Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Prospects for Socialism Today

Dr Tristan Ewins

Writing in the Herald-Sun, Chris Collins (11/1/19 ) argues that the Nordic countries have never been “socialist” because they have not conformed to the original Marxist definition of the centralisation of the means of production in state hands. In reality, though, there were always a variety of definitions, and even Marxists themselves have revised their understandings.

Socialist aspirations include ending exploitation and the class system ; and reducing inequalities to a fair level. In Marx’s words, to advance the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need’. That should include a strong welfare state and social wage ; involving not only natural public monopolies and strategic state ownership ; but also producers’ and consumers’ co-operatives, democratic funds, and a mix of competition, markets and planning.

Socialism also means building an economy focused on ‘use values’. (ie: not just maximising abstract exchange value ; eg: preserving the natural environment) But we’re in a global economy: which means we have to live with the transnational corporations. They are at best ‘a mixed blessing’: at times spurring innovations and job creation ; but also unacceptable inequalities in wealth and power ; as well as collusion, monopolism, planned obsolescence and so on. But also arguably the consequence of bourgeois dominance is that we live in a ‘One Dimensional Society’ where substantially different social alternatives are excluded from mainstream discussion. What’s needed is robust pluralism: where socialism is part of the debate ; and hence a genuine option in the broader context of democracy.

In response to writers who attempt to put Swedish Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism in opposition to one another: for key Swedish thinkers and politicians such as Wigforss, Palme, Rehn, Meidner etc the Nordic Model was definitely a kind of socialism. The 'high water mark' was with the Meidner Wage Earner Funds proposals of the 70s and 80s. That marked the end of a 'corporatist consensus' (institutionalised consultation and co-operation) which developed over several decades starting from the 1930s. The model has been in slow retreat since. But its past successes over many decades still give a sense of what is possible.

Importantly, the wage earner funds were to be structured in such a way as to compensate workers for prior wage restraint. But the extent of that wage restraint had been such that the funds would eventually deliver economic control to workers over many years. One of the biggest problems with the funds is that they focused on workers alone rather than the broader category of 'citizens'. (hence excluding pensioners for instance) In 1983 Australian Leftists like Laurie Carmichael wanted ‘Nordic Style’ policies in return for wage restraint under the the Government of Bob Hawke and 'The Accord'. Unfortunately nothing of the sort was actually delivered.

That said: what kind of state is in a position to deliver on socialism?

Leninists are inclined to oppose the ‘liberal bourgeois state’ to the kind of state which existed under the Bolsheviks. A ‘workers’ state’. Trotskyists would argue it had become a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ under the domination of Stalin.

On the other hand, by certain interpretations a genuine workers' state is a democratic state ; where we can interpret 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' as a 'manner of applying democracy' ; the 'democratic dictatorship' of the working class majority. (widely misinterpreted, the term always referred to the democratic rule of the working class as opposed to the rule of a single man such as Stalin) The ultimate aim is to create a ‘pure democracy’ where the state represents all people ; and the class system is permanently transcended. Finally, the State itself is presumed by Marxists to ‘wither away’ with the end of all class divisions and antagonisms. One flaw of this thinking, however, is the presumption that over the long run 'only class antagonisms matter' to such a degree that some kind of state power is necessary either as arbiter ; or to enforce interests.

Arguably Sweden enjoyed a decades-long 'equilibrium in the class struggle' or otherwise what Korpi called a 'democratic class struggle'. Where the class struggle was in some ways 'institutionalised' between social democrats, unions, employers. Concessions were made based on ‘the balance of class forces’ ; but open escalation of conflict was avoided as being in no-one’s interest. Then in the 1970s and 80s the Social Democrats and the LO (‘Landsorganisationen’ ; or Swedish Trade Union Confederation) attempted to assert their democratic leverage to achieve previously unheard of economic redistribution and democratisation. Again: even with over 80% unionisation coverage they still failed. And Social Democracy has been on the defensive there largely ever since. If anything, this gives an idea just how difficult the struggle can be.

What we need is a democratic state which is not a medium for direct OR indirect bourgeois rule. Nicos Poulanztas wrote about a 'logic of the class struggle' which 'imprinted itself upon the state field'. I'm not a structuralist (as Poulantzas was) ; but in a way that makes sense. The state tends to defend bourgeois interests ; but not totally. It is not a 'simple instrument'. It is much more complex than that. Rather, it has its own internal contradictions and internal struggles. What we need is a state which is fully committed to the implications of democracy: as opposed to the direct or indirect rule of the bourgeoisie.

