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.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 1

revolutionA couple of leading figures in the Irish Left Forum , Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien, have written an extended piece on socialist strategy published here.   This has been subject to a ‘health warning’ and a critique on the Revolutionary Programme site here.  The latter is carried out mainly by simple reference to large quotations from Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.  The author gets away with this approach because these quotations are so apposite.

I welcome the intervention from the members of the Left Forum for the following reasons: They propose a strategy and practice that is already that of the Left groups in Ireland who claim to be Marxist.  The latter’s arguments are that the capitalist state can play a progressive role in the movement to socialism and that the main activity that workers and socialists should engage in is electoral intervention.  The left groups demands for nationalisation, increased state expenditure and taxation of the rich plus activity geared excessively to elections are evidence of this.

The difference between these groups and the Left Forum authors is that the latter put up an argument for such an approach.  Since it is common on the Left not to bother with such things this is to be welcomed.

The second reason is that the arguments put forward are important and some of them are correct.  These are not addressed in the reply noted above so I believe that some of the most important issues which they raise have not been adequately answered.

The third reason is that a debate on strategy is to be welcomed and if there is to be a debate there will be differences.  We should develop an ability to discuss them.  If we don’t or can’t then future initiatives at uniting socialists will be as unsuccessful as those in the past.

So what are the arguments and issues raised that are important and by and large correct? These are made mostly in the second part of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien piece.

The authors make the entirely valid point that “when capitalism tottered in September 2008 there wasn’t the slightest question that there was an alternative economic system that could step in and immediately take over.”  What this means is that we do not have an alternative, to be exact – an alternative that is both global and immediate.  We do have one that can grow and develop but not one that can challenge the capitalist system now.

It was lack of an alternative that explains why workers accepted, some even voted for, the imposition of manifestly unfair and hurtful measures in the EU referendum in Ireland in 2012.  In the post after the referendum I argued that it was precisely this lack of an alternative that was the main reason for the defeat in the austerity Treaty referendum, despite workers’ anger and frustration at what they were being asked to endorse.

is an expression of the weakness of the workers’ and socialist movement existing more or less everywhere, which Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien also note. Their argument is that the perspective of a workers’ revolution to overthrow the capitalist state and usher in socialism is mistaken.

In making this argument they make some valid observations. They finish their analysis by saying, although they could have started it from here, that “Our short-term tasks do not involve overthrowing capitalism — a mode of production cannot even be overthrown. . .”  By this I assume that they mean that the capitalist mode of production cannot be overthrown without it being replaced (unless we envisage ruination as Marx put it in The Communist Manifesto) and it is the latter that is important, which might seem an obvious point except the question arises – replaced by what?

In the model of socialist revolution this is usually thought to mean replaced by ownership of the means of production by a workers’ state.  But states are just people organised in a certain way so how is this group of people to know how to run an economy and do so better than the capitalists if they have never done it before, have no practice and no plan to do so?

They have no plan to do so because the typical scenario for revolution is that it is a revolt against attacks on workers’ rights and not a conscious offensive to change the mode of production, which rather simply appears as a by-product of the need to smash the capitalist state through a mass strike and the creation of workers’ councils.

Some advocates of revolution accept this argument and therefore accept that socialist revolution will lead to economic collapse.  And although of course this is only temporary, a bit like a loss of form where your football team drops a few points – before going on to win the league, the prospect seems far from one that will sell socialism to most workers.  In fact it sometimes seems entirely light-headed and the product of a mentality entirely alien to most workers.

Take this example from the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. The writer says this – “we must be clear: a transition to socialism, to the complete reorganisation of society by the working class, cannot occur without ‘economic collapse’.  A socialist revolution involves ‘economic collapse’: the problem is to carry it through, decisively, so that economic recovery on a new basis can be started immediately.”

