Revolution revisited

Issue: 135

Julie Sherry

Stephen Eric Bronner, Socialism Unbound: Principles, Practices, and Prospects (Columbia University Press, 2011), £20.50

In this second edition of his book Socialism Unbound, Stephen Eric Bronner argues that liberalism cannot provide answers to the continuing problems of capitalism, and that “socialism remains on the agenda”. He states that “abstract definitions from times past no longer make sense” and that he aims to free socialism from “its authoritarian and parochial shackles”.

Starting with the “democratic legacy of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels”, Bronner traces this legacy through its influence on Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein during the growth of social democracy and reformism. He then pits this against Leninism, which he claims has “surrendered”. After following the “abject failure of the communist experiment” through to the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, Bronner places Rosa Luxemburg as representing “another tradition…bound by a spirit of revolutionary humanism and libertarian socialism”.

He identifies three opposing strands of how Marxism has been interpreted and applied since its birth: reformist social democracy; revolutionary authoritarianism; and a revolutionary democratic politics that rejects both reformism and authoritarianism.

Bronner insists on his intention to “not throw the baby out with the bathwater”. His mission is to look thoroughly at this history, and clarify the strands he deems necessary for a socialist perspective today.

He usefully places Marx’s and Engels’s contributions in the context of the limits of the bourgeois revolutions, which he describes as “the unfulfilled promises of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution”. By the second half of the 19th century, Bronner says, “The bourgeoisie was no longer capable of leading a revolution. Its time for radical democratic values had passed.” He explains how the most radical ideas of the once revolutionary bourgeoisie “now came to inspire another class: the workers”.

This chapter essentially celebrates the significance of Marx’s and Engels’s revelation that the working class were “the key to the riddle of capitalist production”. Bronner argues that their ideas represented a breakthrough, providing those struggling to fight for economic equality and democracy with an understanding and a confidence that they could win. But he describes Marx’s use of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat”, to express the need for workers to seize power from the bourgeoisie, as irresponsible. This is reflective of a wider argument Bronner develops throughout the book in his rejection of the Bolshevik method as anti-democratic.

In his analysis of Karl Kautsky, Bronner accepts the negative role Kautsky played in opposing the Russian Revolution, failing to effectively oppose the war, and selling out European workers. He also says these critiques “do not exhaust the importance or the relevance of Karl Kautsky’s contribution”. At the turn of the century, Kautsky stood as a giant of the Second International. He came to prominence as a theoretician in the period that followed the brutal crushing of the Paris Commune, but before the 1905 Russian Revolution, when capitalism was advancing exponentially, and along with it organisations of the working class such as trade unions and social democratic parties.

Leon Trotsky described Kautsky’s “principal theoretical mission as the reconciling of reform and revolution”. Bronner echoes this, showing Kautsky’s weaknesses as rooted in a particular interpretation of Marxism. Unlike other contemporary leading figures in the German Social Democratic Party, Kautsky believed revolution was at some point necessary, but he saw Marxism as a rigid stagist theory of history. He felt bound by these politics to condemn the Bolshevik seizure of power as “premature”.

Ultimately Bronner argues that Kautsky became an “embarrassment to both major political organisations of the working class in the postwar period”. Social democrats saw him as “dogmatic”, while communists saw him as a class “traitor”. Trotsky summarised this contradiction remarking, “How savagely the dialectic of history has dealt with one of its own apostles!”

Bronner places Kautsky’s contribution as an attempt to straddle the contradiction of reformism and revolution. He shows Eduard Bernstein’s politics as more consistent. He assesses Bernstein’s aim as “to distinguish between the scientific and utopian forms of socialism with an eye on eliminating the latter”. Bernstein argued that “the movement is everything, the end goal is nothing”, and believed that socialism would be brought about gradually through capitalism, not by overthrowing it.

But Bronner describes Bernstein as having been proven blatantly wrong in his “assumption that capitalism had overcome its crisis character”, identifying Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism theory as stemming from this notion. He places responsibility at Bernstein’s door for the “political identity crisis that has plagued the labour movement for the second half of the 20th century”, linking this back to the revisionist impact in rendering “class power irrelevant”. Bronner concludes this chapter highlighting the importance of the lessons contemporary socialists can take from an analysis of Bernstein’s politics in their attempts to challenge its legacy today.

