The politics of conspiracy – the case of Denis Donaldson

donaldsonI remember a number of years ago I was handing out leaflets at a Sinn Fein meeting in Conway Mill on the Falls Road in Belfast.  It was about the relatively new peace process and it would be fair to say that the leaflet was not celebratory of the new initiative.  I was outside the room, although inside the Mill complex, but since the Provos came to regard the whole of West Belfast as theirs it came as no great surprise that one of their number decided I was trespassing on their territory.  As the years have gone by, and if rumours are to be believed, this is less and less their territory and more and more their property.

I was collared (not very roughly) by a then prominent Sinn Fein councillor and pulled (not very strongly) over to another prominent Sinn Fein member, Denis Donaldson.  The councillor wanted to know from Donaldson was it not alright that I should be handing out leaflets critical of Sinn Fein but should be told to get lost.  Denis Donaldson was no more interested in me giving out leaflets than the man on the moon and couldn’t even give a full shrug of the shoulders in apparent indifference; he couldn’t either be bothered to grunt any disapproval or otherwise.

The councillor was a bit exposed so he mouthed some vague displeasure to no particular point and I meandered back to outside the door to give out the rest of the leaflets.  As a comrade of mine put it, the Provos were more tolerant of other opinions when they were less ‘political’, when they confined themselves overwhelmingly to shooting and bombing, than they were to become during the peace process.

The point of this reminiscence is that Denis Donaldson was obviously the go-to guy at the meeting who determined what (or who) was allowed, in other words from ‘the army’.  Denis Donaldson was later revealed as a long term agent of MI5 and is now dead.  He was shot after being exposed as a spy in a remote and ramshackle cottage in Donegal. The rather pathetic circumstances of his death were fitting to someone who, unlike other agents, appeared too demoralised even to run in an attempt to save himself.

Now he has become a headline again because an ex-British soldier has alleged he was shot by the Provisional IRA and not by a ‘dissident’ IRA, which had claimed responsibility.  The headlines have been made because the ex-soldier has now written a book about his activities in the north of Ireland and accuses Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams of having sanctioned the killing.  Adams, through his lawyer, has denied it.

One of Donaldson’s notable activities was his involvement along with two other men in an alleged Sinn Fein spy ring at Stormont.  He was subsequently charged only for prosecutors to drop the charges “in the public interest.”  In such cases “the public interest” is anything but the public interest and is invariably in the state’s interest.

In the south of Ireland an inquest into his death has been delayed 20 times at the request of the Garda Síochána due to concern that a detailed journal found in Donaldson’s cottage contains information about the organisation of the republican movement and about his activity as informer and the activity of the state forces.  It’s doubtful either Sinn Fein or the British State want the contents revealed.

So we have an ex-soldier selling a book making one claim and Adams making the opposite claim.  The ex-soldier also claims that he was previously going to seek to join the IRA before then joining the British Army.  He regards himself as a republican and supports Sinn Fein today, indeed he claims he did so even when serving for the British Army in Ireland!  One can hardly think of anything more bizarre! Indeed it’s hard to think of anything less credible, except for Gerry Adams’ claim that he was never in the IRA.  So on purely a priori grounds of credibility the ex-Brit appears to come out on top.  Does it matter?

In so far as it impinges on Adams it simply reminds one of his lack of principle, unwilling and incapable of defending what was the primary dogma of republicanism – driving the British out of Ireland by armed force. After this was surrendered nothing remained sacred.  Following this betrayal there has no repentance of Gerry who has denied his movement more than three times.  Any further promises – to oppose austerity etc – are open to charges of relying on the same level of credulity necessary to accept his claims to non-membership of the IRA.

In so far as the headlines recall the murky intrigue of the ‘dirty war’ it reminds everyone who lived through it of just how dirty it was.  It was well enough known that loyalist murder survived upon the tolerance and sponsorship of the British state.  What has become clearer since the ‘end’ of the various armed ‘campaigns’ is the degree of this sponsorship.  But even more revelatory has been evidence of British penetration of the republican movement and the betrayal of genuine republican activists by agents of the British State inside the movement.

What all this history has demonstrated is that the conspiracy of the state cannot be overcome by any revolutionary conspiracy.  Irish republicanism is pathologically disposed to such conspiracy and has failed again and again.

