Lessons from the Grangemouth dispute

GRANGEMOUTH_2700282bI received an email from Socialist Democracy inviting me to contribute to a discussion based on an article they have written on the lessons of the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland. This article sets out the devastating scale of the defeat – the freeze in pay, butchery of pension entitlement and castration of union organisation.  Many in the media called it an old fashioned battle of labour against capital, such was the unvarnished clarity of what was involved.

The questions to be answered are whether there could have been a different result and what lessons can be learnt?

The article does not say whether the result could have been different.  Given the circumstances I think not, but this means we must be clear what the circumstance were that lead to this conclusion.

As for the lessons the article posits two – that the entire strategy of the trade union leaders has been overthrown and that of union support for, and reliance on, the Labour Party is a mistake.  I believe that there is a third rather more basic one, which can be explained very much as the old fashioned relationship between labour and capital.  What is this relationship?

The relations of capitalist production are unequal as they involve capitalists as owners of the means of production, including oil refineries and petrochemical works, and workers separated from ownership of such means of production and dependent on employment by the capitalist for their livelihood.  In a struggle that does not threaten or weaken these foundations it is generally the case that the capitalists will be able to impose their wishes because these align with the power structures in society.

This does not mean each and every strike or struggle by workers is doomed to defeat but that in certain disputes this power of capital is fully deployed and the fundamental imbalance in power is cruelly demonstrated.  Were it otherwise capitalism might be able to find some stable compromise, some equilibrium between the two classes that would allow a ‘fairer’ distribution of resources.  No such stable equilibrium has been found.  Marxists have been confirmed in their view that the liberation of the majority of working people requires overturning the existing system and creation of one in which the monopoly of ownership of capital is destroyed. 

This is the basic case for socialism in opposition to all those who think a better world is possible while not overthrowing the fundamental structures of society.

It is not an all or nothing case.  It does not say that workers can do nothing to protect themselves short of socialism.  Struggles that do not threaten these fundamental relations can sometimes be victorious such as when the economy is booming, unemployment is low and workers can strike or otherwise bargain for higher wages without fear of being sacked and their place being taken by the unemployed.

Of course in an economic downturn the temporary leverage of workers and trade unions is undermined and the power of capitalists to do as they wish because of their ownership of capital is reasserted.

In the case of the Grangemouth dispute this means that no workers’ action no matter how brilliant, innovative or militant could prevent Jim Ratcliffe from using his ownership of capital to close the refinery and petrochemical works and throw thousands of workers onto the dole.

Of course if you were convinced he was lying about the profitability of the plant and convinced his threats to close were a bluff the solution is simple – call his bluff and tell him his demands will not be accepted.  Unfortunately his ownership means that only he and his management know the truth and his claims that the plant only had a future if he was able to put £300 million in investment into it were credible. The same system that decrees private ownership of a refinery also necessarily involves periodic overcapacity in production and this was held over the workers’ heads as the brute fact that required they surrender or face the sack.

Under such circumstances no one can be surprised the workers decided to accept the lesser evil.

The article is correct that simple strike action would not succeed.  It was the boss who went on strike – it’s called a lockout.  It is he who brought production to a halt and threatened to make this permanent.

Others called for widespread solidarity action perhaps secondary strikes.  Firstly these are illegal and related to this, workers have not yet the level of combativity to carry out such action, even those involved in the chemicals industry who would have lost their own jobs had Grangemouth closed.

If it is argued that this strategy is one we must argue for and attempt to build for the future then this is indeed an element of strategy.  In this situation however there is no reason to believe Ratcliffe gave a rat’s arse about the fate of the wider industry and of the other thousands of jobs that would have been lost.  If he was going to close Grangemouth then all these strikes would have made no difference to his plans.

A second possible answer was to call on the state to nationalise the refinery and works.  The problem with this is that neither the British State based in London nor that part that might go independent had no intention of doing so.  Both are ‘open for business’ only when it means private capitalism.  So who was going to nationalise the works?  If it is believed that strike action would compel such nationalisation then it would have had to be wider and deeper than that considered above and the first response of the State would have been to attempt to throttle it. Some people keep on forgetting the State is the protector of the enemy.

Some on the Scottish Left said the situation at Grangemouth showed the need for independence but this was not an immediate solution.  As we have just said, the Scottish National Party has no intention of nationalising private industry when private capitalists are prepared to invest if only the workers accept the necessary sacrifices.  Alex Salmond’s primary concern was with the exposure of his independence project, and the illustration of how weak the idea of a prosperous oil economy looks in light of this immediate threat to pull the plug.  Since the refinery provides fuel for northern England and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland the case for action to protect the service went beyond the border and thus implicitly provides the grounds for wide action to defend it.  It also undermines any case for a nationalist solution from the right or the left.

The article argues against the efficacy of such answers and proposes its own elements of a strategy.  Some of these are by no means very clear.

For example what does this mean? –

“The trade union and political fights have to be united around a movement that is willing to reject the claims of finance capital and to step in and expropriate capital where it is necessary to preserve the livelihood of workers.”

The only time a workers’ movement will be able on its own to expropriate capital is when there is a revolutionary situation. We’re not in one of those so it wasn’t and isn’t an answer.  (We’re also fighting industrial capital in this one.)

The article says –

“The Labour Party has promised a temporary freeze on prices, so a call could be made for a permanent cap . . .”

Just how are the laws of capitalism to be permanently abolished or even suspended when the system still exists?

They can’t.  The only way they can is if and when there is a revolution that creates the conditions for totally remodelling economic and social relations and even then prices will not be abolished for some considerable time.

The alternative proposed revolves around occupation and seeking an alternative to the Labour Party.

Once again however if the plant is really losing money and the threat of closure real then why would Ratcliffe not just let the workers occupy, sit in the refinery and – so far as he was concerned – rot away?  It would be just another way of closing the plant if he didn’t get the workers to accept his demands.

What the demand for occupation means is that workers take over ownership and run it themselves.  They cannot simply run it themselves without ownership.  No one would provide raw materials or other services without someone to contract with and you don’t form contracts with those in unlawful possession.  So the question is how would the workers take ownership?  How would they get the money to buy it and to invest perhaps the£300 million Ratcliffe says is needed?

Obviously this is much harder when pushed against a wall, with no preparation and no conception that this is the alternative.  Equally obviously if it is accepted that this is the road that workers in such situations should follow then it would be better to be prepared for such a challenge.  The challenge is precisely to the monopoly ownership of the means of production that we said at the start is the heart of the relationship between capital and labour and at the heart of capitalism.

The workers movement is big enough to fund research into the creation of worker owned businesses.  Workers might start to fight to gain control of their pension funds to invest in their own enterprises.  Money can be raised for investment from financial institutions or other funding means to be determined.    A network of employee owned cooperatives already exists.  What is involved is not utopian, in the sense it has never been done before, nor is it without rational calculation.

If workers could be ready for such an alternative the threats of closure would not be so conclusive.

In other words the alternative to capitalist ownership is workers’ ownership.  Not just in some indefinite future ‘after the revolution’ but now and not just for now but in order to build towards the future.

Finally the article criticises the unions’ support for the Labour Party.  It notes that organised workers continue to support their trade union and political leaders, although it only proposes that in order to fight both it is necessary to break from the Labour Party but not from the existing trade unions.  It calls for a ‘class struggle movement’ to be created across all the unions, which should call for a new working class party.

