Sunday, January 01, 2012

A Marx revival? (5 of 5) The archetypal left challenge to Marxism

I recently came across the book The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx (1952) by political scientist and historian Peter Gay, which was his Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia. I was interested to see one of the earlier books by Gay, whose Freud biography is great. And I was curious to see what he had to say about Bernstein and the "Revisionism" debate in German Social Democracy prior to the First World War.

This dispute became the archetypal dispute over Marxist doctrinal purity. It was followed by the dispute over Social Democratic Parties supporting their respective governments' war efforts in the Great War, which split most of the Socialist parties of Europe. A related but more permanent division occurred over the Russian Revolution of 1917, with the antiwar factions of Social Democracy tending to be sympathetic to the Russian Communists and their methods. Though the continuity is not that simple. Bernstein (1850-1932), the godfather of Revisionism, was very much in the antiwar faction, but then was very much supportive of the Social Democratic government that took power in Berlin in 1918 and opposed to the more radical Spartacus/Communist group.

It was to be followed by many other divisions, splits and bitter doctrinal disputes: Stalinists vs. Troskyists, the Soviet/Yugoslavia split, Khrushchev's reforms vs. Stalin/Brezhnev orthodoxy, Soviet theory vs. Maoist theory, to name some of the more prominent. In addition to substantive policy/strategy/doctrinal differences, more practical factional fights were often cast in doctrinal terms.

The Revisionism disputes became the basic template for all of these. For Communists, all forms of deviation from the True Path were stigmatized as some form of "revisionism". It's tempting to say that Marxism, including the post-1917 Social Democratic varieties, was an especially theoretically inclined stream of thought. And that's true. One of the most intense and consequential early doctrinal disputes in the German Democratic Republic (GDR or DDR from the German initials, Communist East Germany) was over the proper weight to give to the influence of Hegel on the development of the thought of Marx and Engels.

But when I see the dogmatic adherence of both European conservatives and social-democrats today, or I hear the fantastic dogmatic pronouncements from Republican movement conservatives in the US, I'm hesitant to say that Marxism is unusual in its doctrinal emphasis.

In the context of whether there is or could be a "Marx revival" in the US and Europe, if we go beyond general imagery, it's not so easy to say which "Marx" would be revived. That's why I find it useful in this context to look at the issues on which the original Revisionism vs. Marxism dispute was fought.

This was a dispute that took place within the Germany Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest of the socialist parties in Europe in the 1890s and early 1900s. It was 120 years ago, 1891, when the SPD adopted what was generally understood to be a Marxist program with the official Erfurt Program. Heinz Niemann recalled the event in Ein unabgegoltenes Erbe.Vor 120 Jahren: Sieg Marx'schen Denkens for Neues Deutschland 08.10.2011.

In some ways, the world of the 1890s looks very familiar politically. In other ways, it seems very much another world. The SPD had emerged from 12 years (1878-1890) of being banned from legal party activity in Germany, a time still remembered as the SPD "heroic period". So they had the experience of operating as an underground party, and successfully so. They emerged from illegality as the strongest party in Germany. And they were the leading advocates for full parliamentary democracy and the replacement of the Imperial government. Wilhelmine Germany had a parliament with some power, but it could scarcely be imagined to be a representative democracy.

Eduard Bernstein was one of the SPD's leading publicists and historians, the editor of the Party journal Die Neue Zeit. He was a close collaborator of Marx and Engels. It wasn't until after Engels' death in 1895 that Bernstein began to challenge the SPD to adopt a more explicitly reformist, less revolutionary official doctrine. Gay summarizes the major issues under dispute as follows:

  • Dialectical view of history
  • Meaning of the dominance of monopolies in capitalism
  • Value theory in economics
  • Inevitability of capitalist collapse
  • Role of the agricultural sectors (farmers and farmworkers)
  • Persistence and growth of the "middle class"
As the bullet-point summary illustrates, it's hard for most people to imagine a hot-and-heavy debate extending two decades over such topics. And however brilliant the insights of Marx and Engels may have been - or not - it's scarcely to be imagined that if they could have lived and worked until 2011 that they wouldn't have reframed their outlooks based on actual events. Like their intellectual mentor Hegel - both acknowledged their debt to Hegel's thought - both were immersed in the politics, economics and to a great extent scientific thought of their times.