The problem is that capitalism is supported by a clear majority of states ; as well as by the transnationals which are an expression of and foundation for global bourgeois dominance. Even assuming a state which breaks POLITICAL bourgeois dominance at a local level ; there are still the remainder of bourgeois states internationally; and global bourgeois economic power ; and economic co-dependence.

Think about revolutionary France. The Revolution was diverted into Bonapartism. (the rule of the French Emperor, Napoleon I) And eventually with the Congress of Vienna there was total Restoration of the "Ancien Regime" in France, and the consolidation of monarchies and their traditional bloodlines elsewhere in Europe. Liberal Democracy did not really take hold through much of the world until the Bolsheviks put much of the European bourgeoisie under such pressure as to implement the crucial concession of universal suffrage. This had long been a key Social Democratic and Marxist demand. We're talking about a period spanning over 100 years. (throughout which we had other revolutions and struggles ; eg: 1830, 1848, 1871) Thereafter the bourgeoisie and its representatives have spent another 100-odd years thinking of ways to divide the working class against itself to prevent it from realising the potential of the suffrage. The splintering of the working class culturally and economically has made it increasingly hard to realise the solidarity we need to bring about the change we want. Narratives on ‘political correctness’ and ‘left elites’ have just this effect ; and sometimes by neglecting class interests we play into the bourgeoisie’s hands.

Critics of socialism often declare that they don’t want ‘statism’ or state domination. And this they associate with socialism. Well, no - we don't want Stalinist-style 'statism'. (though I hate the term 'statism' as it is commonly used to stigmatise any place for the state ; even a democratic state) But 'wresting capital by degrees' from the bourgeoisie still sounds like a good idea - if done properly – and if only it were possible. The problems of exploitation and economic polarisation still demand our attention as practical and moral questions. And after all, radical redistribution of wealth is what the Swedes were attempting with the Meidner wage earner funds in the 1970s and 1980s .

Arguably the Mixed Economy represents progress towards that goal. Though the ‘mixed economy’, social wage and welfare state can be supported by far more ‘moderate’ forces who want nothing more over the long term than to ameliorate inequality and ‘save capitalism from itself’.

"Wresting capital by degrees" from the bourgeoisie can imaginably involve a mix of public, co-operative and other democratic ownership - as opposed to 'Stalinist Statism'. But the process cannot be finished because bourgeois interests reinforce each other globally. Currently, there is no (acceptable) ‘way out’ of capitalism. But if we mobilise we can at least force compromises which are in workers' and citizens' interests. And we can convince the bourgeoisie that compromise is sometimes in its own interests. (again ; 'saving capitalism from itself') For example: natural public monopolies can reduce cost structures not just for citizens/consumers/workers – but also for business. And a state-owned savings and loans bank (with a charter promoting competition and ethical banking) could inject competition into the sector of benefit both to business, and to most ordinary people.

Importantly - forcing compromise through struggle is in some ways more involved than just 'gaming the system'. Over the long term who knows what's possible? Again: think about Revolutionary France - and the hegemony of liberal democracies which only finally arose more than 100 years later. We can only hope it will not take a catastrophe such as the First World War was to provide enough impetus to drive qualitative change ; to challenge the class system and the ‘defacto rule’ of Capital.

If anything the Global Financial Crisis gave a sense of capitalism’s enduring instability ; and that (should another crisis occur) radical interventions may be necessary ‘to save the system from itself’. But public dissatisfaction with “bailouts at the peoples’ expense” may drive strategic socialisations sooner than we think.

Socialism is not ‘inevitable’ as the old Marxist Centrists used to insist. We cannot anticipate all the policy innovations which may help ‘save the system from itself’. But over the long term a more generalised breakdown cannot be ruled out either. Socialists need to stand prepared for all manner of contingencies. Global organisation and dialogue are necessary to best prepare for those contingencies. That means not responding to discourse on ‘globalisation’ as an excuse for defeatism. It means working out the possibilities of domestic social democracy/democratic socialism ; but also building the organisation and dialogue necessary to give rise to internationalist responses. The current Socialist International is not an effective vehicle for this. Can it be reformed? Or do we need new forms of international organisation and dialogue?

