Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 9, 2017

Ben Norton throws a tantrum at Jacobin magazine

Filed under: Germany,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

Last Wednesday someone on a pro-Syrian FB group posted a link to a vitriol-filled blog post by Ben Norton from November 30th titled “Jacobin, leading neo-Kautskyite magazine, whitewashes SPD, erasing murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht”. I hadn’t given much thought to Norton since the Trump presidency began since it was apparent that the ultraright president had provided much less fodder to professional Assadists like Norton and Blumenthal. It was a bit difficult to write Gray Zone articles about the danger of regime change in Syria when there was every indication that there was a commonality of interests between the White House and these two knuckleheads over the need to destroy ISIS, al-Qaeda and any bearded man with the temerity to shout “Allahu Akbar” after taking out a Baathist tank.

The fellow who posted a link to Norton’s post prefaced it with:

Ben Norton being a weird Leninist Polemicist. It appears his beef with Jacobin has to do with it publishing pro-Syrian-revolution stuff. It’s funny he accuses them of having this Kautskyist editorial line, when actually they pay $50 for articles and take stuff mostly from freelancers.

I’m not exactly sure what being paid $50 and Kautskyism has to do with each other but I heartily concur with the “weird polemicist” characterization. Leninist? Well, only in the sense that he sounds like ten thousand other Internet Bolsheviks who maintain Twitter accounts festooned with pictures of Stalin, hammers and sickles, and any other regalia from the 1930s. Such people are unlikely to get FBI visits as I did in the 1960s when being a Leninist meant going out and building demonstrations. Since Norton’s chief involvement with the left is writing for AlterNet, a magazine that is two centimeters to the left of MSNBC, I doubt that he has much to worry about.

To be a proper Leninist, even in the degraded sense of sects like the Spartacist League, you have to be a disciplined, dues-paying member with responsibilities. This describes Ben Norton about as much as the term virginal describes Harvey Weinstein. When you begin throwing around terms like Kautskyist, it is like going to a Halloween Ball disguised as Lenin. More to the point, Lenin’s polemics against Kautsky have to be seen in context. In Norton’s case, the only context appears to be Jacobin’s new line on Syria that closed the door on him and his Assadist pals, so much so that after Norton attacked an anti-Assad article in the Jacobin Facebook group, he was blocked.

Turning to the article itself, it is a broadside against “the pro-imperialist, social chauvinist, and historical revisionist editorial line of Jacobin”. One wonders why Norton didn’t throw in “petty bourgeois” while he was at it, the cherished term of all those who strike Leninist poses. It seems that the AlterNet staff member had gotten himself into a proper tizzy over a November 6th item titled “When Social Democracy Was Vibrant” that looked back fondly at the German Social Democracy of the late 1800s when it formed gymnastics associations and cycling clubs, choir societies and chess clubs. I can understand the spirit in which the article was written since I had the same feelings about the CPUSA of the Popular Front era when it was providing support for Orson Wells’s Mercury Theater and drawing composers like Aaron Copland into its orbit. You can make a distinction between such contributions like these and voting for Democrats unless you are incapable of dialectical thinking (hint, that is Norton’s Achilles Heel).

The article, written by Adam J. Sacks, includes this judgment on the SPD toward the very end of the article:

World War I ended all of that. Succumbing to the militarism sweeping the continent, SPD parliamentarians voted for war credits to fund the barbaric conflict. Though they initially tried to justify the war as an act of humanitarian intervention on behalf of the oppressed peoples of the tsarist regime — and an antiwar faction soon declared independence from the party — the decision signaled the death knell of the Second International. The leading light of socialism had turned its back on the bedrock principle of proletarian internationalism.

You’d think this would be enough to protect the author and Jacobin from Norton’s curses but anybody who has been following his deceitful, Judith Miller-type reporting over the past two years should be used to this by now. No, it wasn’t enough to denounce the SPD parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914. You also had to take a position on choirs, gyms, chess clubs and the like. Unless you took the correct position on the Ruy Lopez opening, you were providing cover for the SPD sending “millions of workers to die for capitalist empire in World War I.”

Since Sacks’s article begins by extolling an SPD rally from 1889, a date by which it had become beyond the pale of revolutionary socialism, you’d think that Norton might have taken the trouble to explain how the Erfurt Program adopted by the party just two years later could have had such a profound effect on Lenin. In 1899, Lenin wrote a draft program for the Russian Social Democracy that demonstrated him falling short of Norton’s lofty standards:

Here a few words are in order on our attitude to the Erfurt Programme. From what has been said above it is clear to everyone that we consider it necessary to make changes in the draft of the Emancipation of Labour group that will bring the programme of the Russian Social-Democrats closer to that of the German. We are not in the least afraid to say that we want to imitate the Erfurt Programme: there is nothing bad in imitating what is good, and precisely to day, when we so often hear opportunist and equivocal criticism of that programme, we consider it our duty to speak openly in its favour.

