Widening frame of debate

Mike Macnair begins an examination of the ‘Kautsky debate’ that is taking place on the US left.

Over 2018-19, the US left has been carrying on a debate on socialist strategy in the form of discussing the role of Karl Kautsky (1854-1938). We have in this paper carried a few interventions in this debate, starting with an early one - Eric Blanc on ‘The roots of 1917’ (October 27 2016), and then Jim Creegan’s ‘Walking the tightrope’ (March 22 2018) but more recently including Donald Parkinson’s ‘Revolution or the “democratic road”’ (April 25 2019) and a Trotskyist two-parter from Jim Creegan: ‘Steady rightward trajectory’ and ‘Commitment to orderly progress’ (May 2 and 9).

I wrote a critical letter in response to comrade Creegan’s articles (May 16), but this is a fuller, if rather belated intervention in an extensive debate, and it will in consequence inevitably involve more than one article.

The debate is, in fact, in my opinion pretty largely unproductive. Eric Blanc, who was still talking sense in 2016-17, has in his 2019 articles travelled down the standard road from Trotskyism to social democracy along the lines of Henri Weber’s 1983 collection Socialisme: la voie occidentale - “between Baden and Luxemburg” on the road to Baden.1 The preceding interventions of Vivek Chibber (Jacobin December 2017) and James Muldoon (Jacobin January 2019) have the same character, only more clearly. The idea is that ‘Leninism’ promoted an inappropriate ‘insurrectionism’ and an electoral road is more realistic for ‘western democracies’.

On the other side, Lars T Lih, John Riddell and Mike Taber, and Donald Parkinson, rightly respond to Blanc by rejecting the supposed opposition between Bolshevik ‘insurrectionism’ and electoral politics. But Charlie Post and several other authors - comrade Creegan included - feel the need to reassert the old narrative of Kautskyan ‘passivity’ and ‘electoralism’ and counterpose to it a ‘street and strike’ orientation, which gets attached to the name of Rosa Luxemburg, but is actually closer to Mikhail Bakunin’s 1867-71 critique of the ‘Marxists’.

The frame of the debate is too narrow, being defined by the successes and failures of the workers’ movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, set against the impasse of the left (centre-left as well as far left) in the late 20th and early 21st. The strategic question of ‘reform or revolution’ - tedious as rediscussion of this issue perhaps is - needs to address both a wider range of revolutions, and the routine practice of capitalist ‘democratic’ (really rule-of-law liberal) constitutionalism, not just the risk of coups à la Chile 1973.

At the same time, Blanc’s shift into the Democratic Socialists of America and its project seems to have carried with it (as Taber points out) a downgrading of his historical intelligence. He offers - in outline, as is inevitable in the overdesigned pages of Jacobin - an implicit micro-narrative of Bolshevism, which is at a lower standard of history than his earlier work.

On the other hand, the ‘anti-electoralist’ opponents offer a micro-narrative of the evolution of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has sources in ‘official’ communism derived from the German lefts, including the pro-war former leftist, Parvus; and also (and more usually cited) sources in historians associated with British and US intelligence in the immediate post-war period. No attention is paid to the biases of the witnesses employed, or to historical work outside this cold war framework, which might call into question its narrative.

There is a substantial emphasis in these arguments on the ‘mass strike’ debate of 1910: should the SPD have pushed forward from the mass demonstrations for universal suffrage in Prussian cities to a general strike call? Before coming back to this issue rather later, I will say at the outset that in my view the arguments of the German left in the 1910 debate are substantially identical to the arguments for local adventurism in Petrograd in July 1917 (which the Bolsheviks averted by turning the attempted insurrection into a limited demonstration),2 in Berlin in January 1919 and in the ‘March Action’ in Saxony in 1921, and - as Trotsky thought in 1910 - would have led to the same result as these latter events: isolation of the advance guard (the minority part of the working class, which was already willing to push forward to confrontation) and a crushing defeat.

