Scottish nationalism and British imperialism

Canny-Glasgow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013.

One way of addressing the arguments about socialism and Scottish independence is to review the two books above, which give a platform to a fairly wide range of views, both those in favour of a Yes vote in the coming referendum and those in favour of a No vote.  It is also interesting to compare the arguments between the two over time to see how they have stood up, or fallen down.

In my first post I said that for socialists the relationship between independence and the self-determination of the working class involves a number of questions and not just that independence must in some way be a move towards socialism or makes it easier to achieve.  It would be possible to be a passionate supporter of independence by believing that in itself it was a step forward without also implying any great move forward for socialism.  What is striking in both books is the absence of this argument and the keenness of those supporting independence to minimise such an argument and argue that independence is either intimately bound up with socialism or makes it easier to achieve.

In 2007 one contributor wrote that “when the national question rears up again, as it inevitably must, the debate will not be over the degree of devolution, but a blunt choice between defending the British state or a bold demand for independence and socialism”.  In fact, of course, it is not.  It appears as a choice between the British state and a Scottish state – both capitalist.  Two instead of one and the consequences of each.

Colin Fox argues in ‘Time to Choose’ that “the key question is can the socialist cause be advanced in Scotland through independence or not?  And the answer is yes it can, but only provided it involves a complete repudiation of neo-liberalism, corporatism, the financialisation of our economy and existing class relations.”

The first problem is that the independence campaign is led by the Scottish National Party, a “pro-capitalist, neo-liberal party moving to the right” according to Fox, which would undoubtedly form the first government of the new capitalist state and, buoyed by a stunning victory, would put an indelible stamp on its new constitution. If there is a Yes majority there will therefore be no “repudiation of neo-liberalism, corporatism, the financialisation of our economy and existing class relations.”

If independence can only advance the socialist cause in Scotland by a complete renunciation of these things then clearly independence, the real independence currently on offer, will not advance the cause of socialism.

However if Scotland was an oppressed country, so that everyone within it suffered some denial of democratic rights, by virtue of being Scottish or living in Scotland, then it would be possible to argue that Scotland should be independent and that socialists should support such a demand even without the repudiation of neoliberalism etc.

Once again however the argument that Scotland is an oppressed nation is by and large conspicuous by its absence in the two books, despite the large and varied pro-independence contributions.

However one contribution in ‘Time to Choose’ does not shy away from making such a claim.  “The struggle for Scottish independence is, at its heart, an anti-colonial struggle.”

But who are the colonists?  It can hardly be the English born population in Scotland, its largest ‘minority’, all 422,386 of them.  But what other candidates for this role are there?

“Scottish independence is a blow at the heart of imperialism.”  But if imperialism is understood as an economic system nothing of the economic system in Scotland will essentially change.  If it is understood as the political arrangement of states we will have two capitalist states instead of one, both in the EU and both in NATO.

Both countries currently form a unitary state in which both are part of the same imperialist state.  While Britain has often been called England the Empire has always been called by its proper name – the British Empire.  Scotland has played a disproportionate role in this Empire, in its expansion and exploitation of the rest of the world, despite the proclivity of Scottish nationalists to talk about the British state and Scotland as if they were two entirely different places.

Left nationalists obscure the integral role of Scotland in British imperialism, talking about “independence that would . . .  free us from the shackles of British imperialism”, (Colin Fox ‘Time to Choose’). How could Scotland be shackled by British imperialism?  The Scottish people have been exploited not by the English but by fellow Scots.

Or rather they used to be.  Scottish capitalism, in partnership with the English as part of the British Empire, took an identifiably large role in building this empire precisely because it was separately involved.  The Scottish banks and other financial institutions, which continue to this day, and most of its major industrial corporations were owned and controlled within Scotland.  So much was this the case that one recent study by an economic historian has said that Scotland was even more oriented to Empire than the English.[i]

Part of this was due to the narrowness of the domestic market, a result of low incomes, itself a result of relatively low wages or the greater exploitation of Scottish workers by Scottish bosses.

In the 1960s however manufacturing employment began to fall in Scotland, in this respect no different from that of Britain as a whole.  In the UK manufacturing as a share of employment peaked in 1966 while in Scotland the percentage of industrial employment fell from 39.3% in 1965 to 32.3% in 1979, 17.7% in 1993 and 11.1% in 2007.  Scottish deindustrialisation looks greater than that of many other OECD (advanced capitalist) countries only because its starting point was higher while its finishing point is unremarkable.

The British government succeeded in postponing this deindustrialisation through regional policy and attracting multinationals through incentives, which increased sixteen-fold from 1962/63 to 1969/70, but these increasingly failed to have the desired effect in the 1970s, at the end of the post-war upswing in the world economy.  Decline in Empire and decline in industrial Scotland went in tandem because the latter was in integral part of the former.

The British state had failed to prevent deindustrialisation and the demands of the Left today for nationalisation show how little they have learnt from this failure, with their repeated calls for nationalisation.  Much of the Scottish left now wants a Scottish instead of the British state to do the business.  Nationalisation did little to reverse the decline of the railways, coal or steel industries.  In fact much of the decline took place under nationalisation, with employment in the Scottish railways falling from 55,393 in 1951 to 22,910 in 1971 and employment falling in the coal industry from 89,464 to 34,315 during the same period.

It has been argued that the beginning of deindustrialisation coincided with the beginning of serious pressure for devolution and the growth of Scottish nationalism; a section of the petty bourgeoisie clearly registering the need for another capitalist project to take over from the existing partnership in a declining empire.

In this the nationalists typically saw things in reverse, with the SNP candidate in the famous Hamilton by-election in 1967 proclaiming “stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”.  In fact Scotland had been rampaging on the world for two centuries and many colonies at the time wanted it to get off.

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Today however 87% of Scotland’s manufacturing industries turnover is in companies owned outside Scotland.  One study quoted in ‘Time to Choose’ states that “economic power does not lie in Scotland.  It still predominantly lies at a UK level.”  Scotland does have an autonomous financial services industry, in so far as any financial services in Britain can be described as autonomous. It also has oil but it isn’t owned by Scotland no matter what we think ‘Scotland’ means in this context.  Trade is dominated by the relationship with the rest of the UK – “Scotland exports more than twice as much to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as we do to the whole of the rest of the world put together.” (Time to Choose p. 108)

The basis for a nationalist Scotland has therefore eroded except in one very important respect, pointed out in the paper noted above.  This is in the growth of employment by the state: official Scottish Executive figures give public sector employment as a share of total employed as 23.5 % or 580,000.  However another estimate, taking account of out-sourcing and the growth of state-funded but non-state employment, puts the figure at 31% or 772,000.  The responsibility for most of this employment belongs to Edinburgh, not London; the official figures showing that 485,000 of the 580,000, or over 80%, falls under devolved budgets.

State employment in this respect substitutes for that lost by deindustrialisation.  This employment is financed by taxation of the increasingly service based economy including financial services, with its imperialist appropriation of surplus value, and of course oil, and also by debt.  What matters to Scottish nationalists are the revenues controlled by the state and hence the centrality of the debate about the tax revenue from oil and the levels of state expenditure it might support.