It obviously believes this fight can dismiss the Labour Party and need not go through it, although it does not explain how this can be achieved when it acknowledges workers continuing support for that Party.  Implicit is the view that a fight within that Party is not needed to convince workers to break from it.  This in my view is very doubtful.

It draws no lessons from its ridicule of the small socialist organisations which have attempted this road or what it correctly describes as the private character of their concerns; illustrated by their bizarre discussions and replication of policies that decades ago they excoriated the Labour Party for.  The articles’ own call for a revolutionary party is correct but of no help here since it is put forward, necessarily so, as an ideal future location.

Instead it states that – “there are many issues around which a fightback can be organised, but they cannot be organized by the current leadership of the working class . . . What it [Grangemouth] has shown up is the utter inability of the traditional leadership to defend workers and the demoralisation and lack of strategic vision on the part of the socialists.”

If what is being said is that a new leadership has to be created, and the existing one challenged, then this is correct.  If it is being said that this is a precondition for a fight-back then this is not correct. It is only in the course of struggle that existing leaderships can be defeated, as long as such objectives become part of the struggle by the mass of ordinary workers.

The workers at Grangemouth and, by extension, those beyond have suffered a cruel defeat.  One possible reaction is to be cowed by the power of capital to shatter livelihoods.  A second is to seek some magic bullet of a strategy that workers can employ to defeat such plans: a strike, secondary action or an occupation.

A third lesson is that very often workers are forcibly confronted with the reality that to secure a decent life they need to go beyond capitalism and that no amount of shifting it with militant action can change its fundamental nature.  This nature is one where capitalists own the means of production and they can open and close it when they want.  This is not a strong argument for capitalism but a powerful argument for changing society – for socialism.

As Marx said – “the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!

Russell Brand and Revolution


I was listening to BBC Radio 4 on the headphones on my way home from work last night when three Westminster politicians were asked about Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman.  The link shows it has had nearly 9 million hits, just a few million more than this blog.  This is why Radio 4 was covering it and why it is important.

Is it another illustration of the celebrity culture that colonises everything?  This is the claim of some of the derisive dismissal of Brand’s rantings by the rest of the media who, at least the ones I’ve read, have slagged him off as a hypocrite.  An obvious example of ad hominem argument or shooting the messenger, not that it’s always wrong to shoot the messenger when the message is intolerable.  In this respect I’m reminded of the opening scene of Gladiator when the Germanic tribes respond to the demand to surrender by the Roman legions by throwing the severed head of the messenger on the ground in front of their massed ranks.

The problem of course is that shooting the messenger doesn’t deal with the message as the Germanic tribes discovered.  It might be claimed Brand doesn’t have an argument.  But read his New Statesman article and he does.

It might be dismissed as primitive or naïve but a better word is elemental and he does have more than a few good lines.  He makes a case.  It’s not the sort you will read on this blog but this blog doesn’t pretend to have the only or the best or the most effective voice for revolutionary change.  It aspires to encourage the recovery of Marxism and its application to the practical political programme of socialists.  It hopes that whoever thinks this is a reasonable objective to pursue will contribute to it and write their own posts.

So what if Brand’s surprising political commitment lights up the sky like a meteor and crashes and burns to earth?  What if he is a one-hit wonder?  When the rest of us are unable to get a gig a one-hit wonder is something to be.

Has his outburst reduced the credibility of our cause?  Or given it a little more light? Perhaps one more point of departure to argue for it and to advance it?

He is obviously very aware of the brickbats he would get for his ‘champagne socialist’ position and his trenchant, and in some ways reasonable, response to this is itself rather honest compared to the carefully constructed insincerity of politician’s continual hypocrisy.  It’s not as if he’s a champagne socialist in the way that that other celebrity in the new is – ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson – with his Icumfigovan sign in his office, his hobnobbing with millionaires and his advice on man management to Tony Bliar. Nevertheless Brand has a brand problem – for example my partner thinks he’s a prat and she is very rarely wrong in such judgements.

russell brand revolution header

Brand can be criticised as anti-political, with his calls for people not to vote, but he is not stupid and he puts forward a case why we ‘should not encourage them’.  He also puts well the idea that apathy is more accessible than anger to all the shit that people have to put up with from politicians and the system they pimp.  Compared to many on the left, who claim there is a crisis of working class representation, that is we don’t have the right politicians in parliament to represent us, the radical critique of all politicians who do represent us is refreshing.

Not because we haven’t heard it before, in fact as Marxists we invented the revolutionary critique of bureaucratic ‘representation’ of the working class, but because we never see it on television.  We are extremists who never get heard but a little bit of a hearing for revolution makes us a little bit less extreme in the sense we are able to register in political debate a little bit more.

Listening to the feeble and self-serving helpings of cant from the Tory, Labour and Liberal politicians last night on the radio shows how even such a minor assault on their system from someone with a shred of credibility can so easily expose the defenders of the status quo.  Now Radio 4 reports the disillusionment of Paxman himself with the politics on offer in Britain. For Ireland multiply that lack of alternative by the number of Euros given to bailout the banks.

Above all, when pressed for what he wants as an alternative Brand calls for socialism and for revolution.  This is a darned sight more than some on the left do when faced with such a question.  The next question is that of the child – but how do we get a revolution?  You can ague all you like that Brand hasn’t much to say about this that seems practical but what is the message of the so-called revolutionary left?

As I have posted many times, the left that claims to be Marxist asks the state to extend its power through extra spending, taxation and through nationalisation while simultaneously believing, but not having the courage to say so in front of the workers, that this same state should be smashed in a revolution.

Let’s not pretend Brand is an advanced political thinker whose views we should instantly embrace.  He may be on a ‘messiah world tour’ but he’s still more a very naughty boy than a genuine Messiah.

Brandism is hardly going to succeed Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism.  It’s not a practical guide but an emotional and reasoned outburst.  It’s not even an inarticulate expression of youth rebellion.  He’s 38 and very articulate.  We’re not obliged to defend his every word or even every tenth one but his avalanche of words creates an impression – there is something radically wrong with the world we inhabit.  Very, very wrong.

It would be easy to criticise what he says for all sorts of reasons, from his apparent attitude to women to his lack of political strategy.  But it is precisely his political limits that creates a focus on the key message that he is held to be delivering – opposition to the venality of the present system, the need for a revolution.

I’ve just finished reading a book – ‘A Marxist History of the World’, written by a member of a British left organisation.  It also makes the argument that what is needed is a socialist revolution.  The French revolution of 1789, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848; the 1917 revolution in Russia and revolutionary wave in Europe up to 1923, the Spanish revolution in 1936, the Hungarian revolution of 1956; the French general strike in 1968; the Iranian revolution of 1979; the overthrow of Stalinism after 1989 and the recent Arab revolutions, are all held up to show its possibility.  The last 100 years has been ‘pregnant with revolution’ readers are told.  We face Armageddon reminiscent of that foretold by the bible –with the appearance of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  The stakes have never been higher with a crisis of capitalism the deepest and most intractable ever.

This to me is no more coherent than Russell Brand’s interview but without a few of the redeeming features of the latter.

The list of revolutions includes only one successful socialist one – 1917 – and it was strangled into Stalinism relatively quickly.  We will, rather shortly, be commemorating the 100th anniversary of this revolution.

The point is not that the objective of revolution should be abandoned.  Revolution is not required to achieve a certain state of affairs – socialism – revolution is that state of affairs, which is the ruling of society by its majority.

