Thursday, October 3, 2019

The trade union form and the butchery of dialectics

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Introduction


On Sept 28, 2019, the World Socialist Web Site reprinted a 1998 lecture by David North with the title Why are trade unions hostile to socialism?  We can only speculate why North chose to reprint this lecture at this time.  It is notable in that it is practically alone among North’s numerous writings and lectures, where he ventures to use “dialectics” to make an argument for a perspective he was defending.  Far more common in North’s oeuvre are expressions of contempt for dialectics. For some examples of the latter see the essay ‘Hatred of the Dialectic’.

North has for decades trumpeted his role in exposing Gerry Healy’s butchery of dialectics. As we have shown however, North’s critique of Healy was highly superficial and never got to the philosophical essence of the matter. (See our introduction to and reprint of David Bruce’s ‘A Charlatan Exposed’) The main lesson North drew from his encounter with Healy is that “dialectics” is a suspicious endeavor and one should avoid it like the plague. It is therefore notable that in this 1998 lecture North appeals to the “dialectic” to make his case.  The results are not much different than those achieved by Healy. A total mess is made of a half-baked venture into philosophy in order to argue for a position that is completely untenable.  Dialectics, which is revolutionary in its essence, is transformed into its opposite, a form of apologetics for a turn away from the working class.

It just so happens that we are very familiar with this 1998 lecture because we commented on it in great detail in Chapter 5 of our book long polemic from 2007, Marxism Without its Head of its Heart. We are reprinting our comments on North’s 1998 essay exactly as they appeared in our 2007 polemic.  This is an excerpt from a much longer piece,  Chapter 5 of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart.  That chapter is a general critique of the attitude of North’s organization, the Socialist Equality Party, toward the trade unions.  In reading this discussion it should kept in mind that it was written 12 years ago and things have moved on since then. While I think that pointing to the abstentionism of the SEP at that time was justified, the further degeneration of North’s group since then has transformed it into an organization openly hostile to the working class.  This was announced loud and clear in their defense of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision in 2018. (See our essay, An anti-working class organization.)

In the following excerpt we have re-numbered the notes. References following quotes of North’s 1998 lecture refer to the page number of the printed version of the pamphlet.

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Rationalizing Abstentionism

 

The turning away from an engagement in the struggles of the working class can already be discerned in North’s lecture, Marxism and the Trade Unions, which was delivered in January 1998, four and a half years after the Workers League perspectives resolution. The lecture was intended as a reiteration of the party’s analysis of the unions, while at the same time contrasting that analysis with the kowtowing to the bureaucracy of various middle class radical tendencies. But on a careful reading it becomes evident that there is a shift of emphasis in the lecture. Whereas the 1993 analysis had been animated by a call for ambitious new interventions by the party in the working class, there is only a passing mention of that in the lecture.

Instead a line of argument is introduced which claims that the “social form” of trade unionism makes it organically reactionary: “The organic development of trade unionism proceeds, not in the direction of socialism, but in opposition to it” (11). This claim is made on supposedly philosophical grounds, and to the extent that the history of the unions is brought in, it is to confirm the philosophical argument. At the same time that trade unionism is being depicted as organically reactionary, there is virtually no mention of the need for the party to involve itself in new forms of struggle in the working class. What this adds up to, as we will see, is a rationalization for abstentionism.

The philosophical argument concerns the relationship of form and content. Here are the relevant paragraphs:
It must be kept in mind that when we set out to study trade unionism, we are dealing with a definite social form. By this, we mean not some sort of casual, accidental and amorphous collection of individuals, but rather a historically-evolved connection between people organized in classes and rooted in certain specific relations of production. It is also important to reflect upon the nature of form itself. We all know that a relation exists between form and content, but this relationship is generally conceived as if the form were merely the expression of content. From this standpoint, the social form might be conceptualized as merely an outward, plastic and infinitely malleable expression of the relations upon which it is based. But social forms are more profoundly understood as dynamic elements in the historical process. To say that "content is formed" means that form imparts to the content of which it is the expression definite qualities and characteristics. It is through form that content exists and develops.
Perhaps it will be possible to clarify the purpose of this detour into the realm of philosophical categories and abstractions, by referring to the famous section in the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, in which Marx asks: "Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labor, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from the form itself." That is, when a product of labor assumes the form of a commodity a transformation that occurs only at a certain stage of society it acquires a peculiar, fetishistic quality that it did not previously possess. Once products are exchanged on the market, real social relations between people, of which commodities are themselves the outcome, necessarily assume the appearance of a relation between things. A product of labor is a product of labor; and yet, once it assumes, within the framework of new productive relations, the form of a commodity, it acquires new and extraordinary social properties.
Similarly, a group of workers is a group of workers. And yet, when that group assumes the form of a trade union, it acquires, through that form, new and quite distinct social properties to which the workers are inevitably subordinated. What, precisely, is meant by this? The trade unions represent the working class in a very distinct socio-economic role: as the seller of a commodity, labor power. Arising on the basis of the productive relations and property forms of capitalism, the essential purpose of the trade union is to secure for this commodity the best price that can be obtained under prevailing market conditions (12-13).
Now, we are the last people who would object to bringing in philosophy into such a discussion, especially since it is such a rare occurrence in the party’s lectures or articles. But in this case the resort to ‘dialectics’ turns out to be spurious. First, the relationship of form to content is conceived of in a static and one-sided way. North views the form (i.e. the union) as the active agent, while the content (the working class) is the passive recipient. But as any student of dialectics should know, what is passive at one moment in relation to its active opposite plays the opposite role at the next moment. It is not only form that determines content but content that can also determine form (or, as Hegel puts it nicely, “‘content’ is nothing but the overturning of form into content, and ‘form’ nothing but the overturning of content into form”[1]). What this means in relation to the unions is that the content of the class struggle, although hamstrung by the limitations imposed on it by what we can call here the ‘union-form’, threatens to overreach the limits of that form. At that point, the possibility exists of the newly emerging content (to paraphrase Marx) breaking up the integument of the existing form.[2] Thus what North is presenting here is a static formalism that ignores the fluidity of the concepts of form and content.

