The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (6) – the opposition “strategic hypothesis”

Given the circumstances as set out in the opposition document, the key question for  revolutionary politics would seem to be how working class political consciousness can be advanced. And the authors are aware; the text says “In that sense, our main task is to re-build class consciousness.”

To this question, they provide the following answer:

“The most effective way to do so is still by the struggle of the working class interest against that of the bourgeoisie. Rallies, demonstrations, occupations, assemblies, strikes; those are still the best tools for raising the consciousness of the oppressed. This does not mean that we ignore parliamentary elections. But we do subordinate them to mobilization.”

No doubt the comrades would say that this must be combined with revolutionary propaganda and agitation and raising the demands contained within the transitional programme, but this is still a very incomplete understanding of how class consciousness is created.  It also involves an instrumental view of the working class, one that sees it coming to socialism not through well thought-out conviction, based on its experience within the forces and relations of capitalist production, but because it arises as a result  of carrying out much more limited aims that have been posed through strikes and assemblies etc.

It is assumed that more or less spontaneous and partial opposition to the harmful effects of capitalism, which by their nature can only be episodic (see below reliance on this not being the case), will be transformed into comprehensive opposition to the system itself and commitment to a socialist alternative. The missing catalyst being revolutionary propaganda, slogans and agitation; in other words, the presentation of socialist ideas.

Of course, it is always rejected that this is a rather idealist (propagandist) view, and that it is the experience of collective action and struggle, combined with socialist agitation and propaganda, that will effect the necessary changes in consciousness. But it is nevertheless the case that, in the case of the traditional Trotskyist conception of a transitional programme, that workers are led to socialist revolution through a rising set of demands that arise from more limited struggles over narrower objectives.

One problem is that such periods of heightened class struggle are necessarily brief, and the period in which the more advanced demands and slogans of the struggle are to be raised even briefer.  Yet this is not consistent with the need for the working class to be fully informed and committed to the task of owning, controlling and developing the complex society within which we live, with a more or less clear idea of what it will do as the new ruling class.  Instead such a role is to fall to it as a necessary, but initially unforeseen, requirement in order to achieve more limited objectives.[i]

This is not such a stretch if the objective is simply seen as the capture of political power, however conceived (involving governmental office, regime change, or a brand new machinery of state), but this is not what socialist revolution is primarily about.  Political power is necessary in order to defend new relations of production, not to create them, otherwise these new relations will more likely become the creation of the state itself.  We know that this has failed and has never been the definition of socialism anyway.  Socialist revolution is above all a fundamental social revolution and such nature distinguishes it from all the radical political revolutions that do not signify fundamental reorganisation of society.

The conception of how working class consciousness develops put forward in the document  is therefore a limited and partial conception, one that also ignores the economic and social circumstances of workers as lived in their everyday lives, and which has historically been the impulse behind their seeking after an alternative society, one that arose even before Marx studied this experience and developed his ideas on how the development of capitalism gives rise to its gravediggers.

Since this has been a long-standing theme of the blog I won’t go into it here, except to say that the anticipation of socialism through worker cooperatives, and the role that these can play as concrete ‘schools of socialism’, and not just strikes as “schools of class-struggle”, has not been appreciated by the opposition.

This is important because consideration of this would help the opposition grapple with some of the problems they recognise but which their overall “strategic hypothesis” blinds them to a solution:

“The strategic hypothesis we advance to end capitalism and patriarchy is a non-stop series of mobilizations that make the working class aware of the necessity of taking power for real social change. Strikes are not a fetish but an essential route to raise workers’ reliance on their own potential power. Strikes are “schools of class struggle” because they are moments in which the working class can self-organize. It is by means of conflict that workers create automatic responses and mechanisms to resist the bourgeoisie’s policies. Revolutionaries should not ignore today’s struggles, even if they are small. To the contrary, we must take part in them. Therefore, we need to find solutions to our deficiency in having a strong presence within the working class and taking part in its battles.”

