Workers’ cooperatives as an alternative to Capitalism – 2

10698536_420301091453164_5593204590190940624_nMarxists believe that conditions determine consciousness.  The ideas that most people have are products of their circumstances.  Currently workers sell their labour power as a commodity.  That is why they concentrate efforts on the price of their labour power (wages) and the terms and conditions at which it is sold.

It is why they value those services that they cannot provide for themselves individually but are unable to provide collectively because they lack the consciousness and organisation to do so.  This includes such things as unemployment insurance, pensions, health care and education.

The sanctification of capitalist private property means that the former is not strictly political while the distribution of the revenue from capitalism is.  Through the latter the working class is made dependent on the state for these services, including through employment in their delivery.  The welfare dependency culture repeated like a mantra by the right has this much basis in fact.

What there is not therefore is the material basis for the growth of a consciousness that workers should own, manage and control the productive activities of the economy and the state.  Instead the growth of the state and its acknowledged political leadership are the grounds for the view that the redistributive powers of the state are the basis for a solution.  This mistaken view takes the extreme form on the Left that the state should take over production itself.  Of course this has been tried.  It didn’t work well.

What we have with the Keynesian alternative then is an expectation, doomed to disappointment, that the capitalist state will divide the fruits of capitalism to benefit those who have first been exploited in opposition to those who have carried out the exploitation, which must remain in place in order to continue funding the redistribution.

Marxists believe that the future socialist society is not utopian because current society contains its anticipation in various ways.  Capitalism is pregnant with the future socialism; except that if the state is the embryo then the pregnancy taken to full term does not result in socialism but something else entirely.

Workers’ cooperatives are one of the crucial elements of this anticipated new society growing within the womb of the old.  It reunites workers with the means of production and removes the capitalist from the workplace.  It gives ownership to the workers and elevates their power, confidence and consciousness.  It can prepare the workers involved and other workers for the task of making the whole economy the property of the working class, which is socialism.

Workers ownership can provide the basis for workers to provide the services that are currently provided by the state and which leaves them at the mercy of the state and the politicians who preside on top of it.  Such services include education, health, welfare and pensions.  Workers self-provision of this would result in their own priorities being imposed on their provision.

However to posit this as the alternative immediately demonstrates a major difficulty.  While it is possible to envisage workers cooperatives supplanting individual capitalist production it is much more difficult to envisage this in regard to the services now provided by the State.  What this once again demonstrates is the role of the state as defender of the capitalist system – through exclusion of the working class from direct control within society and protection of the accumulation needs of capitalism.

Workers’ self-provision of what are now services provided by the state would necessarily lead not to demanding more taxation by the state but less, so that workers would have more control of their earnings and would have more to pool together and employ to their collective benefit.  In short workers would take more and more responsibility for their own lives, even when temporarily or permanently unable to work.  The dependence on the capitalist state would be weakened, at least in this respect.

In Ireland workers would have the grounds for recognising that there is an alternative economic development model to reliance on US multinationals.  They would have an example of a model of development that didn’t rely on the state.  They would have a living alternative to the threats that they need the capitalist banks.

Instead of workers relying on the state to provide for them by taxing the rich or investing in infrastructure to promote private capitalist investment they would have an alternative in which it is their own activity which is the alternative to capitalist crisis.

Is this the viewpoint of a reformist and utopian scenario?  I think not.

Firstly thousands of cooperatives already exist; they are not purely idealistic mental constructions.  What’s more they can be, and many are, very successful; providing hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Living proof that workers can do without capitalists to tell them what to do.  Workers can take control, can make decisions and can be successful.

The spread of workers’ cooperatives in entirely possible, their growth and development is not precluded by any necessarily limiting factor in capitalist development, at least to the point where capitalist accumulation appears threatened by it.

The trade union movement and the political organisations of the working class can play an important role in their development.  Workers’ cooperatives are therefore not an alternative to the existing workers movement but are something that can be complementary to its development, freeing it more and more from dependence on private capital and the state.

In fact workers’ cooperatives will inevitably demonstrate through their development the antipathy of the state to workers ownership and the power that workers as a class will develop as a result of its development.  The state will inevitably be used by the class it serves, the capitalist class, to undermine competition from workers cooperatives and support private capitalist accumulation.  Such a development will clarify the lines of battle between the workers’ movement and the capitalist system.

Workers’ cooperatives are not an alternative to class struggle but a means of carrying it out.  The creation of workers’ cooperatives in Argentina following its capitalist crises is evidence of this – how much better to promote workers’ cooperatives before such cataclysmic crises rather than in their midst or aftermath.

When workers say – “where is your socialist alternative after over a 150 years of your movement?”, we might have a living movement to point to rather than a simple promise for the future.

And such a movement will be an international one because just as capitalist development has become international there is every reason why workers’ cooperative production should also be international.  Every bit of such development will strengthen the international bonds between workers and undermine nationalist solutions that are currently growing.

In other words workers’ cooperatives provide the living link between resistance against the injustice of the current system and the creation of a real alternative.  Instead of simple rejection of cuts and lack of democracy workers’ cooperatives not only posit employment and democracy within the cooperative but the transition to a new society.  Workers’ cooperatives thus provide the material basis for linking the struggle against capitalism to the creation of socialism.

Workers’ cooperatives are not a magic bullet answer to the current crisis on the Left.  There is no simple or singular programmatic answer to a crisis that exists at the level of working class consciousness and organisation.  But for the Left a programmatic answer is currently by far and away the most important contribution that it can provide to workers.

Traditionally the revolutionary left has rejected workers’ cooperatives because they have been seen as an alternative to revolution – a militant class struggle against capitalists and the state culminating in an insurrection, the smashing of the capitalist state and creation of a new one.  I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that the patient work of class organisation involved in union organising, party building and creation of workers’ cooperatives would get in the way of a burgeoning revolutionary movement.  Anyway, when was the last revolution in an advanced capitalist state, one in which the working class is the vast majority of society?

