Splits, regroupments, war, and revolution in Germany, 1914–1920: A conversation with Ben Lewis
Platypus Review 46 | May 2012
Last winter, on their radio show Radical Minds on WHPK-FM Chicago, Spencer A. Leonard and Watson Ladd interviewed Ben Lewis, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and co-author and translator, together with Lars T. Lih, of Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (2011). The interview originally was broadcast on December 6, 2011. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Spencer Leonard: Please give a brief overview of Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle.
Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (2011)
Ben Lewis: The book makes available in English a remarkable moment in the history of the European socialist movement—the debate at the October 1920 Halle Congress of the German Independent Social Democrats (USPD). The USPD had then around 700,000 members. It was bitterly divided over the new Soviet government, the Communist International, and the nature of the German revolution and the tasks it then faced.The split that resulted at this congress, as part of the drive to form parties affiliated to the Third International, created the new, United Communist Party (VKPD). It was a pivotal moment.
When I first came across the material, it struck me how apposite some of the discussions and debates were to mass revolutionary unity in today’s world – seeking to overcome crippling divisions and fragmentation through uncompromising political struggle. My collaborator in this project Lars Lih and I have contextualized and translated the speeches of the Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev, who spoke for around four hours, and his Menshevik opponent Julius Martov. This Congress provides an almost unparalleled insight into the self-understanding both of the Bolsheviks and the “left” Mensheviks, as well as their supporters in the German workers’ movement. The main purpose of the book, then, is to make available a debate that has been largely overlooked or forgotten. Grasping the shades and nuances of opinion at the congress, as well as the strengths and limitations of the strategic outlines advanced on both sides, is intended as a modest contribution to the sort of debates that we on the left urgently need today.
SL: What were some of the circumstances that led to the altered landscape of the German Left in the aftermath of World War I, and in particular from 1917-1921? How had the outbreak of war itself precipitated a crisis in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and, indeed, international socialism? In the introduction to the book you write, “The war and the passing of political power into the hands of the military command can be partly understood as the ruling class’s challenge to the worker’s movement. The tragedy is that the SPD was unable to rise to that challenge” (11). How did the SPD’s 1914 vote to support the Kaiser’s war ramify through the war years? How and to what extent did the working class come to recognize the consequences of that vote, of that ongoing support, and of the leadership for responsible for them? How did it lead to the crack-up of some of the most important party leaders in Germany?
BL: In spite of its strategic disorientation and fractious nature, the German workers’ movement was enormously powerful, and its importance can be traced back to the successes of SPD in the period between the 1880s and 1914. His criticisms of its programme and its lack of republicanism notwithstanding, Marx’s friend and political legatee, Friedrich Engels, could barely contain his delight at the organization’s seemingly inexorable rise. In contrast to the “parties”on today’s far Left, this party had genuine mass influence and roots. It was not so much a political party as it was another way of life devoted to the political, cultural, and social development and empowerment of the working class. It ran women’s groups, cycling clubs, party universities and schools, churned out hundreds of newspapers, weekly theoretical journals, “special interest” magazines discussing cycling, the role of socialist academics, and even gymnastics! By 1912 the SPD had become the biggest party in Germany, with 110 Reichstag seats and 28 percent of the popular vote.
But as the party grew, so too did the gulf between its revolutionary theory and the daily practice of putting out newspapers, organizing in trade unions, and winning elections. The goal of socialism was increasingly relegated to Sunday speeches, party congresses, annual festivals, and educational events. Many party trade union leaders and functionaries, increasingly cut off from the control of the party membership, saw no further than higher wages and better conditions. Reichstag deputies aimed for minor reforms and parliamentary deals. In other words, the labor bureaucracy was gaining ground, and it found theoretical expression in the writings of the revisionist Eduard Bernstein. His writings of the late 1890s challenged the self-understanding of Marxism, as it derived from Marx and Engels, who in their lifetimes had thought him their star pupil.
Seen in that light, we can begin to understand the enormous shock felt by those who, while aware of the dangers of revisionism, had placed great hope in this movement when, on August 4, 1914, the SPD voted for war credits. Reading his copy of the Times, Lenin threw it on the floor and refused to believe the news. He could not fathom that a party of such promise had thus capitulated to the Kaiser state, though this is effectively what happened.
