The International Organisation of the Working Class

Stating that Marx’s alternative to capitalism is an internationalist one should hardly be controversial were it not for the history of the movement laying claim to his legacy.  Unfortunately, this history includes ‘socialism in one country’ a la Soviet Union; national ‘roads to socialism’; ‘anti-imperialism’ that champions those opposed to (mainly) US imperialism but excuses its opponents regardless of their anti-working class character, not forgetting support for such reactionary projects as Brexit.

Quite happy (most of the time) to recognise that only capitalism creates a working class; that this has involved the organisation of workers in large factories (and now offices etc.) and that therefore that the shape of the class is determined by the particular shape of capitalism at any time or place, these ‘followers’ of Marx will oppose the EU and support Brexit despite the internationalisation of capitalism laying the groundwork for an international working class and therefore the potential for creation of an international movement.

The internationalism of Marxism should mean that opposition to national division of the working class is a cardinal principle, reflected in the history of the organisation of the Marxist movement, and as a precursor of the movement of the working class itself and the social system it seeks to create.

The First International, which Marx played such a vital role in, sought to organise the working class internationally and, despite its coalition of many political tendencies, established a political legacy much of which is applicable today.  It has been argued that this international movement had its basis in the particular nature of the working class, or at least a part of it, created by the stage of capitalism achieved at that time:

‘If we ask: what were the social bases of this International—and of the wave of popular urban insurgency in 1848—the answer is pretty clear. They did not lie in any factory proletariat, but overwhelmingly in a pre-industrial artisanate. This was a class in possession of its own means of production—tools and skills; which enjoyed high levels of literacy; was typically located close to the centre of capital cities; and, last but not least, was geographically mobile—a mobility symbolized by the famous tours of young apprentices within or beyond their own countries. In 1848 there were some 30,000 German craftsmen in Paris—Heine said you could hear German spoken on every street corner; in London, Marx and Engels were writing their Manifesto for German artisans working in England; Berlin had its scattering of Polish or Swiss craftsmen, Vienna of Czechs or Italians.’

This is, of course only partially true, as the International also had representation from British trade unions but it is much truer of the German workers’ movement in the 1848 revolution.

The Second International succeeded in building a mass working class movement on the back of a common expansion of capitalist industry, at least in parts of Europe, but its destruction by war was not just a reflection of the betrayal of a leadership that had abandoned Marx’s revolutionary politics, it also faithfully reflected the nationalist ideas that dominated the vast majority of the working class.  Since we understand that ideas are derived from the material reality of workers’ lives, we can see the basis of the dual character of working class consciousness in workers’ solidarity within the nation state offset by weakness of its equivalent at the international level.

The consciousness of being workers led not only to militant trade union consciousness and limited political consciousness but also nationalism that reflected the mainly national character of the capitalism that existed at that time; national capitals that were in rivalry and competition with other national capitals and states, which dragged their workers behind them.

The Third International regrouped the most militant and politically radicalised workers repelled by their common suffering in the world war, the experience of shared austerity and political reaction following it, and by the example of the Russian Revolution.

The isolation of the Russian revolution led to its degeneration, a degeneration experienced by the Third international as a whole, which became isolated from the rest of the working class movement.  The isolation of the Third International objectively needed to be repaired – the working class movement could not achieve its aims divided. One attempt was the policy of the united front, the unity of Social Democrat and Communist workers, which was an acknowledgement that a socialist programme was impotent without a working class to fight for it.

The division reached its tragic nadir when both stood separate in front of the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany.  The defeat led to no regeneration of either Social Democracy or the Third International and both eventually ceased to exist for any practical purposes.

Many of those who continued to defend Marxism rallied to what became many versions of Trotsky’s Fourth International but these too became evidence of the paucity of programme separated from the working class.  The world-wide capitalist boom after World War II was not the grounds upon which a movement singularly fixed on the immanence of political revolution could build a mass organisation, except in displacing its hopes onto non-socialist revolutionary upheavals.

It can be no surprise that the degeneration of the Second and Third Internationals into nationalist and statist conceptions of socialism reflected the growth in the number of, and the role of, capitalist states in capitalism, or that this too infected many currents of the Trotskyist movement.  It too was a product of the capitalism in which it lived; reflected in its transfer of hope to the ‘third world’ and its ‘national liberation’ struggles, and accommodation with the growing role of the capitalist state through preaching nationalisation, state redistribution and general Keynesian policies as all key elements of the socialist programme.   It reached further extension in support for left-talking Latin American regimes that rely mainly on state mobilisation and support for Brexit or various ‘progressive’ nationalisms such as Scottish separation or Catalan independence.

In all these cases the Left has rallied behind what Marx called a ‘transitional form’ of the capitalist mode of production in which the ‘antagonism’ contained in the private ownership of the means of production is ‘resolved negatively.’ So, while its demands may be an advance on private capitalism, its demand for nationalisation is not a demand to positively overcome capitalism but to bring its forms of ownership more into line with its increasing socialisation. However, because such transformation of ownership does not supersede capitalism but merely extends its development those claiming it is socialist leave themselves caught up in unresolvable contradictions, such as demanding widespread state ownership as well as destruction of the same state.

However, even this programme increasingly became an ossified relic of 1930s protectionism and internationally agreed national-level capital controls.  As capitalist accumulation grew in Europe and further afield these controls were subverted by the changing role of the US dollar and relative US industrial decline.  The capitalist state itself, led by Britain and the US, led the way in openly deregulating and de-nationalising control of money capital while structures like the EU pointed the way to international industrial restructuring and a new international currency.  Freedom of movement, across the EU for example, opened up an important route by which an international component of the working class could grow and influence its wider national sections, undermining nationalist division.

State ownership became a step backward from the growth of global companies and the increasing international division of labour that lay behind these developments.  Much of the left however clings to the capitalist state as potential saviour and finds itself tailing behind various political expressions of the petty bourgeoisie, whether supporters of Brexit or of other fractions seeking new avenues for their advancement in the bureaucracies of newly created states.

State ownership is not a call to the working class to impose its own resolution to the antagonism of the property question through workers’ ownership as one preliminary step towards the whole economy becoming the activity of the working class constituted as the ‘associated producers’.  It reflects an increasingly outmoded mode of capitalist development for which an outmoded nationally limited socialist programme is redundant. It was not Marx’s alternative 150 years ago and there is even less reason to consider it one today.

Back to part 34

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