It can be legitimately claimed that workers in existing cooperatives lack socialist consciousness so how can they provide the material basis for socialism?  This objection however must also take on board the reality that decades of union organisation has also not turned the majority of trade unionists into socialists.  However no one advocates abandoning the organisation of trade unions.

Finally an objection is made that workers’ cooperatives will simply teach workers to exploit themselves within a market economy based on competition.  They will simply become their own capitalists.

However, at the extreme, the ownership of all production by the working class would not only remove the capitalist class but would also remove the need for all allocation by the market, or by socially necessary labour time, to use the strictly Marxist definition.  In other words workers’ cooperatives would cooperate with each other.  Such competition as would exist would not play the same role as capitalist competition just as the continued existence of money tokens would not make it a capitalist system.

So for example, a factory making shoes that became unfashionable would not close down and throw its workers into unemployment but would see them transfer to either production of shoes that were in demand or to some entirely different branch of production.  Other workers would support this because they would all know that what they produce might equally go out of fashion, become technologically obsolete or have its workforce reduced by automation.  In the same way the receipt of money as salaries and wages would not mean that this money would exist as capital, able to purchase labour power in the pursuit of profit.

The current value of workers’ cooperatives is not just as living practical examples of socialism but that they allow theoretical and political clarification of just exactly what socialism is.  They shine a light on the difference between workers power and all the solutions that rely on the state – from Keynesianism to nationalism.

This is the second part of the post.  The first part appeared here.

Workers’ Cooperatives as an alternative to capitalism – 1

420389_494371703955556_1654331871_nIn October I was invited to speak at a meeting organised by the Glasgow South branch of Left Unity on the subject of workers’ cooperatives.  The post below is the first part of the text on which the speech delivered was based.  I would like to thank the comrades for the invitation and for the couple of pints in the pub afterwards.


The first thing I want to do is look at two problems to which I think workers’ cooperatives can play an important role in providing an answer.

In 2008 the Irish banking system was on the verge of complete collapse.  It had lent exorbitant amounts of money to commercial property development and for the construction of houses.  Not only finance but employment and state revenue became overly dependent on construction.  When the price of houses rose beyond a certain point, and when the commercial property market became saturated, the over-extension of property developers became evident in bad loans that bankrupted the banks.

This was an international problem because much of the financing of Irish banks came from Britain, the US and Germany for example.  The bankruptcy of the Irish banks would thus have had severe repercussions for investors in these and other countries, including the financial institutions in these countries.

To save the Irish banking system, to bail out the native bankers and foreign investors, the Irish Government launched a bailout of the banks through a state guarantee of all their liabilities, worth around €440 billion in an economy nominally producing €154 billion a year.  It was declared ‘the cheapest (bailout) in the world’ by the Irish Finance Minister.  This could not possibly be afforded and has so far cost an estimated €64 billion, although the exact figure is still a matter for development.

This bill and the huge budget deficit caused by the collapse of construction resulted in a series of attacks on working class living standards involving seven austerity budgets consisting of a variety of tax increases, cuts in public services and investment, the robbery of workers’ pension funds, massive unemployment, emigration and lots of praise from around the world at how well the Irish swallowed the austerity medicine.  From poster boy for the boom the Irish have become poster child for austerity.

In the following election the ruling Fianna Fail party was badly mauled and a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour Party was elected on the promise of a ‘democratic revolution’ and by Labour the promise it would reign in Fine Gael.  The vote was a choice between ‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way.’

In truth however no one could really be surprised that this coalition continued and intensified the policies of austerity began by Fianna Fail.  That anyone thought differently demonstrated only a very low political awareness.

On the ‘left’ 5 United Left Alliance candidates were also elected and 14 Sinn Fein TDs out of a total of 166, although Sinn Fein had also voted for the bail-out.

In 2012 the Irish State was compelled to hold a referendum on the new EU Fiscal Compact that limited state deficits and debt.  It basically required signing up to continued austerity which is why it was called the ‘austerity treaty’.  Despite the unpopularity of austerity it was approved by 60% to 40%.  In my view a crucial reason for this was the complete lack of a convincing alternative.

What was the alternative proposed?

This consisted of a number of elements – repudiating the debt, opposing austerity, taxing the rich, and increasing public expenditure in order to improve public services, boost employment and further economic growth.

There are two points to note about this alternative – first it doesn’t change the nature of the economic system, it is what is called Keynesianism.  This does not mean that socialists should not support some of these measures, or point out the hypocrisy in their not being implemented.  But the question is, if the problem is capitalism and this alternative doesn’t threaten the system then quite obviously it cannot be a solution.

The second flows from this, because if it isn’t a solution would it actually work?  I’ll just take two examples from this programme – why on earth would the rich allow their wealth and income to be taken off them?  And how then could the state increase public sector investment when it was heading towards budget deficits of over 13%?

This illustrates a deeper problem with looking to the state as a solution.  This is because the burden placed on Irish workers was not simply, or even mainly, carried out by the banks and property developers.  It was the State that made their debts the debts of the Irish people and it has been the State that has increased taxes and cut services, making their own particular contribution to cutting wages and increasing unemployment.

Since the state is a capitalist state, funded and staffed at the highest levels by the propertied classes this can really be no surprise.  The actions of the capitalist state are not therefore the answer.  Not only does it not have any interest in providing a solution but it is incapable of being the solution.  State ownership, bureaucratic ownership, is not democratic and is totally unsuited to running productive activities the civil servants that staff it have no knowledge of.

There is no point calling for the state to nationalise the banks – they did and that was precisely the problem!

At bottom this is the root of the failure of resistance to austerity and is why it has not only failed in Ireland but in every other country affected by the financial crash.

