Masses and government
Communists are not opposed in principle to the formation of working class administrations under capitalism, writes Mike Macnair
Should we (the left) be aiming for a Corbyn government in 2020? And should we (the CPGB) have backed Syriza forming the government in Greece - only with a different programme, or approach, to the one they actually adopted?
In last week’s article, I argued that the fundamental problem underlying the question of government, as it now faces the left, is to reverse the dynamic of politics, in which there is a long-term ratchet to the right.1 As long as we do not take steps to reverse this dynamic, forming a centre-left government is merely a way station, necessarily to the right of older centre-left governments, on the road to a new rightwing government to the right of the rightwing governments which have gone before.
I argued that to understand this dynamic, we have to grasp the nature of the political dictatorship of the capitalist class. First, that within the institutions of the single capitalist state (the so-called ‘nation’-state), this dictatorship works through plutocracy, constitutional guarantees of property rights in money hoards: that is, the ‘rule of law’ and free market in legal services as a form of bribery of the courts; deficit financing of government; and ‘free-market’ advertising-funded corporate media and ‘contributions’ to parties and individual politicians.
Second, capitalist dictatorship works on an international scale through the international character of the material division of labour, combined with the world character of money and the mobility of capital in the money form. Flight of capital and the resulting ‘monetary crises’ are, in fact, not merely a reserve power of capital, but a regular and normal form of capitalist coercion against leftwing, centre-left or even merely nationalist governments.
It follows that, as long as the labour movement retains commitments not to challenge the state (‘national’) constitutional order, it is thereby committed to making only such changes as are fully acceptable to capital. And, as long as this movement remains committed to action simply at national level, it is similarly committed to making only those changes which are not unacceptable to international money capital.
The capitalist class has, nonetheless, over the past 170 years episodically made major concessions to the working class. I argued in last week’s article that it has done so when it is challenged by worker movements on an international scale which threaten to overthrow, or to attempt to overthrow, the plutocratic constitutional order. Under these circumstances, major economic concessions look to capitalists like a less unattractive option than either immediately losing power or turning the constitutional order into an obviously corrupt minority-rule regime, and hence losing mass acceptance of that regime (its ‘legitimacy’).
Even so, these concessions are not regarded by the capitalist class as permanent. It is the determination of capitalists to take them back which drives the ratchet to the right - at first cautiously, in case the challenge to the institutions of capitalist rule reappear, but with increasing confidence and speed, as such a challenge fails to make an appearance.
The problem, then, is to threaten the capitalists with the overthrow of the regime under which they are able to coerce the majority. We communists, of course, seek the actual overthrow of this regime, and the beginning of the construction of an alternative, cooperative commonwealth. But even if we cannot achieve this, the threat of a mass movement aiming for the overthrow of the regime might still be enough to lever major concessions and a temporary roll-back of the rightwards political ratchet.
There are several implications of this point. The first is that the workers’ movement needs both a maximum and a minimum programme. It needs a maximum programme - a global alternative conception of social order to that of capitalism - in order to be able to think the idea of an actual overthrow of the dictatorship of the capitalist class, as I have argued more extensively earlier this year;2 and hence, in order to be able to threaten the capitalists with the possibility of their overthrow as an alternative to concessions.
The movement also needs a minimum programme, which as a whole defines the minimum basis on which the workers’ party should be prepared to form a government, but in its parts offers a series of individual reforms consistent with the continued existence of capitalism which can be fought for as single issues. I argued this second point in chapter 7 of Revolutionary strategy (2008) and in a 2007 series on ‘transitional programme’ and ‘permanent revolution’3; and Jack Conrad has argued it in a slightly different way on numerous occasions (a good recent example being his 2013 series on programme and the Socialist Workers Party4).
