Remembering the Rising part 4 – revolution and counter-revolution?

NGI 1236

NGI 1236

In the last post I stated the view of the Irish establishment that the 1916 Rising was the foundational act of the formation of the current Irish State.  This is not the view of many on the Left:

“The current Irish state is not a product of the Rising – it owes its existence to the counter-revolution of 1923. . .  . The current Irish state, therefore, has little in common with those who staged an uprising in 1916. . .  and has absolutely no intention of cherishing ‘all of the children equally’.  A new massive popular uprising will be required to establish even this limited ideal.  That should be the real lesson of the centenary.” (Kieran Allen)

There is a historical question whether the revolution that followed the 1916 rising would have occurred without it but that isn’t the real point here.  There is a claim that both the Rising and the War of Independence were not responsible (in any way?) for the current Irish state and those involved in 1916 have little in common with the personification of Irish independence today.

Unfortunately for such a claim the personalities who forged the counter-revolution, as it is called, in 1923 and later leaders of the state were prominently involved in the 1916 Rising and in the first post in this series we named some of them – William Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera and his successor as Taoiseach Sean Lemass.  These are among the foremost founders and architects of the current Irish state and they all fought in 1916.

The claim that there was a counter-revolution in 1923 refers to the acceptance of the Treaty that established the Free State with its oath of allegiance to the King, membership of the Commonwealth, the post of Governor General, retention of the Treaty ports by the British and a deal on partition that quickly preserved it.  The Treaty was signed under a British threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’ and was followed by a civil war when the Irish Republican movement split over acceptance of British terms.  For anti-Treaty republicans the new state was illegitimate, as therefore were its police, armed forces and political institutions, including the new Dáil.

As we saw in the first post the new Free State Government was a reactionary one dedicated to policies of low taxation, balanced budgets, free trade and an illiberal social policy that included heavy censorship of films and literature and legislation to outlaw divorce.  It brutally repressed its anti-Treaty opponents with imprisonment, torture and murder.

Its most prominent architect was William Cosgrave, a supporter of the monarchist Sinn Fein from its foundation.  As one historian has put it (John M Regan) “his concept of government prior to independence was essentially theocratic.   In suggesting an upper house for the Dáil in 1921, he advocated a ‘theological board which would decide whether any enactments of the Dáil were contrary to [Roman Catholic] faith and morals or not’.”

By some contrast the inspiration for the new Free State and pro-Treaty icon was Michael Collins, who another historian (Peter Hart) has described as having “a deep dislike of exploitation and poverty.”    “What set Collins apart was his secularism. . . . He was actively anti-clerical for much of his life, and blamed the Catholic Church for many of Ireland’s problems.”

When the pro-Treaty regime fell to the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail, policies of free trade, acceptance of the post of Governor General and oath of allegiance were rejected; the British left the Treaty ports; an ‘economic war’ with Britain was embarked upon and then resolved; and the new Government introduced a new constitution in 1937, which proclaimed the special position of the Catholic Church, the subordinate role of women in society and a constitutional protection of the prerogatives of private property that stands as a barrier to action by the state to this day. It also brutally repressed its republican opponents.   In 1948, under the leadership of the pro-Treaty Fine Gael the Irish State declared itself a Republic.  In effect the anti-Treaty side accepted the legitimacy of the new state and of the Michael Collins’ view that the Treaty provided a stepping stone to freedom.

In the aftermath of the civil war between pro and anti-Treaty republicans the latter had dedicated themselves to a ‘second round’ against the traitorous Free State and its illegitimate institutions.  Today no one in the spectrum of republicanism holds to such a position: I know of no one, and have never heard anyone, say that a renewed armed struggle should make the existing Irish State its primary target.  This is now uncontroversial, reflecting the legitimacy of the State in the eyes of the overwhelming number of its citizens.

The Irish state today is a Republic and the anti-Treaty side in its subsequent development, from Fianna Fail in the 1920s to Clann na Poblachta in the 1940s to Provisional Sinn Fein today, has accepted this and sought to become its governing party.

