The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 6

istanbul-red1Again and again the socialism of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien rests not on the initiative of the workers but dependence on the state and the support of its bureaucracy – “Only a mass party with roots throughout the community, with an organisational reach comparable to the Catholic Church of old, can hope to win the active and passive support from the bureaucracy which is necessary to carry through socialisation measures.”

To their credit however, Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are too intelligent and honest not to acknowledge the obvious and very painful lessons of working class history.

They acknowledge the reactionary role of the state bureaucracy – “as it is, the bureaucracy stymies existing pro-capitalist governments all the time.”

And they acknowledge the potential for violence from the capitalist class and the necessity for the working class to prepare for it:

“At some point the reactionaries will try to move onto more aggressive measures, including investment strikes and ultimately a coup d’état. . . should the socialist-labour movement prove too resilient to fold before the disruption aimed at fostering economic breakdown, the doomsday weapon of violent reaction, whether through the mobilisation of a mass fascist movement or via a straight-forward coup d’état always looms over its head, ready to detonate. . . then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable.”

Unfortunately for them this acknowledgement renders much of their argument either mistaken or incoherent.

They do not develop what their acknowledgement of the potential for state violence means for their reliance on this same state to usher in socialism (at the behest of the workers’ movement). But they are hardly ignorant of how the state was behind the most vicious fascist and reactionary movements which decimated the working class movement in defeats that over 80 years later have not been reversed.

In the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, Germany and Spain and Chile in 1973 the capitalist state, under pressure from mass workers’ movements such that we do not have today, and in some cases with parties in Government with a perspective not very different from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, clamped down on workers independent activity precisely because initiative and control was to lie with the state.  The state then succumbed to fascism where it did not succumb to the workers and either directly or indirectly handed power over to fascist or military dictatorships.

Only workers independent organisation apart from and against the state could have prevented this.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct to repeat the dictum of Marx that we must win the battle of democracy but they are wrong to see this battle within the terms presented by bourgeois democracy.

They are actually right to say that “parliamentary democracy . . . remains the best gauge of public support for a political tendency”.  Right in the sense that right now it accurately tells us where what passes for the socialist movement actually is, which is a small minority.

This means we must reject the phantasies of much of the so-called Marxist Left that workers are champing at the bit to vote for the left social democracy if only Marxists would forget their previous criticisms of this political tendency and pretend to be, or rather more accurately reveal themselves to be, left social democrats.

Parliamentary democracy will not and cannot, as the working class develops its organisation, political consciousness and power, reflect the support for socialism because it is not capable of expressing or reflecting the expansion of all of the aspects of socialist development of the working class.

I have said it does so now only because all these are at such a low ebb.  As they develop parliamentary democracy at best expresses the lag in development and its weakest aspects at that and it would be a cruel education of worker-socialists to tell them that their powers and potential are reflected in what they see in parliament.

The truth of this is so fundamental that it is true even in the opposite case – where parliamentary support for socialism exceeds the real social and political development of the working class in society.  The parliamentary road sought by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, and by the small Left organisations, walks wide-eyed and innocent into the trap explained by Engels:

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.

What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

What to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests.

Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development.

Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.” 

Without large and powerful trade unions and other workers’ societies standing proudly independent of the capitalist class and its state; without a large cooperative sector owned, controlled and managed by workers; without a mass workers’ party with deep roots in the working class, with the confidence and respect of the masses outside its ranks, the votes of workers and wider society will not provide strong enough  foundations either to overthrow capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries or begin the building of socialism.

But these hardly feature, have walk-on parts or have a purely supporting role in the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien production.  For them “Electoralism is the most important political activity in the European and North American societies and in practice it forms the centrepiece.”

They say that “It is only as a component part of the strategy of attrition that electoralism plays a critical part in moving beyond capitalism. Winning power is therefore not the only goal of electoralism; every bit as important is the role it plays in building a mass socialist party capable of winning it and of controlling the apparatus when it gets there.”

But even here they get the order wrong.  “But in order to benefit from electoral work there has to be an institutionalisation of the gains, whether through increased participation in the party or union, more subscriptions to sympathetic left-wing media, joining a co-op or simply voting for the party come election time. These and other possible methods of harvesting the labour expended in the springtime of campaigning all depend on having institutions capable of soaking up the goodwill.”

