Organisation or ‘direct actionism’?
Mike Macnair takes issue with Charlie Post over his critiques of Vivek Chibber and James Muldoon on strategy.
This is the third article in my series on the US left ‘Kautsky debate’. I began with Vivek Chibber’s arguments for Fabianism published by Jacobin under the ‘Kautskyan’ title, ‘Our road to power’ (‘Widening frame of debate’, August 8), and went on to James Muldoon’s arguments for Kautsky, version 1919, as a ‘councilist’ ‘third way’ between social-democracy and Bolshevism (‘Fabian or anarchist?’, August 15).
In a certain sense, the next issue is Eric Blanc’s ‘case for Kautsky’. But since Blanc’s arguments responded in the first place to Charlie Post’s critiques of Chibber and Muldoon, these have to be the first port of call.
Post is a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, and a long-standing activist in US Solidarity and writer for its journal Against the current (ATC). This organisation was founded in 1986 as a result of an ‘opening up’ to regroupment of the remnant of the US International Socialists, after the 1977 split of the supporters of the British Socialist Workers Party to form the International Socialist Organization (dissolved earlier this year) and other splits.1 The regroupment included the ‘broad-frontist’ wing of those who were expelled from or left the US Socialist Workers Party (not connected with the British organisation) after its open break with Trotskyism in favour of Castroism in the early 1980s.
The name ‘Solidarity’ was taken from the Polish ‘trade union’ formation (as it existed in 1980-82) to express the common position of the ISers and ex-US SWPers in identification with this formation and with Hungary 1956. Their ‘About Solidarity’ page carries this statement:
We do not attempt to put forward a monolithic platform which we all have adapted to; rather, we rely on the richness of our traditions and the creativity and newer experiences of our younger members to foster and develop a forward-looking socialist thought.
Solidarity was founded in 1986 by revolutionary socialists who stand for ‘socialism from below’, the self-organisation of the working class and oppressed peoples ...2
ATC has been hospitable to the ‘political Marxism’ of its lead editor, Robert Brenner, the late Ellen Meiksins Wood, and others. Charlie Post’s major book The American road to capitalism (2011) is within this theoretical framework. Post’s March 2018 polemic against Chibber on strategy3 is thus a Solidarity polemic against an ex-comrade: Chibber was still in 2003 acknowledging help with his theoretical work from comrades in Solidarity.4
Post v Chibber
I said in the first article in this series that Post was unduly ‘soft’ on Chibber on the ‘party question’, and I will add only one point on this issue. This is that - following a strong tradition of the ‘third camp’ left - Post treats the officials and elected representatives not merely as having interests which are partially opposed to those of the rank and file, but as inherently being uncontrollable by them, so that it is only external mobilisation - wildcat strikes and suchlike - which can win reforms.
On the question of strategy, Post argues that Chibber
envisions a socialist movement capable of struggle both inside and outside the existing capitalist state. Mass mobilisations, centred in the workplace, will be crucial to creating the social power that can compel the state to grant substantial reforms. At the same time, the left will need to ‘gain power within’ the existing state in order to implement ‘non-reformist’ reforms that will effect multiple breaks in the logic and power of capital.
This strategy is, he argues, “fundamentally unrealistic”. In the first place, the “rules of reproduction” prohibit it, because all capitalist state activities are dependent on taxes and hence on profitability, and in periods of declining profitability the state is forced to pull back concessions. Secondly,
The capitalist state is also a bureaucratic institution, structurally separated from the private sphere of exploitation and accumulation, appearing as an impersonal ‘public power’. While most contemporary capitalist states are parliamentary democracies, real political power resides in the unelected permanent officialdom - the civil service/executive agencies, judiciary and, ultimately, the military. These institutions - popularly referred to as the ‘deep state’ - have historically been the centre of resistance to attempts by the socialist left to ‘use’ elected positions within the capitalist state to implement meaningful reforms, much less to break with the logic of capital.
