A 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.