Economism and the necessity of programme

Jack Conrad argues that the left is crippled by its flattery of economic struggles - and the constant downplaying of the primacy of the political

The European Union: a boring issue?

No one can discredit Marxism as long we do not discredit ourselves. That maxim ought to be constantly borne in mind when looking at recent disputes over Europe and the European Union. As the reader knows, virtually the entire left in Britain adopts a hostile attitude towards the struggle for democracy within the European Union. It is either an utter bore or positively sinister. Morbid sectarians even denounce any such suggestion of radically extending democracy in the EU as a 666-type mark characteristic of Kautskyism.

Hence Alan Thornett - leader of the International Socialist Group - speaks for the majority of the left in Britain when he blunderingly calls for two entirely opposed and disengaged outcomes: on the one side “the dissolution of the EU or Britain’s withdrawal from it”, and on the other side “a socialist Britain in a socialist Europe” (A Thornett et al Even more unemployment London nd, p11). Not that he passes over the need for reforms: “We are for the best deal in the EU for the workers and demand the levelling up of all conditions, wages and services, to that of the highest level” (ibid). In other words, when it comes to Europe workers should lend their support to the withdrawal programme of the left reformists in parliament and seek redress for their economic grievances through industrial militancy. Meanwhile the left will sagely declare that all this helps brings forward the socialist dawn.

Marxism has a well established category for such a patronising, short-sighted and emaciated outlook - economism. A term originally coined in pre-revolutionary Russia. Naturally the likes of Thornett, who parade themselves as Marxists of the first rank, define economism in a particularly selective, reduced, fashion. That way, in their own minds at least, they can plead not guilty to the charge.

Here are four specially selected, but representative, definitions of economism. We shall begin with Tony Cliff, founder of the Socialist Workers Party: “Socialists should limit their agitation to purely economic issues, first to the industrial plant, then to inter-plant demands, and so on. Secondly, from the narrow economic agitation the workers would learn, through experience of the struggle itself, the need for politics, without the need for socialists to carry out agitation on the general political and social issues facing the Russian people as a whole” (T Cliff Lenin Vol 1, London 1975, p59).
Next an ‘official communist’ dictionary definition of economism: “Its proponents wanted to limit the tasks of the working class movement to economic struggle (improving labour conditions, higher wages, etc). They held that political struggle should be waged by the liberal bourgeoisie alone” (I Frolov [ed] Dictionary of philosophy Moscow 1984, p118).

Thornett’s fellow ISGer, Bob Jenkins, can speak for orthodox Trotskyism: economism is “orientating to daily trade union struggles” and this “leads them to underestimate the important new political issues and movements unless they are to be found in the unions” (Socialist Outlook January 2001).
Finally we turn to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Pete Radcliff, for a definition from the camp of unorthodox Trotskyism: “Economism was the term Lenin used to describe the politics and approach of revolutionaries who exclude themselves from the political struggle ... and merely concentrated on trade union agitation” (Weekly Worker January 11 2001).

All partial, all cut short. Even against the “old economism” of the 1890s Lenin fielded the term in the “broad sense” (VI Lenin CW Vol 5, Moscow 1977, p317). According to Lenin the principal feature of economism is a general tendency to lag behind the spontaneous movement and to downplay or belittle the centrality of democracy. So there is what we might call narrow economism and broader economism. Economism need not necessarily mean therefore an underestimation of “important new political issues and movements” or “merely” concentrating “on trade union agitation.” On the contrary economists can and do follow, and even staff, all manner of existing campaigns, causes and demands - eg, petty bourgeois greenism, feminism, black separatism, CND pacifism, Scottish nationalism and left Labourism. Hence economists do not, by any means, shun politics. Rather economism veers away from the Marxist conception of politics. Crucially economism eschews taking the lead on democratic questions and uniting all democratic demands into a single, working class-led assault on the existing state.