L: Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg; R: Paul Levi
However, it is worth noting as well that, right from the outset, many went along with this on the assumption that it was just some kind of aberration. The idea was that the party had temporarily lost its way. Karl Liebknecht, for example, who is held up quite rightly as a hero of internationalism, voted with the leadership on that fateful day. He voted for the war credits with the view that the party could be won over again to a principled opposition to imperialist war, in opposition, that is, to the interests of one’s own national state. After all, he thought, precisely such an opposition had been codified in many resolutions of the Second International. But the direct consequence of the Burgfrieden [Civil Peace] that the SPD had concluded with the military high command was an enormous clampdown on opposition to the war inside the SPD itself. The resulting political repression took different forms, ranging from a clampdown on party democracy to the SPD daily, Vorwärts, printing declarations from the German High Command threatening to shut down the publication if it broached the sensitive issue of class struggle. Indeed, Vorwärts was censored on several occasions for making the mildest of criticisms about bread distribution and other things during the war.
After the 1914 crisis, opposition emerged slowly. The party leadership and the state clamped down on the radical internationalist wing that upheld the resolutions and politics of the International. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were those most obviously involved in that activity. Yet they and their supporters were marginal. The most significant movement of opposition came from those parliamentary deputies who, like Liebknecht, had expressed doubts in private, but had at the time of the August 4th voted to put the unity of the party first. They gradually consolidated themselves into a vociferous and well known opposition, exploiting their position in parliament to speak out against the territorial annexations as the war dragged on. They exposed the horrific reality of the war as it became more and more fully manifest. This activity gave rise eventually to the USPD, which crystallized around the leadership of people like Hugo Haase. Interestingly, this new grouping accused the SPD of having abandoned its 1891 Erfurt programme. But the opposition went beyond the parliamentary delegation and the politics of its leading members to include figures such as Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, and Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Right from the start, people moved to distance themselves from the official SPD position, which had effectively become one of open collusion with the Kaiser state. Overcoming this huge shock and defeat for the workers’ movement internationally, and rebuilding that movement anew, became for them the order of the day.
SL: So one faction of the SPD supported the war outright while the rest staked out different positions over the course of the war years? Give us a sense of the timeline and the trajectory of the far Left, and of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, in particular.
BL: The birth of the USPD was not the decision to split. It was rather a decision by the party leadership to expel 33 parliamentary deputies who, in 1916, voted against further war credits. After being thus expelled from parliament, they were kicked out of the party in early 1917. The sharp increase in opposition to the war began in Germany in 1917-1918, as, of course, the war effort faltered unmistakably.
The founding congress of the USPD took place against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Hugo Haase referred to it at that time as the “light from the east.” The whole of this process, from 1917 through to Halle in October of 1920, must be seen as deriving from the impulse given by the Russian Revolution. The great events in Russia and the transformation of the Eastern front hammered home and exacerbated contradictions already latent within the German workers’ movement.
SL: Originally, the war had been sold to the German workers as a war against Russian barbarism, correct?
BL: Exactly! There is a quote from Kautsky, in which he says, “nowhere is the cause of socialism so advanced as in the land of the illiterates,” meaning Russia. When people in Germany began to recognize the truth of this, made manifest in the Russian Revolution, it had enormous ramifications. There was a burgeoning opposition to the war and, of course, at the same time conditions in Germany were deteriorating rapidly. Increasingly, the popularity of Soviets and the idea that we need to form worker’s councils grew. More and more, advanced workers wanted to “do what the Russians did.” That led to further strains on the USPD. People like Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein had joined only with the greatest of reluctance, expecting the project to fail because of the involvement of Spartacus Group, the “ultra Leftists” Luxemburg and Liebknecht. They went along with it to secure peace, with the idea that they would deal with the ultra Left later.
The most principled opposition, the Spartacus Group, was also the most marginal. Their struggle was a principled attempt to turn the imperialist war into civil war, i.e., to convert the war into an opportunity for the working class to seize power. In the run up to the fall of the Kaiser and the defeat of Germany, such questions had been posed. It was no longer just a question of solidarity with Russia, but of what to do given the collapse of the state. Given the confusion that still prevails in some quarters on this, it is worth once again stressing that the Spartacist approach was rooted in official policy of the Second International. For example, following an amendment by Luxemburg and Lenin, the 1907 Stuttgart International Congress had pledged to “utilize the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.”