Revolution on the other hand is seen by many on the left as one strategy to achieve something as opposed to alternative reformist ones – such as voting and elections to parliament – which are said not to be realistic.  Revolution is therefore seen as a cataclysmic single event rather than as a process, one that begins and grows and that moves towards a qualitative rupture that destroys the old state and creates a new one based on the working majority of society.

The road to socialism is not growing state control but increasing workers’ control of every aspect of their lives through incrementally reducing the power of the capitalist class and its state in preparation for the final battle.  I have tried to explain this a little bit on this blog.

When a public intervention leads to Radio 4 interviewers pursuing their politician guests with the question “but why not revolution?” this intervention deserves some support.

A new Left electoral campaign in Limerick


The Revolutionary Programme web site altered me recently to the latest electoral initiative of the Left – here.  The programme of this initiative is the following:

  • No to the Property, Water & Septic Tank Taxes – No to Deduction at Source.
  • No to all Austerity – ordinary people have paid enough.
  • For a united movement of ordinary people affected by home taxes and austerity – no to divisions based on race or nationality.
  • Tax the Wealthy as the alternative to austerity: For progressive taxation on the wealthy and corporate sector.
  • End the bailouts of banks and bondholders, instead use the money to create real jobs through a programme of necessary public works.
  • Our candidates if elected would:
    Fight against plans for Water Metering, Water Taxes and Water Privatisation.
    Oppose all cuts in council services or erosion of workers conditions.
    Make no deals on the Council with the austerity Parties (FF, FG, LP).
    Oppose the gravy train – no participation in junkets. Demand local planning for the community, not for developers or vested interests.

What attitude should Marxists take to this electoral initiative?

Just like every other party standing in an election it must surely be judged by what it says – by its professed programme or set of policies, providing of course these are also what it truly represents.

Can and should it be supported?

The electoral slate is clearly not a party and was organised by the Campaign Against Property Tax and Austerity but the logic of standing in an election is to act like a party and even more so if elected.  The failure of the Unite Left Alliance to do so has led to its demise.

The policies above are no way different from that of the ULA, except more limited.  The Left has argued over the last number of years that elections and those elected are there to advance ‘real’ struggles outside of parliament and council chambers.  The last few years have demonstrated conclusively however that it is the other way round – struggles in communities and estates have been means to advance electoral ambitions.  Electoralism is a dirty word on the Left but nothing would appear to describe the method of organising so accurately.

This initiative, the promised first of many, must be judged firstly on its own terms.

The short summary of its aims says it is against austerity and the various taxes that have made up a large part of this agenda.  The anti-property tax has failed so it will have to be explained how standing in elections will bring success.  Otherwise voters are being asked to vote for good intentions.  Councils can clearly not change the policy of central government so how will the taxes and austerity more generally be blocked and reversed?  No concrete and practical way forward is put forward.  Maybe it will be, but if it isn’t then it is purely propaganda.

If the reason for standing is to build the campaign this should be the main point of the programme but even here it should be explained how the campaign will achieve its aims.  Is, or rather was, a mass boycott a road forward given deduction at source?  If not what is the alternative – a mass political campaign aimed at persuading tax workers to refuse implementation of the tax?

What role is there for councils?  Are enough candidates standing to win a majority?  If so what would they do with such a majority?  Can they unite with other similarly minded councils to campaign against the tax?  What powers do councils have to frustrate or prevent this tax or austerity?  Will the new council promote workers control or ownership of council services?  What other steps will it take to promote the democratisation of local government?

If there is no possibility of winning a majority then what role would those elected take?  Will they release all information currently withheld on council activities?  How will they frustrate the local implementation of austerity?

If these questions aren’t put to the fore then, as I’ve said, what we are seeing is purely propaganda.  This does not mean that this aspect should be underestimated.  Even in periods of limited struggle, in fact particularly in such periods, the task of socialists is to try to educate as many workers as possible through propaganda.  Given the very small size of the socialist movement in Ireland this is by far and away its biggest task.  If it doesn’t get this right then the majority of what it is capable of doing is wasted if not positively harmful.

The thrust of the programme appears to be anti-austerity with the alternative being taxation of the wealthy – “for progressive taxation on the wealthy and corporate sector.”  It is also proposed to “End the bailouts of banks and bondholders, instead use the money to create real jobs through a programme of necessary public works.”

I have shown what is wrong with the idea you can tax the wealthy here and here so I won’t repeat my arguments again in this post.  The main problem is that it is not the wealth or high incomes of the rich that are the cause of austerity so even if it were possible to tax both effectively the cause of austerity would persist.  This cause is the economic crisis.  Because the economic system is a capitalist one the elementary task of a manifesto would be to state this and explain it.  Explain exactly how the way the capitalist system works has given rise to this crisis and will create more in future. This would be necessary in order to argue that the alternative to austerity from a working class point of view is socialism.  Explaining what this is would involve is an obvious next step – expropriation of capitalist ownership and workers ownership in its place and a workers’ state in place of the existing state.

Complaining that the programme does not mention socialism is not the problem since the programme is not a socialist one.  If this is the way it is then it is better that it does not claim to be socialist.

The programme proposes ending the bailouts of banks but does not explain how this might be done, the consequences or the alternatives.  Some of these issues are touched upon here, here and here.  How is the debt to be repudiated?  What debt is to be repudiated? How would credit be provided if the banks were allowed to fail?

Anyone who begins to think seriously about what “ending the bailouts” means will have these questions in their head and without an answer they will be open to accepting right wing claims that such proposals are not thought through , cannot be implemented or would be even more disastrous than what we already have.  Dealing with such claims is the important task of propaganda and at this point in time elections are useful means of getting across the message.

In the absence of all this the message put across is a radical Keynesian one, that is a capitalist one.  One that is temporarily more beneficial to working people but one, if followed,that would lead to inflation, wage cuts, unemployment, and calls for reducing budget deficits and tax increases later on.  That’s if it worked in the meantime!

From a political point of view therefore the programme does not assert separate working class politics but, in so far as it puts forward an alternative, puts forward the benign actions of the capitalist state as the solution.  It therefore doesn’t even get to first base in terms of a socialist alternative.  It may therefore be reformist but it isn’t working class reformism because it seems to rely solely on pressurising the state.

In terms of the reformist/revolutionary dichotomy it isn’t even the former since it lacks the courage of its convictions and fails to propose a Left Government for the Dail that could tax the rich and the corporations; burn the bondholders and use the money to create jobs in the public (read – capitalist state) sector.

A socialist programme would explain that fighting austerity is required to defend our living conditions but that this will ultimately fail unless the system is replaced.  Austerity can at best be ameliorated but such is the depth of the crisis it cannot be entirely halted and reversed under the present economic system.

Some will deny this and claim that austerity can be ended without changing the system; that the rich can be made to pay for their crisis and that policies of growth will ensure that this can happen.

On the other side will be those who will claim that austerity is an inevitable result of an economic crisis, which is caused by the capitalist system in its attempts to produce and accumulate capital beyond the conditions that allow it reproduce itself harmoniously.  The excessive expansion of credit is always a feature of capitalist crisis and the bigger the boom the bigger the bust, unless even more credit is injected into the economy in which case the bigger the boom  . . . No amount of regulation or honest government can prevent this without seriously gumming up the capitalist system, in which case you simply have a different sort of crisis with very much the same symptoms of unemployment etc.

On the first side of this debate will be the liberal defenders of Keynes, including their economists and leaders of the trade unions.  On the second, socialists, who can only consistently defend their ideas by understanding and presenting the arguments of Karl Marx, which is the reason Marx wrote ‘Capital’.

