I do recognise and salute Ben Lewis’s huge effort and commitment in translating a number of Karl Kautsky’s key works into English, but I question the value, time and space given in the Weekly Worker to Kautsky’s writings.
Yes, it may be correct that Lenin among others regarded Kautsky as the pre-eminent Marxist before his collapse and treachery in 1914, but surely we can’t say that before 1914 Kautsky was a complete, immaculate Marxist who then, suddenly and dramatically, flipped completely and went over to the side of the class enemy. People don’t ‘suddenly’ turn overnight: these ‘turns’ are usually the product of numerous quantitative and qualitative changes in thinking over long periods of time. Big dramatic and controversial events may, of course, place massive pressures on individual communists, but if they buckle and give way this is usually because their original commitment and identification with the ideas, values and principles of scientific communism has eroded over time.
I always felt when reading Ben’s translations that Kautsky still came across as stilted, mechanical, formulaic - as if he didn’t quite believe what he was saying, but felt the need to go through the formal motions of Marxism, reciting the key texts. Ben’s quotes from when Kautsky was meant to be a ‘good Marxist’ actually serve to highlight the inherent revisionism in his politics at that time and the basis for his future capitulation (‘Dispelling the Kautsky myths’, March 5).
Kautsky writes: “... the same republic (or state) which forms the basis for the emancipation of the proletariat can at the same time become the basis for the class domination of the bourgeoisie.” The bourgeois state machine “is the indispensable precondition of the liberation of the proletariat”.
No, completely wrong on both counts. Lenin was really clear about this in his State and revolution. The state of the bourgeoisie must be overthrown and smashed, and replaced by an entirely new state, the commune or soviet state - the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is this new state, the state representing working class power, which is required to both suppress the overthrown bourgeoisie and their allies and agents and to exercise leadership in starting to build up the new socialist economy.
There really is no room for compromise between these fundamentally opposite views: the Kautsky view that the capitalist state can be taken over, and used to build socialism; or that that state has to be completely replaced by another, including through working class socialist revolution.
Ben claims Kautsky makes “a bold anti-revisionist statement on one of the core features of Marxist political strategy” - he is “extensively quoting from Marx’s Civil War in France on the Paris Commune”. The giveaway is Kautsky “extensively quoting”. Yes, but either not really understanding or, more likely, seeking to appropriate Marx’s words as window-dressing for essentially a reformist parliamentary strategy.
Ben quotes Kautsky: “The conquest of state power by the proletariat therefore does not simply mean the conquest of the government ministries ... but the dissolution of ... the state church, bureaucracy and officer corps. As long as the proletariat is not strong enough to abolish these institutions of power, then taking over individual government departments and entire government will be to no avail.”
Interesting in Ben’s quote there is no reference to what will replace the “abolished institutions of power”, which was half of Lenin’s critique: ie, against the anarchists (the flipside of the reformists), who want to immediately abolish all states. Kautsky’s “does not simply mean” still infers that the political party of the working class is first elected to parliament and to government as a precondition for the next steps: ie, to fundamentally remake the state apparatus.
Again, this is the polar opposite of State and revolution. The proletariat must first carry out the socialist revolution, overthrowing the bourgeois state and bourgeois rule, and then proceed to formally establish a new state of the working class, which itself will be based on the institutions, organisations and structures of the working class, including those newly developed in the course of the revolutionary struggle.
Ben thinks Kautsky is warning against parties such as Labour, Syriza or Sinn Féin coming to power, when in fact Kautsky is precisely advocating they should indeed first come to power (or office) and then use that office, backed by the “strength of the proletariat”, to implement “revolutionary” changes.
Actually, the Labour Party, as the mass political party of the organised labour movement and its parliamentary expression, absolutely must seek to win governmental office if it is to carry out any of its limited reformist aims, to help protect workers against the negative aspects of capitalism and the state. But it is the role of a genuine Communist Party, along with its mass membership and even greater mass influence, to help stimulate, guide and lead the working class to carry out socialist revolution.