SL: The SPD under the pre-war theoretical leadership of Karl Kautsky upheld the unity of working class forces. Their watchword was one class, one party. As you have stressed, in the pre-war years this party was quite impressive in its press, its instructional and recreational institutions, its electoral capacity, and its organizational strength generally. Yet, after the war we see the SPD splintering in multiple directions. And from the Communist perspective the purpose of the Halle conference was to affect the split of the USPD. So, let’s address the question of unity and splitting. What were some of the problems with unity going into the war? How did the SPD turn out to be something very different from what some had imagined it to be? How did a belated—or premature, depending on how you look at it—splinter lead to the isolation of the Spartacists and the defeat of the 1919 uprising, events that form the immediate background to the Halle Congress?
BL: The Halle Congress is about splitting, but it is equally about unity. It revolves around the rapprochement of hundreds of thousands of advanced German workers into a single organization. Still, the question is pertinent. At the time they did have to confront the issue of what was the SPD and how did it operate?
There are a number of reasons why the Spartacus opposition was marginal. Some of these relate to what I said about what the nature of the opposition to the war. Writing in Die Kommunistische Internationale, Karl Radek made the point that many workers were reluctant to oppose the war by way mass demonstrations and strikes because of the way that the state, given the politics of “civil peace,” dealt with the most radical demonstrations, i.e., those who disrupted peace at home were conscripted. Opposing the war was risky. The USPD bore the scars of this, which is why it took mainly a parliamentary form.
Before the war, Luxemburg, of course, was known as a radical, but she lacked a unique voice and public faction in the party.The Kautsky center, by contrast, had a lot of the press and commanded significant, visible support. This becomes particularly salient after the 1910 breach between Kautsky and Luxemburg. Kautsky’s tendency—with all its problems, particularly on the question of the state and the refusal to openly struggle against the trade union bureaucracy—became dominant.
The relative marginalization of the Spartacus Group also led it into some dubious tactical and strategic judgements. For example, the decision to split from the USPD to form the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in December 1918 was premised on the idea that if they stayed in the same organization with those who had just taken part in the provisional government that had cracked down on popular demonstrations, this would constitute “disloyalty” to the revolution. So, the Spartacus Group and KPD were isolated in 1918-19. The USPD, by contrast, had by 1920 grown into a real force. At one point it attracted 200,000 new members within a single three month period. And this growth was at the SPD’s expense. Because the KPD wanted to split, they were isolated. So, on the question of splitting and unity, it was a tactical consideration in terms of timing and on what basis. As the insightful German Communist leader, Paul Levi, made clear at the Second Congress of the Third International, there was a sense in which the KPD was both too late and also too early. Certainly, they had had little impact on the ranks of the USPD and the worker’s movement more generally. Only with Halle in 1920 is there a real mass split towards Communist party-ism.
A cartoon commenting on the Halle Congress, "Whether you look to the right or left, you see an Independent cleft."
SL: The post-war German government was formed by the rightists of the SPD, the representatives of the trade union bureaucracy. Eventually they helped to put down the revolution. Explain how the crisis of the Left in this period eventually resulted in this situation whereby one fraction of the working class engaged in open civil war against another.
BL: It is difficult to get our heads around exactly what happened. Certainly, the SPD came into power and crushed the revolution both at home and abroad. And, given the organization they come from, this is difficult to fathom. The problem comes (and this is clearly evident in 1914) when the majority of a Marxist political organization commits both programmatically and strategically to the preservation of the imperial state and the existing constitution.
To understand the dynamics that led to this, we have to remember that, at least initially, the SPD-USPD provisional government was able to bring about real reforms in the post-Kaiser state. They had brought peace, of a sort. There was an eight-hour day, suffrage was extended to women and anyone over 20, etc. There was a “republic,” although certainly not the kind of republic envisioned by Marxist republicanism, even by the Kautsky of 1905 in his 1905 classic Republic and Social Democracy in France! These reforms may appear insignificant to us, but they were extremely important in the context of post-war dissolution and decay. So it was not simply that the new regime were murderous bastards, though, of course, they were that. But they were murderous bastards who brought about real reforms and counterpose their gradualist “sensible” approach to that of “Bolshevik putschism” and the risk of German living standards declining to those of the young Soviet state.
