Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

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The latest round in the ongoing saga between Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS) stems from the latter’s review of the former’s book, Revolutionary Strategy, and contains a number of points that might interest readers of this blog. Among other things, they debate the role of the party in Marxist politics, its relation to the state, and the troublesome figure of “democracy” as it exists under capitalism. In critiquing Macnair’s overemphasis on the democratic republic as the form by which proletariat must govern, Cutrone writes:

Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor — but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits, in crisis.

Unfortunately, the response by Macnair in the pages of the Weekly Worker is one of his weaker ones. He accuses Cutrone of “vacuous circularity,” mistaking the materialist dialectic for some sort of mystical abracadabra. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explain why I think Cutrone’s argument is more or less right, even if Macnair’s motivations are understandable given the decontextualized abuse of Leninist organizational principles on the sectarian left.

Anyway, I’m posting this 1924 article by the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and critic Georg Lukács because I think it addresses some of the issues at the center of this debate. Furthermore, it’s convenient insofar as it pits the respective avatars of CC and MM against each other in a fairly neat fashion: Kautsky for Macnair, and Lukács for Cutrone. Macnair tends to dismiss Lukács as a “philosopher-king,” and his writings as “theoretical overkill.” Obviously, in this I side with Lenin and Lukács against Bernstein and Kautsky. But you can be the judge.

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Bernstein’s triumph: Notes on the essays written in honor of Karl Kautsky’s seventieth birthday

Georg Lukacs
Die Internationale
VII, № 22 (1924)
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The main thing, however — as I’ve already told you — is to do something like this, but not to say so.

— Ignaz Auer, Letter to Bernstein

The man who did it without saying so, the man who did not preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, the transformation of revolutionary dialectics. into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky. It was, therefore, only fitting and logical that the reformists of every country should come together to celebrate his seventieth birthday. The Vorwärts report on the celebration in London was equally true to form in its — correct — emphasis on the real climax of the proceedings.1 “It was only when the aging Eduard Bernstein finally rose from his place to the right of Kautsky, the man who, like Kautsky, has faithfully preserved and administered the enormous intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels throughout his life, that the celebration acquired its peculiar, deeper significance…The words that Bernstein uttered were words of friendship. Adler once quoted, in a different context, the saying that what divides people is insignificant beside the multitude of factors which unite them. For Kautsky and Bernstein, this saying took on a new and special meaning. When Bernstein had finished speaking and the two veterans, already legendary figures in the eyes of a young third generation — embraced and held each other for several seconds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved. Indeed, who would have wished it otherwise?”

Kautsky himself does not dispute such harmony with Bernstein. On his attitude to the World War he writes : “I was very close to Bernstein at that time. It was in the war that we rediscovered each other. Both of us maintained our theoretical individuality, but in our practice we were now almost invariably at one with each other. And so we have remained ever since” (Self-Portraits, pg. 26). These words indicate the spirit in which the Kautsky jubilee took place. While the struggles concerning Marxist “orthodoxy” which occupied Kautsky’s early period and culminated in the Bernstein debate are fading increasingly into the past as an insignificant episode, those disputes which he waged after the first Russian revolution — initially with Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, and others, later with Lenin and Trotsky — are developing into the central concerns of his life’s work.

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Hence it is no coincidence that appreciation of Kautsky should be based chiefly on his latest sizable work, The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, a book in which all his reformist tendencies manifest themselves clearly in the guise of a new “theory of revolution.” Karl Kautsky is acclaimed by all reformists as the great theoretician of revolution. And rightly so. For their sabotaging of revolution, their fear of revolution, their frantic efforts to prevent revolution — all this has found its clearest theoretical expression in the life’s work of Karl Kautsky.

Precisely therein lies Bernstein’s triumph. The isolated “differences of opinion” have in any case long since been forgotten. The really crucial question even then was whether, in the period leading up to the decisive power struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat, social democracy would become the leader of the revolutionary class, or whether it would hurry to help the bourgeoisie to survive this, the severest crisis in its history. Bernstein expressed his preference for the latter course in a premature, overly frank and tactically clumsy fashion. Had his arguments been really discussed and their consequences properly and thoroughly analyzed, the Social Democrats would inevitably have been split. This would have left the bourgeoisie facing a party which, though numerically weakened, took a clear and determined revolutionary line. It was Karl Kautsky’s historic mission in that situation to thwart the clarification of such problems, to prevent the development of any such tension, and to preserve at any price the unity of the SPD (and with it that of the Second International). He has fulfilled this mission faithfully. Instead of calling openly for the liquidation of the revolutionary theory of Marxism, as Bernstein did, Kautsky argued for a “development,” a “concretization” of the Marxist theory of revolution. This new approach, while apparently rejecting Bernsteinian reformism, in fact provided the theoretical underpinning for precisely what is central to Bernstein’s conception of history, namely the notion of peaceful evolutionary progression towards socialism.

