Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 5, 2021

Lars Lih, Revolutionary Continuity, and Permanent Revolution

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Kautsky — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm
Lars Lih

In the latest issue of Historical Materialism, there’s a Lars Lih article titled “Why Did Marx Declare the Revolution Permanent? The Tactical Principles of the Manifesto” that is his latest salvo against Leon Trotsky’s singularly most important theoretical contribution—even if it does not mention Trotsky once.

Despite the association that Trotsky has with the term permanent revolution, you can also find it in Marx’s writings. The goal of Lih’s article is to prove that Marx had something completely different in mind than Trotsky. Instead of being a call to bypass a bourgeois revolutionary stage, Marx was advocating a class alliance between the workers and their class enemies in order to create the democratic conditions that would allow for the construction of a workers party, trade unions and the constitutionally protected rights allowing progress toward socialist transformation. Two works are singled out by Lih to make his point, the March 1850 “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League” and the October 1850 “The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850”. The first states:

While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers.

The second has the same kind of insistence:

…the proletariat rallies more and more around revolutionary socialism, around communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself invented the name of Blanqui. This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.

Notwithstanding their fiery rhetoric, Lih assures us that you have to look closely at the context in which they were written. They were mostly about overthrowing absolutist states, roughly equivalent to Czarism in Russia. Germany was rotten-ripe for its first bourgeois revolution while France, its birthplace in 1789, was struggling under Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew.

According to Lih, there were some who were fooled into thinking that Marx was advocating socialist revolution. He singles out Hal Draper as an example: “According to Hal Draper, these passages outline a scenario of immediate transition to a proletarian revolution: ‘the idea of immediacy is stressed three times. The revolution is to move uninterruptedly from the bourgeois state into the proletarian revolution’.” So, you get the picture. Draper, a member of Cannon’s SWP who hooked up with Max Shachtman in the 1940 split, serves as a proxy for Leon Trotsky—Lars Lih’s nemesis.

In going back to 1850, Lih is trying to establish what we used to call “revolutionary continuity” in the SWP. That’s a kind of red thread that connects Marx’s 1850 writings to Kautsky and then Lenin in his eyes. In the SWP, our red thread was a bit different. It went from Marx to Lenin and then from Trotsky to James P. Cannon. When I joined in 1967, I was told that Jack Barnes would be the new James P. Cannon thus continuing the ideological legacy that would help ensure the future socialist victory. All that was cast aside when Barnes decided that the new succession would be from Lenin to Fidel Castro. To continue to uphold Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory would be grounds for expulsion.

After I quit the SWP and started thinking about it critically, I couldn’t help but think that this notion of “revolutionary continuity” had a lot in common with the bloodlines for thoroughbred horses and the kinds of dogs seen at the yearly Westminster show. Except in our case, it wasn’t blood that mattered but doctrine. Maybe a more useful analogy would be with the Vatican that had doctrinal continuity going back to the Apostles. I often wondered if Jack Barnes fantasized about being the Lenin of our age, with the kind of power a Pope enjoyed except involving revolutionary rather than eschatological hopes.

Unlike Jack Barnes, Lih is a far more modest thinker. Keep in mind that he has never been part of any movement and probably puts as much time and energy into Gilbert and Sullivan productions as he does for writing paywall articles accessible mostly to university employees or a retiree like me. Lih has largely been responsible for the Karl Kautsky revival that has provided the theoretical basis for Jacobin’s stubborn support for the Democratic Party. In an article titled “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”, Eric Blanc said that reading him would help the left get over dogmatic assumptions such as “whether it’s okay to ever use the Democratic Party ballot line.”

Returning to what Marx wrote in 1850, you have to wonder if Lih was characterizing Hal Draper’s views accurately. If you keep in mind that his purpose in writing his 3-volume classic was to explain what Karl Marx stood for rather than Hal Draper, a review of the chapter Lih referenced will reveal little of the Trotsky/Proxyism. Instead, Draper makes it quite clear that Marx did not project much more than a bourgeois democratic republic with workers in the driver’s seat—not that far from what Lih advocates as did Lenin until the April Theses.

The second version involves a simple change: since the bourgeoisie refuses to take political power, the Democracy must strive to capture political power directly for itself. What remains unchanged is this: the perspective is still to accelerate bourgeois economic development (modernization and industrialization) under the aegis of the new revolutionary power to the point where the next stage—proletarian power—goes onto the order of the day. The bourgeois-democratic stage is to be telescoped under a political power which is not that of the bourgeoisie itself. (Looking ahead, we can see an analogy: under Bonapartism the bourgeois stage is also going to be carried out under a political power which is not that of the bourgeoisie itself).

Take note of Hal Draper’s reference to accelerating bourgeois economic development. In distinction to Lih, Draper’s understanding of the bourgeois revolution is not based on democratic rights, etc. alone. It is joined at the hip to capitalism’s ability to develop the forces of production that are necessary to create a socialist society in the future: a proletariat and  modern industry. Since Lih’s focus is on politics rather than on economics, this is something that he either missed or, perhaps, decided to sweep under the rug.

In Frederick Engels’s 1895 introduction to Marx’s “Class Struggles in France”, you’ll see how preoccupied Marx’s partner was with the forces of production:

History has proved us wrong and all others who thought similarly. It has made clear that the status of economic development on the Continent was then by no means ripe for the abolition of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which, since 1848, has affected the entire Continent and has introduced large industry in France, Austria, Hungary. Poland, and, more recently, in Russia, and has made of Germany an industrial country of the first rank-all this upon a capitalist basis which, reckoning from 1848, implies great expansive capacity. But it was just this industrial revolution that has everywhere introduced clarity in regard to class relations, which has eliminated a mass of hybrid forms taken over from the period of manufacture and, in Eastern Europe, even from guild handicraft, which has produced a real bourgeoisie and a real industrial proletariat and forced both into the foreground of social evolution. Thereby has the struggle between these two great classes, which in 1848 existed outside of England only in Paris and, perchance, in a few large industrial centers, been spread over the whole of Europe, and has attained an intensity unthinkable in 1848.

Engels refers above to how the industrial revolution created a powerful working class only in England and Paris by 1848. Later in the article, he refers to the Paris Commune that Marx regarded as the incipient dictatorship of the proletariat, which Lenin cited as a precursor to the infant Soviet republic in “State and Revolution”:

After the war of 1870-71, Bonaparte disappears from the stage and Bismarck’s mission is finished, so that he can subside again to his status of an ordinary Junker. The termination of this period is formed by the Paris Commune. A surreptitious attempt by Thiers to abstract from the Paris National Guard its cannon, caused a victorious uprising. It was again shown that, in Paris, no revolution is possible other than a proletarian one. Government fell, after the victory, into the lap of the working class, all by itself.

That hardly conforms to the Kautskyite formulas spread through Lars Lih’s body of articles and books. I am hesitant to think in terms of red threads nowadays but it doesn’t seem far-fetched to connect the dotted lines between the Paris Commune, the USSR prior to Stalin’s rise, Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, and Lenin’s April Theses.