The 1918 provisional government essentially reflected the SPD’s understanding of socialism. This “socialism” was envisioned as arriving within the framework of the old constitutional order. It was based on the old pillars of the state bureaucracy and the military high command. So, for example, even though they formed a new “socialist” government, none of the commissars actually held ministerial posts. Most of the old ministries continued under the old appointees. One of the more ridiculous examples of this is when, the SPD sent the once great Marxist theoretician, Karl Kautsky, to watch over the affairs of the German Foreign Ministry, which was led by hated reactionary Wilhelm Solf. At the time, the Ministry was not only positioning troops to hold back the revolution at home, but also keeping troops in Eastern Europe where they did deals with the entente to hold back the Russian Revolution. Kautsky was, of course, meant to supervise (and, presumably, reverse) this. But, instead, Solf packed him off to the Ministry’s archives to investigate the causes of World War I! This, of course, was worthwhile in its way, and Kautsky wrote interesting things on the subject. But it exemplifies how the core pillars of the state apparatus remained intact. They were not, as Marx and Engels spoke of, smashed, but were allowed to continue.
The SPD understood itself as a caretaker government, gaining some concessions for the working class until such time as “order” was restored. In this period, a number of deals were signed between leading German industrialists and the trade unions. Politically, the SPD held the view that socialism could be introduced through the existing constitution. This is quite clearly nonsense, but anyone who challenged this view was subject to repression, as with the attack of General Lequis on the People’s Naval Division in Berlin in December of 1918. (Lequis was infamous for his implementation of Germany imperialist policy in South-West Africa, not least the suppression of the Herero uprising of 1904.)
Watson Ladd: The debate over the possibility of introducing socialism through the existing order goes back to the revisionist dispute in which Kautsky and Luxemburg together sided against Bernstein. How, in the decade or so after the revisionist debate, did the shift occur whereby many in the SPD, who had considered themselves followers of the “revolutionary” Kautsky, came to adopt the very position they once opposed?
BL: It is difficult to locate. Because so many have dismissed the writings of Kautsky not only after his renegacy, but also from the earlier period when, as Lenin remarked, Kautsky “wrote as a Marxist”; our understanding of this pivotal figure remains inadequate. We have to trace the development of Kautsky’s understanding of working class rule. If you go back to the polemics he and Luxemburg led against the revisionists, they both followed Marx and Engels in arguing that you could not just take over the existing state structure, but that these had to be smashed and subordinated to the will of the masses, and that a state must be made along the lines of the Paris Commune. I have mentioned Kautsky’s 1905 Republic and Social Democracy in France, which is excellent. Still, it mainly focuses on the negative critique of French millenarianism and the illusions it bred in the bourgeois Third Republic.
My CPGB comrade Mike Macnair has convincingly argued that Kautsky’s conception of working class rule had always been problematic, even when his texts were the gold standard of international Social Democracy. Macnair argues that Kautsky held the existence of a state bureaucracy and the bourgeois “rule of law” to be necessary in any modern state, whether bourgeois or proletarian. But the main problem with Kautsky stems from his commitment to the unity at all costs of the party with the trade union bureaucracy.
This said, there are discontinuities between Kautsky the orthodox revolutionary Marxist and Kautsky the renegade. It is thus interesting to compare a text like Republic and Social Democracy in France with his later texts like Guidelines for a Socialist Action Program, which he penned in January 1919, just days before Luxemburg was murdered.
After 1914, Kautsky plays quite a rascally game, if you will, with many of the concepts he once defended, such as the democratic republic. He applies them dishonestly, gutting them of the revolutionary content they had in Marx, Engels, and his own earlier writings. In 1918-19 he uses the concept of the democratic republic to justify the SPD/USPD government. At this time, he is a member of the USPD, though looking for some sort of rapprochement with the SPD. This, perhaps, helps to explain his agenda, to some extent. But tracing exactly where it came from is more problematic. It’s something I have committed myself to studying for at least a couple more years. Certainly, the Kautsky of 1919 is a watery image of the Kautsky of 1904-05.
SL: The fundamental issue at Halle was affiliation to the Third International and fusion with the KPD. How did both the Bolshevik Revolution and the failed Spartacist uprising of 1918-19 bear upon the debate?
