Gil Schaefer is “disappointed” with my reply to him (Letters, May 21) and charges me with “expressing strong disagreements with his conclusions” and with ignoring the reasons he gave for advancing these conclusions (Letters, May 28). In fact, this is exactly what his recent letter does: instead of interrogating the three main arguments I advanced to show how the Erfurt programme committed German Social Democratic Party (SPD) not simply to the overthrow of the kaiser, but to the abolition of class society tout court, he repeats some of his original arguments and disagreements with Lars T Lih, and then throws in some questions for good measure.
Unlike comrade Schaefer, however, I do not find our exchange an unproductive “method for debate”: on today’s left, we often have very different political backgrounds and experiences and have come to use common Marxist terms in a variety of different ways. It is important to zoom in on where exactly we agree and where we differ; in doing so, it is almost unavoidable that we will occasionally talk past each other, or feel that those with whom we disagree have not fully understood or appreciated what we are saying.
What, then, is the crux of the matter in this discussion? Rereading his response a few times, it seems to me that the issue is as follows. In spite of the evidence and arguments offered in my letter and in the article by Jack Conrad (‘The importance of being programmed - part 3’, May 21), both of which underline Engels’ delight at what he saw as the victory of Marxism outlined in the Erfurt programme, Schaefer still cannot countenance that the SPD was a revolutionary organisation. For him, it merely strove for liberal reforms and freedoms “under a state controlled by the bourgeoisie”.
In order to make this point, he makes three big claims. First, he reiterates his astonishment that “Lars T Lih could write a more than 600-page book seeking to equate orthodox Marxism with the Erfurt programme without once mentioning Engels’ criticism of that programme for not calling for the overthrow of the Prussian military state and the establishment of a democratic republic”. Second, because the SPD omitted such a demand from the Erfurt programme, he cannot accept that the programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was based on the German programme of 1891. Third, since the RSDLP programme explicitly called for the dictatorship of the proletariat/the democratic republic, whereas the Erfurt programme did not, he sees the RSDLP and the SPD as worlds apart: the former, he argues, was committed to a worker-peasant republic (correct, in my view), whereas the latter’s programme merely aimed to enact some ‘minimum’ reforms within the framework of bourgeois society (something that I, along with Engels and Lenin, as it happens, consider to be false). Before we turn to answer comrade Schaeffer’s questions, let us deal with these claims point by point.
I agree with him that Engels’ text is highly significant from the standpoint of Marxist political strategy, both historically and today. As Kautsky once pointed out in The republic and social democracy in France, Marxist republicanism is sorely needed in the American republic. But it is clear that Schaefer misunderstands both the content and context of Engels’ critique of the Erfurt programme. As comrade Conrad shows in his article, Engels viewed this document as a vindication of the political and strategic perspectives which he and Marx had developed during their career.
Schaefer accuses comrade Conrad of anachronistic “wordplay” by referring to Engels as a “critical Erfurtian”, but this is a pristine example of “unproductive debate”. Comrade Conrad is, of course, fully aware that “Erfurtianism” is a recent product of Lih’s pen, but was simply making the obvious point that Engels positively embraced the Erfurt programme, albeit with the fundamental criticism on the republic. After all, since Engels was actively involved in the emergence of the new, unashamedly Marxist, party programme, it is hard to see how this could be otherwise. Somehow, however, comrade Schaefer wants us to believe that Engels disavowed this programme: but nowhere in his writings did Engels reject, or seek to distance himself from, the fundamental outlook and structure of the Erfurt programme. It was thus more than an “advance” on the Gotha programme, as Schaeffer claims. It was a qualitative development. To his last, Engels sought to defend the programme’s basic perspectives from detractors on the left and right of the party, as well as in bourgeois thought.
Schaefer does not stop there though. He extrapolates from this view of Engels as the rejector of Erfurtianism - or, if comrade Schaefer prefers, of the Erfurt programme - and sees Friedrich’s critique as embodying a supposed break between German reformist social democracy and Russian Marxist orthodoxy, as represented by the lineage of Marx, Engels and Lenin (via Plekhanov). This is highly misleading and such a distinction would have baffled Engels, Kautsky, Lenin and Plekhanov in equal measure (the latter of whom read German and was hugely influenced by Kautsky’s Die Neue Zeit too).
This is what I mean by original-sin argumentation and Engels: seeking to account for subsequent, contingent events and outcomes via a - radically false - interpretation of a letter fired off by Engels some 25 years before they happened. While Schaeffer does concede that Engels was no “Cassandra”, he still seems committed to explaining the political degeneration of the SPD - and thus the division between social democracy and communism - overwhelmingly through the absence of the call for a democratic republic in the Erfurt programme.
