Fabian or anarchist?
Mike Macnair continues his critical discussion of the ‘Kautsky debate’ in the United States.
As I wrote last week in the first article in this series, for the past couple of years the US left has been debating strategy around the figure of Karl Kautsky (‘Widening frame of debate’, August 8). I argued that the debate effectively began with Vivek Chibber’s article published by Jacobin in December 2017 under the ‘Kautskyan’ title, ‘Our road to power’ - though the actual content of Chibber’s argument is anything but Kautskyan. In the first article I began with Chibber on the ‘party question’, which is where Chibber’s argument also began, but on which I thought his critic Charlie Post was unduly soft.
The second half of Chibber’s piece makes a series of claims about ‘strategy’ - which consists in rejecting a “ruptural break with capitalism” in favour of gradualism; and about ‘institutional’ matters: first, to reject the one-party-state model and the rejection of ‘liberal rights’; and second, to reject the idea of economic planning as unworkable, and to propose an alternative “market socialist” approach, which will differ from capitalism in that:
- The market will be constrained, so it isn’t the arbiter of people’s basic well-being.
- Economic decision-makers will be democratically accountable.
- Wealth inequalities will not be allowed to translate into political inequalities.
Chibber’s gradualism is the old story of the Fabianism of the Webbs, E Nesbit, George Bernard Shaw, and so on, which formed the core ideas of the British Labour Party from 1918. His anti-planning claim is, however, not Fabian, but Eurocommunist - belonging to the period of the 1980s-90s political collapse of both many of the mass communist parties and European social democratic parties. His attachment to the existing liberal constitutional order as ‘democratic’ is the only part of this politics which could be plausibly attached to Karl Kautsky, as it is by both James Muldoon and Eric Blanc. In this article I will consider Chibber’s and Muldoon’s arguments.
Chibber ends his argument for gradualism with the observation:
... social democracy was a spent force by the 1980s; its parties degenerated into a managerial ethos; their reformist agenda was halted and then reversed; and they have proven to be largely uninterested in revitalising their own legacy. For this phenomenon to be so widespread and so pervasive means that it can’t have been because of individual failings and treachery. There was something structural behind it. And this means in turn that the left needs to understand the structural roots of the failure to at least have a fighting chance at avoiding the same fate.
This is true, but provides no answers, because Chibber’s own commitments on the matters of ‘liberal rights’ and planning are exactly the commitments of the leaders of the social democratic and the Eurocommunist-controlled CPs at the period of their political collapse. The older social democratic parties, which - alongside the trade unions and cooperatives of various sorts - won major gains for the working class under capitalism, were committed to planning as an alternative to the market, although they set limits to it by their loyalty to the nation-state. The critique of planning, which Chibber merely asserts casts a heavy burden of proof on planning advocates, was a critique of social democratic planning and of British and European ‘slowdown’ and ‘stagflation’, as much as it was of Brezhnevite ‘stagnation’.1
And Labour’s constitutionalism was considerably narrower than that of ‘liberal rights’; the ‘political constitution’ approach advocated by JAG Griffith - now widely disapproved - expressed the view of ‘old Labour’,2 and this trend was willing where necessary to expropriate without compensation, to legislate retrospectively, and so on.
I have written at length on the ‘planning’ issue before now,3 and will now repeat only a short point. This is that planning in this context actually means any decisions taken on a non-market basis. So, for example, the large-scale building of public housing for rent in the UK between 1900 and 19794 was part of the ‘planning’ which was blamed for UK ‘stagnation’. In a sense, rightly so: any intervention in markets will prima facie reduce the profits potentially available to capital, and hence growth of taxable revenues, including speculative and monopoly profits, legal and accountancy fees, and so on; thus it will reduce the ‘efficiency’ in marginalist terms of the market.
When we look at the world in the light of the historical and present consequences of ‘shock therapy’ in the former Soviet bloc and the ‘market turn’ in the west, the attractiveness of the critique of planning is radically reduced.5
The problem this character of the critique of planning poses for rightwing social democrats and Eurocommunists, like Chibber, who want to learn from the defeat of the USSR, is that “The market will be constrained, so it isn’t the arbiter of people’s basic well-being”. “Economic decision-makers will be democratically accountable” is a fortiori to propose planning - and in addition to reject ‘liberal rights’, which are centrally about the right to use your own property as you choose (and only very much secondarily about freedom of speech and so on).