It is not so much that the perspective of an ‘insurrectionary general strike’ is wrong; although with a large worker-cooperative sector and a perspective of taking state power, a simple strike is clearly inadequate if not misdirected.  It is that the “automatic response and mechanisms to resist the bourgeoisie’s policies” is also obviously inadequate since the point of revolution is to impose an alternative, not simply to resist the existing one. Why should those demanding such an alternative become the leader of the working class when the class fights simply within the existing relations of production and assumes their continuation, which is, after all, what strikes in and of themselves do?

What has come to fill this incomplete and inadequate conception of working class consciousness and revolution is a conception of the revolutionary party as an unduly separate agency in the revolution.  As I have noted in earlier posts on the FI debate, the working class party is often seen as arising from Marxists building their own organisations instead of it being the creation of the working class itself.

Obviously, Marxists will debate what they have to do; but what they have to do must proceed from what has to be done, in the sense of what has to happen, what has to be achieved, by the working class itself, which must itself build its own party. Otherwise it will not be its own party, but a political layer of the working class with greater potential to separate itself from it. As it has done, repeatedly, in the past.

So, the question is, how does the working class generate the class consciousness and organisation to fight capitalism and impose its alternative? This is not the same as, and is not reducible to, capitalist crises generating mass mobilisations, which a bigger or smaller party leads to overthrowing the state and introducing a different one.

The opposition seeks to replicate the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but even this paradigmatic conception of the revolutionary party fails to understand that the Bolshevik Party became the party it was because the working class made it their own instrument of revolution.  The subsequent failure of that party and revolution was the failure of the Russian working class itself, its size, its own weakness, dissolution, re-composition and incorporation of its best (and worst) elements into the bureaucratisation of the state.

The perspective of building mass action to a climacteric episode reduces the goal of socialist revolution to a single event and to a single path to it, one focused on state power and destruction of the capitalist state. It is to reduce such revolution to a political process only, which is only one (crucial) aspect of a wider and deeper social transformation.

Political revolution can only also be a social revolution if it is the culmination of much deeper developments within the social and economic progress of capitalism.

If the destruction of the capitalist state is to inaugurate working class power, or rather to be a necessary step to creation of a workers state that will defend the already advancing social and economic power of the working class, the working class must already have taken major steps to economic, social and political hegemony, steps which political revolution seeks to complete.

The more common reduced focus, reflected in the opposition “strategic hypothesis”, leads to many weaknesses, some of which appear in the text. So, in promoting a “transitional programme for the 21stcentury” it is stated that:

“A primary focus of this program is the expropriation of the key sectors of the economy. The bank crisis and bail-outs provided a new opportunity to explain and popularize the need for bank nationalization.”

But expropriation is not at all the same as nationalisation and those who think ownership by the capitalist state is progressive have not, for example, considered the experience of the Irish State, in which nationalisation was the means of transferring the liabilities of the banks to the shoulders of working people.

Similarly, we are invited to have illusions in the progressiveness of the creation of new capitalist states:

“In the oppressed nations we support a balance between the democratic fight for the right to self-determination and the fight for a society without classes. It means that, according to our strategy, the struggle for national freedom can be useful for working class emancipation only when led by the working class itself.”

While, with regard to the second sentence of this extract, it may sometimes be necessary for the working class to seek to lead such struggles, it is not always the case that this assertion is true.  It is however very definitely not the case that we should seek to balance the struggle for democratic freedoms under capitalism with the struggle for socialism. If the former is not a necessary part of the struggle for the latter why would socialists and workers support it? Why should workers sacrifice any of their struggle for socialism in some balancing exercise?

This repeated deference to the state, the capitalist state, which is the only one existing, arises from the surrender of tasks that belong to the working class to this state – nationalisation rather than workers’ cooperative ownership; welfare states rather than workers control of welfare provision, previously done through friendly societies, and defence of the democratic rights of capitalist states as the default position in national conflicts rather than workers unity.  It reflects the growing power of the capitalist state over the twentieth century; the influence of social democracy and Stalinism, and the increased role of the capitalist state in the capitalist mode of production, ‘neoliberalism’ notwithstanding.