Scottish nationalism represents an attempt not so much to turn its back on Empire as to give a layer of the middle classes and capitalists direct access to the fruits of state activity, its taxation and expenditure.  To the working class the SNP promises fairness while to big business it promises a lower rate of corporation tax.  It doesn’t particularly matter what this rate is as long as it’s lower than that set in London; as the Tories lower it the SNP say lower still.

The state is no less the base of the nationalist left, in fact more so since it expects the state to do even more wonderful things to the Scottish working class.  For those who believe socialism is nationalisation of the economy it is no matter of principle what state might appear the most likely candidate to carry it out.

All this is why the proposals of the SNP promise such remarkable results from independence while also promising such little change to the fundamental features of the status quo.  While the currency stays the same and no radical change in policy is offered, relatively minor differences based on pure assumptions and assertions are open to the grandest of unproven promises.  No wonder there are complaints about the lack of clarity generated by the debate and confusion caused by claim and counter-claim.

Hypotheses, projections and counterfactuals take the place of hard and immediate alternatives.  So the debate is about can Scotland continue to use the pound sterling; can it stay a member of the EU or negotiate membership within months; can it continue with the Bank of England as lender of last resort and with financial regulation ‘from London’, otherwise a term of nationalist abuse.

There is no or precious little debate about whether the pound should be the currency or what a currency means or is supposed to achieve, or about how the financial services industry could provide the catalyst for a new economic crisis.  Keeping the pound, keeping financial regulation from the city of London, staying in the EU and continuing to cut corporation taxes are the marginal ‘changes’ upon which grand nationalist rhetoric hides reality.   Meanwhile the No camp assists the nationalists by claiming that they can’t have many of their fairly timid set of demands.

But if Scotland actually was an oppressed nation the nature and characteristics of such oppression would be central to the debate.  Even accepting a continuing capitalist Scotland there would be something important, something urgent, something raw that would inflame passion.  But there isn’t.

 

[i] The Economic basis of Scottish Nationhood since 1870, Jim Tomlinson, University of Glasgow.

Yes to self-determination for Scotland

alexapldev1I was in Glasgow a few weeks ago and was talking about the upcoming independence referendum to my daughter and sister who both live in Scotland, are eligible to vote and are keenly interested in the debate.  They had just watched the latest referendum debate on BBC Scotland during the previous week and we were discussing what they thought about it.

They are both undecided, one having been strongly No, and the other expressing the view that while her heart said Yes her head said No.  Neither had found the contributions from the two sides of the debate wholly convincing or even very enlightening and the claims and counter-claims had caused some confusion as to who was telling the truth.  All this in my view is an inevitable result of the proposal being put forward, which I will come to in a later post.

What was clear to both was that the Yes side was perceived as putting forward something positive, appeared to be expressing optimism and confidence, proposing something apparently constructive and forward-looking.  Whether it was at all persuasive was another matter but inevitably it is compared to the arguments of the No side, which are seen as almost purely negative.

I have written before that a political programme can only truly be judged on what it is for, not what it is against, and this appears as a problem primarily for the No side, which is composed mainly of the Labour Party and the Tories who can hardly present a coherent positive message together that goes much beyond the banal.  On the other hand the Yes side is dominated by the Scottish National Party.

It might be possible to argue that the first principle of politics should be that of the Hippocratic oath – to never do harm.  Thus if one thinks that Scottish independence is wrong that should be good enough to vote against it.  And so it should, except such an outlook would also have to have some view of the thing that is good which is impaired by independence.

The debate has revolved around the nature of the new currency, possible membership of the European Union, the strength of an independent Scottish economy and the view that an independent Scotland would in some sense be a fairer one.  There are a host of other reasons that again I will come to.

For a socialist the reason to support independence must be that in some way it is a move towards socialism, makes it easier to achieve socialism or at least results in a less onerous form of capitalism.

Since, not surprisingly, the debate has assumed no revolutionary change to the existing economic system, and those advocating independence as a route to socialism are very much a minority in the Yes camp, it is on the last ground – that independence will involve a less onerous form of capitalism – that it might seem most necessary to come to a view.

In my view this would be wrong.  Not because the immediate impacts for working people of independence of a still capitalist Scotland are unimportant but because socialism is necessary for workers even while it is not currently any sort of immediate possibility given the current weakness of the socialist and workers’ movement.  This is obviously, after all, a decision with long term consequences.

This weakness only demonstrates its importance negatively, through the fundamental problems of capitalism being essentially unaltered by the particular national form that capitalism takes.  This has been demonstrated by the effects of the financial crisis on a wide variety of countries and the political crises in the various parts of the world it has given a major impulse to, including most recently the Ukraine.  The financial crisis impacted on all capitalist countries and if one believes, as one should, that the underlying causes have certainly not disappeared but in fact only grown then the nature of the economic system remains the fundamental question regardless of the form of the state.

In this respect it is amusing to hear both sides’ claims in the referendum debate about the risks that would exist in an independent Scotland – when the Yes side point to the oil and the No side points to the very large banking industry that the Scottish state could not afford to bail out should another financial crisis break out.

What both sides do is invite comparisons which show how fundamentally similar the Scottish and wider UK economy are.  Oil could provide a larger revenue base for a Scottish State (at least for a while) and another financial crisis has the potential to blow it out of the water. The UK state would have a proportionately smaller revenue base from oil but would be proportionately less blown up.  What a choice.

A few days ago I came across another striking comparison of the Scottish and UK states here .

So it is on the basis that independence must in some way be a move towards socialism or makes it easier to achieve that a view on the independence vote must be taken, at least if one is convinced in some way by the need for socialism.  And this task involves raising the horizon of the debate in such a way that events that seem very far away, such as the Ukraine, can be incorporated into an understanding of the issues at stake.  It is commonplace to say that we live in an interconnected world, but just how is this world interconnected and how should it be connected?  At least it is obvious that the question of national independence raises these issues.

The standard view as understood by Marxists was recently set out in Boffy’s Blog here, repeating the words of Lenin about the view of Marxists (here called Social-Democrats) on the rights of nations to determine their own future, which applies to Scotland today:

“The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination.”

“As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.”

The Scottish people therefore have the right to self-determination and the referendum gives them the opportunity to exercise that right.  How they do so is another matter and it is entirely possible for the exercise of the right to self-determination to mean continued unity with Wales and England.

The creation of a separate state is only one possible means of expressing self-determination and it would be a mistake to seek to measure the degree of independence attained as if some absolute and complete independence could be achieved.

This is not possible and seeking it only sets one off on an impossible nationalist quest for ‘real’ independence for a new Scottish state, which is doubly impossible for a small nation.  In other words absolute state self-determination is impossible, which means it can both permanently be put it on the agenda of nationalists, especially left ones, and leads to permanent failure.

Alex Salmond of the SNP has criticised the “bluff, bullying and bluster” coming from leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats, particularly their rejecting use of sterling by a new independent state.  The intervention of the later is of course all these things but Salmond and other nationalist are in no position to complain too much for this is also a ‘welcome to the world of nation states’ where bluff, bullying and bluster is the name of the game and the name of the game they seek to join.  Figures from the European Union have also weighed in to exercise their right to bully and the nationalist campaign seeks to be fully paid up and contributing members of the bullying club.