However, trying to convert the Labour Party into a Marxist organisation - a sort of halfway-house Communist Party - is precisely where the Weekly Worker group goes wrong. Translating and studying Kautsky, even “when he was a Marxist”, is clearly and inevitably not helping. It could be the role of the Labour Party to be the representative of the whole of the working class and labour movement - at present this is only partial - to fully and independently represent the class where it is at the present time.
The role of the Communist Party is to represent the future for the class. Clearly, there is no Chinese wall between the present and the future: the past and present help determine the future, but they are not the same and should not be confused. There should be a strong relationship between the Communist Party and the Labour Party, but this has to be won openly and democratically, not through subversion or entryism.
Ben describes the hardback version of his book as “extortionately priced” at over £121. Actually, it is completely shocking! I respect that Ben as an academic has tremendous intellectual and language skills, an unrivalled personal interest in Karl Kautsky and needs to earn a living, but to present this item as necessary for advanced workers to read and assimilate to help progress the basic class struggle outside of academia, and at such a price, really is to demonstrate a basic disconnect from the real world.
Ian Donovan makes the following scurrilous and slanderous attack on our comrade, Gareth Martin, in his letter last week:
“Martin does not want to be reminded of what and when he said things. That’s a pity, because we have screenshots of him on the Socialist Fight Facebook discussion group racially abusing a comrade of ours of Middle Eastern origin. His exact words were: ‘Excusing anti-Semitism on the grounds of Israeli atrocities is absolutely blaming people collectively. Blame Israelis for them, blame the IDF - that in no way justifies walking into a synagogue in London or anywhere else and committing murder.’
“This was a direct criticism of one of our Middle Eastern comrades. It is a sickening racist fantasy, as (a) there have been no such actions in London, and (b) our comrade lives in London, as he pointed out. So it appears that Gareth Martin, who is not a member of Socialist Fight and was never voted into even candidate membership by full members of our organisation, as is a basic democratic norm of the communist movement, took it upon himself to slyly imply that a fellow comrade, who disagrees with his views on Gilad Atzmon, is the sort of person who is likely to murder Jews in a synagogue in London. This is appalling racial abuse and should be deeply disturbing for anyone remotely familiar with the Islamophobia that targets people of Middle Eastern and Muslim background in this country.”
Look at the line of argument here and the ridiculous, demented non-sequiturs; how in the hell is it “a direct criticism of one of our Middle Eastern comrades”? Ah, you see, Gareth mentions London and the comrade he is debating with lives in London (he doesn’t), so he must be referring to him! The simple and correct analogy that the murderous actions of Israel against the Palestinians do not justify anti-Semitic murders is taken to “slyly imply” that his opponent in the exchange is a supporter of the mass murder of Jews. This tendentious nonsense then becomes established fact and not simply ‘slyly implied’ at. What is more, it makes Gareth Martin an Islamophobic racist!
Previously Ian’s ‘proof’ of his racism was a ridiculous biological-determinist theory: he is white and was born in South Africa, so this made him a racist and a supporter of Zionism, regardless of his proud record of fighting apartheid in South Africa since he was a teenager and his direct participation in the Anti-Nazi League and the Socialist Workers Party for 10 years from the mid-1990s, all the while fighting against Zionism and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Now Ian demonises him as a “little white colonial boy”. And when we demanded he produce a quote to back up this ridiculous assertion, we got the drivel of nonsense above.
However, by his own logic, Ian really does inadvertently imply that to denounce the fascistic, anti-Semitic killing of Jews or to defend them in any way against these attacks, regardless of whether they are Zionists or not (these vile, fascistic murders have been recently perpetrated in France, Germany and elsewhere in eastern Europe), is racist and Islamophobic. Therefore, Gareth Martin is a racist Islamophobe because he does so! And Ian hopes that his followers will be naive enough to swallow this bile: a white man criticising the politics of a BAME person is invariable a racist - just as the Zionists claim that anyone who opposes the politics of Zionism is invariably an anti-Semite. We really must question why the Weekly Worker published this appalling, slanderous, anti-Semitic stuff.
