Don Harris and His Epoch

Don Harris and His Epoch

By Tim Wohlforth

[First published in Left Wing Bulletin, April 1957, Vol. 1 #2, published by the Left Wing Caucus of the Young Socialist League. The Caucus opposed Max Shachtman’s plan to liquidate his organization and it’s youth group into Cold War Social Democracy]

Menshevism is something more than a particular evaluation of the Russian Revolution. It involves a whole approach to Marxism and with it a whole method of analysis and thought about politics and history which is the antithesis of the dialectical method, the mainspring of Marxism.

Here I do, not intend to dwell on the pros and cons of the Menshevik theory of the Russian Revolution whether as expounded by a Martov or by a Plekhanov or a Dan. Instead I wish to focus on Menshevik methodology. The basis of all Menshevik thinking is certain static conception of Marxism, not as a dialectical interrelation of many factors developing, at different tempos and each in turn influencing the development of the others, but rather a view of history as a series of necessary and absolute stages applicable to all places and all times. Thus the Menshevlks In Russia insisted that Russia must go through all the stages of development In the same general way as did the German social democracy.

This general view Trotsky exploded with his general law of combined and uneven developmen (see the JanuaryLabour Review for an excellent treatment of this) and the specific application of this law to underdeveloped countries in our epoch, the theory of permanent revolution. This general view wasbased on the supposition that stages are sometimes skipped and that the working class in one country never has to repeat in exactly the same way the stages gone through by the working class of another country. The working class can take advantage of the lessons of the class struggle in other countries, just as the capitalist class in, say, Japan can take advantage of the techniques of modern capitalist development so as to race through a whole stage in Its development.

However there is a second and highly significant element in Menshevik thought. This element Is in fact the most basic of all. It is that in any given historical period the Menshevik discovers one reason or another why the working class cannot carry out its tasks and why we must support other and alien class forces (critically, of course). The classic example of this is found in the Menshevik approach to the Russinn Revolution, where they critically supported the liberal bourgeoisie and ended up in this camp instead of the camp of the working class.

These two basic conceptions of Menshevik thought have nothing In common with Marxism even though the Menshevik relies on a schematic conception of Marxism to justify his position. In feet the Menshevik will tell you as he did in 1917he and only he is a genuine Marxist and that his Bolshevik opponents are sectarian and the like.

The Menshevik mode of thought, alas, did not pass away with the passing of the Russian Mensheviks and has a significance in many areas. An excellent example of this has been furnished in our movement by Don Harris. For months now the ISL and its supporters in the YSL have been talking about unity with the Social Democrats, about joining the SP-SDF with its present leadership as loyal members, and about the role of this SP-SDF in the regroupment process today and in the future of the American working class. However most of this talk has been on the pure tactical level and very little of it has probed into the theoretical questions involved. Comrade Harris deserves the commendation of the whole movement for clarifying the discussion by placing it on the theoretical plane.

He and he alone has offered the only theoretical justification for the present unity moves. That the majority realises this is well illustrated by the way in which they Immediately defended Comrade Harris’s approach and by the way in which many ideas similar to Comrade Harris’s have sneaked half-baked into a number of articles written by the supporters of unity.

Comrade Harris’s basic views can be summed up in the following manner: 1. We are living in the epoch of the social democracy;2. The task of Marxists for the next historical period  is therefore to build a  mass social-democratic movement; 3. With the help of this movement and under the impetus of the labor bureacracy (which is to the left of the working class) a labor party will be formed; 4. Within this labor party the social democrats, with our aid, will struggle against the liberals for control of the party; 5. After the socialist labor party is formed under the leadership of the social democracy and only then will the differences between social democrats and revolutionaries be of any significance; 6. Sometime after this (we must be the the middle of the 21st Century by now!) the epoch of social democracy will close and the epoch of revolutions and wars announce falsely by Lenin and Trotsky a century or two earlier will be ushered in.

This grandiose and detailed map of the stages through which the working class must pass is obviously aMenshevik method of analysis. Here we find all the characteristics of the earliest Menshevism. Marxism is reduced is reduced to a dead scheme. We in America must pass through the identical stages passed through by the British working class. Other comrades with a similar mode of thought blithely talk of the revival of the “Debslan” party (minus all that Debs stood for, of course)A second characteristic found in this theory is the familiar one of handing history to someone else. In this case Harris hands the epoch to the SP-SDF even though it seems to have little interest in accepting this gift, nor does it show any sign of being capable of carrying out the historic tasks laid out for it so magnificently by Harris. Thus the development of socialism, at least for the next epoch, is placed not in the hands of the working class but in the hands of the privileged labor bureaucracy and its lieutenants in the socialist movement, the SP-SDF.