We have reached a stage in human history when all the old gradualist schemas seem utterly ill-suited to the collapse of capitalist society all around us. With pandemics and ecological collapse threatening our very existence, the need to construct a mass, internationally-based revolutionary party is more urgent than ever. Lih’s pleasant existence as a Musicology Professor at McGill University and his inexhaustible appetite for picking fights with revolutionary socialists make you wonder what makes him tick. After reading most of everything he has written for the past twenty years, I can only say that I am finding him terminally pernicious.

October 27, 2020

Eric Blanc endorses Joe Biden

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Kautsky,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm

Eric Blanc

The first time I came across Eric Blanc’s writing was in 2016, when his article “Anti-imperial Marxism” was making the rounds. It was an important contribution, arguing that the “lesser nationalities” of the Czarist empire played a far more important role than had been acknowledged. Since I had been making the case for Ukrainian self-determination ever since the Euromaidan protests began in 2013, I was glad to see this:

While Iskra tended to assume that national consciousness and national movements would get weaker as capitalist development and proletarian struggle advanced, other Marxist currents believed that that the opposite would prove to be the case. Kelles-Krauz of the PPS argued in 1899 for the relevance of the fight for Ukrainian independence on the following grounds: “Economic evolution and the class struggle will give rise to—or revive—national sentiment, above all to the Ruthenians [Ukrainians], who will without a doubt create their own remarkable socialist movement.” Seeing the emergence of proletarian-separatist movements in the borderlands as key to the overthrow of tsarism, the PPS supported the Ukrainian socialist movement and advocated an independent Ukraine. When the Iskraist theoretical journal Zaria declared that it would be “strange” to demand political autonomy for “Little Russians” (Ukrainians) because they “do not need it,” the PPS replied that this was a “matter whose decision must be unconditionally left to the concerned nationalities themselves.”

Since most on the left equated Ukrainian national aspirations with fascism, it was reassuring to see at least one Marxist beside me, and a young one at that, willing to break with the consensus.

My first reaction to his next article on “Lessons from Finland’s 1917 revolution” was positive since it seemed to be in the same vein. Like Ukraine, Finland was under Czarist domination. I had no idea that Finland was part of the post-1917 revolutionary upsurge but was willing to take Blanc at his word:

Tsarism’s overthrow in February 1917 unleashed a revolutionary wave that immediately engulfed all of Russia. Perhaps the most exceptional of these insurgencies was the Finnish Revolution, which one scholar has called “Europe’s most clear-cut class war in the twentieth century.”

To my surprise, some Marxists found fault with his article, including one who I had a high regard for, namely Duncan Hart, a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia. In his critique of Blanc’s article, Hart takes issue with Blanc’s claim that the revolution led by Social Democrats “confirms the traditional view of revolution espoused by Karl Kautsky; through patient class-conscious organization and education, socialists won a majority in parliament, leading the Right to dissolve the institution, which in turn sparked a socialist-led revolution.” Hart saw the social democrats as putting a brake on the revolutionary process and thus helping to abort it.

I didn’t pay close attention either to Blanc’s article or to Hart’s rejoinder but the notion that, in Blanc’s words, the revolution confirmed “the traditional view of revolution espoused by Karl Kautsky” might have made me wonder where he was going politically. I only knew Kautsky’s writings as a didactic and fairly useful introduction to historical materialism but never considered him to be much of a revolutionary strategist, especially after 1917.

It soon became painfully clear to me that Blanc had become a disciple of Lars Lih, who has made a career out of scholarship that sought to prove that Kautsky was the ideological guiding light of the Russian revolution. This involved debunking the idea that the April Theses were a break with the traditional Bolshevik belief that a “revolutionary dictatorship” in Russia would prevail over capitalist property relations for an extended period.

Lih introduced these ideas in a 2011 article titled “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism: The Debates of April 1917 in Context” that appeared in Russian History, a peer-reviewed journal behind a JSTOR paywall. He followed up with a Jacobin article the same year titled “Questioning October” that sought to knock Leon Trotsky off his pedestal:

Back in the 1905–6 (the story goes), Leon Trotsky came up with his theory of permanent revolution and pronounced socialist revolution to be possible in backward Russia. Since his theory attacked the unimaginative dogmas of “Second International Marxism,” Trotsky was greeted with universal incomprehension. Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.

It took a couple of years following Blanc’s assertion that the Finnish revolution confirmed Kautsky’s Marxism to pen his own paean to Kautsky in Jacobin titled “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”. As someone who might have written something along these lines on behalf of Trotsky fifty years ago, it seemed strange to see the same type of hero worship. Kautsky wrote some useful articles but he never belonged on a pedestal, nor did Trotsky for that matter.

For Blanc, Kautsky was the ultimate antidote to the widespread belief in insurrection on the left:

Even at his most radical, Kautsky rejected the relevance of an insurrectionary strategy within capitalist democracies. His case was simple: the majority of workers in parliamentary countries would generally seek to use legal mass movements and the existing democratic channels to advance their interests. Technological advances, in any case, had made modern armies too strong to be overthrown through uprisings on the old nineteenth-century model of barricade street fighting. For these reasons, democratically elected governments had too much legitimacy among working people and too much armed strength for an insurrectionary approach to be realistic.

When I read this, I wondered how Blanc could have gone so wrong. Insurrectionary? I don’t recall the SWP ever using such a term and that was a group that was rife with ultraleft tendencies when I joined. Not long after reading his article, I pointed out that he had knocked down a straw man:

If this is not the stupidest thing I have read from a preeminent Marxist, I can’t imagine anything surpassing it. I am afraid that Blanc has Marx confused with Blanqui because what he describes above is Blanquism pure and simple. Louis Auguste Blanqui was a 19th century socialist who was a fearless opponent of both the bourgeoisie and the landed gentry but, unlike Marx, did not believe in mass action. He was an advocate of small, armed groups acting on behalf of the working class, a strategy that became known as Blanquism.

Insurrection is a loaded term, especially when applied to October, 1917. Keep in mind that there was zero barricade fighting in the weeks prior to the assault on the Winter Palace. Of course, the Mensheviks described the seizure of power as a coup since they considered the Constituent Assembly as the proper vehicle of working class struggle rather than the Soviets. Clearly, the logic of Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism would be to look back at the orientation to the Soviets rather than the Constituent Assembly as an act that legitimized the “old nineteenth century model of barricade street fighting”.

Although Eric Blanc has not written anything describing his ideological journey, I am generally under the impression that it follows this trajectory. As a red diaper baby, he joined Socialist Organizer, a tiny sect led by his father Alan Benjamin. From there he moved on to the ISO, but it is difficult to ascertain whether he was a member or a fellow traveler. He did write an article about Stalinism for them in 2017 but, other than that, there’s not much of a paper trail. What is apparent, however, is, if he was a member, he was certainly close to the faction that sought to dissolve the ISO and join the blissful caravan into the DSA.