A recent post on the Michael Roberts blog has a couple of interesting points to make about these arguments.

He points to research showing that inequality of income reduced between 1910 and 1950 across the OECD (most advanced) countries, which calls into question the idea that capitalist crisis is a result of inequality that progressive taxation could cure.  This period, after all, covers the great depression of the 1930s.

He points to other research that:

“Credit booms mostly lead to financial crises, but inequality does not necessarily lead to credit booms. “Our paper looks for empirical evidence for the recent Kumhof/Rancière hypothesis attributing the US subprime mortgage crisis to rising inequality, redistributive government housing policy and a credit boom. Using data from a panel of 14 countries for over 120 years, we find strong evidence linking credit booms to banking crises, but no evidence that rising income concentration was a significant determinant of credit booms. Narrative evidence on the US experience in the 1920s, and that of other countries, casts further doubt on the role of rising inequality.

The problem with left solutions that highlight (sometimes more or less exclusively) inequality of income and wealth is that their solutions do nothing to tackle the origin and cause of this inequality.  The Michael Roberts blog points out that “in 2011, capital income constituted 60% of the top earner’s income compared to just 32% in the 1980s.”

The origin and cause is capitalist ownership of the means of production, including its purchase of labour power, its ownership of capital and the money and power this involves.  It is the relations of production in which workers have to sell their ability to work to a class of owners of the means of production that produces the gross inequalities in society.  Redistributing what is already produced, even were it possible, would not overturn this power relationship or the exploitation and oppression involved because it does not get to the heart of the matter.

In a country where little or nothing of this is understood the elementary task of socialists is to explain this to as wide a number of workers as possible and elections should be taken as an opportunity to do so.

So we are back to our question – should this electoral initiative be supported?

To the extent it has been judged as a more or less adequate immediate guide to action or corresponds to the  educational  needs of the working class the verdict would appear to be no.

Perhaps unity could not be agreed between the participants on any other basis and what we see is a campaign standing in an election not a party.  But was any other basis proposed or offered?  Was any discussed or do the participants see no problem in the platform of a campaign being adequate to a programme for an election?

It might truthfully be said that the low level of the programme reflects the low level of Irish workers’ class consciousness but this is not a way out of objections to it, for there is nothing in it to advance Irish workers’ understanding of the cause of the austerity they face or the great changes that are required to defeat it and establish a new society.

The only conditions upon which it would be possible to support this initiative is if it went further in arguing the socialist case or if it raised the prospect of invigorating a section of workers into activity, in which case through this activity they may learn about the roots of their predicament and themselves go beyond the timidity of the anti-austerity campaign.  To do the latter they may have to go beyond the existing Left groups who save what they think is socialism for potential recruits while the broader class of workers they address in electoral material, the purported agent of revolution, are fed re-heated capitalist reforms.

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.

Workers’ control of production

rr06[1]In my review of the programme put forward by the left in Ireland, generally no different from other countries across Europe and further afield, I have argued that while it may be better for workers than the current austerity policies it is not socialist.  By this I mean that it does not involve a class alternative, an alternative to capitalism, one that involves ownership of the means of production moving to the working class.

Only in one area is this not the case: the Left’s occasional demand for workers’ control.  Even in these cases I have argued that the proposals are not put forward within any real practical perspective but put forward in such a way that they must assume a near revolutionary situation.  Demands for widespread workers’ control are only a practical proposition in such circumstances.

In current conditions demands for workers’ control simply demonstrate a lack of seriousness by those proposing them.  In the article by Trotsky previously quoted, he states that “before this highly responsible fighting slogan is raised, the situation must be read well and the ground prepared. We must begin from below, from the factory, from the workshop.”

This is to be done by revolutionaries gauging the moods of other workers – “to what extent they would be ready to accept the demand to abrogate business secrecy and to establish workers’ control of production. . . . Only in the course of this preparatory work, that is the degree of success, can (we) show at what moment the party can pass over from propaganda to further agitation and to direct practical action under the slogan of workers’ control.”

“It is a question in the first period of propaganda for the correct principled way of putting the question and at the same time of the study of the concrete conditions of the struggle for workers’ control.”

One small means of doing this recently was, when the banking crisis erupted, members of Socialist Democracy leafleted bank workers in Dublin asking them to let other workers know what was going on in the banks through leaking internal emails etc.  This small step abrogating business secrecy is a first step to workers’ control.  The poor response showed that the preparatory work described by Trotsky had yet to begin.

In this post I want to look at what is meant by workers’ control and how this is a result of the working class’s historical experience of this means of struggle.  The experience shows that it inevitably arises as a result of a crisis, and crises are by their nature temporary, occasioned by a society-wide political crisis or by the threatened closure of a particular factory that is producing unnecessary products, is working in an obsolete manner or is otherwise failing to compete successfully in the capitalist market.

How to institutionalise such control in periods of relative calm is a central problem we will look at in future. Relying on temporary crises to quickly provide workers with answers to the problems posed by their taking control has not resulted in success.  Revolutions of themselves do not give all the answers to the problems posed by revolution, at least not unless they are prepared for and prepared for well.  Since revolution is the task of workers themselves we are talking about how they can be prepared to take on the tasks of control.  Such preparation involves convincing at least some of them them that they should want to control or manage their own places of work as well as how they might be able to do so.  Only in this way can the superiority of worker owned and managed production be demonstrated.

The historical understanding of what workers’ control means derives mainly from the experience of the Russian revolution in 1917; the only successful workers led revolution.  Yet the goal of this revolution was initially a democratic republic, not a workers’ state, with the result that only a ‘transitional’ social and economic programme was on the agenda.  A decision to seize power by the Bolshevik Party could not change the level of economic and social development in itself.  We can see from an earlier post that this informed Lenin’s view that the immediate economic programme was one more akin to state capitalism than complete working class ownership and  power over the economy.

This is decisive in understanding the development of the revolution.  The workers could seize state power in order to stop the war, support distribution of land to the peasantry and attempt to put some organisation on production but workers could not by an act of will develop the Russian economy under  their own control and management, at least not outside of a successful international revolution, and this never came.

Workers’ control in such a situation did not, and at least initially could not, equate to complete management.  In Russian ‘kontrol’ means oversight; a “very timid and modest” socialism, as the left Menshevik Sukhanov put it.  The Bolsheviks understood that workers’ control was not socialism but a transitional measure towards it.  Capitalists would and did continue to manage their enterprises.  (The historian E H Carr reported that in some towns workers who had driven out their bosses were forced to seek their return.)

This approach was supported by the factory committees created by the workers during the revolution.  These committees initially hardly went beyond militant trade unionism but did not accept management prerogatives as inevitable and, as the bosses increasingly sabotaged production, they increased their interventions to take more radical measures of control.

The workers nevertheless saw the solution to their problems as soviet power and state regulation, evidence by their acceptance of a purely consultative voice in state-owned (as opposed to privately owned)enterprises.  This reflected the worker’s weakness, expressed by one shipyard worker on the eve of the October revolution at a factory committee conference: “often the factory committees turn out to be helpless . . . Only a reorganisation of state power can make it possible to develop our activity.”  Thus much of the activity of the factory committees was attempting to find fuel, raw materials and money simply to keep factories going and real management was sometimes consciously avoided.

Trade union leaders criticised the factory committees for only looking after the interests of their own plants and for not being independent of the capitalists who owned them. The workers in the committees were themselves keenly aware of being compromised by the capitalist owners, of being given responsibility without effective power.