I am not suggesting that Engels’ comments were trivial. In fact, they turned out to be quite prescient. Nor am I claiming that his letter did not identify a “genuine political threat”, of which Kautsky, Bebel and others were all too aware from their polemical battles in the socialist press (opportunism, state socialism, Lassalleanism, etc). I am simply stating that we have to be careful about how we account for past events. On this score, Schaeffer’s allegation that I think “we are not supposed to talk about” Engels’s critique, “because then we would be guilty of original sin-type thinking about the history of the entire Second International” is little more than unhelpful bluster. I dedicate an entire section of my Kautsky book to this very issue and, for that matter, am currently researching some of Engels’ earlier interventions in the German movement of the 1860s and 1870s precisely on democratic republicanism.
His point regarding the two competing conceptions of the democratic republic between the SPD, on the one hand, and the RSDLP’s equation of this with the rule of the worker-peasant alliance, on the other, is a more useful one. Why? Well, as we all know, the SPD did eventually decay into a force for which the ‘democratic republic’ became something along the lines of the Weimar Republic. But the point bears repeating: this was not the political basis of the original programme, as even a cursory look at that document’s demands makes clear. Moreover, it is fairly clear that, even with the explicit call for a democratic republic, the eventual rise of opportunism to dominance in the party leadership would still have had to be combated: opportunism, after all, not only has a very short memory, but tends to play fast and loose with all principles and formulations - however steadfastly or cogently worded.
The real tragedy of the SPD is that its Marxist leadership was unable to counter this threat and - as I have shown in my own work on Kautsky - later actively participated in the gutting of the revolutionary minimum programme into a bourgeois-democratic minimal programme. It was not the Erfurt programme that led to 1914 and all that, but rather the absence of a leadership that could defend and uphold its perspectives, as Engels did and as the leftwing opposition to the war did. Kautsky has a lot to answer for here, of course: Schaeffer mentions 1910 as a manifestation of his later collapse. He could also have mentioned 1909, when Kautsky bowed to the party leadership, softening the demands and rhetoric of his Road to power.
Let us now look at Schaeffer’s two questions. Do I see a problem in Lih claiming that the primary goal of Russian Marxism was legality, which would then be used to win a majority to establish a vlast (power) headed by the masses? No I do not, for that is - somewhat schematically - pretty much exactly how things played out in Russia.
What of Schaeffer’s following question? “On what planet is investigating this problem of tactics a ‘recycling’ of ‘cold war historiography’?” Well, the manner in which comrade Schaeffer approaches these problems makes it clear that he shares a planet with the majority of today’s far left in its dismissal of the Erfurtian approach and minimum-maximum programmes. Indeed, his description of the SPD’s “cautious tactics of legal electoralism” and its “peaceful, reformist complacency” could be entirely lifted from western cold war historiography’s concept of “attentism” in relation to the SPD. As I explain in more detail in my recent article, ‘Dispelling the Kautsky myths’ (March 6), during the course of the 20th century, a peculiar consensus emerged around German social democracy. From different angles, and for different reasons, the main trends of historical research on both sides of the Berlin wall asserted that the views of the SPD’s Marxist leadership on democracy, organisation and revolutionary change, as expressed in the Erfurt programme, had little or nothing to do with the political practice of Russian Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Whether he is conscious of it or not, Schaefer’s creation of a gulf between the revolutionary “orthodoxy” of Marx, Engels and Lenin, on the one hand, versus the “Erfurtianism” of Kautsky and Bebel, on the other, has been around for a while. One of the most important aspects of Lih’s work is that he directly calls into question this paradigm.
A final word on tactics, strategy, and patience. Continuing his criticism of the purported electoralist impotence of the SPD, comrade Schaefer quotes Martin Luther King: “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy … This ‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never’.” Stirring words. But from the standpoint of the working class coming to power, they are little more than that. As both Kautsky and Lenin underlined, making democracy real and substantial, as opposed to formal and limited, not only requires mass discontent with the existing order, but a mass organisation with a clear, strategic roadmap to guide the conscious self-liberation of the majority.
The SPD’s ultimate failure to fulfil its strategic perspectives of 1891 and become this force holds many rich lessons for today; Schaefer and I are on the same page on this. Unfortunately, the comrade seems insistent on drawing the wrong conclusions.
There are many shocking - in fact heart-breaking - aspects to events surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, but also many encouraging ones. The same is true of that hugely courageous uprising by enraged US citizens against their systematised repression: most specifically, the absence of genuine opportunities within society, all of which almost inevitably then becoming refracted through the lens of ethnicity or so-called race.
For Marxists, none of this is in the least bit surprising. In fact, contained within these developments are not only exhilarating rewards, but incontrovertible vindication, in the sense of providing proof of how class struggle - potentially also class war - remains an all-powerful force within capitalist society. What also comes as no real surprise is how the various stakeholders in that system can be seen rushing to hide behind their pre-formed/duplicitous narratives, all as part of sustaining the image of capitalism as unquestionably inviolable; more simply to keep the wild fires from spreading/to keep a lid on things.