Moreover, the capitalist class routinely coerces states on policy questions through the flight of capital - witness, most recently, the defeat of the extremely mild reform proposals of the Hollande presidency in France (2012-17). This is not a novelty. George Brown, Harold Wilson’s chancellor, famously complained of the “gnomes of Zurich” in 1964 - and that in a regime where exchange controls were in place. The USA forced British capitulation over Suez in 1956 by organising a run on the pound.6
In fact, the 1989 ‘North-Weingast thesis’ famously argued that what most made industrial capitalism possible was institutional arrangements which allowed ‘credible commitment’: ie, gave state creditors veto power over government policy - starting with tradable state debt securities, the Bank of England and all that after 1688.7 It is not necessary for North-Weingast’s claims to be fully true for them to represent effectively routine creditor beliefs.
Taking that to be the case, how are investors to be coerced against their normal use of capital flight to enforce their preferred regime (of deregulation of capital, restrictions on trade unions, and so on)? The answer is that even to force capital to accept a limited mixed-economy regime of the sort Chibber recommends would require credible threats to take economic activities out of market control and/or to overthrow the constitutional order - the ‘credible commitments’ to creditor interests. If there are both credible threats and the possibility of compromise, concessions may be made.
The pattern of concessions in response to threats to control is absolutely routine politics - visible, for example, in the major concessions to the British working class in the 19th and 20th centuries. We can see it at work at a trivial level right now in the endeavours of the Conservative Party under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson to offer (spurious) concessions to working class areas in response to the unexpected victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election and the equally unexpected inability of the press (so far) either to dislodge him or to drive Labour out of the running.
A lot of British Eurocommunists became Blairites, which was entirely unsurprising. If the possibility of planning is to be rejected, the only politics which is available is to maximise the ‘competitiveness’ of the nation-state and then surreptitiously redistribute small crumbs to the poorest - the policy of Gordon Brown as chancellor. In the United States, such a policy would imply Democratic Leadership Council/Clintonista political commitments.
Equally belonging to the world of 1980s Eurocommunism and the decay of the mass social democratic parties is Chibber’s commitment to Fabian gradualism. He describes the Bolshevik revolution as “a strategy of a ruptural break from capitalism” and claims:
... starting in the 1950s, openings for this kind of strategy narrowed. And today it seems entirely hallucinatory to think about socialism through this lens. This is indubitably true in the advanced capitalist world, but it also holds for much of the south. Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917 ... Today, the political stability of the state is a reality that the left has to acknowledge ...
This is Rip van Winkle stuff: we have to imagine that Chibber went to sleep in 1988 and has just woken up. The argument is the standard yawn-yawn, cold-war-academic, Weberian and social democratic claim that the modern state is too solid to be overthrown. There is not even a clear attempt to differentiate between the various ‘modern states’ overthrown by ‘colour revolutions’ and so on, on the one hand, and the ‘advanced capitalist world’, on the other, in order to defend the thesis.
Dear comrade Chibber, haven’t you noticed that the pro-capitalist ideologues have abandoned gradualism, together with the US’s abandonment of right social democracy and become, instead, advocates of ‘human rights’, ‘colour’ revolutions and ‘humanitarian’ military interventions to make ‘ruptural breaks’ in the regimes inherited from the post-war period? Even in the ‘advanced capitalist countries’ what the hell do you think is the meaning of ‘Tea Party’ mobilisations and the Trumpites in the USA, Five Star and the Lega in Italy, the overthrow of the mainstream parties in favour of the bankster-Bonaparte, Emmanuel Macron, in France (with Le Pen only 2% behind in 2022 voting intention polls, and her Rassemblement National actually 1% ahead in the EU parliament elections), the Brexit vote and the victory of the no-dealers in Britain, and so on?
