Ernest Erber, who died in February at age 96 might be known to readers of Solidarity and members of the AWL only from Max Shachtman’s memorable response to his 1948 resignation from the Workers Party. The Fate of the Russian Revolution carries large excerpts from Shachtman’s spirited and anguished reply.
Erber, who wrote under the party name Ernest Lund, was an original founder of the Socialist Workers Party as it emerged in the 1930s from the American Socialist Party. He was to become an early comrade of Draper’s and Shachtman’s and a leader of the later split from the Cannonites in 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. As a member of the Young People’s Socialist League in the SP, Erber traveled to Spain and wrote a pamphlet for the YPSL on the civil war. The SP had organized and funded the Debs column and Erber was briefly to join the editorial staff of La Batalla, the POUM newspaper.
Erber served on the National Committee of the WP and served for a time as managing editor of the New International, and on its editorial board until 1948, when he resigned. In the late 1940s, when the WP was debating its future role in the socialist movement, Erber was virtually alone in arguing to maintain the revolutionary perspective of the WP as a “small mass party,” in opposition to the propaganda group the ISL was to become. It was therefore all the more shocking when he resigned, as he had provided no advance warning of his anti-Leninist political disagreements with the party and had never raised his views on Bolshevism in the PC. He had, in fact, just wrapped up an educational seminar on Bolshevism that he had presented to the Socialist Youth League. There were however inklings of his unease. Erber in 1948 became increasingly unwilling to defend Bolshevism beyond the vulgarized attacks that equated Leninism with Stalinism. In retrospect, Erber represented a pro-Socialist—and shortly a pro-Democratic-- Party orientation that Shachtman himself was soon to adopt, with far more devastating results for third camp socialism.
Shachtman — like Erber — never did his thinking out loud, never squared his repudiation of a lifetime of revolutionary activity with his ostensible commitment to socialism. His indictment of Erber would read as a bill of particulars against his later self had he not dragged most of his milieu into the same mire. Few indeed were those who maintained the political integrity to point out that irony.
Erber was to go on, outside the WP, to proclaim that he was a democrat first and a socialist second. His resignation from the WP was not, however, simply a dress rehearsal for the tragedy to come. For, unlike innumerable other defectors and renegades, he also distinguished himself by endorsing Luxemburg’s observation that only those who are prepared to go forward to socialism will be prepared to defend the democracy that already exists. He should also be remembered in our movement for that.