As I near the end of reading a recent biography called ‘Karl Marx – a Nineteenth Century Life’, one consistent feature of Marx’s political activity recorded in the book was his opposition to conspiracy as the means of working class organisation.  The political activity that won Marx to socialism and which he in turn fought for again and again was the open organisation of the mass of workers, in struggle for their own objectives based on their own class interests.  It was Marx’s view that these interests are ultimately revolutionary and either the workers became conscious of them, became revolutionary, or they “were nothing.”  Freedom cannot be made behind the backs of workers.  A class cannot come to control society without being aware of its control.

A movement that perennially fails to recognise such basic truths signifies one of two things.  It is incapable of learning or its goals are essentially not about the freedom of the working class.  In both cases conspiracy becomes a favoured means of organisation since, like Gresham’s law, bad organisation drives out good.

Add to this a militaristic outlook and all the horrors of the dirty war are almost inevitable.  It is however not inevitable that sincere working class people end up in such demoralised circumstances that death is almost invited.

Ireland – the Apple Republic part 2

apple-taxWhen a left wing TD called the decision of the Irish Government to appeal the decision that gives it €13+ billion “economic treason” against the Irish public he contributed nothing to clarifying for Irish workers the role of the state, which is precisely to defend big business against that part of the Irish public made up of workers, their families and small businesses, who mostly have little choice but to pay the state’s taxes.

Much better would be a socialist campaign to rally trade union branches, community groups, tenant associations, consumer groups and campaigns etc. to put together their own proposals as to how exactly the €13 billion should be spent.  The purpose would be to demonstrate that the needs of workers should come before those of multinationals and before the reputation and interests of the state and its ‘national interest’.  A campaign that sought to unite with the workers of other countries swindled out of tax receipts by Apple would go a long way to demonstrating that this is not about a race to the bottom that pits workers of one nationality against all others.

This would also allow working people to show, not least to themselves, that they can plan effectively how to spend the money, not just for their own benefit but in the interest of all working people. Its purpose would be to begin to instil a view within them that they should take control of society themselves rather than relying on the state to do the big things for them.

On this count the view expressed by another left wing TD was much closer to the mark.  Speaking in the Dáil Paul Murphy said: “Governments in capitalist societies are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class. It is as simple as that …. All of the establishment parties represent the rich and the 1 per cent. We need to be rid of this committee of the rich, and we do not need it replaced with a reconfigured committee of the rich.”

The creation of a desire for, and mechanisms to achieve, an alternative to a “reconfigured committee of the rich” is precisely the objective of this proposal for working class activity.  Only by workers increasingly taking control over their lives now can we conceive an alternative that is real, compared to reliance on a state that always has your best interests as far away from its mind as possible.  The motto of socialists in this regard should be the famous quip of the British actor David Niven who, when speaking of Errol Flynn, once said “you always knew precisely where you stood with him because he always let you down.”[i]

A wider claim in relation to the Apple judgement and reaction to it is that such sharp practices are part and parcel of a policy of neoliberalism which is past its use by date.  The exhaustion of this policy has been expressed in the crisis of financialisation in 2008 and the failure of Eurozone austerity policies and similar policies in Britain, where their effects have not been quite so damning only to the extent that the Tories have failed to follow through fully on their austerity rhetoric.  In this view we will see a return to a class compromise that was supposedly the cornerstone of Keynesian policies practiced among the most developed countries after the Second World War.  Among these will be fair taxation of capital and the rich.

Against this it might be pointed out that the Apple ruling did not uphold any principle that taxes should be levied where real economic activity takes place and that in fact it was justified through an objection to state intervention, on the grounds of unfair state aid.

In 1997, even during the neoliberal era, EU Finance Ministers set up a Code of Conduct Group on business taxation that was charged with examining unfair tax practices and in succeeding years it abolished nearly 100 tax incentives across the EU.  Today it is the OECD which is supposed to be spearheading cooperation between governments on tax avoidance and evasion but this body has been a consistent supporter of neoliberalism.

In so far as there has been a trend in corporate taxation it has been a lowering of rates:

“Corporate tax is falling, both as a share of GDP and in the global tax take. . .  Within the last 20 years, corporate tax rates have fallen from around 45% to less than 30% on average in OECD countries. And lately, with increased mobility of multinational corporations, tax competition has intensified. Thus from 2000 to 2005, 24 out of the 30 OECD countries lowered their corporate tax rates while no member economy raised its rates.”

