Revolutionary Restraint

Paris Commune barricade

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 52

Since the ideas we now consider ‘Marxism’ did not spring whole and fully formed in one go it is necessary to address at least some of the many judgements Marx and Engels made about the proximity of revolution and its prerequisites, notwithstanding their caution and realism as addressed in the previous post.

These included the view that England (by which we should understand Britain as a whole), was by far the most advanced nation and was key to revolutionary prospects on the Continent, while later considering that ‘the English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland.’ (Letter from Marx to Engels December 1869)

In the process of their activism, they set out numerous statements on the preconditions for working class action and socialism.  In 1865 Engels wrote The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers’ Party, in which he set out one basic condition for the struggle:

‘Even if the worst came to the worst and the bourgeoisie was to scurry under the skirts of reaction for fear of the workers, and appeal to the power of those elements hostile to itself for protection against them—even then the workers’ party would have no choice but, notwithstanding the bourgeoisie, to continue its campaign for bourgeois freedom, freedom of the press and rights of assembly and association which the bourgeoisie had betrayed. Without these freedoms it will be unable to move freely itself; in this struggle it is fighting to establish the environment necessary for its existence, for the air it needs to breathe.’  (Collected Works Volume 20, p78)

In fact, it can be said that the strategy and tactics of Marx and Engels in all their struggles are precisely to strengthen and prepare the working class for its social revolution, to create in so far as it can the conditions and prerequisites for its success.  Some, of course, are more fundamental than others and we cannot dig up quotes from over a century ago to justify political positions now without appreciation of the context then and today.

So, Engels advised German socialist August Bebel in 1879 of a principle that:

‘Social-Democratic deputies must always uphold the vital principle of consenting to nothing that increases the power of the government vis-à-vis the people.’ (Collected Works Volume 45, pp423-4)

He wrote to the same German socialist in 1884:

‘No party, unless it was lying, has ever denied the right to armed resistance in certain circumstances. None has ever been able to renounce that ultimate right.

‘But once the debate begins to turn on the circumstances in which a party may reserve that right, the game is already won. The whole thing becomes progressively more nonsensical. Particularly in the case of a party that has been declared illegal and is thus actually reduced by higher authority to resorting to revolution. And such a declaration of illegality, having been made once already, might recur any day. To demand an unconditional statement of this kind from such a party is utterly preposterous.’

‘Nor, for that matter, have the gentlemen anything to worry about. The military position being what it now is, we shall not go into action so long as we have a military power against us. We can bide our time until that military power ceases to be a power against us. Any revolution prior to that, even a victorious one, would bring to power, not ourselves, but the most radical elements of the bourgeoisie and/or petty bourgeoisie.’ (’ Collected Works Volume 47, pp223)

Once again, we have revolutionary strategy grounded on material circumstances and once again a warning of premature action, the result of which would be the success not of the working class party but of its enemy or competitor.

Most famously, Marx counselled revolutionary restraint to French workers regarding its new bourgeois republic following France’s defeat by Bismark’s Germany in 1870, in the prelude to the creation of the Paris Commune:

‘The French working class moves, therefore, under circumstances of extreme difficulty. Any attempt at upsetting the new Government in the present crisis, when the enemy is almost knocking at the doors of Paris, would be a desperate folly. The French workmen must perform their duties as citizens; but, at the same time, they must not allow themselves to be deluded by the ‘national souvenirs’ of 1792 . . .   They have not to recapitulate the past, but to build up the future. Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of Republican liberty, for the work of their own class organisation.’ Karl Marx, Second Address of the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association on the Franco-Prussian War 1870 (Collected Works Volume 22 p269)

Engels wrote to Marx: ‘Dupont has just left. He spent the evening here and was furious about this beautiful Paris proclamation. . .  His views on the case are perfectly clear and accurate: make use of the freedoms inevitably granted by the republic to organise the party in France; act when occasion presents itself, once organisation has been completed; the International to be held on a leash in France until after peace has been concluded.’ (Engels to Marx 1870, Collected Works Volume 44, p67)

Of course, as revolutionaries they energetically supported the Commune rising once it had begun but their main contribution was to learn its lessons for the workers that followed, among which we have noted before:  ‘They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.’

In a letter to a Dutch socialist in 1881, a decade after the Commune, Marx said that:

‘The forthcoming Zurich Congress’s ‘question’ which you mention would seem to me a mistake.1 What is to be done, and done immediately at any given, particular moment in the future, depends, of course, wholly and entirely on the actual historical circumstances in which action is to be taken. But the said question, being posed out of the blue, in fact poses a fallacious problem to which the only answer can be a critique of the question as such. We cannot solve an equation that does not comprise within its terms the elements of its solution.’

‘Come to that, there is nothing specifically ‘socialist’ about the predicaments of a government that has suddenly come into being as a result of a popular victory. On the contrary. Victorious bourgeois politicians immediately feel constrained by their ‘victory’, whereas a socialist is at least able to intervene without constraint.’

‘Of one thing you may be sure — a socialist government will not come to the helm in a country unless things have reached a stage at which it can, before all else, take such measures as will so intimidate the mass of the bourgeoisie as to achieve the first desideratum — time for effective action.’