The meaning of the second part of Lenin’s argument – the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations – has been explained on this blog again and again and again.  It involves rejecting the view that socialism is the result of action by the state through, for example, it taking ownership of production or taxing the rich or spending more.  An examination of this approach in Ireland is set out here , here and here.

Self-determination of the proletariat means the creation of independent trade unions irrespective of workers’ nationality so that they can more forcefully mitigate the bullying and exploitation of capitalism – Scottish, British, Irish or otherwise – and the national divisions of workers promoted.  Such organisations are the means by which they can gain some control over their working lives.

This is taken further through the creation of workers’ cooperatives in which workers can free themselves of the bluster and bullying of owners and managers over whom they have no control and instead build the foundations of a new society based on equality of ownership and power.

It means creation of a political Party through which they can educate themselves about the bluff, bullying and bluster of current politics and find within it a basis for struggling for the creation of a new society that fulfills their desires because it is their creation.

It should therefore be obvious that the self-determination of nations, which is defined and relies on the independent power of the state, is not at all the same as the self-determination of the working class, which is not divided by nationality and is not subordinated or defined by the state.  Not only are they not the same by definition but they cannot be reconciled.

The experience of Ireland is that even the most militant nationalist movement does not lead to socialism even when it is based on a struggle against oppression.

So where does this leave the socialist argument for Scottish independence?  Well, the relationship between independence and the self-determination of the working class involves a number of questions and I shall take these up in future posts.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 6

istanbul-red1Again and again the socialism of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien rests not on the initiative of the workers but dependence on the state and the support of its bureaucracy – “Only a mass party with roots throughout the community, with an organisational reach comparable to the Catholic Church of old, can hope to win the active and passive support from the bureaucracy which is necessary to carry through socialisation measures.”

To their credit however, Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are too intelligent and honest not to acknowledge the obvious and very painful lessons of working class history.

They acknowledge the reactionary role of the state bureaucracy – “as it is, the bureaucracy stymies existing pro-capitalist governments all the time.”

And they acknowledge the potential for violence from the capitalist class and the necessity for the working class to prepare for it:

“At some point the reactionaries will try to move onto more aggressive measures, including investment strikes and ultimately a coup d’état. . . should the socialist-labour movement prove too resilient to fold before the disruption aimed at fostering economic breakdown, the doomsday weapon of violent reaction, whether through the mobilisation of a mass fascist movement or via a straight-forward coup d’état always looms over its head, ready to detonate. . . then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable.”

Unfortunately for them this acknowledgement renders much of their argument either mistaken or incoherent.

They do not develop what their acknowledgement of the potential for state violence means for their reliance on this same state to usher in socialism (at the behest of the workers’ movement). But they are hardly ignorant of how the state was behind the most vicious fascist and reactionary movements which decimated the working class movement in defeats that over 80 years later have not been reversed.

In the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, Germany and Spain and Chile in 1973 the capitalist state, under pressure from mass workers’ movements such that we do not have today, and in some cases with parties in Government with a perspective not very different from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, clamped down on workers independent activity precisely because initiative and control was to lie with the state.  The state then succumbed to fascism where it did not succumb to the workers and either directly or indirectly handed power over to fascist or military dictatorships.

Only workers independent organisation apart from and against the state could have prevented this.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct to repeat the dictum of Marx that we must win the battle of democracy but they are wrong to see this battle within the terms presented by bourgeois democracy.

They are actually right to say that “parliamentary democracy . . . remains the best gauge of public support for a political tendency”.  Right in the sense that right now it accurately tells us where what passes for the socialist movement actually is, which is a small minority.

This means we must reject the phantasies of much of the so-called Marxist Left that workers are champing at the bit to vote for the left social democracy if only Marxists would forget their previous criticisms of this political tendency and pretend to be, or rather more accurately reveal themselves to be, left social democrats.

Parliamentary democracy will not and cannot, as the working class develops its organisation, political consciousness and power, reflect the support for socialism because it is not capable of expressing or reflecting the expansion of all of the aspects of socialist development of the working class.

I have said it does so now only because all these are at such a low ebb.  As they develop parliamentary democracy at best expresses the lag in development and its weakest aspects at that and it would be a cruel education of worker-socialists to tell them that their powers and potential are reflected in what they see in parliament.

The truth of this is so fundamental that it is true even in the opposite case – where parliamentary support for socialism exceeds the real social and political development of the working class in society.  The parliamentary road sought by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, and by the small Left organisations, walks wide-eyed and innocent into the trap explained by Engels:

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.

What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

What to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests.

Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development.

Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.” 

Without large and powerful trade unions and other workers’ societies standing proudly independent of the capitalist class and its state; without a large cooperative sector owned, controlled and managed by workers; without a mass workers’ party with deep roots in the working class, with the confidence and respect of the masses outside its ranks, the votes of workers and wider society will not provide strong enough  foundations either to overthrow capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries or begin the building of socialism.

But these hardly feature, have walk-on parts or have a purely supporting role in the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien production.  For them “Electoralism is the most important political activity in the European and North American societies and in practice it forms the centrepiece.”

They say that “It is only as a component part of the strategy of attrition that electoralism plays a critical part in moving beyond capitalism. Winning power is therefore not the only goal of electoralism; every bit as important is the role it plays in building a mass socialist party capable of winning it and of controlling the apparatus when it gets there.”

But even here they get the order wrong.  “But in order to benefit from electoral work there has to be an institutionalisation of the gains, whether through increased participation in the party or union, more subscriptions to sympathetic left-wing media, joining a co-op or simply voting for the party come election time. These and other possible methods of harvesting the labour expended in the springtime of campaigning all depend on having institutions capable of soaking up the goodwill.”

Here it is electoralism that is the engine to drive working class organisation, that builds the other wings and activities of the working class movement.  In fact, as an old Official republican said to me a few years ago, it is in elections that you reap what you sow, even in the narrow terms posed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

The commitment by them to bourgeois democracy is ironic given the decay of this form.  At the beginning of March ‘The Economist’ had a six page essay and a front page that asked “What’s gone wrong with democracy”.

It noted – “Nor is the EU a paragon of democracy. The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats. The European Parliament, an unsuccessful attempt to fix Europe’s democratic deficit, is both ignored and despised.”

“Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Party membership is declining across the developed world: only 1% of Britons are now members of political parties compared with 20% in 1950. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between 1980-84 and 2007-13. A survey of seven European countries in 2012 found that more than half of voters “had no trust in government” whatsoever. A YouGov opinion poll of British voters in the same year found that 62% of those polled agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time”.

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All this reflects the supplicant position which reliance on the state places workers and the failure of the state to respond to popular opinion.  It reflects the legacy of the parties supported by workers who have embraced bourgeois democracy very much in the way proposed as much as it reflects the cynicism of other classes.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are aware of the dangers of integration into the existing political-economic system, of a tendency towards conservatism and dangers of bureaucracy but their strategy of attrition and its reliance on the state and representation as opposed to direct participation all feed these problems.

