A Tangled Webb: A Party of Socialism in the 21st Century

(By Roger Keeran) 

In February 2011, Sam Webb’s “A Party of Socialism in the 21st Century” appeared on the website of Political Affairs. No one who has read Webb’s statements in the past decade will be surprised by his recent effort which is just a re-statement of his social democratic views. Edward A. Drummond has fully analyzed Webb’s previous writings in “Reflections on Revisionism in the USA” and other articles available on this web site.

Still, several novelties exist in the most recent piece that deserve a rejoinder.

Webb claims to have come to some bold and new ideas after the fall of the Berlin wall and after reading or re-reading some Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci and others. What is astonishing is that Webb thinks his ideas are bold and new, when they have been advocated by social democrats like Edward Bernstein since 1899.

All of the following ideas touted by Webb would fit comfortably in the program of any socialist or social-democratic party of the 2oth century: rejection of the term “Marxism-Leninism,” the embrace of “‘gradual'” and “‘reform'” (not “dirty words”), the elevation of “electoral and political struggle to a primary arena,” the stress on “the struggle for democracy,” “challenging the notion that everything is subordinate to class and class struggle,” the “condemnation of the Stalin regime,” the idea that “the nature of the struggle…[is]winning positions and influence in the state,” the idea that “socialism will bring an end to exploitation of wage labor, not in one fell swoop, but over time,” the “embrace of a new humanist ethos,” the rejection of “democratic centralism” and of a party with “a high degree of discipline and centralized structure,” and so forth.

In other words, Webb’s vision of a party of socialism of the 21st century turns out to look a lot like a socialist party of the 20th century, if not the 19th century. One might be tempted to say with Marx, “first time tragedy, second time farce,” except this is not the second time that social democratic ideas have appeared in a Communist Party as something bold and new. It is more like the hundred and second time.

Lenin noted in “What Is To Be Done?” (a book notably missing from Webb’s reading list) that the attraction of social democratic ideas is completely understandable, particularly when reaction is riding high and revolution is on the distant horizon. Lenin compared revolutionaries to a group holding each others’ hands while marching along a “precipitous and difficult path” trying to advance while surrounded by enemy fire. He compared those who advocated social democratic ideas at such moments to those who wanted to leave this path and retreat into a neighboring marsh.

While marching toward social democracy and reformism, Webb insists on holding on to the hands of revolutionaries. He apparently thinks by invoking the names of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Debs, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Dimitroff, and Togliatti he can grasp the hands of revolutionaries even while he rejects their revolutionary ideas. Just as he invokes the names of revolutionary thinkers, so Webb employs some of the vocabulary of revolutionary Marxism — class, class struggle, economic crisis, ruling class, imperialism, racism, independent political action, and internationalism.

Webb, however, drains these words of any content and fails to link them to any actual struggles, say for example the struggle for international solidarity with the Cuban Five or the actual struggle against U.S. imperialism’s current wars of occupation and aggression. The only purpose of such names and words is to seduce some of what’s left of the Communist Party into joining him on his march to the marsh.

A good example of Webb’s tendentious treatment of revolutionary thinkers occurs with his treatment of Gramsci. Webb cherry picks certain of Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony, civil society, positional struggle, and ruling class divisions to incorporate into his reformist manifesto, but he conveniently overlooks Gramsci’s lifelong opposition to reformism, commitment to revolution, and belief in a disciplined, vanguard party.

After all, it was Gramsci’s fable of the beaver that lampooned those who think like Webb. In this fable, a beaver is pursued by hunters who desire his testicles for medicinal reasons. The beaver decides to save himself by cutting off his own testicles. Webb hopes to save himself from attacks of the ascendant rightwing, from the scorn of leftist intellectuals, and the disapproval of his desired coalition partners by castrating the revolutionary spirit and content of Marxism. Webb portrays such surgery as simply the removal of the “too rigid and formulaic” ideas and “questionable assumptions,” the “undialectical” methodology, and the “too centralized” structure.

Such words, however, only fool himself and the gullible. No one reading Webb’s piece, could say what Gramsci’s biographer said of him: he had “no intention of revising Marx,” “he thought of himself as carrying on Lenin’s work,” and “opposition to the reformist point of view was a constant stand in his political and intellectual life.” (Cammett, pp. 192, 197.)

Two ideas are missing in Webb’s vision: revolution and theory. The only time Webb refers to theory is to warn against “our theoretical structure” being “too rigid and formulaic.” And the only time he refers to revolution is to warn against “the insurrectionary model of revolution.” It is hard to avoid the impression that Webb would just as soon dispense with the words theory and revolution altogether. No serious person, however, can view these as casual omissions. When Lenin said, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement,” he was not only defending a formulation of Engels but was also advancing an idea that would be embraced by Gramsci and every other revolutionary thinker.