‘You may, perhaps, refer me to the Paris Commune but, aside from the fact that this was merely an uprising of one city in exceptional circumstances, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it have been. With a modicum of COMMON SENSE, it could, however, have obtained the utmost that was then obtainable — a compromise with Versailles beneficial to the people as a whole. The appropriation of the Banque de France alone would have rapidly put an end to the vainglory of Versailles, etc., etc.’  (Marx letter to Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis London, 22 February 1881 (Collected Works Volume 46, p66) 

  1. This refers to an International Socialist Congress to be convened in Switzerland to discuss the establishment of a new International. The congress took place not in Zurich (the Zurich cantonal council forbade it), but in Chur between 2 and 4 October 1881. It was attended by delegates of socialist parties from 12 countries. The congress decided against forming a new International. In his letter to Marx of 6 January 1881 Nieuwenhuis expressed the intention of the Dutch Social Democrats to discuss at the congress the immediate laws to be passed in the political and economic fields by the socialists should they come to power (footnote 100 to Marx and Engels Collected Works Volume 46, p 489)

Back to part 51

Forward to part 53

A prolonged birth for socialism

France (19th c.). Workers’ movement. Strike of miners in Pas-de-Calais. The strikers’s demonstration on the streets of the city. Engraving. FRANCE. Paris. National Library.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 51

Marx was always clear that the creation of socialism following the conquest of political power would be a long-drawn-out process, after emerging through ‘prolonged birth pangs’ from capitalist society (Critique of the Gotha Programme).

In an early idealism-tinged writing in Deutsche-Franz­sische Jahrbrucher he wrote that:

‘[We] must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way.  The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in the womb.’ 

Following the failure of the 1848 revolutions Marx was involved in a dispute inside the Communist League over the remaining potential for revolution. He set out this summary of the issues arising:

‘In the last debate on “the position of the German proletariat in the next revolution” views were expressed by members of the minority on the Central Authority which directly clash with those in the last circular but one and even the Manifesto. A German national standpoint was substituted for the universal outlook of the Manifesto, and the national feelings of the German artisans were pandered to.’

‘The materialist standpoint of the Manifesto has given way to idealism. The revolution is seen not as the product of realities of the situation but as the result of an effort of will. Whereas we say to the workers: You have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war to go through in order to alter the situation and to train yourselves for the exercise of power, it is said: We must take power at once, or else we may as well take to our beds.’

‘. . . As for personal sacrifice, I have given up as much as anyone; but for the class and not for individuals. And as for enthusiasm, not much enthusiasm is needed to belong to a party when you believe that it is on the point of seizing power. I have always defied the momentary opinions of the proletariat. We are devoted to a party which, most fortunately for it, cannot yet come to power. If the proletariat were to come to power the measures it would introduce would be petty-bourgeois and not directly proletarian. Our party can come to power only when the conditions allow it to put its own views into practice. Louis Blanc is the best instance of what happens when you come to power prematurely.’

‘In France, moreover, it isn’t the proletariat alone that gains power but the peasants and the petty bourgeois as well, and it will have to carry out not its, but their measures. The Paris Commune [1792–94] shows that one need not be in the government to accomplish something.’ (Meeting of the Central Authority September 15, 1850, Collected Works p626, 628–9) 

Engels reflected similar concerns when he wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer in April 1853: 

‘This time we shall start off straight away with the Manifesto thanks largely to the Cologne trial in which German communism (most notably through Röser) has passed its matriculation.’

‘All this, of course, relates merely to theory; in practice we shall, as always, be reduced to insisting above all on resolute measures and absolute ruthlessness. And that’s the pity of it. I have a feeling that one fine day, thanks to the helplessness and spinelessness of all the others, our party will find itself forced into power, whereupon it will have to enact things that are not immediately in our own, but rather in the general, revolutionary and specifically petty-bourgeois interest; in which event, spurred on by the proletarian populus and bound by our own published statements and plans—more or less wrongly interpreted and more or less impulsively pushed through in the midst of party strife—we shall find ourselves compelled to make communist experiments and leaps which no one knows better than ourselves to be untimely.’ (Collected Works Volume 39 p308–9)

This concern at the potential for the party of the working class to be exposed to premature revolution might now be seen as an anachronism, but it is not, and arises not just from insufficient development of what are usually understood as subjective conditions (wrongly reduced to the insufficient size of some candidate for a revolutionary party), but also from insufficient attention to the requirements of objective conditions, which have been set out a number of times in these posts, as for example in this one

Much later, in his address on the Paris Commune in 1871, we see Marx also acknowledge the long process of development required of the struggle of the working class, along with the effects of the development of capitalism itself:

‘The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.’  

In the first draft of The Civil War in France he writes that:

‘The working class know that they have to pass through different phases of class struggle. They know that the superseding of the economical conditions of the slavery of labour by the conditions of free and associated labour can only be the progressive work of time (that economical transformation), that they require not only a change of distribution, but a new organisation of production, or rather the delivery (setting free) of the social forms of production in present organised labour (engendered by present industry) . . . . ‘

‘They know that the present “spontaneous action of the natural laws of capital and landed property” can only be superseded by “the spontaneous action of the laws of the social economy of free and associated labour” by a long process of development of new conditions, as was the “spontaneous action of the economic laws of slavery” and the “spontaneous action of the economical laws of serfdom.” But they know at the same time that great strides may be [made] at once through the Communal form of political organization and that the time has come to begin that movement for themselves and mankind.’

The struggle of the working class will therefore involve a long process of development before and after political revolution and these struggles are just as much a precondition for its success as the development of the forces of production from which they cannot really be divorced.

He compared workers’ revolution with the bourgeois one in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, including as a result of conditions that demanded it:

‘Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day – but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long crapulent depression takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly.’

‘On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticise themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:  Hic Rhodus, hic salta!  [Here is the rose, here dance!]’

How much could that model of socialist revolution – the Russian one – be subject to such interrogation given that it was not simply a workers’ revolution but a bourgeois one as well? 