Second, the analogy of a commodity to a union leaves out something important: workers are not things. A worker is not ‘stamped’ by union membership to the same extent that a product becomes stamped as a commodity in a market economy. Though in the form of the union, workers are defined as sellers of labor-power, the content of that social relation is the class struggle. It is that content which makes it possible for workers to become conscious of their exploitation and of their revolutionary role as society’s chief productive force, thereby empowering them to overthrow the existing relations of production. To state the obvious, a product of labor cannot become conscious; it cannot escape its commodity-form so long as capitalism exists. But workers aren’t imprisoned by the ‘union-form’ to anywhere near the same extent: the dynamic within unions is much more tenuous, with the class struggle always lurking as a threat to the ‘normal    business’ of class collaboration. It is this very instability that accounts for the heavy-handedness of the bureaucracy: they can only maintain their domination by quashing any manifestation of dissent.

This side of the matter is lost sight of in North’s ruminations on the trade unions as a social form: for him that form imparts “distinct social properties to which the workers are inevitably subordinated.” To be sure, the subordination is real enough, but why is it necessarily inevitable? It is only so if one leaves out the possibility of workers ever being able to attain socialist consciousness so long as they are within unions. In other words, what North is saying here is that purely by virtue of the fact that workers are union members, it becomes impossible for the revolutionary movement to win them over. The historical account of the unions that North offers up is meant to make such a case, but as we’ll soon see, it is a highly selective reading of that history. But before we get to that, we can already anticipate serious problems in North’s position. Seeing as (according to Lenin) trade unionism is the highest level that the spontaneous consciousness of the working class can reach within bourgeois society, it would seem that if North is right, then any breakthrough to socialist consciousness by the working class becomes virtually impossible. The workers will go on spontaneously reproducing the trade union-form, and that form will then “inevitably” subordinate them to capitalism, irrespective of what the revolutionary party does to reach them. This is a dead-end theoretically, and politically it amounts to giving up on the struggle for class consciousness with a shrug of resignation.

So it is no coincidence that the ambitious proposals for intervening in the working class that had been envisioned in 1993 are forgotten about in this lecture. Back then the perspectives resolution declared: “The party must strive to create new forms of struggle among these workers [i.e. those already in unions], including factory committees and even trade unions, organized independently and in opposition to the AFL-CIO.” Even trade unions! But in light of North’s lecture, this proposal no longer made any sense: it would hardly matter if these unions were independently organized and opposed to the bureaucracy because the union-form itself would make them organically reactionary.

And why limit this just to unions? Why can’t the same ‘formal’ principle apply to factory committees or neighborhood committees to fight evictions and school closures or indeed any formation of the working class that arises spontaneously within capitalism? Precisely because of their spontaneous character, such formations will start out by accepting the limits of capitalism and seek to bargain for better conditions within the system: for example, a factory committee will seek to be a militant and honest alternative to the official union or else (in a non-union plant) try to establish itself as a union. And to the extent that these committees remain bound by spontaneity – i.e. to the extent that they remain cut off from a revolutionary socialist perspective – then it is certainly true that their ‘organic’ development will ultimately be in a reactionary direction. But one might as well say the same thing about spontaneous consciousness as such: it is bourgeois consciousness, as Lenin informed us long ago. But this is hardly the end of the matter as far as Marxists are concerned: formations like factory committees are also battlegrounds in the struggle for class consciousness. But this is what North’s ‘formalism’ deliberately obscures.

The analysis of the unions in the 1993 resolution had been much closer to a genuinely dialectical conception. It was not form abstracted from content but huge shifts in the world economy brought about by globalization that had pushed the traditional unions past the point of no return. It was in this sense that the resolution had argued against the “superficial tendency” of the petty bourgeois radicals to ascribe the problems of the unions to bad or treacherous leaders: the deeper dimensions of the problem were about how class collaboration and nationalist orientations were no longer viable within a globalized capitalism.

But North’s lecture moves in a different direction: by rooting the problem of the unions in their form, he produces another kind of “organizational fetishism”, one which doesn’t transcend the radicals’ position so much as invert its terms. In effect the argument now is that the unions were a hopeless cause from the start, and by implication the same would be true of any union-like formation, which is to say any spontaneous formation of the working class. So while the organizational fetishism of the radicals leads to opportunism, North’s fetishism-in-reverse leads to abstentionism. But the second is as much an abandonment of revolutionary practice as the first.


What the History of the Unions Really Shows


To be sure, the degeneration of the unions was not some sudden demise of otherwise healthy organizations. It was a protracted process, and to the extent that they have been free of revolutionary ‘disruptions’, the unions have veered towards corporatism. Their bureaucratic encrustation, the suppression of internal democracy and the all but total exclusion of socialists have rendered the traditional unions largely impervious to any countervailing progressive tendencies. One might add here, however, that even in regard to this reactionary tendency of the unions, North’s ‘formalist’ argument sheds very little light. We can learn far more from Lenin in What is to be done?: there he notes the spontaneous movement of the working class (which includes the trade unions) moves “along the line of least resistance”, and for that reason it tends to move in a reactionary direction so long as it is unimpeded by revolutionary consciousness. This is because within bourgeois society it is bourgeois ideology that prevails, and so the line of least resistance is always the line that accommodates itself to capitalism.[3] This insight gets us out of North’s prison-house of the ‘union-form’ and into the dialectic of the class struggle: the line of least resistance is indeed a powerful tendency but by no means an omnipotent one to which workers must be “inevitably subordinated.”

