Max Shachtman’s response to Ernest Erber in 1949, which forms the bulk of a forthcoming book to be published by Workers’ Liberty, deserves to be considered one of the classic polemics of the Marxist movement, alongside The Poverty of Philosophy, Anti-Dühring, and others.
It summarises and vindicates the Bolsheviks’ work to build a revolutionary party and lead a revolution, and makes the case for continuing a similar effort in times both of high and of low political temperature.
Over the last three years something like half a million people have joined the Labour Party, and done so mostly because they want to be politically active as left-wingers. Around 35,000 have joined Momentum for the same reason. Yet the legacy of previous defeats for socialism still weighs heavy. There is a strong current of opinion within the broad left which condemns explicitly-socialist activist organisation as unnecessary or even “sectarian”, and suggests that a broadly left-wing Labour Party will suffice.
The lesson of history is that if socialists go only for “mainstream policies” and “consensus”, then the gains a left government can make even with the strongest support and in the most favourable conditions will be limited and likely to be reversed as soon as the social and economic tensions rise. To make the new surge of interest in socialist activity effective and fruitful, the lessons of past struggles, openings for change, triumphs, missed opportunities, and defeats must be brought into it. The socialists who know something about those lessons must get together, educate themselves, and organise to get the widest dialogue.
Ernest Erber was a leader, alongside Shachtman, of the heterodox Trotskyist Workers’ Party between 1940 and 1949. In 1949 he quit. Though he continued to declare himself a left-wing socialist until his death in 2010, he gave up on all concerted efforts to build a Marxist organisation. In reply Shachtman makes the case for
Bolshevik-type organisation to be continued both in bad times and in good.
The book will be rounded out with other relevant documents on the Bolshevik Revolution and texts by Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg.
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