The second point is connected to all this.  If the Keynesian alternative is not a road to socialism what is the road to it?

The alternative to the view that the capitalist state will reform society is that the state is actually the mechanism for enforcing oppression and exploitation and should therefore be smashed.  In this scenario of revolution the oppression of capitalist society breeds resistance which develops into a revolutionary seizure of power by the working class that then proceeds to build a new socialist society.  In this society the market is replaced by planning and capitalist economic crises become history.

But how are workers to become aware that their own ownership and control is the alternative?  How does it not only come to consciousness of this but is actually trained, ready and able to play this role?  How in the middle of crisis is a workers’ economy supposed to rise from the ashes more or less fully formed and present itself as a qualitative advance on what has went before?

Of course in some ways capitalism itself anticipates this planning through the growth of big business with advanced forms of planning within it, increased cooperation between companies that ostensibly are in competition and increased interdependency of different firms and different countries, encapsulated in the term globalisation.  This has all been demonstrated negatively through the simultaneous near collapse of the financial system, world trade and economic growth through the credit crunch plus the increased role of the state despite privatisation.

There is however one thing missing from this anticipation of the new society in the existing one and one thing missing from the scenario of revolutionary overthrow.

The missing factor is what the new society, the harbinger of socialism, actually is – the rule of the working class and its allies; the rule of the majority of society in place of the capitalist class and its managers, bureaucrats and politicians who all currently administer its rule.

Where in the anticipation of socialism within existing capitalist society is the growth of workers participation in running the economy, in preparation for taking over complete control?  Where are the grounds for workers to build a new society before, during and after revolution?  Where is the alternative that would avoid a new version of Stalinism where the State rules society rather than a society ruled by workers subordinating the state? Where even arises the motivation for workers to see that their own rule is the only valid unfolding of their resistance to the exploitation, oppression and iniquity of current society?

How are workers to come to see that it is they that not only can but must take control of society and its productive powers if they do not first take initial steps now through workers’ cooperatives?  Are we to believe they will suddenly come to realise through a revolution – an episode of at most a few years – that they must take over the economy?  How will they come to seek this as their solution unless many of them have already tried to do it and become committed to it?


Employee ownership and socialism

coop-klBeyond the Corporation: Humanity Working, David Erdal, The Bodley Head, London, 2011.

The author of this book is clearly not a Marxist and he approves of arguments for workers’ cooperatives that encapsulate ‘good, basic, capitalist thinking.’  He puts forward the view that what he is proposing is, far from being woolly and utopian, not only immensely practical but has been implemented many, many times in many, many places.  It’s sheer practicality is one of its attractions and let’s be clear – the practicality of something is an attraction.  It is a clear advantage for any option that it can actually be implemented.

Much of the Left however recoils in horror at the ideas proposed in this book.  Nevertheless the impulse and development as well as the ideological case for workers’ ownership are forceful reflections of the analysis of Marx, which posits the growing contradiction between the socialisation of production and the private appropriation of this production by capital.

Ironically the author gives an illustration of this contradiction.  He compares the electronics industry in Silicon Valley favourably to that of Boston and accounts for the relative success of the former as a result of the fluidity of the movement of people involved in the industry, lack of proprietorial authority in many of the industries’ firms  and the inability of owners and managers to contain the flow of information within individual companies; all contributing to creative development of products and production.

It is notable, he says, that there is less of a top-down culture in Silicon Valley and that employee ownership has been a major driver in business development.  Companies could not attract good people simply by cash so instead used share options, a form of ownership, to get them to come, work for them and stay in the firm.  This together with the excitement of the work itself became the greatest motivating factors for employees.

The socialisation of production is evidenced by the increasing division of labour in which thousands, if not millions, of products are separately produced across the globe in order to come together as one combined product.  The necessity for this production to take place in a balanced and proportionate way, so that the final product can be efficiently produced, requires co-ordination and planning within and across hundreds and thousands of companies.

In April two years ago the BBC reported that a fire in a factory in the small town of Marl in western Germany had killed two people and affected the production of a resin called P-12, used in car braking and fuel  systems. This threatened car production across the world so that “Earlier this week, more than 200 executives from companies including General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota and Ford met in Michigan. -. . . The group said that it was clear that “a significant portion of the global production capacity” had been compromised.  After the meeting, the big car companies were saying nothing on the record.  But some sources now say there is a real worry that the potential impact could be serious, including a slow-down in production.”

Such cooperation is planned but insufficiently so.  The inevitable disproportions in production lead not to conscious alterations in levels of production in order to seek balance in the myriad locations but to individual crises of cash-flow or profitability in individual firms and production units, leading to crises and disruption.  Economic and production efficiency is calculated at the individual firm level without regard to the overall system of production, the cooperative system of labour, which is in place.

We saw this through the recent dispute at the Grangemouth refinery and petro-chemical works, on which much of the British chemical industry was apparently dependent.  The economic calculation that was carried out rested solely on the relative profitability of the Grangemouth plant and not on an assessment of the industry as a whole.

Both examples illustrate the contradiction between private ownership of the means of production and the increasingly socialised system of production on which it is based.

An even more dramatic illustration of this contradiction is shown by the following two graphs.  They show the falls in world trade and industrial production following the credit crunch in 2008 compared to the impact of the great Depression of 1929:

World Trade

eo fig 2 eichengreen_2ndupdate_fig1

World Industrial Production

What these show is the dramatic falls in economic activity consequent on the decisions of individual banks and financial institutions not to lend because they did not trust each other to be in a position to pay the loans back.  The huge socialisation of resources that is carried out through the credit system became a prisoner of the private ownership of these credit institutions.  Each feared that the other might be fatally insolvent due to speculation in sub-prime mortgages or old-fashioned overproduction of houses and offices as in the case of Ireland.

