Mike Macnair and the CPGB; The Second International, not the Third

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02/12/2020 by socialistfight

With apologies to the Kantian-priestly, Quakers and vegetarians!

Mike Macnair has clarified his political stance and answer my question, what it means? in the last of his replies to Neil Faulkner, Break with managerialism (WW 29 October) and in his reply to me Bolshevik errors (letters, WW 5 November). These articles forthrightly embrace the politics of the Second International and reject the Third, arguing they are essentially the same theoretically and ideologically and the final failure of the methodology of the Russian Revolution (a badly built bridge, he tells us) was essentially down to the errors of Lenin and Trotsky in not following the teachings of Karl Kautsky. Like Kautsky, Mike’s analyses are objectivist to the core. We could not have had a socialist revolution after WWII because the time was not right for it, the mas murder of the revolutionary Trotskyists by the collaboration between the Nazis, imperialists and Stalinists had nothing to do with these defeats. History would have found a way irrespective of a dead leadership!

 Instead we must revert to the mechanical objectivism of the Second with no need to link the everyday struggle for reforms in wages and conditions with the ultimate aim of overthrowing capitalism. A minimum programme will do fine, as distinct from a ‘minimal’ one of only reforming capitalism and no need at all to bother with a maximum programme, it would come along when the time was ripe and present itself to us on a plate.

And the betrayal of German KPD on 4 August 1914 was not so bad because the best elements of the SPD went on to provide “the cadre and leadership of the German communist movement”.  And they then led the German socialist revolution to victory, did they? No, as Trotsky tells us in The First Five years of the Communist International, when the hour for revolution struck in 1923 the failure lay wholly in “a failure of tactics and not in objective conditions”. That central problem for Marxism was unsolved; between the subject and the object; when objective conditions for revolution struck in mid-1923 the Kautsky-educated KPD revolutionaries failed, whereas on 7 October 1917, exactly 103 years ago as I write this, the Lenin educated-in-dialectical-materialism Bolsheviks succeeded, despite strong opposition for Kamenev and Zinoviev and no assistance from Stalin. And only Lenin could have won that crucial battle in the Central Committee, Trotsky strongly assisted but alone he lacked the authority because of his history of anti-Bolshevism. Had the Provisional government succeeded in assassinating Lenin after the July days of 1917, as they attempted, them the Russian Revolution would have been lost. How’s that for a great man theory of history? Only it isn’t a ‘great man’ theory; it’s “a great revolutionary person, leading a great revolutionary party” theory of socialist revolution.

Mike writes:

“The possibility exists of reclaiming hope. But to do so involves thinking about the tasks of party organisation in terms of political action, not of Bakunin’s ‘invisible dictatorship’ guiding direct-action movements. It involves the idea of a formal party programme and rules, and taking these seriously (as Lenin, contrary to common interpretations, did) as opposed to the mysteries of Lassallean, Cliffite, Matgamnaite ‘revolutionary theory’ or ‘the whole record of the group’. It involves open recognition that the decisions of 1919-21 were actually mistakes, and ones to which Lenin and Trotsky were parties. And it involves aspiring to the Second International in its strongest aspects, which is also the Bolsheviks of 1917 and the early Third International, not to repeating the same mistakes and thereby copying bureaucratic managerialism.” (Break with managerialism)

So the first four (or three?) Congresses of the Comintern “were actually mistakes” and we must go back to Kautsky and Bebel to find a way forward today. Ben Lewis asserts in an earlier exchange that Kautsky’s break with Marxism was apparent only in 1910 and 1911 and I was wrong to put it as far back as 1898. “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.” (letters, Rinse and repeat, WW 25 June). John Rees, in his Algebra of Revolution, Chapter 3, The First Crisis of Marxism, recounts in detail, quoting many sources, how false this claim is; her ‘close ally’ was her irreconcilable political and ideological foe certainly from at least 1898 because of the very different way both fought the reformist revisionism of Eduard Bernstein.

But first let us examine Karl Marx’s estimation of Kautsky. In a letter to his daughter Jenny in April 1881 Marx described Kautsky as “a mediocrity with a small-minded outlook, super wise (only 26) very conceited, industrious in a certain sort of way, he busies himself a lot with statistics but does not read anything very clever out of them, belongs by nature to the tribe of philistines but is otherwise a decent fellow in his own way”.

In the battle with Bernstein the method of Luxemburg and Kautsky contrasted very sharply. Rosa Luxemburg wrote Reform or Revolution in 1901. In chapter 8, Conquest of Political Power she wrote:

“That is why people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society. If we follow the political conceptions of revisionism, we arrive at the same conclusion that is reached when we follow the economic theories of revisionism. Our program becomes not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism; not the suppression of the wage labour system but the diminution of exploitation, that is, the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of suppression of capitalism itself.”