Imagine this scenario: owing to a malfunction of the transporter equipment on the USS Enterprise, you’re accidentally beamed into a meeting room in California.
You discover that it is October 1 2016. You see that you are at a meeting organised by a hate group called the Institute for Historical Review - an organisation created in the late 1970s to promote (and profit from) holocaust denial. So you’re in a room with some 60 unconcealed racists and anti-Semites.
One of the scheduled speakers is that organisation’s leader, white nationalist Mark Weber - who, only a year before, had made headlines as keynote speaker at what Gerry Gable described as “the biggest and most significant meeting of holocaust deniers that Britain has ever seen”. Before Weber took leadership of the ‘Institute’, he was the editor of the National Vanguard, party organ of the extreme-right, whites-only party, National Alliance.
You discover there is a second speaker: Kevin B MacDonald - the discredited Californian academic, who tried to argue, using the field of behavioural evolution, that, yes, the Jews really are colluding against you. MacDonald, you learn, was the only person to voluntarily testify on David Irving’s behalf at Irving v Lipstadt/Penguin.
And you learn that the organisation itself was co-founded by white nationalist Willis Carto, an old-school opponent of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’, whose recommended solution to the US’s racial troubles was to send blacks back to Africa. And the other co-founder, you learn, was David McCalden of the British National Party.
So there you are, surrounded by neo-fash and in front of an audience of holocaust deniers. What do you do? If you have any claim whatsoever to the title of anti-racist, you leave as quickly as possible, stopping only to vomit on the shoes of a few key organisers.
If, on the other hand, you’re Gilad Atzmon, Ian Donovan’s inerrant guiding light on the Jewish question, you step up to the podium and give your invited ‘Jews are bad’ talk. Because that’s what Atzmon did, on October 1 2016, when he shared the stage with Weber and MacDonald at an ‘Institute’ event. This is not a random case of ‘Oh look who I bumped into’. It’s a joyful, jubilant, intentional hobnobbing with some of the biggest names in programmatic American anti-Semitism. It is also quintessential Gilad Atzmon.
It is entirely right to regard Ian Donovan as completely indefensible - a glad supporter and glad promoter of anti-Semitism - and it will remain true unless and until the Atzmon scales drop from his eyes. And I also think it’s right to thank Gerry Downing for coming around, rather than carping about the time it took. Late is far better than never, as Ian Donovan is in the process of demonstrating.
Capitalism was already in crisis before the Coronavirus broke out. For markets across the world, the longest ‘bull run’ this century was about to end. As for world trade, we were heading towards a global recession, if not another financial crash like 2008. Not only is the system unable to resolve its internal contradictions: it has run out of forms with which to mediate them. We have reached an impasse: After neoliberalism, what?
Meanwhile the system’s internal contradictions are becoming more acute. On the one side, we have overproduction, because of the conflict between use-value and exchange-value. As a result we have a surplus of artificial needs and a shortage of those which are real (eg, protective clothing for front-line medical staff and ventilators for patients). On the other, we have underconsumption, because wages are too low. That is why personal debt is out of control, as well as public debt. Inequality and hardship is growing, even among the lower middle class. Hence populism is on the rise, compounded by a slide towards economic nationalism, both from the right and the left. At the same time, we are confronted, not just with a climate crisis, but capitalist ecocide. All this was happening, as the coronavirus struck.
But the response to the spread of the virus has only made the crisis worse. Instead of a global strategy, it has been left to national states, who began to copy each other in a haphazard fashion. That is why the disease is growing exponentially, as well as spreading rapidly worldwide. Governments across the world lurched from one position to another: from a vain appeal for people to ‘self-isolate’ to national lockdowns. The latter has more to do with the move towards a draconian state, which atomises people and confines them to their own four walls. So those who are self-employed (especially workers on zero-hour contracts) are unable to work, whilst being denied financial support, leaving them unable to buy food for their families, etc. Meanwhile millions of wage workers are waiting for a cash handout, which will not be enough to make ends meet.