While the revolution was supposed to have a transitional character in economic terms, workers were faced with greater and greater sabotage and recognised that the worsening crisis required a solution that could only come from the state, which would provide the centralised control that would combat economic dislocation. The weakness of the workers themselves can be quantified by the decline in their number.  In 1917 the industrial workforce in Petrograd was 406,312 but fell to 339,641 by the start of 1918 and only 143,915 by May of that year.

Although more active forms of workers’ control were sanctioned after the revolution, it had been increasing anyway, the steps towards the central state regulation that had been championed were constrained by the lack of an “organised technical apparatus, corresponding to the interests of the proletariat”, as the resolution unanimously adopted by the January 1918 Factory Committee conference put it.  Nevertheless the conference called for the immediate nationalisation of factories in a good physical and financial situation.

The economic situation however was desperate as the new state faced immediate armed attack.  The Factory Committee conference noted that: “Every one of us knows that our industrial life is coming to a standstill and that the moment is fast approaching when it will die.  We are now living through its death spasms.  Here the question of control is no longer relevant. You can control only when you have something to control.”

Widespread nationalisation was introduced but it was viewed as a necessity compelled by circumstances, not a positive choice and not one driven by socialist ideology.  Alongside this nationalisation was increasing centralisation of economic decision making, which was imposed on the factories.

But of course if the workers were unable to run the factories how could they run the state?  Complaining that the factory committees were ignoring everything but their own local interests and themselves disorganising production one section of the state’s economic organisation stated that reorganisation would not happen “without a struggle of the worker’s government against the workers’ organisations.”

All these quotes are taken from the article by David Mandel in the collection of articles on workers’ control in the book ‘Ours to Master and to Own: Workers control from the Commune to the Present.’  In this he states that the contradiction between planning and workers self-management can be resolved if there are conditions allowing for significant limitations on central control and these conditions also provide workers with security and a decent standard of living.  Both, he says, were absent in Russia.  More important for the argument here is his view that there must be a working class capable of defending self-management.

This too did not exist in Russia and our very brief review shows this.  The Bolsheviks were acutely aware of the low cultural development of Russian workers, evidenced through their lack of education, high levels of illiteracy, lack of technical skills and lack of experience in the tasks of economic administration and management.  That their numbers declined dramatically, not least because of the demands of the Red Army, leaves no grounds for surprise that this experiment in workers’ control did not prove successful.

The limited character of the initial steps in control and the awareness workers had of their lack of skills were revealed in their calls for the state to reorganise production.  While certain centralised controls over the economy are a necessity, and this is doubly so in order to destroy the power of the ruling classes, the socialist revolution is not about workers looking to any separate body of people to complete tasks that it must carry out.

If workers could not control production they could not be expected to control state power.  This was to turn out to be the experience of the revolution and in its destruction by Stalinism the state turned into the ideal personification of socialism.

This identification of socialism with the state in the minds of millions of workers across the world continues, a product of Stalinism and of social democracy but gleefully seized on by the right.  Since the state is organised on a national basis this also entailed socialism’s corruption by nationalism.

The path required to developing and deepening a genuine workers’ revolution lay not in seeking salvation in the state but in workers creation of this state themselves out of their own activity in the factory committees and soviets.  The coordination, centralisation and extension of the functions of these bodies would ideally have been the means to build a new state power that could destroy and replace the old.  It would also have been the organisation that would have combatted economic dislocation and provided the means for cooperative planning of production and trade with the independent peasantry.

In this sense the Russian revolution is not a model for today.  While workers control came to the fore in this revolution its limitations must be recognised and a way looked to that would overcome them in future.

It might be argued that the backward cultural level of the Russian working class, while acknowledging its high class consciousness, is not a problem today.  After all the working class in Ireland, Britain and further afield is literate, educated and with a large number educated to third level education.  The working class is the vast majority of society, which it was not in Russia in 1917.  Many workers are now highly skilled albeit specialised.  This however is a one sided way of looking at things. 

Firstly on the technical side the very specialisation that makes some workers skilled reflects an increased division of labour that in so far as it is deep, widespread and reflected also in a division of social roles militates against the widespread accumulation of the skills and experience of management and control.

Many workers reflect their specialisation in a narrowing of outlook but illustrates that the increased division of labour is foremost a question of political class consciousness which is at least in part a reflection of social and economic stratification of the class.  Thus some workers see themselves as professionals – engineers, accountants, managers etc. and regard themselves as middle class.  Just like white collar workers and state civil servants in the Russian revolution they do not identify themselves as workers with separate political interests along with other workers slightly below them in the social hierarchy.  They do not identify with socialism.

Modern society in this way reflects early twentieth century Russia: the working class does not rule society, even at the behest of the capitalist class, but there are numerous social layers (the middle classes) who help the capitalist class to do so, and they imbue into themselves and others the political outlook of their masters.

Because the division of labour is increasingly an international phenomenon the road of revolution at initially the national level poses even bigger problems for workers management of production than existed in Russia in 1917.  Especially in Ireland production is often a minor part of an internationally dispersed process so that control of the whole is exercised elsewhere.  How then do workers take control of such production in any one country especially one lower down the value chain?

For these reasons revolution needs to be prepared.  It needs prepared in the sense that workers must be won to a fully conscious commitment to their becoming the ruling class of society; a rule based on their ownership and management of the forces of production.  In order to achieve this, the force of example rather than simply the power of argument is necessary.  In other words workers must have seen and experienced ownership and management.  This can provide many with the experience and knowledge necessary to lead the whole class to own and manage the whole economy when such control is the basis for their own state power, after capitalist state power has been destroyed.

The best, in fact only way, to prepare for socialism is through practice, practice in asserting the interests of the working class as the potential new dominant class of society.  Demands for nationalisation are demands that someone else, the state – because the state is a group of people – create the good society.  And when anyone is asked to create the good society it is always what is good for them.

Such dominance is more than simple resistance to the exploitation of the old society but must in some way herald the new.  Opposition to austerity for example can only ameliorate the effects of capitalism and does not provide panaceas – not even ‘taxing the rich.’  The real importance of fighting austerity therefore lies in the building of the organisation and class consciousness of the working class. This is what Marx meant when he wrote in ‘The Communist Manifesto that:

“the Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”  The future is that in its “support (for) every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” communists “in all these movements, (they) bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

This then is the importance of workers’ control and workers ownership.  It is the question of the future of the movement of the working class because it brings to the fore “the property question.” 

I shall look at it some more in future posts.

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.

Trotsky and nationalisation

trotskyIn two previous posts I have looked at Leon Trotsky’s transitional programme and the general approach to a working class programme which it encapsulated at a particular point in time. In this final post on the question I want to look directly at what Trotsky’s views were on nationalisation. As I said at the start of these posts, many organisations claiming inspiration from his politics place calls for state ownership high up in their political programme. This conflicts directly with Marx’s views but we need to look at Trotsky to see if this is also true of him.

First we should note that in the transitional programme Trotsky explicitly counterposes ‘expropriation’ to “the muddleheaded reformist slogan of ‘nationalisation’”. He gives four reasons for doing so. The first is that he rejects ‘indemnification’, i.e. compensation to the capitalists. Secondly he does so as a warning against reformist socialists who, while also advancing this demand, nevertheless remain the agents of capitalism. Thirdly he says workers must rely on their own strength. As we have stressed, nationalisation relies on the state. Lastly he does so because he links the question of expropriation with the seizure of power by the workers. This latter point is crucial in his presentation while, because we live in less revolutionary conditions, I have laid greater emphasis on his third reason.