Closing or restricting some ‘loopholes’ is perfectly consistent with lowering rates because the loopholes become less and less relevant.  Reliance on the state to produce ‘fair’ taxation is like relying on Errol Flynn.  The Apple case, precisely because of its scale, is instructive in this and other respects.

The Left has pointed out the sheer scale of the windfall that the Irish Government is potentially spurning, pointing out its hypocrisy in demanding that the Irish people must do what the EU wants when it comes to austerity, bailing out the banks, ensuring no bond-holder is left behind and their demand that water charges simply must be paid.  When it comes to standing up for the Irish people no demand from the EU is too big but when it comes to standing up for the wealthiest multinationals no claim is too disreputable, no sacrifice too large and no neck so shiny and hard.

Commentators have pointed out that €13 billion would make up the budget for the health service for a year or it could take a significant chunk off the national debt of €200 billion.  It could pay the equivalent of a few years of the unpopular Universal Social Charge or it could mean a cash donation to everyone in the state of around €2,800 each, so that a household of four would get over €11,000.  A tidy sum for everyone in the State, or a significant boost to public services.

What it isn’t, despite its unprecedented size, is fundamental or transformative.  While it is a godsend of an example of taxing the rich, which much of the Left repeatedly presents as the answer to austerity and an exemplar of socialism, the Apple example shows that it is not.  Or not if one thinks of socialism as a fundamental change to society and a transformative change in working people’s lives.

What it is, is confirmation of the point made by Karl Marx many years ago, about the limits of distributing existing income or wealth, as opposed to changing the fundamentals of the ownership of productive resources that creates and recreates, again and again, this income and wealth.

“Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself.

The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one.

Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”

This is the argument that goes to the root of the nonsense peddled by Michael Noonan that taxing Apple would mean “eating the seed potatoes” or Micheál Martin that “This model supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and pays for teachers, nurses and pensions in every part of our country.  What’s more, it has done so for decades.`’

Such is the significance of any battle over Apple’s taxes.  Reliance on multinational capital and all the crap that goes with it or a cooperative economy owned and controlled by workers not just in Ireland but everywhere.

[i] Of course the parallel isn’t exact – Niven and Flynn were “pals” while the working class and the capitalist state are enemies.  It is appropriate however that the above remark was made of an immature personal relationship that has no correspondence to the political stance workers must take against the state; even if failure to take such a stance reflects an undeveloped and therefore immature failure by some Irish socialists.

Back to part 1

Ireland – the Apple Republic part 1

apple_tax_european_union_sept022016The decision of the European Commission to require the Irish State to collect €13 billion in unpaid taxes, plus a potential €6 billion in interest, from US technology company Apple made headlines across the world.  Special tax arrangements, which appear not to have applied the State’s already low 12.5% corporate tax rate, led to an effective tax rate on Apple of 0.05% in 2011 and 0.005% in 2014.  Two tax rulings in 1991 and 2007 allowed an Irish company to book Apple sales across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India in Ireland and attribute profit on these sales to a “head office” which was stateless, had no offices, had no employees and existed only on paper.

The Irish State has decided to appeal the ruling, as has Apple itself.  Apparently preventing the State from abjectly prostrating itself in front of Apple is an assault by the European Commission on the sovereignty of a small nation.  It supposedly calls into question Irish tax policy while the Government frantically claims that the ruling affects the arrangements of no other multinational.

The appeal is to protect Ireland’s reputation although being dragged kicking and screaming to apply your own laws without discrimination, while defending cheating other countries of tax revenue, is apparently good for it.  The appeal is to prove that the Irish State is not a tax haven although a tax rate of 0.005% would appear to be a decent definition of one and defending it would appear to be open acknowledgement of it.  The Irish Government seeks to defend its prerogative to set an (in)famous corporate tax rate of 12.5% but does so by defending a 0.005% rate.

€13 billion is a big number and is the biggest judgement in the history of EU competition law – the cumulative total of all EU cases involving repayment of illegal state subsidies over the past 15 years is less than €11 billion – and it has been imposed on Apple, the world’s biggest company by market capitalisation.

One explanation given for all this is that the Irish state is dominated by imperialism and plays its natural role as an obsequious supplicant to multinational capital.  This is ok as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far enough, either in explaining or in providing the grounds for an alternative.  If we start with the latter – an anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland to make the natural resources of Ireland the property of the Irish people isn’t a solution.