I can see two contradictory outcomes. Firstly, the bourgeoisie is having a nervous breakdown. Just 12 years after 2008, it is suffering from a sudden loss of confidence in its own system. There were plenty of danger signs regarding the economy, but it was the outbreak of the coronavirus which tipped things over the edge. Now the bourgeoisie is unsure which way to turn: should it move boldly forward and abandon neoliberalism in favour of a new form of mediation between the poles of contradiction within the system? In reality, the only alternative is to go back to Keynesianism: ie, centralised state intervention at the level of both the economy and welfare (but based on a more authoritarian state). On the other hand, the consciousness of the atomised masses remains at an all-time low, so the bourgeoisie is using the pandemic as an excuse to erode bourgeois democracy (with the support of a largely uncritical traditional media). But for how long? Already social media is rife with messages which reveal an incredulous public - people are angry at the loss of their personal freedoms. How long can they remain locked down before they break out? Is it conceivable that the idea to revolt could become a material force?
Secondly, given the deep level of uncertainty at all levels, has this thrown a lifeline to neoliberalism? Is this what the bourgeoisie itself now wants? Given the spread of social panic in the wake of the disease, not even the great disrupter himself, Trump, is immune. He has been forced to take the coronavirus seriously. If the American economy goes into recession, this gives the Democrats - now in the safe hands of Joe Biden - the chance to defeat him in the upcoming presidential election. But, here in Britain, Johnson could also be in a win-win situation, providing his risky strategy of putting a fragile economy before public health doesn’t backfire. After some hesitation, he has gone for state intervention on all fronts: massive state spending and a social lockdown. But, once the coronavirus crisis is over, he has to decide whether to maintain the status quo ante, or to return to a post-war Keynesian form of mediating the system. It is a huge political gamble. But it is too early to predict which way he will jump. Perhaps at this moment in time, neither he nor his advisors appreciate the importance of the situation that we are now in, even though it is partly of their own making!
Johnson’s on-the-hoof decision-making represents the largest intervention by the British state since the 1940s - the spirit of wartime Britain has been resurrected. Overnight we have arrived at a non-partisan approach to the crisis: Tory/CBI/Labour/TUC, with the latter playing second fiddle. Suddenly British capitalism begins to resemble the Peoples Republic of China: a command-led, centralised market economy. So we are back to the situation at the end of World War II, but, instead of opening the door to reformism and a Labour government, we have a situation more akin to the great depression and the formation of a national government - only this time it is the Tories who are firmly in charge. At the same time, parliamentary democracy is being undermined. In the short term, there is an urgent need to restore market confidence. Otherwise, we could have another financial crash like 2008. But in the longer term the underlying problem of underconsumption has to be tackled as well.
I am in two minds over whether to make a volte face, compared to what I wrote in my previous article, ‘Coronavirus, oil and capitalist decline’ (March 19). The government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic may not be a fig leaf for a refusal to use the power of the state to invest in new technologies and jobs, tackle regional rust belts and climate change, but the opposite. In other words, the bourgeoisie could switch from neoliberalism back to Keynesianism, which is the only other alternative. But such a dramatic reversal of policy is not something that the bourgeoisie would want to shout from the rooftops.
Sooner or later, the dominance of parasitic finance capital over the economy would have led to the collapse of the whole debt-driven system (both public and private) once again. By chance the coronavirus outbreak intervened beforehand. It precipitated a dramatic fall in the markets, so that another financial crash like 2008 suddenly presented itself. (But this time it would be centred on the breakdown of the productive sector itself, leading to a sudden eruption of mass unemployment, not just the unproductive financial sector.) So the bourgeoisie was forced to take drastic action via state intervention, which could have far-reaching consequences. But now, across most of the world, the state is in the hands of rightwing governments, not left-reformist ones. They threaten to steal left reformism’s clothes. So this is another nail in the coffin of the latter.
