Over the last two decades the left has attempted to respond to the heavy defeats of the working class by breaking out of its isolation and creating, or rather supporting the creation of, broad left parties. Similarly sections of society, especially youth, have responded to the obvious unfairness of global capitalism by involving themselves in protests and movements against globalisation. Both of these moves have to one degree or other come under the label of anti-capitalism. It has never been very clear what this anti-capitalism consists of.
The left groups have more often than not attempted to create these broad, anti-capitalist parties themselves rather than insert themselves into genuine broad movements. The anti-globalisation movement has also by and large been separated from working class struggle due to the latter’s decline. In the absence of such struggle speculative attempts to create broad parties can have only limited success but this does not account for complete failure.
In Ireland we have just witnessed the failure of the United Left Alliance, which follows on the failure of previous initiatives such as the Socialist Alliance. This comes as similar initiatives in Britain such as its Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and RESPECT have also ended in failure.
To a greater or lesser extent these projects have been based on the idea that there exists a vacuum on the left through the rightward trajectory of social democratic parties which the left organisations can fill. There has been no pause for thought that this movement to the right is a result not of some pathology to betray traditional social democratic politics but results from the assault of right wing forces, consequent defeat of workers and an undermining of the basis for social democratic answers.
Much weaker forces from the left trying to occupy this ‘space’ with not dissimilar policies, in the absence of any change to any of these larger factors, could only expect to face a similar evacuation of this ‘space’ – usually through collapse.
The invention of the term anti-capitalism that is supposed to sit outside the traditional reformist/revolutionary dichotomy has been the programmatic basis for these initiatives although these take various guises. In this blog I have critiqued the anti-capitalist programme of the left organisations in Ireland as they have grouped themselves around the United Left Alliance. This criticism has examined their programme of debt default, their budget proposals, taxing the rich, state investment and nationalisation.
This programme can nevertheless be called anti-capitalist because no pro-capitalist force currently comes anywhere near supporting it. No party supports high taxation of the rich, defaulting on debt or much increased state spending to lower unemployment. The capitalist class would bitterly oppose implementation of these measures, which would be better for the working class than current austerity policies.
None of these considerations however make this a working class programme. Capitalist states have defaulted on their debt before – many times; taxation of high incomes was well over 90 per cent in the post-war United States during the cold war; deficit spending by the state has been an automatic result of the current crisis and nationalisation has been a response across the world to the current crisis. In Britain and the US parts of the financial system were effectively nationalised and in Ireland almost all the banks were nationalised.
The anti-capitalist policies proposed differ only in degree to those imposed by capitalism many times before. Above all this programme is not a working class one because it does not provide an alternative to capitalism in the sense that working class power is built and strengthened and the germs of alternative relations of production are created.
The social democratic programme was evacuated because it was not seen as the best option for capitalism. If the capitalist class or its representatives change their minds about this they will get their own parties, including social democratic ones, to implement it.
The anti-capitalist content of this programme is twofold. First it may target particular sections of the capitalist class or its representatives but only to benefit others. Thus debt default will impose losses on sectors of financial capitalism that may benefit industrial/producer sectors. High taxation will hit the highest paid mangers of capitalist enterprises such as bank CEOs, so depressing their salaries, which may be to the benefit of capitalist owners as shareholders. Deficit spending on infrastructure will obviously directly benefit capitalist construction companies while putting pressure on lending to other capitalists. Nationalisation of banks has been a means of protecting capitalist investors, not of expropriating them, but it also maintains the integrity of other capitalist’s liabilities.
The second way this programme is anti-capitalist we have explained – the capitalists oppose it. The anti-capitalism of the programme is very like the anti-imperialism of Irish republicanism in the 1970s and 1980s. It was heartfelt and genuine in a subjective sense and involved enormous sacrifice. In an objective sense it was unrealisable by the methods adopted – armed struggle by republicans and electoralism by the left, which means that eventually the means change or the objective is abandoned. In the case of republicans it was both.
In both cases neither programme opposed or presented an alternative to the class interests that they fought against. In the case of republicans they never had a programme that opposed and had an alternative to the British and Irish capitalist classes who defended partition. In the case of the left even implementation of their programme would not end the capitalist system or threaten the power of the capitalist state. In fact most of its programme involves strengthening the capitalist state.