In other words the vast majority of the revolutionary movement of 1919 to 1921 accepted the Treaty, or the counter-revolution as it has been described above, leaving the question – what exactly was the revolution that was reversed or prevented?

An argument exists that the British proxy-war fought by the pro-Treaty forces succeeded in imposing the British terms demanded for the ending of hostilities.  What the vastly superior forces of the British could have unleashed in a renewed war was instead leveraged in the Treaty negotiations.  This might therefore be characterised as the counter-revolution; except of course that, as we have seen, the new state gradually dispensed with the trappings of Empire and colonial status.  It even eventually got a degree of economic separation from the British when it got itself a new currency – the Euro.  But perhaps this too can be seen as the continuation under a new guise of the counter-revolution, but if it was it was not part of any counter-revolution in 1923 and linking the Troika to the civil war is a bit of a stretch.

In opposition to such a view the historian Diarmaid Ferriter quotes a ‘veteran Irish political correspondent’ James Downey (very recently deceased) in 2012:

“It’s tempting to say that our ancestors won it and that our own generation has thrown it away. Not only tempting, but in important respects true. Undoubtedly we have lost our economic independence and will take a very long time to regain it.

But some of the aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation were never feasible anyway. No country, even the biggest and most powerful, has “unfettered” control of its destinies.

Independent Irish governments did not set out to make Ireland either a Marxist paradise or a dreamy medieval vision on the de Valera model. They set out to make it a normal liberal-democratic, capitalist state.

To a considerable extent they succeeded. They managed the transition from a peasant society to an industrial country reasonably well.

Where they went wrong was not so much in the excesses of the Tiger years — although these have brought us, and will continue to bring us, much suffering — as in the failure, and worse than failure, to curb corruption and what we like to call ‘gombeenism’.

We all know this word and use it constantly, but it is dreadfully hard to define.

It can cover almost anything from dramatic strokes and deals to improper political and business practices to the trading of small favours and abuse of petty power.

It was endemic before independence. It is still endemic. In some ways it is worse than before. Virtually all the measures aimed at putting it down have been insincere or misdirected, ruined by political and official inertia or subverted by the cynical Irish belief that nothing can ever change for the better.

We don’t have to go back 100 years, or 100 days, to watch it in operation. Who believes the Mahon Report will produce any good results? Who thinks the Fine Gael-Labour coalition will eradicate the cronyism that tarnished its predecessors?

We won’t find answers to such sad questions in commemorations. We have to seek them in the here and now.”

In the last two posts we have seen that the revolutionary generation set out to create a separate Irish state, free from British rule, a nationalist objective that they succeeded in achieving – where then is the counter-revolution?  It was from among the survivors of the 1916 Rising that the leadership of the succeeding Irish State arose – so from whom did the counter-revolution arise?

Perhaps it may be claimed that these leaders betrayed their earlier beliefs or at least their earlier declarations of the objectives of the Rising?  But in the second post we explained that the 1916 Proclamation made no grander claims to social and economic revolution upon which it might be possible to condemn the current Irish state as a betrayal of. So again, where is the counter-revolution?

Let us take the politics of the revolutionary nationalist movement during its revolutionary period.

In his recent book ‘A Nation and not a Rabble, the Irish Revolution 1916-1923’ the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, hardly one of the pro-imperialist revisionist historians, records the lack of ideology guiding the political struggle during the revolution.

He states “those looking for evidence of broad, sophisticated ideological debates during the decade may be disappointed”- contrast this with the experience of the Russian revolution!  “Those who propelled the republican revolution were more focussed on the idea of separation from Britain ‘rather than implementing any concrete political programme.’  He quotes one fellow historian that ‘the new nationalist leaders did not see it as necessary to analyse the “self” that was to exercise self-determination’”, and a second historian noting that “the republican leaders ‘do not appear to have debated what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions’.”

Discussing the many statements given by participants to the Bureau of Military History on their motivation and experience of the struggle, Fearghal McGarry states that “there is little discussion of ideology in the statements . . . Volunteering did not popularise republicanism.”  Ferriter quotes from a prominent republican and chronicler of his experience in the revolution: “as Ernie O’Malley saw it ‘fighting was so easy compared with that soul-numbing, uphill fight against one people’s ignorance and prejudice’, his tortured description of politics.”