If you’ve read Lars Lih, you’re probably aware that Kautsky was the main inspiration for Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and that Lenin continued to consider himself a disciple of Kautsky until the differences over the October revolution produced Lenin’s excoriating polemics. However, there are also indications that when it came to the debate between Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky in the German Social Democracy, Lenin found himself on Kautsky’s side occasionally as pointed out by Leon Trotsky in a 1932 article titled “Hands off Rosa Luxemburg”:

In Rosa Luxemburg’s struggle against Kautsky, especially in 1910–1914, an important, place was occupied by the questions of war, militarism and pacifism. Kautsky defended the reformist program, limitations of armaments, international court, etc. Rosa Luxemburg fought decisively against this program as illusory. On this question, Lenin was in some doubt, but at a certain period he stood closer to Kautsky than to Rosa Luxemburg. From conversations at the time with Lenin I recall that the following argument of Kautsky made a great impression upon him: just as in domestic questions, reforms are products of the revolutionary class struggle, so in international relationship it is possible to fight for and to gain certain guarantees (“reforms”) by means of the International class struggle. Lenin considered it entirely possible to support this position of Kautsky, provided that he, after the polemic with Rosa Luxemburg, turned upon the Rights (Noske and Co.).

Norton clearly has an inability to grasp things dialectically. He is much more comfortable seeing things in black and white. Not only was the Bolshevik Party a direct descendant of the German Social Democracy, the German Social Democracy itself had its own divisions in which Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg were on the same side against Eduard Bernstein, the father of the “revisionism” that is manifest today in the Swedish social democracy et al. Yet this same Eduard Bernstein was one of the authors of the Erfurt Program that Lenin imitated by his own admission.

In general, I find terms such as “Kautskyist”, “reformist” “revisionist”, “petty bourgeois” and “treacherous” a dead giveaway that those using them have an inability to develop a substantive critique of their opponents in a debate. Blanket characterizations generally reflect a preference for the cleaver–the preferred tool of the politically feebleminded–over the scalpel.

The question of German social democracy is complex. While those unfamiliar with German social democratic history like Norton tend to fixate on the assassination of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, there were indications that the party was by no means as compromised as Norton would have you believe. In fact, his knee-jerk dismissal of the German social democracy is what was prevalent in the German Communist Party at the time when Lenin sought to bring the ultraleft back down to earth through the united front tactic.

In the Fall of 1923, Germany had entered a pre-Revolutionary situation. French occupation of the Ruhr, unemployment, declining wages, hyperinflation and fascist provocations all added up to an explosive situation. The crisis was deepest in the heavily industrialized state of Saxony where a left-wing social democrat named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He called for expropriation of the capitalist class, arming of the workers and a proletarian dictatorship. This man, like thousands of others in the German workers movement, had a revolutionary socialist outlook but was condemned as a “Menshevik” in the German Communist press.

After he took office on October 10, 1923, Zeigner brought two members of the Communist Party into his government. Because of this, he was deposed 19 days later by Germany’s social democratic president Friedrich Ebert, the man Norton equates to Bhaskar Sunkara.

The Russians intervened in Germany to get the Communists to overcome their hatred of the social democracy and join with Zeigner’s forces to overthrow Ebert. Unfortunately, the workers were not so eager to join an offensive that was ill-prepared. It was over basically before it began. The German Communists, the Comintern, and the Social Democrats pretty much share equal blame. Today, there is a new accounting for this historic defeat that was an important part of Hitler’s rise. For those seeking to understand it, I strongly recommend Pierre Broué’s “The German Revolution, 1917-1923”, available from Haymarket.

It was the failure of the left to become unified in Germany in the 1920s that led to the eventual triumph of Nazism. We are dealing with terrible divisions today that must be overcome if we are to provide an alternative to the two-party system. Despite my criticisms of the Jacobin/DSA “inside-outside” electoral strategy, I regard the growth of a leftwing party made up of young people to be one of the most hopeful signs of an emerging revolutionary movement. I have no problems with criticizing the DSA or Jacobin but Ben Norton’s tantrum serves nothing else but his own fragile ego.

1 Comment »

  1. I think that it is difficult to characterize the SPD leadership as left after voting to fund the war in 1914 and then entering into an agreement with German capitalists during the war to prohibit strikes and other labor actions by workers while forcing them to accept wages imposed upon them. The SPD enforced the impoverishment in the German working class, and expelled people who resisted it from the party, actions that contributed to the German Revolution of 1918.

    Both Pierre Broué’s book and Ralf Holffrogge’s one about Richard Müller, revolutionary metalworkers’ shop steward, describe the extent to which the SPD abandoned the workers in regard to conscription and forced labor in industry, which amounted to another form of it. The SPD’s betrayal of the working class in 1918-1919 and beyond was predictable after these actions.

    Holffrogge’s book is available from Haymarket as well: https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/766-working-class-politics-in-the-german-revolution

    Holffrogge highlights an important issue that explains why the SPD was able to turn the 1918 revolution into a reformist direction and violently repress subsequent revolutionary actions: the German working class, despite the horrible record of the SPD during the war, wanted working class political tendencies to work together because workers were exhausted by the deaths and deprivations of the war. It was an entirely understandable response. Radicals were not able to address this and successfully use the SPD’s war record to encourage workers to abandon the SPD and confront it.

    Zeigner’s defeat is indicative of the failure of leftists inside and outside of the SPD to appeal to a sufficiently large enough number of workers to effectively attempt to seize power in Weimar Germany. There is additionally the fact that, as noted by Broué and Halffrogge, uprisings tended to be regional in character, often within particularly affected industries, enabling the state to defeat them with the police and the military.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 12, 2017 @ 7:41 pm


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