Hence, he continues, “Only a decisive rupture in the institutional structure of the state - the dismantling of the old state and the construction of a working class counterpower - can allow working people to win significant reforms and begin the construction of socialism.” And:
Ultimately, socialists will have to choose between one or the other as the dominant method of struggle, when faced with capitalist resistance to any left government. Put simply, these governments will have to choose between ‘playing by the rules’ of the capitalist state (respecting ‘constitutional legality’, etc) or mobilising working people and building a counterpower to the existing state.
He argues that in fact the same is true of the struggle for reforms:
Unfortunately, the logics of movement building and electoral and legislative politics are often in contradiction to one another. On the one hand, election campaigns whose primary goal is winning office prioritise getting 50% plus one votes on the lowest possible political basis. Legislative politics involves coalition building that leads to continual concessions on policy. Neither requires the mass of voters to be active participants in democratically setting programme or strategy, and generally discourages confrontation and political radicalism.
By contrast, disruptive social movements - in particular those rooted in the workplace - require building solidarity across the racial and gender divisions capitalism constantly creates and recreates, and taking risks in confronting capital and the state to win the movement’s demands. This requires active participation in a democratic process of crafting demands and deciding tactics. Successful movements always involve rising levels of confrontation with the established political and economic order, and tend to radicalise many of their participants.
I have quoted these passages at length to display the plain character of the argument as what Trotsky called “anti-parliamentary cretinism”. Post says that “Clearly, those committed to the primary task of building mass, disruptive movements have and should engage in electoral politics.” But his further description shows an inability to distinguish between winning election as a representative, on the one hand, and winning governmental office, on the other. The result is that it is not at all obvious what point an electoral intervention which aims not to win could have. The role of the elected MP or senator as a “tribune of the people”, who uses the parliamentary platform to speak from opposition - well understood by the Second International, including the Bolsheviks5 - wholly disappears.
Post claims that only “massive, disruptive movements” can win reforms. That statement is plainly untrue. Winning reforms certainly requires that capital is faced with both a carrot - the willingness to settle a particular struggle for reforms - and a stick - the possibility of something worse (more expensive to capital) than conceding the reforms. The ‘something worse’ can be “massive, disruptive movements” - as in the early 19th century ‘Ned Ludd’, winning temporary union legalisation in 1825, or the 1860s ‘Sheffield Outrages’, that gained more prolonged legalisation. But it can also be the fear of losing political control - as the First International and the suffrage campaign of the 1860s contributed to the extension of the vote to the top layers of the working class in the 1867 Reform Act, and as the appearance of the Labour Party produced the 1906 Trade Disputes Act and the ‘Lloyd George’ provisions of school meals (1907) and old-age pensions (1909).
On the other hand, adverse market conditions for capital do not invariably result in the refusal of reforms. This is transparently visible, not only in the US 1930s ‘new deal’, but also in the French People’s Front government - in both cases situations where bad economic conditions and demoralisation over union action produced a movement into electoral politics. That did not in itself produce reforms, but rather, when capital made reform concessions, led to increased mass confidence, which triggered mass action, which in turn led to further major (temporary) concessions.
In fact, the result of the far left’s anti-electoralism is precisely to yield the initiative to the right wing of the workers’ movement or to forces further right. Thus Trotsky in 1931:
Parliamentary cretinism is a revolting sickness, but anti-parliamentary cretinism is not much better. We see this most clearly in the fate of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists. The revolution poses political questions directly and at the present stage gives them a parliamentary form. The attention of the working class cannot but be concentrated on the Cortes, and the anarcho-syndicalists will secretly vote for the socialists or perhaps the republicans. To fight against parliamentary illusions without fighting simultaneously against the anti-parliamentary metaphysics of the anarchists is less possible in Spain than anywhere else.6
The point has been strikingly visible in the British SWP, which started from the same basic ideas about ‘electoralism’ as those Post has defended, but then moved in 2000-07 in the Socialist Alliance and Respect exactly into opportunist political interventions which tried to pretend to be ‘old Labour’ - and then back to evasion of the issues of electoral politics. Most recently, the SWP’s oscillation between opportunist electoralism and anti-parliamentary cretinism has largely silenced it in relation to the mass movement into the Labour Party around the election of Jeremy Corbyn, and the savage, coordinated capitalist campaign of media defamation in the endeavours to win back control of Labour, if not destroy it. Here the struggle between the classes has for the moment taken the form of a struggle over control of the Labour Party. No doubt this will not be the case forever; but the point is that - as Trotsky pointed out - the class struggle does, part of the time, take electoral and parliamentary forms.