This approach teaches passivity, that someone else has responsibility for political activity and leadership.  That power lies in a machine (the state) that exists outside your own competence and capability.  That your own activity is primarily to engage in voting for someone else to press forward your interests and that your own productive activity is not directly something that you should seek to control.

All this can be said of the existing capitalist state and its bourgeois politicians. What Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien see as important – the state and electoralism – does not go beyond this.

Their confused perspective leads to incoherence and what is generally well considered in their argument succeeds only in accurately enumerating problems.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct when they say that we need to convince workers “that they have to do great things for the socialist organisation, that the future itself depends on us all playing our role in that great collective project, outside of which there is no salvation.”

My argument has been that their conception of this great collective project is mistaken and that within it there is no road to salvation.

Concluded

 

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 5

The strategy of attrition proposed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien proposes democratisation of the existing state through electoralism. They pose the question of the existing state as “whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation. But what is this form?”

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I have tried to answer this question in the last post by setting out that the form the state takes is an expression of its role in resolving class conflict according to the rules of the capitalist system.  The rule of law performs an ideological role by disguising the rule of people, a particular class of people.

The capitalist state is adept at hiding its class nature as does the economic system itself because the rules of the state are universal in the same degree as the laws of the capitalist economy.  To challenge either is to invite economic, social or political collapse – unless one has a real, practical and concrete alternative.

The class character of society is not hidden from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien but the class character of the state is, so that they consider democracy as something that is devoid of any essential class character.  There is only more or less democracy; not ‘bourgeois’ democracy or ‘proletarian’ democracy.

Presumably as the state becomes more democratic it reflects more and more the interests of the majority working class within society and if this were the only distinction between their view and that of classical Marxist then it might be argued that there would be differences only of terminology and views on the possibility of such democratisation.

Unfortunately this is not the case because their view of a democratised state leaves out the essential content of workers democracy, which because it is the rule of the vast majority of a class whose interests lie in the abolition of all oppression and exploitation, leads not to the perfection of the state but to its disappearance.

So the answer to their question is Yes, the “form [of the state] in the advanced capitalist countries is . . . antithetical to socialism [so] that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation.”

The post by Revolutionary Programme sets out the views of Marx as to what a working class state might look like including the revocability of the elected, their working class membership, the working character of the elected body and the payment of the elected at a workers’ wage.

Much of the functions of the present state, such as education, would no longer belong to the state proper but would be functions of society.  Other functions would also be abolished in their present form such as the standing army and become a workers’ militia staffed by workers for short periods.  Hierarchical structures would be reduced and eventually eliminated while those at the top of certain functions would be elected and thus cease to be directly accountable parts of the state but an accountable part of the wider society.

Such a state that immediately begins to wither away is incompatible with the existing state which distinguishes itself by characteristics that are precisely opposed to these.  The capitalist state stands above and apart from society, apart from its ‘vested interests’, and prides itself on its hierarchical and bureaucratic character, its rules, its procedures and pure administrative logic.

Its staff pride themselves not on what they have in common with wider society but their professionalism that separates them from it.  Its representatives, elected and non-elected, require ‘adequate’ remuneration so that they aren’t vulnerable to corruption from it.  Their position must be insulated from popular pressure especially in choreographed periodic elections when extra care must be taken by the non-elected through entering a period of purdah and the elected have a few weeks in which to attempt to manipulate political debate.

Those who make laws must not be infected by their application.  Hierarchies are required to discipline and train the state’s staff in the rigours of bureaucracy.  All this is cemented by an ideology that eschews particular interests that actually do exist in favour of the interests of the state itself or the interests of the nation, which do not exist, except to hide the interests of the nation’s ruling class.

Such a state can only be separate and stand above and apart from society because society stands apart from the functions of the state.  This can only happen when society is characterised by the ownership of its productive powers by a small class and by the existence of a much larger class without ownership of any productive property and thus in little or no position to assert rights or interests within society or have them reflected by the state.  If the latter did the state would disintegrate through the struggle of incompatible interests.

Thus whatever impact working class struggle has on the workings of the state it is relatively minor and certainly cannot transform it into a mechanism for advancing the socialist project.

Where the productive powers of society, including its factories, offices, warehouses, transport, hospitals and schools are the collective property of society and controlled and managed by its members the possibility exists for the functions of the state to merge with this society.  Under capitalism no such possibility exists.

This is why the alternative democratisation proposed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, of the state becoming the tool for the socialisation of production, does not succeed.  Even by doing so it does not cease to stand above society, above the working majority, who continue to work for it and not for themselves.   The state cannot therefore socialise society as it ‘socialises’ production.

For them the ‘herculean’ task becomes one of “learning to guide a large bureaucracy into a democratic mode of operation.”  In the same breath they say that it is “only in certain forms of organisation and under certain conditions that their (workers) capacity is actually realised.”  Unfortunately large bureaucracies are not one of them.  In fact such bureaucracies are the antithesis of free and democratic organisation.  How do you guide the democratic operation of bureaucracies without them either ceasing to be bureaucracies or ceasing to be guided?

The Stalinist states, the capitalist states, and the workers organisations in capitalists countries are all evidence of the incompatibility of bureaucracy with workers democracy.  Elsewhere in their argument Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien recognise this but unfortunately the logic of their position compels them to propose the employment of bureaucracy to extend democracy within the existing state.

I am reminded of the quote by Lenin, exasperated by the growing bureaucratisation of the new workers’ state: “If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take the huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can be truthfully said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth, they are not directing, they are being directed.” (Works, vol. 33, page 288, our emphasis)

The working class is now more cultured than was the Russian working class of the 1920s but the state bureaucracy is now also much larger.  Besides the impossibility of steering a large bureaucracy to democracy, why would one want to? Surely the task is to remove bureaucracy in the way described by Marx and removing functions from it to be democratically run by the workers as part of the rest of society?

The strategy of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien to achieve such democratisation of the state through a political party seems wilfully to ignore the lessons of the degeneration of the Russian revolution.

Their proposals do not undermine bureaucracy but are inevitably built on its own principles since it is the state which they propose must be at the “centre” of democratisation.

So, for example “the state could mandate various banks to invest according to certain criteria which have won support through the majority socialist party.”

How could the state mandate the banks in any sort of sensible way as to how or where to invest?  What rules, which the banks already have, would they devise and bring to bear that those seeking money would not then present in a tick-box manner simply to get the money?  The lending decisions of the banks would therefore have to be monitored.

The decision of where to invest would now involve two parties where previously one existed.  But it is argued that it is the socialist party that will know what these rules should be although how a political party will know this is a mystery.  So we actually have three parties involved now where one existed before and we get more bureaucracy.

What we don’t get is any idea that workers taking control of production should establish their own banks and, being directly involved in production and finance, might have a better idea about where to invest.

But no, it is the state “by using its legislative and judicial functions in a pro-labour way . . . which promotes workers’ self-activity.”  As an example they argue that a bureaucratic ‘independent’ judicial process must decide whether workers can take over their workplace and create a cooperative enterprise.

