What is Anti-capitalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.