L. Boudin has summarized this vocation of Kautsky’s quite clearly: “Not until the smoke of battle [the allusion is to the Bernstein debate. G.L.] had cleared somewhat and this battle had been practically won could Marx’s great successor — Karl Kautsky — write the series of masterpieces which for the first time explained Marxist theory as an evolutionary conception of the coming social revolution” (Die Gesellschaft, pg. 44). ZRonais puts it in similar terms: “In Kautsky’s struggle with reformism, where the theoretician proved to be better at Realpolitik than the shortsighted, merely practical, day-to-day politicians, history has decided in Kautsky’s favor” (Der Kampf, pg. 423). In The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, which his admirers have consequently and quite rightly hailed as his greatest achievement, Kautsky expresses this equivocal and ambiguous theory with the utmost possible clarity. He claims that he is not intent on liquidating the revolution. Quite the reverse, in fact: he attempts to grasp its essence, the essence of the proletarian revolution, quite clearly, and to protect the proletarian revolution from any possibility of being confused with the bourgeois revolution. But it is precisely this “pure” proletarian revolution which, in Kautsky’s exposition, acquires a form which objectively is such as to make it essentially equivalent to Bernstein’s notion of peaceful progression towards socialism.

For this revolution takes place within democracy. And the significance of democracy is precisely “that it brings the greatness of this power [of the proletariat, G.L.] clearly to light while obviating the need for a confrontation of armed forces” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, p. 82). The advantage of this kind of revolution over the bourgeois variety is precisely that a counter-blow, a counter-revolution does not usually follow it (ibid., p. 96) — provided, of course, that the principle of “pushing the revolution forward” (ibid., pgs. 85-94) which Rosa Luxemburg erroneously took over from the bourgeois revolution is not applied. Under such circumstances, clearly, to talk of democracy as being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is to employ “one of the most ludicrous slogans produced in modern times” (ibid., pg. 112). And so on. Continue reading

World War I: The SPD left’s dirty secret

Benjamin Lewis
Weekly Worker 1016
June 26, 2014
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The following article by Ben Lewis provides a fairly neat overview of “left” renegacy within the SPD in the run-up to, and aftermath of, Germany’s declaration of war on August 4, 1914. He challenges some of the predominant narratives of this history, especially those which trace the origins of German Social Democracy’s capitulation to the vulgar Marxism of the SPD center led by Karl Kautsky. In this respect, Lewis’ intervention may be seen as motivated by the rehabilitation of Kautsky and Kautskyism by the Canadian academic Lars Lih and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Some of the more orthodox Trotskyist sects, such as the Spartacists, have polemicized against the so-called “neo-Kautskyites” as merely recycling the Second International. For a more balanced article that is still critical of Lih and the CPGB, please see Chris Cutrone’s article on “1914 in the History of Marxism.”

Nevertheless, Lewis et al.‘s rigor in reconstructing the sequence of events and the personalities involved is to be welcomed. While Kautsky himself did not vote for war credits, as a mere consultant to the SPD delegation (he recommended abstention in this matter), he did still view the war as “German ‘self-defense’ against the Russian bear,” as Lewis put it. Only later did he and others come out in opposition to the war.

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As long as there is imperialism, there will be “social”-imperialism, with sections of the “left” seeking to apologize for, downplay, or cheerlead for the actions of its own state. This article — based on continuing research and translation work with Mike Macnair 1 — will briefly outline the formation of a rather peculiar “social-imperialist” outfit within German social democracy around the publication, Die Glocke (The Bell), founded in 1915. This article draws largely on Robert Sigel’s study, Die Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe: eine Studie zum rechten Flügel der SPD im Ersten Weltkrieg (Berlin 1976), as well as my translation work.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_147-0978,_Reichstag,_Plenarsitzungssaal seance-reichstag-4-aout-1914

The leadership of the Social Democratic Party, of course, fell behind the kaiser’s war effort, as symbolized by the SPD parliamentary deputies voting for war credits on August 4 1914. The peculiarity of Die Glocke, however, lies in the fact that it was made up of figures who before 1914 had overwhelmingly been on the hard, anti-imperialist left of the party. Regularly working alongside several anti-imperialist icons of the workers’ movement — not least Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and Karl Liebknecht — lefts like Parvus (Israel Lazarevich Gelfhand, 1867-1924), Konrad Haenisch (1876-1925), Heinrich Cunow (1862-1936) and Paul Lensch (1873-1926) rapidly transformed themselves into some of the most vociferous champions of a German victory.