Of course, what is now in question is the overthrow of the constitutional order from the right, not from the left. The left’s surrender on most of its fundamental ideas and its fragmentation mean that it is only the right which appears to offer a real alternative. This is a repetition in the ‘advanced capitalist countries’ of the syndrome which appeared earlier in the Middle East, from the late 1970s on, where the left’s attachment (via Moscow) to the nationalist, authoritarian regimes made the Islamists appear as the only ‘real’ opposition. But overthrow from the right is still overthrow.
Moreover, if “ruptural break” means the Bakuninist strategy of the insurrectionary general strike (misattributed to Luxemburg and the Bolsheviks by the post-1956 ‘new left’), to which this ‘revolutionary’ left continues to pay lip-service - including some of Chibber’s critics - he is right to reject it. This did not happen in Russia in 1917. In October the Bolsheviks and left Socialist Revolutionaries and their allies, having won a series of elections, persuaded army units who supported them to take pre-emptive action against the (unelected) Provisional Government, which they believed was intending to prevent the meeting of the upcoming Congress of Soviets.8
‘Ruptural breaks’ can take a variety of forms, ranging from the installation of a (majority or minority) government committed to radical change and which proceeds to execute it, to an invasion, and so on. One-day and similar general strikes can be useful demonstrations. But an all-out general strike immediately poses the question of government; and a left which embarks on one without a clear indication that they have a political (not necessarily parliamentary) majority behind them and can at least split the armed forces is engaging in adventurism.
Fundamental change generally involves both ‘gradual’ and ‘ruptural’ processes. Consider, for example, the gradual rise of movements for parliamentary reform in late 18th to early 19th century Britain - and then the abrupt ‘ruptural’ process in 1831-32 permitting the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.9
Because the far left damns the German and Austrian social democrats for making ‘half-revolutions’ in 1919, we forget that the Hohenzollern and Habsburg monarchies were in fact overthrown and replaced by republics; and this was the work both of military defeat by the Entente and of the action of the working class in Germany, Austria, etc. In this second aspect, the ruptural change which occurred in 1918-19 was prepared by the long, gradual development of the social democratic movements.10
It would make sense to say that our present tasks are those of gradually rebuilding a workers’ movement and parties of extreme opposition to counter and delegitimise media, political and judicial attacks. We are at present too weak for an immediate struggle for power; and this is as true of the ‘Corbyn surge’ of around a quarter of a million into the Labour Party (but with limited actual mobilisation) as of the 55,000 of the Democratic Socialists of America - let alone the various splintered micro-groups of the far left.
But Chibber goes further than this, insisting on a ‘gradualism’ excluding ‘ruptures’ “for the foreseeable future”. What, then, is the point of this insistence, which is no longer even part of the standard orthodoxy of the pro-capitalist ideologues, as it was in the 1950s-80s?
The answer is, in fact, the same as the purposes of Bernstein in his 1890s argument for ‘revisionism’ - and the purposes of the French Communist Party in getting the trivial Radical Party on board for the people’s front in the 1930s. It is to give guarantees to the capitalist class that the workers’ movement will restrict itself to working within the bounds of legality and the constitutional order - even if, as in Germany in the 1890s, there were coup threats from the right or, as in France in the 1930s, the far right was actively engaged in militia operations.11 The underlying idea is that, if workers’ parties give such guarantees, that will enable them to win votes and enter into coalitions with centre groupings, which in turn will allow them to carry out reforms. ‘Gradualism’ is thus actually code for the workers’ movement announcing loyalism towards the existing state. But, for the reasons already indicated, this is actually less likely to win concessions.
The capitalist class itself from time to time promotes extra-legal activity - or asserts that formally legal state action is unconstitutional. Equally, the Labour rightwing trade union leader, Ernest Bevin, in May 1940 was reported addressing a mass meeting with the demand for a new government. The Chamberlain government fell.12 Nationalist in content, Bevin’s speech stretched the boundaries between parliamentary and direct action. To give guarantees against ‘rupture’ is to guarantee more subservience to convention than regular constitutional politics demands.
Because of his insistence on gradualism and the rejection of planning, Chibber has less to say about democracy. Merely:
... the lesson from October is in many ways a negative one - we have to reject wholesale the political model generated by the Bolsheviks, of a one-party dictatorship and the abrogation of basic liberties.