What has this to do with the growth of workers cooperatives?  Well, if we  understand that capitalism is characterised by the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production (including credit) and the ownership and control of these means in a separate class, the class of capitalists, we can see that such a system can exist only by workers gaining their livelihoods by selling their capacity to work on the labour market and using the money received to purchase the means of subsistence that they have just produced (but which are owned by the capitalists for whom they work).  The sale and purchase of these two types of commodities, labour power and means of subsistence, takes place in the market and the economics profession attempts to analyse how the economy works by focusing on how these markets work – without previously understanding or analysing why there is a need for these markets in the first place.

The explanation for this is that workers do not own the means of production and therefore cannot allocate these means or the output derived from them directly, through conscious planning, to satisfy the needs and wants that they have themselves previously identified.  They do not set the priorities for what has to be produced, how and where it is to be produced or consciously regulate the effects of what they produce so that any relative over-production does not lead to a closure of workplaces but to a planned decrease in capacity and switch to other desirable production.

The creation of workers cooperatives is a step in overcoming the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production and therefore of overcoming capitalism.

Many on the left advance fears that workers will become their own capitalists and because the author of this book is not a socialist he quotes approvingly the view that while capitalism is good at creating capital it is not good at creating capitalists. The fear is that the competition involved in the Market will lead workers, even those owning their own businesses, to compete with each other in a way that simply replicates the exploitation involved in private capitalist ownership.  The drive to produce cheapest will lower wages and increase work effort.  In effect workers will exploit themselves.

What this view does in effect is give priority to the Market in analysing capitalism in just the same way as do the mainstream economists.  What they don’t see is the potential of workers cooperatives to overcome the separation of workers from ownership of the means of production and through ending this separation threaten the monopoly of the capitalist class, in doing so undermining the existence of the market as a regulator of economic life.

This can be done through the simple expedient of individual workers’ cooperatives cooperating!  The immediate objection to workers cooperatives is that they will have to compete with each other, or at least with private capital, and while the latter may be true the former is not.  Workers cooperatives can cooperate with each other.

Will workers cooperatives still exist within a society that is capitalist?  Yes, which is why books like the one reviewed see no contradiction between capitalism as a system and workers ownership.  Will this involve competition and will this not involve unwanted and unpleasant features and decisions? Yes, but Marx explained that the new society would not be born except on the basis of the old one and not on one that we could choose.

The sometimes contradictory arguments of this book reflect this contradiction existing in real life.  No more so than the argument about how the transition to workers cooperatives can come about.  Here it is argued, obviously on the basis that there is no contradiction between cooperative production and capitalism, that the capitalists themselves should simply transform their companies into cooperatives.  ‘The powerful need a change of heart’; senior managers will have to ‘make do with a smaller proportion of the wealth’; managers will ‘certainly have to learn how to exercise their power differently’ and ‘advisors will need a change of outlook’.  The book has explained why this should happen but not why it is in the interests of these people that it should happen.

The author calls on Government to prefer cooperatives and points out that this will increase prosperity, boost tax receipts, reduce social problems, increase citizen welfare and reduce social expenditure.  This makes sense only if you think the State is there for all citizens and not just for a few.

It calls on trade union leaders to realise the importance of workers gaining ownership rights and the potential it has for higher earnings, enhancing workers’ rights to information and their power to influence company decisions.  On this score it might appear that the author is on more secure ground since trade unions claim to represent workers and their interests.  Unfortunately it is just for this reason that many do not support worker ownership since such ownership would undermine claims that they exclusively represent workers in a particular workplace.  Normally union leaders prefer state ownership because the state will often guarantee union recognition, and therefore the dues income that pays the salaries of the union officials, while it allows these same officials the ability and right to claim exclusive representation rights.

The alternative perspective of some of the Left – of a once and for all take-over of all capitalist production by a workers’ state – has its own problems.  It leaves no role for the accumulation of prior social power and experience by the working class or of the potential radicalising effect of prior widespread workers ownership.  Such ownership would allow a ready reply to the accurate critique we now hear – where is your workers’ and socialist alternative?

Through many posts we have pointed out the fact that this has disarmed workers in fighting austerity, debt bondage and workplace closures.  Keynesianism – increases in state expenditure – is usually put forward as the only alternative to austerity but it is not an alternative that belongs to the working class.  The perspective of a workers’ economy can take root as a concrete alternative, at least in part to the degree that workers already own and control production.

Instead the ideal of a revolution, that in one blow achieves the requirements of decades of class struggle and experience, slides into the view that this comprehensive creation of socialised property becomes a single task of a country wide mechanism, usually the state.  So the State which is the protector of private ownership is wrongly held up as the means of overcoming it, through nationalisation etc.

Even those who see the creation of workers’ ownership as a task only for a workers’ state do not appreciate that this workers’ state itself must be based on workers ownership of production and of society.  How else do we prevent the bureaucratic degeneration experienced after the Russian revolution or expect the state to ‘wither away’ after revolution, which is the goal of Marxists and which was proclaimed by Lenin after the revolution?

The fight for workers cooperatives is a transitional one in that it contains the seeds of future society within the old.  It therefore contains elements of the old and those of the new but to condemn it for the former while ignoring the latter is a mistake.  In the next post I will look at criticisms of the idea of workers cooperatives as a means of achieving working class liberation and socialism.

Workers’ control of production Part 2

0425.1974_Portugal-newspapeIn my last post on workers’ control I noted that it inevitably arose as a result of crisis, and crises are by their nature temporary, occasioned by society-wide political upheavals or by threatened closure of a particular workplace that is perhaps producing unnecessary products, is working in an obsolete manner or is otherwise failing to compete successfully in the capitalist market.