This does not mean that politics did not exist within the revolutionary movement.  The nationalism of Irish republicanism, as to most nationalists everywhere, seemed uncomplicated and simple, self-evident and pure, nevertheless had a definite political content, even if it was unconscious and sublimated other real societal divisions such as class.  As de Valera and others insisted – patriotism was to rise above all class interests.

The republican paper Irish Freedom put it succinctly in 1911: “The interests of Ireland as a whole are greater than the interests of any class in Ireland, and so long as labour accepts the nation, Labour must subordinate its class interests to the interests of the nation.”

The republican movement was prepared to eject strikers from their place of work while de Valera would say that he felt “confident that the common patriotism of all sections will prove superior to all special class interests.”   Even the radical Constance Markievicz, who became Minister of Labour in the revolutionary government, complained that “the trade unions’ appeal always seems to me to be so very sordid and selfish.  Till something suddenly makes them realise the value of self-sacrifice they will never be much use to humanity.”  And they were not the only ones to suffer disapproval: Cosgrave complained that those unfortunate enough to end up in the workhouse “are no great acquisition to the community . . .  As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers.  Consequently it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate.”

Leading republican Austin Stack “warned of the dangers of agrarian agitation subverting patriotic opinion and pointed to the importance of the republican courts in undermining such revolutionary sentiment.”  In 1921 the republican Irish Bulletin warned that “the mind of the people was being diverted from the struggle for freedom into a class war and there was even a possibility that the IRA, itself largely composed of farmers’ sons, might be affected.”  However it went on to state that this “proved wholly groundless” as “agrarian lawlessness was steadily suppressed, cattle-driving and boundary-breaking punished and ruffianly elements brought to book.”  (Ferriter)

And all this happened before 1923 when the counter-revolution is supposed to have occurred.

But, it might still be claimed, the Irish State is corrupt and its venality exposed by its loss of sovereignty while under the diktats of the Troika of European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.  But when did the Irish revolution ever set itself the tasks of creating conditions that would prevent this?  And if it did not, where was the need for any counter-revolution to reverse or prevent a socially revolutionary regime that would have done so?

At the level of the personalities involved – when and how did the leaders who survived the Rising radically change their political views, that made their participation in the Rising revolutionary but later actions counter-revolutionary?

Perhaps it is claimed that the Irish working class took independent action that threatened not only the contemporary political arrangements that involved direct British rule but also the capitalist economic and social structure of society.  What about the strikes, occupations and events such as the Limerick Soviet?

But when did such actions have an independent dynamic separate from the national struggle, with its own objective, own separate movement and separate leadership?  Not only separate but necessarily counter-posed to the revolutionary nationalist movement (if it were to prevent counter-revolution).

The fear of such a task and appreciation of weakness in even contemplating it has been noted by Ferriter during the Limerick Soviet episode –“ The Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress feared that any escalation in support for Limerick ‘would be entirely on their own heads and lack the enthusiastic national support of Sinn Fein” (even though the Limerick action was against the proclamation of the area as a special military area by the British).

With an agricultural population in the last spasms of land agitation; an industrial sector cut off by partition and its working class divided by sectarianism, the larger part of which was politically reactionary and the remainder industrially weak and politically dominated by nationalism and a soft labourism – how could it be otherwise?

As for the revolutionary nationalists, with their difficulty with politics compared to fighting and their opposition to debating “what may have appeared to be potentially dividing abstractions”, how ironic that this lack of politics led them not only to a debate over abstractions when the Treaty was signed – the oath of allegiance and the existence of an established Republic that was being betrayed  –  but also led them to a vicious civil war over these abstractions.

On only one count is it possible to argue that there was a counter-revolution that betrayed the goals of 1916, even if it was carried out by those who fought in it. And this is the imposition of partition, although this is often the least mentioned and most ignored.