Is it possible, once the coronavirus has been beaten and finance capital is able to pick up where it left off - thanks to bailout by the central banks - that governments will be able to downgrade their Keynesian-style, massive state stimulus from the ‘new norm’ to the exceptional? Or will the bourgeoisie decide that it is too risky not to go back to Keynesianism? However such an about-turn would have to be based on a conviction that the atomisation of the working class has now become a structural feature of late capitalism, as opposed to a purely ideational problem, which will ensure the continuation of capitalist rule. That would be wrong. When the whole society is under lockdown, atomisation by the state and social media could also produce its dialectical opposite. Furthermore this poses a challenge for governments and the managerial bureaucracy which runs capitalism (the Fed, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, etc): they still have to persuade parasitic finance capital to abandon its addiction to short-termism - despite the inevitable by-product, toxic debt - in favour of long-term investment in the productive sector; because that is what is required to finance the things that society needs, such as new infrastructure to eliminate rust belts in the regions, as well as a switch from fossil fuels to renewables as a source of energy. Unlike most hedge-fund managers, who are willing to bet on failure, I am not willing to do the same.
Thus on the basis of all of the above, the left also has a new opportunity - to spread its own ideas about the need for an international socialist revolution, which will open the way to planning for human need. In this regard, we should at least have another look at Trotsky’s Transitional programme to see if it has anything to teach us! When the crisis is over, we should also be calling for an international conference of the left to discuss the need for unity and what to do next (cf Zimmerwald in 1916). If we can’t do this together, then the left is finished.
Yes, we must be partly doomsayers, in order to press for an alternative. The class we need to reach may no longer believe in a “socialist state”, but they do have concerns. One thing we can agree on: it was more than xenophobia and indifference to strategy that drove them to vote Brexit: they did it for autonomy and more cash spent on the ‘left behind’. They were striking out against what they saw as authoritarianism, economic decline and that exploiters’ club, the European Union.
There are key issues then that we can speak to because of both their immediate urgency and relevance to historic Marxist themes.
Key issue 1: Political freedom. Marx went beyond concerns about the franchise and ‘public ownership’. Marxism deals with issues of alienation, cooperative working and self-determination in general. So we must be careful of our reputation for denying liberty, whenever we come close to supporting restrictive measures on personal freedom, including sex and speech. Every ‘liberal’ backing for punishing laws on trans personal pronouns, the use of no-platforming and ‘responsible’ censorship of, for example, Twitter convinces the class that we are ‘little Stalins’ in waiting.
Key 2: Quality of life issues, such as accountability over health (including the drug industry and food labelling), housing policy and urban planning (or non-planning), educational apartheid and state encroachments on the media, including social media. The influence of parasitic finance capitalism and neoliberal ministries is also a life concern.
Key 3: International catastrophe. The coronavirus pandemic has yet to be traced definitively to a lack of international cooperation, but people are aware that there are other sources of global disaster. Marxists want to achieve peace and recognise as its antithesis global warming, tension between competitive national leaders, and selective disciplining of certain groups like the Palestinians, as opposed to Syrian warlords. Marxists have nothing to do with interventions that make things worse, toxic superpowers or the suppression of any subaltern group, however many times they pray each day.
All of the above are key themes, which can be part of a great refusal - and the struggle for an alternative world, which is not destroying itself.
Limit top pay
An insight into the world of executive pay at Cambs County Council is revealed in a new report, listing the salaries of all 128 officers who earn over £50,000 a year. Chief executive Gillian Beasley is the top earner, with a salary of £173,596 - equivalent to £3,338 a week. This compares with the national minimum wage for those over 25 of £349 a week, based on £8.72 an hour for a 40-hour week.
Following the October 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin and his Bolshevik Party limited top earners pay to just four times the minimum wage. This ratio of four-to-one was introduced as a means of rewarding skill and seniority, whilst at the same time keeping the differentials between high- and low-paid within reasonable limits. The medium-term aim was to train workers to take up senior roles in the state, subject to regular elections and recall, and be paid no more than the average wage of a skilled worker.
In 2020 in Cambridgeshire, with the national minimum wage of £349 a week, a four-to-one ratio would mean that the chief executive should only be paid £1,396 a week - equivalent to just £72,592 a year. In the medium term, staff within Cambs County Council should be trained to take over the role of chief executive and paid no more than the average wage of a skilled worker.