It is as a DSA member and a regular Jacobin contributor that Blanc became a leading theorist of neo-Kautskyism, a bid to make the orientation to the Democratic Party consistent with Marxist orthodoxy. Even perhaps as an ISO member, Blanc argued in 2017  that a “dirty break” might be a useful tool to help build the revolutionary movement in the USA. This meant socialists using the Democratic Party ballot line as a clever trick to get a hearing and maybe even elected.

In “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”, Blanc connected the dots between Kautsky’s Marxism and the dirty break, linking “ballot line” to his earlier article:

First, moving away from dogmatic assumptions about the generalizability of the 1917 model should help socialists abandon other political dogmas, including on pressing issues such as how to build a Marxist current and whether it’s okay to ever use the Democratic Party ballot line. Though there are still many positive lessons to be learned from Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, the era of building small groups each dedicated to defending their particular conception of Leninist continuity is thankfully over.

Once he immersed himself in the DSA political culture, the references to Kautsky began to disappear, especially in the heat of the Sanders campaign that had Blanc positively giddy with excitement. In October 2019, he wrote:

Political openings like this don’t arise very often — we need to seize the moment to rebuild working-class power by leaning on the Bernie campaign to elevate labor militancy and rebuild an organized socialist Left rooted in the multiracial working class.

Did it matter that Sanders was hardly an example of a “dirty break” or that his notion of socialism was bringing back the New Deal? Of course not. This was long before Sanders got clobbered in the South Carolina primary and it was easy for Jacobin and DSA to have rose-colored fantasies about a Sanders presidency.

Once Sanders was eliminated and became a fervent supporter of Biden, who he unaccountably described as the most progressive DP candidate since FDR, it was necessary for DSA/Jacobin leaders to reconcile their panic over a Trump re-election with the vote of the DSA convention to only support a Bernie Sanders candidacy. At the time of the convention, that prospect seemed realistic.

Now, just a week before the election, Blanc has joined the Biden club just like Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich and every other old fart that ever spoke at a Left Forum plenary session. This is the kind of “socialism” that is indistinguishable from the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party, except for the empty invocation of the term.

Blanc is a member of the Bread and Roses caucus of DSA that generally hews to Jacobin editorial talking points. He has co-authored a piece with Neal Meyer titled “This Time Is Different: Socialists and The Lesser Evil” that is identical to what you’d read in The Nation or any other liberal magazine. Since calling for a vote for Biden is so contrary not only to his past ortho-Marxist convictions but to his own caucus’s vote for a Sanders-only campaign for President, he and Meyer have to dig deep into the most obscure crevices of Bolshevik history:

And contrary to what some on the Left seem to assume, there is no timeless principle dictating that socialists can never lend critical support to a capitalist candidate. Even Lenin at times advocated that his comrades vote for liberals to prevent a far-right electoral victory, arguing in 1907 that “when a socialist really believes in a Black-Hundred danger and is sincerely combating it — he votes for the liberals without any bargaining.” Similarly, the Bolsheviks’ 1912 electoral strategy gave the green light to common lists and electoral agreements with liberals to prevent the election of right-wingers to the State Duma.

I’ve heard these arguments before but not from Blanc. Instead, they were voiced by Mike Ely, the founder of the now-defunct Kasama Project, an attempt to build something like Bob Avakian’s RCP but without the cult leadership. Ely, a Maoist, did not go around defending a vote for a DP candidate but maybe he had that in the back of his mind when he “corrected” me for insisting that Lenin never advocated voting for a capitalist party, particularly the Cadets.

This was my reply to Ely, who vanished into obscurity, 10 years ago:

Since many people who read and comment on Kasama have a “Marxist-Leninist” past, it is not surprising that one person asked “Didn’t Lenin talk about participation in legal elections too?” It should be understood that in such circles, Lenin’s imprimatur will count as much as the Pope’s for Catholics. It should also be understood that there is an unfortunate amalgam made during the entire discussion on Kasama between “electoral work” and supporting the Democrats. The two really have to be separated, in my opinion.

I tried to put Lenin’s position in context:

The peculiar condition was the continuing ability of the parties of the Second International and British Labour to draw working-class votes in the 1920s. Lenin advocated that the Comintern parties urge a vote for their candidates in order to get a hearing from such voters, understanding that once they got elected they would sell out–thus helping to persuade workers to join the CP. In any case, this had nothing to do with supporting bourgeois parties like the Democrats in the USA. For people who want to understand how Lenin regarded such parties, go to the Marxism Internet Archives and do a search on “Cadet” within Lenin. This, after all, was the major difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: how to understand bourgeois liberalism. It is regrettable that a century after these debates took place, ostensible revolutionaries are dusting off Menshevik arguments.

This led Mike Ely to correct me: “actually there were situations in the Duma elections where the Bolsheviks would support Cadets against the Black hundreds.”

Now this was not the first time I heard such a claim. Back in November 2008, just around the time that Obama was in all his glory, one Marxmail subscriber cited an article by Lenin from 1912 that advocated blocs with “bourgeois democrats”. But he did not realize that Lenin was referring to the SR’s and not the Cadets.

When I asked Mike Ely to document his claim, he cited a book written by a Bolshevik deputy A.E. Badaev. Titled “Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma”, it seemed to support his claim:

The Bolsheviks thought it necessary to put up candidates in all workers’ curias and would not tolerate any agreements with other parties and groups, including the Menshevik-Liquidators. They also considered it necessary to put up candidates in the so-called “second curiae of city electors” (the first curiae consisted of large property owners and democratic candidates had no chance there at all) and in the elections in the villages, because of the great agitational value of the campaign. But in order to safeguard against the possible victory of reactionary candidates, the Bolsheviks permitted agreements respectively with the bourgeois democrats (Trudoviks, etc.) against the Liberals, and with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.

Well, that seemed pretty solid evidence for a Lenin who the Committees of Correspondence could love. A “practical” kind of guy who could urge a vote for the Obamas of his day against the really scary Black Hundreds, the Sarah Palins of Czarist Russia.

This was worth checking out. Although I don’t think it is very useful to base one’s politics in 2010 on what Lenin or A.E. Badaev wrote in 1912, as an amateur Lenin scholar I was curious to figure out what was going on. So I assiduously searched through Badaev’s book looking for more detail on the “agreements” between the Bolsheviks and the Cadets but could only come up with items like this that are hardly redolent of Carl Davidson’s popular front maneuvers:

Despite their failure on the question of chairman [a reference to an invitation from the Cadets to the left parties to support their nomination], within the next few days the Cadets made another attempt to draw the Social-Democratic faction into some agreement. They invited our fraction to a joint meeting of the “united opposition” to discuss certain bills which were being drafted by the Cadet fraction. In reply to this invitation the Social-Democratic fraction passed a resolution stating that they would undertake no joint work with the Cadets, that the Cadets were essentially counter-revolutionary and that no friendly relations were possible between them and the party of the working-class.

