Ben Lewis’s second letter (June 5) is a good-faith effort to understand my criticism of Lars T Lih’s concept of Erfurtianism and its application to the history of Russian Marxism. Still, we continue to talk past each other.
This misunderstanding is due in large part to Lewis and Jack Conrad attributing positions to me that I do not hold and that were not in my letters of May 14 and 28. I never said that Engels “rejected” or “disavowed” the Erfurt programme; I never expressed any reservations about the need for a minimum-maximum programme; and I didn’t place the Erfurt programme or the pre-1910 Kautsky outside of the Marxist tradition. Because they think they have to defend positions I have no interest in criticising, they misconstrue my main concern about the kinds of tactics required to fight for a democratic republic.
So much for generalities. Let’s go through the main points of Lewis’s response to see how these mischaracterisations play out around specific issues.
First, Lewis makes an attempt to identify the crux of the matter under discussion. Claiming that Engels was “delighted at what he saw as the victory of Marxism outlined in the Erfurt programme”, Lewis says that I can’t accept that the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was a revolutionary organisation and that I think it merely strove for liberal reforms and freedoms under a state controlled by the bourgeoisie. No, the crux of the matter for me is that Lih did not mention the democratic republic in his book on Lenin. I then traced this oversight back to his concept of Erfurtianism, which also fails to mention the issue of the democratic republic in Germany or in Engels’ Critique. Since we don’t agree on what the crux of the matter is, there is bound to be miscommunication. Putting aside what the crux is, Lewis says that I can’t accept that the SPD was a revolutionary organisation. I find this either-or logic crude and sterile.
My view of the history of the SPD is actually very much in line with a characterisation of Kautsky made by Lih last year in Jacobin (June 29 2019): Kautsky and the SPD “talked the talk, but did not walk the walk”. Rather than being either unambiguously revolutionary or not, the SPD’s character was multifarious and shifting. Lewis also misattributes to me the view that the SPD only strove for liberal reforms and freedoms within a bourgeois state. My comment on freedoms within a bourgeois state was actually part of a criticism of Lih, who said that Lenin’s primary political objective was to obtain the freedoms then already enjoyed by the SPD. I didn’t claim that the SPD itself was satisfied with its condition or that it didn’t desire full democracy and socialism.
Lewis also defends Jack Conrad’s particular form of either-or logic. Conrad said I painted Engels as a “rejectionist” of Erfurtianism. I responded that Conrad was playing anachronistic word games, because there was no such thing as Erfurtianism to reject. Engels was happy with the theoretical part of the programme dealing with the development of capitalism and critical of the political part, because it was not forceful enough. By plopping me into a made-up “rejectionist” political category, Conrad and Lewis want to claim that I am creating a break between an imaginary German reformist social democracy and Russian Marxist orthodoxy. I repeat, it is not either-or. The content of the Erfurt programme, the content of Kautsky’s writings, the practice of the SPD leadership, and the sentiments of the SPD membership were by no means identical.
I definitely do think that Engels’ criticism and Plekhanov’s and Lenin’s inclusion of the demand for a democratic republic in the Russian programme embody the full orthodox Marxist position; but then so do Kautsky’s writings on republicanism and the road to power, which were more consistent with an orthodox Marxist position than the Erfurt programme itself. That is why I do not see the RSDLP and the SPD as “worlds apart” in either 1891 or 1903. I see a sliver of a crack between them (and within both of them) that gradually widened into a chasm. Because these differences and their development were subtle and complicated and stretched over two decades, I find Lih’s concepts of Erfurtianism and the merger formula too blunt as instruments of analysis of this complex history.
I’ll finish with some points about the history of Russian Marxism. Lewis agrees with Lih’s claim that the primary goal of Russian Marxism was legality. I think this claim is in conflict with Lih’s own emphasis in Lenin rediscovered on the importance of Lenin’s agitational writings in Iskra, which Lih calls Lenin’s “undiscovered book.” The aim of these articles was to agitate for a democratic republic. Legality, which existed for a short period of time from 1905 to 1907, and then again in 1917, certainly made it easier for the Russian Marxists to operate among the masses; but there is a big difference between saying that legality made it easier for the Russian Marxists to operate and that legality was their primary political goal and the subject of their political agitation. Limiting Lenin’s primary aim to legality can only blur the line of demarcation that he sought to draw in his agitation between bourgeois liberalism and thorough and consistent democracy. It also makes it more difficult to understand why Iskra was supported by activists in Russia and became the core of a reconstituted party.