Let’s be very clear – if the socialist revolution leads to economic collapse it calls into question the readiness of the working class to be the new ruling class in the first place since it obviously lacks the power to prevent collapse and if this is the case what guarantees can there be that it would be capable of reversing it?  Especially “immediately”.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien state correctly that “getting past capitalism is an incredibly difficult problem,”  “At the outbreak of mass protest or revolution this is not a problem since the issue presents itself to the opposition in a simple way, e.g. “down with the regime”, “against the 1%”, “they all must go” (Argentina 2001). Sooner or later, however, it becomes necessary to move beyond a simple formulation of the problem and to advance structural solutions. “

“This transformation to socialism can only come from the working class having a pre-existing organisational capacity to take advantage of these developments, especially in the most advanced countries, of which the United States is currently the most important. That capacity takes decades to build up and it’s not a process that can be rushed or circumvented by some clever shortcuts and nor should it be.” “Unfortunately, it’s simply not possible to get big and capable institutions in one go.”

This seems obviously true and it is the necessity to build up the working class movement to such a position to effect revolution that is the task. Unfortunately this is not the task that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien seek to solve by the strategy of increasing the power of the working class for they see the above problem as one that means that a revolutionary strategy is not appropriate.

One reason they posit for this is that the division of labour within modern economies has so developed that the intricate coordination necessary cannot arise from what is an essentially spontaneous process of revolution.  This view might therefore legitimately say that simply trying to make a virtue of this fact by admitting the inevitability of economic collapse also involves tacit admission of the dangers they see in revolution.

These include diminishing enthusiasm of the masses, because their revolutionary fervour is of recent, and therefore limited, vintage  since otherwise we would have had decades of a revolutionary situation, which is hardly credible.  This would be exacerbated by the drop in living standards consequent on ‘economic collapse’ and a similar consequential fall in political support for the revolutionary process.

These seem reasonable objections and it is up to those who defend and argue positively for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state to present their strategy in such way that it plausibly answers this criticism. Before we look at this aspect however we should note other correct arguments advanced by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

They rightly argue that there is “no shortcut to building up mass, popular organisations” and they are guilty only of exaggeration when they say that “in the absence of mass socialist-labour institutions workers’ capacity for action is restricted to protest and destruction.”

Protest demonstrations are the staple of left group activity and their electoral interventions are also a pure protest since they nowhere claim that they will form part of a government if elected. Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argue that this is not enough “for the project of raising a socialist mode of production to dominance, via co-ops and labour unions.”

It is on building up this alternative that they concentrate their argument, pointing out the need to build specifically working class organisations , as the socialist movement used to do before the functions these organisations performed were taken over by the state and the majority of socialists took to believing that state action was somehow equivalent or substitute for working class self-activity. They point out the need for working class mass media and to the early history of the German Social Democratic Party and its ‘eco-system’ of social clubs, publications and summer camps etc.

They point out the failures of the Left’s favourite tactic of ‘single-issue’ campaigns which, besides usually being sectarian and right-ward looking fronts of one particular organisation, are incapable of getting beyond a single issue, incapable of broader radicalisation “so that when that campaign is over, irrespective of whether it has ended in victory or defeat, the next campaign must start from the same low basis.” These campaigns are structurally incapable of persisting through time and of achieving the cumulative growth of membership, organisation and consciousness on which alone a truly mass socialist working class movement can be developed

Some remarks on the internal organisation of the socialist movement are also in my view correct although not because of any original insight by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien or myself.  Thus there is a need to fight for socialism within the working class movement of party, unions and cooperatives using the weapon of “freedom to organise and the freedom to articulate criticism and dissent.”  The petty bourgeois character of much of the left organisations is revealed by their inability to organise democratically.

So what is essentially valid in the argument is that while destruction of the capitalist state might solve the problem of armed reaction by that state (which is no small issue!) “it doesn’t . . . solve the problem of being able to transition to a socialist mode of production.” In the next part of this post I will look at what Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien have to say about the state itself.