The fact that a grouping of this nature emerged poses various theoretical and historical questions regarding both our conceptions of anti-imperialist strategy and the history of social democracy. Additionally, many of the theoretical traps fallen into by the group concerning political democracy, the nature of war-driven nationalisations and the need to choose a side at all costs in imperialist conflicts remain a persistent problem of many sections of the left to this day.

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The dominant account is that the SPD’s ignominious capitulation to German imperialism on August 4, 1914 can largely be traced back to the Marxist center around Karl Kautsky and the non-dialectical, evolutionist and fatalist outlook for which he and his political allies were responsible. By contrast, so the story goes, the consistent struggle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the imperialist war either reflected the fact that they were much closer to the left of the SPD (like Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, and others) or that with the outbreak of war the scales suddenly fell from the eyes of Lenin and co, who abruptly broke with the center’s perspectives to chart new political territory.

In light of recent research, it is clear that this account is radically false, not only when it comes to Lenin,2 but because it overlooks the fact that some of the most important figures of the pre-1914 German left came out in support of the war and German victory — and did so more aggressively than the pro-war majority of the party.

Almost all historians agree that August 4 1914 was a milestone in the history of European socialism. But was the vote, and the consequent policy of Burgfrieden (social peace), a break with or a continuation of earlier perspectives? Was it a necessary outcome of the party’s development before 1914 — in particular its approval of the government’s Military Tax Bill to enlarge the German army (1913), on the basis that this bill introduced progressive property taxation?3

In his German Social Democracy 1905-1917, Carl E Schorske argues that “the vote for the war credits on August 4, 1914 is but the logical end of a clear line of development.”4 Susann Miller,5 by contrast, accepts that reformism had come to dominate the party, but states: “the question is merely whether a reformist policy necessarily had to the lead to the decision of August 3” (when the majority of the party’s Reichstag fraction agreed on the action to be taken the following day). Could another decision have been possible? For Georges Haupt, writing in 1970, “the fiasco of 1914…still always dominates judgements and views [in relation to the Second International]. One had emphasized the significance of this “capital offense,” yet neglected a clarification of the process that led to it, thereby arriving at the false conventional posing of the question: is [August 4] based on the lack of theoretical reflection or on the thoughtless repetition of the lessons of a Marxism that had been raised to…a dogma and isolated from practice?”6

The group around Die Glocke sheds some new light on the question of how, in the words of the Austro-Marxist Friedrich Adler, “it could come to pass that this revolutionary-socialist approach, something that was stressed over and again, burst like a bubble at the moment the war broke out.”7

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Parvus is a somewhat enigmatic figure, chiefly famous on the left for his influence on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Yet there is nothing mysterious about his theoretical commitment to the struggle against imperialism and war before 1914. He wrote a range of different publications on the world market and the main states’ colonial division of the world. His classic was Colonial Policy and the Breakdown, published in 1907 in the wake of the SPD’s unexpected defeat at the hands of a pro-colonialist political bloc in the so-called “Hottentot elections.”8 Luxemburg, Kautsky, and others drew on his theoretical output for their polemics on questions of war and peace. But on August 4 1914 Parvus advocated a German victory, albeit from abroad, and, given his importance, it is quite likely that he provided the inspiration for others to rethink their anti-war politics.