Because I think that the ‘mass actionist’ version of Kautsky and the degeneration of the official SPD is just plain wrong, I will engage in some detail with the positive arguments of the guys who want to use Kautsky’s or related ideas as support for the orientation of the DSA. I choose to do this rather than running an alternative anti-Kautsky argument that I think is fairly likely to be true, but that involves complex counterfactuals. That argument would be that the ‘Kautskyite’ policy of the German Independent SPD and Austrian SPÖ in 1918-20 - of avoiding a European civil war which the workers’ movement might at that time have won - made the victories of Hitler and Dollfuss in 1933 and the world war which followed inevitable.

Starting point

The background to the debate, clearly enough, is the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America to relative dominance within the US left. As of September 2018, the DSA had 50,000 members, and two representatives in Congress - massively outstripping in membership anything since the Communist Party USA in the popular front period, and in elected representatives since the Socialist Party of America in the early 20th century.3 By comparison, the CPUSA claims 5,000 members4 and, though deeply involved with the Democrats for many years, has plainly had a lot less impact than the DSA. With the collapse of the International Socialist Organization (around 1,500 members at its height) the far-left groups are now all marginal even by comparison with the CPUSA.5

In this context, Bhaskar Sunkara’s Jacobin magazine has thrown its lot in with the DSA more clearly than it had at the outset.6 Though Jacobin has carried polemics against the ‘neo-Kautskyans’, it has been more active in promoting pro-DSA arguments, of which these are part.

The kick-off for the debate was, as I have already said, Vivek Chibber’s ‘Our road to power’ (Jacobin December 5 2017). The only Kautsky connection in this article is the title, which echoes that of his 1909 pamphlet The road to power.7 We may guess that the title is the choice of the Jacobin editors.

The article is a ‘Russian revolution centenary’ piece. Chibber’s arguments, though presented in these terms, are not in fact new. His critics have largely targeted the second half of the article (arguments for gradualism and objections to economic planning), but have given the first half, on the sort of party that is needed, an unduly soft ride.

This article will focus on a critique of Chibber on the ‘party question’. A future article will address the questions of the state, ‘democracy’, ‘liberal rights’ and ‘gradualism’ in Chibber’s, Muldoon’s and Blanc’s arguments (and take a side-swipe at Chibber’s objections to planning, which are largely unsupported); before I return to a critique of the ‘insurrectionists’ or ‘strikists’.

Chibber’s PhD was supervised by Erik Olin Wright, which locates him - roughly, and in the absence of other clear evidence of political commitments - in the ‘analytical Marxist’ wing of Eurocommunism. More recently his 2013 book Postcolonial theory and the specter of capital was in the general frame of the ‘political Marxism’ of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood; but in 2018 an endeavour to promote a theoretical journal, Catalyst - published by Sunkara and edited by Chibber and Brenner - broke down, for reasons which remain obscure, with Sunkara sacking Brenner. ‘Our road to power’ is a lot more ‘Wrightist’ than ‘Brennerite’ in character.8

Chibber argues:

There are two broad legacies of the Russian Revolution - an organisational one and an institutional one. By organisational, I mean issues pertaining to building vehicles for collective action in capitalism - unions, parties and the like. By institutional, I mean the basic structures that will comprise a post-capitalist society - the political system, economic organisation, the structure of rights.

This is, to begin with, not a helpful way of approaching the distinction. The reason why not is partly that (as I have argued elsewhere) the Russian revolutionaries built their governmental forms after October on the forms of organisation constructed for carrying on the struggle under the existing regime.9 Conversely, six paragraphs after the passage quoted we find Chibber arguing about pre-1918 Bolshevism, in its relation to the modern left, that:

If there were institutional mechanisms in place which ensured democracy then we could just copy them, put them in place. But if it was a question of a contingent internal culture, it means that democratic practices have to depend on a kind of moral commitment - which will be harder to replicate, because leaders tend to want to close down democracy, not uphold it.

That is, “institutional” issues are a part of “organisational” ones, as well as the other way round.