It was a calamitous mistake to denigrate liberal rights as ‘bourgeois’, which many Marxists of the early 20th century did, implying that those rights were illusory or fraudulent in some way. This rhetorical ploy made it far easier for those rights to be extinguished by Stalin and, before him, by Lenin himself. Liberal rights were all fought for and won by working class movements, not by liberal capitalists. Any left worth its salt has to protect and deepen those rights, not throw them aside.13
The problem here is buying ‘liberal rights’ as a package. But the core ‘liberal right’ - and the one on which, in fact, all the rest are founded as justiciable rights, as opposed to constitutional conventions or political aspirations - is the right of private property.14 To buy ‘liberal rights’ as a full package is to buy also the unaccountable judicial power and all the rest of the iron cage around politics of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, created, under and since the Carter administration, in the name of ‘human rights’.
Moreover, the undue expansion of the field of rights (‘inflationary rights’) creates the effect that they are always in conflict with one another, and managing of these conflicts, the judiciary is in substance taking political decisions. This has been absolutely visible in the decision-making of the European Court of Human Rights and of the UK courts since the Human Rights Act 1998 - spectacularly in the Viking and Laval cases in the European Union’s Court of Justice, which decided that the right to ‘freedom of establishment’ (free movement of capital) must take priority over the right to strike.15
This is not to say that the working class does not have interests in certain political, democratic rights: that is, rights which are necessary to democratic decision-making. For example, freedom of communication (speech and so on), freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, the right to a fair and public trial, the right to keep and bear arms, and so on.16
‘Best of Kautsky’
James Muldoon’s case for “reclaiming the best of Karl Kautsky” (presumably Jacobin’s choice of headline) is substantially more ‘Kautsky’ than Chibber’s ‘Our road to power’. Muldoon offers a somewhat ‘innocent’ reading of Kautsky’s January 1919 ‘Guidelines for a socialist action programme’. He cites it from the translation on the Marxists Internet Archive, but does not reference the source - Ben Lewis’s translation in this paper (November 10 2011). The referencing point is significant, because Ben gave the text an introduction providing a critical reading of the text, showing how it represented movement to the right on Kautsky’s part.17
As Ben remarked, Kautsky began with the claim that “On November 9 1918 the German proletariat conquered political power” - a claim which wholly ignored his own previous arguments about the nature of the working class taking power. He went on to advocate the dissolution of the standing army and the creation of a workers’ militia - implicitly noting that the Junkers’ army was still intact, in spite of the defeats on the western front and the naval mutiny which had triggered the revolution. This army, and paramilitaries drawn from it, were deployed against the working class in the same month that Kautsky was writing.18
Muldoon’s argument is not about Kautsky in his early 20th century political context. Rather, he sees this Kautsky text as offering a third way between Bolshevism and reformism:
Against reformists within the SPD, Kautsky argued that socialism could not be reduced to progressive social reforms and must include workers obtaining political power and transforming the economy. Yet, against the Bolsheviks, he contended that socialists should not reject democracy in the name of some ‘higher’ form of social organisation, based on the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871 or a ‘state of a new type’.
Kautsky instead strove for a deepening of democracy within existing political institutions and an extension of democratic principles throughout society, including to workplaces and other economic institutions.
Hence, rather than the workers’ councils becoming sovereign, as the Spartakists argued, there should be a sovereign parliament elected by universal suffrage, but
Workers’ councils should also remain as permanent centres for the mobilisation of workers, to represent their interests and ensure parliament was vigorously patrolled by an organised citizenry. At the same time, democracy must extend beyond the state level itself ...
Muldoon’s paraphrase of Kautsky’s arguments understate the extent to which these were managerialist in character. The existence of councils is supposed to substitute for the right to strike, since, according to Kautsky,
In a state where authority is in the hands of the capitalist class, striking is an indispensable tool of the workers to defend themselves against capitalist oppression and to eke out better living conditions. But this tool is a destructive one - like weapons in war. A state where political power lies in the hands of the workers must strive to introduce other methods to protect workers’ rights in all those branches of production where it cannot yet get rid of capital economically. These methods should not inhibit and disrupt the process of production as much as strikes do.