So I scratched my head and tried to figure out which Badaev was the true one, the one who Mike Ely cited or the one that comes across repeatedly throughout the rest of the book like an early version of Glenn Ford or Paul Street? It reminded me a bit of that old television show “To Tell the Truth”. Would the real A.M. Badaev please stand up?  I decided to reread the citation that Mike Ely found so convincing for the 12th time. Maybe there was something I was not getting.

Finally, I figured it out.

Badaev wrote:

with the Liberals against the government parties during the second ballot for the election of electors in the city curias.

The election of electors? What was an elector? I felt that this was the key to unraveling the mystery of Bolshevik “agreements” or blocs with the Cadets, the “bitter enemies” of the Black Hundreds in the same way that the Democrats are toward the Republicans. Ha-ha-ha.

You have to understand that the Czar set up a Duma on pretty much the same basis as our electoral college, in order to preempt the will of the people. You did not vote directly for Bolshevik, Trudovik, Black Hundred or Cadet candidates. Instead you had to vote for electors who came from four different “curiae”, or electoral groups: the landowners, urban middle class, peasants and workers. So the Bolsheviks came to an agreement with the Cadets not on a common electoral slate, but on who should be an elector. In some ways, this reminded me of all the flak that Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo got in 2008 when they used the ballot designation in some states that had belonged to a 3rd party that originated out of the Pat Buchanan campaign. You would have to be daft to accuse them of supporting Pat Buchanan’s politics, even though of course there were plenty of nuts who did, starting with the Demogreens, Eric Alterman et al.

Now I would be willing to be persuaded that Badaev was actually referring to political agreements between the Bolsheviks and the Cadets, but I would not hold my breath waiting–especially in light of the long and unambiguous record of Lenin’s hostility to the Cadets at all times and under all circumstances.

Although I don’t think it is very useful to base one’s electoral strategy on Lenin’s writings and prefer to understand our problems in terms of what Eugene V. Debs said (“I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it”), I do think that there are some similarities between the challenges Lenin faced and what we face today. In December 31, 1906, Lenin wrote an article titled “The Attitude of the Bourgeois Parties and of the Workers’ Party to the Duma Elections” that strikes me as sounding quite contemporary. Lenin wrote:

Hence, the whole of the Cadets’ election campaign is directed to frightening the masses with the Black-Hundred danger and the danger from the extreme Left parties, to adapting themselves to the philistinism, cowardice and flabbiness of the petty bourgeois and to persuading him that the Cadets are the safest, the most modest, the most moderate and the most well-behaved of people. Every day the Cadet papers ask their readers: Are you afraid, philistine? Rely on us! We are not going to frighten you, we are opposed to violence, we are obedient to the government; rely on us, and we shall do everything for you “as far as possible”! And behind the backs of the frightened philistines the Cadets resort to every trick to assure the government of their loyalty, to assure the Lefts of their love of liberty, to assure the Peaceful Renovators of their affinity with their party and their election forms.

No enlightenment of the masses, no agitation to rouse the masses, no exposition of consistent democratic slogans— only a haggling for seats behind the backs of the frightened philistines—such is the election campaign of all the parties of the liberal bourgeoisie, from the non-party people (of Tovarishch) to the Party of Democratic Reforms.

Substitute the words Democratic Party for Cadets and you pretty much get an idea of why there is non-stop and hysterical chatter about the Tea Party from MSNBC, the Nation Magazine, and all the other ideological heirs of the Cadets and their best friends on the left at that time, the Mensheviks whose spineless reformism is apparently alive and well.

July 1, 2019

Lars Lih versus Eric Blanc

Filed under: Jacobin,Kautsky,Lenin — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Lars Lih, the master disowns his disciple

In what practically amounts to self-plagiarism, Lars Lih has written now what seems like the tenth article elevating Karl Kautsky’s reputation to heights not seen since the early 20th century before it was permanently damaged by his ideological scabbing on the Russian Revolution. Jacobin, the go-to place for neo-Kautskyism, has just published Lih’s “Karl Kautsky as Architect of the October Revolution”, which is meant as a corrective to his acolyte Eric Blanc’s attempt to consign Bolshevik-type revolutions to the ashbin of history. Ironically, Lih views October 1917 as a vindication of Kautsky’s writings while his disciple Blanc views those same writings as a disinfectant against the unreconstructed Leninism that stubbornly refuses to accept Bernie Sanders as the greatest revolutionary since Eugene V. Debs. In essence, Kautsky serves as a Rorschach test for the two Jacobin authors. Lih sees the image resembling Lenin and Blanc sees it as the anti-Lenin. Of course, before Blanc became so gung-ho on Democratic Party politics, his take might have been closer to Lih’s but why expect him to be consistent? After all, consistency is the hobgoblin of foolish minds.

While Lih himself has never said a word about post-1920s politics, he implicitly takes issue with Blanc’s attempt to replace Lenin with Kautsky as supreme helmsman for the revolution DSA will lead in the glorious future. Very few DSA’ers have ever read Karl Kautsky, let alone Eric Blanc, but among the Jacobin/DSA mandarins Kautsky plays the kind of role that Trotsky played for the sect I belonged to in the 1960s and 70s. If you need an excuse to re-register as a Democrat and pass out campaign brochures for Bernie Sanders, nothing tops citing Kautsky who at least never set up gulags or outlawed abortion.

Blanc’s Jacobin article “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)” implicitly endorses Kautsky’s 1918 condemnation of the Bolshevik seizure of power in “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat”:

Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils. In contrast, Kautsky argued that the path to anticapitalist rupture in conditions of political democracy passed through the election of a workers’ party to government.

You’ll note how similar this is to what Kautsky wrote in the early 1930s that was collected into a book titled “Social Democracy versus Communism”, long after his anti-Bolshevik stance had calcified into something resembling a Dissent Magazine article by Irving Howe:

There are people who believe that even under a democratic order Labor should utilize the methods of “revolution,” insurrection, the general strike, because, in their opinion, such methods will lead to Socialism more quickly than the casting of ballots, and that in the final analysis the opponents of Socialism in the democratic states will yield only to insurrection and the general strike.

In rejecting democracy, they go so far as to believe that a Socialist minority could achieve power by force in a democratic state. And, finally, they assert that Socialists cannot hope to attain an electoral majority even in countries where Labor represents the greatest number as long as the opponents of Socialism retain control over the economic and intellectual instruments of power.

How odd it is that a young radical like Eric Blanc can mutate ideologically into the Kautsky of the 1930s, probably without even being aware of it. One hopes that he does not lurch even further to the right. Over the past 50 years, I have seen many leftists lose their revolutionary fiber, an occupational hazard of living in the most brutally reactionary state in world history.

The word insurrection occurs repeatedly throughout Blanc’s article, a dirty word that summons up those Trotskyist Neanderthals that are as detached from reality as the eponymous hero of “Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment”, a failed artist who spends most of his day either fantasizing about being the leader of a Red Army detachment or a gorilla stomping through the rainforest.