As we can see from what I have just quoted, Chibber begins with the party question, and asserts that “it’s hard to imagine a way for the left to organise itself as a real force without some variant of the structure the early socialists hit upon - a mass, cadre-based party with a centralised leadership and internal coherence” - before he arrives at the problem of “institutional mechanisms” in Bolshevism (quoted above), which he leaves as an open question: “it’s important to study the lesson and the actual practice to see where that democracy came from”.

He tells us nothing about this issue. We do know that the Bolsheviks’ organisational forms were basically derived from those of the German SPD. These, in turn, were explicitly aimed against both localism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the ‘labour monarchist’ ‘centralism of the unified will’ of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiter-Verein of Ferdinand Lassalle and his successor, Jean-Baptiste von Schweitzer. They involved regular party conferences, stenographically published; the publication of internal debates; and the right of the localities to raise their own funds, to appoint their own officials and to publish their own press, alongside that of the central leadership.10

It is these institutional forms of the relation of centre and localities which provided material support and space for a vibrant internal political life and factions, without there being a formal right to form factions.

The point can be seen by comparing the old ‘official’ Communist Party of Great Britain before 1991 - which had factions in practice through the powers of the localities, though in theory factions were prohibited - with the British Socialist Workers’ Party, which has a theoretical right to form (temporary) factions that is in practice useless due to the overcentralisation of finances and publication (the same was true of the US ISO).

The SPD’s organisational forms were adopted in the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party in 1905-06, initially by the Mensheviks. Though submerged in clandestinity, they were applied in Bolshevism through 1917 and into the civil war period, when they were partly replaced with ‘military centralism’ for reasons of the imperatives created by the destruction of the majority support for the Soviet government by the Brest-Litovsk treaty, and by the practical needs of conducting the civil war.11

A further question is what Chibber means by “a mass, cadre-based party with a centralised leadership and internal coherence”. “Mass” and “cadre-based” are on the face of things inconsistent ideas, since the cadre are - in military terms - the long-service NCOs, trainers and techs, as distinct from the short-service conscripts; and the transfer of the idea into the left means the long-time activists or, in Cannonite organisations, the full-timers. The ‘cadre’ are thus on any terms counterposed to the ‘mass’.

“Centralised leadership” is fine if it means a central committee with broad powers answerable to annual congresses. It is disastrous if it means the sort of centralisation we have seen in the SWP, or the US International Socialist Organization before its collapse, or that sought by Peter Taaffe trying to play the role of Schweitzer in the ADAV in the Committee for a Workers’ International.

And what does “internal coherence” mean? Chibber sets it up against “multi-tendency organisations”; but to oppose “multi-tendency” seems to be no more than the standard far-left anti-factionalism, which would nullify Chibber’s hope for an “open and democratic” internal life.

The formula “a mass cadre-based party with a centralised leadership and internal coherence” is, in short, slippery and misleading. If we are to provide a short formula for “the structure the early socialists hit upon” it would, rather, be something along the lines of:

An individual dues-paying membership party, as large as possible, based on acceptance of a short summary political programme setting out the party’s long-term goals, and having both central and local (and sectoral) decision-making bodies, and committed to publishing media independent of the capitalist media.

This is inevitably a bit longer than Chibber’s version. It substitutes “individual dues-paying membership” for “cadre” for reasons already given. It substitutes “as large as possible” for “mass”, because demanding a mass character from the outset is to make the best the enemy of the good.

It substitutes acceptance of a programme for “internal coherence”, for reasons partly of historical accuracy (this was the form of the parties of both the Second International and of the Third) and partly because of recognition of the persistent abuse of “internal coherence” in the left.

It adds to Chibber’s short version something fundamental which was missing in it: that the parties of the Second and Third Internationals understood that the capitalist media - in their times, mainly the press - serve capital, and the working class needs to publish for itself through its own organisations.

And it adds the need for local and sectoral, as well as central, decision-making bodies.


Chibber’s second substantial point as to the party that is needed concerns its ‘base’. He argues at considerable length - a bit less than twice as much as he gives to party ‘structure’ - that the party needs to be a class party “in, of and for the labouring poor”. This, he says, “enabled those organisations to generate programmes that represented their base’s real interests, since the parties were in constant communication with them”. The left, he argues, has become isolated from workers, and as a result “became a haven for a kind of lifestyle politics for morally committed students and professionals”.