In Britain in the 1970s there were more than 260 occupations of workplaces by their work forces including, perhaps most famously, at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow, usually sparked off by closures, layoffs, redundancies, dismissals or threats of closure.  Such occupations were spontaneous, often acts of desperation and with no real planning.  If successful, the numbers occupying would be offered jobs by a new employer although this number would usually be less than when the occupation would have begun.  When no new owners would appear the occupations might attempt to become workers’ cooperatives but the motivation was normally a pragmatic search for a solution rather than something drawn from political commitment and ideology.

The occupations were often built by shop stewards and sometimes at odds with the official trade union movement, a situation we see again and again and a result of factors far from accidental.

The theme of ‘industrial democracy’ was very much alive and in 1974 the Conservative Government called a general election on the issue of “who governs Britain”, in direct reference to the miners who had engaged in successful strike action.  The Tories lost and the new Labour Party Government included Tony Benn, who wanted greater involvement of workers in their workplaces.  He also came into conflict with trade union leaders who opposed his dealings with rank and file groups of workers.  “The whole machine is against you” Benn told one supporter of an occupation at Imperial Typewriters.

Workers’ cooperatives received the support of Benn, who was in a position to do something as Minister at the Department of Industry, but his financial help was relatively small and most industrial aid continued to go towards private industry.  That which did go to the cooperatives was mainly for compensation to previous owners who were paid for obsolete plant.  This left the new cooperatives under-capitalised and without the necessary resources to carry out research and development.  They generally lasted only a short space of time but still sometimes produced radical, innovative and still exemplary struggles.  One such was as at Lucas Aerospace, where workers pioneered conversion plans to socially useful production, again opposed by the union leadership.

By the end of the decade however these types of struggles had declined dramatically.  Few of the experiments in workers’ ownership survived and as history is usually written by the winner the victory of Thatcher, built on the attacks on workers commenced by Labour, left a legacy of disappointment and nostalgia in some old enough to remember.  This has affected the Left up to today in so far as it is suspicious, if not actually hostile, to workers’ cooperatives.  This is a profound mistake as the willingness of workers to fight for ownership and control of their own workplaces is an instinctive impulse to go beyond capitalism.

The history of American workers organisation in the 1930s is perhaps more celebrated than this experience but in some ways was more limited.  Workers and trade union power grew during the decade not just because of the struggle of workers to organise, most famously in Minneapolis, but because of the strong growth of US manufacturing industry.  Between 1936 and 1939 workers occupied 583plants in sit-down strikes in defence of their terms and conditions, protection of wages, achievement of union recognition, or prevention of sell-outs where recognition already existed. These were often successful.

Unfortunately there followed 70 years of union-management collaboration – no strike agreements during the second world war; the witch hunt and expulsion of socialist activists in the McCarthy period; mob penetration of the union movement and the turning of the union bureaucracy into a world-wide vehicle of the US state in its cold war with the Soviet Union.  The US union movement has now declined so much that in most of the private sector it is irrelevant, with unionisation accounting for only 7.5 per cent in the private sector in 2008.  In some workplaces where unions do ‘organise’ workers are not even aware there is a union!

The history of American workers’ militancy drives home a lesson to be  learnt from the British experience of the 1970s and 1980s – that politics are not only determined by workers militancy and their experiments with workers control but that politics can influence decisively the short and long-term success of these experiments.

In the end the question of politics is crucial, which is why Marxists believe that working class conquest of state power – revolution – is decisive.  It is important however not to telescope the path to this destination.  Revolution is decisive only if the material basis for working class rule is present.  This is not simply a question of the level of economic development but of the social and political development of the working class.  Without both of these the question of revolution is not posed practically i.e. in reality, no matter what more general ‘crisis of capitalism’ is evident.

The analysis of workers’ control in these posts is based on the belief that working class conquest of state power is necessary but that the immediate question is how to make that a widely shared goal given the low level of class consciousness and struggle than now pertains.

It is therefore important to attempt to draw lessons from the impact of political developments on workers attempts at independent organisation in the workplace.  In turn we can then look at the role of workers’ organisation in the workplace for its impact on wider political struggle.  This will reveal the limits as well as the strengths of a workplace-based strategy and what political demands should be raised as a result.  Such lessons informs the opposition to calls for nationalisation that have been argued in many earlier posts.

For example in the Spanish revolution in the 1930s it was the Republican state that strangled the workers’ and peasants’ collectives rather than the fascist counterrevolution.  Clearly in this case a call for this government to nationalise such collectives would not have made much sense.  Anarchists believed these collectives were a means of controlling the Republican authorities but clearly what was needed was an alternative Government and state – perhaps built on these bodies.

In Yugoslavia self-management was a means of mobilising the population against economic blockade and potential invasion, boosting production, minimising the power of the trade unions during a labour shortage and hoping that the workers would discipline themselves.  Unfortunately self-management as then practised led to accusations of workers’ neo-capitalism in which the enterprises were seen as the workers property, narrowly conceived, so that they competed with each other in a capitalist-like manner.  Self-management became not a means of workers self-realisation but a trade union-like bargaining system of clientelism and patronage.  Increased enterprise autonomy acted to dissolve wider working class solidarity leaving enterprise loyalty and territorial state loyalty as the alternative, one which ultimately descended into bitter and bloody nationalist war.  On the way to this dénouement it has been argued that enterprise autonomy became a mechanism to insert the Yugoslav economy directly into the capitalist world market.  Increased autonomy became the means of strengthening management power not workers’ autonomy.

Both Spain and Yugoslavia are testament to the fact that without real working class political and state power workers’ control can be subverted and/or crushed.  I have argued that it is the lack of workers’ economic power and experience before revolutionary crises that has weakened the struggle for their class rule thus making revolutionary success less likely in such crises.  But it is also true that such episodic economic power is doomed without a political project.  In Poland workers councils existed in 1945, 1956, 1970 and 1980-81 but revolution there became a restoration of capitalism.