Even a purely nationalist revolution seeks the unity of the country.  Indeed intrinsic to nationalism is the indivisibility of the nation.  So 1916 opposed partition and promised religious equality in the Republic as the alternative to it.  But 1916 could not deliver on its objective and admitted as much.  The Rising that might deliver national freedom was circumscribed by its leaders through their recognition that the Rising could not even carry out a strike against partition.

The organisers of the Rising explicitly prohibited fighting in Ulster, instead planning that Volunteers in the province assemble together in Tyrone and march to Connaught to join the rebellion there.  Even the foolishness of this ill-considered plan revealed the lack of adequacy to addressing the real task of defeating an imperialist-backed mass unionist opposition to the project of a national democracy.

Objectively the 1916 Rising was unable to strike against the coming of partition, which was imposed not during the retreat of the national revolution but at its height of military struggle.  In other words neither 1916 nor the following national revolution could hold out the promise of a defeat of partition and the ‘carnival of reaction’ that would follow it, which was foretold so acutely by Connolly.

So in what respect was there a counter-revolution when that revolution never actually set itself the task of preventing partition in any objective sense?  The revolution could not seriously make the promise of a united nation; that it did not result in one can hardly be put down to the actions of a counter-revolution.


I spoke at a small meeting of socialists in Glasgow just over a week ago and I was asked whether my analysis did not contradict the traditional socialist view that the 1916 Rising was to be defended as a blow against imperialism?

I answered that the Rising was indeed to be defended as a blow against imperialism but that what was important now was to understand its limits, the limits of any politics defined simply  as ‘anti-imperialist’ and any nationalism no matter how ‘left-wing’.

So yes, I agreed with Lenin, 1916 was not a putsch and we should not expect to see a “pure” social revolution, but we should understand that 1916 wasn’t a social revolution of any kind.  In any case if any socialist could be described as seeking the maximum clarity in the struggle for socialism, the maximum ‘purity’ so to speak, it is Lenin, so not expecting to see a pure revolution and doing absolutely everything you can to get one are not in contradiction.

I was also asked the question whether Connolly was correct to take part in the Rising.  I have deliberately avoided this question in my series of posts because I’m not very interested in it.  What I did say was that if Connolly was going to take part he should have had his own Proclamation, his and the Citizen Army’s own declaration of what they were fighting for – a ‘Socialist 1916 Proclamation’.

We might then at the very least have avoided reading into the existing one progressive content that isn’t there and we would have had greater grounds for stating that today’s Irish establishment would be put in a position of some embarrassment in the centenary commemoration.  I would have liked to have seen an Irish Army officer read a declaration of socialist revolution outside the GPO!

Then also we would have had stronger grounds to say that the promise of the 1916 Rising has been betrayed.

Of course the other signatories would not have signed it.  It would have divided the Rising at least politically but then, as we have seen, the republicans divided the revolution to the benefit of certain social classes anyway.

And would Connolly have made the Workers’ Proclamation one of socialist revolution in any case?

What this alternative Proclamation should have said is for socialists the real historical (and contemporary) question not the non-existent promises of a nationalist revolution that socialists are supposed to make good now.

Back to Part 3

Yes to self-determination for Scotland

alexapldev1I was in Glasgow a few weeks ago and was talking about the upcoming independence referendum to my daughter and sister who both live in Scotland, are eligible to vote and are keenly interested in the debate.  They had just watched the latest referendum debate on BBC Scotland during the previous week and we were discussing what they thought about it.

They are both undecided, one having been strongly No, and the other expressing the view that while her heart said Yes her head said No.  Neither had found the contributions from the two sides of the debate wholly convincing or even very enlightening and the claims and counter-claims had caused some confusion as to who was telling the truth.  All this in my view is an inevitable result of the proposal being put forward, which I will come to in a later post.

What was clear to both was that the Yes side was perceived as putting forward something positive, appeared to be expressing optimism and confidence, proposing something apparently constructive and forward-looking.  Whether it was at all persuasive was another matter but inevitably it is compared to the arguments of the No side, which are seen as almost purely negative.