“Workers would not be handed the products; the socialist militants would still have to persuade the workers in each enterprise to seek their legal right. Independent jury tribunals can decide in these and other cases between employers and workers. Assuming the juries are randomly selected, as they are now, then the working class will make up its majority, thereby facilitating pro-labour judgments. Of course, if the tribunals were to return consistently anti-labour decisions, we would have good evidence that support for socialisation was waning.”

Everything I have said about bureaucratic rules and the supposed independence of the state is employed to enforce dependence of workers on the state even when they seek to establish their own ownership of production.

Again the idea that workers should be free to establish their own cooperative production free from state interference seems alien to this idea of a rules-based socialism; for what is more rules-based that judicial proceedings where those with the greatest resources (the capitalist) argue and frustrate those with far less resources?  The reality of class justice in current society, which also has working class juries, seems to be lost on Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

To be continued.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 4

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As part of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument that the state is not essentially a capitalist one they state that society is more complicated than it once was.   Implicitly they must be arguing that it is less fully capitalist since the state now performs functions that workers should be defending.  Indeed they go much further than this:

“A further reason for not smashing the existing state is that we need it. . . . The modern state is needed for the simple reason that it performs socially necessary functions without which a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse. And compared to the pre WW I state, today’s one runs vastly more essential services like healthcare, education, food and pharmaceutical safety regulation, environmental controls, provision of infrastructure, and a civil and criminal justice system.”

“If those functions go unfulfilled by a future socialist polity, the day-to-day experience of life for everyone will quickly degrade leading to an erosion of support for the socialist government (or polity). Court summonses for drink driving, to take just one example, will have to be issued under a socialist administration just as much as they would under a capitalist one. In theory, the state justice system can be replaced by popular tribunals but rules of procedure, expertise in summarising and arguing the law, administrative clerks and the like cannot just be recreated at will. The legal norms are the product of a long, messy, and less than edifying social evolutionary process. Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment.”

The last part of this long quote is particularly bad, with it having more in common with Edmund Burke than Karl Marx.  It is also amusing that they choose what might seem an everyday and unremarkable state function such as enforcing road traffic laws since we have just seen how the Irish State through the Garda have torn up thousands of penalty points. Even in performing such a humdrum function the state exhibits its propensity to bias and corruption.

As for the response to their overall argument, it is not the point that certain state functions, or rather certain functions currently carried out by the state, should not be done.  The question is how and by whom and for what purpose?

When we look at how the current state performs these roles we can see how it does so in subordination to the capitalist economic system.

We shall do this ‘logically’ but it should not be forgotten that the historical evolution of the state shows how it acquires its capitalist character.  So for example, as Marx pointed out, the growth of the state and the debts of the state became a powerful means of developing capitalist accumulation.

When capitalists turn money capital into productive capital they need to buy labour power capable of carrying out certain tasks effectively and efficiently.  Workers need to be healthy and with increasing levels of education to carry out increasingly complex tasks.  Even routine and boring tasks are not completely devoid of training.

The capitalists could try to pay for the health and education of their own workforce by themselves.  Unfortunately if some capitalists did this other capitalists would not and would then poach the healthy and skilled workers educated and kept healthy by competitors.  Such is one of the contradictions of capitalism.  Much better then to socialise the cost by getting the state to provide health services and education.

The market provided by the health and education services can then be milked by capitalist providers of health and education products such as drugs, medical equipment and hospitals and schools built through Private Finance Initiatives.

This then costs the health and education services more than necessary and results in either poorer quality services or higher taxes. And although these taxes are paid overwhelmingly by workers, who pay for the welfare state, the capitalists prefer cheaper and effective health and education services so that the value of labour power they pay for does not decline by higher taxes on workers’ income putting pressure on them to raise wages to compensate.

So the contradiction within capitalism isn’t removed, it is just displaced.  Getting the state to carry out functions doesn’t resolve the contradiction between seeking healthy and skilled workers and keeping down the costs while trying as much as possible to make these services easily exploitable commodities subject to direct capitalist provision.

The capitalist system doesn’t find it easy to negotiate through these requirements so, for example, it constantly reorganises the NHS in Britain, boosts then restricts private finance, changes school governance one way and then another and seeks to make working class children more suitable for employment while trying to limit the costs of educating them.

But all these changes of policy and seemingly confused changes of direction within state provided services are not direct examples of struggle between a progressive state and private capital but expressions of the contradictions of the capitalist system itself.

They do not reflect the pressure of the working class as against that of capitalists, although the working class will have its own views and interests bound up in such issues.

In Ireland and in Britain the working class has not been so weak for a very long time and while welfare is being tightened it is not being abolished.  Were welfare states the simple result of the balance of forces between capitalist and workers we would have expected much greater changes.

When the capitalist has bought labour power the state does not generally intervene in their prerogatives or that of their managers and then only if these are challenged by workers.  Factories and offices however generally don’t work without infrastructural facilities such as roads, transport, water and power and sometimes the state provides these or regulates the private companies that do.

Again the desires the private companies that do can often conflict with the needs of the private companies that use their services.

When production has ceased and the goods and services need to be sold to workers or to other capitalists the state intervenes by setting minimal standards, including contract laws and customer protection legislation, and supporting trade through tariff reductions, provision of insurance and sponsoring trade promotion.

When money is recovered from sales it goes into the financial system in one way or another and once again the venality of this system is a problem not just for workers but also for certain capitalists who would like the state to increase credit to business, reduce charges  and make the financial capitalists less privileged.  Opposition to ‘parasitic’ finance is not the monopoly of the left but has been a theme of the most reactionary movements in history.

In summary the main functions of the state as it has developed both reflects the needs of the growing capitalist system and reflects its contradictions.

An historical analysis also undermines the view that such aspects of the state as welfare, the ‘welfare state’, are examples of working class influence on what the state does.  The first steps in welfareism were taken by Bismarck in Germany, by the Liberal Party and Conservatives in Britain and a welfare state exists in the Irish State where there has never been a social democratic government of any type.

The argument that state functions have to be carried out for society to function is true but this does not support the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument but exposes their strategy, for it is not technical aspects that define state functions but the social relations of production that define the roles that are performed.

Were the state to start to carry out the economic functions currently performed by the capitalist class and on an international basis it would undermine the functioning of the capitalist system itself and would lead to economic dislocation and collapse.

This would happen because of the sabotage of the capitalist class itself, because of the internationalisation of capitalist production which the nation state cannot substitute for without enormous economic regression and because the state cannot carry out the economic functions of capitalism without either being the capitalist itself or it beoming the sort of society we saw in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

This sort of society proved unviable. It collapsed almost everywhere and is no model to emulate where it has not.  The inability of the state to substitute itself for capitalism both shows that it is not the road to socialism, or socialism would also be unviable, and that it is workers’ owned means of production that is.

In other words the functions carried out by the state that are recorded above are necessary for society to work without severe economic regression but only in so far as the society is a capitalist one.  Too little state intervention and the economic system will regress but too much and it invades what are more properly tasks of private capitalists.  The contradictory nature of capitalism, the bureaucratic rationality of aspects of state functioning and ideological disputes all mean that the concrete operation and role of the state is constantly in dispute.

