An ideal state
Levi Rafael of the US-based 'Marxist-Leninist Worldview' blog takes issue with Mike Macnair and the CPGB
Mike Macnair is one of the leading voices of the Weekly Worker - the polemical organ associated with the CPGB, which is one of the mouthpieces for the so-called ‘anti-Stalinist left’. The ideology of this grouping is based around a reaction to the bureaucratic practices found in many Trotskyist and other self-proclaimed Leninist groupings, as well as a reaction against the bureaucratised workers’ states of the USSR, eastern bloc, etc.
However, besides ‘Stalinism’, the CPGB seems particularly intent on polemicising against Trotskyism. One can very justifiably admit that criticism of bureaucratic workers’ states, as well as dogmatic Trotskyist groupings, is something that should happen and, given the general lack of major victories with these movements, it is fair to say that something different needs to be done.
Unfortunately, however, like most ‘anti-Stalinist’ left trends, the answer that Mike Macnair and the Weekly Worker give is yet another capitulation to the Fukuyama consensus - a sort of subconscious acceptance that there really is ‘no alternative’ to liberal democracy and capitalism. In particular, they are interested in reviving the legacy of Karl Kautsky - the once orthodox Marxist thinker who broke with revolutionary Marxism after World War I and the October revolution. In fairness to Macnair and the Weekly Worker, Kautsky’s legacy has likely been given unfair treatment by contemporary leftists and historians. I say ‘likely’, however, because I must admit to being particularly biased against Karl Kautsky, and I consider myself to be ambivalent on the positive legacy of Kautsky even in his ‘revolutionary’ days.
In a 2007 article, ‘What is workers’ power?’,1 Macnair calls for a total rejection of the theoretical legacy of the Third International - even of its foundational pre-Stalinist congresses. For Macnair, the reason that the left remains unorganised, or else falls into dogmatism or bureaucratism, is because of the turn away from the theoretical heritage of the Second International, as embodied by Kautsky. This is in direct contrast with Trotsky, who considered the first four Comintern congresses to be foundational for the entire communist movement.
The political implications of this return to Kautsky are broad. In this article, I will focus on the different conceptions of the dictatorship of the proletariat contested here. Macnair, speaking in the vein of Kautsky, argues that we should scrap once and for all the goal of trying to build workers’ soviets, or councils, as organs of proletarian democracy.
Instead, appealing to ‘orthodoxy’, he argues that the dictatorship of the proletariat should simply take the form of a “democratic republic”. According to Mike Macnair, if workers’ states became bureaucratic, it was to the extent that they departed from this model of democratic republicanism. From his rejection of workers’ council democracy in favour of democratic republicanism (with no class specified as the basis for this democracy) flows his other political implications - in particular his rejection of the transitional programme, as exemplified by the early Comintern, as well as by Trotsky, and his advocacy of a return to the ‘minimum-maximum’ programme of the Second International.
Though he has been rather unclear on the topic, Macnair seems to even reject the prospect of nationalisation of all large and medium-scale industry, and seems to think that the question of expropriation and planned economy is unimportant next to the prospect of a “democratic republic”. In this piece, we will focus on refuting his objections to the workers’ council form of state.
Unlike Kautsky, Mike Macnair and the CPGB (PCC), for the most part, have a positive evaluation of the October revolution that overthrew the Russian provisional government and established a soviet republic. That is, they seem to support the revolution up to the point that actual power was won and transferred to the soviets. On this question, Macnair and his ilk seek to revive the pre-1917 Bolshevik slogan for a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”. In this formulation, the dictatorship of the proletariat (power in the hands of workers’ councils) was supposed to be a provisional, temporary government that would rule until a bourgeois-democratic republic had consolidated itself. Instead, the soviets were made permanent bodies of state, not simply provisional organs. In 1918 the bourgeois Constituent Assembly was dissolved, eliminating the last non-soviet state body. Instead of this, Macnair and his ilk seem to think that the Russian Revolution would have been better if the Bolsheviks and the soviets had taken power only to relinquish it to a bourgeois state. The chances that such a bourgeois state would have been a “democratic republic” is dubious at best.
But let us look at Macnair’s objections to the workers’ council form of state. His first objection seems to be predicated on the belief that advocates of workers’ councils - Lenin and the Bolsheviks included - had a naive belief that decentralised councils of workers could take over state power. Macnair argues that the apparent failure of these soviets to hold on to power is what led to the bureaucratic degeneration of the soviet state.