I have written before that a political programme can only truly be judged on what it is for, not what it is against, and this appears as a problem primarily for the No side, which is composed mainly of the Labour Party and the Tories who can hardly present a coherent positive message together that goes much beyond the banal.  On the other hand the Yes side is dominated by the Scottish National Party.

It might be possible to argue that the first principle of politics should be that of the Hippocratic oath – to never do harm.  Thus if one thinks that Scottish independence is wrong that should be good enough to vote against it.  And so it should, except such an outlook would also have to have some view of the thing that is good which is impaired by independence.

The debate has revolved around the nature of the new currency, possible membership of the European Union, the strength of an independent Scottish economy and the view that an independent Scotland would in some sense be a fairer one.  There are a host of other reasons that again I will come to.

For a socialist the reason to support independence must be that in some way it is a move towards socialism, makes it easier to achieve socialism or at least results in a less onerous form of capitalism.

Since, not surprisingly, the debate has assumed no revolutionary change to the existing economic system, and those advocating independence as a route to socialism are very much a minority in the Yes camp, it is on the last ground – that independence will involve a less onerous form of capitalism – that it might seem most necessary to come to a view.

In my view this would be wrong.  Not because the immediate impacts for working people of independence of a still capitalist Scotland are unimportant but because socialism is necessary for workers even while it is not currently any sort of immediate possibility given the current weakness of the socialist and workers’ movement.  This is obviously, after all, a decision with long term consequences.

This weakness only demonstrates its importance negatively, through the fundamental problems of capitalism being essentially unaltered by the particular national form that capitalism takes.  This has been demonstrated by the effects of the financial crisis on a wide variety of countries and the political crises in the various parts of the world it has given a major impulse to, including most recently the Ukraine.  The financial crisis impacted on all capitalist countries and if one believes, as one should, that the underlying causes have certainly not disappeared but in fact only grown then the nature of the economic system remains the fundamental question regardless of the form of the state.

In this respect it is amusing to hear both sides’ claims in the referendum debate about the risks that would exist in an independent Scotland – when the Yes side point to the oil and the No side points to the very large banking industry that the Scottish state could not afford to bail out should another financial crisis break out.

What both sides do is invite comparisons which show how fundamentally similar the Scottish and wider UK economy are.  Oil could provide a larger revenue base for a Scottish State (at least for a while) and another financial crisis has the potential to blow it out of the water. The UK state would have a proportionately smaller revenue base from oil but would be proportionately less blown up.  What a choice.

A few days ago I came across another striking comparison of the Scottish and UK states here .

So it is on the basis that independence must in some way be a move towards socialism or makes it easier to achieve that a view on the independence vote must be taken, at least if one is convinced in some way by the need for socialism.  And this task involves raising the horizon of the debate in such a way that events that seem very far away, such as the Ukraine, can be incorporated into an understanding of the issues at stake.  It is commonplace to say that we live in an interconnected world, but just how is this world interconnected and how should it be connected?  At least it is obvious that the question of national independence raises these issues.

The standard view as understood by Marxists was recently set out in Boffy’s Blog here, repeating the words of Lenin about the view of Marxists (here called Social-Democrats) on the rights of nations to determine their own future, which applies to Scotland today:

“The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination.”

“As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.”

The Scottish people therefore have the right to self-determination and the referendum gives them the opportunity to exercise that right.  How they do so is another matter and it is entirely possible for the exercise of the right to self-determination to mean continued unity with Wales and England.

The creation of a separate state is only one possible means of expressing self-determination and it would be a mistake to seek to measure the degree of independence attained as if some absolute and complete independence could be achieved.

This is not possible and seeking it only sets one off on an impossible nationalist quest for ‘real’ independence for a new Scottish state, which is doubly impossible for a small nation.  In other words absolute state self-determination is impossible, which means it can both permanently be put it on the agenda of nationalists, especially left ones, and leads to permanent failure.

Alex Salmond of the SNP has criticised the “bluff, bullying and bluster” coming from leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats, particularly their rejecting use of sterling by a new independent state.  The intervention of the later is of course all these things but Salmond and other nationalist are in no position to complain too much for this is also a ‘welcome to the world of nation states’ where bluff, bullying and bluster is the name of the game and the name of the game they seek to join.  Figures from the European Union have also weighed in to exercise their right to bully and the nationalist campaign seeks to be fully paid up and contributing members of the bullying club.