No wonder most left groups and factions nowadays do their best to ignore the unabridged, complete definition. They might not exactly fit the bill when it comes to narrow economism. Broader economism, however, is another matter. What goes for Alan Thornett and his ISG goes for the others - SWP, Socialist Appeal, AWL, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Workers Power, Independent Working Class Association, Socialist Party in England and Wales, etc. Despite a superficial loyalty to and knowledge of Marxism they all downplay the necessity of democracy. So what passes itself as Marxism to the public of this country is in actual fact economism with all its anti-democratic philistinism and prejudices. No wonder Marxism is commonly seen as discredited or irrelevant.

Let us examine economism in Russia. Its growth from 1894 onwards was aided by four main factors. Firstly, in the early stages of their movement the communists in Russia “restricted themselves merely to work in propaganda circles”. When they took up the work of agitation amongst the masses, they were “not always able” to restrain themselves “from going to the other extreme”. Their leaflets brilliantly exposed the terrible factory conditions in Russia and roused the admiration of workers, but little more. Secondly, they were struggling against the Narodnik socialists, who understood politics as activity isolated from the masses and often as terroristic conspiracies. In rejecting this sort of politics, the communists “went to the extreme of pushing politics entirely into the background”. Thirdly, in conditions of the small circles of workers and revolutionaries, the communists “did not devote sufficient attention to the necessity of organising a revolutionary party which would combine all the activities of the local groups and make it possible to organise the revolutionary work on correct lines” (VI Lenin CW Vol 4, Moscow 1977, pp367). Fourthly, there was the arrest and exile of Lenin, Martov and other theoretically experienced comrades in December 1897, and the success the new, younger, generation of leaders enjoyed in influencing mass strikes.

On top of all that there was the publication of Eduard Bernstein’s Evolutionary socialism in 1899. Anticipating the bourgeoisification of the western labour movement, the basic thesis of Bernstein’s book - much acclaimed in its day by left academics and liberals alike - was that national capitalism, through the growing organisation of the productive forces, was inexorably widening the democratic space in society and gradually leading to its transformation into a socialism from above. Wars, crises and violent revolutions were discounted as phenomena of a past age. Bernstein also proposed that the Social Democratic Party in Germany would greatly strengthen itself by getting rid of all antiquated notions and phraseology: eg, the dictatorship of the proletariat and class war. Instead it should concentrate on the real business at hand: parliamentary elections and the day-to-day improvement of the overall condition of the working class.

Bernstein included the infamous phrase: “the final aim of socialism” is “nothing”; it is the movement itself which “is everything” (E Bernstein Evolutionary socialism New York 1961, p202). By the “movement” he meant the existing institutions, elected representatives and routine economic struggles of the working class; not historically accumulated theory, fighting capacity and revolutionary consciousness. As to the “final aim” being “nothing”, that, he claimed, referred not so much to socialism itself: rather “indifference” to “the form of the final arrangement of things” (ibid pxxiv). Be that as it may, Bernstein’s revisionism admirably suited the economists in Russia.

Despite their popularity with strikers the problem with the economists, loosely grouped around Rabochaya Mysl, Rabochoye Dyelo and various other such papers and journals, was that they attempted to elevate the one-sidedness of the movement into a “special theory”, which they in turn linked to the “fashionable” Bernsteinism and the “fashionable” refutations of Marxism - in reality old bourgeois ideas dressed in new packaging. As a result of economism the danger was that the connection between the working class and the struggle for political liberty would be weakened. Lenin declared that the “most urgent” task of Marxists in Russia is “to strengthen that connection” in order to quickly bring to fruition the overthrow of the “autocratic government” (VI Lenin CW Vol 4, Moscow 1977, p368).

Economic demands were proclaimed as both key in mobilising the masses and enlightening them. The “final aim” of replacing tsarism with a democratic republic was increasingly downgraded in the list of priorities to the point where it simply disappears into the mists of a far distant future. Republican demands therefore had no practical significance. Only the liberal bourgeoisie and intelligentsia were interested in such remote and obtuse matters. Not the workers. Hence there was no leverage in making anti-tsarist agitation. On the other hand, spontaneously following the line of least resistance, workers were actually striking - not taking to the streets demanding a republic and a constituent assembly. Consequently the economists argued, in true tailist fashion, that the job of the party was to assist workers in their efforts to build trade unions and give their demands a ‘socialist coloration’. Trade unionism was virtually equated with socialism.