Theory gives us insight into the present, foresight into the movement of history and confidence in our goal. Marxist-Leninist theory gives Communists the understanding and will to withstand and counter the bombardment of other theories and ideologies from neoliberalism to liberalism to anarchism. As Gramsci argued Marxist theory provides passion (and “only passion sharpens the intellect”) and human will, and “only he who strongly wills identifies the elements necessary to realize his will.”

It is easy to dismiss the importance of Marxist theory. To some it seems difficult to understand all the technical language and nuances. It is difficult to follow the theoretical debates and to know whom to believe. In some hands, the theory can slide into dogmatism or blind faith. And anyway for some, calling Marxism a theory is too grandiose, since it falls short of the near universal acceptance accorded theories of natural science. Such attitudes make Webb’s cavalier treatment of theory of little concern to many on the left. Therefore, a few words about the role and importance of Marxist theory are in order.

First, the basics of Marxist theory are no more difficult to grasp than the basics of Copernicus’s theory of the universe, Newton’s laws of physics, or Darwin’s theory of evolution. In truth, Marxism’s claim to theory is not grandiose, rather the word “theory” itself has acquired unfortunate grandiose connotations. Rightly understood, theory means systematic study. Such study at best results in explanations that simplify and systematize the causes of complex and diverse phenomena. In this sense, Marxist theory plays the same role as other scientific theory in that it provides an understanding of the world that is deeper than common sense, an understanding that penetrates beneath surface appearances.

In natural science this means understanding the common origins of species that appear to common observation as different and unrelated, or in understanding the true movement of celestial objects, when our senses mislead us into thinking that sun goes around the earth, or in understanding that objects which common sense tells us are “solid” are actually comprised atoms which are themselves more space than matter, and so forth. Marxist theory enables us to understand the development of history, classes, class conflict, imperialism, and the inevitability of socialism, even while common parlance denies the importance of these terms, dismisses the possibility of their explanation, or offers counter explanations.

Of course, two major differences exist between natural science and social science. The subjects of natural science lend themselves to precise observation, measurement, and experimental testing, in ways that social scientific theory can never duplicate. Consequently, natural science can produce “laws,” i.e. theories, agreed upon by all people of reason, whereas social sciences, like Marxism, can point only to historical trends and tendencies, which will always be open to contestation.

Secondly, though natural science may threaten some interests (as evolution challenges religious ideas of creation and the theory of global warming challenges the profits of oil companies), natural science is further removed from immediate class interests and power than social science. This also makes social science more contestable than natural science. Just because a theory like Marx’s is more contestable than Darwin’s does not, however, make it less important or valuable. Indeed, for revolutionaries the fight for theory is part of the fight for socialism. Without constant attention to it, the passion, confidence, and intelligent guide to action that sustain revolutionary struggle will be sapped.

This is precisely what is missing in Webb’s vision. Because he has no time for theory, he has no belief in revolution. With no revolutionary theory and no revolutionary belief, he also lacks any passion for struggle, any indignation against those who are pillaging the planet, waging war, and oppressing working people, or any plan, goal, or courage for revolutionary struggle. Webb’s only plan to get to socialism is to support the Democrats and the labor movement against the ultraright.

All his indignation is reserved for other leftists with whom he disagrees, for the ideological straw men he sets up to knock down, and the “right wing extremism” that blocks the great potential of the current administration. Webb’s strongest words of condemnation are not for the imperialists who rain bombs from drones on innocent Afghan villagers, or those who engage in torture, imprisonment without trial and extraordinary rendition, or the capitalists who have reaped unheard of profits for the last thirty years while wages stagnated, or the Wall Street banks and corporations who looted the public treasury in 2008 and 2009 to save themselves from the crisis they created, or the racism that keeps millions of African Americans unemployed, poor and imprisoned, or the Democratic and Republican politicians out to destroy public sector unions, and so on. There is not a word about them. No, Webb’s strongest words of condemnation are for the “boneheads” who want to attack the whole capitalist class and for Stalin, nearly sixty years dead, to whom Webb boldly dishes out his “unequivocal…condemnation.”

Ever since the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968, this country has moved pretty steadily to the right. Every Republican president has been more conservative than the one before, and every Democratic president from Carter to Clinton to Obama have embraced some of the neo-liberal agenda, pursued imperialist wars abroad, and turned their backs again and again on the needs of workers and the poor. Even though the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt confirm what Marxist theory holds, namely that decades of seeming quiescence masking growing class conflict can given way suddenly to revolutionary upheaval, it is easy without such theory to grow dispirited.

Antonio Gramsci knew this. Yet, even though he lived most of his adult life under Italian fascism and in a fascist prison, he never lost his belief in the efficacy of theory and the inevitability of revolution.

Webb is no Gramsci. Under even less arduous times than Gramsci faced, Webb has turned toward social democracy and reformism. We on the left should bear him no ill will. An increase in the number of real liberals and social democrats should be welcome in this country. The only thing we should say is what Lenin said, “We think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there. Only let go of our hands….”

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