The meaning of the second part of Lenin’s argument – the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations – has been explained on this blog again and again and again.  It involves rejecting the view that socialism is the result of action by the state through, for example, it taking ownership of production or taxing the rich or spending more.  An examination of this approach in Ireland is set out here , here and here.

Self-determination of the proletariat means the creation of independent trade unions irrespective of workers’ nationality so that they can more forcefully mitigate the bullying and exploitation of capitalism – Scottish, British, Irish or otherwise – and the national divisions of workers promoted.  Such organisations are the means by which they can gain some control over their working lives.

This is taken further through the creation of workers’ cooperatives in which workers can free themselves of the bluster and bullying of owners and managers over whom they have no control and instead build the foundations of a new society based on equality of ownership and power.

It means creation of a political Party through which they can educate themselves about the bluff, bullying and bluster of current politics and find within it a basis for struggling for the creation of a new society that fulfills their desires because it is their creation.

It should therefore be obvious that the self-determination of nations, which is defined and relies on the independent power of the state, is not at all the same as the self-determination of the working class, which is not divided by nationality and is not subordinated or defined by the state.  Not only are they not the same by definition but they cannot be reconciled.

The experience of Ireland is that even the most militant nationalist movement does not lead to socialism even when it is based on a struggle against oppression.

So where does this leave the socialist argument for Scottish independence?  Well, the relationship between independence and the self-determination of the working class involves a number of questions and I shall take these up in future posts.

Lenin and nationalisation

144px-Lenin_perfilIn an earlier post I outlined the founders of Marxism opposition to confusing socialism, or the road to socialism, with capitalist state ownership.  I wanted to follow that up with a look at the views of Lenin.  When I did it would appear that the argument of opposition to state ownership is not advanced, in fact it is contradicted, and at best it might have to be modified.

This is because in the middle of the Russian Revolution, in fact in the weeks before the October revolution, Lenin wrote ‘The Impending Catastrophe and how to Combat it’ which sets out what appears a completely different approach.

The first thing that struck me about this short document is the title.  It does not promise a solution.  It does not declare ‘The Impending Catastrophe and how to Solve it’.  In fact the first sentence states ‘unavoidable catastrophe is threatening Russia’.  With all due regard to the much less severe crisis currently affecting Ireland there is something to be learnt from accepting that the job of socialists is not always to promise pain-free solutions to workers but to persuade them that they have to fight.

The problem is stated concretely and what’s more it is stated that everyone knows and says what the solution is.  This is “control, supervision, accounting, regulation by the state, introduction of a proper distribution of labour-power in the production and distribution of goods, husbanding of the people’s forces, the elimination of all wasteful effort, economy of effort.  Control, supervision and accounting are the prime requisites for combating catastrophe and famine. This is indisputable and universally recognised.”

Lenin proposes nationalisation of the banks but makes no claim that this is any sort of confiscation of private property.  In fact he is keen to emphasise how little difference it makes in this respect:

“If nationalisation of the banks is so often confused with the confiscation of private property, it is the bourgeois press, which has an interest in deceiving the public, that is to blame for this widespread confusion.”

“The ownership of the capital wielded by and concentrated in the banks is certified by printed and written certificates called shares, bonds, bills, receipts, etc. Not a single one of these certificates would be invalidated or altered if the banks were nationalised, i.e., if all the banks were amalgamated into a single state bank. Whoever owned fifteen rubles on a savings account would continue to be the owner of fifteen rubles after the nationalisation of the banks; and whoever had fifteen million rubles would continue after the nationalisation of the banks to have fifteen million rubles in the form of shares, bonds, bills, commercial certificates and so on.”