Lenin and his comrades launched a ferocious assault on the economists and joined in the international campaign opposing Bernsteinism. In the hands of the economists Marxism was being “narrowed down” and the attempt was being made to turn the party of revolution into a party of reform. Lenin warned that “the working class movement is being sundered from socialism”. Yes, the workers are being “helped to carry on the economic struggle”, but “nothing, or next to nothing, is done to explain to them the socialist aims and political tasks of the movement as a whole”. Self-fulfillingly the economists were beginning to talk “more and more” about the struggle against the tsarist government having to be “carried on entirely by the intelligentsia because the workers confine themselves to the economic struggle” (VI Lenin CW Vol 4, Moscow 1977, pp366-67).

Lenin defined the party as the living combination of the working class movement and the aim of socialism. The party should therefore not “passively serve” the working class movement at its various stages, but constantly strive to represent the interests of the movement as a whole, in its ultimate aims and in its political and ideological independence. Isolated from the party, the working class movement becomes “petty and inevitably bourgeois”. In waging only economic struggles the working class movement is doomed to fragmentation and simply going round in the same endless circles. In all countries there have been periods, longer or shorter, where the working class movement and Marxism have gone their separate ways, to the great detriment of both. The thing to do is to fuse them together - not just in word, but deed.

Suffice to say, by 1903 economism lay discredited and defeated, above all due to the hammer blows of Iskra - the celebrated polemical paper edited by Lenin, Martov, Potresov, Plekhanov, Axelrod and Zasulich. And, suffice to say, in the years that followed economism constantly reappeared in new, virulent forms and guises. For example, the Mensheviks found themselves pulled in that direction. Having rejected the Bolshevik strategy of the working class taking the lead in the fight for democracy, aligning with the peasantry and striving to form a post-tsarist worker-peasant government, the Mensheviks turned more and more to highlighting the economic struggles of the working class and forlornly urging support for the liberal bourgeoisie against the tsarist autocracy.

Not that the Bolsheviks were immune to economism. During World War I a ‘left’ faction emerged around Bukharin and Piatakov. Amongst other things it argued against the right of nations to self-determination. Self-determination was branded as illusory and damaging. Capitalism at its imperialist stage could never grant such a right and under socialism it would anyway be unnecessary, because nations had long ago become reactionary. Class unity, not national rights, should come first. Lenin savaged this trend of ‘imperialist economism’ in a series of devastating polemics (eg, VI Lenin CW Vol 23, Moscow 1977, pp28-76). National self-determination was neither illusory nor damaging. On the contrary, the working class had to take the lead in offering a positive, democratic solution to national questions where they exist ... if it were ever to become a ruling class.
So economism is not something which Marxists equate with industrial militancy in and of itself.

Certainly no one should denigrate, let alone denounce, striking workers and the attempt to better their lot under capitalism. To do so would be repugnant, stupid and counterproductive. Economism concerns the left. It is a theory, or practice, quietly carried out, or noisily advocated, by those who typically describe themselves as Marxists, but who either elevate and flatter economic struggles or downplay the primacy of the political. As well as narrow, strikist economism other, broader manifestations of economism can therefore be cited - not only Menshevik and imperialist economism, but atheist economism - the reliance on technological and scientific progress to overcome religious superstition - or Trotskyite economism, which equates the former USSR with some kind of a workers’ state due to nationalised property forms.

Modern-day economists, just like their Russian ancestors, sincerely talk of the global fight against capitalism and the final aim of socialism. However, the practical effect of their approach is to maintain the workers as an oppressed class. Wages, hours, conditions, social services, etc are what is deemed to be really important for the workers. This implicit or explicit emphasis on the ‘base’ of capitalist society, is, of course, nothing but an unconscious, ideological, reproduction of capitalism itself and its unique bifurcation of social life into two apparently separate spheres: the economic and the political. That incidentally being why economism constantly reappears.