For a start, the main natural resource of Ireland is its people.  In fact the growth of technology, and companies like Apple, demonstrates that it is the knowledge and skills of workers which is the key to the most dynamic sectors of the economy.  So it is harnessing the power of workers that is the key to economic development in Ireland as elsewhere, not minerals under the earth or the factory building which house the most modern production.  The machines that power this production are obsolete within years; simple ownership of them does not guarantee the future unless workers not only own them but have the knowledge and capacity to continue to revolutionise their development.

Secondly an utterly subordinate role for Irish capitalism does not explain how it allowed itself to become the vehicle for depriving other European countries of tax revenue, which the EU ruling now gives the latter an avenue to pursue.  The ruling signals that although other EU states may not have liked the Irish State’s low corporate taxation regime, it was not such a problem if it remained relatively marginal.  After all, they’re all engaged in tax competition in one form or another as one facet of inter-state and inter-company rivalry.

The problem for the Irish is that they prostrate themselves disproportionately to the US, who don’t so much mind the role of Ireland as a tax haven since it is US tax rules which permit Ireland’s role of in tax avoidance and also still allows the US to take a cut if and when the profits are eventually repatriated, perhaps as a result of some tax amnesty.

The Irish State has thus put itself in the middle of a bigger competition between EU and US capital and however much it might be “closer to Boston than Berlin” and wallow in its generations of emigrant’s ties to the old sod, the Irish State is part of the EU.  Its facilitation of US companies through an effective tax haven can only be permitted so much success before the bureaucracy of the EU proto-state decided that it had gone too far.  The Irish are therefore not just functioning as a subordinate client to imperialism but play a particular role in inter-imperialist rivalry.

And it would be wrong to characterise this role as something anomalous to the normal functioning of capitalism.  Apple had over $215 billion in cash and assets sitting outside the US as of June this year, sitting there avoiding US taxation.  It has been estimated that this is only part of $1.4 trillion sitting offshore of the US, all avoiding tax and perhaps waiting for an amnesty and a nice big deal.

It has been estimated that about half of all lending and deposits originate in Offshore Financial Centres(OFCs), about half of which are also tax havens.  The Irish State comes in 9th on the list in terms of size of tax haven, behind the Cayman Islands, which is the largest, and Switzerland and the Netherlands, which are 7th and 8th respectively.  These OFCs account for receipt of about 30% of the world’s foreign direct investment and themselves originate a similar amount.

While the tax rulings in 1991 and 2007 were based on Apple’s proposals to the Irish State, there is nothing anomalous about this either.  The British ‘Guardian’ newspaper reported last Thursday that  “the government has effectively privatised tax policymaking and enforcement . . . a working group consisting entirely of representatives from GlaxoSmithKline, Rolls-Royce, Eisai pharmaceuticals, Syngenta, Shell, Dyson, Arm, KPMG, Vectura and AND Technology Research drafted what eventually became known as the Patent Box legislation. They secured a special tax concession worth over £1bn a year for large corporations.”

The EC ruling on Apple has been described as “a watershed” and liberal Irish commentators have argued that it’s a wake-up call – that the Irish State’s success, based on attracting multinationals through tax breaks, is not a strategy that will stand the test of time.  The Irish State and its apologists claim that their tax policy is actually an industrial policy, which should be regarded as a purely national issue, but if this were so then we would expect the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Jersey to be thriving centres of industrial production.  Their brass plate companies and those in Ireland shown how ridiculous this rebranding exercise really is.

Some states benefit from tax competition and some suffer losses.  The EU bureaucracy attempts to set rules that do not allow discrimination against European companies as if the European Union was one capitalist state, which it isn’t (yet).  The state aid case against the Irish State is not therefore a bolt from the blue.  Since 2000 there have been 400 state aid cases and 225 cases involving tax advantages across the EU.  The Irish State, as a fully paid up member of the EU, has approved European Commission investigation of the tax arrangements of fellow EU states.

In October last year the EC concluded that Luxembourg and the Netherlands had granted tax advantages to Fiat and Starbucks respectively and in January concluded the same in relation to Belgium’s treatment of at least 35 multinationals, mainly from the EU, amounting to €700 million that should be collected.  The EC is currently investigating Luxembourg and its relations with Amazon and McDonald’s.

Capitalist states therefore both cheat and enforce laws against cheating.  They both protect big business and tax it in order to pay for itself.  Mostly however they tax small businesses and workers to provide the services and infrastructure that allow society to operate and function, one that functions and operates according to the laws of capitalist accumulation.