Here it is electoralism that is the engine to drive working class organisation, that builds the other wings and activities of the working class movement.  In fact, as an old Official republican said to me a few years ago, it is in elections that you reap what you sow, even in the narrow terms posed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

The commitment by them to bourgeois democracy is ironic given the decay of this form.  At the beginning of March ‘The Economist’ had a six page essay and a front page that asked “What’s gone wrong with democracy”.

It noted – “Nor is the EU a paragon of democracy. The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats. The European Parliament, an unsuccessful attempt to fix Europe’s democratic deficit, is both ignored and despised.”

“Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Party membership is declining across the developed world: only 1% of Britons are now members of political parties compared with 20% in 1950. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between 1980-84 and 2007-13. A survey of seven European countries in 2012 found that more than half of voters “had no trust in government” whatsoever. A YouGov opinion poll of British voters in the same year found that 62% of those polled agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time”.

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All this reflects the supplicant position which reliance on the state places workers and the failure of the state to respond to popular opinion.  It reflects the legacy of the parties supported by workers who have embraced bourgeois democracy very much in the way proposed as much as it reflects the cynicism of other classes.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are aware of the dangers of integration into the existing political-economic system, of a tendency towards conservatism and dangers of bureaucracy but their strategy of attrition and its reliance on the state and representation as opposed to direct participation all feed these problems.

This approach teaches passivity, that someone else has responsibility for political activity and leadership.  That power lies in a machine (the state) that exists outside your own competence and capability.  That your own activity is primarily to engage in voting for someone else to press forward your interests and that your own productive activity is not directly something that you should seek to control.

All this can be said of the existing capitalist state and its bourgeois politicians. What Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien see as important – the state and electoralism – does not go beyond this.

Their confused perspective leads to incoherence and what is generally well considered in their argument succeeds only in accurately enumerating problems.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct when they say that we need to convince workers “that they have to do great things for the socialist organisation, that the future itself depends on us all playing our role in that great collective project, outside of which there is no salvation.”

My argument has been that their conception of this great collective project is mistaken and that within it there is no road to salvation.



So you think you know about Karl Marx? A review of ‘Marx at the Margins’, Kevin B Anderson.

Kevin B AndersonBy Belfast Plebian

To date, no comprehensive intellectual biography has been published in any language. Kevin Anderson.

Every new class consciousness generation is forced by contemporary events to return to the philosophy of Karl Marx, not in a mood of revival but to learn something important that has become forgotten or carelessly overlooked by previous students.

In the past the known side of Karl Marx was represented by the Communist Manifesto, a handful of works by Engels and the first volume of an unfinished study of the capitalist-bourgeois model of the good society, Capital volume 1. The later volumes of Capital economic studies were inaccessible to most readers because they followed a difficult logic and even Engels, the life long friend and editor of at least three of the economic volumes, is frequently accused by contemporary devotees of seriously misunderstanding the logic of value as expounded across its many pages.  In fact the leading lights of the ‘intellectual academy’ seem to have reached a sort of consensus that Engels got the economic critique wrong in his introductions and prefaces of the numerous editions, though it has not yet reached a consensus as to the linking arguments of the exposition, the relationship – to give one central example – of the tendency for the average rate of profit to fall to the sudden outbreak of an economic crisis, which is still hotly disputed.

There is another part of the Karl Marx legacy that has yet to be appreciated.  I will call this, for want of a better expression, the esoteric part: that part of the intellectual legacy that got buried and then neglected by the custodians of the early workers’ parties. Many documents concerning what Karl Marx did and thought during his own lifetime were left unpublished until after the formation of an ‘historic Marxism.’

Marx had frequent disputes with other communists in his own lifetime and they were certainly able to understand him, maybe because the fundamentals of political existence then were stated in common speech in contrast to the specialised language of later social  science.  Marx in fact is famous less for his critique of classical economic science than for his preparation of the communist manifesto in 1848, one of the most accomplished of common language documents ever recorded and distributed. The manifesto was composed as a blend of just rhetoric and historical knowledge, and espoused in the name of a living revolutionary movement, the Communist League.