In nationalist revolutions, such as in Indonesia, the most radical actions of workers are betrayed by a backward political consciousness; as when workers control is achieved and defended not as an extension of workers’ power as a class but as the property and achievement of the new independent (still capitalist) state.  This state can indulge in the wildest revolutionary rhetoric but as long as its power is not an extension of that of the workers it is just rhetoric, to be retracted when the new state feels itself more in control.  It succeeds in this as long as workers power is mistakenly seen by its holders as the gift of the newly independent state.  The examples of nationalism trumping the radical actions of workers are legion and proof again that revolutionary action does not automatically generate revolutionary socialist politics and consciousness.

What is clearly decisive is workers’ own consciousness and workers control, self-management or councils are not in themselves decisive in determining it.  This however is not the question and not the argument being put.  There is no ‘magic’ strategy guaranteeing a workers’ victory but there are more or less adequate roads and strategic conceptions.

The argument here is that workers’ control, and in the longer term, workers’ ownership can provide a more solid, permanent and robust material basis for the development of the necessary socialist consciousness than simple trade unionism, no matter how militant.  More realistic than reliance on spontaneous political revolutions to do all the work of consciousness raising in the necessarily short space of time in which they take place and certainly more than demands for nationalisation, which for example were obviously meaningless in both Yugoslavia and Poland.

What workers ownership should do is provide a basis and foundation for a political programme that seeks to extend and deepen this form of ownership and give it a political dimension, to make easier removal of the division between the political and the economic that characterises capitalism.  Workers’ collective control and ownership of the state can be more easily argued for on the basis of their wider ownership in the economy.

The argument is more easily advanced if there exists a successful worker owned and controlled sector of the economy that can be presented as an alternative to the capitalist owned sector or the illusion that a benevolent state can take ownership of the latter in order to benefit workers.  On this basis the socialist project can become a political one for which the ideal form to advance it is a mass workers’ party.  Such a project can begin to win the battle for hegemony within societies which are currently dominated by capitalist ideas despite the objective failures of that system.  A real material basis for an alternative is provided that can focus generalised discontent that now expresses itself in free-floating ethical concerns for justice and can find no more specific or concrete alternative than vague calls that ‘another world is possible.’  Instead through development of workers’ cooperatives and the wider labour movement another world is built in front of our eyes.

The absence of such hegemony of ideas, and its corollary – that no alternative to the capitalist system seems possible – results in the upheavals that returned societies to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  This wider and deeper lack of legitimacy of the socialist project weighs heavily on the spontaneous activity of workers even when they have engaged in the most radical activity.

In the Portuguese revolution in 1974 a movement within the army overthrew the dictatorship and between May and October of that year 4,000 workers’ commissions were established following mass meetings.  Not only factories but empty houses and apartments were occupied.

Within these commissions political competition developed between the Portuguese Communist Party and smaller revolutionary currents.  A failed right wing coup shifted events further to the Left.  Workers councils became not just organs of control in the workplace but organisations of struggle that could potentially threaten the power of the capitalist state.

In the end however they proved too weak and were unable to pose a political alternative to the quickly developing normal organisations of capitalist democracy – trade unions, political parties, parliament and the state.  In the end the Portuguese Socialist Party became the mechanism for a stabilisation of capitalist rule and bourgeois democracy.

Short-lived experiments in workers control and ownership were not in themselves capable of establishing hegemony for the project of workers’ state power.  A deeper and wider radicalisation was required.

The point is that this can take time and can only come about through the development of socialist consciousness in the working class over a more or less extended period and this must rest on a material base.  This can only be the development of the power of the workers in existing capitalist society, expressed in democratic trade unions, political parties, cultural organisations and workers cooperatives.

The opposite of this road is reliance on the state, expressed in the demand for nationalisation.  In Spain, Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Portugal it was the State which became the guarantor of capitalist ownership and power.

Today we are in circumstances where workers must not only defend themselves against the depredations of capitalism – battling against austerity – but socialists must also look to ways in which to advance a workers consciousness that seeks permanent expression of their needs and powers.  Not just defending immediate interests but looking and taking care of the future of the movement and workers’ position in society.

But it is not simply about the needs of the present as against the needs of the future because Marxism is the belief, confirmed by nearly two centuries of industrial capitalism, that it is not possible to satisfy the needs of workers today by only fighting today’s battles.  A socialist society is the future only because it is the answer to the challe-nges and problems of the present.  The demands for workers control and ownership express this view and are rejection of the clam that the existing capitalist state, by nationalisation etc, can provide the answer.

What is Anti-capitalism?

electronblueOver the last two decades the left has attempted to respond to the heavy defeats of the working class by breaking out of its isolation and creating, or rather supporting the creation of, broad left parties.  Similarly sections of society, especially youth, have responded to the obvious unfairness of global capitalism by involving themselves in protests and movements against globalisation.  Both of these moves have to one degree or other come under the label of anti-capitalism.  It has never been very clear what this anti-capitalism consists of.

The left groups have more often than not attempted to create these broad, anti-capitalist parties themselves rather than insert themselves into genuine broad movements.  The anti-globalisation movement has also by and large been separated from working class struggle due to the latter’s decline.  In the absence of such struggle speculative attempts to create broad parties can have only limited success but this does not account for complete failure.

In Ireland we have just witnessed the failure of the United Left Alliance, which follows on the failure of previous initiatives such as the Socialist Alliance.  This comes as similar initiatives in Britain such as its Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and RESPECT have also ended in failure.

To a greater or lesser extent these projects have been based on the idea that there exists a vacuum on the left through the rightward trajectory of social democratic parties which the left organisations can fill.  There has been no pause for thought that this movement to the right is a result not of some pathology to betray traditional social democratic politics but results from the assault of right wing forces, consequent defeat of workers and an undermining of the basis for social democratic answers.