The working class has an interest in who wins (temporarily) in this struggle but it does not take sides but advances its own powers to impose its own solutions upon the system and its state by ultimately replacing both.

The functions of the capitalist state are therefore performed because of the way the capitalist system works and are performed in a way determined by that system.  Just as the way the capitalist system works seems natural so does the workings of the state and the respective roles that they both have. All seem natural.

The economic system produces what Marx calls commodity fetishism where the attributes of people become the attributes of things.  The productive relations formed by people to produce the things they need become requirements of ‘the economy’, which has demands which people can’t control but can only accede to.

The actions of the state are complimentary to this economic system so that what it does not do – the activities of the capitalist class – also seems natural.  Just as capitalism delivers economic growth the state is seen to distribute the fruits of that growth.

The need of the former for the services of the latter become, as in the argument of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, mere technical functions that must be performed regardless so that the class character of the state is not at all fundamental.

These technical requirements however only exist because of the capitalist nature of the mode of production and would not exist as they do in another mode of production.  For example under a socialist mode of production health services, education, product safety and infrastructure provision would not be carried out by the state or any state-like body.

The capitalist character of the state is therefore reflected in a number of ways.

So for example, the claim that the state is autonomous is also held to be proof that it is not capitalist.  But to the extent it is not autonomous it directly reflects particular (capitalist) interests and for socialists the fact that it does in general exist autonomously from society is also demonstration that it exits separate and opposed to it, including from  the vast majority of society, particularly its working class.  Under the new society no body autonomous from society with any political powers would exist.  The powers of society would be wholly integral to it under socialism.

We have seen that what the state does and does not do demonstrates its capitalist character.  Under a new society it will disappear and no coercive body above or autonomous from society would exist.  The state, as Marxists have claimed, will wither away.

The personnel of the state are carefully selected, vetted and trained.  In Britain the most important forces declare loyalty not to the people but to the Queen.  In Britain and Ireland and elsewhere there is no greater crime than those committed against the armed forces of the state.  Witness the media coverage of killings of Garda for example.

The most senior positions in the state are almost invariable held by members of the most privileged classes and their rank and position within the state cements this where it does not create it.  Many can make a lucrative career on the Boards of capitalist corporations when they leave state employment.

The bureaucratic and hierarchical structure of the state reflects its need to insulate itself from democratic control and accountability.  When it needs to enforce its wishes it acts with force and decisively, it is hard.  When it evades accountability it appears as a blancmange, a maze and an impenetrable system in which no one appears to know how things work and no one is responsible.  One may as well try to pick up mercury with tweezers or cut through water.  Excuses are offered that we have asystemic failure but no one in this system made up of people is responsible.  Once again the actions of people become the property of things.

Laws are broken by the state so we have an enquiry.  When laws are broken by workers they are put in jail.  In no other country in Western Europe more than Ireland is it less credible to believe that the state is a neutral upholder of the law.   A cursory examination of the actions by state forces in the North of the country would explode the most ingrained prejudices, except of course the North of Ireland is always held up as a place apart.  And so the state always upholds the law except when it doesn’t.

The state is also a nation state so right from the start loyalty to it immediately involves division, the division of the working class, even when the workers belong to the same firm and would be out of work were their fellow (foreign) workers to fail to carry out their labour as they should.  The state teaches dependency on it not on the cooperative labour of the working class of all countries without which “a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse.”

The symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology of the state all make it inimical to working class self-emancipation from the rules symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology that oppress it.

In the final part of this post I will look at the argument that the state is, on the contrary, the mechanism of working class liberation.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 3

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“Marxists see the state as a form of class rule. It is not a free floating entity above the messy reality of class conflict but rather a tool for suppressing the exploited, that is, an organisational tool of those in control of the means of production. For much of history, this is essentially an accurate description and it remains fundamentally true to this day. In Ireland alone, the continuous and truly massive transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists arising from the latter’s losses in property speculation is a graphic illustration of the balance of class power.”

“. . . But modern society is more complicated than pre-capitalist social formations. The exploited are not as powerless and thus have gained a measure of influence over the state itself, the degree of which depends on the balance of class forces at any given juncture. The strength of the working class in Europe over the 20th century is reflected in the significant gains that it made, winning concessions on everything from maternity pay to lower retirement, from national health services to a reduction in militarism.”

“The western state is open to influence by other sectors. That is, it is dominated by capitalists and will, when push comes to shove, tend to favour their interests rather than those of other sectors. That tendency, however, demonstrates not that the state is intrinsically structured to deliver capitalism but that the social dominance of the capitalists manifests itself in the political choices made by those who control the state. Capitalist control of the investment process is key because most states are dependent on capitalists for a functioning economy, which itself is necessary to keep its population relatively satisfied and to generate income via taxation.”

“The state’s own capacity to reproduce itself, then, is dependent on capitalist investment but importantly it is not itself a capitalist formation as is proven by the existence of non-capitalist sovereign powers throughout history. The state, as a powerful entity with a distinct history and a degree of freedom regarding accruing resources, could attempt to usurp the capitalist position by supplanting its role in the investment process. Indeed, that is what we largely advocate. . . and a process of democratisation of the state is best seen as a parallel process to democratising the ownership of capital itself, rather than as either as a precursor or a successor to it. Until that balance of power is altered there is little reason to expect the state to escape its subservience to the needs of capitalists.”

“The state, in other words, does not operate on capitalist lines. It operates in a capitalist context. . .  The state is not, then, an eternal verity destined to contaminate all those who touch it but rather a site of struggle that reflects the balance of forces in wider society. It is a tool whose usefulness depends very much on who is wielding it and for what purpose. . . . but even if the premise of the state as an intrinsically capitalist one does not hold up, there is the further issue of whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation.”

These are the views of Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien on the state.  In summary they say that the state has become more complicated, and so it has, and give its welfare functions as evidence of this.  The state has had a long history and has not always been capitalist and nor is it intrinsically capitalist now.  Rather it is open to pressure from forces in society, including the working class.  However the role of investment by capitalists, on which the state itself depends for functioning, means that the state tends towards supporting capitalism.  This however can be changed as both the state and capital is democratised with democratisation of the former being the means to democratise the latter.  So much so that it can be used to transform current society into a socialist one.

The view of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien is essentially of a rather passive reflector of outside forces that has developed its own interests but which is a powerful mechanism that can be employed to revolutionise society.  Not altogether a very consistent or coherent analysis.

Let’s take the role of investment which Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say is the key question.

Why is it that only the capitalists invest and so can influence the form of the state and how it operates?

This is because capitalism rests on the exclusion of the working class from ownership of the means of production.  When capitalists invest they also buy the labour power of workers and in order to make a profit, to extract surplus value in Marxist terms, they must pay workers less for the labour they perform than is included in what they produce.  The value of the labour performed by workers that they receive in wages is less than the value of the goods and services they produce.  This surplus value pays for the state among other things.