The movement needs a minimum programme in order to think through what sort of concessions would actually advance the power of the working class as a class under capitalism - as opposed to merely offering palliatives for the poorest or, indeed, merely for the ‘deserving poor’, which have been offered by all capitalist regimes, going as far back as the late medieval Italian city-states.5
Secondly, if we think through the immediate alternative to the rule of the capitalist minority over the majority, it is political democracy. Democracy is a regime in which all get to participate in political decision-making; and this also entails the coercive subordination of the property-holding minority (in capitalism, the moneyed minority, or the ‘savers’) to the majority. That is, that this minority will be bound by rules and individual decisions from which it dissents, rather than having, as it does now, the power of veto over such decisions, by right of which this minority coerces the majority.
The overthrow of this power consists in the elimination of the institutional means by which the plutocrats exercise their veto. And this elimination involves both international and national elements. Because, as I have said above, the international interdependence of the material division of labour, and the free movement of money capital, are regular and normal means by which the capitalist class coerces left, centre-left and even merely nationalist governments. Considering how to overthrow or at least mitigate this power - or, again, at least to threaten to do so - is an immediate problem, not one which can wait until after a national revolution which overthrows the domestic mechanisms of capitalist veto.
And this in turn bears on what a national government can do - and hence on what workers’ parties should be saying in opposition.
The actual effective, real subordination of the holders of money hoards on a world scale requires the overthrow of a sufficient proportion of the global capitalist states and of the core of the world economy so that what remains can no longer provide the basis of a system of world money. We are talking here about - for a purely hypothetical example, selecting regions partly arbitrarily - the overthrow of the capitalist states throughout Eurasia, Africa and North America, with only Latin America and Oceania remaining capitalist-ruled.
However, a radical reduction in the coercive power of capitalist control of the international division of labour and the free movement of capital, and hence a global threat to capital, can be obtained on a more limited basis: the subtraction from the global capitalist system of a continental-scale territory, which contains sufficient, and sufficiently diverse, productive capability to be able to ‘stand off’ any ‘sanctions’ regime.
The reality of this possibility is visible in the effects of the existence of the USSR and post-1945 ‘Soviet bloc’, now gone. This certainly allowed increased room for manoeuvre for both workers and ‘national bourgeoisies’ outside the ‘Soviet bloc’. This was true in spite of the fact that the ‘Soviet bloc’ was not, in the long run, capable of defeating US-led world capital: because it was weighed down with peasant-majority countries, lacked anything beyond the German Democratic Republic from the high-tech heartlands of capital, and was held back by its nationalist ideology leading to the production of duplicate heavy industry complexes, and by bureaucratic rule leading to ‘garbage in, garbage out’ planning forms and to general demoralisation.
Europe is at the moment the most hopeful case for such a breakthrough. North America contains the USA, the current global hegemon state and heartland of world capital. China and east Asia are in process of a rapid development of capitalism at the expense of peasant production, and lack common institutions beyond the Chinese state itself (which retains a substantial component of Soviet-style Stalinism). The Arab east, sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America remain fundamentally colonised economies. Russia has reverted to its pre-1914 role of an authoritarian, great military power, but economically beyond this context a primary goods exporter (if oil and gas have replaced grain and timber as the primary exports).
This is not to say that Europe is ripe for revolution: it is merely that the size of the continent, the shape of its economy and the existence of partially common political institutions create the possibility of a working class political breakthrough at the continental level here a little more strongly than elsewhere. The point is argued extensively by Jack Conrad in his Remaking Europe (2004).