In The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx Peter Gay sets out this problem for all petty bourgeois liberals against this thus:

“But a democratic Socialist movement that remains faithful to its principles may never achieve power. Or, if an accident should put control into its hands, it may soon lose it to less scrupulous adversaries. Is democratic Socialism, then, impossible? Or can it be achieved only if the party is willing to abandon the democratic method temporarily to attain power by violence in the hope that it may return to parliamentarism as soon as control is secure? Surely this second alternative contains tragic possibilities: a democratic movement that resorts to authoritarian methods to gain its objective may not remain a democratic movement for long. Still, the first alternative–to cling to democratic procedures under all circumstances–may doom the party to continual political impotence. The dilemma is real enough, and it has repeatedly plagued all great democratic Socialist movements, particularly the British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats.”

Bernstein returned to Berlin in 1901 and thenceforth became the spokesman for the trade union bureaucracy within the party; his anti-revolutionary attitudes were “greatly furthered by the ascendancy of the trade union bureaucracy within the party” Gay tells us. But Kautsky had a very different approach to Rosa Luxemburg; he sought to reconcile the left and right, the revolutionary approach with the anti-revolutionary approach in the first real example of the now-familiar Marxist phenomenon of centralism. When the anti-revolutionary became consciously counter-revolutionary in August 1914, despite his left turn after 1905, this justified Lenin in dubbing him a renegade. Just as Stalin ceased being a centrist and became consciously counter-revolutionary after the 1933 victory of Hitler in Germany; his murder of Kirov in December 1934 for humiliating him in the 17th Congress of January-February of that year, is the clearest indication of that.

Rees quotes Carl Shorske, “The drafting of the new program was a congenial task for Kautsky, the: first of a kind he repeatedly performed as long as it was humanly possible; the reconciliation of the antagonistic tendencies in Social Democracy by means of theoretical concepts.” (p.136 Algebra) Paul Blackledge, in International Socialism, 26 June 2014, The great schism: socialism and war in 1914, estimates the situation thus:

“Rosa Luxemburg’s contribution to the revisionist debate was much sharper (than Kautsky’s). She recognised that revisionism was not merely a theoretical error in the context of economic expansion, but that it was deeply rooted in the structure of modern trade unionism. Indeed, she insisted that the characteristically capitalist separation between politics and economics was reproduced in the labour movement through the division between parliamentary socialism and simple trade unionism. Moreover, she claimed that Bernstein’s revisionism was best understood as the theoretical expression of the interests of the trade union bureaucracy: a layer whose condition of life was, in many ways, divorced from that of the mass membership of the unions.

“Whereas Kautsky’s Marxism became increasingly reformist as he tried to balance revolutionary rhetoric with ties to the labour bureaucracy, Luxemburg’s analysis of the conservatism of this layer allowed her to maintain political independence from reformism. Or at least this is eventually what happened: for in the immediate aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution and for a few years thereafter Kautsky grew more critical of the conservatism of the leadership of the unions. Nevertheless, this moment of radicalism was relatively short lived and from around 1910 Kautsky reverted to his earlier relationship to the trade unions.” –Blackledge quote ends.

Finally let us examine the role played by Kautsky’s philosophy in all this. Whereas Luxemburg’s contributions are examples of the dialectical materialist methods, Kautsky’s are simple Darwinism to which he has tacked on his mechanical understanding of Marxism. Leszek Kolakowski, in volume 2 of his Main Currents of Marxism has this to say of Kautsky: “A striking feature of Kautsky work is a complete lack of understanding of philosophical problems. His remarks on purely philosophical subjects do not go beyond what may be read in the summary essays of Engels: from his comments on Kant it is clear he has no idea of the clear meaning of the latter’s philosophy.”

And abject objectivism, not the vital element of human agency in a revolutionary situation is clear from the following quote from Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle, IV. The commonwealth of the future, 1. Social Reform and Social Revolution:

“The capitalist social system has run its course; its dissolution is now only a question of time. Irresistible economic forces lead with the certainty of doom to the shipwreck of capitalist production. The substitution of a new social order for the existing one is no longer simply desirable, it has become inevitable.”

Is this not the very same objectivism from Mike:

“As I wrote against comrade Downing in 2007, assessment of possibilities has to be based on the weight of the enemy as well as your own weight. And the labour bureaucracy (Stalinist included) has to be counted for this purpose as an element of the enemy camp. If repression and the bureaucracy’s support for restabilising capitalism is enough to defeat revolutionary politics, there is no possibility of socialism. The other side of this coin is that, if ideas have real purchase, even very severe repression cannot prevent their finding expression and gaining weight. The position of the Fourth Internationalists in 1941-45 was that their ideas did not have this sort of purchase.”

Where is the fight in all this objectivism? Had the Bolsheviks not stormed the Winter Palace then historians of the hindsight would record that it was never possible. Like the armless knight in Monte Python we are bound to succeed when out time has come and when the masses believe us regardless of how many limbs the counter-revolution manage to sever.

Gerry Downing

Socialist Fight

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