This business about October 1917 being an “insurrection” does not fit into Lih’s schema, namely that Kautsky’s revolutionary tactics guided those of Lenin and all the other Bolshevik leaders toward the seizure of power in a massive socialist revolution based on Soviet democracy. He has made that argument many times in the past and repeats his talking points once again:

Bolshevik hegemony was not the only piece of tactical advice by Kautsky that proved crucial in 1917. In 1909, Kautsky published a small book entitled Road to Power. The Bolsheviks reacted with by now typical enthusiasm. In a glowing book review, Lenin’s closest lieutenant, Grigorii Zinoviev, brought out the book’s wide range of topics as well as its significance as a weapon of the “orthodox” against the “revisionists” — or, in Russia, the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks.

Obviously, this does not take into account Lenin’s April Theses that broke with the Second International “stagism” found not only in Kautsky’s writings but Lenin’s as well prior to 1917. As I have pointed out a number of times, Lih does not consider the April Theses a breach with Lenin’s earlier writings that advocated a democratic-bourgeois revolution but instead just another example of Kautsky’s deep influence on the Bolsheviks. That Lenin complained about “Kautskyism” seeping into Pravda articles on April 12, 1917 somehow escaped Lih’s attention. What could have prompted Lenin to take up this matter in a letter to J.S. Hanecki and Karl Radek? Alexander Rabinowitch, one of the most authoritative historians of the Russian Revolution, filled in the details:

Beginning with the March 14 issue the central Bolshevik organ swung sharply to the right. Henceforth articles by Kamenev and Stalin advocated limited support for the Provisional Government, rejection of the slogan, “Down with the war,” and an end to disorganizing activities at the front. “While there is no peace,” wrote Kamenev in Pravda on March 15, “the people must remain steadfastly at their posts, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.” “The slogan, ‘Down with the war,’ is useless,” echoed Stalin the next day.

If Lih erred in granting Kautsky authority he did not deserve, at least he understood that the word “insurrection” was misplaced when it came to Bolshevism:

In his Jacobin article, Eric Blanc states the following: “Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils.” This remark brings together not one, but two, deep-rooted misconceptions about 1917: first, that a clash between two types of democracy — parliamentary vs. soviet — as found in the pages of State and Revolution, had anything to do with the October victory or the politics of the revolutionary year. (State and Revolution was drafted in 1917 but only published in 1918 and it is irrelevant to the events of the previous year.) Second, that the Bolsheviks took power by means of an “insurrection,” “armed uprising,” or whatever.

So, it looks like master and disciple have parted ways. I suspect that Lih had no interest in disassociating himself from Eric Blanc’s Democratic Party politics but in only fending off attempts to drive a wedge between Kautsky and Lenin. For all I know, the fact that Lih worked in Ron Dellums’s office for 6 years might have indicated that he could be just as flexible as Blanc. In an interview conducted by Dario Cankovic in the defunct North Star website, Lih hardly sounded predisposed to the kind of militancy found in the 1970s left: “My own politics—well, I don’t spend too much time thinking about them, because I’m too busy thinking about the early 20th century, you know, so I just characterise my views as vaguely left. Which I think is OK, because that means I’m sort of automatically not partisan and I think that’s good for everybody.” Vaguely left? I quite agree. In fact, the only thing he even begins to sound dead-set on is minimizing Leon Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution.



April 3, 2019

Down with neo-Kautskyism

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin,Kautsky — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Karl Kautsky

Five years ago Jacobin was a big happy family with the ISO and Solidarity members basking in the spotlight alongside the DSA intellectuals. Despite the obvious cleavage between the Trotskyist origins of the former group and the Michael Harrington orientation of Bhaskar Sunkara, everybody could benefit from the exposure afforded by the magazine’s vast readership.

Eventually, the differences became too pronounced to ignore. Probably the first manifestation of this was Charles Post’s gentle reprimand of Vivek Chibber in the February 2018 issue that took issue with an earlier article by Chibber targeting the “ruptural” strategy associated with the early Communist International and the revolutionary left. Despite Chibber’s reputation as a high priest of orthodox Marxism (bolstered by Post and Jacobin, it should be added), there was no denying that he had much more in common with Michael Harrington than Leon Trotsky.

Establishing the orthodoxy of the Jacobin left took much more than citing Michael Harrington. To maintain its left cover, it had to search for a Marxist authority who could be invoked when dealing with a bunch of old fogies like Charles Post or Robert Brenner who could not see the wisdom in ringing doorbells for a Democratic Party candidate. Of course, one cannot be sure that Brenner was purged from the Catalyst editorial board by Sunkara and Chibber for political reasons but I’d bet a bottle of Glenlivet scotch that it was a factor.

Eric Blanc was Johnny-on-the-spot. This young Marxist scholar had an impressive track record of articles that were notable for their erudition even when some of their conclusions were questionable. Perhaps the most questionable of them were those that endorsed Lars Lih’s pro-“Old Bolshevik” analysis that there was a continuum between Karl Kautsky and Lenin. It was only a matter of time that Blanc’s political trajectory could be discerned. His interest in Kautsky was not just historical. He saw in Kautsky the missing link that could establish the revolutionary continuity between Karl Kautsky and the DSA’s inside-outside electoral strategy.

In January 2019, John Muldoon published an article in Jacobin titled Reclaiming the Best of Karl Kautsky that described him as the original “democratic socialist”. In my rebuttal to Muldoon, I wrote:

Kautsky’s basic message is don’t rock the boat with all that socialist revolution stuff. No wonder it would appeal to people smitten with Bernie Sanders, who is all for his home state serving as a base for F-35s, a $1.5 trillion boondoggle, or Jeremy Corbyn, whose chief economic adviser John McDonnell warns against nationalizing industry, something that would hearken back to 1945—god forbid.

Post had his own response to Mullin last month in an article titled The “Best” of Karl Kautsky Isn’t Good Enough that was critical but not so nearly as mine. Unlike Post, I don’t care about burning bridges and rather enjoy blowing up the smoldering remains with dynamite while I am at it. He wrote:

On the other hand, there are the electoral breakthroughs by self-proclaimed socialists and radicals such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib in the United States. The rising electoral profile of open critics of neoliberalism give the renewed struggles outside the electoral arena a political voice — a voice which could stimulate new and broader struggles.

If you take this seriously, then why not ring doorbells for the Democrats? After all, it might lead to workers councils and general strikes someday.

As gentle as Post’s critique was, Eric Blanc felt the need to defend Kautsky against him. (He even criticized Mullin for not giving Kautsky his due.) In an article titled Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care), Blanc comes out full-tilt-boogie for Kautsky, a man that Karl Marx described as “a member of the philistine tribe”.