This arrangement seems natural and democratic since no one is compelled to work for any particular employer, can start their own business if they want and can ask for higher wages if they think they deserve more.  They enter into an employment contract voluntarily and as citizens with equal rights.  The state sets laws which reflect and guarantee this natural, democratic and equitable arrangement.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien can presumably see that the process of investment is but one part of an economic arrangement that places some with the ownership of capital and the many without and that this is neither natural or democratic nor equitable.  The role of the state is to protect this system so why can they not see that it too is neither natural or democratic or equitable but is rather intrinsically oppressive because it is based on the capitalist system itself?

If the state more and more took over the role of investment, i.e. took over the role of employing workers to produce surplus value, it would not be democratising capital but itself becoming the capitalist.

The apparent harmony of the capitalist system is exposed when  workers challenge the right of capital to exploit them either through strikes, occupations, pickets or pursuit of any restriction on capital that the owners of the means of production find unacceptable.  The state in these cases protects strike breakers, expels workers occupying workplaces, restricts or attacks pickets and allows sometimes the most egregious behaviour of capitalists to go unpunished.

The state will often sacrifice its own tax revenue to defend capitalists and in the case of the Irish state will see itself go bankrupt to bail out native and foreign bond holders and the banks.

What the state does not do, and has never done, anywhere and at any time – even in periods of mass working class pressure when Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say it should – is organise strikes, attack strike breakers, plan occupations and pass laws that threaten the profitability of capitalism.  Sometimes, in extremis, it will nationalise capitalist concerns but since the state is itself capitalist this can easily be reversed, as it has been so many times.

The harmony of capitalism is therefore undermined by class struggle and the state exists to resolve this conflict.  Since this conflict can be resolved in ‘normal’ and peaceful periods through negotiation or compromise the state will support this.  In periods of crisis when it cannot be resolved the state will apply its force to defend capitalism.

In normal times the basic legitimacy and rules of capitalism are not contested so resolution means defending capitalism by default.  In periods of crisis workers break the rules and the state, as rule maker, must defend these rules or see its role destroyed so that defending itself is coincidental with defending the capitalist system on which the rules are based.

Since the rules apply to everyone and, as we have said, the economic system seems natural, democratic and equitable the rules and the state that defends them appear not to be defending any particular interest but the general interest, the national interest.  Workers who break the rules are charged with attacking the national interest, which is one reason why socialists are so opposed to nationalism since it binds workers to a state that defends and protects their exploitation.

So the state does indeed reflect class struggle but it is the means by which one class deploys the overwhelming power it disposes of in society, by virtue of its monopoly of the ownership of the means of production, to dominate and suppress the class of workers on whom it relies to expand its capital.

As law maker it sets rules which can only be consistent with the dominant mode of production and which are ultimately enforced by the most openly and patently reactionary arms of the state – the police, army, prisons and judicial system.  By these rules, as the old English saying goes:

They hang the man and flog the woman,

Who steals the goose from off the common,

Yet let the greater villain loose,

That steals the common from the goose.

The capitalist state therefore appears to be autonomous from any particular economic interest but the essential characteristic of the state is not its autonomy but its class character.  This autonomy is often exaggerated by Marxists and it is not uncommon for particular capitalist class interests to dominate to the detriment of others.  Political history is replete with conflicts between various sections of the capitalist class – industrial versus landed, large versus small, monopoly versus competitive, national versus comprador and foreign, declining versus growing, financial versus manufacturing.  This is why ideally the state does have autonomy.  But it cannot have it from the system as a whole.

How the state does this is a question of historical development but we must nail the argument that just because the state existed before capitalism and therefore could not then have been capitalist, it is not its class character which is its essential nature.  Before the capitalist state there was a feudal state and sometimes the bourgeoisie fought what is termed ‘bourgeois revolutions’ in order to make the state a capitalist one.

In these cases the transference of power was one from one exploiting class to another while socialism is the taking of power by the exploited majority.  That is why it cannot be achieved by simply taking over an oppressive and exploitative mechanism and developing it into a mechanism of liberation and freedom.  But we shall come back to that.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 2

detroit-industry--north-wall-diego-riveraIn the first post I looked at those aspects of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument that I thought were broadly correct.  In this part I want to look at their other criticisms of what they see as the revolutionary approach and what I see as valid in their criticisms of what passes for revolutionary Marxism but what I believe is not necessary to it.

They state of the revolutionary approach that “destruction of the state is the order of the day, with the point of note being the sequence: first, the state, as the godfather of capital, must be taken out of the equation; only then can the working class organise, through new forms such as workers’ councils, the mass participation in public life necessary to the complete the journey to socialism.”

“Until a revolutionary situation arises in which the state can be smashed there are limits to what can be achieved on a mass scale since it is the process of revolution itself that draws the masses into public life.”

“The party that revolutionaries seek to build interacts with the masses during the revolutionary process and is the repository of the historical mission in less propitious times. But the revolutionary party itself has a different role than the workers councils and remains separate from them and pre-revolutionary mass organisations.  By separate we mean institutionally distinct, not that they never try to influence them.  Although naturally a pro-insurrectionary party would like to grow, it doesn’t aim to win a majority support for itself. . .”

“If anything the creation of permanent mass institutions becomes a fetter which prevents a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the treacherous actions of its bureaucratised leadership when the hour strikes.”

It is not that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are unaware of the dangers of bureaucratisation in the building of a socialist workers’ movement: “Clearly there is a danger that the day-to-day concerns force the grand vision into the background. Such is the risk of engaging with reality. But without being able to relate the day-to-day with the longterm project, the proponents of socialism will remain very isolated intellectuals.”

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien also make criticisms of what they see as the anti-party and anti-political mindset of those who advocate workers’ councils but since I think this criticism is aimed mainly at anarchism and perhaps council communists I won’t take these arguments up.

If we work our way backwards through the criticisms above the first is the danger of bureaucratisation of workers’ organisations, especially through the long years (decades!) of non-revolutionary circumstances.  They are right to say that to try to seek to protect against this by avoiding the day-to-day concerns and small struggles of working people is failing to engage with reality.

We must start from where we are and not where we might want to be.  This might seem so obvious as to hardly require saying but take this from the British Socialist Workers’ Party article referred to in my last post:

“Who, after all, thinks that ‘in the present situation’ in France (or anywhere else) workers are going to try to centralise the power of their workers’ councils? The very precondition of such a development is that the ‘present situation’ has changed. The idea of revolution in a non-revolutionary situation is absurd. Every revolutionary situation has involved a split within the existing state apparatus and the existing ruling class. A revolutionary situation involves a crisis for the state, a loss of effectiveness. Without such a crisis there can be no revolution: that is part of the ABC of Marxism. It is precisely the crisis in the state which permits the emergence of a situation of ‘dual power’ and the possibility of a new form of state power conquering.”

The reformist approach to socialism is criticised by this writer for believing “the transition to socialism is to occur from the ‘present situation’ and without ‘economic collapse’.  In practice . . .  all reformists—seek(s) to construe a transition to socialism from the ‘present situation’.”