In any case, the history of the unions is not just one long, uninterrupted record of degeneration (or of the union-form manifesting its organically reactionary nature, as North would have it). There have also been important episodes in which the class struggle broke through the integument of bourgeois trade unionism, episodes in which revolutionary consciousness gained the upper hand over spontaneity. To be sure, these episodes have been relatively brief, with the line of least resistance eventually reasserting itself. But one could say much the same about the socialist revolution: it has had few breakthroughs, a great many more betrayals and defeats, and eventually even the breakthroughs have been reversed. On the basis of such a record one could use North’s logic to argue that there was something ‘organically’ flawed about the ‘form’ of the socialist revolution – that while it may not be reactionary, it most certainly is unrealistic. And this is of course a widely held position, but presumably not among revolutionary Marxists.

To make his case, however, North has to downplay or ignore any revolutionary ‘intrusions’ into union history. He focuses on the labor movements in England and Germany prior to World War One, which he claims provide “the greatest historical test of trade unionism” (30). This is because, though the two labor movements developed in different ways, they ended up in the same, reactionary, place: the German unions, established by the Social Democrats, played no less a counterrevolutionary role than the English unions, which had emerged independently of the socialist movement. And it is certainly true that, as differing paradigms of the development of trade unionism, the English and German examples are significant. But North freights these examples with a much greater burden than they can sustain: he makes them out to be the decisive “test” of trade unionism, a test that had already been passed and failed by 1914!

But the (relatively brief) account that North’s lecture provides of the history of these labor movements doesn’t come close to proving his case. What it does do is confirm something every literate Marxist already knows – which is that trade union consciousness is bourgeois consciousness. Take the German case, which is the more telling of the two because, as North notes, “the trade unions emerged under the direct tutelage of the socialist movement. Its leaders were diligently schooled in the teachings of Marx and Engels. And yet, in essence, the German trade unions were no more devoted to socialism than those in England” (25). And North goes on to show that the larger the unions grew, the more the union leaders bridled under the control of the SPD, and when it came to the party’s revolutionary wing under Rosa Luxemburg, the animosity of the union leaders “assumed pathological dimensions” (27). By 1906, under pressure from the unions, the SPD adopted the principle of equality between the unions and the party, which meant that from then on “the SPD was effectively ruled by the general commission of the trade unions” (28), and this in turn accelerated the party’s right wing trajectory that ultimately led it to the historic betrayal of August 1914.

North sees these facts as confirming his argument: if union leaders “diligently schooled in the teachings of Marx and Engels” can still betray, then surely the fault lies in the ‘union-form’ itself. But we can far more adequately account for this history by going back to one of the key thoughts of What is to be done? – trade union consciousness is bourgeois consciousness. For Lenin, needless to say, this was anything but a rationalization for abstentionism; instead, it meant that Marxists had to wage a persistent struggle within the unions against the spontaneous pull of bourgeois ideology: “[T]he task of Social-Democracy is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.”[4]

When we consider the history of the German unions in that light, then something important becomes evident that North’s formalism obscures: the real culprit in this history is not the unions but the SPD. North makes it seem as if the unions, because of their organically reactionary form, corrupted the SPD and dragged it to its demise, but this is a superficial reading of what happened. The unions were bound to end up “under the wing of the bourgeoisie” so long as there was no consistent effort by the SPD “to combat spontaneity.” But “combat” on this front, as on many others, is not something the SPD did much of; on the contrary, at every critical juncture the party capitulated to the pressure of the unions, choosing ‘unity’ over principle. Thus, what seems like a case of the unions dragging the party down is really much more a story about how the party abandoned its revolutionary responsibilities to resist that pressure and “divert” the union membership to socialist consciousness. In other words, it was not the ‘form’ of the unions but the opportunism of the SPD that was the decisive factor.

As for the ‘diligent schooling’ the SPD offered its union leaders, this did nothing to resist the pull of spontaneous consciousness. The SPD leaders treated Marxism like a catechism: attending an occasional lecture or party school in no way impinged on ‘the real business’ of running the unions, anymore than did the perennial speeches by party leaders about ‘the inevitable victory of socialism’. It was Bernstein’s motto – ‘the movement is everything, the goal is nothing’ – that not only expressed his own reformism but also accurately described the reality within the SPD, despite the angry objections of the orthodox party leaders.[5] This is why the German unions are not the decisive test of the union-form that North makes them out to be. “No bridge existed,” as Trotsky says in The Transitional Program, between the minimum and maximum programs of the SPD,[6] i.e. between the nickel-and-diming of bourgeois unionism on the one hand and the socialist revolution on the other. When measured by that standard – i.e. by the extent to which revolutionaries fought to a build a bridge to socialist consciousness, by the extent to which they resisted bourgeois consciousness within the unions – what ultimately stands out about the German experience is more its similarities to the English experience than its differences.

To bolster his case, North stitches together quotes from Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci to demonstrate that they were frequently critical of the unions, especially of the hostility of the labor bureaucracy to the class struggle and socialism. And it is certainly true that the great classical Marxists were often scathing about the union bureaucracy and they certainly never fetishized the unions in the way that some petty bourgeois radicals do today. Trotsky put it nicely in The Transitional Program: “Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution.”[7] But this is still a long way from justifying North’s position, which is that the unions aren’t even a means. In any case, all the Marxists that North cites could also be quoted as being adamantly opposed to abstentionism with regard to the unions. Their fundamental concern was that revolutionaries had to intervene in the mass movement of the working class.