In the first paragraph, Blanc describes Kautsky as “the world’s preeminent Marxist theorist from the late 1880s through 1914.” I’d make the case for Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky having those qualifications but do consider the possibility that Blanc uses the word “preeminent” in the same way that it applies to Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as socialists. After all, with all their appearances on cable TV, the term “preeminent” describes them much more than obscure figures like David Harvey or John Bellamy Foster.

According to Blanc, the fan boy James Muldoon and the critic Post were both wrong in characterizing him as opposed to a “ruptural” break with capitalism. They didn’t realize that Kautsky was a big-time rupture guy. (I’ll never get used to that word being used in this context. When I was young, the word always meant hernia, like when a kid told me in 7th grade that our social studies teacher wore a special belt for his rupture.)

Blanc’s basic position is that “The difference between Kautsky’s approach and that of Leninists like Post is not over whether a revolution was necessary, but how to get there.” To close the deal ideologically, Blanc uses the word insurrection as a way to make revolutionaries sound hopelessly blind to modern-day realities:

Following Lenin’s arguments in his 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution, Leninists for decades have hinged their strategy on the need for an insurrection to overthrow the entire parliamentary state and to place all power into the hands of workers’ councils. In contrast, Kautsky argued that the path to anticapitalist rupture in conditions of political democracy passed through the election of a workers’ party to government.

That the term “insurrection” does not appear once in The State and Revolution does not appear to perturb Blanc. I mean, after all, if it takes putting words in peoples’ mouth to win an argument… Blanc does admit that Kautsky did move toward the center after 1910 but up until that point, “Kautsky was the leading light of the far left in Germany, Russia, and across the world.” Not only that, he was not to blame for the SPD’s reactionary politics after 1910, with its support for WWI and its murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. That was the responsibility of an “unexpected rise of a caste of party and union bureaucrats who were dismissive of Marxist principles in general and Kautsky’s ‘intransigent’ class strategy in particular.”

Judging Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings as beyond reproach strikes me as the predictable outcome of Blanc connecting the dots between Kautsky and Lenin. Instead of seeing Trotsky’s writings on combined and uneven development as key, Lih and Blanc are much more inclined to see Lenin’s Bolshevism as resting on a stodgy and understandably neglected work like The Social Revolution, written in 1902. It contains pearls of wisdom like “For example, in all modern civilization the direction of capitalist development during the last century has been the same, but in every one of them the form and the velocity was very different. Geographical peculiarities, racial individualities, favor and disfavor of the neighbor, the restraint or assistance of great individualities, all these and many ether things have had their influence.” Yes, we can’t forget about those racial individualities, can we? Who would want to bother with Trotsky’s discussion of the 1905 revolution when there are such profundities awaiting us.

Toward the middle of the article, Blanc stops beating around the bush and gets to the real purpose of his article, which is to say it is okay to use the Democratic Party ballot line as he did in his dodgy “dirty break” article. It is high time we got over these Bolshevik “insurrectionary” illusions. Blanc writes:

Even at his most radical, Kautsky rejected the relevance of an insurrectionary strategy within capitalist democracies. His case was simple: the majority of workers in parliamentary countries would generally seek to use legal mass movements and the existing democratic channels to advance their interests. Technological advances, in any case, had made modern armies too strong to be overthrown through uprisings on the old nineteenth-century model of barricade street fighting. For these reasons, democratically elected governments had too much legitimacy among working people and too much armed strength for an insurrectionary approach to be realistic.

If this is not the stupidest thing I have read from a preeminent Marxist, I can’t imagine anything surpassing it. I am afraid that Blanc has Marx confused with Blanqui because what he describes above is Blanquism pure and simple. Louis Auguste Blanqui was a 19th century socialist who was a fearless opponent of both the bourgeoisie and the landed gentry but, unlike Marx, did not believe in mass action. He was an advocate of small, armed groups acting on behalf of the working class, a strategy that became known as Blanquism.

Insurrection is a loaded term, especially when applied to October, 1917. Keep in mind that there was zero barricade fighting in the weeks prior to the assault on the Winter Palace. Of course, the Mensheviks described the seizure of power as a coup since they considered the Constituent Assembly as the proper vehicle of working class struggle rather than the Soviets. Clearly, the logic of Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism would be to look back at the orientation to the Soviets rather than the Constituent Assembly as an act that legitimized the “old nineteenth century model of barricade street fighting”.

What existed in Russia in 1917 was rival governing powers. The Constituent Assembly insisted on prolonging the war and ignoring the pleas of the masses for “Peace, Bread and Land”. The Soviets, on the other hand, had become made up in their majority by Bolsheviks and as such were determined to carry out a revolution in order to satisfy their yearnings. If the Bolsheviks had not seized power, the counter-revolution would have prevailed just as it did in Chile under Allende. No matter how committed the Mensheviks and the Chilean left were to capitalist reform, the bourgeoisie was working overtime to make such reform impossible. At a certain point, the working class becomes exhausted and the reactionaries take the offensive.

That about says it all for theorizing revolutionary change but in reality these issues have a rather abstract character. The USA is far from having to decide whether Kautsky’s strategy is the key to unlocking the socialist door.

The real issue today is class independence. In a very real sense, the debate in the movement is not that different than the one that confronted the Russian left: how to regard the country’s capitalist reform party known as the Constitutional Democrats or Cadets. The debate between Jacobin/DSA and people like Charles Post is over how to relate to the Democratic Party, our version of the Cadets. Street-fighting and barricades have nothing to do with our present-day realities but voting for Democrats is.

In one of the most egregious misuses of revolutionary history in Blanc’s article, we are told that Kautsky’s parliamentarian approach was embraced by the sharpest minds in the Communist movement:

History has confirmed Kautsky’s predictions. Not only has there never been a victorious insurrectionary socialist movement under a capitalist democracy, but only a tiny minority of workers have ever even nominally supported the idea of an insurrection. For this reason, the most perceptive elements of the early Communist International began briefly moving back towards Kautsky’s approach in 1922–23 by advocating the parliamentary election of “workers’ governments” as a first step towards rupture.

To start with, the term “workers’ government” had nothing to do with DSA’s electoralism, the goal of which—rather unrealistically—is to see someone like Bernie Sanders turning into the second coming of Olaf Palme. In fact, Sweden won’t see the second coming of Olaf Palme, either. Capitalism has left the Fordist building. It is in the middle of a long depression, as Michael Roberts puts it, and hopes of a generous welfare state are as utopian as anything Robert Owen ever wrote.

When the Communists wrote about a workers government, they had something in mind like Germany in the early 20s when the Communists and many social democrats were revolutionary-minded. Unfortunately, the Communists were sectarian ultraleftists who would have considered such a bloc unprincipled.

But what might have been possible in Germany was not what Eric Blanc has in mind. Indeed, it had an insurrectionary character for much of the time. Germany had definitely entered a pre-Revolutionary situation in 1923. 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 Socialist named Erich Zeigner headed the government. He was friendly with the Communists and made common cause with them. 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 Communist press. The united front overtures to Zeigner mostly consisted of escalating pressure to force him to accommodate to the maximum Communist program.