Much weaker forces from the left trying to occupy this ‘space’ with not dissimilar policies, in the absence of any change to any of these larger factors, could only expect to face a similar evacuation of this ‘space’ – usually through collapse.

The invention of the term anti-capitalism that is supposed to sit outside the traditional reformist/revolutionary dichotomy has been the programmatic basis for these initiatives although these take various guises.  In this blog I have critiqued the anti-capitalist programme of the left organisations in Ireland as they have grouped themselves around the United Left Alliance.  This criticism has examined their programme of debt default, their budget proposals, taxing the rich, state investment and nationalisation.

This programme can nevertheless be called anti-capitalist because no pro-capitalist force currently comes anywhere near supporting it.  No party supports high taxation of the rich, defaulting on debt or much increased state spending to lower unemployment.  The capitalist class would bitterly oppose implementation of these measures, which would be better for the working class than current austerity policies.

None of these considerations however make this a working class programme.  Capitalist states have defaulted on their debt before – many times; taxation of high incomes was well over 90 per cent in the post-war United States during the cold war; deficit spending by the state has been an automatic result of the current crisis and nationalisation has been a response across the world to the current crisis.  In Britain and the US parts of the financial system were effectively nationalised and in Ireland almost all the banks were nationalised.

The anti-capitalist policies proposed differ only in degree to those imposed by capitalism many times before.  Above all this programme is not a working class one because it does not provide an alternative to capitalism in the sense that working class power is built and strengthened and the germs of alternative relations of production are created.

The social democratic programme was evacuated because it was not seen as the best option for capitalism.  If the capitalist class or its representatives change their minds about this they will get their own parties, including social democratic ones, to implement it.

The anti-capitalist content of this programme is twofold.  First it may target particular sections of the capitalist class or its representatives but only to benefit others.  Thus debt default will impose losses on sectors of financial capitalism that may benefit industrial/producer sectors.  High taxation will hit the highest paid mangers of capitalist enterprises such as bank CEOs, so depressing their salaries, which may be to the benefit of capitalist owners as shareholders.  Deficit spending on infrastructure will obviously directly benefit capitalist construction companies while putting pressure on lending to other capitalists.  Nationalisation of banks has been a means of protecting capitalist investors, not of expropriating them, but it also maintains the integrity of other capitalist’s liabilities.

The second way this programme is anti-capitalist we have explained – the capitalists oppose it.  The anti-capitalism of the programme is very like the anti-imperialism of Irish republicanism in the 1970s and 1980s.  It was heartfelt and genuine in a subjective sense and involved enormous sacrifice.  In an objective sense it was unrealisable by the methods adopted – armed struggle by republicans and electoralism by the left, which means that eventually the means change or the objective is abandoned.  In the case of republicans it was both.

In both cases neither programme opposed or presented an alternative to the class interests that they fought against.  In the case of republicans they never had a programme that opposed and had an alternative to the British and Irish capitalist classes who defended partition.  In the case of the left even implementation of their programme would not end the capitalist system or threaten the power of the capitalist state.  In fact most of its programme involves strengthening the capitalist state.

As I posted before: in one aspect of their programme these weaknesses might be seen to have been mitigated if not overcome.  The demand for workers’ control of enterprises taken over by the state might seem to present a means to increase working class power while encapsulating the potential of an alternative, new society.

Unfortunately the demand for workers control is proposed as part of the demand for nationalisation as if the capitalist state is in some way a facilitator for the creation of working class power.  The Marxist analysis of the state is that when the capitalist class is threatened by working class action it is the state which is strong enough to defend capitalist interests.  State ownership is not therefore a route to workers’ control.  No aspects of the many forms of state organisation involve workers’ control of any aspect of its bureaucracy.

In capitalist society ownership entitles control and capitalist ownership entails capitalist control.  State ownership entails state control.  Only in times of extreme crisis is the possibility of workers’ control raised and it is raised only when it is imposed by the workers themselves.  If they are in a position to do so, and to make it work, the demand should also be for workers ownership.

Above all the demand for workers’ control must be posed as a practical demand because it is necessary in order to achieve certain objectives.  In the past this has often involved keeping a workplace open when it is threatened by closure.  It does not normally arise in workers minds as an objective in itself.  Unfortunately this is how it is posed by the left – not as a burning necessity to achieve certain things which only the workers have an interest in accomplishing.  It is rarely posed as a practical measure needed to achieve particular objectives.

As I posted before in relation to the Transitional Programme, demands must be concrete and practical or they are simply tools of education (when not means of spreading confusion). Nothing wrong with this in itself, if that is where the struggle is at, but for the left the education given creates illusions in the state by demanding nationalisation as the key. The demand for nationalisation under workers’ control fits comfortably within a general programme that is reliant on state action for implementation.

More often lately the primary role assigned to state action is reflected by the left’s dropping of the rider to nationalisation since it plays no vital role.  Workers’ control in itself is not necessary to achieve any particular goal.  It is what Trotsky referred to as workers’ control “for platonic purposes.”

So we have the ULA before the last election demanding that “key wealth and resources must be taken into democratic public ownership.”  Another Left organisation demands taking “Ireland’s natural Resources into public ownership”.  Another states that “AIB, Bank of Ireland and other banks should be nationalised.  The banks should be amalgamated into one state bank.  The boards should be sacked.  A new board under the democratic control of working people should be established including elected representatives from the workplace and representatives elected from society as a whole.”

Another demands that “a publicly controlled banking system should be administered by elected representatives of the Irish people, representatives of employees of the banking industry, and trained financial experts employed on public sector pay scales.”

