Friday, May 22, 2009

Matthew Yglesias and the Whitewashing of Social Democracy

When American liberals look at the social democracies of Europe, they see generous welfare states whose policies they'd like to emulate. When liberals turn their attention to the social democratic parties' past, however, they often ignore these parties' history of militaristic and imperialist policies, resulting in serious distortions of the historic record.

This post by Matthew Yglesias is an excellent example of liberals' downplaying of these uncomfortable facts. In it he correctly notes that there was significant resistance to the Nazis from the SPD in the late twenties and early thirties. He also correctly observes that the Communist Party's strategy in 1929-33 of attacking the SPD as "social fascist" was a huge mistake. This policy was implemented by order of the Third Communist International (aka the Comintern), to which the CP belonged. At this time the Comintern was in its "third period" and under the firm control of Stalin, whose catastrophically bad strategies not only helped bring the Nazis to power in Germany but also led to the defeat of socialist forces in the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27. But Yglesias's assertion that the SPD were a force of resistance to the Nazis ignores the SPD's role in paving the way for the Nazis' rise to power during the German Revolution of 1918-23.

Even before the revolution began, the SPD had already embraced militarism and imperialism wholeheartedly. Like other reformist socialist parties in Europe, the SPD supported its home nation's entry into World War I, in gross violation of the basic socialist principle of international solidarity, which demands that workers not murder one another for the benefit of their national ruling class.

Prior to the war, the SPD, like all pre-war socialist parties, had claimed to support the principle of international solidarity and vowed to oppose any outbreak of imperialist war. As soon as this verbal commitment was tested, however, the SPD quickly repudiated it. The socialist parties that made good on their anti-war commitments split from the pro-war parties at the Zimmerwald Peace Conference of 1915 to form a new group under the leadership of Lenin that became known as the Zimmerwald Left.

The SPD again showed its reactionary tendencies in October 1918, as it was becoming apparent that Germany was going to lose the war. At this time, the kaiser invited the SPD to join the government with Prince Maximilian of Baden, the kaiser's cousin, as chancellor. The only catch was that the SPD would have to defend the monarchy, whose existence the SPD had always opposed in the past, and attempt to forestall a revolution that would overthrow it and replace it with a republic. The SPD acquiesced without any hesitation.

However, the SPD's most disastrous embrace of militarism was yet to come: its authorization of the creation of the Freikorps, a right-wing paramilitary organization, and its use of the Freikorps to crush all further revolutionary outbreaks after the overthrow of the monarchy. The Freikorps were first put to work during the Spartakus uprising of January 1919. The uprising was initiated by a group of workers who seized control of several newspaper buildings, including the SPD's Vorwarts, after listening to militant speeches by Karl Liebknecht of the Spartakists and Ernst Daumig of the revolutionary shop stewards. However, neither Liebknecht nor Daumig had called for the occupations; that was done entirely on the workers' own initiative.

Once the uprising began, it quickly became a mass movement under the leadership of the Independent Social Democrats (USPD), who had been ejected from the SPD in 1915 for their opposition to World War I, the revolutionary shop stewards, and the Spartakists. At the behest of the SPD, the Freikorps entered Berlin on January 11 and brought the uprising to a brutal end, murdering 158 people, including the Spartakist leaders Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches.

Over the next five years, numerous outbreaks of revolutionary action occurred, and each time the SPD deployed the Freikorps to crush independent workers' organizations and the Spartakus League/CP. By 1923, workers' power had finally been definitively crushed throughout Germany, while the forces of fascism had been greatly strengthened thanks to the government's support of the Freikorps and the military generally.

Both Stalin's decree of the "third period" in 1928-35 and the SPD's policies during the revolution of 1918-23 were catastrophic, but the fact that they happened wasn't an accident. Stalin and the SPD both claimed the mantle of socialism, but both of them were in fact opposed to many of the central tenets of Marxism, such as workers' solidarity, democracy and anti-imperialism. The SPD's behavior in the German Revolution proves that it was no less brutal or reactionary than Stalin or Hitler, and in fact laid much of the groundwork fo the latter.

To bring this back to Yglesias, the moral of this story is the close parallel between the SPD's professed socialism but actual militarism and Yglesias's professed liberalism but actual imperialism. While Yglesias has recanted his early support for the Iraq war and has become a prominent critic of the Iraq war, that hasn't stopped him from supporting Obama's surge in Afghanistan and extension of the war into Pakistan. Does Yglesias honestly believe that the Af/Pak war will succeed where the Iraq war failed? Until he repudiates imperialism completely and recognizes that thre is no such thing as a "good war" under imperialism, he will continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

(For an account of the German Revolution, see Chris Harman's The Lost Revolution: Germany, 1918 to 1923 or Pierre Broue's The German Revolution, 1917-1923. For more information on the Third International, see Duncan Hallas's The Comintern: A History of the Third International.)
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