Parvus gave an interview to the Istanbul daily, Tasvir-i Efkar, which was published on August 4 1914 — not only the day of the SPD Reichstag fraction’s vote, but of the British declaration of war. It came three days after the German declaration of war on Russia, and a week after the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia. Parvus was thus very quick to make up his mind in stating his opinion on what the war means for Turkey: “The hostilities in Europe laid bare all matters of conflict. Those nations who fail to get their demands will be the prey of others. The time for talk and reasoning has passed. Now action is needed! You should heed this well.” Parvus could not be more clear: now the war had started, it was impossible to stand aside from it. Before leaving Istanbul, he also wrote for Türk Yurdu two pamphlets with the same theme: Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: Almanya Galip Gelirse (The Outcome of the General War if Germany Wins), and Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: İngiltere Galip Gelirse (The outcome of the general war if England wins). Continue reading

1914 in the history of Marxism

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review
May 6, 2014

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At the Platypus Affiliated Society’s annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago April 4-6, 2014, Chris Cutrone delivered the following President’s Report. An edited transcript of the presentation and subsequent discussion appears below. A full audio recording is available online.

To be clear, I am no longer a member of Platypus, and do not agree with all of its interpretations. Nor the opinions of its individual members necessarily reflect my own. That said, I find Cutrone’s article here excellent.

Lot 3207 TELINGATER, SOLOMON BENEDIKTOVICH & ILYA FEINBERG. 1914-go. [The Year 1914.] Moscow- MTP, 1934.

One hundred years later, what does the crisis and split in Marxism, and the political collapse of the major parties of the 2nd International in 1914, mean for us today?

The Spartacists, for example, are constantly in search of the “August 4” moment, the moment of betrayal of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism by various tendencies in the history of Marxism. The Spartacists went so far as to confess their own “August 4th” when they failed to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there.

So, what happened, from a Marxist perspective, on August 4, 1914, when the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) members of the Reichstag voted to finance the Prussian Empire’s war budget?

Two things: the parliamentary representatives of the SPD went against past resolutions to vote down the war effort of the German government; and the disorganization of the SPD leadership, what has been called the effective but illegitimate takeover of the party by the parliamentary delegation. No legitimate political authority of the party sanctioned this action. In all respects of principle and practice, the SPD was destroyed as a political organization as it had existed up to that point.

August 4, 1914, has been called — by the Spartacists — the first great internal counterrevolution in the history of Marxism. This is entirely true.

But it was a counterrevolution conducted not merely by the leadership of the SPD, however they may have abetted it, but rather by the Reich’s government against the SPD membership.

What was the specific character of this counterrevolution, and how was it made possible?

There was a famous pair of sayings by the SPD’s chairman, Bebel: “Not one man or one penny for this rotten system!” and “If it’s against Russia, I myself will pick up a gun!”

The German High Command, in preparation for war, took aim precisely at the contradiction between these two statements by Bebel.

The German High Command wielded the specter of counterrevolution through occupation by Tsarist Russian troops against the SPD in order to prompt their preemptive counterrevolution, which they saw as an act of self-preservation, as the lesser evil. Furthermore, they thought that getting behind the war would allow them to (somehow) control it, to make the government dependent on them and so wrest political concessions from it, perhaps even undermining it, in political favor of the proletariat.

This was not an unreasonable judgment. The question is whether their compromise was too much, whether the act of ostensible self-preservation was in fact actually an act of self-destruction. Continue reading

German socialists assail U-Boat war

New York Times
August 21, 1916

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In view of the revival of activity of German submarines and reports of the renewal of agitation in German for the unlimited use of the submarine, regardless of the attitude of the United States and other neutral countries, interest attaches to the arrival in New York via Switzerland of copies of an anti-submarine and anti-government leaflet that has been secretly circulated by thousands throughout the German Empire.

This pamphlet was put out by a minority group of the Social Democratic Party of Germany [SPD] that has consistently opposed the war from the very beginning, and which is labeled the “International Group.” In this group are Dr. Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Dr. Ernst Meyer, editor of the Berliner Vorwärts; Clara Zetkin, editor of Die Gleichheit; Franz Mehring, and Berta Thalheimer. At present Dr. Liebknecht is under sentence of thirty months in prison, and Rosa Luxemburg and Dr. Meyer are both under arrest.

Antiwar German socialists.

The leaflet, which is entitled “Submarine Warfare, ‘International Law,’ and International Murder,” and which started circulating some time ago — when the German press and parliament were clamoring for vengeance upon the British for the alleged murder of the members of a German submarine crew (known as the Baialong case) — reads as follows:

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Submarine warfare, “international law,” and international murder

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The German government has incurred a sharp rebuff and has humbled itself before the United States. But the provocatory agitation continues, and it is necessary that we clearly understand what may still happen.

Submarine warfare was intended to force England to come whimpering and begging for mercy, and thus bring the war to an end with a glorious victory for German imperialism. Because the German people were hungry, the politicians “holding out” persuaded the nation that the people of England should be forced to be still hungrier.