The last point concerns Lih’s method of historical argumentation. On three important political events in Russian Marxist history - Plekhanov’s draft programme of 1885, Lenin’s Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution and the October revolution - Lih provides accounts that are accompanied by comments that run something like the one in the above mentioned Jacobin article, ‘Kautsky as architect of the October revolution’: “Of course, I am not saying that Kautsky was necessarily the first to come up with these ideas or that the Bolsheviks did not arrive at them independently. But Kautsky gave authoritative endorsement to the key tactical ideas of Bolshevism, giving clarity and confidence to the Russians with an impact that is hard to overestimate.”
Just as it seems bizarre to me to call someone an architect who only approves of a plan drawn up independently by others, it also seems bizarre to label as Erfurtian a political programme developed independently in Russia six years before the Erfurt Congress took place. If Lih’s historical efforts merely corrected distortions that Kautsky’s work has suffered over the years, we could dismiss this quirky reasoning as relatively harmless; but if his effort to rehabilitate Kautsky involves blurring the distinctiveness of Lenin’s own arguments, that is more consequential.
Of course, Lih has produced an enormous amount of work over the last two decades that has vastly improved and elevated the quality of debate within Marxist circles; but there is more to be done. Specifically, Lenin’s “undiscovered book” of the theory and content of democratic political agitation needs to be studied and applied to the problem of pulling together a political party committed to the establishment of a democratic republic in the US.
Eddie Ford rightly rejects the nationalist, statist calls for nationalisation of Nissan, but then calls for the answer to be global trades unions (‘Global unions needed’, June 5). I am surprised that the Weekly Worker is putting this forward, given that you usually oppose economistic solutions. The fact is that creating European Union-wide trades unions would be a big step forward currently, let alone global trades unions. Even the international combine committees that were created in the 1980s across the plants of large multinational corporations have fallen into disuse, so any chance of creating such global trades unions in the immediate or even medium-term future seems unlikely. Certainly not in any time scale that is much use to Nissan workers.
But, even if such a global trades union were created, what good would it be? It could only move forward on the basis of purely trades union politics/economism. What is actually required is for there to be a recognition of the nature of these companies as multinational companies, and, thereby to call for control over them to be exercised by their workers, wherever those workers may be. Now, I really am not fussed whether that takes the form of a new multinational, worker-owned cooperative or of the current multinational corporation, because, as Marx sets out in Capital volume 3, chapter 27, both of these forms represent socialised capital - the transitional form of property between capitalism and socialism. The only actual objective difference between these forms is that the workers create the former directly under their own control, whereas in the latter the shareholders use their political power to appropriate that control from the workers, depriving the ‘associated producers’ of their rightful control over that socialised capital.
The Marxist approach, therefore, is, as Marx and Engels set out in the Communist manifesto, to raise the ‘property question’. In other words, it is up to Marxists to raise the question of why it is that shareholders and their representatives have been allowed to appropriate control over this socialised capital that does not belong to them. Why have they been allowed to use this control to line their own pockets, even at the expense of the actual underlying socialised capital itself, by massively increasing the amount of interest/dividends, and thereby diminishing the amount of profits available for capital accumulation? Why have their political representatives in the state, aided and abetted by policies of quantitative easing, been allowed to inflate asset prices and divert money-capital away from capital accumulation and into financial and property speculation, creating dangerous bubbles and simultaneously raising the value of labour-power (via higher costs of shelter and pension provision), which reduces the rate of surplus value? Why have they undermined the economy and capital accumulation itself via austerity, so as to restrain economic growth, wages and rises in interest rates, so as simply to keep those massively inflated asset price bubbles inflated?
What is required is not - at least as an immediate solution - global trades unions, but a global - or at least an EU-wide - political struggle to remove that unwarranted control by shareholders over capital they do not own. What is required is to raise the property question, and to ask why the “associated producers” are being denied the right to control the socialised capital - which is their collective property, just as much as is the capital of a worker-owned cooperative. After all, even bourgeois theorists like John Kay and Aubrey Silbertson set out long ago that shareholders are only creditors of these companies, and have no right to exercise such control. Even progressive social democrats in the 1970s put forward the idea of codetermination, and election of 50% worker representation on boards. The EU even drew up proposals along those lines in the 1980s, before conservative governments became dominant.
Of course, those social democratic proposals are not enough, and result only in workers being sucked into corporatism and Mondism, but it does not take a lot for Marxists to make the further extension of that argument that it should be only the workers and managers in these companies that exercise democratic control over them.
Race and class
In the Online Communist Forum of Sunday June 7 there was some discussion of race and class, in the context of the police murder of George Floyd and the widespread revulsion to that. It was pointed out that there is no such thing as ‘race’: it has no scientific, biological existence, but was invented to “justify” slavery and colonialism. If you are going to treat your fellow human beings as dirt then you must also attempt to identify them as lesser beings as well. The excellent, two-volume work The invention of the white race by Theodore W Allen was cited.