What are the implications of this supposed to be? They are not worked out. Chibber’s reference to “lifestyle politics” is accompanied by a hyperlink cite to Connor Kilpatrick’s 2015 Jacobin article, ‘Let them eat privilege’ - I guess inserted by the editors, since Kilpatrick’s article makes more or less the opposite point: that focusing on lifestyle differences among the lower classes serves the capitalist elite.12 It seems more likely that Chibber means to polemicise against the various forms of identity politics, though there is nothing explicit here.

Take it as read for the sake of argument that the US left is separated from the working class. (I want to be a little cautious about this, for reasons which will follow later.) What is the solution? The US Maoists and ‘state caps’ in the 1970s tried ‘industrial colonisation’ (sending members into factories), and so did part of the British left. In my own experience, I spent two years of my youth working in a car factory and nine months in a tin can factory. I certainly learned things from the experiences, even if I was a pretty ineffective militant. It is reasonably clear that industrial colonisation can produce increased contact with the actual trade union movement in manual work and its culture. It does not, however, overcome the fact that the left is a small minority. This is a political state of affairs.

A second possibility is that the solution is for the left to cling tightly to the official organisations of the labour movement - meaning, in the USA, the trade unions; in the UK the trade unions and the Labour Party. However, the history and current politics in the UK (to go no further) mean that this course of action does not avoid the vices of the ‘isolated’ left.

Sectarianism is strikingly illustrated by the current split in the Socialist Party in England and Wales and its Committee for a Workers’ International, and its recent conduct in the Public and Commercial Services union, in spite of the Militant Tendency’s long involvement in the Labour Party until it departed in the early 1990s and SPEW’s continued involvement at a high level in the trade union movement. John McInally’s insider account of SPEW shenanigans in PCS, which he links to the unprincipled CWI split, makes this completely transparent.13

Conversely, the Morning Star recently ran an article attacking the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty over its frontist ‘Free Our Unions’ campaign (July 26). That the campaign is frontist is a legitimate complaint: the Matgamna group has a very long history of operating such fronts, which it controls by organisational means on the basis of first-mover power - just like the equivalent fronts promoted by the larger Trotskyist organisations (SWP, SPEW). But the article went on to argue that the demand of the AWL’s front, for general repeal of the anti-union laws, was ultra-leftist, preferring the much more limited ‘realistic’ proposals of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, rightly responded that the demand for general repeal is the one which has been consistently raised from the base of the trade union movement.14 Here the point is that the Morning Star-CPB’s policy of clinging to the official structures of the trade unions as ‘the labour movement’ leads it to defend the interests of the full-time officials in maintaining the control of local disputes, which the anti-union laws give them, as opposed to “programmes that represented their base’s real interests”.

The USA has seen a recent example of the same thing. The US Labor Party project of the late 1990s was built with the support of several left-leaning union leaders. But it sterilised itself by refusing to engage in electoral campaigning until ‘the time was right’, reflecting the union leaders’ commitments to the Democratic Party. It was naturally enough wholly derailed by the turn to war after 9/11.15

A third possibility is for the left to stop ‘going on about’ “lifestyle politics” like gender, race and so on, and focus exclusively on the economic issues. There are four objections to this potential approach. The first is that it is the failed policy of the British far left in its electoral interventions since the 1990s.16 The second is that such a party would be nothing like the mass parties of the Second International which it claims to emulate, which displayed as much “lifestyle politics” as the modern far left.17

The third, related, point is that in fact, in order to hold the party to talking only about the ‘economic’ issues, it would be necessary to impose a bureaucratic regime of top-down control, which by sterilising local initiative and creativity would tend to hollow out the party.

The fourth point is more fundamental. Capitalism by its own dynamics produces the political antagonism of liberals and conservatives, and hence the politics of gender and race-baiting and so on.18 The corollary is that tea-break conversation at manual as much as at white-collar workplaces is as likely to be about issues of this sort, which have showed up in the media, as it is to be about wages, conditions, rent, and so on - or, for that matter, about issues of foreign policy, war and peace.