I would be the last to deny that bureaucratic degeneration took place very quickly after the seizure of power. In fact, Lenin himself admitted this fact early on, making extensive comments on the problem at the 1919 8th Bolshevik Congress. The point was also made explicit in the official 1919 RCP(B) programme. But was this process engendered, not by the isolation and economic backwardness of the Russian Soviet Republic, but by the impossibility of workers’ councils to hold on to state power?
Macnair’s argument is that it is impossible for workers’ councils to develop their own centralised, representative bodies. He takes aim at the ultra-leftist and anarchist caricatures of workers’ councils to ‘prove’ that everyone is in fact wrong about workers’ councils, and that the actual soviet regime was closer to his ideal of a “democratic republic”. Why? Apparently because the soviets were governed by centralised representative organs after all, and were not just autonomous factory councils with no coordinating body.
That such a criticism falls way off the mark should be apparent to any Leninist. Leninism never shared the anarchist or libertarian ideal of totally decentralised factory committees as soviet power. Factory committees and other workers’ organisations certainly did (and should) form the basis of a workers’ council state, but a soviet state presupposes that these grassroots workers’ committees find unification in centralised soviet bodies at the local, regional, national and international level.
Let us look at Macnair’s argument further. He writes:
In the 1918 constitution of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (RSFSR) the local soviets were ordinary local authorities elected in cities and villages, by geographical suffrage on the basis (in cities) of one deputy per 1,000 population. The franchise was restricted to “(a) those who earn a living by productive and socially useful labour (as well as persons engaged in housekeeping, which enables the former to work productively): viz, wage and salaried workers of all groups and categories engaged in industry, trade, agriculture, etc and peasants and Cossack farmers who do not employ hired labour for profit; (b) soldiers of the Soviet army and navy; and (c) citizens belonging to categories listed in paragraphs (a) and (b) of the present article who have been to any degree incapacitated.”
This is a structure radically unlike the common far-left image of soviets/workers’ councils as delegates of factory committees. It is equally unlike the soviets of 1917 - delegates of factory committees, soldiers’ committees, trade unions, workers’ political parties, etc.
Macnair here contradicts himself, and his attempt to portray soviets as ‘democratic republican’ assemblies of the people falls flat. The fact that the franchise was restricted to those who earn a living by productive and socially useful labour presupposes that the base of soviet power is in the factory committees: ie, the mass organisations of the workers organised around large-scale industry. However, this is really beside the point. Macnair is trying to argue against a straw man here by lumping all his “economist” enemies into a single camp that interprets “factory committees” as a decentralised system of autonomous units.
This is certainly the anarcho-syndicalist and ‘autonomous Marxist’ interpretation, but it is not the Leninist view. Lenin argued that centralisation presupposed the coordination of relatively autonomous units, without disturbing the “unity of fundamentals” of democratic and socialist centralism. Arguing that workers’ organisations - particularly those grouped around some sort of human labour or activity - should form the basis of the proletarian state is not a negation of centralism.
In Yugoslavia, for example, where self-managed enterprises formed the foundation of its state, ‘self-management’ did not imply decentralisation (contrary to Macnair’s false characterisation of Yugoslav enterprises as “cooperatives”). These enterprises were united, through elected delegates at all levels, to “producers councils”, which organised social and economic planning on the municipal, regional, national and federal levels. Nor did the Yugoslavian franchise, based on work units, “disenfranchise” large swathes of the workers, as Macnair claims (more will be said about this demagogic trick). Central governing organs at all levels of Yugoslav society included one half of delegates elected from workplaces and institutions, and the other half was elected on a territorial (‘normal’ in the bourgeois understanding) basis.
But Macnair betrays his anti-soviet bias when, unable to convincingly turn the Russian soviets into ‘democratic republican’ constituent assemblies, he moves on to dismiss the very soviets that he tried to prove, to his imaginary decentralist Leninists, had nothing to do with factory committees:
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.