In other words revolutionary politics comes into its own when there is a revolutionary situation.  But of course how we get to this situation, how the working class is ready for it, how it has built its power and consciousness to the point where it can successfully challenge for power – all this has to be done precisely from the present situation.   After what has been decades in which there has patently not been revolutionary crises in the advanced capitalist states it is manifestly not enough to say that when such crises eventually erupt – although they will not even erupt without a prior revolutionising of working class consciousness, organisation and social power – we need to smash the capitalist state to effectively respond to the needs of such events.

Without a prior strategy to build up the power of the working class it will in all likelihood not be in a position to effectively challenge for power no matter what objective crisis capitalism undergoes.  The merit of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument is that they present this problem and it is the responsibility of Marxists to address it even if these authors use it as an argument against revolutionary destruction of the capitalist state.

There are other less crass ways of Marxists failing to engage with reality, such as demanding that campaigns or activity must meet some level of demands and therefore class consciousness that workers patently cannot rise to, at least not in current conditions or with the current level of political consciousness.  Some sections of the Left can then turn political demands not into bridges to advancing political consciousness but obstacles to action and subsequent rise in consciousness.

It is no doubt true that part of the reason for this is a belief by Marxists that the purpose of Marxism is to promote a revolutionary rupture and so seek to further this by advancing demands associated with partial struggles that if accepted by workers in such struggles can more or less quickly objectively clash with the logic of the capitalist system and therefore lead to revolutionary crisis.  The only problem of course is, as we have said above, it should be obvious that workers are many years from being in a position to perform such a role.  That many, many struggles cannot have a perspective of more or less raising the question of state power is hard to accept.

But it must be accepted because without being with the workers, no matter how backward their consciousness, socialism, real socialism, the socialism which is about the power of workers and not of the state, can by definition achieve nothing.

There are no formulas that guarantee this but it is important to dismiss formulas that guarantee against it.

Of course most left organisations claiming to be Marxist make the opposite mistake of dumbing down socialism so that it becomes an appeal to the state to accomplish what the working class is not yet willing or able to accomplish itself.

It is my view however that revolutionary politics not only exists in periods of relative class peace but must exist in such periods, if only because we have lived through decades of non-revolutionary conditions and the level of working class organisation and consciousness is now such that we cannot expect that this will be changed quickly.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien put forward similar ideas, without the view that revolution is necessary, but their argument is not always consistent.

Speaking of the tasks of the socialist movement now they say that: “We want to merge the socialists into mass organisations so that ideologically socialist parties exist on a truly large basis over a prolonged period of time, for decades at least, for centuries if necessary.”

But this sits uneasily with recognition of the dangers of bureaucratisation of the workers’ movement and how this weakens their case for a long term strategy of attrition: “The pressure of the wider pro-capitalist culture combined with the tendency towards increasing conservative apparatus makes the strategy of attrition a risky one. There is a race on between the socialist organisations aiming to transform capitalist society before capitalist society transforms them.”  A race lasting centuries?

Part of the problem Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien have is expressed in their description of their own strategy:

“The strategy of attrition is, therefore, compatible with a type of politics that is close to where many people already are. Its radicalism lies in its goals, not in its practice and this makes it easier to interact with non-socialists on an open basis. There is no need to hide its insurrectionary orientation because it doesn’t have one.”

The separation of goals and the practice of getting there inevitably means a failure to achieve the goals or leads to a different practice.  The view that socialism can be delivered by the state taking ownership of the economy, or redistributing wealth, does not lead to the working class achieving power but the extension of the power of the state.

Revolutionary politics therefore involves workers achieving what they can achieve by themselves.  The revolutionary content in any demand, or action or programme is the growth in the independent power and consciousness of the working class.  This obviously achieves its fullest extent when workers challenge for state power by attempting to destroy the state power wielded by the capitalist class and by creating its own.  But this does not prevent, rather it requires, years of workers learning that it is their own action that will deliver them what they want and what they need.

Building an independent trade union is more revolutionary than calling for increased taxation of the rich by the state even if some success attends the latter.  Creating a workers’ cooperative is more revolutionary than calling for the nationalisation of the banks even if banks, as they have been, are nationalised.  Workers fighting to control their own pension funds and taking them out of the hands of the bankers is more revolutionary than demanding that the state jail the corrupt bankers.  The latter happens in the US and the trial of the Anglo Irish bankers has begun.  They get jailed?  How does this advance the independent power of the working class?

We are now able to see how revolutionary politics is compatible with the long years of relative class peace as well as revolutionary crises.  We can evaluate political programmes as more or less revolutionary or reformist without being obliged to speculate on near-hand revolutionary crises.

We can say with Marx that:

“It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.”

But what the working class is and what it therefore does depends on its own existence, its own struggles and not on the actions of the state and those who inhabit it.

Much of the ‘transitional’ character of Trotsky’s transitional programme, upon which for many revolutionary politics must rest, does not connect the class struggle to the creation of an entirely new socialist mode of production.  This was something we saw in the first post and taken up in the comment to it.

That which does, the expropriation of capitalist enterprises, is wrongly bastardised into nationalisation by the capitalist state, see my earlier post.

We can now therefore look again at the description of revolutionary politics from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien which we quoted earlier.

It is not necessary for revolutionary politics to claim that only revolution that can bring the working class into mass participation in politics.  Building workers cooperatives, trade unions and a workers’ political party are all necessary to stimulate and develop working class consciousness and organisation.  A revolution is not necessary for any of them.

It is a truism to say that only revolution expresses this participation to its fullest extent but even here the prior establishment, development and political defense of workers ownership requires certain levels and type of workers activity that political revolution is not a substitute for.  Cooperative production involves the working class learning the skills and experience of the future mode of production.

Revolutionaries do have to separately organise but this does not necessitate institutional separation in terms of a completely separate party.  Revolutionaries can seek to win a majority of the working class prior to a revolutionary situation.  It is not a fetter to win the majority of the working class to socialism; even if the majority of the working class did not actually support a revolutionary perspective.

The dangers of bureaucratisation and conservatism are real but deliberate minority status of the revolutionaries doesn’t protect either this minority or do anything to win a reformist majority.  Often of course reformist leaders will not give revolutionaries the choice of working within a larger reformist working class party but it is no answer to seek separation if revolutionaries are otherwise free to organise.

Revolutionaries do not believe that it is only after the working class has smashed the capitalist state that it can organise or we would have a classic chicken and egg situation – we can’t destroy the capitalist state until we are organised and can’t organise until we have destroyed the state.

It is in fact my argument that it is precisely the view of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, of attempting to use the existing state to create socialism and to organise primarily through electoralism, that restricts and limits the participation of workers in political activity and heightens the bureaucratisation of the workers’ movement.

It is obviously true that socialist revolution has not succeeded during the twentieth century but it is also true that this has been partly because the workers’ movement has been bureaucratised by and through the capitalist state that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien think is the answer to the former failure.  And the strategy that produced this bureaucratisation was one of seeking election to office within the capitalist state when the working class was in a position only to administer capitalism not overthrow it.

In the next post I will look at the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien view of the capitalist state some more.