As a concomitant of this Harris feels he must critically support and build, not an independent working class movement, but the social democracy which supports the capitalist class. This Is similar to the Menshevik support of the liberal bourgeoisie to which they also handed the next stage of the development of the working class.

Thus we see that the mode of thought symbolized by HarrIs and adopted in a half-baked way by the right wing is essentially  a Menshevik one. However to label it so does not prove it to be incorrect. I believe Menshevism is just as fallacious in this period as it was in 1917. Let’s look at reality. The first important factor ignored by Harris is the development of American capitalism. America is no longer the country it was in 1900. Capitalism is more highly developed, the working class infinitely larger and potentially more powerful, and America is the major world imperialist power.

This presents an entirely different situation for the development of the American working class. The workers are more highly organized and when they move, they will undoubtedly move more swiftly and with much more force than was true in 1900 when the capitalist system still had some capacity for reform.

When the present crisis of U.S. capitalism which expresses itself in the need for massive subsidization of the economy — primarily for military objectives, in the hope of survival — exhausts the present and future resources of labor either absolutely or relatively the class struggle will be sharpened on a plane much higher than in the Thirties. Furthermore, considering the international situation its significance will be even greater.

Thus to postulate a whole epoch for social democracy is to state that American capitalism can not only survive for an epoch, but also that it can afford the luxury of reformism. Such a supposition can only be substantiated by claiming, in chorus with the liberals, that American capitalism has solved its contradictions at least for the next epoch. If this is your view state so honestly and present us with an alternative view of development than that furnished by Marx and developed sincehis time by the Marxist movement.

Also to postulate such an epoch, one must be blind to what is going on throughout the world. Trotsky and Lenin characterized our epoch as the epoch of “wars and revolution” — the epoch of imperialist decay. When we look at the world we see Trotsky’s and not Harris’s view confirmed. We see the masses in motion in the colonial world against imperialism and in the Stalinist empire itself. We do not see th social democracy holding out anywhere except in Western Europe where it lives off American aid and and military support. The future of these social democrats is likewise bound up in the stabllity of American capitalism.

Thus we see that all evidence tends to disprove Comrade Harris’s theory. However, I for one am not willing to exclude any particular variant suggested as the possible course of the Amerlcan working class. But I do reject out of hand Comrade Harris’s theory that the worklng class must only developin the way he describes.

I think the development will be more radical and that certain of the stages (namely the SP-SDF) will be skipped over. I am open to the suggestion that maybe theworking class will go first to the SP-SDF before it comes to revolutionaries. But before I base a move such as the dissolution of our movement on this gamble I insist upon evidence. Namely, I insist that the right wing present evidence of such a movement on the part of the working class. So far it has not done so. And as I have stated, all the evidence seems to point in the other direction.

In order to facilitate the discussion I hope the right wing comrades will state their feelings on this matter. Do they or do they not agree with Harris’s theory? If they do not, what theory do they offer as a  substitute?

Also, and this goes particularly for Harrington, I hope they will answer the arguments we raise and not distortions of these arguments. Comrade Harrington please note: I do not exclude moderate evolutionary development. I just have doubts about it and demand evidence. Furthermore I do not say that today is the same as 1917. In fact an important part of the argumentation is that it is not, and that is one reason why the rebirth of a “Debsian” movement is at least questionable.

However, no matter which way a labor party is formed (Comrade Harrington, we are FOR a labor party) I do reject out of hand the notion that it will be the bureaucracy that forms it as a force to the left ofworking, class. The bureaucracy will break from capitalist politics only if forced to in the interests of keeping its privileged position. As a Marxist, I feel that such a basic change as the formation of a labor party can only grow out ofclassstruggle — that is, the struggle of the working class for it’s own interests — interests which conflict with the bureaucracy as well as the capitalist class. Thus no matter how the labor party is formed, those who are closest to the working class and at the same time furthest from the bureaucracy will play the greatest role in its formation.

The SP-SDF represents in its ideology the labor bureaucracy. Today the labor bureaucracy is not social democratic. The day it becomes social democratic will be the day when it needs to do so as a protection against the militant  pressure of the working class, to prevent it from taking power. To hold otherwise is to deny the whole history of the development of the social democrats as well as to deny Marxism which sees as the motive force in our epoch the working class, not a privileged stratum which, while part of the working class, uses its apparatus in order to protect its seperate interests from the workers and in order to defend the bourgeois order to which it is inextricably tied.

Those who enter the SP-SDF are entering the camp of the labor bureaucrats and will find their hands tied in the struggle for a labor party which will be in part a struggle against this very same labor bureaucracy. This is the proposition before us and it is this that Comrade Harris is trying to find a theoretical justification for in his Menshevik theory.