IN HIS LATEST BLAST against the evils of social democracy, Unrequited Love: Chris Trotter and the Labour Party, John Moore quotes the words of the radical socialist, Rosa Luxemburg, as if there’s nothing more to be said.
Apart from the facts.
Rosa was as impatient for the socialist revolution to arrive in 1900 as John is 113 years later. She was a young, radical and passionate Marxist agitator and the revisionist writings of Eduard Bernstein infuriated her in much the same way as my own writings appear to infuriate John.
But, unlike John, Rosa actually got her revolution.
As the German Empire crashed down to defeat in the final months of 1918, the war weary sailors and workers rose up in revolt. The Emperor, William II, abdicated and the social-democrat, Philipp Scheidemann, declared the German republic from a balcony of the parliament building in Berlin.
But the revolution did not unfold in the way Rosa hoped it would. A clear majority of German workers rejected Rosa’s revolutionary programme. Even in the revolutionary councils (an organisational model borrowed from the Bolsheviks in Russia) Rosa and her “Spartacist” allies found themselves outvoted. The mostly social-democratic trade union delegates voted onto the councils were happy to settle for the radical reform of the German state and economy that had suddenly become politically feasible.
Rosa knew that any attempt to over-ride the reformist consensus by force of arms was doomed to failure. Her Spartacist comrade, Karl Liebknecht, however, insisted that the revolutionary workers must carry the revolution forward, by force if necessary. “Comrades! We are storming the gates of paradise!” Karl told his followers.
Though she understood that Karl was leading the revolutionary fraction of the German working-class to disaster, and that his political extremism would almost certainly cost both of them their lives, Rosa refused to desert the Spartacist cause.
On the 15 January 1919, Rosa was abducted by one of the right-wing paramilitary units deployed against the Spartacists by the Social-Democratic government. She was beaten senseless by their rifle butts and then shot in the head. Her body was thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal.
No one can dispute Rosa’s heroism, but in the final weeks of her life her political judgement deserted her. The forces at the Spartacist leaders’ disposal were never sufficient to carry through the Bolshevik-style revolution they envisaged. In fact, by 1919 Rosa had begun to doubt whether what the Bolsheviks were engaged in was a revolution at all. Certainly, she deplored Lenin’s resort to political terror and the ruthless suppression of any left-wing group which challenged the Bolshevik’s programme.
The stumbling block for German revolutionary socialists, as it was for those in Russia, was how keep the revolution going while, at the same time, keeping it democratic.
In Germany that could only mean acquiescing to the hegemony of moderate social-democracy. Radical reform was as far as the majority of workers were prepared to go. The Spartacists attempt to impose their version of “the revolution” upon their social-democratic comrades by force stripped them of all legitimacy. And, when the reformers looked at what was happening to their Russian counterparts under Lenin’s Bolsheviks, they not surprisingly looked to their own security.
To defeat the Spartacist uprising, the social-democrats turned to the right-wing paramilitary “freikorps” – composed largely of demobilised soldiers. They did this partly in self-defence, but mostly because they knew there was no other viable choice. Had they refused to suppress the revolt, the armies of Great Britain, France and the USA, halted on Germany’s frontiers by the November 1918 armistice, would have been ordered to intervene.
The capitalist powers were not about to sit back and allow Germany to join Bolshevik Russia. To have done so would have meant surrendering the entire European continent to social revolution. Everything they had won after four years of unprecedented slaughter would have been wrenched from their bloody hands at the eleventh hour.
That was never going to happen.
AND THIS REMAINS JOHN’S PROBLEM in 2013, just as it was Rosa’s in 1918-19: the stubborn exigencies of political reality. Politicians of every kind: from revolutionary socialists to reactionary capitalists; have no option but to act within the constraints of the present moment they inhabit. Read those constraints wrongly, as Karl Liebknecht did in January 1919, and the results can be fatal.
John accuses me of seeing in David Cunliffe “the best qualities of [the] ‘democratic socialist’ tradition”. What I actually wrote, in the essay he is quoting, was that I support Cunliffe: “Not because he is the ‘perfect knight’, wholly unblemished by compromise or error; but because, in the course of my daily assessment of who is moving the left forward, and who is holding it back, Cunliffe consistently comes out on the side those who are advancing the cause.”