Let me elaborate. In pre-capitalist society - Asiatic, slave, feudal, autocratic, etc - the extraction of surplus product was pretty unproblematic. Typically it was naked and undisguised. Exploiters took and were not in reality obliged to give anything in return. Brute force, or the threat of brute force - ie, extra-economic means - were used to extract surplus product from the immediate producers (tithes, taxes, labour services, etc). This historically established ability to deploy commanding military force was reflected, legitimised and glorified in the exploiters’ elevated legal position: high priests, senators, mandarins, barons, bishops, kings, emperors, etc. Ditto the lowly, despised position of the common people. As a result - be they helots, slaves, coloni or villeins - no one was in any doubt that they were both oppressed and exploited. Hence the class struggle spontaneously runs straight to the political.

Capitalism, however, exploits indirectly through the generalisation of wage labour and the market. A social form which apparently equalises the relationship between exploited and exploiters - workers themselves ask for a ‘fair day’s pay’ in return for a ‘fair day’s work’. Exploitation is thereby hidden and mystified within a sphere which bourgeois ideologists seal off from the rest of society under the rubric of ‘the economy’. The economy is treated ahistorically as a mere technical arrangement and drained of all social content. In reality the economic is thoroughly political and the political is thoroughly economic.

Capitalist exploitation certainly begins with a defining political act, the bloody separation of the producers from the means of production - as harrowingly detailed by Marx in the last section of Capital volume one - and continues to rely upon a political relationship. Exploitation, and the reproduction of the conditions of exploitation, would be impossible without the state - supposedly a neutral arbiter, but in reality completely partisan - holding a monopoly of the means of force. Though wherever possible it remains in the background, state power exists in the final analysis to guarantee the law, property rights and hence the fundamentally unequal relationship between capital and the propertyless class of workers (by ‘property’ we mean, of course, the means of production, not personal property like clothes, a car or a house).

Capitalism not only apparently separates economics from politics: it also separates economic militancy from political consciousness. Class conflict under capitalism spontaneously finds its first expression at the point of production, in the workplace, and the relationship between employee and employer. Not the exploited against the state. As also pointed by Ellen Meiksins Wood, the Canadian leftwing academic, that means class conflict under capitalism is spontaneously downgraded from the political to the economic and therefore to the “local and particularistic” (E Meiksins Wood Democracy against capitalism Cambridge 1999, p45). Medieval peasants, for example, owned some means of production and would control their own work. Hence their struggle against the feudal lords - over rents, tithes or labour duties - had an overtly political content. The feudal lord was the state. By contrast, the permanent wages struggle that rages within capitalism, no matter how militant, leaves the wage relationship itself untouched. This is true even if workplace militancy impinges upon management’s right to manage.

That need not, however, present an intractable dilemma. Capitalist progress does not necessarily go hand in hand with a systemic decline in political consciousness. There is no reason to look back fondly at pre-capitalist societies or for that matter less developed capitalist societies. In modern times, goes the argument, it has been backward countries, because of the greater role of extra-economic surplus extraction and therefore spontaneous political consciousness, that have produced most anti-capitalist revolutions. Leave aside the hollow pretence, grinding poverty and complete inability of Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, etc, to positively transcend capitalism. The fact of the matter is that, if we take Russia as our example, it is quite clear that here it was definitely the working class which played the leading role. Not, however, because of surviving pre-capitalist forms and relationships, as erroneously suggested by Meiskins Wood, amongst others. There is a staggering lacuna in her account. She completely overlooks the Bolshevik Party - and its programme, sophisticated theory, recruitment of tens of thousands of proletarians and unremitting struggle to overcome spontaneity, including economism. Indeed only with the mediation of such a combat organisation - its scientific name being ‘Communist Party’ - it is possible to practically join together the economic and the political.

