socialism is more radical, and more relevant, than most leftists care to admit… Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet The State and RevolutionLeninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils. In contrast, Kautsky argued that the path to anticapitalist rupture in conditions of political democracy passed through the election of a workers’ party to government. ” https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/04/karl-kautsky-democratic-socialism-elections-rupture

The debate between Ben Lewis and Gil Schaeffer takes place in a strange time warp, where history seems to have stopped on August 4, 1914. Kautsky, apparently, was going great guns up to then (with a few minor, unfortunate deviations in 1909 and 1911) and then he inexplicably collapsed, along with the entire German Social Democratic Party (SPD), and became a ‘renegade’ against his former revolutionary self and organisation.

Of course, this is nonsense: August 4 1914 revealed the corrupt essence of the SPD, which had developed over decades to this point of absolute betrayal. The unity of the party hid the interpenetration of opposites and the vote for the kaiser’s war credits was the transformation of opposites: the counterrevolution was triumphant.

Lenin was dumbstruck when told of that vote; he refused to believe it initially, thinking it lying propaganda. Rosa Luxemburg was not dumbstruck and had seen it all coming. Lenin’s letter to AG Shliapnikov in October 1914 acknowledged this:

“I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy. Nothing has happened, so he says, principles have not been abandoned, everyone was entitled to defend his fatherland. It is internationalism, if you please, for the workers of all countries to shoot one another ‘in order to defend their fatherland’.

He continued:

“Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote, long ago [1898? – GD], that Kautsky has the ‘subservience of a theoretician’ – servility, in plainer language: servility to the majority of the party, to opportunism. Just now there is nothing in the world more harmful and dangerous for the ideological independence of the proletariat than this rotten self-satisfaction and disgusting hypocrisy of Kautsky, who wants to smother and cover up everything, to tranquillise the awakened conscience of the workers by sophistries and pseudo-scientific chatter. If Kautsky succeeds in this, he will become the main representative of bourgeois corruption in the working class movement.”

In State and revolution Lenin is clearly ideologically constructing a party of a new type, a party that we have argued he began to construct after he learned the lessons of the defeat of the 1905 revolution: We would assert that what Lenin and the Bolsheviks learned from 1905 was:

1. The need for the united front and transitional politics. In seeking to develop these, the realisation developed that this was the application of the dialectic and a new approach to the united front was needed.

2. The need to study and develop the dialectic itself to defend and develop dialectical and historical materialism against Mach and Bogdanov. Lenin began this work as early as 1906.

His aspiration in 1902 was to recruit the entire vanguard and his schema equated the revolutionary leadership with the vanguard and denied the existence of other forces and the necessity to relate to them in struggle – Kautsky’s ‘party of the whole class’ approach. The Bolsheviks were devastated by the fact that Trotsky and the Mensheviks had led much of the failed revolution of 1905 and they were relatively marginalised. They had to reassess their attitude to the masses, and other groups claiming to be revolutionary, and to rearm themselves theoretically for 1917.

On point 2 Lenin in State and revolution is scathing on the “toy rattle” Plekhanov and Kautsky made of the dialectic:

“For Marx, however, revolutionary dialectics was never the empty fashionable phrase – the toy rattle – which Plekhanov, Kautsky and others have made of it. Marx knew how to break with anarchism ruthlessly for its inability to make use even of the ‘pigsty’ of bourgeois parliamentarism, especially when the situation was obviously not revolutionary; but at the same time, he knew how to subject parliamentarism to genuinely revolutionary, proletarian criticism.”

So much for Ben Lewis’s contempt for Lenin’s study of Hegel and the whole history of philosophy, which we can read about in volume 38 of his collected works. The period of intense study in Zurich enabled Lenin to write Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, State and revolution and the April theses against those leading Bolsheviks like Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Without this sharp struggle, in which he was victorious, the February revolution would have led to a horrendous massacre and the October revolution would have drowned in blood.

The task now is to correctly estimate the real evidence of this revolutionary tradition, and Ben Lewis and Jack Conrad seek to correct comrade Schaeffer’s deviations in the direction of consistent Leninism, which Schaeffer now robustly denies in his latest letter (June 11). Take the following passage from comrade Schaeffer:

“I definitely do think that Engels’ criticism and Plekhanov’s and Lenin’s inclusion of the demand for a democratic republic in the Russian programme embody the full orthodox Marxist position; but then so do Kautsky’s writings on republicanism and the road to power, which were more consistent with an orthodox Marxist position than the Erfurt programme itself.”