The act of rendering the dialectical thought of Karl Marx into fluent and accessible pamphlets and journalism is not without a certain risk of vulgar distortion.  Even sections of books approved by Karl Marx himself, like the ‘Anti Duhring’ of Engels, to this day provoke criticism from some ‘Marxists’.

One reason we may well surmise why Karl Marx kept his partnership with Engels strong for so long was that he felt a need for an intellectual accomplice who could speak to the workers about political economy in a less convoluted style than he thought he could do. Marx always maintained that an attack on bourgeois economics as first expressed by Engels was not only his first introduction to the subject matter but a life-long inspiration.  

Marx for sure could write in the style of a campaigning journalist but he certainly preferred to delegate the role of first publicist to his partner in revolution. When Engels committed intellectual blunders Marx usually refrained from excommunicating him.  Engels held frustrations of his own, especially over the esoteric intellectual habits of Marx, complaining in a letter: “as long as you still have an unread book that you think important, you do not get down to writing.”

With the benefit of historical hindsight Marx and Engels may have even ‘over-succeeded’ with their exoteric publications like the Communist Manifesto and the Ani-Duhring because these publications became by the turn of the century the core of what became known as ‘Second International Marxism’.  They published the first version of the great manifesto in February 1848 and then went on to publish several revised versions.

With the very first one they faced a pressure familiar to all those who write for a public purpose: their friends’ impatience (from their comrades in the Communist League of whom we have records from the time). A month before publication the secretary of the Communist League wrote saying ‘The central committee charges its leading circle in Brussels to communicate with Citizen Marx and to tell him if the manifesto of the C. Party, the writing of which he undertook to do at the recent congress, does not reach London by February 1st of the current year, further measures will have to be taken against him.’

The manifesto was the declaration of a hard fought battle of ideas within the Communist League, an early example of a revolutionary united front, so the ideas expressed in the first edition can’t be ascribed without some reservation to Karl Marx alone.

Marx and Engels wrote several prefaces to the later editions that seem to edge closer to something like a genuine historical Marxism.  In the 1872 German edition they say that in view of the gigantic strides taken by modern industry in the preceding twenty-five years, and in view of the political experience gained through workers participation in the Paris Commune of 1870/71, the communist programme of the first edition has in some respect become antiquated.

In point of fact friendly critics of the manifesto like Leon Trotsky and Ernest Mandel point out some serious flaws even in the revised versions from the perspective of a later Marxism. Trotsky says that in showing how capitalism draws along in its wake the backward and barbaric countries the manifesto does not say anything about the struggle of the colonial and semi- colonial peoples for their independence. He also says that the most obsolete part of the manifesto is Marx’s criticism of the socialist literature prevalent at that time.

Ernest Mandel says that the manifesto established the unfortunate myth of the driving down of workers wages to a subsistence level, the iron law of wages, as one of the main tenets of orthodox Marxist thought, something he in fact refuted in his scientific account.

What we learn from this worry over the communist manifesto is that we must be conscious of shifts and developments in the thought of Karl Marx.  We must not even assume that the later books, essays and pamphlets are always an improvement on the earlier ones.  After all we all decline with age.

Marx is unusual in that he has often suffered greater distortion in the hands of his supporters than from his intellectual enemies although these have often stood on common ground. To give just one example, both past friends and enemies typically selected out points 5, 6 and 7 of the Communist Manifesto as the only guide to what Marx argued for by way of an alternative to capitalist arrangements.  Point 5 states that communists are in favour of the centralisation of all credit in the hands of the State by means of a national bank with an exclusive monopoly. Point 6 states that communists are in favour of a monopoly of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State and point 7 calls for an extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State. Nowadays we would call this a programme for state organised capitalism.

It is to the credit of the author of this book about the thought of Karl Marx that he scrupulously tries to avoid a stereotyping of Marx by not resorting to the usual interpretative device of selecting just a handful of well known ‘key passages’ from the better known publications and then referring to this selection as definitive of Marxism . The chief virtue of the book is that it presents to the contemporary militant a serious reading of essays, documents and letters by Karl Marx that are not well known or are seldom thought to be worthy of comparison to the key passages approach.  The good thing is that we are offered a more ‘historical’ account than we are usually given.  We might legitimately call this a dialectical account of the development of the mind of Marx.