How this bears on the question of government is that the European Union, while it is not yet a state proper, is a sort of part-state, distinctly analogous to the 19th century German Zollverein or, indeed, to the North German Confederation of the 1860s. On the one hand, this regime made it difficult - as the EU does - to identify clearly the locus of political power. On the other hand, it meant, equally clearly, that the question of power could only be posed on an all-German scale: that was already the context of the Frankfurt National Assembly in the revolution of 1848-49, and it was the meaning of the difference between the kleindeutsch (Prussia + others) and grossdeutsch (seeking the inclusion of German Austria) perspectives in the 1860s, and of Marx’s and Engels’ criticisms - on the one hand, of Lassalle for supporting Bismarck; and, on the other, of Liebknecht and Bebel for Kleinstaaterei, imagining that the sovereignty of little Saxony (and other even smaller German statelets) could be preserved.6
Quite clearly in this regime a revolution hypothetically could be started in Prussia, the largest German state, and spread from there into the smaller states. But the idea of starting a revolution in Saxony, or Bavaria, or Hesse, or wherever else, without good grounds for expecting that a revolution would be immediately triggered in Prussia, would be illusory. 1848 in fact provided just such a demonstration; once politics was restabilised in Prussia and Austria, what remained of the revolutionary movement in the Rhineland was crushed.7 The states other than Prussia were in theory sovereign states; they were even in theory partially sovereign states between the 1871 creation of the German Reich and 1918; and, as long as the constitutional order was maintained, their sovereignty could be used by Germany’s rulers as an anti-democratic lever to counter the universal-male-suffrage Reichstag. But in terms of real military and political power, except for Prussia, they had been turned into mere Länder - provinces.
Much the same has happened to European states. The constitutional order of the European Union uses the formal state sovereignties (and hence the Council of Ministers) as a lever against the (in theory democratically elected) European parliament. It adds to this anti-democratic mechanism the entrenchment of ordo-liberal economic ideology in the treaties of Maastricht (1992) and since, and the real effective arbitrary powers of the Court of Justice, and (on a smaller scale) the corrupt operations of the European Commission and its attendant apparatus, visible in the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal.
The major states, like Germany and France, can and do break the rules; and a European revolution starting in one of these countries and rapidly spreading elsewhere is perfectly conceivable. But a European revolution starting at the periphery in Greece or Portugal - or even the UK (peripheral for a different reason) - without an immediate prospect of it triggering a wider revolution, would be like trying to start a UK-wide revolution in Devon or Cumbria.
Our object, then, in order to be able to stand off the coercion of international capital, is to overthrow in one continuous act both the EU Reich constitution and the constitutions of the ‘nation-state’ Länder. In this context, to form a government in one country is, in substance, like forming a provincial government, or a government in one US state, or, in the UK, the administration of an important city or county.
Such a course of action could be a way of starting a revolution - if it could reasonably be expected that a workers’ government created in one county would trigger a nationwide uprising; or, in Europe, that a workers’ government created in one state would trigger a Europe-wide uprising. This was the idea of the initial ‘workers’ government’ suggestion in the early Comintern: that a SPD-KPD workers’ government in Saxony could within weeks trigger the spread of the idea into an all-German revolution. In fact, the opposite happened: the German army rapidly intervened to overthrow the Saxon Land government.
The problem is straightforwardly one of assessment of the immediate dynamics of the Europe-wide political situation. For example, was the electoral victory of Syriza merely the tip of a very large iceberg of a political shift towards the radical left across Europe as a whole? If it was, what was called for was an immediate appeal to generalise the phenomenon and overthrow the EU treaties, the several states and so on.
In reality, of course, it was not. And, given that is the case, Syriza’s electoral victory had the same sort of meaning as Militant winning control of Liverpool city council in 1983, and with the same effect: when they were really confronted with the financial machinery of capitalist control, both the Liverpool councillors and the Syriza government backed down.
Now, I am not saying that the workers’ movement, or communists, should not take office in local government in any circumstances. It is a matter, rather, of honesty in electoral campaigning about what can be achieved at this level. We will have to return to this point later.
Chris Knight, criticising an article by Eddie Ford, rightly distinguished between taking office and taking power.8 But then the question posed is what taking power means. Chris poses it (in relation to Alexis Tsipras of Syriza) as “mobilising his supporters to confront the state, dismantle its institutions and translate office into power”; and he made similar arguments in his 1969 piece, ‘All power to the Labour government’, which we reprinted in this paper in September-October,9 arguing for turning the traditional democratic structures of the Labour Party and trade unions (much reduced these days) into soviets à la Russia in 1905 or 1917.