Here the full folly of the wall of separation between the minimum and maximum programme, with which the comrade never “expressed any reservations”, is clear. Whilst it is true that, as part of a transitional programme, the demand for a democratic republic is legitimate, but, as part of a minimum programme, is not linked to the overthrow of capitalism at all, it is a simple, reformist demand, as is “the replacement of the standing army by a people’s militia”. In fact, demanding the replacement of the standing army by a people’s militia now is an ultimatistic, ultra-left demand to hide its reformist essence, not at all applicable as an agitational demand now (or the basis for unity in the Labour Left Alliance, for example) in this time of reduced class conflict, though still necessary as propaganda.

The rejection of the transitional method, as applied by the Bolsheviks in the duma and spelled out in the tactic of the united front, of the ‘Theses on the world situation’, adopted by the 3rd Congress of Comintern in 1921 and of Trotsky’s Transitional programme in 1938 has dire consequences. The International Left Communists (sinistra.net) speak of the “terrible failure of the political united front”, as if this was not the methodology of communism itself that made the Russian Revolution.

If we defend this wall of separation, then we must view the socialist revolution as an objective process only, which will come knocking on our doors, and we will be able to lead it if we train our cadre well, build a mass party and win our 51%, and abandon minimalism for maximalism at the correct moment, as all sects believe. Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party was a sect in which I participated for over a decade, though there it was a maximalism that substituted for transnationalism – the ever-present revolutionary situation. This objectivism rejects the Marxist dialectical understanding of the relationship between subject and object.

Of course, a revolutionary party cannot call forth the forces of revolution at will. The masses must learn from their defeats and victories, but not as an amorphous mass. Within the ranks of the working class there are always the advanced layers. Many will join self-professed radical and revolutionary groups, and many will be miseducated in the programme for socialist revolution there. However, many of the vanguard will not join a group, but will listen and learn. So there is spontaneity and spontaneity. Every outburst of struggle; strikes, occupations, etc will have been prepared and urged forward by these vanguard forces over long periods.

That is what we are seeing now in the advancing class-consciousness from the Black Lives Matters anti-racist protests: pulling down the statues of slave merchants; anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism against Cecil Rhodes; opposition to protecting the statue of that modern imperialist brute, Winston Churchill, the popular front wartime comrade of the CPGB, from the rising anger of the masses. Paul Demarty’s ‘Their fables and ours’ (May 14) has a serious go at critiquing the Morning Star’s recent defence of those popular front times, but who were “the principled socialists” who understood that “the only real alternative … was social revolution”? The Independent Labour Party (hardly!) or those dreaded Trotskyists?

In pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations, the presence of a revolutionary party will develop class consciousness to revolutionary levels. Even centrist and anarchist groups do this. Certainly, in Spain between 1936 and 1939 there were far more subjective revolutionary socialists from these layers than in Russia in 1917. But they lacked a Bolshevik-type leadership, whose subjective guidance becomes the crucial objective factor in making the socialist revolution.

This long Lewis-Schaeffer-Conrad-Macnair polemic is fought out within the realms of Kautsky’s social democracy – a ‘democratic’ republic is a bourgeois republic, we must point out, no matter how ‘extreme’ this ‘democracy’ is – and ignores the lessons of the Russian Revolution itself. It rejects the great theoretical and political advances Lenin made, precisely by rejecting all crucial aspects of Kautskyism to make the October revolution.

On the debate between Lenin, Trotsky and Kautsky, Jack Conrad spelled out his defence of Hal Draper way back in 2002, where he defended Draper’s dismissal of “the crude counterposition of soviets to parliament as ‘petrified dogmatism’ – whether it comes from the right or the left” (‘Dictatorship of the proletariat: Bolshevism versus Kautskyism’ Weekly Worker October 23 2002). This is a classic third-camp position.

Third-campist Hal Draper advocates Kautskyism, critically, in his The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ from Marx to Lenin. In chapter 4 of this diatribe against revolution, he proclaims that Lenin made “a remarkable blunder” in interpreting Marx: he was selling out (in 1918!), because he was “no longer using ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to denote a workers’ state that was subject to the democratic rule of the working class”. And all these mistakes by the dunderhead Lenin, without Hal Roach (Irish Comedian!) there to guide him, had facilitated the counterrevolution represented by Stalin. This is standard imperialist propaganda, gelling with Stalinist ‘continuity’ lies, against Leninism and Bolshevism, with the obvious implication that October 1917 was a monumental error.