Post v Muldoon
In March 2019, Post offered a polemic against James Muldoon on Kautsky.7 Unlike my critique of Muldoon in my second article, Post’s argument is not addressed mainly to what Muldoon celebrated - Kautsky’s 1919 ‘Guidelines for a socialist action programme’. Rather, it is mainly addressed to denouncing Kautsky for not being a mass-actionist.
There is one oddball feature which does address 1919. Muldoon wrote:
Kautsky diverged from both the SPD and the Spartacists. He believed that universal suffrage and parliamentary institutions should form the basis of the new republic. But he did not see any compelling justification for restricting suffrage to paid factory workers, which would disenfranchise large elements of the lower classes, including many women, peasants and the unemployed.8
Post responds: “Kautsky’s argument that a republic based on workers’ councils would exclude significant groups of workers was demagogic and wrong.” That is because “The councils organised the unemployed, and clerical and retail workers.”
This point is, in fact, not in the ‘Guidelines’. In The dictatorship of the proletariat in the same year, Kautsky wrote:
Even in a country so highly developed economically as Germany, where the proletariat is so numerous, the establishment of a Soviet Republic would disfranchise great masses of the people. In 1907, the number of men, with their families, belonging to occupations which comprised the three great groups of agriculture, industry and trade - that is, wage-earners and salaried persons - amounted to something over 35 million, as against 17 million belonging to other sections. A party could therefore very well have the majority of wage-earners behind it and yet form a minority of the population.
On the other hand, when the workers vote together, they need not fear the united votes of their opponents. By obliging them to fight their common foes, universal suffrage causes them to close up their ranks sooner than if the political struggle were confined to the soviets, from which the opponents are excluded, and in which the political struggle of a socialist party takes the form of attacking another socialist party. Instead of class-consciousness, sectarian fanaticism is thereby induced.
This is part of a more extensive polemic, the gist of which is that forms of denying the suffrage to the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie both excludes sections of the working class who supplement their income by letting rooms to lodgers and other ‘petty bourgeois’ activities, and gives the working class a false sense of its own strength.9
This is a very different point from that made by Muldoon. Muldoon’s point is, I think, taken from one of my own critiques of ‘councilism’, or from some similar source, rather than from Kautsky. In 2007 I wrote:
The point is that the ‘classic image’ of the soviet/workers’ council form - as applied to a state, as opposed to an organ for struggle - would disenfranchise a large part of the proletariat as a class … The proletariat as a class is defined in Marxist theory by its separation from the means of production: not by being at any particular moment employed, or employed in industry. The unwaged, including ‘housewives’ and pensioners, are part of the proletariat.10
David Broder, criticising my Revolutionary strategy in 2008, made against this argument the same point that Post makes against Muldoon: that the Russian soviets were not mere councils of workplace delegates. I replied, in that blog discussion, that my argument was directed against the modern far left’s fetishism of councils of factory delegates as being ‘proletarian’, because they were based on the workplace, as opposed to territorial suffrage, rather than against the much broader ad hoc expedients created in 1917.11
So far this appears to be just a story of trivial sloppiness on both Muldoon’s part and Post’s in not looking up Kautsky’s actual arguments.12 But there is a point of very considerable substance posed by it.
My basic conclusion in 2007, and again in 2008, was that the idea that the working class’s organs of struggle under capitalism form the natural basis of the proletarian dictatorship is misconceived. Rather, the very features which emerge from the character of these organs as organs of struggle prevent them, when used as organs of power, from mobilising the full weight of the proletariat as a class and from exercising an effectual oversight and accountability over the developing bureaucracy.