The substance of the point is that taking power means - for each state - that the local ability of capital to use the state - police, bailiffs and behind them the armed forces and security forces - to coerce the majority, is destroyed; and, on the other hand, that workers’ alternative decision-making mechanisms are created, through which the majority can participate in decision-making and coerce the propertied minority.
Put at its bluntest, a sufficient section of the armed forces has to stop obeying their officers, and begin obeying some form of workers’ political representation, to reverse the form of - in Lenin’s phrase - kto kogo: who rules whom. The constitutional order has to be overthrown.
Chris offers a variant on the far left’s general scheme for this change, in which workers’ institutions are made to grow directly out of strikes, occupations and street actions - which, in turn, grow out of immediate experience and economic struggle.
The historical problem with this schema is that it is quite clear, both from the demands of the march which led to the 1905 Bloody Sunday and from the decision of women workers to strike and demonstrate, in wartime, on International Women’s Day 1917 - a festival created by the Second International in 1911 - that by the outbreak of these revolutions important sections of the Russian working class had already decided that they had had enough of the tsarist political regime.
Further, strikes are a normal feature of capitalism going back to its late medieval early forms. Street demonstrations and protests go back not quite so far, but certainly to the normal political life of England in 1689 and after. In early 20th century Russia, under a pre-capitalist state and social order with limited capitalist development in process, such events were a radical novelty, and the regime’s total rejection of them threatened the immediate legitimacy of the tsarist constitution. In early 21st century England they are merely a normal safety-valve in the parliamentary-monarchy constitution - almost to the point that the anti-war demonstrations, of 2003 and subsequently, following the first shockingly big one, could function as a sort of re-enactorish politics of nostalgia for the 1960s.
The practical problem is utterly transparent in the Greek case. Leaving aside the question of Europe, discussed above, how could Syriza “mobilis[e their] supporters to confront the state, dismantle its institutions and translate office into power” after they had entered into coalition with a rightwing nationalist party and given them the defence portfolio? How could they do so after they had run a series of election campaigns in which they reassuringly denied any intention of overthrowing the constitutional order of ‘democracy’ - actually plutocracy - as such?
If you are going to pose the question of power after you have assumed office, you need to pose it before you take office, so that your supporters are not surprised by what you face when you do.
Genuinely posing the question of power is not a matter simply of street mobilisations or a ‘social movement’. It has two sides. The first is spreading widely the idea that the existing constitution is rotten: that the parliament, the security apparat, the senior civil service, the media and the courts are all corrupt.
The second problem is in one way the more difficult one, but in another way is one which is not dependent on holding the reins of government. It is developing the idea of an alternative: in particular, that workers’ democracy is capable of representing an alternative form of democratic decision-making.
It is more difficult in a dead simple sense: the left and the workers’ movement more generally has been astonishingly bad at it for decades now. I propose to say no more than this now; several authors have written about the issue in this paper at length and repeatedly.
However, on the other side, it is obvious that changing this does not depend on holding the reins of government, in the sense that we can work to conduct the affairs of our own organisations in an open, democratic and empowering way, as much in opposition as in government. It would help, slightly, if we could legislate to abolish some of the means of ‘judicial review’ and ‘regulatory’ interference designed to favour bureaucratic control, like the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 and Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, parts of the Cooperative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014, and parts of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. But it remains true that we can formally comply with these rules, without allowing them to stop us functioning democratically.
Moreover, by working in an open, democratic and empowering way, it is possible - not guaranteed - that the strength of the workers’ movement at the base, in trade unions, in cooperatives and suchlike societies, and in the Labour Party itself, can be built up to the point where this method of working appears as a real alternative.