How far is the left really separated from the working class by lifestyle differences, etc? As I said earlier, I want to be a little cautious about this. On the one hand, my own rather limited experience working on the line in a car plant in the 1970s seemed to me to show a rather ‘culturally’ diverse workforce (including a significant proportion of migrants, though the line-workers were mostly male).

On the other hand, if we look back to the sociology of the mass parties of the Second International, it is clear that the spinal cores of these parties - Bolsheviks included - was skilled workers; not just lathe operators, toolmakers and so on, but also engineering draftsmen, for example. Shifts in the structure of industry, both with offshoring and with increased automation, together with the massive post-war expansions of higher education, mean that in the ‘core’ countries a significant proportion of people who would previously have been apprentice-trained now have some form of higher education.

It seems to me that Chibber’s ‘isolation’ argument here rests on the old ‘horny-handed sons of toil’ trope, which was already a problematic conception of class, when it was less stale than it has become. Back to the point already made. The mass parties of the Second International were not merely ‘economistic’ in their politics. The idea that a workers’ party should be ‘economistic’ is an aspect of the ‘western’ implementation of people’s front conception of the 7th Comintern congress, and one which internalises ‘business unionism’.

The capitalist class and its political managers manage the subordinate classes by swinging between appeals for liberal solidarity between classes, and appeals for conservative-nationalist and patriarchalist solidarity between classes. The point was already recognised by Marx in 1871:

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power - ie, the political power of the ruling classes - it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game messrs Gladstone and co are bringing off in England even up to the present time.19

The working class needs, in order to win concessions rather than merely serving as spear-carriers for the liberals or conservatives, to develop its own independent policy on issues like these - which has to start from the idea of the working class taking power, taking the leadership of the society.

Political action

To make this point is to see that Chibber’s argument for the party form also puts the cart before the horse. Why a political party as distinct from a trade union, a cooperative, a people’s army? His argument is merely success:

[T]he multi-tendency organisations, the horizontalists, the anarchists and their affinity groups, the movement of movements, etc, have been able to mobilise for a time, but they have had little success sustaining movements - much less achieving real material gains. Indeed, the cadre-based model has been so successful that every major mobilisational party of the 20th century replicated it to some extent, even on the right.

It is far from clear that this actually works as an effective argument against pure trade unionism. In spite of the decline of unions relative to their cold war heyday, they remain by a long way the most effective means of defence of workers’ class interests presently available.

Chibber, in fact, assumes here some argument for working class political action. His argument will show up later as ‘strategy’ - the argument for a form of Fabian gradualist reformism. It is worth contrasting it with Marx’s 1871 argument for political action, which I have quoted on numerous occasions before, most recently in May, and have just quoted on the need for the perspective of power and for “a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes”. Just to extract another part of this:

The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organisation of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc, is a purely economic movement. On the other hand, the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc, law is a political movement.20

It is this conception of political action which makes possible the idea of a membership party founded on acceptance of a short summary programme stating the party’s aims.

It this idea of the basic role of the party which, in turn, enables the sort of party which can have common action in spite of the normality of disagreements, and can have the local and sectoral creativity made possible by having central, local and sectoral decision-making mechanisms.

Post, then, was straightforwardly wrong to be ‘soft’ on Chibber on the party question. The ambiguities of Chibber’s conceptions of both the party and its tasks and its relation to its social ‘base’ would, if carried into practice, defeat the entire object he argues - of creating a vibrant, mass, working class socialist party like the parties of the Second International and the larger parties of the Third. Instead they would merely produce an ‘economistic’ bureaucratically controlled shell - which might be temporarily successful, but would be derailed as soon as capitalist managers turned to a new political manoeuvre.