Kautsky’s argument is a very different one, and it rests on the much larger claim that the proletariat cannot adopt constitutional means for the institutional subordination of the capitalists as a class without destroying its own political support. This is to misunderstand radically the mechanisms of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Certainly, Kautsky was right that formally disenfranchising the small employers and petty rentiers - as the 1918 Soviet constitution did - does not disenfranchise the capitalists; but the reason for this is not primarily petty bourgeois and working class support for capital, as Kautsky argues. It is rather that capital rules immediately through corruption, lobbying, the corrupt, advertising-funded media, the ‘rule of law’ and the normal sale of justice through the ‘free market in legal services’, and more mediately through flight of capital as a means of coercing governments. In Russia flight of capital started in 1917; corruption and lobbying persisted through ‘war communism’ and emerged into full visibility in the post-1921 New Economic Policy.
The problem of creating the dictatorship of the proletariat - meaning by this working class rule or a state subordinated to the working class - is to overcome these mechanisms of capitalist control without creating a dictatorship of the state bureaucracy, which will inevitably be more susceptible to such capitalist control. To give a couple of immediate and not ostensibly Stalinist examples, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is very unambiguously anti-democratic both in imposing the Führerprinzip post of ‘leader’ on all parties, and in allowing the Electoral Commission to prevent parties standing under their own names - a power which has been selectively exercised against the far left; and recent British proposals for state press regulation have been designed in a way which will penalise small presses, while the large-scale media can avoid the problem by hiring expensive lawyers.13 In the USSR, of course, trusting the state apparatus produced both police tyranny and economic chaos, and in the end the decision of the bureaucratic gatekeepers to restore capitalism.
Kautsky’s approach in The dictatorship of the proletariat and the ‘Guidelines for a socialist action programme’ both left in place the mechanisms of capitalist control (‘freedom of the press’ and so on) and also proposed to increase the bureaucratic and judicial power through forms of state control (no mean achievement at the end of the Second Reich).
I have spent more space on this constitutional issue than either Muldoon or Post did, because it is an important one. But Post’s critique is mainly addressed to supporting his anti-electoralism, already developed in his critique of Chibber. It is, hence, more about Kautsky’s overall record than about the ideas Muldoon wants to use. Post argues:
Fundamentally, Kautsky’s strategy of ‘combining’ the independent working-class organisation and winning ‘power’ through elections was based on unrealistic ideas about both working class consciousness and organisation. The notion that the working class would gradually accumulate its forces through the building of larger and larger unions and popular organisations and increasing its vote until it became the majority party ignored the episodic nature of working class struggle and consciousness.
While social democratic party and union officials believed that power would come through ‘slow and steady accumulation of forces’, the reality is that working class struggle under capitalism takes the form of massive and discontinuous upsurges. It is during these periodic upheavals that working people can win gains and build democratic organisations that cement solidarity and overcome the divisions and fragmentation of the class.
This is, of course, rubbish, for the reasons I have already given in relation to the critique of Chibber. Working class consciousness develops both through gradual work - building up unions, cooperatives, parties and so on - and through episodic mass struggles and upsurges. To argue that it develops only through mass-struggle upsurges is pure Bakunin against Marx.
But it also radically misses its Kautsky target. Here is Kautsky in the notorious The dictatorship of the proletariat:
The Russian Revolution of 1905 brought the idea of the mass strike to a head in the German social democracy … it resolved that when the executive should consider the necessity for the political mass strike to exist it should get into touch with the General Commission of the Trade Unions, and concert all measures necessary to secure successful action.
After all our experience with the mass strike, we know today that this resolution was fundamentally wrong. For one reason because a mass strike is likely to be all the more successful by breaking out unexpectedly in a particular situation, with spontaneous suddenness. Its organisation by party and trade union machinery would make necessary such preparations as would lead to its frustration.
We, therefore, understand why the trade union bureaucracy tends to oppose all spontaneous action on a large scale. Trade unions are absolutely necessary. The proletariat is the stronger, the greater the number of its members, and the larger the financial resources of its trade unions. Widespread and permanent organisations, with many ramifications, are not possible without a machinery for permanent administration: that is, a bureaucracy. The trade union bureaucracy is as essential as the trade union itself ...
This is not, however, to say that all its pretentions must be recognised. It should be restricted to its first function, in performing which it cannot be replaced: that is, the administration of trade union funds, the extension of organisation and the giving of advice to the workers in their struggles. But it is unsuitable for leading that powerful mass strike, which tends to become the characteristic of the times.