This method, moreover, can produce palliatives which are just as real as those offered by state redistribution, through solidarity and welfare initiatives provided by workers’ organisations themselves. For example, a significant part of the NHS consists of institutions which were originally mutual, cooperative or trade union institutions, which were statised in World War II and nationalised in the formation of the NHS. The Tories are now engaged in ‘less eligibility’, so-called ‘efficiency gains’, intended to make private medicine a more attractive option (the Blairites shared this approach). The more this policy progresses, the more the question of reconstituting cooperative, trade union and mutual-based healthcare will be posed. Arthur Bough has offered some useful arguments on this issue on his blog.10
The problem is, of course, that this issue confronts the question of how to win the next election as a difficulty. It does so because the media will represent any disagreement within the workers’ movement as splits, indiscipline, etc; any failure to execute witch-hunts as lack of seriousness; and, just as they pick up on rightwing nutters in Ukip, will flag up any silly statement by a leftwinger in Labour or the trade unions. To choose to function democratically thus involves also fighting directly against the media in opposition.
The underlying problem is that we have to ‘tell the workers the truth’. And this point is also two-sided. The first side is that we have to be open opponents of the constitutional order; this is a matter both of openly attacking the local (UK) constitutional order and of avoiding the false patriotism which suggests ‘socialism in one country’ or that UK withdrawal from the EU could restore democracy - in reality, for example, EU law would still govern all exports to the EU (45% of all UK exports …).
The second side is that we have to recognise real limits on what can be done, short of overthrowing the constitutional order. Local government and similar subordinate bodies provide the sharpest example of this. There is a useful discussion of this point by Trotsky in relation to problems of local government and workers’ participation in industrial management, written in the context of the nationalisations under the Cárdenas government in Mexico in the 1930s:
It would be inexact to identify the policy of workers’ participation in the management of nationalised industry with the participation of socialists in a bourgeois government (which we called ministerialism). All the members of the government are bound together by ties of solidarity. A party represented in the government is answerable for the entire policy of the government as a whole. Participation in the management of a certain branch of industry allows full opportunity for political opposition. In case the workers’ representatives are in a minority in the management, they have every opportunity to declare and publish their proposals, which were rejected by the majority, to bring them to the knowledge of the workers, etc.
The participation of the trade unions in the management of nationalised industry may be compared to the participation of socialists in the municipal governments, where the socialists sometimes win a majority and are compelled to direct an important municipal economy, while the bourgeoisie still has domination in the state and bourgeois property laws continue. Reformists in the municipality adapt themselves passively to the bourgeois regime. Revolutionists in this field do all they can in the interests of the workers and at the same time teach the workers at every step that municipality policy is powerless without conquest of state power.
The difference, to be sure, is that in the field of municipal government the workers win certain positions by means of democratic elections, whereas in the domain of nationalised industry the government itself invites them to take certain posts. But this difference has a purely formal character. In both cases the bourgeoisie is compelled to yield to the workers certain spheres of activity. The workers utilise these in their own interests.11
The point, then, is not to use winning local government elections for a head-on confrontation with the central state - unless, as might in theory have been the case in Saxony, the opportunity existed to generalise the struggle very rapidly. Rather, it is necessary to say openly: there are very limited things we can do, because of the constraints imposed by central government and the nature of local government.
If we win local elections we can do those limited things; but we also need the means to address the electorate to tell them about the limits imposed by central government, the regressive uniform business rate, and other such corrupt devices, independent of the advertising-funded media, which will necessarily spin in favour of corruption and against political democracy.
Much the same now applies in the relation between the ‘nation-states’ and the EU. If “municipality policy is powerless without conquest of state power” (or, more exactly, has very limited power), so national policy is powerless - or has very limited power - without the conquest of power on a continental scale.
The implication of this need to be honest is that, in fact, it will be harder to win an election than it would be by pretending that radical economic change could take place without radical constitutional change, and without the process of building up the movement on the ground and building mass understanding of the corrupt character of the constitutional order (including the advertising-funded media).