Thus in the very next section of the programme from that above, in which he argues the importance and the benefits of expropriation of the banks and statization of the credit system, he says that the latter will “produce these favourable results only if the state power itself passes completely from the hands of the exploiters into the hands of the toilers.”

When pushed, Trotsky accepts that ‘nationalisation’ may be accepted as a slogan but only in so far as it actually means expropriation and involves a workers’ government to achieve it. In other words reason four must apply.

It is possible to argue that the socialist programme must be taken as a whole and that therefore calls for nationalisation are perfectly valid when part of a comprehensive programme. There are several problems with such an argument but we will point out only two.

First – try finding the call for destroying the capitalist state or creation of a workers’ state in the programme of the left that might act as an alibi for demanding capitalist state ownership in the here and now.

Allied to this is the second reason. In every advanced capitalist country the working class is separated from conquest of state power by a huge gulf in social and political development and experience. The left might often be opportunistic but it is not immune to registering this fact, if only through avoidance of demanding overthrow of the state. In effect a link between nationalisation and a change in the character of the state is non-existent and the former becomes a simple call for the capitalist state to take ownership from private capitalists.

In other words the organ of the capitalist class as a collective, and its principal organ of defence of its system, is called upon to play a role in the destruction of this class and system.

For some on the left their understanding of Marxism and the working class political programme has degenerated so much that nationalisation of the economy is itself seen as the transformation of capitalism into socialism. In such circumstances however the relations of production remain unchanged; capitalism continues and the working class remains exploited, oppressed and separated from the means of production. It is precisely the establishment of this last condition that made for the creation of capitalism, and its ending that will signal capitalism’s overthrow, when the working class as the associated producers become owners of the means of production.

Trotsky was scathing about just such a belief in the socialist character of nationalisation. When talking about expropriating the banks he says that “of course this question must be indissolubly linked to the question of the conquest of power by the working class.” In the same article (Trotsky, Nationalised Industry and Workers Control, Writings , 1939) he writes that “It would, of course, be a disastrous error, an outright deception, to assert that the road to Socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalisation by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer, into the hands of the workers’ organisations.”

In many formulations of the call for nationalisation there is not even a call for nationalised property to be transferred to workers’ organisations, although the sometimes call for nationalisation under workers control is a nod in this direction.

We are thus left in the following position having reviewed Trotsky’s programme:
The socialist programme must be understood as a whole and it involves the destruction of the capitalist state and creation out of the working class itself of the new state.

In no country does the working class accept such a task or seek a way to achieve it. In no county is it subjectively revolutionary.

Trotsky seeks to adapt the working class and its political consciousness to its historical task but if it is not seeking revolution and has a very low level of political consciousness how do we proceed in a revolutionary way that does not address workers with politics that undermines the revolutionary goal?

Trotsky said that “comrades are absolutely right when they say we should tell the workers the truth, but that doesn’t signify that every moment, every place, we state the whole truth, starting with Euclid’s geometry and ending with socialist society. We do not have the right to lie to them, but we must present to them the truth in such form, at such time, in such place, that they can accept it.”

It would therefore be wrong to believe that because the complete programme of revolution cannot right now profitably be canvassed among the working class that the programme that must be fought for is less revolutionary. This is so only in degree but not in any qualitative sense. The revolutionary programme does not lose traction, does not cease to truly encapsulate the interests and immediate tasks of the workers because we cannot yet concretely and practically today propose the arming of the working class and destruction and replacement of the capitalist state.

What is also not involved is shying away from arguing outright for a socialist society, a society run by workers, and nor is it necessary or desirable to run away from this vision to the refuge of an improved capitalism. The vision of a systemic alternative to capitalism must capture the working class for it to put it into practice. It cannot be the result of stumbling blindly into it through some disembodied ‘logic’ of class struggle. Not speaking the whole truth every time and everywhere does not mean renouncing the goal of socialism at any time.

The revolutionary programme in non-revolutionary conditions means first rejecting illusions in capitalism and in its state – encapsulated in the demand for nationalisation.

It involves rejecting the substitution of the state for tasks that must be accomplished by workers themselves and it means identifying the steps forward that workers must take to develop their political consciousness, through increasing their economic, social and political weight in existing capitalist society.

There is no shortage of demands which can do so. It involves the demand for workers’ cooperatives – production without capitalists, not just as an answer to failing enterprises but as the model for new ones, through employment of workers’ pension funds and sponsorship by existing workers organisations such as trade unions. This is a question to which we shall return.

It involves workers reclaiming their organisations from the bureaucracies which currently control them through challenging and defeating these bureaucracies. In Ireland one form this takes is opposition to the policy and practice of social partnership. This in turn may involve creation of new trade unions; whether this is so is a practical and tactical question involving judgments that must ensure socialists and other militants do not become isolated.

It means creation of a workers political party that does not become the creature of electoralist stratagems and of TDs, as in the dying ULA. Similarly it does not mean the erroneous view that declarations of revolutionary virtue can in themselves guarantee anything in the wider working class, within which lies the only promise of revolution. The working class will of necessity learn from its own mistakes just as in will be its own liberator.

A programme which proclaims that the emancipation of the working class will be the achievement of the working class itself would go a long way to providing such a programme, were awareness of the dangers of reliance on the capitalist state for solutions as strong as it should be. It is arguing against such illusions, at what might seem excessive length, that many of the posts on this blog have been directed.

It is therefore time to turn to alternatives.

Does the demand for workers control represent such an alternative and does its joining together with a call for nationalisation represent a positive overcoming of the reactionary character of the latter – nationalisation under workers control? (Hint – the answer is no).

Does the call for workers cooperatives represent a real working class alternative to capitalism? Not, it would appear, to the organisations in Ireland’s left. But are they right?

The transitional programme and political consciousness Part II


In my first post on Trotsky’s transitional programme I argued that the political consciousness of the working class is critical to the success of the socialist project and crucial to take into account in the development of a political programme. I also noted that the transitional programme was one way of approaching this problem but did not in itself provide a simple solution. It did however provide ways of thinking about one by, for example, raising demands for workers’ control as an illustration of a programme based on workers self-emancipation.

The problem arises most clearly, as I said, when the political consciousness of workers is too low for them to effectively rise to the challenges posed by objective conditions. This could be the fight for an alternative to austerity in the south of Ireland or against sectarianism and the state that supports it in the north. How then should a programme be conceived and presented in such circumstances?

Trotsky presents guidance but it is not immediately apparent that the various elements of it are all consistent and provide clear answers. Trotsky argued that Marxists must tell workers the truth –

“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives — these are the rules of the Fourth International.”

Socialists must avoid abstractions, which in words such as ‘peace’ or the ‘national interest’ are weapons of the capitalist class. Socialists on the other hand must be concrete in what they propose because a programme is a call to action not, as it often appears, purely propaganda for education purposes. Where it is the latter there is no reason not to speak Marxism clearly instead of debased social democracy.

Unfortunately too often the small groups of the left are known for their dishonesty, most obvious when they inflate their own numbers and achievements. This in itself is unimportant except that it is held up as evidence for particular perspectives that are often divorced from reality.

Trotsky understands that, in a programme predicated on what it is the working class itself does, the demands of the programme must be based on the truth, on reality and be practical or the working class will have no means to put them into action.