BL: In the aftermath of the Second Congress of the Third International, the USPD after the Halle Congress essentially placed itself in the tradition of mass, openly Communist parties that no longer called themselves social democratic. The party modeled itself on Russian Bolshevism and attempted to apply the lessons of the Russian Revolution to Germany. This struggle for Communist organization was a protracted one, and went far beyond the disputes at Halle. As Lenin and Paul Levi recognized, the way to form a mass organization was to unite the vanguard of the class. This meant taking seriously the existing organizations such as the trade unions in general (dominated by Social Democrats) and the USPD membership in particular.
There were splits to the left in the young KPD, composed of people who did not want anything to do with the USPD rank and file. They thought the USPD was radically compromised after the experience of the SPD/USPD government, for example. There were also splits to the right. It wasn’t just Kautsky who was looking for rapprochement with the SPD. In February 1919 Bernstein established a center for socialist unification, which lasted for about a month. He also tried for a time to hold dual membership in the SPD and USPD. When that didn’t work out, he rejoined the SPD. So, the whole period between the opening of the German Revolution and the unity created in October 1920 is marked by the discussions that informed the original splits: What is the attitude towards war and towards the entente? Should we rebuild the Second International on a reformed basis? Do we split altogether to form a Third International?
It is worth noting the (understandable) mistrust that divided the USPD and the KPD. They had a fractious history and both sides were skeptical of each other. Nonetheless, following the formation of the Third International in March 1919, there emerged a growing, increasingly influential left wing in the USPD that looked to Moscow and thus came into increasing contact with the KPD leadership. The Russian Revolution itself was the impulse for unity, as it was in many other countries.
Title page of Lenin's 'Der „Radikalismus“ die Kinderkrankheit des Kommunismus', known in English as '"Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder,' 1920.
SL: You have referred to the Second Congress of the Third international. There, of course, Lenin’s Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder was distributed to the delegates. Against the background of Lenin’s attempt to reorient the Left after the tumultuous years of 1917-19, what was the burden of Gregory Zinoviev’s intervention at Halle? What had he come to Germany to say?
BL: Halle is the first congress where the Third International’s “Twenty-One Conditions” are debated by a mass socialist organization in Europe. These were the conditions for admittance into the International. The reasoning behind them was that, unlike in the First Congress where there were only a handful of people (some who came at great cost), the Second Congress received support and interest from mass socialist parties worldwide. There were many requests for affiliation. Zinoviev was adamant that such organizations were not simply to be absorbed into Comintern as they were. This was the role of the conditions.
Of course, not engaging the USPD as a way of winning over to Comintern 800,000 workers, “badly led as they are,” would be the worst sort of posturing. “Under no circumstances … would this congress permit intellectual dishonesty, nor will it make the slightest concessions on principle,” Zinoviev remarked. Organizing in the same party with forces who wavered on the cardinal questions addressed in the Twenty-one Conditions would risk another collapse from within like in Germany or Hungary. Moreover, given the extremity of the situation, there was no time for patient political debate. Soviet Russia was suffering under blockade. Delegates at the Second Congress were following the course of the Soviet-Polish war on a map. Miklós Horthy’s troops ran wild in Hungary, massacring working class activists of all political affiliations. The Finnish counter-revolution had, with the complicity of the German SPD, butchered a substantial amount of the Finnish working class. The British government was funding anybody and everybody set on occupying Moscow and Petrograd. In such circumstances, centrist forces only paying lip service to the cause had to be broken with. Kautsky is called out. Zinoviev was saying, “You must break with these people. Given the tasks we face, we cannot be in the same organization with them. We need clarity.” The Twenty-one Conditions were not some kind of communist baptism. Zinoviev understood that it was possible to accept 5,000 conditions and still remain a Kautskyite!
Zinoviev and the Comintern represented a clear commitment to continuing the revolution across Europe. When he arrived at Halle in 1920, he was a highly respected Bolshevik leader. He was held up as a model in that sense, and rightly so. The USPD right got Julius Martov to speak for them. He was likewise extremely well known and nopolitical lightweight.