Back to part 50

Forward to part 52

The role of capitalist crisis in socialist revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 50

Marx notes that commercial crises ‘by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society.’ (Collected Works Vol 6 p 490)

Whether capitalism is then found guilty is a matter of objective conditions and the class struggle, with its own requirements for success.  We know however that it is not the case that crises are each time more threatening.  Like many statements in the Communist Manifesto it is a political declaration, a proclamation of belief and exhortation to action written in broad strokes, not a studied analysis.  In other words, a manifesto.

Capitalist crises nevertheless were considered to play an important role in determining the potential for revolution, even if in themselves they did not answer to the possibility of success.  In a letter to Bernstein in January 1882, Engels wrote:

‘The fact that these crises are one of the most powerful levers in political upheavals has already been stated in the Communist Manifesto and is explained in the review section of the Neue Reinische Zeitung up to and including 1848, but it is also explained that the returning prosperity also breaks revolutions and lays the foundations for the victory of reaction.’

It should be noted that this refers to political revolution, that is those social convulsions causing or attempting to cause more or less important changes to the Government or State, and not to the fundamental class structure that supports them.  That this is under-appreciated is because the former is conflated with the latter since it is assumed that that there is little social transition before capture of state power by the working class and that the new state structure is what will be constitutive of the new social relations of production.

That this is the case is understandable since it is possible to find statements by Marx and Engels about the role of a new workers’ state arising from crisis and revolution that is consistent with this view and we have addressed this before in a number of posts beginning here.

In relation to views on the relation of crises to revolution we can record the view here:

‘The virtual repeal of the act of 1847 will force manufacturers into such a rush of overtrading that revulsions upon revulsions will follow, so that very soon all the expedients and resources of the present system will be exhausted and a revolution, made inevitable, which, uprooting society far deeper than 1793 and 1848 ever did, will speedily lead to the political and social ascendancy of the proletarians . . .’  (The Ten Hours Question, Collected Works Volume 10 p 275-6)

The quotation above, written by Engels in February 1850, betrayed his over-optimistic view at that time, following the 1848 revolutions across much of Europe.  Capitalism proved more dynamic and adaptive than allowed for, and the preconditions for the political and social revolution envisaged were much greater than existed at that point, even in the most advanced society. 

Both Marx and Engels were enthusiasts of revolution and sometimes optimistic about its proximity and success.  But optimism was always tempered by more realistic evaluation when it came to specifying the line of march, and Marx in particular showed remarkable realism in assessing revolutionary opportunities when they appeared to arise. 

He continued after 1848 to analyse economic developments with a view to their potential impact on the potential for revolution, this time from the crisis in 1857:

‘`What the most far- sighted politicians now are sure of is an enlarged edition not only of the crisis of 1847 but also of the revolutions of 1848 … In 1848 the movements which more immediately produced the Revolution were of a merely political character … Now, on the contrary, a social revolution is generally understood, even before the political revolution is proclaimed; and a social revolution brought about by no underground plots of the secret societies among the working classes, but by the public contrivances of the Crédits Mobiliers of the ruling classes.’

Here, Marx not only looks to the potential for political revolution but also argues that the development of capitalism itself is bringing about a social revolution. Of course, much of this speculation was in private correspondence so cannot be presented as considered political statements (to be carried forward as holy writ into the 21st century).

Hal Draper is right when he excoriates those who quote Marx to advance whatever and any purpose they have: ‘I have seen remarks by Marx that were hastily dashed off in a letter to a friend, or a few words jotted down in a note, solemnly quoted (without identification) as if they were long-pondered programmatic statements every syllable of which had been thought out for its exact scientific meaning–indeed, even without regard to other statements on the subject of greater reliability.’

So, in relation to the crisis of 1857 Engels wrote to Marx that ‘this time it is coming properly, now it’s a case of do or die.’  Yet Engels did not want the crisis to develop too quickly, hoping for ‘a period of chronic pressure . . . to get the people’s blood up.’  (Marx to Engels 1857) Yet later Engels noted that ‘there are as yet few signs of revolution . . .’  Marx wrote to Engels drawing comfort from an apparent recovery: `The momentary lull in the crisis is, or so it seems to me, most advantageous to our interests –- party interests, I mean’ (Letter Marx to Engels Jan 1858, CW Vol 40, p243).  You could almost make what you want out of such quotations if you were prepared to be selective.

Reviewing their attitude during this period Simon Clarke (‘Marx’s Theory of Crisis’ p119) says 

‘Marx and Engels were certainly excited by the onset of the crisis of 1857, but despite their optimistic rhetoric, they didn’t really seem to have much expectation that anything would come of it, they didn’t throw themselves into political activity, and did not appear surprised when the crisis passed, leaving only minor dislocations in its wake.  Nevertheless, the crisis, and its failure to develop according to the course anticipated by Marx, provided the stimulus for Marx to return to his economic studies . . .’

This alerts us to awareness that Marx didn’t arrive at ‘Marxism’ at one (relatively early) point in his political life and spend the rest of it setting it out.  He learned, as we all do, as we go along; consider, for example, the lessons he learned as a 53 year-old from the Paris Commune in 1871 when he wrote of ‘the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.’