  1. Presses Unitaires de France 1983. ‘Between Baden and Luxemburg’ is the title of one of Kautsky’s articles in 1910 - a geographical pun placing his opponent, Rosa Luxemburg, at one extreme, and at the other extreme the SPD in the Baden Land parliament who had voted for the budget in coalition with the liberals.↩︎

  2. A Rabinowitch Prelude to revolution (Indiana 1968) makes clear that this involved more controversy than appears from the account in Trotsky’s History.↩︎

  3. Eric Blanc argues in Jacobin (December 2017) that the Farmer-Labor Party of the 1920s-40s was the “the most successful labor party in US history” - but this rather misses the point that this was a one-state party (www.jacobinmag.com/2017/12/democratic-party-minnesota-farmer-labor-floyd-olson).↩︎

  4. www.peoplesworld.org/article/communist-party-membership-numbers-climbing-in-the-trump-era. Though the CPUSA probably has the same problem of ageing and relatively inactive membership as the Morning Star’s CPB, it almost certainly has the same advantage of the Morning Star-CPB of historical relations with the labour bureaucracy, and is clearly substantially stronger than the Morning Star-CPB in the academy.↩︎

  5. Wikipedia asserts that Socialist Alternative has 1,000 members, but it reported 300 in attendance at its November 2018 convention, which suggests lower real numbers (www.socialistworld.net/index.php/193-usa/10006-usa-2018-socialist-alternative-convention-300-gather-to-build-forces-of-socialism). Paul Demarty, who is better at digging up this sort of info than me, has the figure of 800 (‘Taaffe expels his majority’ Weekly Worker August 2). Whatever the actual figure, it can be anticipated that Taaffe’s utterly unprincipled split will lead to some sort of pro-Taaffeite split in Soc Alt, and will also demoralise his opponents as well as his supporters.↩︎

  6. See also comrade Creegan’s ‘Walking the tightrope’ Weekly Worker March 22 2018. Sunkara’s acquisition of the old Labour left Tribune title, which has been restarted as a Jacobin clone in terms of design, but with a more strongly ‘official left’ aspect to it, is a pointer in the same direction.↩︎

  7. Which was so ‘scandalous’ for the SPD leadership that it was recalled and had to be toned down before reprinting: JH Kautsky introduction to K Kautsky The road to power Humanity Books 1996, ppxxii-xxiii.↩︎

  8. C Post in his ‘The “best” of Karl Kautsky isn’t good enough’ (Jacobin March 9 2019) links Chibber’s arguments with those of Andre Gorz, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin; but this is merely to locate them slightly differently in the Eurocommunist spectrum - coming out of the ‘new left’ rather than directly.↩︎

  9. Revolutionary Strategy November 2008, pp48-50, 97, 116-20.↩︎

  10. A good many relevant references are in M Macnair, ‘Reclaiming democratic centralism’ Weekly Worker May 23 2019.↩︎

  11. There are some relevant references in M Macnair, ‘Full-timers and “cadre”’ Weekly Worker April 25 2019.↩︎

  12. www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/1-99-percent-class-inequality.↩︎

  13. www.marxist.com/a-problem-of-prestige-the-crisis-within-the-committee-for-a-workers-international-cwi.htm (August 6).↩︎

  14. ‘For too long, trade unions have been held back: we must set them free’ Morning Star August 1.↩︎

  15. References at M Macnair, ‘Race and class’ Weekly Worker June 21 2018.↩︎

  16. These can be found chronicled at the Weekly Worker website by searching for ‘Socialist Labour Party’, ‘Socialist Alliance’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition’ among others.↩︎

  17. Consider, for example, the SPD Reichstag Fraktion’s backing in 1898 for Magnus Hirschfeld’s campaign for the decriminalisation of homosexuality (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnus_Hirschfeld) - a far more ‘way-out’ position than would now be the case. Cf also references in ‘Race and class’ cited above in note 15.↩︎

  18. M Macnair, ‘Liberal and illiberal delusions’ Weekly Worker August 2.↩︎

  19. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_11_23.htm - quoted more fully in ‘Negations of democratic centralism’ Weekly Worker May 30. An explanation of the contemporary political references is in that article at note 7.↩︎

  20. References above note 19.↩︎