This is Zinoviev from his four hour speech:
Menshevism or reformism is an international phenomenon. You see it in Russia, Germany, France, Italy, in America, everywhere. Comrades, it was said here, “Well, would it not be better to join together in one front against the bourgeoisie?” Certainly that would be very good and desirable. Yet unfortunately that is still impossible. The situation is the following: The working class is already strong enough that, if we are tightly united and openly fight for communism, we can bring the bourgeoisie to its knees. If the workers are still slaves, then this is because we have still not stripped off the legacy of rotten ideology from our ranks. When the working class becomes intellectually emancipated, then there is no force in the world which would dare to fight against it. (119)
The point Zinoviev is making is for the broad unity of the working class, but only on the basis of a shared commitment to the working class taking power. That was the role of the Twenty-one Conditions that Zinoviev defended in Halle. He illustrates the point saying, “If you have an army of 800 people, 200 of whom are useless and lazy, it’s better to have a disciplined army of only 600.” Perhaps this is problematic in the context of today’s left, but, certainly, it made sense at the time.
SL: What came out of the Halle Congress? To what extent did Zinoviev, the Bolsheviks, and their comrades in Germany, achieve what they set out to do?
BL: The work that Zinoviev and the left USPD put in paid off. Zinoviev does express some reservation at the end of his speech. He says that a split has been achieved, that a rapprochement of hundreds of thousands of workers has been realized within a United Communist Party (VKPD), but there is still a long way to go to win the majority of the working class.
If we want to talk of ghosts that haunt the German workers’ movement, right from 1918 onwards, it is that fundamental lesson: Revolution can only be made on the basis of a conscious majority. Despite the wonderful achievement of Halle, with some 375,000-400,000 people united around the VKPD, following the “March Action” of 1921, the party was almost in ruins. The action was an application of Comintern’s new “theory of the offensive” developed by, among others, Béla Kun and Zinoviev himself. The KPD called a general strike and, following a small local uprising led by the anarchist-influenced Max Hölz, called on the whole of the German working class to arm itself in support of this uprising. They misjudged the mood of the masses and the uprising remained confined to a minority movement in a single part of Germany. When the masses failed to heed the call, the party even used artificial means to incite mass sentiment. When workers refused to strike in the Krupp works for example, unemployed workers sympathetic to the KPD were sent in to physically drive them out. Several hundred workers were killed in the ensuing repression and the KPD lost about half of its membership. Whatever good intentions and hopes lay behind the March Action, it was one of the main factors behind the marginalization of the Communists and the failure of the German working class movement more generally. Some of Zinoviev’s rhetoric at Halle about “going on the offensive” can certainly be seen as foreshadowing such actions.
There is a kind of paradox here. On the one hand, the Bolsheviks, the Russian Revolution, and the Third International brought together revolutionary forces into a single organization, instigating and cementing its unity. But given the overriding needs of the Russian Resolution to expand in the face of its enormous problems, an unnecessary attempt to seize power was pushed through. It was not challenged by the German leadership and this led to disaster. Zinoviev must bear some responsibility for this. The positive and enduring lesson to be drawn from Halle, what must be separated from the experience of March 1921 (because they are distinct), is the coming into being of a mass communist force as part of the revolutionary wave unleashed by the October Revolution.
SL: You make some provocative comments in the book concerning the current state of the study of history as well as the current state of intellectualism, more broadly. Why is it important for us on the Left to be concerned with our history? Why can’t we simply let the dead bury the dead? Why can’t we just set aside these endless and inevitably controversial discussions about the past? Why is the Left driven back to a reconsideration of its past over and over again? What role does research play?
BL: One thing Bertell Ollman said about the book, is that while the subject may seem esoteric, the arguments on both sides have proved relevant to every debate on the Left since. Of course, many of the problems discussed at Halle had already been discussed before, under different conditions.
We do have a very rich tradition, not just in terms of the workers’ movement, but in history more generally, which we can draw upon, learn from, and, hopefully, build on. It is a cliché, but nevertheless true that those who do not study the errors of history are condemned to repeat them. That is the first thing to be said.
Marxism’s strength is that it is profoundly historical. It does not allow itself to be exhausted by the existing parameters of society. But, for Marxism, the content and dynamics of history are both susceptible to human knowledge and subject to human practice. As such Marxism attempts to locate our position within human history more generally. So hindsight is extremely important. But—that said—history, for all its treasures and riches, is also open to manifold interpretation. This is a real problem. I think some of the ways in which the Left understands its own history at the moment, given the defeats it has been through, is quite problematic.