Clarke goes on to recognise that the ‘ identification of the contradictory foundation of capitalist accumulation and crisis is the basis on which the emphasis of Marx’s theoretical attention moves away from crisis, which has very little part to play in his later works, just as politically Marx moved away from the apocalyptic vision of the revolution as a political event precipitated by a crisis, to the vision of the revolution as the culmination of a longer struggle to build a working class movement’. (Marx’s Theory of Crisis’ p 175). Clarke also makes a similar point in relation to war.1

‘We have seen that through the 1850s Marx looked to the onset of the crisis as the precipitant of an upsurge of working class militancy, which would provide the driving force of the coming revolution. This expectation was based on little more than wishful thinking, for nowhere in their works did Marx or Engels spell out precisely how they saw such a development taking place, and they certainly had little faith in the ability of any of the revolutionary groupings with which they were loosely associated to provide a political focus for such a revolutionary upsurge. They hailed the crisis of 1857 as the herald of the revolution, but when it passed without significant political incident they didn’t express any surprise, nor feel any need for a re-evaluation of their position. Although the rapid recovery from crisis prevented the expected revolutionary upsurge from happening, it also swept Proudhon and his followers from the political stage.’ (Clarke p248 print edition)’ 

‘Thus the theory of crises plays a rapidly diminishing role in Marx’s work after 1862, to be replaced by an emphasis on the secular tendencies of capitalist accumulation, just as the conception of revolution as the culmination of struggles unleashed by economic crisis is replaced by a conception of revolution as the outcome of an extended period of class development.’  (Clarke p 245)

Clarke might be said to summarise his reading of the relationship between Marx’s analysis of capital and politics at the end of his book:

‘The focus of orthodox Marxism on general crises, as opposed to the permanently contradictory and crisis ridden character of capital accumulation, has equally proved a distraction. Although Marx and Engels bolstered their revolutionary faith by appealing to the inevitable crisis, in practice they quietly abandoned the illusion that the revolution would be precipitated by a general crisis when that of 1857 turned out to be a damp squib’

‘By the time that Marx wrote the first volume of Capital the emphasis of his analysis of capitalism was on the secular tendencies of capitalist development, the tendency to the concentration and centralisation of capital, to the polarisation of wealth and poverty, the coexistence of overwork and unemployment, and to the increasing instability of social existence which underlay the development of the organised working class. The crisis is no longer a cataclysmic effect, it is a part of the normal pattern of capitalist accumulation, the pattern of overaccumulation and crisis that underlies the permanence of the class struggle as capitalists seek to resolve the crisis tendencies of accumulation at the expense of the working class.’ (Clarke p 285)

  1. ‘Through the 1860s and early 1870s Marx looked to war rather than economic crisis as the precipitant of the political development of the working class. By the middle 1870s, however, Marx and Engels had come to see war, like crises, as events which divided and demoralised the working class.

Engels wrote to Sorge that the old international was now dead, as national rivalries and differences emerged after the fall of the Paris Commune (04.08.74). Marx clearly regarded a further war as a barrier to the progress of the working class. `A new war is inevitable au peu plus tôt, au peu plus tard, and before its conclusion there are hardly likely to be any violent popular movements anywhere.’ (Marx to Kugelman 18.05.74, CW45, 18)

`General European conditions are such as to increasingly wage a general European war. We shall have to pass through it before there can be any thought of decisive overt activity on the part of the European working class.’ (Marx to Sorge, 12-17.09.74, CW45, 30)’

Back to part 49

Forward to part 51

The role of the workers’ state

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 44

In the previous post we noted that state ownership appeared an inevitable progression of the capitalist mode of production and could be read as a tendency to complete its development, with ‘the partial recognition of the social character of the productive forces forced upon the capitalists themselves. Taking over of the great institutions for production and communication, first by joint-stock companies, later in by trusts, then by the State. (All quotations from Engels’ Socialism Utopian and Scientific)

Such an outcome would not be socialism as some political tendencies might suggest with their programmes for widespread nationalisation: ‘the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces.’ 

The state guarantees (including ownership in many cases) of the financial system after the financial crash in 2008 illustrated almost perfectly the growing role of the state in supporting the whole constitution of the existing mode of production.  The world-wide assumption of guarantees of employment and business survival during the Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed this.  It is unfortunate that rather than highlight this, much of the left has called for even greater state intervention, further sowing illusions in its potentially progressive role.

So, if Engels made it clear that capitalist state ownership is not socialism, a second question was nevertheless raised: is ownership by a workers’ state socialist even if ownership by the capitalist state is not?

Engels says: ‘Whilst the capitalist mode of production more and more completely transforms the great majority of the population into proletarians, it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution. Whilst it forces on more and more of the transformation of the vast means of production, already socialized, into State property, it shows itself the way to accomplishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into State property.’

So, it would appear that the seizure of the means of production by the workers’ state constitutes the decisive opening of the road to socialism, and some form of state socialism may indeed be the genuine article. (Although the wording here is rather peculiar, for while capitalism more and more transforms the ‘vast means of production . . . into state property’ the proletariat through its revolution is to turn it ‘into state property’–to complete the transformation?)

Except Engels immediately goes on to say this:         

‘But, in doing this, it abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinction and class antagonisms, abolishes also the State as State. Society, thus far, based upon class antagonisms, had need of the State. That is, of an organization of the particular class which was, pro tempore, the exploiting class, an organization for the purpose of preventing any interference from without with the existing conditions of production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited classes in the condition of oppression corresponding with the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom, wage-labour).’

‘The State was the official representative of society as a whole; the gathering of it together into a visible embodiment. But, it was this only in so far as it was the State of that class which itself represented, for the time being, society as a whole: in ancient times, the State of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, the feudal lords; in our own times, the bourgeoisie.’

‘When, at last, it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a State, is no longer necessary. The first act by virtue of which the State really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a State.’