Here we have one of Macnair’s most odious ‘arguments’ - one that is no better today than when Kautsky used it against the soviets then. The first point is a demagogic distortion of the Marxist theory on the alienation of the proletariat from the means of production. It is a testament to Macnair’s arrogance that he would try to lecture serious Marxists on this point, but, of course, no other Marxist really meets Macnair’s dubious criteria, except maybe Kautsky. Every budding Marxist who has only read the Communist manifesto knows that the modern proletariat was created by the violent separation of the peasantry and early petty bourgeois from individual means of production, leaving a class totally dependent on wage-labour and without any means of production of their own.
This is the condition of the proletarian when they are employed, and when they are a pensioner. Even when the proletarian is employed in a factory, they are still separated from the means of production! So dismissing the franchise based on labour, a means of ensuring the proletarian character of the state, because of the ‘separation’ of the worker from the means of production is without foundation. Even in a soviet type of state, with nationalised industry, the proletariat will not ‘own’ the means of production it works with. These means of production will be the property of society as a whole, but in order to transform the relations of production, they must be operated under the management of democratic workers’ organisations, of which factory committees, labour unions and workers’ soviets are examples.
The objection about housewives and the incapacitated is equally off the mark. This is because Mike Macnair seems to exhibit some belief that a workers’ organisation needs to be a “factory committee”. But what defines a factory committee is not that it is based on a “factory”, but that it represents workers in any organisation of work or activity. Not only factory committees, but committees based on warehouses, mines, stores, restaurants, theatres, farms, hospitals, military units, universities and schools, research and development centres, laboratories, public-works projects, power plants, etc, etc - all of these will form the basis of the workers’ council state.
The provision in the original Soviet constitution stipulated that all forms of activity that were productive and/or useful to society would find their representation in the soviets. Just as there is no basis to believe that only “factory” workers would be enfranchised by such a system, there is also no basis for even arguing that only the proletariat would be enfranchised by such a system. The mass of the petty bourgeois, insofar as they performed work either as owner-operators or as skilled administrators and professionals, would find their representation in these organisations, along with the entire proletariat.
Nor does this system even imply a restriction on universal suffrage. I would argue that from the standpoint of history, disenfranchising the bourgeoisie will most likely be necessary. But I will concede that it is not essential to the dictatorship of the proletariat. What is essential, however, is that to the extent that the bourgeois will be allowed to participate in the soviets, it will be on the condition that they perform honest work, as administrators or accountants, in the common work of the socialist state. But this supposes the ability of the working masses to monitor the work of these employed bourgeois, and so their enfranchisement must depend on the extent to which the workers ensure that they work and do not exploit or sabotage.
The point about housewives is perhaps worth more serious consideration than the rest, but here again even Macnair admits that the soviet franchise based on labour did not exclude housewives, but actively incorporated them into the system. So much for the exclusion of masses of workers by the soviets! For “housewives”, the home is just as much a place of labour as the factory is to the employed worker. Again, Macnair misses the point by focusing on “factory committees”, instead of recognising that the workers’ council franchise is based on all forms of labour useful to society.
The other important point is that, while not forcing them or driving them away from the soviets, a proletarian regime should do everything in its power to eliminate the very existence of “housewives” as a caste of society, just as much as slavery and serfdom would naturally be prohibited. One of the major changes that the workers’ regime must set as its tasks - one that is ignored by Macnair’s “democratic republic” - is the liberation of women from housework by the development of socially owned, worker-managed restaurants, nurseries, public pantries, laundries, cleaning services and other forms of socialised domestic labour. It is a most elementary task for the workers’ council type of state to liberate women from domestic labour, and bring them into a position of genuine social equality in socialist labour. So much for the “disenfranchising” of housewives in a soviet state.
One positive aspect of soviet city planning was the creation of the mikrorayon. This was the fundamental neighbourhood unit in most soviet-type states. A combination of bureaucratic rule and low economic development prevented most from realising their full potential, but the mikrorayon was designed to revolutionise home life by socialising housework. Apartment buildings were to be situated so as to be in direct proximity and walking distance with daycares and schools, as well as public restaurants, stores and services. But such bold city planning presupposes a state that has deeper authority in the sphere of “civil society” than is allowed for in a democratic-republic.