A relevant example here is Trotsky’s attitude to the German unions in the early Thirties in the course of the struggle against the rising threat of Nazism. These are the same unions that, according to North, had already been ‘tested’ by 1914 and found to be organically reactionary, but that certainly wasn’t how Trotsky approached them. When the Stalinists (in line with their ‘ultra-left’ Third Period) denounced the reformist unions as ‘social fascist’ and abandoned them to set up their own ‘revolutionary unions’, Trotsky condemned this dual-unionism: he argued that all it achieved was to isolate the revolutionaries from the great bulk of the working class, who remained in the traditional unions. Trotsky considered “the restoration of the unity of the trade unions” crucial to the success of the German revolution because this would create optimal conditions for exposing the impotence of the reformists in fighting fascism, thereby winning over the ranks to a revolutionary perspective. Indeed, he insisted that “it is precisely within the trade unions that an exceptionally fruitful field is now open for action.”[8]

And that epitomizes the attitude of all the leading classical Marxists – that the unions were a potentially “fruitful field” for revolutionaries. Certainly from Lenin’s time on, that view of the unions came without illusions that trade unionism was anything more than bourgeois consciousness. The ‘fruit’, so to speak, wasn’t simply there for the picking; it could only be had through a determined struggle for socialist consciousness. For most of the 20th century, that orientation to the unions was an essentially correct one. What has necessitated a change was the onset of globalization, which rendered the traditional unions largely moribund. But this posed the need for new forms of struggle by the working class, including new unions. North’s position has led instead to abstentionism, which is to say, to an estrangement of the revolutionary movement from the working class. And that position is plainly irreconcilable with the tradition of classical Marxism, notwithstanding the selective account of that tradition that North presents.

A Case Ignored: the Russian Unions

 

A real test of North’s theory would have required a case where Marxists conducted a genuine struggle against “the spontaneous, trade unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie” but were unable to overcome that tendency. And history provides at least one instance where the Marxist movement was able to conduct such a struggle on a mass scale – in Russia. It is significant that North doesn’t talk about Russia in his lecture. He does briefly mention it in a polemic against the Spartacists, Globalization and the International Working Class: A Marxist Assessment, [9] which was written the same year (1998) as the lecture, but his remarks are anything but illuminating. He writes: “It is worth noting that the Russian unions played no appreciable role in the October Revolution. Indeed, the large rail workers union, which was dominated by the Mensheviks, worked actively against the socialist overthrow.”[10]

This is nonsense. While it is true that there were unions under Menshevik control that opposed the revolution, there were a good many more that sided with the Bolsheviks. (Moreover, as John Reed noted in Ten Days That Shook the World, the only reason the rail workers union came out against the revolution was because the union executive deliberately postponed internal elections, knowing that they would be swept out of office by the Bolsheviks.[11]) North is simply trying to evade an important piece of history that doesn’t fit with his theory about the organically reactionary nature of the union form. To be sure, the role the unions played in the revolution was a supporting rather than a leading one, but that is all that any Marxist would ever have expected. The unions could never be a substitute for the party, but to the extent that they provided a working class base for Bolshevism, their role in the revolution was indeed an appreciable one. With his eye for the telling detail, John Reed gives us a memorable glimpse at what unions meant to wide layers of the working class just awakening to political consciousness in the course of the revolution:
…Russia was in travail, bearing a new world. The servants one used to treat like animals and pay next to nothing, were getting independent. A pair of shoes cost more than a hundred rubles, and as wages averaged about thirty-five rubles a month the servants refused to stand in queue and wear out their shoes. But more than that. In the new Russia every man and woman could vote; there were working-class newspapers, saying new and startling things; there were the Soviets; and there were the Unions. The izvoshtchiki (cab-drivers) had a Union; they were also represented in the Petrograd Soviet. The waiters and hotel servants were organized, and refused tips. On the walls of restaurants they put up signs which read, “No tips taken here–” or, “Just because a man has to make his living waiting on table is no reason to insult him by offering him a tip!”[12]
Of course the great ferment of the revolution produced new forms of struggle, most famously soviets as well as factory committees, and the activities of these various formations often overlapped. But the unions were by no means the least important or the most conservative of these formations. Indeed, when it came to the critical moment of the insurrection, it was the soviets that proved to be more of an obstacle than the unions! In The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky writes about the “fetishism of organizational forms” – meaning here the soviets – on the part of conservative elements within the party (notably Kamenev and Zinoviev) opposed to the seizure of power[13]: they used the fact that the soviets were still formally under the control of the reformist parties to argue that the insurrection had to be put off indefinitely. For Lenin and Trotsky, the soviets were never (as Trotsky put it elsewhere) “a panacea”,[14] and if the obstructionism of the reformists couldn’t be overcome within the soviets, then the alternative was to turn to the factory committees and the unions as the direct organs of workers’ power:
The question, what mass organizations were to serve the party for leadership in the insurrection, did not permit an a priori, much less a categorical, answer. The instruments of the insurrection might have been the factory committees and trade unions, already under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, and at the same time in individual cases certain soviets that had broken free from the yoke of the Compromisers. Lenin, for example, said to Ordzhonikidze: “We must swing over the center of gravity to the factory and shop committees. The factory and shop committees must become the organs of insurrection.”[15]
Thus the test of the Russian experience plays havoc with North’s theory. If it were possible for the Bolsheviks to use the unions as one of their “instruments of the insurrection,” then clearly the union-form is not organically impervious to the revolutionary content of the class struggle. In other words, the class interests of workers are not “inevitably subordinated” to capitalism purely by virtue of this form. It all depends on the extent to which revolutionaries can overcome the prevailing “line of least resistance.”

