Book Review: “In the Twilight of Socialism”

“In the Twilight of Socialism” by Joseph Buttinger (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.)

The Socialist Party has always maintained that the Labour and Social-Democratic parties were useless for the purpose of introducing Socialism. We saw that their reformist programmes would permit them to enact measures of reform and no more and that to enact their puny reforms these parties would be forced to cooperate openly with capitalist governments, or would have to form governments themselves. In either case they would be involved in the administration of the Capitalist system.

We saw further that the voters and members behind these parties lacked political knowledge and were befogged by pro-capitalist illusions, such as the necessity for Leaders, the impartiality of the State, the permanency of the Wages System, etc., in short, the boasted strength of these parties was but a sign of their fatal weakness. Since their massive support was fugitive in nature it could only be kept by pandering to the backwardness and the prejudices of the supporters; thus the progress in numbers was but the building up of political inertia. An inertia that could not be overcome by brilliant or forceful leadership, since the leaders that would be permitted to rise would be precisely those who most faithfully corresponded to the needs of these backward masses.

From the very foundation of our Party we were able to demonstrate that unenlightened, reform-seeking masses were unfitted for the Revolutionary Act and the years that have passed since then have piled up proofs of the accuracy of this Socialist analysis. Further proof of the soundness of our position is provided by Joseph Buttinger (alias Gustav Richter) in his Twilight of Socialism.

In this work, sub-titled, “A History of the Revolutionary Socialists of Austria,” we have an absorbing and highly detailed account of the Social Democracy of Austria, from the formation of the Dollfus Government in 1932 until the early post-war period. The bulk of this book deals, therefore, with the impact of Austrian and German Fascism on the Social Democrats and with the bodies they set up in exile and underground.

After 1918, we learn, the Austrian Social Democratic Party grew to be a “mass organisation of unique size and vigour,” so much so that when in March, 1924, the police announced the ban on Social Democratic bodies, they could list no less than fifteen hundred associations as falling under this ban. Here Buttinger, himself one of the two top leaders of the Social Democrats during their underground period, gives an account of the nebulous basis on which this giant party grew. “Its broad organisational structure had room for all trades and professions. It enabled all ages to organise their entertainment requirements, their educational plans, their purposes in life, their cultural desires, their hobbies, even their follies, and to fuse them ‘ideologically’ with the aims of the party, in serious or ridiculous fashion. Labourers and Bohemians, white-collar workers and moral reformers, winegrowers and teetotallers, soldiers and nurses, physicians and prison guards, lawyers and policemen, writers and innkeepers, newspapermen and rabbit-breeders, actors and generals, educators and acrobats, philosophers and football players, boy scouts and free thinkers, Catholics and nudists, economists and psychiatrists, pacifists and arms smugglers, stamp collectors and funeral orators were what they were, and they did what they did, not as such but ‘ ideologically ’—in the real or imagined behalf of the party and ‘ Socialism’.” (Page 21.)

When Dollfus moved against the Social Democrats and arrested their leaders (and here it was the possession of arms by the Social Democratic Defence League that provided him with the pretext for action), the impotence of masses who, lacking political understanding, had left their thinking to leaders, became at once obvious. Dealing with the leaderless, disorientated Social Democrats Buttinger says that, “All their lives, these people had experienced political events through their work for the party, had acted in line with party directives, and thought only in a fixed framework of party doctrines. Now was the moment when they most urgently needed the voice of party authority—and now, for the first time in their lives, it was mute. The members ran to their organisers, the minor officials to intermediate ones—who were helpless, for they, too, were given to functioning in line with revelations furnished for every event by the supreme authorities of the party, and now these revelations failed to arrive.” (Page 29.)

Buttinger sums up the pathetic plight of these people thus, “It was not the weakness of their social philosophy, but a lack of insight, determination and strength, to take responsibility . . .  that brought about the sudden helplessness of thousands. . . .” If by ‘social philosophy’ the author means those vague yearnings for a better form of life that are present in the ‘Labour’ movements, and the criticisms in this book seem to confirm that this is his meaning, then we can agree with him, for ‘insight, determination and the strength to take responsibility,’ are exactly the qualities that our class needs in order to emancipate itself, and it is only on the basis of Socialist Consciousness that such qualities can arise. Hence our insistence on the need for understanding.

This book is a moving and tragic history of workers so saturated with the ideas of the ruling class and so confused by the failures of their reformist movements, that instead of seeing that their destinies lay in their own hands, they approved of the very system that thwarted and warped their lives, even to the extent of surrendering what democratic institutions they had and embracing Fascism. It is a history of worker against worker, but because it is History, it is something we can draw strength from in the struggle to unite worker with worker. Properly used, the lessons drawn from this and other chapters of working class history, can help non-socialist workers to rid themselves of their induced servility, and their immature need for guidance from above.

The author himself has learnt and is still willing to learn, as he makes clear in his last pages. His final political position is not too clear cut, but then he admits that he is still trying to clarify his ideas. He declares that he still adheres to basic Socialist ideas, but rejects the view that the mass ’Labour’ movements are the guardians of these ideas, and for him, “Socialism is no longer advanced by the Socialist Party (of Austria).” On nationalisation his ‘new spirit’ of enquiry, “no longer reliably told him whether nationalisation of key industries was necessarily already a step on the road to Socialism.” He is convinced, however, that “the policies of Leon Blum or Clement Attlee were wrong.” He confesses that he is, “unable to reach reliable conclusions about Soviet economy, the social structures of the new Russia,” what he does find, nevertheless, is that the Soviet system. “Retained the most objectional characteristics of the capitalist system.” He. is convinced. “That Soviet society was no Socialist society. Soviet Socialism, to him was no more genuine than the democracy claimed by Stalin’s regime.” The view that the Soviet dictatorship is the inevitable result of “ Marxist doctrines,” he finds contemptible.

Of the claims that the last war would bring freedom and justice to the world he has this to say, “At best a restoration of pre-Hitler conditions in parts of Europe could be expected, which meant the restoration of all the evil conditions and contradictions which made Hitler and the war possible.”

The book ends with Buttinger looking for a new way to Socialism, that is one distinct from the futile paths trodden by the Leninists and the Social-Democrats, but whether or not he will discover his ‘new way’ to be in fact the old and only way as pioneered by our Companion Parties, one cannot be certain, but of one thing we can be very certain and that is that the lessons of this book will help others to find the will and the way to the Classless Society.

Melvin Harris

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