‘State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not “abolished”. It dies out.  This gives the measure of the value of the phrase: “a free State”, both as to its justifiable use at times by agitators, and as to its ultimate scientific inefficiency; and also of the demands of the so-called anarchists for the abolition of the State out of hand.’

How do we avoid the conclusion that what is being proposed is that upon the socialist political revolution the new workers’ state that has gained ownership and control of the means of production through that revolution begins to disappear?  Does this mean workers should struggle to enormously expand the power and scope of the state only in order for it to then more or less rapidly shrink and disappear?

To jump straight to a conclusion–the alternative is not to demand state ownership under capitalism, or to seek it under a workers’ state, but to struggle for workers’ ownership, that is for cooperative production by the working class and this ownership and control to encompass the whole economy.

It is the workers organised as producers that represents ‘society as a whole’, as required by Engels, and which can ‘openly and directly take possession’ of the productive forces and manage them, not any sort of state.  Even a democratic workers’ state is an organised body of repression separate from the working class; any other definition simply mistakes what a state is.  Whatever legal and administrative arrangements required to maintain the collective ownership of individual productive forces will either require a minimal role for the state or none at all, e.g. to prevent the alienation of particular productive forces owned by the class as a whole.

Capitalism has so developed the intellectual and social powers of the working class that it can direct the economy without capitalists; provided we do not stupidly restrict definition of the working class in such a way that it excludes its most educated layers, for example because they are normally significantly better off in terms of income than many other workers.

If we read Engels he speaks of ‘the State of that class which itself represented, for the time being, society as a whole: in ancient times, the State of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, the feudal lords; in our own times, the bourgeoisie.’

In each case the state represented those classes that owned and controlled the means of production (at least of the social surplus), so that the capitalist state defends the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class.  The analogous role of the workers’ state is not to direct and manage its own ownership of the means of production but to defend the ownership by the working class of the means of production.

Only upon these grounds can the class nature of society be radically changed such that, as Engels argued, the working class abolishes itself and all classes and in so doing abolishes the state.  It makes no sense to believe that the state through its ownership of the forces of production will employ its political power to abolish itself, including its direction of society’s productive powers.

Socialism is not the granting of the productive powers of society to the working class by any sort of benevolent state.  In Engels terms, the workers’ state can more and more be the representative of society under socialism to the extent that it disappears, reflecting the disappearance of classes themselves.

The socialist political revolution is the capture of political power by the working class in order to defend, and to extend, its social gains as the rising class in society, with its own ownership and control of society’s productive powers central to this.  The struggle for workers’ cooperatives is the most direct way to make this a reality under capitalism, as both ideological and practical example of the power of the working class to create a new society.

Such a view is consistent with the other expressed views of Marx and Engels, including ‘seizing the means of production by society’, which we shall review in the next post.

Back to part 43

Forward to part 45

The preconditions for socialism

Utopian socialism, such as this imagined image of Robert Owen’s short lived utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana was based on ideas. Karl Marx’s was based on existing reality and its development.

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – Part 37

Marx said that “new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”  (1859 Preface). So what are these material conditions that must have matured?

We have already seen that these involve sufficient development of the forces of production so that society is potentially productive enough to abolish the inequalities upon which class relations rest.  Such relations before the development of capitalism resided within and supported productive forces that hitherto could not be held in common, therefore providing the grounds for a class that owned the means of production and a class that did not.  In capitalism it is capitalists that own the means of production as private property, which is always the right to exclude others from ownership, and the working class that is so excluded. However, as we have also seen, capitalism provides the grounds to go beyond this division.

Ownership and exclusion in production necessarily entails ownership and exclusion of the products of that production, of consumption.  The growth in the mass of profit, distributed as profit of enterprise or as dividends, interest, rent etc. is obviously conditioned by ownership just as salaries and wages are also so conditioned.  The means of consumption cannot be equitably distributed because the ownership of the means of production entails ownership of what is produced. Insufficient development of production imposes constraints and restrictions on the distribution of consumption so that common ownership of the means of production is equally not possible.  

Such inequalities have developed historically through different forms of class society and utopian schemes to wipe the slate clean and impose a more equal society have been doomed to failure unless the material grounds for such equality can be created.  This involves a sufficient level of productivity of labour that everyone can have their consumption needs met, and that these needs can be developed without also developing gross inequalities in their distribution.

So what level is this?

While it is clear that pre-capitalist and early capitalist societies could not provide the grounds for common ownership of production and growing equality of consumption, it is also clear that capitalist development now offers such a prospect. ‘Clear’, not just because of the level of the productive forces already achieved in a growing number of countries but also because of the waste generated by capitalism and its potential for more rational organisation (and the fact that this more rational organisation is also taking place, albeit also disfigured by its own continuing capitalist irrationality).

It would however be unhistorical to state some absolute level, since needs develop historically as a function of the development of the forces of production which create them.  It is therefore the latter development that determines this level.

For Frederick Engels in ‘Anti-Dühring’ this level had been reached by the late 1870s:

“The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.”

The appropriation of the means of production is therefore key to the satisfaction of needs and its equitable distribution.  Appropriation by society as a whole, by its associated producers – the working class (those who work) – provides the grounds for the appropriation of the fruits of that production. 

As Frederick Engels again pointed out in ‘Anti-Dühring’:

“Before capitalistic production, i.e., in the Middle Ages, the system of petty industry obtained generally, based upon the private property of the labourers in their means of production; {in the country,} the agriculture of the small peasant, freeman or serf; in the towns, the handicrafts. The instruments of labour – land, agricultural implements, the workshop, the tool – were the instruments of labour of single individuals, adapted for the use of one worker, and, therefore, of necessity, small, dwarfish, circumscribed. But, for this very reason they belonged, as a rule, to the producer himself.”