“Using these considerations as its point of departure, the Fourth International supports every, even if insufficient, demand, if it can draw the masses to a certain extent into active politics, awaken their criticism and strengthen their control over the machinations of the bourgeoisie.”

So we are to support limited demands if these are able to bring workers into active political activity while it is still necessary to state the truth that much more radical action may be required to achieve given objectives.

Trotsky however has been criticised because he didn’t actually understand the role of workers’ consciousness in framing a political programme. Trotsky is quoted:

“We know that the subjective conditions – the consciousness of the masses, the growth of the revolutionary party – are not a fundamental factor. It depends on the objective situation; in the last instance the subjective element itself depends on the objective conditions, but this dependence is not a simple process.”

And further:

“What are the tasks? The strategic tasks consist of helping the masses, of adapting their mentality politically and psychologically to the objective situation, of overcoming the prejudicial tradition of the American workers, and of adapting it (their mentality) to the objective situation of the social crisis of the whole system.”

“I say here what I said about the whole programme of transitional demands – the problem is not the mood of the masses but the objective situation, and our job is to confront the backward material of the masses with the tasks which are determined by objective facts and not by psychology.”

The question is then posed to Trotsky:

‘Question: Isn’t the ideology of the workers a part of the objective factors? Trotsky: For us as a small minority this whole thing is objective, including the mood of the workers. But we must analyse and classify those elements of the objective situation which can be changed by our paper and those which cannot be changed. That is why we say that the programme is adapted to the fundamental, stable elements of the objective situation, and the task is to adapt the mentality of the masses to those objective factors.’

We should remember that for Trotsky the transitional programme was itself said to incorporate the requirements of a transitional epoch – “During a transitional epoch, the workers’ movement does not have a systematic and well-balanced, but a feverish and explosive character. Slogans as well as organisational forms should be subordinated to this feature of the movement,”

The organisations on the left repeatedly argue that workers’ consciousness can change quickly, and so it can, but this is mostly simply a way of avoiding the reality of the distance that workers must travel, the time required to do so and the experiences that must be gone through. This also plays a role in the debasement of the socialist programme, prompting attempts to make it look more ‘realistic’ and even ‘common sense’ by constructing a socialism based on widespread illusions in the capitalist state. How much more realistic, upon such illusions, do calls for nationalisation appear than the call for workers’ cooperatives or other measures of control?

So if we can try to summarise Trotsky’s approach, it is one that starts from trying to change the consciousness of the working class, through its more militant elements, in order to change objective conditions which alone set the tasks of the working class.

In the ‘transitional epoch’ that Trotsky described “the workers’ movement does not have a systematic and well-balanced, but a feverish and explosive character” and might therefore have been expected to be more open to the changes in organisation, action and consciousness that were required.

As I said in the first post the workers movement today in European countries cannot be said to have this character. The organisation and consciousness of workers today must therefore be considered much more an objective factor than when the transitional programme was written. This reflects the long history of capitalist boom conditions after the Second World War and the defeats inflicted on the workers movement in the most advanced countries plus the general discrediting of socialism consequent on Stalinism and its collapse.

To a much greater extent therefore the tasks of the programme is to confront workers with the objective circumstances which include the limitations of their own consciousness. Since for Marxists consciousness must reflect reality, changing consciousness means changing the conditions of workers themselves, including their own organisations and their workplace experiences. This is the task of workers themselves.

The Marxist programme must therefore place to the fore the working class changing its own circumstances so that objectively it increases its political and social activity. That this does not immediately raise the question of revolution does not matter since this cannot be raised concretely and practically any other way and certainly not by programmatic demands issued by small groups.

It must be realised that a revolutionary programme is not defined by adherence or commitment to the call for revolution now or in the future (in the sense of smashing the capitalist state and creating a new workers’ state). In the first case this is revolutionary phraseology only and in the second is merely a promise, and promises are regularly broken. Revolutionary politics exist in today’s period of retreat as they also more clearly do in periods of offensive and they do so whether an actual revolutions is more or less probable.

Revolutionary politics means the self-activity and independence of the working class themselves and an acceptance that just as workers must achieve their own emancipation they must also learn their own lessons and do so through their own mistakes. Marxists can lessen and shorten this process but not abolish it. To counterpose real expressions of working class action that may be politically weak and to abstain from it in favour of hypothetically more advanced courses of development is a sectarian mistake. This is not such a common mistake on the left today since it usually makes the opposite one but it is sometimes reflected in demands for acceptance of programmatic positions that in themselves do not answer any real tasks more or less immediately posed.

The more common mistake is to substitute action by others for action by the working class and in a whole series of posts I have given examples of this being done. To return to the beginning of the first post – Trotsky’s transitional programme gives no support to those who believe state ownership is part of the working class programme. It is rather the predominant means by which the left supports actions by others for what can only be achieved by the working class.

In the next post I will look at what Trotsky had to say on this.

The transitional programme and political consciousness

Trotsky-1931In a series of posts I have shown that capitalist state ownership and its identification with socialism has no support in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. It nevertheless recurs again and again and has done so for years in the political programmes of organisations claiming to derive their politics from these figures. Most of these organisations also claim to be inheritors of the ideas of Leon Trotsky and consider their political programme to embody the approach of the transitional programme formulated by Trotsky in 1938. It remains therefore to look at the transitional programme to see what support it gives to today’s organisations which consider themselves to be continuing the fight for this programme.

The transitional programme was itself said to incorporate the requirements of a transitional epoch – “During a transitional epoch, the workers’ movement does not have a systematic and well-balanced, but a feverish and explosive character. Slogans as well as organisational forms should be subordinated to this feature of the movement.” (Trotsky) It cannot be said today that the workers movements of Ireland, Europe or the historically advanced capitalist countries have a feverish or explosive character. The point is therefore not to quote Trotsky in order to impose a specific formula on today but to demonstrate a general approach to Marxist politics and in so doing dismiss what are mistakes in formulating a working class programme.

The purpose of the transitional programme is to bridge the gap between workers and socialism through approaching workers at whatever level of political consciousness they are at and through progressive struggle and education direct them towards the goal of socialist revolution. It starts with existing objective conditions and through step by step struggle projects forward to the conquest of political power by the working class. It is designed to overcome the division of political programme into support for socialism as the maximum objective and the fight for a minimum programme made up of immediate demands that involve only reform of the capitalist system.

For Marxists the truth is concrete, not a formula, a schema, theory or principle and the truth lies in the whole, not any individual part or series of parts. The Marxist programme is therefore one that is true to the interests of the working class when taken in its entirety and when it becomes a guide to action. The role and purpose of the transitional programme is not therefore without its own problems; it does not of itself provide solutions to the difficulties in fighting for the interests of the working class or achieving the working class conquest of political power and it does not guarantee falling into failure to really fight for revolutionary change, on the one hand, or declarations of revolutionary virtue with limited purchase on reality on the other.

It provides no ready-made answer when objective conditions clash with working class political consciousness, when the threat to the working class is either not understood by it or it does not have the means to respond. When the Irish working class faces years of austerity, but has no conception of an alternative and so votes or accepts this austerity, the transitional programme waves no magic wand. When relatively large numbers of working class people are prepared to support or engage in very militant forms of struggle but have no or very little conception of socialism, as many republican workers did in the north of Ireland during the late 1960s and 1970s for example, the method of the transitional programme offers no off-the-shelf remedy.