And what about the unemployed? Charlie Post gave an excellent refutation of this canard, rightfully calling it “demagogic” on the part of Kautsky, and therefore equally demagogic when repeated by Macnair:
Kautsky’s argument that a republic based on workers’ councils would exclude significant groups of workers was demagogic and wrong. The councils organised the unemployed, and clerical and retail workers. The SPD-USPD provisional government that came to power after the kaiser abdicated in November 1918 systematically purged women - over half of whom were employed during the war - from paid labour.2
Anyone familiar with the record of organising of unemployed councils by the Communist Party USA in the 1930s will recognise the absurdity of the claim that communist-led soviets would exclude the unemployed! Unemployed councils are also workers’ organisations, and have a history of being organised not by ‘democratic republican’ social democrats, but by communists fighting for soviet power.
And, just as Macnair conveniently ignores that the soviets set as their task the elimination of female domestic labour, so too he ignores the task of universal labour conscription. Part of the tasks of any proletarian state must be to eliminate unemployment. True, this may not be able to happen at a single stroke, and a proletarian state may have to manage unemployment, depending on the state of the world market that it operates in. To the extent that they will exist, unemployed councils will connect the unemployed to the soviets, just as the factory committee connects the factory worker and the farm co-op connects the farmer to the state. Incidentally, universal labour conscription is another task that requires a workers’ council-type of state: ie, one elected on the basis of organised labour, as opposed to merely territorial representation.
It is also worth noting that Macnair’s democratic republic does not take account of how residential qualifications disenfranchise homeless and transient people.
One cannot escape asking Macnair why exactly a democratic republic is superior to a workers’ council republic in bringing the unemployed, housewives, etc into the state. As Post demonstrated, the ‘democratic republican’ governments of Weimar and post-February Russia, with their “universal suffrage” that was “above classes”, excluded far more people from effective governance than the councils did. It was the communists who practically invented the idea of unemployed councils - something that ‘democratic’ labour organizations never did.
Under bourgeois democracy, organised on a territorial basis, each elector is assumed to be an isolated citizen, a yeoman proprietor ‘independent’ of all class relations. This kind of democracy was organised to exclude workers, who people of Thomas Jefferson’s ilk deemed to be too dependent on the power of their exploiters to be considered reliable citizens. Likewise, ‘true’ democratic republicanism was not beyond restricting the franchise to exclusively white men, sometimes with property qualifications. Only the male yeoman, with his own farm or his own workshop, was deemed to be worthy of the privilege of citizenship.
Macnair may object that he is the furthest thing from a Jeffersonian democrat. I do not intend to brand him as such. But what his ‘democratic republicanism’ ignores is how even the most ‘democratic’ republic is a form of state that is adapted to bourgeois rule just as much as constitutionalist or monarchical ones are.
Thus, not only the worker, but subsequently the unemployed, the impoverished farmer, ruined shopkeeper, the CEO, etc are all ‘citizens’ - each possessing ‘equal right’ to be elected to their town council or their national congress. Never mind that they are unemployed and must spend their precious hours searching for food and work instead of politics. Never mind that they must work 10 hours a day. Or that they are a modern-day slave to their husbands and are confined to domestic servitude and patriarchal violence. If the citizen lacks the ‘virtues’ of the independent yeoman, it is either the fault of their character or the fault of their sex.
In contrast, the proletarian state, of which the workers deputies’ council is the classic form, openly proclaims its class character and therefore openly recognises the reality of all social relationships in capitalist society. Basing itself on the organisations of those formerly oppressed by capitalism, the soviet penetrates into all realms of society. It acknowledges the existence of the unemployed and organises them into their own councils to actually bring them into politics. Unions of housewives are organised in the communities to bring them into political participation, and the state uses the planned economy to socialise the food and child-rearing services, and liberate the woman from domestic slavery.
Macnair goes on to say that the workers’ council form of government is only capable of working on a local scale, and that it cannot solve the problems of accountability or the centralisation of democratic forms:
To repeat, then, what we have to fight for is the political principles - election and recallability, abolition of judicial review, accountability, freedom of information, and so on - not the merely organisational form of the workers’ council.
And so, from Lenin’s Proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky we have retreated to ‘formal’ democracy as the solution to the problem of accountability. Macnair says that we cannot have a ‘mere’ workers’ council, but must most importantly have elections, recallability, etc. Here we have nothing short of capitulation to bourgeois democracy, plain and simple. The primary difference between proletarian and bourgeois democracy is precisely around the attitude towards this ‘formal democracy’.
On the contrary, the emphasis should be reversed. What is needed is not merely elections, accountability, judicial review, freedom of information, etc. What is needed is that these features of formal democracy must be brought directly into contact with first the proletariat and then all the working people. And the best form of government for bringing these essentials of democracy to the working people is the workers’ council.