Gerry Downing

Socialist Fight

Weekly Worker 1304, June 18 2020

Rinse and repeat

By Ben Lewis Weekly Worker 1305 June 25 2020

Gerry Downing’s intervention into the debate between Gil Schaeffer and myself provides yet more proof that the readiness with which he is prepared to place his wisdom on display is surpassed only by his inability to think or engage with anything that broadly challenges the blinkered world view he has inherited from Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party (Letters, June 18). Whereas the exchange with comrade Schaeffer occasionally entailed us talking past each other, the discussion proceeded in good faith and the miscommunication mainly stemmed from the fact that we are largely unfamiliar with each other’s politics. Comrade Downing has no such excuse. He has been a regular reader and letter-writer to this publication and knows me personally.

Whenever I have spoken on my ideas at Communist University and at Communist Forums, comrade Downing has diligently raised his objections at length, with me responding in kind. This is only healthy. What is frustrating, however, is that Gerry’s latest missive simply repeats exactly what he has said at these forums and in his writings: the letter from Lenin to Shliapnikov in October 1914 that Gerry always digs up is cited once again; he repeats his ‘argument’ about the party of Engels, Kautsky and Bebel amounting to a “party of the whole class” that would welcome all and sundry regardless of their politics or views on the party programme; he parrots the – historically illiterate – claim that Lenin and others learnt the need for ‘transitional politics’ and the united front in 1905 (!); and, for all his bluster about dialectics, he proudly parades his rather Manichaean understanding of thought and ideas: you see, if somebody is or becomes a ‘bad guy’ – like the third-campist, Hal Draper, or the renegade, Kautsky – then this appears to render everything that they had ever said obsolete and useless from the perspective of the class struggle.

Gerry’s latest intervention makes clear that he obviously sees no need to engage with the responses to his previous objections, let alone to think about the possible implications of newly translated historical material from German or Russian for his understanding of the history of the revolutionary movement. Why? Well, he is in that most enviable position of already having the answers. And not just to these significant historical questions either, but on the “programme for socialist revolution”. Nobody is perfect though, and the price that comrade Downing seems to have paid for such visionary insight is his sense of irony: “Many will join self-professed radical and revolutionary groups, and many will be miseducated in the programme for socialist revolution there. However, many of the vanguard will not join a group, but will listen and learn” (my emphasis).

The sad fact is that, for all Gerry’s pretensions, readers would be hard-pressed to find a more succinct example of miseducation on the programme of revolutionary Marxism than his recent correspondence. So, in the interests of listening and learning, let us now attempt to grapple with the déjà vu that arguing with Gerry invariably entails, and respond to his points.

Nowhere have I claimed that Kautsky “was going great guns” up to 1914, only to then “inexplicably collapse”. Even a cursory look at my work shows that, in hindsight, the thought of the revolutionary Kautsky that Lenin admired was not without its shortcomings – on imperialism, the nature of democracy, the nation-state and so on (some of which were shared by Lenin, I should add). Kautsky’s main shortcoming was clearly his life-long tendency to place unity before clarity, as evinced by his contrasting resolutions on government participation to the Second International that were recently reproduced in this paper (‘Power, not office’, May 28). This trait may partly account for his later concessions to the party leadership in 1909 and so on.

What I do claim, following Lenin in particular, is precisely – as Gerry puts it – that Kautsky “became a ‘renegade’ against his former revolutionary self and organisation”. Either Gerry cannot understand the term ‘renegade’ or he simply thinks that Lenin was fundamentally wrong in his assessment of Kautsky. To make such an argument would, of course, be fine, but Gerry wants to paint his historical illiteracy in a Leninist gloss. So it is that he cites Lenin’s letter to Shliapnikov from October 27 1914 about how much he now hates and despises Kautsky. But the real question is this: why does Lenin focus so much hate on Kautsky when many other leading thinkers of the International had even worse positions on the war?

As I have made clear on numerous occasions, to find the answer Gerry needs to consider the letter written by Lenin to the very same Shliapnikov, just four days later, in which the latter is urged to read, or have translated, Kautsky’s Road to power to see just exactly how Kautsky is reneging on the revolutionary perspectives outlined there. Lenin upheld these ideas in the face of Kautsky, who was now abandoning them. This is why I do not ascribe the same groundbreaking significance to Lenin’s study of Hegel in Switzerland that Gerry – very much in WRP mould – does. Lenin already had the solid strategic foundations of “revolutionary social democracy” on which to conduct his further struggles and develop his ideas. Kautsky, by contrast, collapsed.