Or, on nationalisation, Kautsky writes:
Within an individual nationalised company, production can then be regulated similarly to private companies (as described above). The only difference is that the manager is not a private owner or his representative, but an official deployed by the relevant industrial council. Bonuses and profit-sharing can serve to keep management and workers interested in carrying out the most diligent and attentive work possible.
Kautsky’s silences are particularly important. I leave aside those Ben referred to in 2011, as relating to the political conjuncture of the Russian, German and other revolutions in 1918-19. The fact is that the 1919 ‘Guidelines’ proposes democratisation of the state only in relation to, first, replacing the army with a people’s militia (which would nonetheless retain a professional higher command and instructors); second, “The power of the centralised government bureaucracy must be broken by subordinating it to a national assembly elected by free and democratic suffrage”; and, third, this power is also broken by “immediately granting the right of extensive self-government (within the framework of state laws) to the municipalities, administrative districts and provinces”.
While Kautsky targets the professional army, he makes no mention of the professional police force or judiciary as independent political actors. This last was a considerable gap; the German judiciary under Weimar actively opposed social democratic governments and treated far-right violence with undue leniency. This was hardly a new discovery: Kautsky may not have previously addressed judicial political bias, but its existence was a common understanding of at least British and US socialists before 1914.
“Subordinating” the central government bureaucracy to a national assembly poses the question - how? Kautsky provides no answers. What underlay the degree of responsibility to the elected assembly found in the old British constitution were the powers of impeachment and attainder (and the fact they had, in fact, been used) and of the parliamentary detention of judicial officials for contempt of the Commons, as in the 1840s), together with the legal controls requiring authority for the armed forces and taxation to be renewed every year. Trial by jury in civil as well as in criminal cases supplemented these legal rules by limiting (though not eliminating) the ability of the judges to manipulate the law.
In fact, the Weimar constitution created a powerful elected presidency standing between the national assembly and the executive - the opposite of “subordinating” the central bureaucracy. Right Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, the first president, was elected by the national assembly, but the constitution provided for direct election of his successor, and rightist general Paul von Hindenburg was elected in 1925 and re-elected in 1932. If Engels had characterised the French Third Republic as the “empire of 1799 without the emperor”, the Weimar constitution was basically the Second Reich without the emperor.
Directly elected presidencies had been condemned by Marxists from the time of Louis Bonaparte, and the institution of the presidency was condemned by US socialists already in the 1890s. So the point was not new to socialists.
Kautsky’s ‘Guidelines’ makes no mention of these nuts and bolts of the constitutional aims of accountability he sets out. I raise these issues because they are precisely matters of present pressing political significance - without any need to argue right now for ‘all power to wholly hypothetical soviets’. Both the USA and the UK are at present displaying serious symptoms of judicial overreach and executive Bonapartism. Councilism has nothing to say about these issues.
Kautsky’s silences on them in ‘Guidelines’ - in spite of his elaborate discussion in the series ‘Republic and social democracy in France’ - points up, as Ben Lewis argued, that this is a text transitional towards the right. Kautsky discusses economic management as a task of the workers’ councils to evade the issues of constitutional order, which were being resolved in favour of the inherited state. The effect of the councils self-limiting to economic self-management was precisely to avoid confronting the undemocratic character of the state regime the SPD right was busily rebranding.
Muldoon does not have a web-visible, political-activist history, unlike Blanc.19 He appears to have started with general political theory, moving into the sphere of workers’ councils via the study of ‘totalitarianism’ theorist Hannah Arendt.20 His introductory essay to his 2018 edited collection Council democracy: towards a democratic socialist politics draws more heavily on the anti-party ‘council communism’, which influenced Arendt’s flirtation with councilism; the volume “draws upon the practices and writings of council communists, social democrats, libertarian socialists, anarcho-syndicalists and radical liberals who were critical of the domination and exploitation of both top-down state socialism and liberal democracy” and hopes that “the council movements could provide a germ and catalyst that inspires theorisation of new institutional forms and practices for democratic self-government in the present”. We are told that “The return to public assemblies and direct democratic methods in the wave of the global ‘squares movements’ since 2011 has rejuvenated interest in libertarian socialist and council thought.”21
The trouble is that this is, in fact, an appeal to ephemera. Muldoon comes close to admitting as much: the history of ‘council democracy’ is “a discontinuous tradition” - it episodically reinvents the square wheel. Jacobin’s headline for Chibber’s article would make Kautsky into a Bernsteinist; but Muldoon’s version uses the ‘Guidelines’ as a support for a variety of anarchism.