To this day Marxist historical research is tainted by Stalinism and what I call the “Cold Warrior consensus.” There was a certain overlap between historians funded by the Kremlin and those funded by the Hoover Institute. This is seen rather clearly in the recent Lenin debate. It is no exaggeration to say that my friend and co-author Lars T.Lih is breaking up the terms of this consensus.
One of the problems we have is that so many documents, records, and articles remain either untranslated, or have been subjected to Soviet doctoring. So while we can all read Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, and Stalin in English, we often cannot read who they are arguing against and why. We do not get the whole picture.
The result, fully in line with the “cult of Lenin,” is one that sees Bolshevism as the product of “big men” who concoct and deliver the revolutionary message from on high. But this obscures Bolshevism as a mass political phenomenon that trained inspiring leaders because it has an inspiring project and a robust, healthy democratic culture. Read, for example, the recent Historical Materialism anthology on permanent revolution to see just what made those like Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc., “great”—the high level of debate and polemic that unfolded in the International.
That is the importance of publishing Martov alongside Zinoviev. We want to let the arguments speak for themselves. For me, simply saying “I’m with Lenin against Kautsky” or “I’m with Luxemburg against whomever,” is insufficient historically. It does not allow us to appropriate the riches of history. In many ways it is a trap.
SL: In some ways, it is history that divides the Left more than anything else. The landscape of current groups and sectarian organizations is the product of an endlessly contentious history. At one point in your introduction, you say that you hope the book will “stimulate discussion in reviews and left meetings, on internet forums, etc.” (32). Can you talk about the kinds of discussions that need to take place on the Left today? Can you reflect on working through the history of the Left today and the relationship of research to that problem?
BL: There are now several reviews of the book available to read, and several more are planned. That is excellent, and at some point I hope to write a response to some of the points that have been raised.
On history, I agree that it is divisive. History should not unite the Left. This is where we reach the limits of history. Unfortunately, a lot of Left groups today are not based primarily on any agreement about today, but on certain historical positions, such as the nature of the Soviet Union, the continuing relevance of Trotsky’s Transitional Program, etc. These to me are dead ends in terms of political unity. Nonetheless, history can inform and enrich our understanding of the world today. That is what its role must be.
Political unity must be based on political ideas and a political program for the here and now. That does not mean that we forget and ignore or even downplay real historical divisions and different interpretations of key events. We live in history, and to move forward we have to look back.
The Left is divided because it is based on a very narrow view of all the bad things of the Third International, like the banning of factions, as opposed to the good lessons to be drawn, like the need for open discussion, the need for democracy, the need for ideas to unite around. At Halle, Zinoviev spoke for four and a half hours, Rudolf Hilferding for three, and Martov for an least an hour. The unity achieved was not just thrown together. It was the product of rigorous discussion and polemics around the fundamentals of Marxist political strategy. |P
Transcribed by Pac Pobric
. I have translated the first three parts of this seven part series. The whole series will soon be published in a book. The three parts can be accessed online at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004372>; <http://cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004398> and <http://cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004409>
. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “1872 Preface to the Communist Manifesto,” available at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/preface.htm>
. Mike Macnair, “Representation, not Referendums,” available online at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004002>
. For an excellent discussion of the tension between the unions and the SPD, see Daniel F. Gaido, “Archive Marxism and the Union Bureaucracy,” Historical Materialism 16.3: 115-136. It is also worth noting that the understanding of the democratic republic as the “form of the dictatorship of the proletariat” did not actually find expression in the party’s Erfurt programme. This was the main point raised in Friedrich Engels’s 1891 “Critique of the Erfurt Programme.”
. My translation and introduction to this text can be read at <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004611> and <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004610> respectively.
. A collection of links in the recent debate on Phan Binh’s critique of Tony Cliff on Lenin, can be found here: <http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/665>. An expanded version of a talk delivered by Ben Lewis on this debate is available at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004788>. A transcript of the complete discussion of this debate in which Lewis participated at the 2012 Platypus International Convention is forthcoming in the Platypus Review.
. Daniel F.Gaido and Richard B. Day, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Leiden: Brill, 2009).
. E.Haberkern, Solidarity, <http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3500>; Socialist Standard <http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2012/no-1292-april-2012/book-reviews-pity-billionaire-zinoviev-martov-head->; and Francis King, Twentieth Century Communism, <http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/twentiethcenturycommunism/archive/issue4.html>.