Economism works to reproduce, or even further reduce, the already cramped horizons of the working class. High politics and the vistas of extreme democracy are not for today and ought not to disturb the bovine minds of ordinary folk. Eg, demand the resignation of Tony Blair, but do not even think about bringing to the fore the monarchical-prime ministerial constitution. Such a deeply condescending approach leads inevitably to an attenuated view - and not only of political tasks. Organisational forms loyally follow political content and doubtlessly narrow, trade union-type politics begets narrow-type organisations. Economism therefore excuses the continuation and proliferation of primitive sects and at best aims for little more than reviving or reinventing old Labourism - whether that be as Respect, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Labour Representation Committee, the Socialist Alliance or a reddish-greenish protest party within which a snug revolutionary minority is kindly tolerated.
Not surprisingly a democratic centralist party of the Bolshevik type - which affords the right of minorities to establish temporary or permanent factions and unites as one in agreed actions - is completely beyond those who espouse such politics. Economic struggles against employers and the government’s anti-trade union laws hardly require a revolutionary programme. Nor does swelling the numbers for the next anti-war protest. Nor does defending the NHS demand a body of professional revolutionaries. Nor can contesting European elections on the basis of vague platitudes give rise to a mass Communist Party of the European Union, which would exist to elevate all protests, all movements against injustice, all discontent with the EU and its 25 governments eventually into one final assault. That much is surely obvious.

Economists not only consign democratic questions towards the bottom of their list of priorities, but sometimes they can be found actually opposing them. Take the federal republic (which is the state form required in Britain if the working class is to begin to liberate itself). We have been told on countless occasions that raising such a demand is unnecessary and diversionary because capitalism is on its last legs and what we should be demanding instead is a socialist republic. A clear case of programmatic illiteracy. Historically speaking, we undoubtedly live in the epoch of moribund capitalism and the transition to communism. That has been the case, though, since monopoly capitalism and imperialism emerged at the end of the 19th century. However, that economic truth should not lead anyone to reject democratic demands nor the logical ordering of our political programme.

First, the immediate, or minimum, section - it crystallises and presents those demands that are technically achievable under the socio-economic conditions of capitalism: through the mass, militant and conscious fight for them, and of course in their practical fulfilment, the working class is readied for revolution. And that is where the maximum programme starts off. It describes the socialist transition period to communism and universal human freedom and here, in the maximum programme, not in the minimum programme, one finds the socialist republic. Obviously both sections of the programme are internally connected. They form an integral and related whole.

Certainly without the minimum programme and the struggle for democracy the maximum programme and its socialist republic, abolition of the wage system and money becomes nothing but a pious wish list. Putting forward a disembodied socialism as the answer to every problem - a socialist Britain, a socialist Europe, etc - is therefore more than useless. It is a downright hindrance. The minimum programme and the struggle for democracy cannot be skipped. Let us mention a small detail. State power remains to be conquered. Revolution and the overthrow of the old order is not yet an accomplished fact. The parties and factions of the left are not busily setting up makeshift offices in Buckingham Palace, nor are workers’ councils using the chamber of the House of Commons as a convenient central meeting place.

Counterpoising the immediate demand for a federal republic and the maximum demand for a socialist republic is to mix the tasks of today with those of tomorrow. It might sound terribly revolutionary to reject a federal republic in Britain in favour of a socialist republic, but the effect is to disarm ourselves before the existing state. This helps explain why the left is so muddled and ineffective. A telling example - Respect’s founding declaration boldly points to the “crisis of representation, a democratic deficit” in Britain. Yet, presented with the opportunity of providing a concrete answer with the call for a republic, John Rees and the SWP successfully urged the January 2004 ‘convention of the left’ to reject the demand. Hence, while calling attention to a burning constitutional question, Respect has no constitutional answers. Perhaps the ‘R’ in Respect does after all stand for ‘royalist’ - and a commitment to pursuing equality, peace, community, socialism and trade unionism under the existing monarchical constitution.

Chosen SWPers lined up to tell us that a republic was irrelevant, that France and the US are republics, and that they are no better nor worse than royalist Britain. A misdirected argument. No one suggested that we should seek to copy the French or US presidential republics. But only by politically challenging and fighting to replace the existing constitution could we seriously and convincingly raise the perspective of bringing into being the social republic.

