Paul Levi is a hero of mine. He is a hero for me in the same way Plekhanov was a hero for Leon Trotsky. Each in their different way made an invaluable contribution to Marxism. Despite some mistakes identified by Lukacs and Gramsci, Plekhanov’s writings on historical materialism and dialectical materialism helped educate a generation of young activists (including Lenin and Trotsky) who would otherwise have wasted their lives in counterproductive terrorism and anarchism.
Paul Levi’s contribution to Marxism was less on the high plains of theory than in the sweaty, bloody practice of class struggle. From the period of Leo Jogiches death, Levi rose to be by far the most talented leader of the German Communist Party, the party whose success was key to the success of the Russian Revolution.
Levi’s approach to strategy and tactics was in a different league to most of those he worked alongside. Unfortunately, like Plekhanov, Levi’s revolutionary legacy is tainted. Neither of these great men is mourned by Marxists the way we want our heroes to be mourned. Why not? Both of them let themselves down. Each became a renegade. Each abandoned the point of view of the international working class to sabotage the work of those they left behind. A shameful, tragic end to two of the greatest champions of revolutionary Marxism.
When Plekhanov died, Trotsky offered a eulogy. He asked the massed ranks of Bolsheviks to pay tribute to the memory of Plekhanov at his best, and not to dwell on his descent into the imperialist quagmire and nationalist poison.
When Paul Levi died he wasn’t missed. I think that is a shame. Even those who betray the best part of themselves deserve to have the good part cherished by those they leave behind. That is one of many reasons I would like the SWP to push Chris Harman’s Lost Revolution. It makes a great deal about what an extraordinary contribution Paul Levi made. What Levi taught (the lessons of which were highlighted so wonderfully in Chris Harman’s book) would help the SWP today. It would help immunise the SWP’s cadres against the damage done these last few weeks by Richard Seymour and Tom Walker.
The Lost Revolution does not simply explain the positive contributions made by Paul Levi, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and others who created the kind of party that the SWP has to aspire to become. It does something more than that. The Lost Revolution is unsparing in dissecting the errors of all of these great men and women: Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg are all dealt with objectively. And they did make mistakes. Every last one of them. But none of them betrayed their class, the international socialist project, abandoning their duty as tribunes of all the oppressed.
But it is the way that Chris Harman deals with Paul Levi that I want to focus on. I came to appreciate the greatness of Paul Levi as a consequence of reading Chris Harman’s book and those books recommended by him. But Harman manages to identify the tragedy of Paul Levi. And that tragic flaw is one of the very few things he shares with Richard Seymour.
The tragic flaw of Paul Levi teaches us lessons in how to educate those who have been mislead by Richard Seymour’s factional spectacle. Before I quote from Chris Harman, I need to explain that in the following quote, Harman is referring to a split in the German Communist Party and the Communist International which proved a disaster for both. The disaster had been anticipated brilliantly by Paul Levi, who was outvoted, who went on to tell his comrades, “I told you so.” Not satisfied with that, Levi publicly flaunted his Sheldon-like massive brain to rub everyone else’s noses in it for not recognising what to him was bleedin’ obvious.
This is what Chris Harman wrote:
“The pamphlet demolished the proponents of the ‘theory of the offensive’. The trouble, however, was that it was written in a style almost calculated not to win the rank and file of the party, but simply to infuriate them. It gave the impression of sneering at their courage, at their preparedness to go on the streets to fight. Its tone was that of someone looking at the party from outside, not someone who was part of it, mistakes and all. It was all too easy for the majority of the party leadership, who still had learnt nothing from the Action, to turn party members against Levi for writing in that tone, rather than to face up to his arguments. They expelled him from the party for a ‘breach of discipline’ without needing to reply to any one of his points.” [Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution, October 1982, pg 212]
Let me be clear about one thing. On almost every point, I think Richard Seymour could not be more wrong. He has absolutely zero understanding of Leninism, whereas Paul Levi turned out to have been right about everything (as Lenin and Trotsky were both eager to concede), and Levi was correct about the core of the relationship between the revolutionary party and class, about how to build the kind of party capable of leading our class to self emancipation… Nevertheless, Paul Levi let his ego get in the way of building that party, building it from the human material available to him and the rest of us. Paul Levi became motivated by revenge against those who had smeared him, and frustrated him with their lack of appreciation of what is to be done.
Lenin and Trotsky knew Levi’s indiscipline posed a massive problem to everyone, a problem that had to be tackled. Both hoped that Paul Levi would come to his senses following a period of disciplined behavior outside the party. But he allowed himself to be provoked and while the rest of the party went on to plagiarise all his correct ideas, Levi abandoned these same ideas to make his peace with the centrists. That was a personal tragedy. And it is this egomania that Paul Levi had in common with Richard Seymour.
John Molyneux sent a wonderful defense of the SWP central committee to Sunday’s national committee. He offers a devastating critique of the sabotage of Richard Seymour. I would love to quote it in full, but I will wait for John and the SWP to decide when it should be made public. All I will say at this stage is that if you are a Leninist, your party has to be defended against the capitalist state and the agents of the capitalist class within the working class movement. If you disagree with your comrades, then you persuade them. But everyone has to abide by majority votes. That is why John Molyneux is correct to say that those who have flouted democratic accountability are not the central committee but Richard Seymour and his faction. That is what democratic centralism is all about: imposing collective disciplines on everyone, not least the central committee. If you can’t live with that, then even if you are as insightful as Paul Levi, you are nonetheless undermining the party of the working class and the entire project of socialism.
If you are a Marxist, then you fight to unite the working class, and the party of the class. That is Leninism, that is the core of the international socialist tradition. That also happens to be the polar opposite of what Richard Seymour and Tom Walker have been doing. One of these has already packed his bags. The other is unlikely to hang around for very much longer.