Again 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”.
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.