But Gerry does not stop there. He thinks he has struck gold in making the case for Lenin disavowing the early Kautsky by quoting Vladimir himself: “Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote, long ago [1898? – GD], that Kautsky has the ‘subservience of a theoretician’ – servility, in plainer language: servility to the majority of the party, to opportunism.” For Gerry, this passage is supposed to summarise how Lenin changed his mind on Kautsky: he had been a shit since 1898, after all. The problem is, however, that Luxemburg’s forthright (and vindicated) criticisms of Kautsky cannot be from 1898 – when she was one of his closest allies – but from the fall-out between the two in 1910. None of this seemingly matters to Gerry, of course, but at least on this occasion he does have the humility to place a question mark at the end of his ignorance: so much for the “real evidence of this revolutionary tradition” (to be fair to Gerry, this quote is also misused by groups such as Socialist Appeal and leftwing thinkers like Michael Löwy).

Gerry must either claim that Lenin was simply wrong about Kautsky all along, or that there was an epistemological break in Lenin’s thought, represented by the period in Switzerland during the outbreak of the war. But Gerry obviously knows Lenin better than the man knew himself: the latter, claims Gerry, was actually all about forming a “party of a new type” in State and revolution – this in spite of the fact that the concept appears nowhere there, nor in Lenin’s Collected works as a whole. But what would I know, given my supposed “contempt” not only for “Lenin’s study of Hegel”, but “the whole history of philosophy” (!).

What I explore in my own research is how the renegade Kautsky hollowed out the revolutionary strategic perspectives outlined in the Erfurt programme of Bebel, Engels, Kautsky et al. In the process, the minimum programme for workers’ power became a minimal programme for workers’ integration into the capitalist state. This leads to another sense in which Gerry is wrong: his talk of the “transformation of opposites” and the “victory of the counterrevolution” in 1914 sounds grand, but is ignorant to the fact that 1914 also forced the revolutionary opposition in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to get its act together and fight for the original revolutionary outlook of the party. They were marginalised and harangued by the leadership and its apologists, but stayed in the SPD until 1917, with the best elements thereof providing the cadre and leadership of the German communist movement.

Poor history begets poor politics, as evinced by Gerry’s comments on the democratic republic and the minimum programme. Perhaps I am not operating on the same plane as the comrade, but in just one paragraph he manages to demonstrate that the democratic republic amounts to a number of competing things all at once. It is “legitimate” (if part of a transitional programme), but if it is part of a minimum programme and supposedly “not linked to the overthrow of capitalism at all”, then it is a “simple reformist demand”, as is the “the replacement of the standing army by a people’s militia”. What is more, “demanding the replacement of the standing army by a people’s militia now is an ultimatistic, ultra-left demand to hide its reformist essence, not at all applicable as an agitational demand now (or the basis for unity in the Labour Left Alliance, for example) in this time of reduced class conflict, though still necessary as propaganda”. Is there not such a thing as a revolutionary minimum programme? History suggests that there is: and even though there remain minor differences between us, I am glad that comrade Schaeffer and I agree on this.

The muddle in which Gerry finds himself is rooted precisely in his “miseducation” regarding the history of the Marxist programme. It leads him to disagree on the history of German social democracy – not only with Lenin, but with Marx and Engels themselves. For them the minimum programme was the political basis on which the working class would come to power. This would, they claimed, not occur within the framework of the Bonapartist state or the monarchy, but of the democratic republic and the armed people. From the 1880s onwards at least, Engels fought – alongside his comrades, Bebel and the younger, revolutionary Bernstein – for this basic strategic perspective. But for Gerry this ABC of Marxism is at best “legitimate”, necessary as “propaganda”; and at worst ultimatist maximalism. Whether he likes it or not, the logic of what Gerry is saying is to paint the approach of Marx and Engels as Bernsteinite “51% socialists”, who saw the socialist revolution as a merely “objective process”. What a joke.

Gerry’s temerity in charging the SPD’s Erfurt programme with mimimalism, while rejecting the programmatic demand for the armed people in a body such as the Labour Left Alliance, is astounding. The LLA is a ‘broad left’ formation that is well to the right of anything that Kautsky or even Bernstein produced: but raising a central tenet of Marxist republicanism in that body is apparently ultra-leftist? Riddle me that one.

I am afraid to say that the “wall of separation” which the comrade finds between capitalist reality and the socialist revolution in the Erfurt programme (and thus the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party) merely reveals the wall of separation between his self-professed Marxism and his stubborn ignorance of the history of our movement.

Ben Lewis
East Sussex

Ben Lewis
  The University of SheffieldGermanic Studies, Tutor for German/Graduate Student
The University of SheffieldGermanic Studies, Tutor for German/Graduate Student
  |  Germanic Studies

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