By virtue of their experience and knowledge, trade union officials and parliamentarians may here successfully assist, but the initiative tends to fall into the hands of workshop committees. In various countries outside Russia, such as in England, these institutions (shop stewards) have played a big part in mass struggles, side by side with ordinary trade unionism.
The soviet organisation is, therefore, one of the most important phenomena of our time. It promises to acquire an outstanding significance in the great, decisive struggles between capital and labour, which are before us.14
I do not mean to celebrate this passage as true: it fails to recognise the need for the creation of institutional forms for the subordination of the bureaucracy to the members. It offers in substance spontaneity and workers’ councils as a way of going round the bureaucracy without overthrowing its rule in the movement (like Post!). But Kautsky is here, precisely, celebrating spontaneous mass actions and arguing against the trade union bureaucracy’s opposition to spontaneous mass actions.
Post argues for the rejection of Kautsky on the basis of three episodes. The first is the Prussian suffrage movement of 1910-11. The second is Kautsky on World War I and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The third is the German revolution of 1918-19.
He concludes with the argument that Kautsky’s perspective is politically unrealistic because an elected left government would be faced in the first place with flight of capital (correct) and then with a Chilean-style military coup, which it could only overcome by creating workers’ councils.
On the Prussian suffrage movement, Post claims:
History would prove Luxemburg and her comrades correct on the suffrage issue. The SPD leadership, with the active support of Kautsky - the spokesperson of the emerging ‘orthodox Marxist centre’ - derailed the militant movement for suffrage reform in Prussia. The ‘three-class’ voting system remained in place until 1919, when massive strikes and mutinies and the threat of workers’ revolution finally produced universal suffrage in Germany.
This is pretty certainly wrong. Both Lenin and Trotsky at the time judged that Kautsky was correct that there was insufficient mass support to go over to the all-out general strike, which would result in defeat.15 The experiment of ‘driving the class struggle forward’ with insufficiently broad mass support was tried in Saxony in March 1921, with disastrous consequences.16
Further, Jens-Uwe Guettel has shown that the SPD leadership was in the summer of 1914 actually planning a general strike to demand universal suffrage in Prussia; which was pre-empted by the war.17 And Post’s characterisation of 1918-19 as a mere “threat of workers’ revolution” is radically mistaken: this was the actual revolutionary overthrow of the Second Reich - although the Majority Socialists proceeded to create a republic which was, like the French Third Republic as “the empire of 1799 without the emperor” (Engels), the Reich without the kaiser.
The war question is important to Kautsky’s evolution to the right, but completely irrelevant to Post’s anti-electoralism. There is no reason to suppose that anything less than the actual seizure of power, involving soldiers ceasing to obey their officers, can prevent any state from going to war. Mass demonstrations certainly did not do the job in 1914.
Post’s integration of this issue in his anti-electoralist line invites reference to Alan Shandro’s argument, in his Lenin and the logic of hegemony, that focussing on Kautsky’s alleged fatalism or electoralism diverts attention from his actual over-valuation of unity - in 1914 and after, with the pro-war right wing of the party.18 Kautsky could have pursued a defeatist policy in 1914 - though it should be said that only Lenin and Zinoviev pursued this argument at this stage. He could certainly have pursued some sort of anti-war policy. But it would inevitably have been, at the beginning, a propaganda line. A substantial chunk of the ‘direct actionist’ left, led by long-time leftist Parvus, actually went over to support for the German war effort.19
1919 and the following period is a very unambiguous case of Kautsky scabbing, arguing evasively in relation to the Majority-SPD’s alliance with the far-right generals, and rapidly moving back to support for the Majority-SPD, as the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany majority went over to the communists. In this case we actually have Kautsky’s explanation: The dictatorship of the proletariat, written in spring-summer 1918 against the dissolution of the Russian Constituent Assembly, before the outbreak of the German revolution.
Kautsky’s basic claim was that the Russian Revolution was premature - neither the society as a whole nor the proletariat in particular being ready for socialism; and that in consequence the Bolsheviks, though starting with Marxism, by the decision to take political power against the Provisional Government, were driven to Blanquism. There were two basic elements of this argument.
