Two Notes by Ernie Haberkern
Will the Real Ian Birchall Please Stand Up?
IAN BIRCHALL promises to "defend unconditionally Ernie Haberkern’s right to speak in the soviets of any future revolution". In return, he is "to keep his mouth shut till he has checked his facts" ("Ernie Haberkern and Victor Serge", What Next? No.12). I assume Ian would extend this same courtesy to Tom, Dick, Harry and Lev Davidovich (provided he keeps his mouth shut until ...).
But the problem is that Victor Serge explicitly denied this right to dissidents and oppositionists. And this is even more clear in Ian’s extended quote from Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary than it is in my shorter one. Serge is simply arguing that it might be useful for the regime to permit some open dissent. Much as the present Chinese government does on and off, and as Franco’s regime did in its last days. It is disingenuous of Ian Birchall to pretend that this is mere literary irony on Serge’s part. Serge explicitly rejects the notion that under a workers’ state the people should have the right to complete freedom of the press, assembly and speech. And, even more important, the right to replace the government through a democratic vote. In this respect Serge is reflecting the worst politics of the early Third International.
And he is reflecting those politics long after others had abandoned them. I apologize for the typo which had Serge’s Memoirs published in 1941 rather than 1951. But the point I was making was that Serge was writing this stuff well after Trotsky had repudiated it in The Revolution Betrayed.*[note] Ian Birchall’s correction of the date of publication strengthens my argument rather than weakening it.
Throughout this discussion Ian has danced around the main question. Does the repression of dissent and organized opposition by a workers’ state strengthen or weaken that state? And, if a specific regime in a workers’ state attacks those rights, which side are we on?
We are not talking here about counter-revolutionary terrorism, sabotage, or even strikes in vital industries in a military crisis. We are talking about those liberties and rights which have been won in bourgeois democracies. Ian Birchall, like Serge before him, and like the early Third Internationalists, consistently confuses the two and thereby dodges the question.
PAUL HAMPTON’S otherwise valuable review of The Fate of the Russian Revolution ("Workers’ Liberty and the Third Camp", What Next? No.12) is mistaken on one point. Joseph Carter, Hal Draper and those who accepted their view of the Russian state did argue that the Bureaucratic Collectivist system was economically reactionary as compared with capitalism. And that was the position that the ISL accepted in 1949.
These socialists based their Third Camp opposition to both capitalism and the new reactionary social order on the fact that Stalinism was a product of the decay of capitalism. To try to resist Stalinism by shoring up a bankrupt capitalism was, therefore, futile. The argument was similar to that made by Trotskyists and left socialists against the Popular Front. Defending bourgeois democracy by allying oneself with corrupt bourgeois politicians to "defeat fascism" in fact aided fascism. A good discussion of this dialectic can be found in Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume 4, Chapter 8, which discusses the phenomenon of "Boulangeisme" and the response to it of the French left and of Engels.
* Lenin had rejected these politics, which he had partially endorsed earlier, by late 1922. Indeed, at one point he clearly was worried that Trotsky, out of fear of a split, might not be willing to push matters to a conclusion (Collected Works, Vol.45, p.607). Adolf Joffe, on the eve of his suicide, addressed an open letter to Trotsky, expressing the same fear (A Letter to Leon Trotsky, Lanka Sama Samaja Press, Ceylon 1950, p.6). [Back to text]