In this respect, unions are no different than any other spontaneous formation of the working class, including even soviets. There isn’t an organizational form in the working class more closely associated with the socialist revolution than soviets, and yet in 1918-19, the SDP used the workers’ councils in Germany (Trotsky called them the “Ebert-Scheidemann soviets”) to strangle the revolution, and the SDP’s Russian counterparts in 1917 would have done the same, had it not been for the opposition of the Bolsheviks. Moreover, under Stalin the Russian soviets were gutted of any revolutionary content and incorporated into the apparatus of the bureaucratic dictatorship. But it would be perverse on this basis to argue that the soviets as a social form are organically reactionary. As Trotsky remarked in relation to the point he made about the soviets not being a panacea: “The soviets are only an organizational form; the question is decided by the class content of the policy and by no means by its form.”[16] And that is also true of the unions: it is not their form but “the class content of their policy” which has determined their evolution.

The Russian soviets have long since gone to the dustbin of history and the traditional unions are now joining them there. The task of revolutionaries is to intervene in the mass struggles of the working class, to help develop new forms of struggle – whether that be new unions, factory and strike committees and eventually new soviets as well – and to fight to fill those forms with revolutionary content. This is the only standpoint consistent with classical Marxism, but it is a standpoint that the International Committee, under North’s tutelage, has abandoned.



[1] G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, (Hackett Publishing, 1991), p. 202.
[2] “The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter on the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument.  This integument is burst asunder.  The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Marx, Capital, Volume I, (Penguin Classics, 1990), p. 929.
[3] V.I. Lenin, What is to be done?, in Collected Works, v. 5, p. 386. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm#v05fl61h-373-GUESS
[4] ibid, p. 384-5.
[5] Bernstein’s biographer Peter Gay recounts how a prominent SPD leader, Ignaz Auer, wrote to Bernstein to complain, not about the content of his views, but rather about his indiscretion in making them public. Bernstein had wanted the party to pass a resolution acknowledging its reformist character, to which Auer responded: “My dear Ede, you don’t pass such resolutions. You don’t talk about it, you just do it” (The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism, p. 270). This private remark says a good deal about the internal life of the SPD.
[6] The Transitional Program, p. 75.
[7] Ibid, p. 79.
[8] Leon Trotsky, What Next? in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, pp. 237, 233. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1932-ger/next03.htm#s13 .
[9] Though this polemic was issued in the name of the ICFI, it is evident both from the style and substance that it was written by North.
[10] Globalization and the International Working Class: A Marxist Assessment, p. 81. http://www.wsws.org/exhibits/slreply/part4-1.shtml#top . From here on, all page references to this work will be included in the text.
[11] John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, p. 6, http://www.marxists.org/archive/reed/1919/10days/10days/ch1.htm .
[12] ibid, pp. 13-14.
[13] Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 818. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch36.htm
[14] Leon Trotsky, “Thaelmann and the ‘People’s Revolution’”, in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.79. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1931/310414.htm
[15] The History of the Russian Revolution, ibid.
[16] “Thaelmann and the ‘People’s Revolution’”, ibid.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Bending Right: The Evolution of Karl Kautsky Part II

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Rosa Luxemburg
Note: This is the concluding part of Bending Right: The Evolution of Karl Kautsky, by Jim Creegan
Part I is available here: The Evolution of Karl Kautsky Part I

Kautsky Against the Left

 In a 1912 essay, Massenaktion und Revolution, Pannekoek argued in essence that capitalism—or at least its German version--had entered a new period in which the steady, gradual progress of the working class was no longer possible. Such advancement, he held, was tolerated by the ruling class only when the workers’ movement had been weak. But growing proletarian strength, combined with intensified competition among imperialist powers, made the bourgeoisie much more prone to militarism and repression. German parliamentary democracy, truncated to begin with in the constitutional monarchy the country then was, was becoming even more impotent. The enemy of the workers did not consist of particular political parties, but the armed power of the state as a whole, to which the workers could counterpose nothing but their own concentrated force.

Under these conditions, the workers would be compelled to rely chiefly upon extra-parliamentary struggle, the major weapon of which was the mass strike. Contrary to Kautsky, Pannekoek asserted the mass strike could not be understood as a discretely employed tactic or single event, but as rather a recurring, and sometimes spontaneous, inflection point  in an ongoing mass struggle. Moreover, he asserted that such a struggle could not be confined to the existing organizations of the proletariat—unions and party-- as in what Pannekoek decried as Kautsky’s “cult of formal structures”. He viewed revolution as a profound social paroxysm  that would inevitably overflow established organizational bounds  and  draw in new layers, which were not mainly the marginal lumpen elements of  times past, but part of a larger proletarianized mass. The revolutionary process would consist of both organized efforts and spontaneous improvisations. Following Marx in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, Pannekoek argued that one of the most important things to emerge from revolutionary  struggle would be alternative, more radically democratic forms of political power, distinct from, and destined to replace, bourgeois parliaments and state structures. He also took exception to a view of imperialist war Kautsky had expressed earlier: that a socialist party too weak to prevent a war could do little to stop it once begun. On the contrary, Pannekoek declared, wars create social crises by straining the resources of the nation to the limit, and imposing heavy burdens upon the working class. Its sons comprise most of imperialism’s mass armies, and could therefore not necessarily be relied upon to repress the  revolts that war could trigger.   
   