In his draft programme of 1919, Lenin highlighted two characteristics that separated proletarian democracy from formal bourgeois democracy:
Bourgeois democracy that solemnly announced the equality of all citizens in actual fact hypocritically concealed the domination of the capitalist exploiters and deceived the masses with the idea that the equality of exploiters and exploited is possible. The soviet organisation of the state destroys this deception and this hypocrisy by the implementation of real democracy ...
The more direct influence of the working masses on state structure and administration - ie, a higher form of democracy - is also effected under the soviet type of state, first, by the electoral procedure and the possibility of holding elections more frequently, and also by conditions for re-election and for the recall of deputies, which are simpler and more comprehensible to the urban and rural workers than is the case under the best forms of bourgeois democracy; secondly, by making the economic, industrial unit (factory) and not a territorial division the primary electoral unit and the nucleus of the state structure under soviet power. This closer contact between the state apparatus and the masses of advanced proletarians that capitalism has united, in addition to effecting a higher level of democracy, also makes it possible to effect profound socialist reforms.3
What this all reveals is a fundamental weakness in Macnair’s ‘democratic republicanism’. Democratic republicanism that does not provide a clear basis for the political rule of the proletariat will be unable to begin socialising production and gradually abolishing class divisions. Lenin argued that one of the main characteristics of the dictatorship of the proletariat was not mainly the use of force against the exploiters, but more fundamentally the gradual establishment of a socialist form of labour discipline:
Proletarian discipline is not discipline maintained by the lash, as it was under the rule of the serf-owners, or discipline maintained by starvation, as it is under the rule of the capitalists, but comradely discipline, the discipline of the labour unions.4
And, lest Macnair argue that this was some sort of syndicalist slip of Lenin’s later years, let us look back at his mentor, Kautsky, and how he argued about the task of organising labour discipline on the “day after” the social revolution:
But the discipline which lives in the proletariat is not military discipline. It does not mean blind obedience to an authority imposed from above. It is democratic discipline, a free-will submission to a self-chosen leadership, and to the decisions of the majority of their own comrades. If this democratic discipline operates, in the factory, it presupposes a democratic organisation of labour, and that a democratic factory will take the place of the present aristocratic one.
It is self-evident that a socialist regime would from the beginning seek to organise production democratically. But, even if the victorious proletariat did not have this point in view from the beginning, they would be driven to it by the necessity of ensuring the progress of production. The maintenance of social discipline in labour could only be secured by the introduction of union discipline into the processes of production.5
Even for the old Kautsky, the dictatorship of the proletariat was defined by creating a new form of cooperative labour discipline that “presupposed” those very factory committees that Macnair dreads. The value of these committees is not that they are from factories. The value is that these mass organisations, connected directly as they are with all forms of human labour, are able to lay the foundation for the self-discipline of labour. For the soviet (unlike the democratic republican) state sets itself the long-term social task of the abolition of the state in general. This presupposes not only, and not even mainly, public ownership, but above all the development of a democratic work discipline that will later render all forms of political democracy obsolete.
Macnair’s criticism of Trotsky’s defence of the USSR as a workers’ state, because of the transformation of property relations, is nothing new and adds no significant arguments for the opponents of Trotsky on this score. The ex-Trotskyists who subscribed to the ‘state-capitalist’ interpretation of the Soviet Union and other communist-led states were ultimately horrified that Trotsky could argue that a workers’ state could still exist as such, while having an authoritarian, bureaucratic regime, because it was based on nationalised property relations.
The problem with all of these critiques, whether they came from the ‘state capitalist’ school of the likes of Tony Cliff or CLR James, or the ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ narrative of the likes of Shachtman and Burnham, is that all ignored the point that Trotsky made about analysing the USSR: not by a priori norms of moral imperatives about a workers’ state, but by the actual material foundations.