Anderson’s method is to split the collected works into a kind of core and a periphery and show how the works of the periphery if studied carefully offer us a more concrete understanding of the abstract core. The core for Anderson consists not so much of a privileged statement or single book but of the concepts of social capital and the exploitation of labour, the theory of alienation and fetishism and finally the notion of dialectics. These ideas are the core because they appear as a seam that is more or less present in all of the primary works.

Anderson does not make an assessment of Marx’s intellectual development on the basis of a definite epistemological break between a young, humanist Marx and a mature, scientific Marx like the French professor Louis Althusser tried to do. 

Anderson is one of those historians participating in the publication of  MEGA2 which began in Moscow and Berlin in 1975, came to a standstill in 1989 with the implosion of the Soviet regimes, and was taken up again mainly by Western funded institutes.  What we now have before us is a much expanded version of the works of Marx and Engels than was previously available.  It is hard to think of another modern thinker with so small a ratio of published writings during their own lifetime to those actually written.  Works now considered central to the canon such as the 1844 manuscripts, the German Ideology, the Grundrisse and the Theories of Surplus Value were largely unknown to the “orthodox Marxists” of 1905.  For the purpose of this review it is useful to be reminded of what new material is included in the complete works, for Anderson makes use of some of them in his study.

The updated complete works are divided into four sections:

Section One: early works, articles and drafts.

Of thirty two volumes now planned, seventeen have appeared.  Especially notable is the inclusion of a rougher but larger version of the influential 1844 manuscripts. Marx appears to be writing two versions at the same time.

Section Two: Capital and Preliminary Studies.

Consisting in 15 volumes, of which as of 2010, 13 have been published.  What has been included are all the editions of volume one of Capital.  Important here is a print of Engels’s 1890 German edition, but with an important addition from a French edition prepared by Marx himself in 1872-1875 with an extra 60 pages not included in the English translation of the standard German edition. This, it turns out, was the edition most favoured by Marx though not by Engels.   Anderson presents some extracts of letters concerning their difference of opinion over what version of Capital volume 1 should be prioritised.  Other volumes offer draft manuscripts for what became Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, which can now be studied to see how Engels edited and arranged them.

Section Three: Correspondence.

Of 35 volumes planned, 12 volumes covering the years up to 1865 have been published.  In the previous complete works most letters from Marx to people other than Engels were usually omitted.

Section Four: Excerpt notebooks.

Of 32 volumes planned, eleven have so far been published.  Here we have many drafts and notes never published before in any language.  These include notebooks from 1844-1847 on political economists such as Jean -Baptiste Say, Jean-Charles Sismondi, Charles Babbage, Andrew Ure and Nassau Senior.  Excerpt notebooks from Marx slated for publication include (1) notes from 1853 and 1880 on Indonesia, (2) notes from 1852 on the history of women and gender relations, (3) notes on the history of agriculture in Russia plus some on prairie farming in the United States, (4) substantial notes on Ireland from the 1860s, (5) notes on agriculture in Roman times, and finally (6) a massive chronology of world history composed during the 1880s.

Kevin Anderson situates his presentation of the development of Marx close to a mode of interpretation associated with the books of Raya Dunayevskaya (his own book is dedicated to her) whose most notable books are Marxism and Freedom (1958,) Philosophy and Revolution: from Hegel to Sartre, and from Marx to Mao (1973) and Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (1981).

In her own work Dunayevskaya turned to the unpublished ‘Ethnographic’ notebooks of Marx to argue against the thesis that the old Marx(the last ten years) was an unproductive thinker, pointing to some of the different conclusions Marx reached in contrast to Engels in the study of the role of women and class in early societies. This she believed was important owing to the undisputed spell Engel’s ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ held over all later communists.  It was taken on trust that Marx had no thoughts of his own relevant to what was later to be called women’s liberation.

Some of the less well know documents that Anderson mines concern the political journalism, especially those relating to race and class in the United States, the national struggles in Ireland and Poland, and others covering the colonial expansion in India, China and Java.  He then relates some of this material to editions of Capital especially the generally ignored French edition, the one Marx himself preferred.

He also takes us on an excursion through Marx’s late studies of pre-capitalist societies with particular reference to Russia and India and asks what his reasoning was in spending so much time on them, all the while jeopardising the completion of Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital.