It was in answer to Pannekoek that Kautsky clarified his own contrasting views on the transition to socialism, as they  evolved since he had taken up the cudgels against Bernstein and the revisionists in 1909.  Kautsky reaffirmed his belief in the slow but unstoppable advance of the working class. The SPD and the unions were far too big and powerful ever to be annihilated by the state or right-wing forces; reactionary thrusts aimed at breaking their power could be nothing more than transient episodes. The vehicles of proletarian progress were, and could only be, the party and the trade unions. In championing the ‘new tactic’ of mass action, Pannekoek and Luxemburg were indulging in romantic pipe dreams. Spontaneous initiatives on the part of unorganized elements, being both unpredictable and beyond party and union control, were highly suspect, and potentially damaging to the planned and methodical efforts of workers’ organizations . The attempts of the left to import the methods of a backward and undemocratic country like Russia into an advanced semi-democracy like Germany ignored all the obvious differences between the two countries. Germany had a stronger state, and to confront it directly would spell certain defeat.   “To direct the workers’ movement toward mass actions is merely to replace the old one-sidedness for which Marx coined the expression parliamentary cretinism with a new cretinism, which we may define, continuing the metaphor, as a cretinism of mass actions”[8] Kautsky called for a strategy of attrition rather than confrontation. The proletariat, growing continually in strength, could in his view wear down and exhaust the ruling class.    
                                             
Just as wild-eyed, according to Kautsky, as the “cretinism of mass action” was all talk of “smashing” or replacing the existing state. It was utopian, he said, to imagine that the modern state, with all its complex functions and  intricate division of labor, could be replaced by ordinary citizens who would run the state in their spare time (although it is not clear that Pannekoek or Luxemburg ever argued this position; Pannekoek said only that new, more democratic state forms would grow up in the course of mass struggle). Under a socialist regime, parliament, as well as  all the old ministries, would remain intact, although more decentralized and responsive to the people. What socialists should aim at was not a new state, but a shift of power within the state, i.e. not new state forms, but a new government, which would direct the old apparatus in working-class interests. “The objective of our political struggle,” he wrote, “remains what it has been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state [as opposed to the then commanding position of the Kaiser—JC] Certainly not the destruction of state power.”[9]

If Kautsky’s polemic with Luxemburg and Pannekoek made explicit certain tendencies in his thinking implicit even in 1909, his writings on war and imperialism between 1912 and 1913 represent a complete abandonment of earlier views. At the Second Congress of the Second International in 1910, Kautsky reaffirmed his position that militarism and an  armaments race  were necessary parts of the foreign policies of all major capitalist powers:

…It is utopian to believe that bourgeois pacifist conferences or visits by friends of peace to foreign governments can abolish the danger of war and introduce disarmament and submission to international courts… national conflicts, like social conflicts, cannot be overcome in the bourgeois world of competition.[10]  

Yet, in an article titled “Ultra-Imperialism”, published after the outbreak of the war but completed beforehand, Kautsky argues that imperialism, while it arises for economic reasons, is not an economic necessity for capitalism. Just as competition within advanced countries leads to the formation of cartels, by which competition is restrained, so the calamities brought about by inter-imperialist rivalries can jolt the rival states into recognizing the necessity of restraining themselves in order to promote free trade, and come to international agreements to respect each other’s spheres of influence. Such an arrangement Kautsky dubs “ultra-imperialism”, reprising a term coined by the German socialist economic theorist Rudolf Hilferding. Kautsky further avers that, while imperialist nationalism is in the interest of finance capital, it is contrary to the interests of industrial capital, and socialists should therefore encourage the pacific sections of capital against the more bellicose ones.
 Kautsky wrote in 1907 that, in the event of war: 

…The German government  could convince the workers  that they were under attack, the French government could likewise convince the French workers, and we would then find ourselves confronted with a war in which the German and French proletariats would march with equal enthusiasm behind their own governments and massacre and slaughter each other. This must be averted, and it will be averted if we reject the criterion of a war of aggression and instead adopt the criterion of the interests of the proletariat, which are international interests.[11]       
  
But also around this time, Kautsky discovered the distinction between offensive and defensive wars. He wrote that, while the working class might be persuaded to oppose a war of aggression on its government’s part, attempting to turn it against a war for the defense of its own soil against invaders was a fool’s errand. It was this distinction that Kautsky invoked when he advised the SPD Reichstag deputies to vote for war credits in  1914.  One cannot but suspect that, beneath his resignation to the proletariat’s sympathy for a supposedly defensive war, lay a sneaking sympathy of his own.

Thus, by August 1914, all the theoretical arguments used to justify Kautsky’s capitulation were already elaborated. Their guiding thread—from a reverence of parliamentary forms to ultra-imperialism—is a  worship of order, methodical action and incremental progress, combined with a correlative abhorrence of spontaneity and confrontation. Kautsky even goes so far as to impute his faith in peaceful, reason-governed progress to the imperialist powers, or factions thereof, at the very time when inter-imperialist rivalries were exploding in salvos of machine gun and cannon fire, and the class struggle in many European countries was overflowing parliamentary sluice gates. 

In the Crucible

Kautsky’s post-World War I political thought cannot be usefully approached as an abstract debate over governmental forms—class dictatorship versus universal suffrage—as it is by James Muldoon in Jacobin. It must rather be understood concretely, amid the political crosscurrents of the time.
 
  As German soldiers streamed home in defeat from the fronts in 1918, they joined forces with rebellious sailors and workers to follow the Russian example by setting up democratically elected councils and overthrowing the Kaiser. The more radical of these insurgents were also inspired by the October Revolution to attempt to replace the Kaiser with a government based upon the active, participatory democracy of the councils. The majority Social Democrats adamantly rejected such efforts, insisting upon limiting the mass movement to the goal of establishing a conventional parliamentary republic.