Socialism has thus become synonymous with statification for many, and this error is not corrected by thinking a workers’ government or a workers’ state carrying out the task of social transformation solves the problem.  The workers’ state is a transitional concept in which the latter part of the term suffocates the former to the extent that it predominates.  This is because the state, even a workers’ state, is a body separate from society and standing over and apart from it. Socialism involves the withering away of the state and this can only be so if working class rule is based outside the state and reflects its role in the new relations of production, which the state is called upon to defend but not be the substance of.

In summary, the opposition is caught between defending what it considers the historic programme of the Fourth International in a different historical period and attempting to square this with the decline of working class consciousness that has occurred since that programme was first promulgated.  The answer is not to stake a claim to false optimism, which foresees a future rapid radicalisation sweeping all before it in rather short order, but understand why it didn’t work before and what the lessons are of the much longer and wider experience of the vastly larger working class has been since 1938.

The majority appear to have a more sober appreciation of the political situation but no way of not capitulating to it, while the opposition seeks not to capitulate but unable to come to terms adequately with the demands placed on revolutionaries arising from it.

[i]This is not to deny that socialists should not seek to radicalise such struggles and the working class itself in the process; but it is to deny that this is the highway to socialist revolution, considered in its totality.

Back to part 5

Forward to part 7

2 thoughts on “The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (6) – the opposition “strategic hypothesis”

  1. The paragraph you quoted ‘The most effective way to do so is still by the struggle of the working class interest against that of the bourgeoisie. Rallies ,demonstrations, occupations , assemblies, strikes.. Show that nothing much about the near future is to be different from the near past. It is interesting that the sequence of ‘struggle’ is rallies, demonstrations, occupations, assemblies then strikes. So the rally, the demonstration, the occupation and the assembly comes before the strike. This is pretty much a summary of recent ‘class struggle’ history. Given the workers strike wave has become a gentle glide something else has to be found to justify ones existence,

    The next big thing was already on display in London on Saturday ; the Left Wing Rally to Stop the Right from marching. There is already plenty of you tube video footage of the Left’s rally to smash the fascists in the form of the free Tommy Robinson demo. The best one I have seen so far is Steve Headly senior assistant general secretary of the RMT and I believe a supporter of the Socialist Party shedding his blood for the anti fascist cause. It says in the Sunday newspapers he was assaulted by some thugs from the Far Right, however there is youtube video footage of Steve rallying his own troops before the bloody incident saying ‘we should block the road and stop them marching…wherever these people arise we should batter them.’ It looks like he was the one that got battered.

    I can already see a Left strategy for the near future, conjure up a new fascist or populist movement and battle it out on the streets, in his speech Steve Headly named the UKIP a fascist party of the Far Right; present on the Saturday were the shock troops of the SWP and the Black uniforms of the BLOC, all on in broad agreement that today fascism is the main enemy. We already know how this is all going to turn out, the enhancement of the security powers of the capitalist State and the further disgrace of Socialism. Good Luck with persuading these people to think some different!

  2. Lenin himself didn’t think that strikes represent class struggle – other than a revolutionary General Strike. He wrote that strikes are merely manifestations of Economism, of a willingness, and necessity to bargain within the wage system over the price of labour. The point that Marx also makes in Value, Price and Profit.

    Lenin refers to strikes as schools for class struggle, precisely because they are not class struggle itself, but means of workers learning to organise collectively, and to identify their common class interest. As Marx outlines the function of trades unions is to bring workers together, workers learn via strikes that their problems cannot be resolved via such strikes and other such distributional struggles, but can only be resolved by considering the property question, i.e. who has ownership and control of the means of production.

    The role of the workers party, thereby is to intervene in that process and to show to the workers that they must address this property question. They must develop worker owned co-operatives, they must raise the question of who has control over the socialised capital, i.e. the productive-capital of the joint stock company and so on.

    In this way, the drive for co-operatives etc. becomes a central aspect of the class struggle. Lenin himself put resolutions to the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International on that very theme.

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