Part of advancing the cause of social-democracy in 2013 is learning to address the electorate in such a way that it actually hears what you are trying to say. Load down your speech with wild socialist rhetoric and its content is almost certain to be entirely lost. Your political enemies and the news media will simply draw the public’s attention away from the things you are trying to do, and focus it instead on the language you have used to describe the things you are trying to do.
Were I in Cunliffe’s position, “socialism” would not be a word I would use either.
John, however, seems to believe that unless a politician talks like a Marxist academic, he or she must be a traitor.
But even Marx did not talk like a Marxist. Anyone familiar with Marx’s journalism knows that he, too, was acutely aware of the constraints of the present moment.
“Man makes his own history,” writes Marx in the opening paragraphs of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852) “but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.”
Nor is Marx as dogmatic as many of his followers. In The Eighteenth Brumaire he paints a picture of bourgeois France in extremis and under enormous pressure from both the Left and the Right. Far from there being “structural mechanisms that require the state to act as a capitalist state”, Marx depicts the French state bobbing like a rudderless ship upon the powerful and constantly changing currents of interrelated and mutually reinforcing political, economic and social crises. It is precisely the absence of the automatic stabilising mechanisms posited by Marxist academics like Amy Beth Bridges and Clyde W Barrow, that allows Louis Napoleon to seize control of the French state and refashion it to suit not only the French peasantry and France’s capitalists; but also, and to a quite alarming extent – himself.
John’s great mission, however, is not to rescue Marx from the clutches of academic Marxism, but to rain down upon the labour parties that so woefully failed the successive political tests of the 30 year period spanning 1979-2009 a truly Biblical measure of retribution.
This is, of course, a remarkably easy thing to do since the wholesale apostasy indulged in by the social-democratic movement across the world over that period was as spectacular as it was destructive. John would, however, have had a great deal more difficulty in bad-mouthing social-democracy if he had chosen the 30 year period spanning 1945-1975. These were the years of the great post-war boom during which bi-partisan support for what were essentially social-democratic policies engendered the longest and most consistent period of general economic uplift in human history.
What John does not appear to have grasped is that the 30 year neoliberal counter-revolution that mandated all these betrayals is drawing to an end. Across Europe and North America there is a renewed political focus on the problems of inequality. In Britain, Ed Miliband is accused of wanting to return the country to “1970s socialism”. In New Zealand, David Cunliffe and Labour’s rank-and-file are shaking the Left out of its defeatist slumber.
Yes, there is much to be learned from the Winter of Discontent in 2000: but the essence of the historical lesson is that the capitalist ruling class needs to be confronted by a left-wing government committed to more democracy – not less, as Slavoj Zizek contends.
Zizek’s denunciation of “capitalist democracy” differs not at all from the Leninists’ historical denunciation of “bourgeois” and (naturally) “social” democracy. But simply putting an unpopular word in front of democracy cannot mask the fact that what Far Left writers like John and his comrade, Steve Cowan, are offering is a political project in which democracy plays little or no part at all.
Like the Spartacists in Berlin in 1919, John and Steve are completely unmoved by the fact that their version of the revolution is simply not acceptable. Not even to the working-class they claim to speak for. They may heap scorn on Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism, but they studiously ignore his historical achievements.
Because, unlike Rosa and Karl, Eduard was not murdered in the upheavals of 1919. He went on to assist in the formation of the Weimar Republic which, for the next 14 years was universally hailed as the world’s most democratic nation. Its progressive constitution not only extended full political rights to German men and women, but also guaranteed German workers an impressive array of social and economic rights.
That Weimar fell to the Nazis in 1933 was in no small measure due to the Communist Party of Germany’s – the Spartacists’ successors’ – refusal to join hands with the Social Democratic Party in defence of Weimar’s achievements. Democracy was a word the Communists despised almost as much as Adolf Hitler himself.
In the end, John, unlike Eduard (and I hope, myself) does not travel at all. He remains transfixed: rooted to his first and, indeed, his only aim – Revolution. How we are to reach this shining historical moment, and what we are supposed to do once we arrive, John does not explain. For him the socialist goal is everything; the movement towards it nothing.
But to fetishize revolution in this way is to remove it from the historical process altogether. By refusing to acknowledge that the only revolution worth having is the revolution that is constructed collectively and democratically, John has consigned his cherished goal to a region beyond the reach of human endeavour.
Like Christ’s Kingdom, John’s Revolution is not of this world.