Shachtman’s polemic against Ernest Erber, which Workers’ Liberty have reprinted, is one of the Marxist movement, like Marx’s Poverty of Philosophy or Engels’ Anti-Dühring.
Erber considered himself a socialist of sorts until his death, quite recently, at the age of 96. Mostly he gave his energies to the career he made after quitting, as a town planner, and to domestic life. He wrote occasionally for the reform-socialist journal Dissent.
There were lots of people slipping away from the revolutionary socialist movement around that time. In fact, in the USA the process had started with a contingent of New York intellectuals, some ex-Stalinists, who had sympathised with Trotsky in the 30s, but moved away at the end of that decade.
Some of those had by 1949 gone over to bourgeois liberalism, though usually of a leftish sort. In his 1949 polemic Shachtman could trace the trajectory not only of Erber but of others who had gone earlier on his road, and sometimes further than Erber himself would ever go.
The polemic is thus also an answer to that sub-genre of “why I have quit the left” literature which does exist outside Tikhomirov’s volume — the recriminations about the (Stalinist) “God That Failed” which reached a peak around the same time as Shachtman’s exchange with Erber.
It has value as a crisp restatement of the need for intense, organised, explicitly revolutionary, explicitly socialist activism of which the Russian Marxists and the Bolsheviks gave an unparalleled example between the 1890s and 1917. It leaves not a thread of plausibility intact for the fashionable idea that it may be good to be a revolutionary socialist, but you’d best not be too intense or too explicit about it, and there’s no need to organise together with others, or take on far-reaching commitments, in order to do it.
The introduction by Sean Matgamna defends the Bolshevism of the Russian revolution. It points out that by the time of “Bolshevisation” (a campaign run by Zinoviev’s Communist International in 1924-5, as part of a more general campaign against “Trotskyism”), the model of “Bolshevism” exported to the eager-to-learn communists outside Russia was not the Bolshevism of the party that made the revolution, but the model of that party as forcibly hierarchalised by civil war and incipient Stalinism.
Over time, most of the Orthodox Trotskyists too adopted that Zinovievo-”Bolshevism”.
That is why so many activists around us believe that “Bolshevism” equates to organisational monolithism coupled with “apparatus politics”.
Sean analyses the causes of the defeat of the “Bennite” surge of 1979-85, the British labour movement’s last attempt to remake itself before the current Corbyn surge. He shows that this defeat led not just to the survival of a status quo, but to the victory of Thatcher, to the semi-destruction of the British labour movement as it had developed over centuries up to 1979, and thus to many of the difficulties we face today. He shows also that the Zinovievo-”Bolshevik” groups of 1979-85 played a negative, not a positive, role in that watershed time, because their Bolshevism was so misshaped.
The introduction also analyses the left we find around us today, the inadequacies in relation to it of the Zinovievo-”Bolshevik” groups, and the need for an intervention more worthy of the name Bolshevik.
The rest of the book brings us some key texts by Shachtman and others on the party and on Bolshevism.
One of the issues they deal with is so-called “Luxemburgism”. The term “Luxemburgism” originates in the period of “Bolshevisation”, in 1924-5. The leaders of the German Communist Party sought to buttress their position by a campaign against so-called “Luxemburgist deviations”.
Just previously, Paul Levi had published Luxemburg’s unfinished and deliberately unpublished comments written in jail in 1918 about the Bolshevik revolution, as an artefact for polemic against the CP. Levi had been a close comrade of Luxemburg and secretary of the German CP for a while after her death, but had “lost his head” (as Lenin put it) in impatience with other CP leaders in 1921 and drifted over to the left wing of social democracy.
Later, a pro-Menshevik article of Luxemburg’s from 1904 was dug out, despite the fact that Luxemburg had been publicly and decidedly with the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks since 1906 at the latest.
Those two texts, from 1904 and 1918, were made the pillars for a self-described “Luxemburgism” from the 1930s, by people who showed little interest in studying Luxemburg’s other writings, but who wanted a plausible halfway house, distant from Trotskyism as well as from Stalinism, but also able to show some difference from social democracy.