The first was Kautsky’s rejection a priori of the idea that the proletarian revolution would pose the question of civil war:
Many people confuse civil war with the social revolution, considering this to be its form, and are therefore prepared to excuse the acts of force inevitable in a civil war. This has always been the case in revolutions, they say, and ever will be.
We social democrats are decidedly not of the opinion that that which has been must always be. Such ideas of the revolution are formed on the examples of previous bourgeois revolutions. The proletarian revolution will be accomplished under quite different conditions from these.
The bourgeois revolutions broke out in states in which a despotism, supported by an army separated from the people, suppressed all free movements, in which freedom of the press, of public meeting, of organisation and general suffrage did not exist, and in which there was no real representation of the people. There the struggle against the government necessarily took the form of a civil war.20
The historical reasoning here is plain nonsense. Consider, without looking further, the American Civil War - one of the most destructive wars in history - characterised by Marx as a ‘slaveholders’ revolt’ against the results of an election, and the sort of thing the workers’ movement could expect if it won an election.
The second was Kautsky’s explicit commitment to socialism in one country. This formed the ground of his claim that the Bolsheviks’ gamble on the European revolution was unacceptable:
The Bolshevist revolution was based on the supposition that it would be the starting point of a general European revolution, and that the bold initiative of Russia would summon the proletariat of all Europe to rise ...
The revolution which would bring about socialism in Europe would also be the means of removing the obstacles to the carrying through of socialism in Russia, which are created by the economic backwardness of that country.
This was all very logically thought out, and quite well founded, provided the supposition was granted, that the Russian Revolution must inevitably unchain the European revolution. But what if this did not happen?
... It is an old Marxist saying that revolutions cannot be made, but arise out of conditions. The conditions of western Europe are, however, so different from those of Russia that a revolution there would not necessarily provoke one here.21
In the light of 1918-21 across Europe, Kautsky’s reasoning in summer 1918 was plainly unsound. It was already falsified by the outbreak of the German Revolution.
But again, none of this is actually about electoralism versus mass actionism/strikism. Once we recognise that the real issues are Kautsky’s a priori exclusion of civil war in a ‘democracy’ and his commitments to ‘socialism in one country’/‘national roads’, it becomes apparent that mass actionism is no solution to the practical problem. The Chilean Cordones Industriales, though widespread, could not defeat the coherent army in the coup. The problem is to split the armed forces - which requires, precisely, a substantial period of political undermining the legitimacy of the constitutional order to which they are loyal.
Constitutional loyalism disguised as gradualism, like Chibber’s, promotes the unity of the armed forces against the working class. ‘Socialism from below’ direct-actionism, like Post’s, simply leaves this unity untouched. And, like the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s, it hands the political initiative to the right.
. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Socialists_(United_States).↩︎
. V Chibber Locked in place Princeton UP 2003, pxv.↩︎
. A Nimtz Lenin’s electoral strategy from Marx and Engels through the revolution of 1905 and Lenin’s electoral strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917 London 2014.↩︎
. ‘What is workers’ power?’ Weekly Worker August 5 2007.↩︎
. Neither provides citations, so my hypothesis above about where Muldoon’s point came from is necessarily tentative.↩︎
. M Macnair, ‘Leveson, libel and lucre’ Weekly Worker October 17 2013.↩︎
. L Trotsky, letter to Kautsky July 21 1910, quoted in extenso by P Nettl Rosa Luxemburg Berlin 1989, p433.↩︎
. There is a convenient short discussion at www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/broue/works/1964/summer/march-action.htm.↩︎
. ‘Reform, revolution, and the “original catastrophe”: political change in Prussia and Germany on the eve of the First World War’ Journal of Modern History Vol 91, pp311-40 (2019).↩︎
. A Shandro Lenin and the Logic of hegemony: political practice and theory in the class struggle Leiden 2014, pp75-79 (addressing 1910; but the other side of the coin is 1914 and after).↩︎
. M Macnair, ‘Die Glocke or the inversion of theory: from anti-imperialism to pro-Germanism’ Critique Vol 42, pp353-75 (2014).↩︎