What we end up with is a much more energetic and interesting ‘late Marx.’ It should be noted that David Riazanov and his colleagues at the Moscow institute neglected to publish some of these later documents stating that Marx by 1880 ‘had lost his ability for intensive, independent, intellectual creation….. Sometimes, in reconsidering these notebooks, the question arises; why did he waste so much time on this….that is inexcusable pedantry.’

In the next post we will look at some of what Anderson reveals about these writings, including those on Ireland.

Marxism and the State

In a previous post I said that I would be looking at the Marxist view of the State and in this post I will look at some aspects of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ original view.   For them the possibility of socialism was not that it best met some general principles of justice or equality but that it was based on the actual social and political development of the existing capitalist system.  If there were no developments within capitalism that might form a real foundation for achieving the former ideals then these ideals were practically worthless.  The question however is on what developments within capitalism is the potential for socialism based?

It is undoubtedly the case that the state plays a greater and greater role in capitalist society and that as this system has developed so has the role of the state.  That this has been so despite decades of rhetoric by the most ideologically rabid supporters of capitalism against the state ranks as only further proof of its central role.  The state also played a major role in the creation of the capitalist system although its importance may be subject to historical debate.

On this basis the majority of the socialist movement has come to identify socialism with this state either through state ownership, regulation, taxation or state expenditure on ‘public’ services.  In the form of Stalinism it has taken the shape of the most gargantuan forms of state power which has assumed prerogatives in social life that have associated the liberatory content of socialism with the totalitarian nightmares of Orwell’s 1984.

This has nothing to do with Marxism.  In fact the intellectual journey by which the young Marx came to ‘Marxism’ involved an utter and complete opposition to the state, as formulated by the German philosopher Hegel, which Marx carried out through his ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’.  Marx’s view of socialism was not an ideal state which society must seek to achieve but the movement of a class to achieve political power as the means by which to ensure its own and humanity’s social liberation.  Socialism is therefore the movement of the working class to achieve power, not the actions of a state and especially not a capitalist one!

For Marx therefore the active germ of socialism is not expressed under capitalism by the growth of the state but by the growth in the social and political power of the working class, which itself is based on the objective development of the capitalist system.  The growth of the state does not in itself herald the new society because Stalinism has demonstrated that a society based on even the state of a superpower is not a historically viable social formation.

The Marxist view of the increasing role of the state was explained by Engels in relation to his native Germany under the Chancellor Bismarck:

“. . . only when the means of production and distribution have actually outgrown the form of management by joint-stock companies, and when, therefore, the taking them over by the State has become economically inevitable, only then — even if it is the State of today that effects this — is there an economic advance, the attainment of another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself. But of late, since Bismarck went in for State-ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious Socialism has arisen, degenerating, now and again, into something of flunkyism, that without more ado declares all State-ownership, even of the Bismarkian sort, to be socialistic. Certainly, if the taking over by the State of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of Socialism.

If the Belgian State, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic compulsion, took over for the State the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway employees as voting cattle for the Government, and especially to create for himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes — this was, in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in Frederick William III’s reign, the taking over by the State of the brothels.”

In the development of capitalism increased socialisation of production that anticipates and presages socialism is reflected in the increased role of the state and in this sense only is it progressive in that it signals the development of society towards socialism.  This does not mean that socialists should give any political support to this increased role of the state never mind put it forward as socialist in itself.  The development of capitalism has created and continues to create massive misery and exploitation through driving people from the countryside to cities and is progressive because it creates a working class which is the bearer of a new society but no one thereby claims that socialists should support this process politically.

This again is presented by Engels:

“But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.”

Support for nationalisation as a socialist measure is a short-cut, a short-cut to nowhere:

“It is a purely self-serving falsification by the Manchesterite [laissez-faire] bourgeoisie to label every intervention into free competition as `socialism’: protective tariffs, guilds, tobacco monopoly, statification of branches of industry,…, royal porcelain factory. We should criticize this, not believe it. If we do the latter and base a theoretical argument on it, then it will collapse along with its premises” (Engels quoted in Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, 1990,p.96)

From the glorification of the power of the state comes the betrayal of socialism in the form of nationalism which is why it is so apt that this is often expressed in the demand for nation-alisation, as if the more of this demanded the more radical is the socialism.