What it does do is demonstrate through very practical examples how these problems may be faced and the method used to conceive the way forward – practical political demands which socialists and militant workers can fight for that can achieve their objectives. The class struggle itself will decide whether success is achieved.

This can be illustrated by a criticism I have seen made of the Irish United Left Alliance programme. This Alliance has now fallen apart but there is no reason to believe that the errors of its political programme so criticised in this blog have been understood. The electoral platform of the ULA has been criticised for not using the word socialism but this would not be a problem if it was only the word that was missing and the content it is shorthand for, working class power, was maintained.

The method of the transitional programme is based solidly on the Marxist view that the emancipation of the working class must be the task of the working class itself. The demands of the programme are all ones that the working class must fight for, impose and achieve. To bring us back to the point: nationalisation is something the working class hands to the capitalist state, the defender of capitalism, to carry out.

In terms of the examples above; the fight against austerity must place the tasks of the workers themselves to the fore, fighting the mechanisms of austerity in cuts and tax rises and putting forward alternatives that are creations of the working class itself such as democratic trade unions and workers cooperatives etc. In the North the need for defence of sections of workers attacked because of their religion must be a political task first, not a military one, and must be carried out democratically by workers themselves, not by a secret military group. It must be done under a political banner committed to democratic and class identification not sectarian and communal affiliation. Of course, as we have said, to fight is not necessarily to win but to fight under the wrong political banner and demands is already to fail.

The principle that it is working class activity and action which is key through the mechanism of workers control is also revealed in the approach to demands which on the face of it are not specifically socialist and are limited to reforms or purely democratic changes within the existing capitalist framework. In these cases such demands must be fought for through working class methods of struggle in order that the workers themselves go through the experience of fighting and learn from the experience.

Inevitably when this occurs workers quickly teach the socialists but no lesson is learnt automatically or spontaneously. The struggle in the North of Ireland is proof that even the most militant struggle does not generate socialist consciousness and that this must be fought for just as much as the particular object of struggle itself and if they cannot be linked the struggle for socialism is not on the agenda anyway.

On the other hand the fixation with electoralism evidenced by the ULA is not a lapse but sits comfortably within a political programme which calls on the capitalist state to create equality and democratic ownership. Since the illusion exists that election to governmental office allows one to utilise the state to direct capitalist society, instead of the other way round, what makes more sense that seeking election? In this scenario working class action supports the actions of the elected instead of the elected acting merely as the megaphone of the working class movement.

When I first became involved in Marxist politics in Glasgow in the middle of the 1970s the organisation I joined, the International Marxist Group, was critical of what it saw as the syndicalism of the (British) Socialist Workers Party because the SWP refused to stand in elections. Electoral intervention led to revolutionary politics being diluted and betrayed in the pursuit of votes said the SWP. Less than five years later the same argument was being advanced by Peoples Democracy against Provisional republicans who claimed that standing in elections was to play the British game, legitimising its rule and distracting from the cutting edge of the armed struggle. For both the IMG and PD the Russian Marxists at the beginning of the century were proof that entering electoral contests did not necessitate abandoning revolutionary politics.

While this might be true in principle the subsequent course of both the SWP and republicans has conclusively demonstrated that the IMG and PD (and myself) were wrong in practice. Over on the Irish Left Review a statement is quoted from Ann Foley, the ULA candidate for Cork North West and the SWP’s People before Profit electoral organisation that starkly exhibits this: “I feel the ULA has very common sense policies. When people think of socialists, they think of communism, which is not the case. There is nothing dramatic or revolutionary about our policies.”

This is not the place to explain how this collapse of these organisations’ programmes came about but it is obvious that this has happened. As explained above, even the most militant struggle may not of itself generate socialist consciousness but electoralism has its own ways of causing political degeneration.

In any case the struggle for capitalist state ownership does not challenge capitalist ideology, does not challenge the natural order of capitalist society, does not challenge the widespread illusion that the state (at least potentially) is a neutral arbiter of interests or is the embodiment and representative of a common, national interest. When the actions of the state feature so heavily in even the programme of self-declared Marxists, and for decade upon decade, can there be any wonder there is so little evidence of socialist political consciousness among the Irish working class?

For Marxists this is key because if emancipation can only follow the actions of workers themselves then the ideas these workers act upon are obviously critical. In so far as socialists can affect this consciousness then the manifestos, budget statements, press statements, speeches on the floor of the Dail carried by TV and radio, door canvassing, interventions in workers’ meetings and leaflets at demonstrations are the means by which socialist education can be achieved. How many of these stray beyond Keynesian, that is capitalist, ideas? By comparison the theoretical articles in the left press are simply salves to a guilty conscience that is not even conscious of its guilt.

Consciousness is key because socialism is another name for working class rule and no ruling class rules without being aware of it, which explains the much higher level of class consciousness among capitalists than workers. Workers cannot rule unless they purposefully chose to do so because power will not simply be handed to them. They will have to fight for it which means they will have to want it. Perhaps this is obvious but it has consequences for how socialists must see socialism coming about.

The task of ruling society by the class that makes up the vast majority of society is an enormous and unprecedented undertaking. The scope and depth of political and social awareness to make such a prospect a real possibility does not at the moment exist anywhere. It must come through struggle involving greater and greater parts of the working class, through a process of political and social education that prepares the working class both ideologically and practically for accomplishing it. The transitional programme is meant to encapsulate how this momentous task is achieved.

Unfortunately the transitional programme is looked upon in relatively restricted terms, as a result of the particular historical period in which, and for which, it was written. It is most obviously relevant to a revolutionary situation where the capitalist system is in crisis and the rule of the capitalist class is similarly struck. By their nature such situations are temporary and often fleeting.

To believe today that such crises can move the working class from its current position of subservience, where it does not even control and mostly does not even participate in the organisations which are supposedly its own, such as trade unions, to being politically conscious and organised enough to take political and economic power, is to believe in revolutionary crisis as a sort of magic wand out of which the organisation and education of decades can be squeezed into a few years, at most, of crisis.

The creation of socialist political consciousness among the vast majority of the working class is not the task of a few months or years but of decades. This is also true of the maturation of the objective conditions upon which such consciousness can only be created. This involves a qualitative increase in the social and political participation of the working class as a class in political and economic life, through real participation in trade unions, political parties, community organisations, workers’ cooperatives and other aspects of economic life.

It sometimes appears as if supporters of the transitional programme believe that a series of smart demands allied to struggle can somehow lead workers from rather backward political consciousness, almost by the nose, to one day deciding they would like to rule society. Or worse, finding by sudden surprise that they must smash the capitalist state to get what they want or that having done so waking up one morning to find themselves in charge of society almost by default. It is almost as if the working class will take conscious control of society by a process of mostly unconscious action, at least until the last minute.

While it cannot be expected that even the greatest struggle must start with full consciousness of the socialist objective it cannot be expected that the beginnings of a revolutionary struggle will start without widespread allegiance by major sections of the working class to the ideas of socialism as an objective and deep and widespread experience of self-organisation as a result of commitment to such ideals. In other words there exists a more or less long struggle to win the working class to the ideas of socialism and the need for practical experiences of organisation that comes from militant workplace organisation and inroads into capitalist property.

For those who believe only a Marxist Party needs to be conscious of such tasks and long term objective there might not appear any problem.  But if socialism is working class rule then the vast majority of workers must believe in their capacity to rule society and seek it as the solution to the critical problems which capitalist society has presented to them in periods of revolutionary crisis.

In the next post I will look at claims that Trotsky did not understand this objective requirement.

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.