Forward to part 2

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 10 – crises and contradictions iV

aaeb3f49f0044521a0b0904c2599b84b_18In 1921 Leon Trotsky argued that “If the further development of productive forces was conceivable within the framework of bourgeois society, then revolution would generally be impossible. But since the further development of the productive forces within the framework of bourgeois society is inconceivable, the basic premise for the revolution is given.”

I will argue against this view but it should not be taken that by this Trotsky believed that any particular country had to have fully developed capitalism before socialist revolution could succeed because obviously his theory of permanent revolution argued precisely that this was not the case. The argument just presented is a view of the world taken as a whole and not any particular country.

In his view capitalism could break at its weakest link but this is not Marx’s theory of the transition to socialism.  For capitalism not only to break but be replaced by socialism it is necessary that capitalism be broken not where it is weakest but where the working class is strongest, and the two are not the same.

The view that the productive forces have to have exhausted themselves has been a default view of much of the Marxist movement since 1938 and the writing of the Transitional Programme, which was called ‘The Death Agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth international’.  Adherence to this view means accepting that we have been living during a period of capitalism’s death agony for the past nearly 80 years.

It is this that justifies the view that objective conditions make the world ripe for socialism and that what faces socialists is a crisis of working class leadership. The task is simply to fight for leadership of the working class as it presents itself; its objective position and situation within society is relevant only in so far as it lends itself to gaining such leadership.  Since capitalist crises cannot be definitively solved by capitalism then such crises provide the opportunity for Marxists to win this leadership.

Those who have read earlier posts in this series will know that I reject the view that the productive forces of capitalism have stagnated.  This view was certainly challenged by the post Second World War economic upturn.  Crisis conditions in the 1970s and 1980s might have revived the view that capitalism was in long term crisis but the period since has seen huge economic growth.

Again the view that capitalism is in crisis might be bolstered by the financial crash in 2008 and the secular stagnation following it that has been posited by some writers but such crises do not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism suggested by Trotsky and secular stagnation has yet to be demonstrated.  If it were, it would still not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism that has been claimed, except that stagnation is not compatible with capitalism and if it existed it would create conditions of crisis.  

In previous posts I noted that capitalism had continued to develop the productive forces over the last century, including the expansion of the working class, its health and education and also its living standards.  Of course this does not mean that the next century will follow the pattern of the last.  This is as unlikely as the twentieth century following the pattern of the 19th, but it is at least necessary to appreciate what has already happened before thinking we are qualified for the much more hazardous task of speculating on what will happen in the future.


A recent article in ‘New Left Review’ notes that:

“Our available economic resources are greater than ever before. Between 1980 and 2011 world GDP per capita (in constant prices and purchasing power parities) increased 1.8 times, the IMF reports. As a comparison, we may remember that between year 1 and 1820 global product per capita is estimated to have increased 1.4 times, and from 1870 to 1913 1.7 times. More reliable are figures for 1950–73, 1.9, and for 1973–2003, 1.6.”

In his book ‘Postcapitalism a Guide to Our Future’ Paul Mason quotes figures that show global GDP per person rising by 162 per cent between 1989 and 2012 and in the developing world by 404 per cent.  It rose by ‘only’ 33 per cent in the 100 years after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and by 60 per cent in the fifty years after 1820.

Of course, this is not to deny the growth of inequality and ecological threat arising from the capitalist nature of such growth, how could it be otherwise?  Paul Mason notes that while the real incomes of two thirds of the world’s people rose significantly, as did that of the top 1%, the majority of people in America, Japan and Europe had no real increase and some a decline.  As the article in New Left Review notes:

“Furthermore, the conventional norm of progress obscures the unequal distribution of its opportunities. Almost half, 46 per cent, of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity.  In the US, since the late 1990s, there has been a progressive decoupling of GDP per capita—advancing with short-lived fallbacks—and the family income of four-fifths of the population, which has been stagnating and recently declining, above all from the median and below. The spread of the Anglo-American financial crisis of 2008 has meant a substantial decline in the income share of the bottom 40 per cent in the recession-hit European countries, from Greece and Ireland to the UK and Spain.”