What this means is that a state like the USSR has to be understood in the development of its social relations. Critics like Macnair and Cliff can certainly pull out plenty of material from Marx, Engels and Lenin to demonstrate that a workers’ state was envisioned as a higher form of democracy, and that this form of democracy was absolutely vital if the proletariat was to be able to actually control its own state, and ultimately for its state to wither away into a mighty system of producers’ and consumers’ cooperation. Trotsky did not disagree with this, and even defends this interpretation of a workers’ state in his ‘bad’ book Terrorism and communism (Ernest Mandel, a staunch defender of Trotsky’s theories on bureaucratic workers’ state, called it his “worst book”). It should go without saying that Trotsky defended the interpretation of a healthy workers’ state as one that minimises bureaucracy, and is based on the mass participation of the entire population through democratic workers’ councils. But the point is that there is no cosmic law of the universe that says that a workers’ state must be ‘healthy’ in order to be a workers’ state.
Trotsky often used the analogy of a diseased man who faced terminal illness if he did not treat it. Such a disease could be totally devastating to the body of the man: it may even render him completely bedridden and unable to function. It may deform him beyond recognition, or cause him to waste away to skin and bones. Nevertheless, no matter how sick this person is, he still remains a human being.
The ideal workers’ state is certainly one based on mass democracy and genuine workers’ power, very unlike the Stalinist method of bureaucratic rule. It could even be convincingly argued that a workers’ state that continues to be ruled in a bureaucratic manner will eventually degenerate into a capitalist state. But there are absolutely no guarantees that a workers’ state will necessarily be a ‘healthy’ one. It could even be argued that a fully ‘healthy’ workers’ state is very unlikely to come into existence at first, since such a state will inevitably have to struggle with aggravated social contradictions left over by capitalism, as well as the world market. But to dismiss a workers’ state because it is ‘sick’ is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Trotsky criticised as idealist the attempt to define a workers’ state based on certain a priori norms, instead of studying its actual development. He likened this to the bourgeois categorical imperative of Kant, which was based on timeless moral standards. Such an approach represents a rupture with the materialist method of Marx, who studied things in their living development. A serious Marxist should not dismiss a state once it becomes ‘unhealthy’ and ‘bureaucratic’, but should instead look at the contradictions within such a state that have caused it to become unhealthy. Only in this way, by learning from failure, will communists be better able to maintain a truly healthy, democratic and anti-bureaucratic state of the workers in the future.
This is not to say that we should refrain from criticism of the bureaucratic practices of unhealthy workers’ states. Trotsky argued that his demand for a revival of soviet democracy was not merely sentimental - the need for workers’ democracy was a life-and-death question for the soviet state, especially in the field of planned economy and the success of the five-year plans:
The socialist culture will flourish only in proportion to the dying away of the state. In that simple and unshakable historic law is contained the death sentence of the present political regime in the Soviet Union. Soviet democracy is not the demand of an abstract policy, still less an abstract moral. It has become a life-and-death need of the country.6
But it is interesting that Mike Macnair should put forward the “democratic republic” as an antidote to Stalinist authoritarianism. When Stalin fully consolidated his power over the Soviet state, he inaugurated his rule with the adoption of a new constitution which promised to be the “most democratic in the world”. The franchise based on occupation was abolished in favour of the universal suffrage of an atomised population. The dictatorship of the proletariat was considered to be no longer necessary, and the Soviet state was declared to be a “state of the whole people”. Essentially, the 1936 constitution marked the transition of the Soviet state to a “democratic republic” - a state based on universal suffrage and blind to class relations:
What do these changes signify? Firstly, they signify that the dividing lines between the working class and the peasantry, and between these classes and the intelligentsia, are being obliterated, and that the old class exclusiveness is disappearing. This means that the distance between these social groups is steadily diminishing. Secondly, they signify that the economic contradictions between these social groups are declining ... are becoming obliterated. And, lastly, they signify that the political contradictions between them are also declining and becoming obliterated. Such is the position in regard to the changes in the class structure of the USSR.7
Of course, the opposite phenomenon was happening in the USSR. Despite the growth of industrialisation and the subsequent numerical growth of the Soviet proletariat, class antagonisms within the country were reaching a new crisis, with a peasantry resentful of proletarian rule because of the disastrous collectivisation of their farms, and an intelligentsia that was gaining in material and cultural privilege and was becoming increasingly detached from the control of the workers. But, to consolidate its bonapartist position, the Stalinist bureaucracy was able to draw on the ideology of democratic republicanism to posit a state that claimed to be both democratic and above class antagonisms. Such a state could thus justify the dissolution of workers’ councils elected on the basis of occupation, because such a political device was explicitly designed as a tool of proletarian dictatorship and socialist construction. Now that classes were “obliterated” and socialism was ‘basically’ constructed, proletarian dictatorship could give way to a democratic-republican ‘people’s state’.