What if instead the Communists broached the possibility of a common electoral front with Zeigner, whose working-class comrades in Saxony had been carrying out pitched street-fighting battles with the cops and with the emerging fascist movement? This would have been a real “workers government”, not the impotent and useless coalition governments of post-WWII Europe that have been socialist in name only.

Under the conditions of capitalist austerity that will prevail for the foreseeable future in the USA and elsewhere, there will be rising discontent that can conceivably open workers up to the socialist alternative. The last thing we need are Marxists advocating on behalf of the Democratic Party, the oldest continuously functioning capitalist party in the world. The lines have been drawn and the left has to make up its mind. The future is at stake.

January 14, 2019

Kautsky? No thanks

Filed under: Kautsky,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Karl Kautsky

Jo­hann Most has found a kindred spir­it in Kaut­sky, on whom he had frowned so grimly; even En­gels takes a much more tol­er­ant view of this joker since the lat­ter gave proof of his con­sid­er­able drink­ing abil­ity. When the charm­er — the little joker, I mean — first came to see me, the first ques­tion that rose to my lips was: Are you like your moth­er? “Not in the least!” he ex­claimed, and si­lently I con­grat­u­lated his moth­er. He’s a me­diocrity, nar­row in his out­look, over-wise (only 26 years old), and a know-it-all, al­though hard-work­ing after a fash­ion, much con­cerned with stat­ist­ics out of which, however, he makes little sense. By nature he’s a mem­ber of the phil­istine tribe. For the rest, a de­cent fel­low in his own way; I un­load him onto amigo En­gels as much as I can.

–A letter from Karl Marx to his daughter Jenny, dated August 1881

Largely the result of a confluence between Lars Lih’s writings and the social democratic (or democratic socialist) renaissance triggered by the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, Karl Kautsky is becoming kind of trendy nowadays.

In a Jacobin article titled “Reclaiming the Best of Karl Kautsky”, James Muldoon, a lecturer at the University of Exeter in England, rescued Kautsky’s 1919 “Guidelines for a Socialist Action Programme” from the obscurity it probably deserved and offered it up as a guideline for the sort of “socialism from below” that crops up frequently in Jacobin:

One hundred years ago, socialists strived to democratize politics, the economy, and society. The democratic socialists of today have nothing to fear from embracing this history and proposing a transformative program of overcoming capitalism. Acknowledging this history not only continues to create a positive perception of socialism as compatible with democracy, it also evokes a meaningful alternative to neoliberal capitalism.

Kautsky is seen as a sensible alternative to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on one hand and the Spartacists led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on the other. (It should be mentioned that Bhaskar Sunkara is a Kautsky fan himself.)

Kautsky diverged from both the SPD and the Spartacists. He believed that universal suffrage and parliamentary institutions should form the basis of the new republic. But he did not see any compelling justification for restricting suffrage to paid factory workers, which would disenfranchise large elements of the lower classes including many women, peasants, and the unemployed.

The implication here is that Liebknecht and Luxemburg were for disenfranchising women, peasants and the unemployed, right? Those dastardly extremists, tch-tch. However, if you look at the Kautsky article recommended by Muldoon, there is no reference to the Spartacists opposing universal suffrage. It is certainly doubtful that Rosa Luxemburg would have restricted suffrage to the working-class since one of her main complaints about the Bolsheviks was that they were doing exactly that.

So, by process of elimination, you must conclude that it was Lenin who was the butt of Kautsky’s criticism. It turns out that it wasn’t so much over who gets to vote or not but whether Soviet democracy expressed the kind of “democratic socialism” that Muldoon and Kautsky believe in. The difference was over whether the Bolsheviks were wrong to champion the Soviets which were a class-based institution rather than the constituent assembly favored by Kautsky and the Mensheviks. In his 1918 polemic against the Bolsheviks titled “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, Kautsky sounded a Muldoonish note:

Even in a country so highly developed economically as Germany, where the proletariat is so numerous, the establishment of a Soviet Republic would disfranchise great masses of the people. In 1907, the number of men, with their families, belonging to occupations which comprised the three great groups of agriculture, industry and trade, that is, wage-earners and salaried persons, amounted to something over 35,000,000, as against 17,000,000 belonging to other sections. A party could therefore very well have the majority of wage-earners behind it and yet form a minority of the population.

By focusing on question of majority rule, Kautsky skirts the real difference with Lenin—namely the wisdom of carrying out a socialist revolution in a country that lacked the material basis for one. In his polemic, Kautsky views the seizure of power as premature:

In fine, the uninterrupted progress of production is essential for the prosperity of all. The destruction of capitalism is not Socialism. Where capitalist production cannot be transformed at once into Socialist production, it must go on as before, otherwise the process of production will be interrupted, and that hardship for the masses will ensue which the modern proletariat so much fears in the shape of general unemployment.

You get the same line of reasoning with Kautsky’s 1919 article that is the apple of Muldoon’s eyes. In a country convulsed by proletarian resistance, he offers these bromides:

The German republic should become a democratic republic. Yet it should be even more than that. It should become a socialist republic – a commonwealth in which there is no longer any place for the exploitation of man by man.

However, the question of production itself is an even more urgent one than that of the mode of production. The war has forcibly interrupted production. Our most urgent task is to revive it again, to get it up and running. That is the precondition of any attempt to socialise production.

Production requires labour and the means of production. The state authority’s next task is to procure from abroad any food that is lacking, in order to make the worker fit for work. The state authority should also supply industry with raw materials. Wherever it is not possible to supply sufficient raw materials to all the factories in a branch of industry, then above all it is the technically superior factories that should be supplied. For this, the state should use existing laws that allowed factories to be closed during the war.

You get the picture, right? Kautsky’s basic message is don’t rock the boat with all that socialist revolution stuff. No wonder it would appeal to people smitten with Bernie Sanders, who is all for his home state serving as a base for F-35s, a $1.5 trillion boondoggle, or Jeremy Corbyn, whose chief economic adviser John McDonnell warns against nationalizing industry, something that would hearken back to 1945—god forbid.

The theoretical basis for this kind of reformism is the Marxism of the Second International that understood history as a succession of stages. Kautsky, like Plekhanov, opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power because Russia had not developed a full-fledged capitalist economy. Maybe Kautsky had not read Marx’s letters to the Russian populists who were troubled by Plekhanov’s stagism. His letters advised them that the peasant communes could provide the basis for a revolutionary state inspiring revolutions in the West.

This kind of stagism has a new lease on life partially because there are people with scholarly credentials like Lars Lih trying to rewrite the history of the Russian Revolution. In a September 2018 article in “Studies in East European Thought”, he makes the case that Kautsky’s 1909 “The Road to Power” was a major influence on the Bolsheviks. While it is true that Lenin was favorably disposed to Kautsky up until 1917, there were others far more familiar with German politics who might have helped him read Kautsky more critically.