Having looked at all the socialist papers, I see that Socialist Appeal won’t be printing again until the crisis is over. They are digitalising and urge those who subscribe to the paper to subscribe to the digital edition. What will you be doing? Socialist Appeal mainly sells its paper around campuses and trade union events, etc. So this a big change for them.
The Weekly Worker is mainly sold through subscription, as you don’t have the seller numbers like SA. It’s your membership. It’s too small and you don’t seem to be doing much about this. It doesn’t seem to be a priority, which you need to think about. I dread reading Paul Demarty’s article. You’re not doing yourself any favours. It’s a dead end.
The Morning Star is going to have problems. They have multiple outlets in most cities. Hull has stacks of them. These are mainly ordinary shops that sell the paper each day. They are also to be bought in supermarkets. With fewer people going into shops, especially the supermarkets, sales across the country will be affected negatively. This goes for all national newspapers. Morning Star supporters groups sell a fair amount of copies each week, but in this new country how can they operate? I imagine they will lay off staff. There is no sport, so what do we need sports staff for? And the reporting on events when most of them are cancelled? This is where you find the enthusiasm in the papers and it’s being closed down.
Over the years, Rugby Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has been exposing the major flaws in universal credit (UC), and how it leaves vulnerable people in poverty, rent arrears and possible eviction. Now, however, due to the effects of coronavirus, many more workers will be forced to claim it.
Government plans announced last week to deal with work issues during the coronavirus crisis contain significant gaps, and large groups of workers will not be covered by this emergency legislation. As a result, they will have to claim UC or statutory sick pay (SSP) if their firm closes, if they catch the virus or if they need to self-isolate. Not all will be able to do so, and problems remain even if they can.
Surely now is the time to eradicate all the inbuilt delays in the UC system, so that workers with irregular work, including those on zero-hour contracts, and the six million self-employed can receive enough money to live on during this horrendous crisis. Surely now is the time to enable all workers to receive enough money for essentials - food, fuel, housing - whether they will now have to claim UC or SSP.
We welcome a number of the announcements made last week, especially the guarantee that many workers will receive 80% of their pay if they cannot work, the freezing of rent and mortgages for three months, closures of schools, benefit increases, extensions to SSP and the taking over of private hospitals by the NHS - although we oppose the £2.4million per day this will cost: the private sector should have been nationalised.
A lot of gaps remain in the provisions announced. Although SSP has been extended, and can also be claimed if self-isolating, it cannot be claimed by those earning less than £118 per week. That includes those on zero-hour contracts who work variable hours every week. The Trades Union Congress estimates this to be two million people. What will they live on?
The self-employed - a further six million workers - do not qualify for SSP and, unlike employees, will not be able to claim 80% of their wages. This is grossly unfair and discriminatory. The only concession for the self-employed during this crisis is that they can access UC. But they will have to wait a minimum of five weeks before they get their first payment, like all claimants have to - it can be five months, as we have found out in Rugby. Sanctions will also lead to weeks of no money at all for rent, food or fuel. Sanctions must be abandoned, especially if claimants are suffering from coronavirus or live with someone who has it.
The rate of SSP has not been upgraded. It is supposed to cover food, housing and other essentials. That is impossible on £94.25 a week. We believe everyone should receive the living wage rate during this crisis. This at present stands at £9.30 an hour, while the SSP rate works out at £2.36 per hour!
We are also concerned that coronavirus tests have not been made more readily available, and that some front-line NHS staff still do not have adequate protective clothing; nor do supermarket workers, who are also playing a vital role. Testing of key workers is vital - the World Health Organisation advice is ‘Test, trace, isolate’ - why has it taken so long to move towards that policy?
Those who are least able to respond will be those least able to deal with the situation - those in poverty, those with carers, the infirm and the vulnerable. Despite measures which, belatedly, may help some workers struggling with coronavirus issues, too many gaps in provision remain. Everyone should have financial worries removed during this dreadful crisis. The state can sort it, once the crisis is over.