I began in the first article with the point that the question of the 2020 election bears on what communists and the broader Labour movement should be doing now. If nothing can be done without getting a Labour government, then the task is not just to make a Corbyn leadership more media-friendly, but to give up on a Corbyn leadership altogether and elect some Blairite. Of course, it might well turn out that the result of doing so would be to destroy the Labour Party’s electoral base in England, as the Blairites have destroyed it in Scotland ...
The point, then, is not to oppose forming a government ever in principle. It is, first, that entry into government without having built a sufficient movement for socialism to intimidate the capitalist class will only be a step towards the next and further right Tory (or equivalent) government.
It is, second, that there are things which can be done without holding governmental office. These are not only street actions, strikes, etc, but also building up organisations on the ground. In fact, these tasks are necessary to any election victory which does not depend on the agreement of the advertising-funded media.
It is also not impossible by campaigning, for parties or movements in opposition, to nonetheless win important law reforms. For a single example, some way back in history, the Liberals brought in the Trade Union Act 1871 to legalise trade unions. A Tory judge, Brett J, then found a loophole in this act to restore illegality. But the following Tory government was nonetheless driven to pass the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, which reversed Brett J’s loophole.
In fact, the political dynamics can be seen even today, in George Osborne’s decision to implement a so-called ‘living wage’. Osborne, of course, naturally enough, has pulled a scam by delaying implementation of the new minimum wage, but bringing in cuts in tax credits more rapidly - which has produced major political embarrassment. Labour cannot without being in government prevent cuts in tax credits being replaced with some other form of benefit cut: governments, precisely, control budgets. The Lords have only delayed the issue. But Labour in opposition has made it appear to the Tories politically attractive to increase the minimum wage; and could put political pressure for actual enforcement of the minimum wage laws; or, perhaps, to restore rent control.
Thinking of the task of reforms in terms of tax and spend, or borrow and spend, or redistribution leads to thinking that only a party of government can achieve anything. But this is, in fact, a recipe for political paralysis - just as much as ‘moderate demands and militant action’ is also a recipe for political paralysis, this time in the form of the far left’s gerbil-on-a-wheel repetition of what it has been doing since the 1960s.
In contrast, we can combine the struggle to build up workers’ organisations on the ground with the struggle to discredit the institutions of capitalist rule, and the struggle for specific reforms to the law (as opposed to budget changes) which would strengthen the working class. This is not guaranteed to work; but it can build up the movement to a point at which - even if we did not achieve the overthrow of capitalism Europe-wide - we might achieve serious reforms.
1.. ‘Overcoming the power of capital’ Weekly Worker November 5 2015.
2.. ‘Thinking the alternative’ Weekly Worker April 9, 16 and 30 2015; and ‘Socialism will not require industrialisation’, May 14 2015; also ‘Doing war differently’, May 28 2015.
3.. ‘“Transitional” to what?’ Weekly Worker August 2 2007; ‘What is workers’ power?’ August 9 2007; ‘For a minimum programme!’, August 30 2007; ‘Spontaneity and Marxist theory’, September 6 2007; ‘Leading workers by the nose’, September 13 2007.
4.. ‘Programme and the programmeless’ Weekly Worker February 7 2013; ‘Transitional regression ends in a hunch’, February 14 2013; ‘Broad bad, mass good’, February 21 2013.
5.. Eg, C Bertazzo, ‘Before the welfare state: the city and welfare in the Veneto, 13th to 15th centuries’ in G Hagemann (ed) Reciprocity and redistribution: work and welfare reconsidered Pisa 2007.
6.. R Morgan The German social democrats and the First International Cambridge 1965; RB Dominick III Wilhelm Liebknecht and the founding of the German Social Democratic Party Chapel Hill 1982.
7.. J Sperber Rhineland radicals: the democratic movement and the revolution of 1848-1849 Princeton 1992.
8.. Letters Weekly Worker October 15 2015; cf also Eddie’s reply, October 22 2015, and Chris’s response to this, October 29 2015.
9.. Weekly Worker September 24, October 8 2015.
11.. ‘Nationalised industry and workers’ management’ (1938): www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/xx/mexico03.htm.