“To concentrate these scattered, limited means of production, to enlarge them, to turn them into the powerful levers of production of the present day – this was precisely the historic role of capitalist production and of its upholder, the bourgeoisie. . . But the bourgeoisie . . . could not transform these puny means of production into mighty productive forces without transforming them, at the same time, from means of production of the individual into social means of production only workable by a collectivity of men.”

“The spinning-wheel, the hand-loom, the blacksmith’s hammer, were replaced by the spinning- machine, the power-loom, the steam-hammer; the individual workshop by the factory implying the co-operation of hundreds and thousands of workmen. In like manner, production itself changed from a series of individual into a series of social acts, and the products from individual to social products. The yarn, the cloth, the metal articles that now came out of the factory were the joint product of many workers, through whose hands they had successively to pass before they were ready. No one person could say of them: “I made that; this is my product.” 

Capitalism has thus developed the forces of production in such a way that they can be appropriated by society as a whole; in fact it has started this process itself:

“On the one hand, therefore, the capitalistic mode of production stands convicted of its own incapacity to further direct these productive forces. On the other, these productive forces themselves, with increasing energy, press forward to the removal of the existing contradiction, to the abolition of their quality as capital, to the practical recognition of their character as social productive forces.” 

“This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognised, forces the capitalist class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions. The period of industrial high pressure, with its unbounded inflation of credit, not less than the crash itself, by the collapse of great capitalist establishments, tends to bring about that form of the socialisation of great masses of means of production which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies.”

“Many of these means of production and of communication are, from the outset, so colossal that, like the railways, they exclude all other forms of capitalistic exploitation. At a further stage of evolution this form also becomes insufficient: the official representative of capitalist society – the state – will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into state property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication – the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.”

“If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.” 

“But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces.” 

Of course, legions of socialists are able to see capitalism as wholly reactionary, of being in decline and permanent crisis while failing to recognise that through these crises and renewed periods of accelerated accumulation capitalism continues to play the role of preparing for socialism in this ‘positive’ fashion.

They sometimes make the further mistake, inconsistent with their first, that state ownership is not only positive in this sense but progressive in the sense of being the germ of socialism that only needs to continue its growth.  This is best summed up in demands to nationalise the top monopolies or whatever capitalist enterprise is currently failing.

But as Engels immediately goes on to say in Anti-Dühring:

“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.” 

So the technical elements of the material conditions for the new superior relations of production have matured within the framework of the old society.

This leads Marx to say that:

“This result of the ultimate development of capitalist production is a necessary transitional phase towards the reconversion of capital into the property of producers, although no longer as the private property of the individual producers, but rather as the property of associated producers, as outright social property” (Capital Vol 3 Chapter 27)

Capitalism is thus transitional to socialism but this is also, like capitalism before it, the creation of human beings, and not just human beings as agents of some disembodied socialisation of capitalism.  For Marx, ultimately these material conditions require workers themselves being agents of socialisation of production and agents of political change that guarantees the new relations of production.

Future posts will look at this working class agency but the next posts will look in more detail at the socialisation of production and how it heralds the potential of socialism.

back to part 36

Forward to part 38

The Greek Crisis and the Fourth International (5) – the “standard approach”

Image result for syriza revolution

A common reference point in the debate on the way forward in the fight against austerity in Greece was the idea of a workers’ government as a bridge not only to defeating austerity but also to a “rupture” with capitalism.

For the FI majority, the fight against austerity created a political crisis requiring a political alternative, in other words a governmental alternative and a government of the left. It explained its approach in this way:

“So our approach to Syriza and the governmental question in 2012 was not an illusion, a hope, but an analysis of the importance of the issue and the need for concrete policy answers. This is a fairly standard approach for revolutionary Marxists.”

“Finally the conquest of the government, within a parliamentary framework, can, in exceptional circumstances, be a first step on the path to an anticapitalist rupture but, there too, this can be confirmed only if one government anti-austerity creates the conditions for a new power being pressed on Popular Assemblies, in the companies, the districts and the cities.”

The Greek FI section did not disagree with such a perspective in principle, but considered that a Syriza Government could not play this role:

“In this situation, the motto “workers’ government” becomes relevant. It is not applicable at once: it is even difficult to imagine its possible composition in the present situation. Nonetheless, it is indispensable to propose an overall political solution and to start to developing an understandable answer to the question: “who must hold power in Greece?”

“Such a workers’ government would have to put into practice a program against the crisis, would have to be ready to apply with key transitional measures, such as the socialization of banks and strategic sectors of the economy. A government resting on a general mobilization of the workers and based on their self-organization. A government that would regroup all forces ready to defend the masses’ demands. The revolutionaries would be ready to participate in such a government with other forces on the basis of a confrontational program and of a high degree of workers’ and youth’s mobilization. Because such a government would encourage the possibility for the workers to seize power themselves.”

“Under the present circumstances, and given the character of Syriza, a Syriza-government would not be something more than a mere left parliamentary combination, which is not the same as a workers’ government.” (For a program of confrontation with capitalism, for an independent anticapitalist and revolutionary party, 16 June 2012, by  Manos Skoufoglou.

The common pedigree of this perspective of both the FI majority and Greek section is the debate on a workers and farmers government that took place in the Third and Fourth Internationals.  I have already pointed to the incongruity of a perspective that involves “the conquest of the government, within a parliamentary framework, [that] can, in exceptional circumstances, be a first step on the path to an anticapitalist rupture” while also being considered “a fairly standard approach for revolutionary Marxists.”