As I posted before: in one aspect of their programme these weaknesses might be seen to have been mitigated if not overcome. The demand for workers’ control of enterprises taken over by the state might seem to present a means to increase working class power while encapsulating the potential of an alternative, new society.
Unfortunately the demand for workers control is proposed as part of the demand for nationalisation as if the capitalist state is in some way a facilitator for the creation of working class power. The Marxist analysis of the state is that when the capitalist class is threatened by working class action it is the state which is strong enough to defend capitalist interests. State ownership is not therefore a route to workers’ control. No aspects of the many forms of state organisation involve workers’ control of any aspect of its bureaucracy.
In capitalist society ownership entitles control and capitalist ownership entails capitalist control. State ownership entails state control. Only in times of extreme crisis is the possibility of workers’ control raised and it is raised only when it is imposed by the workers themselves. If they are in a position to do so, and to make it work, the demand should also be for workers ownership.
Above all the demand for workers’ control must be posed as a practical demand because it is necessary in order to achieve certain objectives. In the past this has often involved keeping a workplace open when it is threatened by closure. It does not normally arise in workers minds as an objective in itself. Unfortunately this is how it is posed by the left – not as a burning necessity to achieve certain things which only the workers have an interest in accomplishing. It is rarely posed as a practical measure needed to achieve particular objectives.
As I posted before in relation to the Transitional Programme, demands must be concrete and practical or they are simply tools of education (when not means of spreading confusion). Nothing wrong with this in itself, if that is where the struggle is at, but for the left the education given creates illusions in the state by demanding nationalisation as the key. The demand for nationalisation under workers’ control fits comfortably within a general programme that is reliant on state action for implementation.
More often lately the primary role assigned to state action is reflected by the left’s dropping of the rider to nationalisation since it plays no vital role. Workers’ control in itself is not necessary to achieve any particular goal. It is what Trotsky referred to as workers’ control “for platonic purposes.”
So we have the ULA before the last election demanding that “key wealth and resources must be taken into democratic public ownership.” Another Left organisation demands taking “Ireland’s natural Resources into public ownership”. Another states that “AIB, Bank of Ireland and other banks should be nationalised. The banks should be amalgamated into one state bank. The boards should be sacked. A new board under the democratic control of working people should be established including elected representatives from the workplace and representatives elected from society as a whole.”
Another demands that “a publicly controlled banking system should be administered by elected representatives of the Irish people, representatives of employees of the banking industry, and trained financial experts employed on public sector pay scales.”
These proposals become blueprints, not demands that workers are to impose through their struggle to achieve certain practical needs. Demands that workers exercise control coexist with formulations that are perfectly consistent with bog standard capitalist state nationalisation. Demands for ‘public’ or ‘democratic’ control can be perfectly understood to mean the existing forms of state ownership.
On the other hand claims that workers’ control, when it is part of the Left’s propaganda, really means what Marxists have traditionally meant by it would be hard to accept. Calls for widespread workers’ control were characterised thus by Trotsky in 1931:
“Thus the regime of workers’ control, a provisional transitional regime by its very essence, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, the proletarian offensive, and the failing back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to the period of the proletarian revolution in the fullest sense of the word.” It hardly needs saying that we are nowhere near such a situation today, not in Ireland or anywhere else.
Instead today’s routine demands for workers’ control, when they are made – instead of mealy-mouthed formulations about ‘democratic public ownership’- are closer to this description of it, again by Trotsky, in the same article:
“If the participation of the workers in the management of production is to be lasting, stable, “normal,” it must rest upon class collaboration, and not upon class struggle. Such a class collaboration can be realised only through the upper strata of the trade unions and the capitalist associations. There have been not a few such experiments: in Germany (“economic democracy”), in Britain (“Mondism”), etc. Yet, in all these instances, it was not a case of workers’ control over capital, but of the subserviency of the labour bureaucracy to capital. Such subserviency, as experience shows, can last for a long time: depending on the patience of the proletariat.”
We shall examine further the historical experience of workers’ control in a further post.