Incidentally, the one thing I’m sure everyone on the revolutionist left - of whatever particular stripe, sub-sect or stubbornly adhered to bent - actually can agree upon is that both Donald Trump and Dominic Cummings represent nothing other than sordidness incarnate, blended with toxicity distilled; that they remain empty-souled vessels masquerading as viable organisms, all whilst remaining mere servants of that globalised gangsterism for which, primarily, they act.
As a summary of pretty much everything in play right now, this impassioned plea via Instagram from black US pop singer Normani presents itself somewhat magnificently: “I am filled with rage … I am not here for your entertainment. I am not some animal in a cage that you put on display and praise for being articulate, but turn around and hunt me for sport.” Equally so, Twittered reactions to African-American fashion designer Virgil Abloh’s own comments (all in connection with a so-called looting of two luxury shops) provide further natural-born succour to any Marxist outlook on life. In essence, they point out how uprising on the street is culture, whereas fashionable ‘streetwear’ clothing is commercial commodity.
Surely it’s voices like that which need to be listened to by modern-day communism, if we expect to be heard in return? Maybe this is ringing especially true for comrades with an accumulated experience and accompanying growth stretching back to days with a Black Panther party; with US/UK and French “race-rioting”; those days of mass marching for ‘civil rights’, and equally massive anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. All this was born amidst countercultural vibrancy and dynamism - what nowadays would be called wokefulness.
Maren Clark doesn’t know what she is talking about and just manages to confirm my argument that she is a dogmatist. “I am not willing to listen to any old argument,” she writes - apparently even if presented in a serious way (Letters, May 28). According to Maren, David Icke wouldn’t know a peer review if it slapped him on the face.
This says more about Maren than it does about Icke. No scientist who wants to keep his job can oppose what their masters want to hear. Science, like politics, has a party line and, if you oppose it, you may find yourself looking for another job. Under capitalism science cannot speak the truth regarding social matters where it involves the interest of the ruling class.
Maren might not have any time for Icke and would rather engage with the millions of more interesting people. The problem is I don’t know who they are. Perhaps Maren can introduce one of them to the Weekly Worker. Unlike these millions of more interesting people, Icke has one of the top most visited websites in the world, and he has a large international following. His previous negative views on communism, combined with his extensive audience, is precisely why the more informed left should engage with him. I have been engaging with Icke for a while now and I noticed that recently there was an article on his website criticising capitalism by name rather than simply talking about the ‘system’.
It is not only Maren Clark who is closed-minded though. Most of the left is. Close-mindedness is the real enemy of truth and science. For instance, the coming collapse of capitalism, driven by an energy crisis, will have nothing to do with Marxism, but how many Marxists, including Maren Clark, know this? They don’t know this because they are restricted to a Marxist narrative from the 19th century.
Doing it better
As I’m in the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University, and acquainted with professor Rohan McWilliam, I thought I’d make some comments on the Labour Renewal Project, as briefly promoted on their YouTube channel.
Here, Jon Davis begins with the need for a “Labour renewal” that needs to be about more than just winning elections. It’s a mission, amongst MPs and the Labour movement (as if the two wings are aligned) and a “vision for the future” to capture the public’s imagination. Following that platitude, Rohan McWilliam follows with his own one: you see, it’s “not about embracing Tory policies”: it’s about “doing progressive politics better”. Profound! McWilliam just can’t bring himself to even mention socialism, let alone talk about collective reflection and internal self-criticism.
According to Richard Carr, the 2019 Labour manifesto embraced “every leftwing agenda under the sun”. This sweeping statement isn’t true, of course - all sorts of compromises were made to the right: Nato, nuclear weapons, building of both council and private housing. As to the public having little faith in such causes, that is to boil it all down to a question of faith - a dogma perhaps.
McWilliam comes back in, telling us that Corbyn was “unconvincing” and the party was tainted with allegations’ of anti-Semitism, which “rotted Labour within”. Of course, the leadership ended up apologising for anti-Semitism, regardless of the fact that, for the most part, these were fake accusations, whose motive was rooted in favour of US imperialism in the Middle East.
The accusation that having too many proposals in the manifesto lost the election is interesting. After all, it’s not as if Ed Miliband’s limited proposals were a roaring success. Also, we mustn’t blame the media - but no thoughts about setting up our own alternative media.
The whole approach seems to be an appeal to the electorate in a type of cross-class alliance. “Speaking to the nation” rather than the party itself is likely to further encourage nationalism, which can only be the end result of what McWilliam talks about in attempting to reconcile the left with the centre.
For genuine change and development within Labour to occur, there needs to be an opening up to Marxists, however few we are (and to the left sects, warts and all), to influence the direction of the party towards socialism. It means addressing the democratic deficit and opposing the current managerialist structure. To put it simply, the Labour Party needs to be democratic, for socialism and open to Marxian politics. Of course, that’s easier to say than do, as I myself can attest when I tried to move a Marxist clause 4 motion in both my Unite community branch and Labour ward branch. There was only one vote in favour: my own.