A kind of support given to this appreciation of ‘race’ was shown in the anti-colonial movements around the world, particularly after World War II. There was a lot of support for liberation movements that said they were not going to get rid of the white bastards just to get black bastards in their place. This was echoed, to various degrees, from India to Indonesia, from Algeria to the Congo, with also varying degrees of success and luck - mostly, in the long run, not much of either.
I recall reading of the great hopes of Kwame Nkrumah and his people in Ghana. There were great deposits of bauxite there and the promise of resultant wealth. The American company responsible promised a “modern” nation with airports, roads and all the rest of the trappings. They needed to borrow to get this up and running, and eventually, of course, they ended up exporting bauxite - to be profitably turned into aluminium elsewhere, and carrying heavy debts for the privilege.
This kind of accomplishment was described in some detail by John Perkins in his Confessions of an economic hitman, where he writes of his work in countries such as Ecuador, Panama, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. His job was, as it were, to promise the earth and exact the price - running up enormous debts to pay for infrastructure. In most cases the cornucopia wasn’t delivered, but the debts kept the countries concerned firmly under the neo-colonial thumb of the United States. This remains the case and race doesn’t come into it. The US will help the ‘black bastards’ keep the population in check, while they reap their class rewards.
A couple of further points on race and class. I read some years ago about a study of capital punishment in the US. I can’t remember where and when I saw it, but I do remember that the study found that the first correlation to capital punishment was poverty, and then race: the authors did point out that there was an enormous overlap.
We can see it in the many, many stories of miscarriages of justice. If you have no money then, you can have a public defender. If you’re lucky this will be an honest, and sober, individual who will do their best and will not be a close friend of the local police and prosecutors. They are unlikely, however, to be able to afford independent forensics or investigators to check out witnesses.
And then we have the UK. I also recall - and again I can’t remember where and when - an article that said that black men in Britain suffered schizophrenia at a rate four times that of white men. In Jamaica, on the other hand, black men suffered schizophrenia at a rate about the same as white men in Britain. Again, crimes of class rather than race. Finally on Black Lives Matter: if Priti Patel and Keir Starmer both think that pulling down statues is wrong, then that’s two more reasons to ... keep on pulling.
Attempts at defusing the outrage against racism provide a useful reminder about how modern capitalist states are capable of operating, when it comes to serious challenges to their power - or even just their ability to function efficiently. Effective control must be re-imposed by the elites and their various agencies in response to ‘tolerable’ levels of unrest, but for the moment Trump’s deployment of troops and special forces against the US population is viewed as unnecessary or at least premature.
What was potentially pre-revolutionary has become drawn back down to a largely impotent form, but fortunately that process is proving unable to stop fresh layers of society being forced to open their eyes and take sides amidst this harsh new reality of starkly opened-up class conflict.
Another simple lesson to be learned, surely (although not only from this current mass uprising), is how it’s never primarily a matter of the colour of your skin that determines whether you are to receive brutalisation from The Machine. No, it’s fundamentally about how substantial (or even just how visible or popular) any challenge of yours is to its core and essential functions: ie, to US capitalism’s ability to continue making ever more inflated margins of corporate profits both in its homeland and globally.
Then there is this extremely important truth: so-called ‘people of colour’ must be diverted from helping to build and indeed becoming a dynamic, central element within a new and truly socialist party for the USA - as one single entity of the working class organised as a whole. Anything other than following that undeniably complex route to freedom will lay them especially vulnerable to attack by the state machine and its various lackey agencies, to being picked off far more easily, leaving themselves wide open to vicious attack from that traitorous sub-class of black “misleadership” (as comrades at Black Agenda Report rather brilliantly identify it). In such a potential scenario, those ‘misleaders’ might well join in a chorus about how valuable reforms are being undermined; how achievements secured from their collaborationism (via safely defused protest activity, etc) are being endangered.
There is absolutely zero need to remind anyone - least of all any Marxist - that such a pathway could quite possibly result in a repeat of the murderous repression by the US state machine perpetrated against the Black Power movement or the Kent State University shooting of anti-Vietnam war protesters, etc.
Of course, in that potential scenario of a mass and unified American working class movement organising towards the taking of power, questions around China will then come flooding up to the surface. Would Chinese ‘communism’ unambiguously and wholeheartedly support a by then super-eco-conscious and ultra-‘wokeful’ stage of struggle, or regard it as a threat to its own ‘national interests’? I’m pretty clear it would be the latter.
Then again, from a dialectical, Marxist point of view, it’s a magnificently volatile world that we live in, so who knows what the working class of China by that point in time will have demanded or secured by way of democratic/genuinely communistic changes of its own?