On this point see, for example, A Offer, ‘The market turn: from social democracy to market liberalism’ Economic History Review Vol 70 (2017), pp1051-1071. Since Chibber in the book of his thesis, Locked in place (Princeton UP 2003), credits his comrades in the US Solidarity group, he clearly was not a participant in the 1980-90s ‘critique of planning’ debates; indeed, he hand-waves away the substantial amount of ink spent on the issue (see among many others P Cockshott and A Cottrell Towards a new socialism Nottingham 1993; B Ollman (ed) Market socialism: the debate among socialists London1998, especially the essay by H Ticktin).↩︎
J Griffith, ‘The political constitution’ Modern Law Review no42 (1979), pp1-21. G Gee and C McCorkindale remark that “over the past 40 years, Griffith might be said to have ‘lost the argument’”( https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/2019/06/03/graham-gee-and-chris-mccorkindale-the-political-constitution-at-40).↩︎
Particularly ‘Delusions of unplanning’ Weekly Worker May 11 2017; also, ‘Socialism will not require industrialisation’ Weekly Worker May 14 2015.↩︎
J Boughton Municipal dreams: the rise and fall of council housing London 2018.↩︎
P Nolan China’s rise, Russia’s fall: politics, economics and planning in the transition from Stalinism (London 1995) was early in noticing the point about the disastrous consequences of the market turn under Yeltsin. On the ‘western’ market turn see Offer (note 1 above).↩︎
DB Kunz The economic diplomacy of the Suez crisis Chapel Hill NC 1991.↩︎
DC North and BR Weingast, ‘Constitutions and commitment: the evolution of institutions governing public choice in seventeenth-century England’ Journal of Economic History Vol 49 (1989), pp803-32. For some discussion and various critical papers see DM Coffman, A Leonard and L Neal (eds) Questioning credible commitment Cambridge 2013.↩︎
A Rabinowitch The Bolsheviks come to power London 2009.↩︎
Eg, discussion in TS Aidt and R Franck, ‘Democratization under threat of revolution: evidence from the Reform Act 1832’ Econometrica Vol 83 (2015), pp505-47.↩︎
The ‘half revolution’ judgment is, I think, justified - but only justified because of what happened in 1933. It is not unlike ‘Leninism led to Stalinism’: we need to be much more concrete about the relationship between the events.↩︎
For coup threats in Germany, see DE Kaiser, ‘Germany and the origins of the First World War’ Journal of Modern History Vol 55 (1983), pp442-74.↩︎
T Corfield, ‘Why Chamberlain really fell’ History Today December 1996.↩︎
Chibber (or Jacobin) links two articles by JM Schwartz, neither of which exactly supports the points made in Chibber’s text, since they are polemics against rightist claims that socialism is undemocratic.↩︎
M Macnair, ‘Law and state as holes in Marxist theory’ Critique Vol 34 (2006), pp211-36, and ‘Free association versus juridification’ Critique Vol 39 (2011), pp53-82.↩︎
The point is mainly used by the right against ‘social rights’ - Googling ‘human rights inflation’ produces above 9,000 hits, many of this sort - but that does not actually prevent it being valid.↩︎
I have argued this point further in ‘Democracy and rights’ Weekly Worker July 9 2017.↩︎
www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1919/01/guidelines.html. For Ben’s commentary, see B Lewis, ‘From Erfurt to Charlottenburg’ Weekly Worker November 10 2011.↩︎
M Jones Founding Weimar: violence and the German Revolution of 1918-1919 (Cambridge 2016) is the most recent account.↩︎
As indicated above, Chibber’s activist involvement is given by his acknowledgments in his first book. It is invisible online.↩︎
‘The lost treasure of Arendt’s council system’ Critical Horizons Vol 12 (2011), pp396-417 - with a lot of hat-tipping to fashionable ‘post-Marxist’ authors of one sort or another.↩︎