In defence of Ernest Erber

Submitted by AWL on 5 December, 2018 - 10:35 Author: Alan Johnson

Russia was ruled by 130,000 landowners. They ruled by means of constant force over 150 million people 
 And yet we are told that Russia will not be able to be governed by 240,000 members of the Bolshevik Party – governing in the interests of the poor and against the rich. – V.I. Lenin, Will the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?, 1917

In 1948, after he spent a year thinking it over, Ernest Erber submitted an 18,000 word resignation letter to the US Workers Party, a small group of mostly young, mostly Jewish (one early internal bulletin carried the subhead “Out To The Gentiles!”), and mostly brilliant revolutionary socialists.

The most brilliant of all, the group’s leader Max Shachtman, responded angrily to Erber in an 80,000 word polemic titled Under the Banner of Marxism. 70 years later the AWL has reprinted this document, calling it “one of the classic polemics of the Marxist movement, alongside The Poverty of Philosophy and AntiÂŹDĂŒhring.” I take a different view. Erber was right and Shachtman was wrong about the fundamental thing: Bolshevism and Us. He was right to say “It is necessary to reject the Leninist teachings on the relationship of democracy to socialism”. He was right that “The workers [in the West] are right in identifying their aims with the preservation and extension of those democratic processes and institutions that already exist”. And, not discussed here, he was also right that socialists, “for the sake of civilization, specifically the socialist perspective”, should not be neutral but should side with democracy against totalitarianism when the socialist third camp can’t offer a genuine alternative.

1. Erber was right about Bolshevism

Erber’s critique is more subtle than Shachtman admits. Far from being a right-wing denunciation of revolution, Erber’s concern is the gulf between Bolshevik intentions and Bolshevik results; his subject is not a group of bad men but the disastrous logic of “Lenin’s revision of the traditional Marxist concept of the relationship of democracy to socialism in favour of the anti¬democratic view of the party ruling in behalf of the masses”.

Erber’s pays homage to the Bolsheviks but argues that “the course they chose had a terrible logic of its own” and “could not be traversed without the suppression of the socialist opposition, the Cheka terror, one¬man management of the factories, compulsory labour. They are all fatal links in a chain that began with Lenin’s revision.”

Most of what passes for education in the far left about the Bolsheviks is a fairy tale. Erber told some inconvenient truths: that Bolshevik practice after October was an authoritarian travesty of socialism; that, before the civil war, nonÂŹBolshevik socialists were being censored, persecuted, jailed, tortured and sometimes shot; that trade unionists who struck or voted Menshevik or just insisted on organising independently of the Bolsheviks were being sacked and jailed, exiled or shot; that the constituent assembly, elected by the people but with a nonÂŹBolshevik majority, was forcibly shut down; that the Soviets were gutted by the Bolsheviks as soon as they started electing non-Bolshevik majorities; that some Soviets electing Mensheviks were visited by the Cheka; that the Cheka was an outÂŹofÂŹcontrol disgrace to socialism from its first days; and that the Bolshevik culture of lying about other socialists and about troublesome workers, some of which Shachtman repeats, began early.

Erber also saw that the Bolsheviks – Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Stalin – revised Marxist theory to justify their own authoritarian practice, and then educated the international socialist movement in this new brutalism. Socialism was unmoored by them from democracy and liberty; belief in the fantastical qualities of transformative revolutionary violence and central command was promoted, not least by Trotsky who for several years was a flat¬out and in principle authoritarian.

The international movement was taught to substitute a totalitarian doppelgĂ€nger for Marx’s and Engels’s democratic version of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. The fruits of centuries of working class struggle, those civilisational gains of liberty, rights and representative democracy – which socialists should aspire to defend, extend and make to work for all – were trashed, in theory as well as practice.

Shachtman’s claim that “Lenin’s theory is nothing but a restatement of what Marx and Engels taught” is spectacularly, staggeringly wrong. According to Lenin, “The scientific term “dictatorship” means nothing more nor less than authority untrammelled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force. The term “dictatorship” has no other meaning than this.”

The third camp socialist Hal Draper observed that Lenin’s definition was “a theoretical disaster, first class [with] nothing in common ... with any conception of the workers state” held by Marx. More: that Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin, in the manner of their counterposition of “bourgeois” and “proletarian” democracy, reduced democracy per se to “bourgeois democracy” and flatly counterposed dictatorship to democracy. This had the consequence of (Draper again) “gutting socialism of its organic enrootment in the mass of the people. When Stalin took another lead, the lead in organising the socio¬economic counter¬revolution in class power, the “juridical” basis in theory (to use Trotsky’s later expression) had already been laid.”

2. Erber was right about the relationship of mutual entailment that exists between democracy, liberty and socialism

Erber may have lacked Shachtman’s erudition (though I confess I find Shachtman’s unrelenting crude sarcasm repulsive) but he knew a thing or two. Erber knew that a party, even one full of the most talented and the most selfless idealists, who substitute themselves for a self¬conscious majority will produce a tyranny, no matter what.

Never mind Lenin’s 240,000 Bolsheviks; if every single one of Russia’s few million proletarians had all been Bolsheviks and tried to rule over a population of 150 million, the results would have been the same. Erber knew that the institutional form of a socialist democracy is the democratic republic, albeit one freed of feudal left¬overs, freed of the coercive if indirect economic power of the capitalist class, and deepened by new forms of participation. Erber knew that Lenin turned that formulation upside down, by insisting: “The task of the proletariat consists in blowing up the whole machinery of the bourgeoisie, in destroying it, all the parliamentary institutions with it, whether they be republican or constitutional¬monarchy” (emphasis added).