This type of ‘socialism’ is often also associated with ethical considerations of justice and equality and the view that this can be achieved through state action.  This opens up the possibility of the latter becoming prettified beyond all recognition.  So vast bureaucracies become socialist institutions and means tested, inadequate benefits dispensed through pipettes become a whole new model of society.

If statisation is the advance of socialism then reforming this state is inherently the way forward and electoral success to reach the ‘pinnacle’ of this society becomes the most natural means to its attainment.  Calls for widespread nationalisation, defence of the welfare state without the least criticism of it, demands on the capitalist state to do things it simply will not and cannot do and rank electoralism are all consistent with each other and hallmarks of many of today’s ‘Marxists’.  As Marx was himself compelled to say of some of his ‘followers’, if this is Marxism I am no Marxist.

In his career Marx came across this approach to politics, which is all too familiar today, in the shape of the German Ferdinand Lassalle, who sought state aid for workers cooperatives as the germ of a future socialism, of which the workers were not yet ready to openly fight for.  Today some demands for nationalisation and state redistributive policies are designed to manoeuvre workers into a movement for socialism without even mentioning the word never mind traducing its real content.

Frederick Engels and Eduard Bernstein penned a critique of this sort of approach:

“If the masses could not yet be interested in the actual end of the movement, the movement itself was premature and then, even were the means attained, they would not lead to the desired end. In the hands of a body of working-men not yet able to understand their historical mission, universal suffrage might do more harm than good, and productive co-operative societies – with State-credit could only benefit the existing powers of the State, and provide it with a praetorian guard. But if the body of working-men was sufficiently developed to understand the end of the movement, then this should have been openly declared. It need not have even then been represented as an immediate aim, to be realised there and then. Not only the leaders, however, but every one of the followers that were led ought to have known what was the end these means were to attain, and that they were only means to that end.”

Today calls on the state to do good are presented as the means to win workers’ votes, which will ultimately lead to socialism, while the goal is considered too advanced to be put forward clearly, put to them as something that they must do and only they can achieve.  The avoidance of socialism and its real content today goes under the name of anti-capitalism or under the banner of broad left parties and alliances which hide what its sponsors claim they really stand for.

Let’s be clear about what the nature of Marx and Engels’ argument was.  It has been compared to their attitude to reforms.  Thus while they were in favour of many reforms to the capitalist system, the purpose of such reforms was to place the working class in a better position to carry out the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.  It was not because such reforms of themselves were the means to bring socialism into effect.

So today socialists should not reject demands on the state or recoil from calls for nationalisation where these might be appropriate.  These proposals should not however be considered the basic mechanism for the transition to socialism; the all-encompassing framework for the programme that becomes its heart, body and soul and the all-embracing grounds on which the socialist argument takes place.  However as we have noted before this is exactly the role that the capitalist state plays today in the politics and programme of the left.  In a number of posts this has been explained; from the demands that the state tax the rich to investment to create jobs and nationalisation as if this were socialism itself.

The difference can quite easily be seen,on the one hand, in opposition to austerity, cuts in public services and opposition to privatisation, which should all be supported, and, on the other hand, putting forward as the socialist solution massive state investment  as the answer to unemployment, economic insecurity, inequality and low standards of living.  While such a policy by the capitalist state might be better for workers in that it provides some protection and better grounds for workers’ own organisation it is not itself the workers’ own alternative.  Nationalisation, state investment and taxation are not solutions and certainly not socialist ones.  All this has been explained in previous posts.

One other thing must also be explained.  Opposition to austerity must be supported, be part of the Marxist programme, because this is something to be carried out by workers themselves.  Keynesian programmes of state-led investment hand everything over to the state to achieve.  It remains in control, dictates how much and what is to be done, when, where and how.  It is precisely to remove all this from state control that is the task of the working class.

This is what Marx meant when he said that “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” which has been re-translated today so that state reformist electoral programmes are mistaken for real movement.  This denial of the primary role of workers’ own activity is reflected also in these organisations sectarian organisational practices and electoralism which are simply the everyday practical out-workings of a programme that signals dependence on the state for solutions that should come from the workers themselves.

Thus for Marx, support for workers cooperatives in ‘Capital’ is distinguished from Ferdinand Lassalle’s state aid for producers’ co-operatives  – “as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeois.”