But more was at stake here than a political preference. Behind the mask of parliamentary democracy, the ruling strata of German society—Junkers, capitalists and the army general staff—scrambled desperately  to preserve their dominion. The more astute among them knew that the official representatives of the status quo were now too thoroughly discredited to intervene effectively. They were forced to rely upon a party that wielded some influence among the masses. The leaders of the SPD, who were only too willing to lend themselves to these counterrevolutionary designs, were therefore allowed to form a government and proclaim a republic. But, unknown to the people, the new president, Friedrich Ebert, was colluding with the German commander of internal troops Wilhelm Groener, to suppress the growing revolt,  which much of the SPD rank-and -file had joined. The SPD placed itself at the head of many workers’ and soldiers’ councils, with the concealed aim of disempowering them. Military detachments were moved into Berlin to suppress the workers. Ebert’s minister of defense, the right-wing social democrat Gustav Noske, engaged and trained the proto-Nazi elite military bands  called the Freikorps, which, in the sanguinary finale to first phase of the German revolution in January 1919, slaughtered Berlin red guards and smashed in the skulls of the two principal leaders of the Spartakusbund, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

During these events,  and for some time after, Kautsky still adhered to the centrist USPD, or Independent Social Democrats, and realized that the repressions of the so-called Spartakus Week represented a victory for reactionary forces in the country. Yet he assigned the principal blame for this reversal to the Spartakusbund, which he claimed had provoked the right by misreading the temper of German workers, and leading a minority into a confrontation in which they were bound to be defeated.

While it was true that the rising of January 1919 was premature in that the majority of workers had not been won to the revolutionary cause, it was not the work of a small band of revolutionary conspirators in the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD, still widely called Spartacists), which was still far too small to wield any mass influence. The rising rather took place on the initiative of the more militant sections of the workers, centered in Berlin and the Ruhr valley, who were intent on making a bid for state power despite Luxemburg’s warning that the German revolution was still in an early phase. The other principal leader of the KPD, Karl Liebknecht, although showing  exemplary courage in opposing the war, was not a level-headed leader, and, much to Luxemburg’s reproof, allowed himself to be carried along by the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm that enveloped his Berlin precincts. Yet, once the die had been cast, Luxemburg put aside all reservations to voice her complete solidarity with the revolutionary workers. Kautsky, on the other hand, moved rapidly in the opposite direction. From this time forth, his major efforts were directed at denouncing the German revolutionary left and the ‘Bolshevik menace’.

Mending Fences

Kautsky attempted to justify his rightward motion in theoretical terms.  In the early 20s, when socialist revolution seemed to many a more immediate prospect than ever before, Kautsky argued that the socialist goal had to be put on indefinite hold. Socialism, he wrote, required a high level of economic development, which in turn strengthened the proletariat and democracy. The war, however, had set back the economies of the belligerent powers, and temporarily strengthened the forces of militarism and right-wing reaction. Socialists should therefore seek to restore the preconditions of socialism by helping to revive capitalist economies, and align themselves with more democratic capitalist forces to achieve this end. We have already seen how, even when arguing against Bernstein in 1909, Kautsky revered bourgeois parliaments, and, even before 1914,  abandoned his belief that imperialism was endemic to capitalism. Now, with this endorsement of coalition politics, the last remnant of his earlier, more radical thinking—his assertion, in The Road to Power, that the working class and its party alone could begin the transition to socialism—had gone by the boards. In a 1932 obituary for Bernstein, Kautsky admitted that, since 1914, he and his erstwhile revisionist adversary “have always adopted the same point of view”[12]

Kautsky’s theoretical mending of fences with Bernstein was accompanied by a political rapprochement with German social democracy. The centrist party to which Kautsky adhered since 1917, the USPD, represented an alliance of all those tendencies in German socialism—some revolutionary, and others decidedly reformist-- that criticized the SPD from the left. Such a combination, however, could not withstand the polarization that took place in the aftermath of the war and the October Revolution.

The Spartakusbund, which had joined the USPD for want of a better alternative, split off to form the Communist Party in 1918. In 1920, a majority of the USPD voted at its Halle Congress to join the Communist International. Kautsky was one of the leaders of the right-wing faction that voted against the merger and advocated re-entering the SPD. The latter party’s role in saving the day for the ruling class and decapitating the incipient revolution did not deter him in the least.  According to Kautsky, the major threat facing the working class was not the re-armed German bourgeois state, but Bolshevism, which divided the working class and threatened to interrupt its peaceful parliamentary ascent by damaging the economy and provoking civil war. His denunciations of the left matched that of any reactionary in point of vehemence and class abuse: he wrote that Bolshevism represented,  “The rule of the unorganized over the organized, of the ignorant over the educated, of the selfish over the disinterested”[13]

Kautsky’s opposition to the Russian Bolshevik regime at this time was also more implacable than that of many a Menshevik and right social democrat. He wrote that Bolshevism aimed to impose a dictatorship of a militant working-class minority over the rest of the proletariat and other classes. The threat it posed to parliamentary democracy, which Kautsky regarded as the main institutional vehicle for worker advance, combined with the danger it presented of civil war, which would undermine the economic progress he viewed as a prerequisite for socialism, made Bolshevism the most deadly enemy of the working class, even more so than Mussolini or the Hungarian fascist dictator, Miklós Horthy.

There was, according to Kautsky, nothing defensible in the Soviet regime. Unlike western capitalist states, it could not be reformed, but could only be overthrown  Against the Menshevik, Fyodor Dan, he argued that state ownership of the means of production was nothing more than the power base of a Bonapartist dictatorship, and was not worth preserving by the working class; he even favored a partial restoration of private property. In a polemic with the Austrian centrist, Friedrich Adler, Kautsky categorically rejected the idea of any united-front effort with the Communists against the National Socialists .

As for the Nazis themselves, Kautsky initially maintained that they were impotent against steady democratic advance of the working class; they would prove to be nothing more than passing episode. When, contrary to his predictions, the Nazis came to power in 1933, Kautsky blamed the Communists for having created the brown scourge by inflaming the class struggle to begin with. Thus did the “pope of Marxism” end his days, in Amsterdam in 1938, with a political analysis which in certain respects anticipates the arguments of the 1980s German historians Ernst Nolte and Joachim Fest to the effect that the rise of Nazism can be traced to the original “totalitarian” sin of the October Revolution.

Kautsky as Guide?