The more practical side of the political stakes involved in this dispute, which pitted Bernstein as the leader of the Revisionists against party leaders August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Karl Kautsky defending the Marxist position had to do with the emphasis on reforms aimed at defending the current interests of the German working class vs. a near-term focus on a fundamental transformation of the Imperial government and the ownership basis of large industry. This does not mean that the Bebel-Kautsky faction were storing weapons and training shock troops for a putsch. Both sides in the theoretical dispute agreed that a radical transformation of the basis of the economy to socialism was needed. And by socialism they meant public ownership of major industries and financial institutions. And both sides agreed that the replacement of the Imperial government by parliamentary democracy was an urgent necessity and very much in the interest of the working class.

Bernstein famously described his attitude, "The goal is nothing, the movement everything." In one sense, it was a Social Democratic instance of temperamental differences between those who want to change things fast and those who want to make haste slowly. In many situations and in many different contexts, history has been unkind to both positions, and occasionally more merciful to one or the other.

Peter Gay in this early book was already showing two of his great strengths as a researcher and writer: careful attention to nuance and a rare ability to communicate historical events in the German-speaking world to audiences in the Anglo-Saxon world. How he treats the dispute over the concept of the general strike is a good example.

The politicians of the SPD insisted on claiming the general political strike as a potential weapon in what back then was generally understood as a class struggle. (Bizarrely, in the US right now, it's become politically respectable in the mainstream to talk about "class war" but not "class struggle"!) The trade union leaders, who tended to support the reformist/Revisionist positions, were opposed to the concept. They wanted the strike to be used only for particular trade union demands over wages, union recognition, contract disputes, etc. Ignaz Auer argued, "General strike is general nonsense."

In this case, Bernstein the arch-Revisionist sided with the left wing in supporting the concept of the general political strike. There was an anarchist concept of a more-or-less apocalyptic general strike that would bring down the capitalist system and the government at the same time, that both SPD Marxist and Revisionists opposed. Gay's description of Bernstein's position is a good illustration of the context in which these events were debated:

The political mass strike, free from Utopian elements, is the "means of putting the strongest pressure upon government and public opinion." [Bernstein, 1905] Its chances of success are small, and that is why it must be used sparingly. Like a revolution, the mass strike cannot be manufactured and cannot be called into being spontaneously; its only hope for success exists at critical moments, particularly when the ruling class is clearly in the wrong. This moral element is of great tactical importance, since it is reflected in public support for the strike. That is why Bernstein could define the mass strike as "an economic weapon with an ethical object."
In fact, one of the most successful general strikes in history was in Germany in 1920, (ironically!) defending the decidedly reformist and anti-revolutionary but democratic SPD government against a far-right putsch, which is remembered as the Kapp putsch, or the Lüttwitz-Kapp-Putsch.

The point in the context of this series is that any "Marx revival" in a meaningful political form, as opposed to the use of the Marx bogeyman by Bloomberg Business Week or other mainstream press outlets, would depend on the relevance of both theory and practice. An intellectual like Slavoj Žižek can have important and sound ideas about philosophy or sociology without necessarily having any particular insights into developments of the day like the Occupy Wall Street/indignados movement. And a party like the German Left Party (Linkspartei/Die Linke) that is consciously drawing from a Marxist political tradition may have a party program that on its face would have made Eduard Bernstein denounce it as hopelessly inadequate for the SPD of 1900.

Posts in this series:

A Marx revival? (1 of 5) The Marx bogeyman 12/28/2011
A Marx revival? (2 of 5) Some intellectual luminaries of the European left 12/29/2011
A Marx revival? (3 of 5): the former Communist states as real-time challenge 12/30/2011
A Marx revival? (4 of 5) Is there actual evidence of such a thing in US and European politics? 01/01/2011
A Marx revival? (5 of 5) The archetypal left challenge to Marxism 01/02/2011

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