For Marx and Engels “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”  This is the starting point for today’s struggle for socialism, not faith in the benign actions of the capitalist state.

A Case of Stockholm Syndrome* – The Left and the State

In two recent posts, here and here, I have criticised proposals of the United Left Alliance (ULA) that rely on dealing with unemployment through a state investment programme.  I have also made criticisms of tax plans of the ULA, which again rely on state action for their implementation.  The state is clearly extremely important to the left alternative proposed by the ULA.

The Socialist Party in the general election called for nationalisation of all the banks and their being run democratically under public control and management. It demanded that the state take the economy and natural resources into democratic public ownership in order to plan the development of a real manufacturing base.   It called for a government based on working class people that implements socialist policies and puts people before profit.  All eight of its proposals involved state action or the need to get the left into the state and into government.

The ‘Alternative Economic Agenda’ of the People Before Profit Alliance was constructed in a similar manner.  It has eleven separate elements and again all rely on the state taking action on behalf of the working class or ‘people’ in general.  Their demands include creation of one good state bank; creation of a State Construction Agency for infrastructural investment; expansion and reorientation of the public sector away from a corporate agenda and general reliance on the state to develop the economy.

These demands for the State to take action to defend working people must be taken at face value.  It is not possible that these demands are raised in order to expose the State and rid workers of their illusions in it because very few workers actually expect the State to take over the economy and run it for the benefit of working people.  The illusions peddled are those of the Left itself, for what is presented is the ideal objective which they aim for and which workers are called upon to endorse.  Except of course that state ownership is not socialism and the Left knows it, or rather will claim to know it.  The problem is that the means – capitalist state ownership – is supposed to lead to an end that is not capitalist state ownership.

When I say that the left knows that capitalist state ownership is not socialism I mean that it knows well the statements of  James Connolly including – “state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism — if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials — but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism… To the cry of the middle class reformers, ‘make this or that the property of the government,’ we reply, ‘yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.’ Workers’ Republic, 10 June 1899.

Engels put it similarly in ‘Anti Duhring’ published just over twenty years earlier -“… since Bismarck adopted state ownership a certain spurious socialism has made its appearance here and there even degenerating into a kind of flunkeyism which declares that all taking over by the state, even of the Bismarckian kind, is itself socialist. If, however, the taking over of the tobacco trade by the State was socialist, Napoleon and Metternich would rank among the founders of socialism. If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, constructed its own main railway lines, if Bismarck… took over the main railway lines in Prussia, simply in order to be better able to organise and use them for war, to train the railway officials as the government’s voting cattle, and especially to secure a new source of revenue independent of immediate votes – such actions were in no sense socialist measures. Otherwise the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal Porcelain Manufacturer, and even the regimental tailors in the army, would be socialist institutions.”

We only need to recall that the enormous austerity that working people are suffering is due to the state’s budget deficit and the state’s debt burden to understand what Irish workers should think of ‘their’ state.  It wasn’t the collapse of the banks that placed this debt on the backs of the workers, it was the State that placed this debt on the backs of the workers through guaranteeing all their liabilities and then effectively nationalising them.  Yet nationalisation of the banks has been a left demand for years and still is today.  Yet this nationalisation is precisely the mechanism used by the State to bail out the capitalists involved directly and the whole system indirectly.

Nor is such a purpose unusual for nationalisation.  In fact I can’t offhand think of a nationalisation that wasn’t meant to benefit capitalism and didn’t place a burden on workers.  The rhetoric about dependence of many working people on the state for jobs is no different in essence from that of the supporters of Sean Quinn who have been dependent on him in the past for employment.  Anyone on the left who argues that the State is somehow democratic and has duties to working people no longer believes that the capitalist state is above all the defender of the capitalist system.  That this is what is its defining role.  But for the Left it would appear that holding the belief that the capitalist state is both a defender of capitalism and cannot be reformed and that it can provide all the things that are demanded in Left manifestos are not two mutually exclusive ideas that cannot both be true.

I am reminded of F Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  Some in the left appear to go one better and actually sincerely believe two opposed ideas at the same time.  My view is that this is dysfunctional.

*Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. (from Wikipedia)

to be continued.