If  Marxists in the western countries during the 1950s and 60s faced the dilemma of maintaining a revolutionary outlook amid relative peace and prosperity, Kautsky’s thinking suffered from the opposite incongruity: a deepening commitment to orderly progress and comity among nations during a period in which the imperialists were bent on war, and (in Trotsky’s phrase) the voltages of class struggle in many European countries were far too high for parliamentary circuits.  

Heightened class struggle and revolution involve the unleashing of explosive social passions and hatreds, and are by their very nature disorderly affairs for which there was little room in Kautsky’s tidy schema for the transition to socialism. As far removed as this writer is from the formulaic thought of the Chinese revolution’s “Great Helmsman”,  Mao’s famous dictum about revolution not being a tea party or a card game, etc. seems appropriate in this context, if to these instances we add, a parliamentary debate. Some have argued that Kautsky became suddenly transformed from revolutionary to reformist in 1910.  But we have seen that his evolution  involved no abrupt turns, but rather an unfolding of tendencies implicit in his thinking from at least as early as 1909. On each occasion when his  schema ran up against the realities of class war, Kautsky clung all the more desperately to his schema to avoid reality. The end result was his adherence, despite centrist misgivings, to Social Democracy in its role as mobilizer of workers for imperialist war and savior of last resort of German capitalism. His aversion to “anarchy”, when all is said and done, amounted to a renunciation of revolution itself. His partiality to ‘order’ ultimately led to an embrace of the (temporarily) reconsolidated bourgeois order of Germany under the Weimar Constitution.

 Certain contemporary left currents are rediscovering Kautsky under circumstances very different from those of his time. His role as a centrist—seemingly poised equally between a reformist right and a revolutionary left, but veering ever rightward—may be difficult to grasp today because there is no revolutionary left of any consequence. In this political void-- and in the absence of sustained and militant industrial struggle—growing numbers  of people discontented with the manifest inequalities of neoliberal capitalism have nowhere to turn but to the electoral arena and left-reformist politicians. These left bulges in the Democratic and Labour Parties are highly significant indicators of shifting sentiments, which only hidebound sectarians can dismiss. Some on the left, however, seem determined to make a virtue of a deficiency. They can conceive of no way forward but the electoral path, and regard Kautsky’s apotheosis of parliaments and elections as a long-forgotten trove of theoretical support for what they call ‘democratic socialism’.

The meaning of the ‘democratic socialism’ now espoused by major currents of the rebounding left is as ambiguous as this reborn left itself in relation to reform versus revolution. If “democratic socialism” means a socialism founded upon institutions of popular participation, as opposed to some kind of state- bureaucratic dictatorship, few would disagree. But if means, following Kautsky and social democrats since, that elections and parliaments are sacrosanct, there is much to argue with.

Parliamentary democracy is the Western bourgeoisie’s  major source of ideological legitimacy. For this reason, the capitalist class is willing to put up with this form of government, even though parliaments may pass legislation it dislikes, and there is always the risk that legislative bodies may pass out of the control of carefully vetted politicians and political parties. When this happens despite the multiple levers for influencing politics that enormous capital sums place in their hands, the ruling classes resort to economic sabotage and/or deploying the non-elected components of the state—bureaucracy, police and military—to overthrow governments and reassert their domination.

This is not to say that socialists should not fight for the broadest electoral democracy, and use elections and parliaments to disseminate ideas and win beneficial reforms. But they must also be aware of democracy’s limits, and attempt to combat widespread popular illusions about its possibilities. Left politicians who fail to do this—from  Allende, to Mitterrand, to Tsipras—and lead their followers to believe that fundamental changes can be achieved simply by electing left-wing parties and heads of government—find themselves and their supporters defenseless when the final reckoning comes; they are either overthrown (Allende) or succumb to pressures to betray their electoral promises and do the bidding of the bourgeoisie (Mitterrand and Tsipras). Nothing in the experience of the past hundred years supports the conclusion that  socialism can be attained by voting.

The above points to the conclusion that, simultaneously with electoral efforts, socialists should seek to build organizations of working-class power, and encourage extra-parliamentary mobilizations, able to confront the capitalist state. These alone can constitute the core of the dual-power institutions capable of mobilizing subaltern classes for combat when even the most successful electoral efforts prove unequal to the task.

Electoral and extra-parliamentary efforts can complement one another. But they can also come into conflict.   Bureaucrats and elected officials typically shudder at any hint of confrontation; they counsel moderation to avoid damaging electoral prospects. Bourgeois politicians portray extra-parliamentary  positions of power as a danger to democracy, and demand their dissolution. This is what happened in the Prussian suffrage crisis of 1910, and again in Germany in 1918-19. Luxemburg and Liebknecht chose one course, Kautsky another. Such situations will arise again if the current  leftward  momentum continues. Thinking in exclusively electoral terms leads inevitably to defeat, and socialists must, like Luxemburg and unlike Kautsky, place their emphasis on initiating and advancing struggles that take place outside the electoral frame.   
 
Whatever the  political forms of extra-parliamentary power  may arise today will no doubt be quite different from those of a century ago. The masses of industrial workers, soldiers and sailors who made up soviets  no longer exist in western countries. Developing new forms of popular democracy is a major challenge for socialists today. In meeting it, the writings of Karl Kautsky may have insights to offer; the over-all curve of his political career can only serve as a negative example.




[8] Kautsky, “Die neue Taktik’, quoted in Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution by Massimo Salvadori, London, 1990, p. 163  

[9] Ibid. quoted in Salvadori, p. 162

[10]  Quoted in Salvadori, p. 171

[11] Kautsky, Protokol über die Verhandlungen desParteiages der SPD, quoted in Salvadori p.123

[12] Quoted in Salvadori, p. 324

[13] Quoted in Salvadori, p 241


Jim Creegan can be reached at egyptianarch@gmail.com

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Jim Creegan

New York,

May 7, 2019