Of course, I am referring to Rosa Luxemburg who saw him close up enough to see all his ideological warts. In 1906, she wrote one of her major contributions to Marxist strategic thinking—“The Mass Strike”, a work that tries to generalize from the experience of the 1905 revolution in Russia, a dress rehearsal for 1917. As editor of “Die Neue Zeit”, Kautsky had big problems with her submitted article since there was “not one word…about a republic”. He was preoccupied as usual with the need for bourgeois democracy, not all that ultra-left business about working-class insurgency: “Universal, equal direct suffrage for all adults, without distinction of sex, is the immediate goal which ensures us the enthusiastic agreement of the broadest strata at the present moment.” He wrote much more in the rejection letter to Luxemburg that she tears apart in “Theory & Practice: A polemic against Comrade Kautsky’s theory of the Mass Strike”. I rather enjoyed her pithy take on his parliamentary cretinism:

Comrade Kautsky is a more qualified Marxian scholar than I: he should know better, what pointed adjective Marx would have applied to this “dodge” and this sort of republicanism “within the limits of the police-permitted and logically impermissible.”

Thus Comrade Kautsky is in error when he says I “bewail myself” of being “badly handled” by the editors of the Neue Zeit. I find only that Comrade Kautsky has handled himself badly.

Despite Kautsky’s insistence on the need for bourgeois democracy in “The Road to Power”, he betrayed his own principles a year after it was written by refusing to lead a campaign against a struggle for voting rights in Prussia in 1910. Writing for the Marxist Left Review in Australia, Darren Rosso contrasted the approaches taken by Kautsky and Luxemburg:

This became clear when the Prussian suffrage struggle broke out in 1910. Kautsky rejected the call for a democratic republic – cutting the knot that had tied the democratic struggle and social revolution. He repudiated Luxemburg’s call to lead an offensive mass struggle for a republic, because he wanted to “keep the gunpowder dry” for the 1912 Reichstag elections. With the mass strike as a concrete tactic, Luxemburg fought to abolish the semi-absolutist regime, after which “the revolution would be propelled beyond this first turning point towards the conquest of power by the proletariat. Her slogan of a republic…tied together all the great struggles of the day with a final aim”, in a process of permanent revolution in German conditions.

This stubborn attachment to distinct stages of history that unfold as predictably as a pupa turning into a butterfly has to be understood to some extent as a function of the influence that Charles Darwin had on Kautsky as well as many other “stagist” theoreticians. For a fascinating account of his attempt to synthesize Marx and Darwin, I recommend the chapter on Kautsky in Richard Weikart’s “Socialist Darwinism” that begins:

Few contributed as much to the dissemination of Darwinism and evolutionary theory in socialist circles as Kautsky, the leading theorist of the German Social Democratic Party in the pre-World War I period. When Kautsky founded Die neue Zeit in 1883, he intended it not only as a theoretical journal promoting Mandan socialism, but also as a vehicle to disseminate Darwinism. He asked Engels to contribute an article on Darwin to appear in the first issue, since “I cannot think of a better introductory article for a popular monthly magazine than one about Darwin. The name alone is already a program.” Kautsky also invited the Darwinian botanist Arnold Dodel to submit scientific articles to his forthcoming journal, explaining, “We want to devote special attention to natural science and specifically to Darwinism and in each number, if possible, carry a scientific article.”

Could it have been possible that Kautsky veered into Social Darwinism at some point? It is hard to shake that suspicion after reading his 1914 “Are the Jews a Race”, a year that according to Weikart came long after he had abandoned a strict application of evolutionary theory to world history.

In chapter five, Kautsky deals with the “Physical Characteristics of the Jewish Race”. He assures his readers that unlike pure races, the Jews did not have a universal marker despite the common perception that a “hooked nose” is dominant. He dismisses such stereotypes with hard evidence: “We have already quoted Luschan’s observation that the Jewish nose is particularly frequent in the Alpine valleys that are cut off from all outside influences, that it is an earmark of the homo alpinus, the Alpine man. While but thirteen or fourteen per cent, of the Jews have a Jewish nose – as a rule – the conservative Catholic population of Ancient Bavaria  shows thirty-one per cent of Jewish noses.” (I have always viewed mine as a cross between an anteater’s and a dill pickle.)

In the next chapter, he moves on to the “Mental Qualities of the Jewish Race”. After establishing that the Jews were a mixed race, he hones in on their cosmopolitanism:

It is very questionable whether natural selection, in the form of the survival of the fittest, has had much influence on evolution. But there is no doubt that it has had an immense influence on the shaping and maintaining of species by means of the elimination of those unfit for the given environment.

In addition to this unconscious adaption, there is also a conscious adaptation. We have already pointed out that the Jew is far more inclined to consult a physician, and to observe the physician’s orders conscientiously, than is the non-Jew, and also, that the Jew – at least in the ghetto – is far less addicted to alcohol. This difference between Jew and non-Jew is at bottom again merely a difference between city-dweller and country-dweller.

Owing to the conditions of his life the latter is far superior to the city-dweller in strength; he is rarely ill. In the fullness of his strengths he despises disease. Owing to his love of displaying his vigour, and to his fear of appearing to be a weakling, he considers it a disgrace to be sick; besides, he is often too ignorant to have confidence in a physician.

I’m not with Kautsky on this physician stuff. I’m much more like the country-dweller, especially when it comes to making appointments with the urologist. I can’t stand those probes.

This hogwash was not the worst of it. Like most Social Darwinists, Kautsky was into eugenics. Kautsky had a particular affinity for Wilhelm Schallmayer who was considered a founder of the eugenics movement in Germany—and a socialist to boot. According to Wikipedia, his key work, “Concerning the Imminent Physical Degeneration of Civilized Humanity” concluded that modern medicine impeded natural selection by aiding the survival and reproduction of those who are “defectively constituted” or “generally weak.” Also, the increase in mental disorders was due to the unfit among us not being able to adapt to the fast-pace of modern industrial civilization. Finally, he fretted that degeneration often led to insanity, which imposed a high economic cost for maintaining lunatic asylums.

Weikart discusses Kautsky’s review of this masterpiece:

By reviewing Schallmayer’s early book, Ueber die drohende korperliche Entartung der Kulturmenschheit (1891, On the Threatening Physical Degeneration of Civilized Humanity), Kautsky became one of the earliest to introduce eugenical thinking into the socialist press. Kautsky agreed with Schailmayer that modern society was promoting degeneration and that medicine and hygiene were contributing to this by facilitating the propagation of weaker and inferior individuals. The bourgeois Darwinists’ solution of reintroducing the struggle for existence is absurd and hypocritical,. according to Kautsky, since all the accomplishments of modern culture work to enervate the struggle for existence. Do they really want to return to primitive society and forfeit their own pride and glory? Kautsky regarded rational social planning as the most beneficial replacement for natural selection. Degeneration could be obviated by removing deleterious environmental influences and promoting healthy conditions of life.

Kautsky? No thanks.

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