One Marxist[i] makes a persuasive case that the official figures underestimate the growth of specifically capitalist production because they ignore the conversion of the Stalinist states to a new economic system.  These figures treat the production in these states prior to the introduction of capitalism as if it were already capitalist but this ignores the boost to specifically capitalist production of the acquisition of productive forces on the cheap and the availability of huge pools of labour power that can now be exploited to further the accumulation of capital:

“In 1991 the centrally planned economies had a population that was 35 percent of that in the market capitalist economies. The restoration of capitalism in them massively increased the world’s working class that could be exploited by capital, while at the same time the world’s capitalists paid almost nothing to privatize the assets of entire economies. . . .By 2006 China, now the second largest capitalist economy in the world, employed 112 million industrial workers (Bannister 2009), not including millions more in the former USSR and CEE.”

“During the 1990s capitalist production of electricity rose 44 percent, aluminium 45 percent, hydraulic cement 60 percent, steel 39 percent, automobiles 21 percent, and GDP 42 percent, with the rate of increase accelerating the decade after. This is particularly significant as this period extends to 2010 and so includes the period of the credit crunch recession after 2008. The growth of output in the emerging markets has been combined with the accelerated decline of industrial output in the West, but this is a transfer of production, not its disappearance. By 2010 the transition economies as a proportion of total capitalist production produced 29 percent electricity, 52 percent aluminium, 65 percent hydraulic cement, 53 percent steel, 30 percent automobiles, and 26 percent of GDP.”

It is hardly credible that the objective and subjective conditions for socialism could be bifurcated for so long – that the problem is simply one of mis-leadership – while the social and political power of the capitalist class over the working class, effected by the enormous development of capitalism, reflected also in the ideological hold of the former over the latter, can be considered a secondary matter.

That this continuing subordination of workers by capitalism for decades, without challenge in any fundamental respect, could be considered not to have affected the consciousness of new generations of workers, were it true, would prove Marxism false.  The idea that the fundamental problem is simply one of working class leadership is not credible.

Marxists are always keen to assert that they do not seek crises and do not welcome the attacks on workers which large crises inevitably result in, including unemployment, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ democratic rights to organise.  But if crises do provide the opportunity to replace capitalism, and the grounds for socialism already exist, then this would be something of a puzzle.

In part we have already noted the answer – that crises openly express capitalism’s contradictions and posit the need for an alternative.  However, it matters not whether socialists wish or do not wish for crises, capitalism will see to it that they erupt anyway.  It is not workers who create economic crises but the contradictions of the system itself.

Socialists do not welcome crises in themselves because they become opportunities to overthrow capitalism only under certain conditions.  Since capitalism has had many crises and we do not have socialism we can infer that these conditions are rather restrictive, or have been so far.  Is there anything in Marx’s alternative that explains why this has been the case and therefore what might we change to address our failures so far?

An answer to this means going beyond seeing capitalist crises as simply the opportunity to overthrow capitalism without understanding what makes them such an opportunity, as opposed to an opportunity for capitalism to resolve its contradictions at workers’ expense.  The answer does not lie in the illusion that capitalism is a system in permanent crisis or is in an epoch of revolution. Crises there have been and even revolutions but clearly this hasn’t been enough for Marx’s alternative to have flowered.

The last 100 years has witnessed many revolutions.  The most important at the beginning of the last century were carried out under the banner of socialist revolution but they nearly all failed very quickly.  Later revolutions that destroyed capitalism did not usher in socialism or even societies controlled by workers taking decisive steps towards socialism.   The belief was widespread that socialist revolutions would be complemented by national liberation struggles which would lead to democratic revolutions, but again there were numerous democratic revolutions, few overthrew capitalism and none of them brought about socialism.

Since the decline of such struggles the most important revolutions have involved the overthrow of Stalinism and the concomitant reintroduction of capitalism while the Arab Spring has not resulted in any fundamental reordering of society, except in the sense that in some societies it has led to their disordering and collapse.

There have been plenty of revolutions but the changes have been mainly one of political regimes without fundamental changes to class rule, at least in the sense of the working class ruling society.  Such glimpses of a new worker-controlled society have been brief and fleeting.

Marx’s prognostication was that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” 

The history of modern revolutions is testimony to this.  The absence of working class revolution is not.  Ironically, if you seek to reduce Marxism to a task of resolving a crisis of leadership you weaken its explanatory power, its guide to political intervention and its appeal.

Marx was aware that sometimes decades of political development are necessary for a working class to make itself capable of ruling society.  This is true now for reasons that Marx could not be fully aware of.  What he did do however was provide analyses of capitalism that may help socialists appreciate why we have failed so far.

[i] On the Alleged Stagnation of Capitalism, William Jefferies, available on the net.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11