These proposals become blueprints, not demands that workers are to impose through their struggle to achieve certain practical needs.  Demands that workers exercise control coexist with formulations that are perfectly consistent with bog standard capitalist state nationalisation.  Demands for ‘public’ or ‘democratic’ control can be perfectly understood to mean the existing forms of state ownership.

On the other hand claims that workers’ control, when it is part of the Left’s propaganda, really means what Marxists have traditionally meant by it would be hard to accept.  Calls for widespread workers’ control were characterised thus by Trotsky in 1931:

“Thus the regime of workers’ control, a provisional transitional regime by its very essence, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, the proletarian offensive, and the failing back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to the period of the proletarian revolution in the fullest sense of the word.” It hardly needs saying that we are nowhere near such a situation today, not in Ireland or anywhere else.

Instead today’s routine demands for workers’ control, when they are made – instead of mealy-mouthed formulations about ‘democratic public ownership’- are closer to this description of it, again by Trotsky, in the same article:

“If the participation of the workers in the management of production is to be lasting, stable, “normal,” it must rest upon class collaboration, and not upon class struggle. Such a class collaboration can be realised only through the upper strata of the trade unions and the capitalist associations. There have been not a few such experiments: in Germany (“economic democracy”), in Britain (“Mondism”), etc. Yet, in all these instances, it was not a case of workers’ control over capital, but of the subserviency of the labour bureaucracy to capital. Such subserviency, as experience shows, can last for a long time: depending on the patience of the proletariat.”

We shall examine further the historical experience of workers’ control in a further post.

The reality of the Good State

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Some readers of this blog might think that I’m labouring the question of nationalisation and state ownership and its identification with socialism. While I believe it is a question of fundamental political importance its practical significance has been vividly illustrated in the last few days.


In Britain the report from the fifth investigation into Stafford hospital has been delivered, prompting David Cameron to say that he was”truly sorry” for what had happened, which was “not just wrong, it was truly dreadful.” Previous investigations had already established in harrowing detail the abuse and neglect that took place from 2005 to 2008.

Between 400 and 1,200 more deaths took place than would have been expected between these years, although it is stated that it is impossible to say whether all of these patients would have survived had they received better treatment. Receptionists were left to decide which patients to treat, inexperienced doctors were put in charge of critically ill patients and nurses were not trained how to use vital equipment.

The National Health Service, so beloved of the British nation that it featured in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, has been damned from top to bottom.

Trust management ignored patients’ complaints while local GPs and MPs also failed to speak up, the inquiry said.

The local primary care trust and regional health authority were too quick to trust the hospital’s management and national regulators were not challenging enough.

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing was highlighted for not doing enough to support its members who were trying to raise concerns.

The Department of Health was also criticised for being too “remote” and embarking on “counterproductive” reorganisations.

The findings of the report cannot be regarded as an aberration as it follows repeated damning judgments of care provided in Britain, especially care of the elderly, and news that five other hospitals are to be investigated following Stafford.

Yet the NHS is the crown jewels of the social democratic state.

The inquiry’s head said that patients “were failed by a system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety.”

Many on the left speak and act as if the only problem with the health service is a lack of cash but this is much less than the full story and money will not deal with what has been referred to as the cultural changes that are required.

Working class people in Britain and Ireland are all too aware of the shortcomings of the health services. While those in Ireland may wish for their own NHS those in the UK know its limitations and going to hospital is more and more regarded as something you really don’t want to do unless you have to.

Those with elderly relatives in care are all too aware of the possibility of mistreatment.

Only yesterday Channel 4 news reported on the death of an elderly person left with no domiciliary care for 9 days when the service she was receiving was closed by immigration police, who had raided the office of the private organisation providing the care. When the care provided by this organisation stopped the council never picked up on the elderly woman who had no relatives. She went without her medication and died hungry, thirsty and alone.

Two days ago the illegal charging by the Irish State of people in long-term care again became news. As early as 1976 the State, through the Department of Health, knew its charges were illegal. In 2005 the Government attempted to make them legal retrospectively although this was stopped by the Supreme Court.

The Government knew exactly what it was doing. The Minister of Health Mary Harney said that “more than 300,000 people were charged illegally during 28 years. This was entirely wrong. They were old, they were poor, they suffered from mental illness, they had intellectual disabilities, they were physically disabled. As vulnerable people, they were especially entitled to the protection of the law and to legal clarity about their situation.”

And yesterday the report on the Magdalene Laundries was released, which revealed some of the State’s role in the incarceration of thousands of women in institutions run by Catholic religious orders, compelled to work for nothing and stigmatised as ‘fallen women.’ “A very Irish form of slavery” as the Sinn Fein TD Mary Lou McDonald put it. Over one quarter of the women were put there by the State. The last laundry only closed in 1996.

The State again attempted to cover up and lie over its role.

In 2009 the Minister of Education Batt O’Keefe said that “the Magdalene laundries were privately owned and operated establishments which did not come within the responsibility of the State. The State did not refer individuals to the Magdalene laundries nor was it complicit in referring individuals to them.” Not true.

In 2011 Sean Aylward, secretary general of the Department of Justice, speaking in Geneva at the UN Committee Against Torture said “the vast majority of women who went to these institutions went there voluntarily or, if they were minors, with the consent of their parents or guardians.” He knew this because he had met some of these women.

Yet not one of the five women he had met had entered the laundries voluntarily or with the consent of their parents or guardians. Over eighty three per cent who entered the laundries were put there.

What all these examples demonstrate is that the capitalist state cannot be relied upon to provide services that working people, especially the most vulnerable, require. Some, like the Magdalene laundries, are now easy to denounce but none are models of socialism. Far from uncritically defending these services socialists must educate and agitate for a workers’ alternative to how they are currently organised and managed. The very last thing we want to do is proclaim these services as exemplars of socialism and the state that runs them as the font of this socialism.

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.