However he states that having done so “it is impossible to nationalise the banks alone, without proceeding to create a state monopoly of commercial and industrial syndicates (sugar, coal, iron, oil, etc.), and without nationalising them.”  Again the limitations of what is involved is stated – “All that remains to be done here is to transform reactionary-bureaucratic regulation into revolutionary-democratic regulation by simple decrees providing for the summoning of a congress of employees, engineers, directors and shareholders, for the introduction of uniform accountancy, for control by the workers’ unions, etc. This is an exceedingly simple thing, yet it has not been done! . . . and this could and should be done in a few days, at a single stroke.”

Where, as in the oil industry, the owners sabotage these plans and production generally Lenin proposed that they may have their property confiscated.  While all this was to be the task of the revolutionary-democratic state “the initiative of the workers and other employees must be drawn on; they must be immediately summoned to conferences and congresses; a certain proportion of the profits must be assigned to them, provided they institute overall control and increase production.”

The purpose was to increase production and stave off complete economic collapse and consequent famine, which was made all the more probable by the mismanagement and sabotage of the capitalist owners.  This required workers control, which meant workers supervision of existing management – not workers sole management and control never mind capitalist expropriation and workers ownership.  Abolition of commercial secrecy was proposed in order to make this control effective and democratic.  Under workers ownership the question of commercial secrecy would not arise as the owners with the secrets would be the workers.

Lenin was at pains to point out that what he was proposing was not socialism. “This is why I have already stated in Pravda that people who counter us with the argument that socialism cannot be introduced are liars, and barefaced liars at that, because it is not a question of introducing socialism now, directly, overnight, but of exposing plunder of the state .”

What he was proposing was not new.  “It might be thought that the Bolsheviks were proposing something unknown to history, something that has never been tried before, some thing “utopian”, while, as a matter of fact, even 125 years ago, in France, people who were real “revolutionary democrats”, who were really convinced of the just and defensive character of the war they were waging, who really had popular support and were sincerely convinced of this, were able to establish revolutionary control over the rich and to achieve results which earned the admiration of the world. And in the century and a quarter that have since elapsed, the development of capitalism, which resulted in the creation of banks, syndicates, railways and so forth, has greatly facilitated and simplified the adoption of measures of really democratic control by the workers and peasants over the exploiters, the landowners and capitalists.”

The exploiters, landowners and capitalists were not being abolished.  Indeed far from it.  They were to be organised!  Capitalism was to be developed!

“Compulsory syndication, i.e., compulsory association, of the industrialists, for example, is already being practised in Germany. Nor is there anything new in it.” The political opponents of the Bolsheviks were blamed for not carrying this out.  “Compulsory syndication is, on the one hand, a means whereby the state, as it were, expedites capitalist development . . . The German law, for instance, binds the leather manufacturers of a given locality or of the whole country to form an association, on the board of which there is a representative of the state for the purpose of control. A law of this kind does not directly, i.e., in itself, affect property relations in any way; it does not deprive any owner of a single kopek and does not predetermine whether the control is to be exercised in a reactionary-bureaucratic or a revolutionary-democratic form, direction or spirit. Such laws can and should be passed in our country immediately, without wasting a single week of precious time.”

The primary responsibility for implementation of this was to belong to the capitalists themselves.  “And it must be repeated that this unionisation will not in itself alter property relations one iota and will not deprive any owner of a single kopek. This circumstance must be strongly stressed, for the bourgeois press constantly “frightens” small and medium proprietors by asserting that socialists in general, and the Bolsheviks in particular, want to “expropriate” them—a deliberately false assertion, as socialists do not intend to, cannot and will not expropriate the small peasant even if there is a fully socialist revolution. All the time we are speaking only of the immediate and urgent measures, which have already been introduced in Western Europe and which a democracy that is at all consistent ought to introduce immediately in our country to combat the impending and inevitable catastrophe.”

So what are the political conceptions behind Lenin’s demands which he is clear do not amount to socialism?

“And what is the state? It is an organisation of the ruling class — in Germany, for instance, of the Junkers and capitalists. And therefore what the German Plekhanovs (Scheidemann, Lensch, and others) call “war-time socialism” is in fact war-time state-monopoly capitalism, or, to put it more simply and clearly, war-time penal servitude for the workers and war-time protection for capitalist profits.”