The chapter titled “Leninism and Beyond” is the most telling. While making his condemnation of Lenin immediately clear, Bronner says it is still worth asking “whether the entire undertaking could have turned out differently”. He does not crudely equate Leninism to Stalinism. He concedes that “if not necessarily in theory, then certainly in practice, a sharp and decisive break took place between Leninism and Stalinism”. But he is unwilling to concede that there was a theoretical break.

This is despite admitting that Stalin “transformed” world communism’s “former commitment to international class struggle” with an “unqualified preoccupation with national interest”. This would seem to most like a pretty fundamental theoretical break. He describes the party under Stalin’s control as changed from one of “professional revolutionary intellectuals” to one of “fawning bureaucrats and thugs”. Under the leadership of Trotsky or Nikolai Bukharin, things would have turned out differently, Bronner argues. He likens their understanding of the party to Lenin’s, and contrasts the fact that their arguments were always conducted politically, with Stalin’s “use of power to settle grudges”.

Although the notion that the seeds of Stalinism were sowed under Lenin’s leadership is alluded to a number of times, Bronner does not offer up a clear argument that pinpoints this. He focuses on exploring alternatives within Russia without acknowledging how significant the international context was. It is interesting to study the possibilities had Trotsky followed Lenin, and it is important to establish the extent of the Stalinist distortion of the party. Besides, this helpfully undermines Bronner’s flippant allusions to Lenin’s “responsibility” for Stalinism. But Trotsky’s leadership alone could not have overcome the Russian Revolution’s isolation and the impossibility of real socialism in one country.

Bronner’s overall general argument is not crude like many histories of Leninism. Yet the element he does not accept—the Bolshevik model of revolutionary organisation—is the very ingredient that could have transformed the world situation and in turn prevented the distortion, and then suffocation of the Russian Revolution. Had such a party existed in the countries where workers were in revolt, the struggle could have been directed and developed to the point of seizing power.

The 1918 German Revolution failed, Britain came close to revolution in 1919, and Italy saw a wave of workers’ councils grow out of factory occupations in 1919 and 1920. But lack of revolutionary leadership meant this resistance was not generalised.

A rooted revolutionary party could have shaped these struggles towards victory—as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia. The capitalist ruling class are organised. They have foresight, a strategy and tactics, and a dynamic ability to readjust in order to maintain their system of oppression. Without a workers’ organisation developed and shaped by workers’ experiences and that consciously works to overthrow capitalism, the other side will catch us out in these crucial battles.

The book lacks a chapter that could look critically at these missed opportunities and the weakness of the western European left. These experiences offer vital lessons for what kind of organisation was needed, and how it could have transformed world history.

Bronner helpfully points out the problems of reformism, but he does not provide an alternative. He sets Rosa Luxemburg apart from both reformism and the authoritarianism he ascribes to Lenin. The chapter is a useful exploration of her theoretical contributions to Marxism. He also places her pamphlets Social Reform or Revolution, and The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions as crucial interventions against the “immediate danger” of reformism.

She is described as “scathing in her criticisms of vanguardism” in relation to Lenin, and Bronner also notes Lenin’s criticism that Luxemburg was “too soft on the need to break with the social democrats and the creation of a new organisation”. But in most of the examples he gives to accentuate the political differences between Luxemburg and Lenin, Bronner admits that she had not grasped the desperate concrete situation facing the revolution.

Luxemburg enthusiastically embraced the Russian Revolutions, both in 1905 and 1917, though she did not uncritically accept every decision the Bolsheviks took. But unlike Bronner, Luxemburg placed the Bolsheviks’ use of coercion, in the face of extreme pressures, in the context of the “failure of Western social democracy to meet its international revolutionary obligations”.

Contrary to his own intentions, Bronner does throw the baby out with the bathwater, as he renders revolutionary parties null and void. While celebrating the legacy of Marx in showing we can transform the world, and critiquing reformism, he fails to actually offer a coherent strategy towards socialism.