Instructively that is the approach taken by Engels his Critique of the Erfurt programme, written in 1891. Engels took to task his Social Democratic Party comrades for their failure to raise the demand for the republic in kaiser Germany. They excused themselves from this task, not because it was deemed an irrelevance: rather they pointed to the ominous possibility of another savage anti-socialist clampdown by the Bismarck government. Engels suggests various semantic ways of avoiding overtly illegal statements. Yet, whatever the precise formulation in the programme, the party had to be clear: the hold of Prussianism and its monarchy had to be broken. What is needed? “In my view,” says Engels, “the proletariat can only use the form of the one and indivisible republic” (K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p228).

Incidentally in the same work Engels reiterates that in the British Isles a “federal republic” - formed between Britain and Ireland - “would be a step forward” (ibid). Marx and Engels had on a number of different occasions raised that demand. For them the workers in Britain must take the political lead in the struggle for the fullest democracy. Lenin approvingly cites the call by the Marx-Engels team for a federal republic in the British Isles in State and revolution. That does not mean the slogan is necessarily correct when addressing the Scottish and Welsh national questions today. But to dismiss it out of hand reveals a big political problem for those who claim to be Marxists.

Trotsky’s writings on Spain in 1930 are instructive too. Spain was still a monarchy. He therefore calls for a democratic republic and tells the communists to “struggle resolutely, audaciously, and energetically for democratic slogans”. Not to do so “would be to commit the greatest sectarian mistake”. The communists should distinguish themselves from all the “leftists” not by “rejecting democracy” (as the anarchists, syndicalists and left economists did), but by “struggling resolutely and openly for it” (L Trotsky The Spanish revolution New York 1973, pp59-60). The proletariat “needs a clear revolutionary democratic programme”, he insists (ibid p77). Only so armed can the proletariat lead the coming revolution, says Trotsky. Was Trotsky right? On this occasion, absolutely!

A final point. Rejecting the minimum-maximum programme nowadays passes for common sense amongst a wide range of leftists. The AWL’s executive committee even agreed a solemn resolution denouncing the CPGB because of our commitment to a minimum-maximum programme; such a configuration is a hangover from our “Stalinist past”, it claims. Pitiful huff and puff, of course.
The minimum-maximum programme is not only characteristic of orthodox Marxism, but it is proven to work. Following their minimum-maximum programme, and, yes, whenever necessary renewing and modifying it - not abandoning it, as the old fable alleges - the Bolsheviks steered their way to the world-historic moment of October (November) 1917 and the Soviet Republic of workers, soldiers and peasants. Dogmatists and the ignorant will protest. But history shows the truth.

Undaunted, every half-educated Trotskyite derides and dismisses the minimum-maximum programme. In the venerated, almost mystical, name of Trotsky’s - totally outdated, deeply flawed and frankly economistic - Transitional programme, every group, sect and cult advances, either formally or informally, what is billed as an infinitely superior alternative. It ain’t so. Instead of a revolutionary minimum programme they engage in abstract propaganda for socialism on the one hand and on the other peddle the usual smorgasbord of economistic demands which leave the existing state and its constitution completely untouched.

Such is the muck, myth and nonsense that has been thrown at the minimum-maximum programme that advocating this honourable and proven concept in most leftwing circles is akin to uttering the sacred name ‘Jehovah’ amongst ancient Jews. To even say the two words is to invite invective, mocking curses, if not a deadly hail of rocks and stones. In the minds of the devotees the point blank refusal by their masters to even consider the minimum-maximum programme represents defence of the highest achievements of Marxist theory. In reality it is narrow-minded bankruptcy.

Of necessity the minimum-maximum programme must be rescued from the geriatric clutches of social democracy and ‘official communism’ and restored to its proper place in the basic armoury of the international working class movement. To hammer out and adopt a minimum-maximum programme is not to repeat the sins of German social democracy - which, true, in part stemmed from its minimal minimum programme. As we have seen though, Engels lambasted the SDP not because it arranged its programme in two related parts, but for what was a fearful unwillingness to include abolition of the kaiser monarchy and a centralised democratic republic in the minimum section of its programme. So there are minimum programmes and minimum programmes.