Trotsky noted the bonapartist character of this ‘democratic’ revision of soviet democracy:
To be sure, the reformers decided after some waverings to call the state, as formerly, soviet. But that is only a crude political ruse dictated by the same considerations out of regard for which Napoleon’s empire continued to be called a republic. Soviets in their essence are organs of class rule, and cannot be anything else. The democratically elected institutions of local self-administration are municipalities, dumas, zemstvos - anything you will, but not soviets. A general state legislative assembly on the basis of democratic formulas is a belated parliament (or rather its caricature), but by no means the highest organ of the soviets.
In trying to cover themselves with the historic authority of the soviet system, the reformers merely show that the fundamentally new administration which they are giving to the state life dare not as yet come out under its own name.8
Lenin warned in State and revolution that all states claiming to be ‘free people’s states’ were bonapartist dictatorships that obscured class antagonisms in order to consolidate power. But now the ‘free people’s state’ had become the official Stalinist doctrine, alongside ‘socialism in one country’. Before then, it had been an axiomatic tenet of Leninism that a ‘people’s state’ was an impossibility, because every state is an organ of repression for one class to use against all others. Therefore, to the extent that a state exists, the ‘people’ - that is, the entire population without distinction of class - do not rule. Only under communism, with the real and not bureaucratically proclaimed elimination of all classes, will it be possible to speak of the people as a unified entity engaged in cooperative production and consumption.
Perhaps Mike Macnair would object that it would be ridiculous to consider the Soviet Union under Stalin to be a genuine democratic republic. But the fact remains that his negation of the workers’ council form of state in favour of such a republic makes the same error: namely, it obscures the class relations upon which a democracy is built.
Macnair seems to be arguing that only the proletariat are capable of democracy, but, as we noted earlier, this ignores how democracy was once based on the ideal of the independent yeoman (not to mention the slaveholders and independent citizens of Athens). Communists should put emphasis on organisations like workplace committees as the basis of a proletarian state not because of some fetishism of localised councils, or for syndicalist reasons. The workplace committee is the workers’ response to the yeoman farm, the replacement of the individualised economic unit that forms the basis of bourgeois democracy with collective organisations of working people operating modern industry.
These workers’ committees not only draw the workers into participation in state affairs by bringing the state closer to the workers. Most importantly they gradually lay the foundation for a new type of social discipline based on freely associated labour - the only factor that, coupled with the international socialisation of wealth, will actually abolish classes and establish a form of labour discipline free from coercion.
Macnair and the CPGB (PCC) base their politics on a reaction against bureaucratic practices found in many Marxist and Leninist organisations. This trend is particularly notorious with Trotskyist groups which put forward dogmatic demands on their membership, and for that reason very often split into ever smaller sects. Having spent many years in Trotskyist parties, I am all too aware of this phenomenon.
What can be alluring about Macnair and the CPGB is that they seem to offer a fresh new critique of bureaucracy, both in Trotskyist parties and in sovereign workers’ states. But everywhere their answer is simply ‘extreme democracy’ or ‘democratic republicanism’ and a return to the theory and practice of the Second International. But what Macnair seems not to understand, and what I have experienced first-hand for years, is that the problem with Trotskyist organisations is not that they advocate a workers’ council form of state. The problem is not that they put forward a transitional programme. The problem is usually that they do none of these things. Trotskyist parties will put forward ‘transitional programmes’ that really amount to the minimum-maximum programme, with basic demands for healthcare and labour rights right next to the demand for a world socialist state. And serious discussion about establishing a workers’ council republic is usually dismissed as irrelevant theorising, when one should instead be tailing the latest protest trend.
What is needed to revitalise the left is not democratic republicanism, but a programme seriously oriented to establishing a workers’ council republic, with transitional demands that connect immediate democratic demands with the beginnings of such a state.
Weekly Worker August 9 2007.↩︎
L Trotsky, ‘Whither the Soviet Union?’ The revolution betrayed: marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch11.htm.↩︎
JV Stalin, ‘On the draft constitution of the USSR’: marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1936/11/25.htm.↩︎
L Trotsky The revolution betrayed chapter 10: marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch10.htm#ch10-2.↩︎