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht

Dr Tristan Ewins


Comrade Marcus Strom alerted me and many others on Facebook that 15/1/19 was the 100th Anniversary of the brutal murder of Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht ; and the dumping of their bodies in the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. Liebnecht was an outstanding orator and leader. Meanwhile, Rosa Luxemburg (a Jewish Communist ; born in Poland – but migrating to Germany where the class struggle appeared the most advanced) is the best remembered today. This is largely because she is survived by a plethora of theoretical and practical political-literary work – much of it still relevant for the Left.

The broad example of the slide into war ; and the murder of Rosa and Karl is still instructive today of the dangers of certain kinds of ‘social patriotism’. In 1914 the parliamentary caucus of the SPD (German Social Democrats) voted in favour of war credits – to fund the War. This was against the standing policy of the Second International. Specifically it was the right-wing leadership of the Social Democratic Government following the 1918-19 Revolution who ordered the murders. For genuine socialists, the names “Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann” will forever live in infamy. And deservedly so.

It is disturbing to think that the SPD was perhaps the leading Social Democratic Party in Europe in 1914 – and yet it crumbled under pressure at the first real hurdle. Many socialists – including Karl Liebnecht and Rosa – tried to agitate against the coming blood-bath. Rosa was imprisoned for the duration of the war after distributing anti-war material. For years social democratic parties had talked about internationalism in the instance of a conflict. But in practice the German trade unions had been subverted ; had embraced a kind of ‘ethno-nationalism’.

And they effectively fell into line in return for a handful of reforms.

Therefore perhaps there was no social or economic basis for stopping the war. But the capitulation of the SPD parliamentary caucus set a demoralising example – which resulted in the split in the Social Democratic movement ; with the most uncompromising anti-war elements re-forming as Communist parties.

Right Social Democrats ; people like Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann ; were sold on ethno-nationalism in Germany since the start (of the war). They capitulated again when some social democrats argued the war should only be supported insofar as it was concerned with ‘national defence' ; and never be allowed to turn into 'a war of conquest'. But the German Army hierarchy demanded open ended support for the war instead. Again, in 1914 the caucus rolled over entirely.

Karl Kautsky – the leader of the ‘Marxist Centre’ – and for a time the most authoritative Marxist intellectual in Europe and the world - argued for a symbolic abstention on the issue of war credits. But this gained little traction. Lenin was to revisit Kautsky’s position following the October 1917 Russian Revolution, branding him a ‘Renegade’. But more on Kautsky later.

The real worry is how the unions remained so conservative at the start of the war. And swallowed militarist nationalism hook, line and sinker. In any case the war was to destroy those same unions ; as worker’s organisation collapsed in the face of total war mobilisation. It shows that achieving intellectual leadership of a socialist movement is not enough unless socialist, anti-imperialist and internationalist values can be successfully imparted to a broader base. As well as a willingness to fight when the situation demands it.

Who knows what motivations drove the German Social Democrats to support war in 1914? Fear of imprisonment or execution? Fear of the organisational destruction of the party? (False) assumptions the war would be short? Penetration of the caucus by government agents? Again: many social democrats insisted that support for the war be withdrawn once it became 'a war of conquest'. But the reality was that the Army had the guns. Again: the parliamentary caucus folded in the face of military pressure.

But what many Leninist and Stalinist critics do not recognise is that by 1915 the 'Centrists' (ie: as in the Marxist Centrists) had began agitating for peace at Zimmerwald. Those people argued for a separate peace. So did the Revisionist Socialist, Eduard Bernstein. By comparison, Lenin argued for civil war - to turn the war into Revolution across all Europe if possible. For all Lenin’s criticisms of Karl Kautsky – by 1915 he (Kautsky) was himself openly fighting against the war. The critiques of Bolshevism by such diverse figures as Luxemburg, Martov and Kautsky – are still worth reading today as we grapple with the meaning and legacy of the Russian Revolution and its eventual descent into Stalinism. (though many critics under-play the severity of the conditions faced by the Bolsheviks ; and the role of Western intervention in fuelling the centralisation and resort to Terror which opened the way for Stalinism ; That includes destabilisation and support for the White Armies – which meant the threat of starvation and heating fuel shortages for ordinary Russians )

Rosa Luxemburg is famed for her unique, libertarian Marxist contributions to socialist theory and practice. Her theory of the ‘spontaneity of the masses’ is more nuanced than shallow critics would allow for ; positing a dialectical relationship between Party leadership and proletarian initiative. She recognised early on the potential of the Mass Strike. Also, she feared the consequences of over-centralisation within the Bolshevik Party for any revolution ; and particularly the substitution of the Party – and later the Central Committee – for real, grassroots and participatory proletarian democracy. For her there could be no compromise or ‘middle way’ between Reform and Revolution. She was a strong critic of Revisionism ; including the positions of Eduard Bernstein.