German U-Boats, 1913-1918.

War started by imperialists

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Crazy imperialist agitators in the government and the ruling classes had stupidly provoked the world war, in spite of the fact that this would lead the German masses to run the risk of being starved out. To the crime of international murder they added that of stupidity, for they knew — they must have known — that nowadays a war against France and Russia might last for years, and that if at the same time the neutrality of England were not assured all exports all exports to Germany would be cut off.

And when it really came to that, they began to shout bloody murder and assert that this constituted a violation of international law; that it was a crime against international law to expose a nation of 70,000,000 people to famine.

To this we may say: “In the first place the German government has forfeited every right of appeal to international law.” If [international law] is to be effective, then above all international treaties so solemnly entered upon must be binding. Such treaties guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium. Despite this, Germany attacked Belgium and thus gave British imperialism the excuse to incite the British people to war against Germany. In the second place, the blockade carried on by England, the cutting off of all exports to Germany, is not contrary to the law of nations. On the contrary, the halting of exports to an enemy in order to make the struggle harder, or quite impossible, is a method of warfare that has always been recognized.

The sinking and raising of U-Boat 110.

How submarines failed

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In the spring of 1915 our braggarts were cracking jokes. England would not starve us out, but we should starve her out. That was to be done by the submarines. Such talk was foolishness then, and it remains so now. In order to cut off exports to England it would be necessary to watch all the coasts of all her islands, and to do that would require a hundred submarines for every dozen that Germany is able to build. And even then the outcome would be in doubt, for there are means of defense and protection against these boats, too. Continue reading

Mies’ Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (1926)

Honestly, I was at first put off by the raw severity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Memorial to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the Spartakusbund and martyrs of the failed November 1918 Revolution in Germany. The monumental structure — first erected in 1926, before being torn down by the Nazis less than a decade later — is almost proto-brutalist in its cantilevered slabs and brazen use of unrefined materials, made up of jagged bricks held together by unsanded grout organized around a steel-and-concrete frame. It just seemed too willfully barbaric to commemorate anything of value, so stark was its ugliness.

Mies' site-plan and elevation for the monument (1926)

Site-plan and elevation for the monument (1926)

But as it turns out, this was precisely Mies’ intention. In a conversation with the prominent communist and cultural commentator Eduard Fuchs, Mies was reported to have said the following:

As most of these people [Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, other fallen heroes of the revolution] were shot in front of a brick wall, a brick wall would be what I would build as a monument.

Though he’d later downplay its radical Bolshevik origins by recasting it in terms of a sorrowful republicanism, Mies would always emphasize that the building was meant to convey a certain brutal honesty. Even in his deeply apolitical American exile, this remained the case. As recalled at several decades’ remove, the monument did not aspire to beauty but to truth:

[I built it] in a square shape. I meant clarity and truth to join forces against the fog that had descended and was killing all hope — the hopes, as we rightly perceived at the time, of a durable German republic.

"Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein"

“Ich war, Ich bin, Ich werde sein”

To his credit, Mies took seriously Luxemburg’s famous dilemma of “socialism or barbarism” (adapted from some lines by Engels written toward the end of his life). Luxemburg’s pronouncement of this opposition was not meant to be regarded as some sort of perennial choice haunting humanity throughout its existence, but rather was historically specific to her own moment, as Second International Marxism entered into profound crisis. Since socialism did not come to pass, as the world revolution stopped short, it is necessary that everything that transpired afterward be regarded as barbarism. For this reason, I’ve come to appreciate the self-conscious barbarism of Mies’ monument. There is something fitting about the unrelenting gnarliness of the brickwork in embodying Mies’ trademark perfect volumes, proportions, and harmonious distribution. Mies went to great lengths to put this symbolism across: the bricks, stacked some twenty feet high, had been assembled from the bullet-riddled remains of buildings damaged or destroyed during the Spartacist uprising.

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Of course, it is well known that that Mies, the third Bauhaus director and one of the great pioneers of the modern movement in architecture, was never all that political to begin with. True to Tafuri’s by-now canonical interpretation of “Miesian silence,” the architect typically kept his mouth shut when it came to such affairs. Unlike Hannes Meyer, whose position as the rector of the Bauhaus he’d eventually usurp in 1930, he saw no inherent connection between politics and architecture. Continue reading