I have also argued that the view that a left government could implement anti-capitalist policies and transitional measures that lead the overthrow of capitalism is mistaken.  Mistaken, not only because it confuses governmental office with state power, but also because of the idea that the capitalist state could be used as an instrument for transitional measures that entail the overthrow of capitalism.  It is fundamentally mistaken because it implies that the steps really necessary for socialism, such as workers’ ownership and control of production, can be contracted to the state who may then sub-contract them back to the working class.

For a genuine workers’ revolution it is not a question of mass mobilisation pressuring a left government, and the capitalist state it sits on top, to meet workers’ demands, including demands for economic control, but that workers have already substantially established ownership and control, or are in a position to make such ownership and control general. In such circumstances, workers are not reliant on the capitalist state giving them anything.

A common problem recognised in the perspective of relying, to greater or lesser extent, on a left or workers’ government to lead working class emancipation, is how to distinguish what might be called a workers’ and farmers government, considered as a means to implement ‘transitional’ measures, and left reformist governments which makes reforms valuable to workers and their interests but which will go no further than administering capitalism.

This problem also involves governments that concentrate power in the state, and take what can be considered ‘anti-imperialist’ measures against foreign interests, and even measures against certain domestic private capitalist concerns, but which again do not ultimately destroy capitalism or its state, and certainly do not promote workers power through working class ownership and control.

When a ‘standard’ strategy relies on the initiative coming from, and being determined by, a left government, it not only becomes a problem for analysis but also a problem for intervention.

That there will be political crises that will throw up occasions when the left will form an electoral majority and then take office does not make this the standard Marxist approach to the achievement of socialism.

A much better orientation in such circumstances comes from the pen of 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.”

Not a million miles away from Syriza and Greece.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

Reflections on the Russian Revolution 7

Red Guards from an electrical factory Petrograd 1917

Two common charges levied against the Russian Revolution is that it was violent and undemocratic.

The allegation of violence rests largely on the experience of the civil war that followed the October revolution, as the October events themselves were remarkably bloodless.  During the civil war violence was ubiquitous – no one involved eschewed violence – not least the partisans of European liberalism and social democracy, at that time up to their knees in the blood and carnage of the First World War, and which the Bolsheviks strived to end.

But nor is it even true that the October Revolution sparked this bloody civil war.  In fact, a good argument could be made that the Kornilov revolt of that reactionary general commenced the civil war in August.  It was therefore not a result of Bolshevik violence, nor even simply the reactionary violence of the old Tsarist regime and imperialism, but of the incompatibility of the interests of the two contending forces in the revolutionary process that were inevitably to clash violently.  The civil war was simply a question of who would win and what would be left to rule over.

Stephen Smith in his book already quoted in these posts argues that –

“In fact, purely in relation to the 1920s (Stalinism in the 1930s was a different matter), it is not obvious that Soviet society was more violent than its tsarist predecessor.  Historians often fail to convey how ingrained violence was in late-imperial Russia, evinced in colonial conquest, police repression, counter-insurgency, terrorism by left and right, and anti-Jewish pogroms, extending, too, into more everyday forms of violence, such as practices of samosud (‘self-judgement’), meted out by peasant communities on those who transgressed their norms, to the flogging of prisoners, to beatings in the workplace, child abuse, and wife-beating.”

As for the charge that the revolution was undemocratic – we have already noted that the vast majority of the Russian people wanted an end to the war and land distribution and that this was incompatible with the old regime, incompatible with ‘moderate’ socialists who refused to break with the ‘liberal’ capitalist bourgeoisie, who in turn refused to break with all the old reactionary forces of tsarism.

Where the charge may have some force is that in a country with only a small working class, it was not possible to have a ‘pure’ working class revolution, one that could fully satisfy its class interests.  This explains the compromises, changes of direction and Lenin’s “radical modification” of what socialism was that we looked at in previous posts.

In the latest issue of the journal Science and Society, the author August H. Nimtz goes to some length to explain just how important it was for the Bolsheviks that they had the majority support of the working class before organising the October revolution.  He analyses the approach of Lenin in 1917 and how it consciously rested on the views of the founders of Marxism – Marx and Engels.

He quotes Engels in the conclusion to his 1884 book, Origin of the Family, Private Property and State, that “universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state; but that,” he continued, “is sufficient. On the day the thermometer of universal suffrage registers boiling point among the workers, both they and the capitalists will know where they stand.”

He quotes Engels again:

“Do you realize now what a splendid weapon you in France have had in your hands for forty years in universal suffrage; if only people know how to use it! It’s slower and more boring than the call to revolution, but it’s ten times more sure, and what is even better, it indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed revolution has to be made; it’s even ten to one that universal suffrage, intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow legality, that is, to put us in the most favorable position to make the revolution. (MECW, 50, 29.)”