But there are traditions of Left Social Democracy which are not stained by that. For instance the Austro-Marxists. The Austro-Marxists built a participatory counter-culture (workers’ sports, radio stations, libraries, forums, orchestras) ; and progressively funded public housing and amenities like laundries and pools for workers. They even maintained their own militia to defend ‘the democratic path to socialism’. This contributed to the sense that ‘Red Vienna’ was ‘a showcase of Social Democracy’. Though they also made certain fatal mistakes (eg: letting go of their grip on the state apparatus of force in the 1920s) which made it easier in the end for fascists to seize power in 1934.

So as against Rosa Luxemburg I believe a ‘middle way’ of ‘revolutionary reforms’ is possible. But on the 100th Anniversary of her death it is better to honour her very significant legacy. The legacy of her bravery and self-sacrifice. Of her intellect ; her uncompromising values ; her commitment to the working class and her faith in what she believed to be the coming revolution.

On the other hand, the example of the 20th and early 21st centuries (including the rise of fascism ; and also of neo-liberalism) appear to have put paid to a sense that some ‘inevitable teleology towards socialism’ can be counted on. Historical outcomes are far more contingent and uncertain than the old Marxists were willing to admit. Even though the continuation of neo-liberal capitalism is likely to cause intense human suffering – with increases in the intensity of labour ; and further cyclical crises and class bifurcation. And environmental crises also. Perhaps old Marxist claims to ‘inevitability’ provided morale and confidence. (as Kautsky put it – “the proletariat’s belief in its own strength”)

But while there is *hope*, notions of inevitability can no longer be maintained. Barbarism is as likely as socialism ; and that itself is a good reason to fight.

Rosa’s fears were realised in the end as Bolshevism gave way to Stalinism. For Communists it is instructive to read her critiques of Bolshevism to get a sense of the dangers associated with Stalinism. And also even with Trotskyism and Leninism. Trotsky wrote of a ‘Soviet Thermidor’ in his critique of Stalinism, ‘The Revolution Betrayed’. But in reality Trotksy supported the same policies of centralisation which led to a situation akin to the demise of the French Revolution - with the rise of the Napoleonic Empire in the place of the Republic. (Stalin is seen as a ‘Bonpartist’ figure) ; Only Stalin’s repression of his own people – and his Terror against them - was far more extensive than under other ‘Bonapartist’ regimes.

Compared not only with Stalin – but also with Lenin and Trotsky – Luxemburg stands for a kind of libertarian communism. To this day the leadership she provided with her activism and her writings – set a redemptive example for a Left which is often accused of ‘authoritarianism’ or ‘totalitarianism’. Luxemburg was a democrat and libertarian-revolutionary-communist ; and an uncompromising opponent of the wholesale slaughter of War ; and the Imperialist designs of the ‘Great Powers’.

My personal inclination is more towards the example of the reformed relative (Marxist) centre following World War One. Especially the Austro-Marxists. (though I am critical of them on certain counts as well) But Rosa’s steadfast bravery ; her self-sacrifice in pursuit of peace, and for the liberation of the working class ; should always be honoured on the Left.

Today’s Left needs to engage with past Social Democracy (and Communism) if it is to understand its past ; draw the necessary lessons ; and better plan for its future. This should also include a consideration of the sources of the split in Social Democracy in 1914 ; and the historical ramifications of that. Rosa Luxemburg ; and others like Karl Korsch ; showed that a different kind of (libertarian) communism is possible.

A different kind of social democracy is also possible: committed over the long term to the pursuit of ‘revolutionary reforms’ which would deepen democracy, transform the economy , and over time challenge the class system.

May Rosa Luxemburg (and Karl Liebknecht) always be honoured and remembered on the Left.

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