“Now try to substitute for the Junker-capitalist state, for the landowner-capitalist state, a revolutionary-democratic state, i.e., a state which in a revolutionary way abolishes all privileges and does not fear to introduce the fullest democracy in a revolutionary way. You will find that, given a really revolutionary-democratic state, state- monopoly capitalism inevitably and unavoidably implies a step, and more than one step, towards socialism!”

“For if a huge capitalist undertaking becomes a monopoly, it means that it serves the whole nation. If it has become a state monopoly, it means that the state (i.e., the armed organisation of the population, the workers and peasants above all, provided there is revolutionary democracy) directs the whole undertaking. In whose interest?”

“Either in the interest of the landowners and capitalists, in which case we have not a revolutionary-democratic, but a reactionary-bureaucratic state, an imperialist republic.”

“Or in the interest of revolutionary democracy—and then it is a step towards socialism.”

“For socialism is merely the next step forward from state-capitalist monopoly. Or, in other words, socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly.”

What Lenin is therefore saying is that the measures he proposes go no further in many cases than what exists in Western Europe but while implemented by a revolutionary-democratic state, i.e. not a workers’ state, they are a step towards socialism.  What is then decisive is the character of the state.

These measures gain their democratic and revolutionary character from the state – remember this is a state that has already resulted from a revolution, one that had overthrown a centuries-old monarchical regime, was headed by avowed Marxists and was subject to a situation of dual power where workers, soldiers and peasants organisations were vying for effective and official power with the institutions of this state.  How different is this from the idea that these measures, such as nationalisation, in themselves are socialist even when implemented by a right-wing government at the head of an established capitalist state implementing the diktats of the combined powers of European imperialism!

For the purposes of this very limited argument all this should be clear and its relevance and application to the political programme of today’s left also clear.

What concrete purpose does nationalisation of the banks serve in Ireland today?  Their nationalisation was the practical means to saddle the working class with the debts of large sections of the capitalist class.  This is obvious to everyone.  Is there any sign that the usefulness and correctness of this policy has been questioned?  Unfortunately not, instead the United Left Alliance demands “full nationalisation with direct public control of the banks”.  The same, but more so.  As was said of the Bourbon dynasty in France, ‘they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing’.

Related, but much wider, issues arise from this booklet by Lenin and the quotations cited that we shall not go into.  For example Lenin states: “that capitalism in Russia has also become monopoly capitalism is sufficiently attested by the examples of the Produgol, the Prodamet, the Sugar Syndicate, etc. This Sugar Syndicate is an object-lesson in the way monopoly capitalism develops into state-monopoly capitalism” and that “given a really revolutionary-democratic state, state-monopoly capitalism inevitably and unavoidably implies a step, and more than one step, towards socialism!”  This may gloss the undeveloped character of Russian economy and society as a whole.

Secondly the view that “if a huge capitalist undertaking becomes a monopoly, it means that it serves the whole nation. If it has become a state monopoly, it means that the state . . . directs the whole undertaking. In whose interest?  Either in the interest of the landowners and capitalists, in which case we have not a revolutionary-democratic, but a reactionary-bureaucratic state, an imperialist republic.  Or in the interest of revolutionary democracy—and then it is a step towards socialism.”  This takes a view that the state, even if “revolutionary-democratic”, can effectively act as the vehicle for working class emancipation without workers ownership of the means of production.  While Lenin calls for workers control we have seen how limited this is.  We have also to consider of course the long debate about the ambiguity of the formula of “revolutionary-democratic”.

It is not our purpose to debate these other issues here and regard must be had to the limited purposes of Lenin’s own booklet, the rather telescoped and formulaic end to it and his qualification that the revolutionary-democratic state tasks in relation to the economic crisis are “a step towards socialism” and not socialism itself.

The purpose of this post has rather been to set out that even where Lenin puts forward the demand for nationalisation it is not as a socialist programme but as one that is a precursor to it. In addition it assumes a state of a very different form and in a very different position from the one that many on the Left today call on to carry out tasks that should be those of the working class itself.