This last sentence might seem to anticipate the Kornilov revolt and the spur to Bolshevik support and ultimately revolution that this reactionary conspiracy helped create. Engels words also set out the problem that the Bolsheviks grappled with and which we have reviewed in the previous posts –

“a “revolution in Russia” could save what was left of the peasant communes. And such a revolution would “give the labor movement of the West fresh impetus and create new, better conditions in which to carry on the struggle, thus hastening the victory of the modern industrial proletariat, without which present-day Russia can never achieve a socialist transformation, whether proceeding from the commune or from capitalism” (MECW, 27, 433). Contrary, therefore, to all future Stalinist distortions of M&E’s [Marx and Engels] views, Russia could “never achieve a socialist transformation” without the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in Western Europe by its own proletariat. Engels could not have been more prophetic.” (Nimtz)

Nimtz, then records the approach of Lenin in seeking to know whether the revolutionary forces were winning the hearts and minds of the working class, and the careful study he undertook to understand whether, and to what extent, they had done so –

“By the time of the Fourth Duma elections in 1912, the Bolsheviks, now devoid of the boycotters, were in near-unanimous accord for participation. Lenin’s assessment of the results reveals once again how seriously he took elections. “It is beyond question,” he wrote after analyzing them, “that elections supply objective data. Testing subjective wishes, sentiments and views by taking into account the vote of the mass of the population representing different classes should always be of value to a politician who is at all worthy of the name. The struggle of parties — in practice, before the electorate, and with the returns summed up — invariably furnishes data serving to test our conception of the balance of social forces in the country and of the significance of particular ‘slogans’” (LCW, 18, 505). That’s exactly, I argue, why Lenin would pay such close attention to elections in Russia five years later. The entire record makes clear that these weren’t aberrant pronouncements on his part about elections. They registered how thoroughly he had absorbed the lessons drawn by M&E, specifically, the need for the workers’ parties to “count their forces.”” (Nimtz)

Nimtz explains that during 1917, Lenin used elections to determine the support of the working class for revolution and the necessity of this support in order to resort to an armed uprising.

This is not presented here as an argument, as I have previously stated, that we should hold on to the revolution in Russia in 1917 as some sort of model for revolution today, but only to argue that in this precise aspect – the absolute necessity for the working class to support revolution – we should absolutely seek to guide our thinking, programme and activity to just such a commitment to working class democracy.  Such democracy must be the conscious activity of the working class itself and not ‘support’ in any passive sense of this word for leaders or movements that substitute themselves for this self-activity.  Or even for leaders or vanguards that do the same, in the name of the working class but separate from it.

Just as bourgeois productive relations entail private ownership of productive forces and working class productive relations require collective and cooperative ownership, that by definition entails conscious self-direction and activity, and not indirect delegation or support to an exterior body such as a state – however benign; so the nature of socialism reduces the role of all separate elements of society apart from the activity of the working class itself.

In the approach to October Lenin explained that the Bolsheviks now had the support required for revolution, or a mandate, as it might be expressed today –

“The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in both capitals, can and must take state power into their own hands. . . . The majority gained in the Soviets of the metropolitan cities resulted from the people coming over to our side. . . . Compare the elections to the city councils of Petrograd and Moscow with the elections to the Soviets. Compare the elections in Moscow with the Moscow strike of August 12. Those are objective facts regarding that majority of revolutionary elements that are leading the people.” (Quoted by Nimtz)

Lenin explained the approach later when looking at the possible repetition of revolution in Germany –

“As matters stood in October, we had made a precise calculation of the mass forces. We not only thought, we knew . . . with certainty, from the experience of the mass elections to the Soviets, that the overwhelming majority of the workers and soldiers had already come over to our side in September and in early October. We knew . . . that the coalition [provisional government] had also lost the support of the peasantry — and that meant that our cause had already won.” (Quoted by Nimtz)

The alternative route of bourgeois democracy, which as I have noted excludes working class participation, was closed in Russia in 1917, in a way I have also noted, that has not been the case in other more recent mass working class struggles such as France in 1968 or Portugal in 1974-75.  As Nimtz explains –

“The Socialist Revolutionary–Menshevik leadership of the executive of the soviet convened in mid-September the “Democratic Conference,” basically an attempt to divert the energy boiling from below, and increasingly led by the Bolsheviks, into the parliamentary arena. Lenin urged the party’s leadership not to be enticed. “It would be a big mistake, sheer parliamentary cretinism on our part, if we were to regard the Democratic Conference as a parliament; for even if it were to proclaim itself a permanent and sovereign parliament of the revolution, it would nevertheless decide nothing. The power of decision lies outside it in the working-class quarters of Petrograd and Moscow”

This did not mean either capitulation to the false democratic norms of bourgeois democracy or a rejection of what these norms often tell us –

“A comparison of the data on the “parliamentary” [local duma] elections and the data on the . . . mass movements [since April 20] fully corroborates, in respect of Russia, an observation often made in the West, namely, that the revolutionary proletariat is incomparably stronger in the extra-parliamentary than in the parliamentary struggle, as far as influencing the masses and drawing them into the struggle is concerned.” (Lenin Collected Works, 26, 33.)

Nimtz quotes as a summary of Lenin’s views his brochure Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, in which he says, with reference to the various fake tsarist parliaments, that –

“We Bolsheviks participated in the most counterrevolutionary parliaments, and experience has shown that this participation was not only useful but indispensable to the party of the revolutionary proletariat, after the first bourgeois revolution in Russia (1905), so as to pave the way for the second bourgeois revolution (February 1917), and then for the socialist revolution (October 1917).”

Those thinking that 1917 can simply be repeated today in very different and more advanced conditions might want to reflect that 1917 required 1905 and that both entailed defeat in war.  Hopefully some other sort of preparation is required by the working class today in order that it make itself capable of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system.

It is necessary to learn and re-learn these lessons.  For example, the issue of the correct socialist approach to reactionary bourgeois institutions was recently debated in relation to the Northern Ireland Stormont parliament on this blog here.

It is natural to assume that the relevance of events that have celebrated their one-hundred-year anniversary will then inevitably recede.  It is not to condemn the 1917 revolution to say that it must be hoped that this is the case, because it will only retain its significance for socialists if it remains the only (very imperfectly) successful example of what we seek to achieve.

Concluded

Back to part 6

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.