Lenin did not just oppose limited franchises, unelected second chambers and royal prerogatives, but the elective principle per se, the universal franchise, representative assemblies (i.e. elected parliaments and elected local councils), the rule of law, and the separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary. Lenin declared for rule untrammeled by law, denounced “all kinds of voting, democracy and suchlike bourgeois deceit”, never took the Soviets seriously (within months they were being marginalized, their non¬Bolshevik majorities ignored and, if trouble, their delegates arrested, imprisoned, and exiled). In their place, came dictatorial rule by the Party¬State through its newly created and monopolized institutions.

Soon enough –as a younger Trotsky and Luxemburg had predicted – the Bolshevik banned opposition within the party, crushed the Kronstadt rebels (and then lied about who they were and why they rebelled), and threatened party dissenters such as Alexandra Kollontai and the Workers Opposition until they shut up. Trotsky did not even oppose the first show trials, of Mensheviks. Much of Shachtman’s reply to Erber’s critique of the record of the Bolsheviks is totally unserious. Shachtman dismisses the crushing of the working¬class and socialist Kronstadt rebellion by the Bolsheviks in his jokesy folksy way as “stories by any number of people who weren’t there, authenticity guaranteed or your money back”. He swishes aside Lenin and Trotsky’s explicit and in¬principle support for lawless dictatorship in the hands of the party as “a selection of quotations from Lenin or Trotsky” (64). He simply refuses to engage with the facts about the Cheka’s appalling persecution of non¬Bolshevik socialists and recalcitrant workers from the earliest days of the Revolution, treating all charges in the manner of a cheap lawyer: “labels marked “Cheka Terror”, “Secret Police”, “Suppression of Socialists” all lithographed in scarlet to imitate bloodstains and scare children’. It is desperate stuff.

Erber also knew the BoIsheviks were wrong to reduce modern representative democracy in the west to a “bourgeois dictatorship” to be “smashed”. He knew socialism should be the continuation and the deepening of the institutions and the culture of representative liberal democracy. He pointed out that far from being a mere “machine for the suppression of the working class” as Lenin had it, representative democracy was an arena of struggle which “bears the marks of dozens of great social conflicts”, has been “nowhere was a political monopoly of the bourgeoisie”, and towards which the working class has always oriented.

Erber understood that the working class had constituted the democratic arena as it broke into it to win vital political and economic conquests – the vote, the right to organise and to strike, precious economic and social reforms to make its escape from numbing commodification and to civilise the whole society (the eight hour day, the weekend, the welfare state). Lenin was completely wrong to claim that “The parliament can in no way serve as the arena of a struggle for reforms, for improving the lot of the working people”. More: Erber knew that the Bolshevik hostile view of democracy “creates a frame of mind in our movement which is alien to the workers of a political democracy and isolates us from them”. His insight – “What is bourgeois about our present democracy is specifically its limitations, its shortcomings, and, above all its exclusion from the economic sphere” – is more useful than Lenin’s talk of “smashing” representative democracy.

Why does any of this matter today? Because what Rosa Luxemburg called “barbarism” is here: a world of grotesque inequality, rapid onset environmental collapse, technocratic governance, racism and war. A new but inchoate left seeks to stand athwart this history¬as¬nightmare, yelling Stop. Rather than Matgamna’s uncritical hymn-singing of “Glory O Glory O to the Bolsheviks!” that left really needs to hear Erber’s call for socialists to “re¬evaluate with an open and unprejudiced mind the many theories that have battled for acceptance in the past, and check them anew against the experience of the past decades”.

That the AWL has done more of that work of re¬evaluation than any other group over the last four decades is why it is the only UK far¬left group that can still be taken seriously. But there is still a smell of incense in that airless room where “Glory O Glory O to the Bolsheviks!” is sung. Maybe it is time to open the windows. What need have you to dread the monstrous crying of the wind?

Erber, Geras, and Bolshevism

Workers’ Liberty has recently published In Defence of Bolshevism by Max Shachtman, in which the major text is a defence of the politics of Lenin, Trotsky, and the revolutionaries of 1917 against criticisms made by Ernest Erber. Erber had been a close comrade of Shachtman’s in the Trotskyist movement in the late 1930s and the 1940s, but in 1948 broke away, and for the rest of his life was a sort of social democrat. In Solidarity 487 we published Alan Johnson’s article “On Norman Geras’s ‘Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution’”, which develops many arguments also reflected in Alan’s article on Erber above. We’ll be carrying replies, from the point of view argued in the “Defence of Bolshevism” book, in later numbers of Solidarity. Norman Geras’s article can be found here, and Leon Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours, referred to in Geras’s article, here.


Submitted by Elena Erber (not verified) on Wed, 19/06/2019 - 01:44

Thank you to Alan Johnson for looking deeply into the perspective Ernie Erber took and stood by for the rest of his life. It couldn't have been easy to do and for that. I have the utmost respect and admiration for Ernie. His thinking was grounded and realistic and revealed the often skewed outcome of situations, even when the intentions are admirable.

Submitted by Paul Muddle (not verified) on Wed, 19/08/2020 - 22:04

This article has piqued my interest in Erber but there is frustratingly little on the internet other than a collection of articles on If anyone can point me in the direction of writing by or about Erber I'd be grateful.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.