Property and the propertyless
We must fight the managerial-bureaucratic capture of workers’ organisations now, argues Mike Macnair
Levi Rafael’s second article (‘Bourgeois or proletarian democracy’, August 13) takes us a little further forward from his initial polemic. But the argument is still unsound. It misunderstands both how the capitalist class rules, and how the working class may be able to rule. He continues to argue as if I was proposing a ‘democracy’ which accepted the sanctity of private property (which would not, in fact, be a democracy, but a rule-of-law regime) rather than, as I did in my first reply, arguing explicitly for substantial expropriation.
And he does not address at all the point I made that finding the means to hold the labour bureaucracy in subordination to the class is not merely an “imperfection” in post-capitalist regimes (as he puts it on Yugoslavia), but essential to the working class actually winning power to overthrow capitalist societies (as opposed to accidentally and temporarily capturing power in peasant-majority countries in the course of revolutions against pre-capitalist regimes).
Comrade Rafael begins by asserting that he recognises the fundamental importance of the question of the Communist Party. He refers us to his May 2019 blog post, ‘Working class, working people, and vanguardism’.1 Indeed, he is willing to advocate a one-party state, saying:
I will state (and this may cause a stir of controversy) that I do not consider the one-party model for Yugoslavia to have been incorrect. The only other parties that would have stood in opposition would have been ultra-nationalist, rightwing parties bent on some sort of fascist or reactionary state.
Whatever we are to make of this particular point - and I will come back to it - it is still not clear to me that comrade Rafael understands what the point of a workers’ party under capitalism is. In his blog post, the party appears as an end in itself, in much the way that it appeared in the writings of 1960s-70s Maoists and Trotskyists. But there are implicit assumptions shown when he says that “the vanguard can win even the rearguard if it proves in practice that it can improve the livelihood of this class as a whole”. This shows that, as with the 1960-70s Maoists and Trotskyists, the implicit assumption about the role of the party is economistic. That is, as opposed to Marx’s argument (which I quoted in my previous article), that the working class needs to organise for political action, at the level of demands for general laws and constitutional change, and posing an independent working class foreign policy.
Comrade Rafael’s line is, I agree, not overtly Bakuninist; but the task he poses for the party - as is also true of the Maoists and Trotskyists - are those of Bakunin’s ‘invisible dictatorship’, the organised radicals who lead broad masses by the nose through steering spontaneous upsurges, not those of the ‘Marx party’ which advocated political action of the working class.
A possibly interesting byway posed by comrade Rafael’s second article is that he claims:
For one thing, historically there has been such a thing as a democratic bourgeoisie that remained reactionary despite advocating a radical democracy without exceptions (the radical yet reactionary Giuseppe Mazzini, for example).
It would be interesting to explore Mazzini and the relations between the Mazzinians, the ‘Marx party’ and other radicals in the 1840s and in the 1860s down to 1871 (when Mazzini denounced the Paris Commune in one of his last articles before his death2). There are significant books and articles on this relationship. However, I think it is actually fairly straightforward that Mazzini was not really an “extreme democrat” in any sense other than arguing for universal suffrage.
We should have regard to his definition of democracy in 1846-47 as “the progress of all through all under the leading of the best and wisest”;3 and to his argument in The duties of man that
God gave you life: God therefore gave you the law. God is the only law-giver to the human race. His law is the only law which you are obliged to obey. Human laws are only valid and good in so far as they conform to his law, explaining and applying it: they are bad whenever they contradict or disregard it; and it is then not only your right, but your duty, to disobey them and abolish them.4
And to his claim in the same book that private property is eternal:
The principle, the origin of property lies in human nature itself … Property is therefore eternal in its principle, and you will find it existing and protected throughout the whole existence of humanity.5
Mazzini was an extremely woolly and rhetorical writer, and said little in detail about constitutional design. The Roman Republic he led briefly in 1849 elected him as one of its Triumvirs - a title borrowed from Pompey, Caesar, Crassus in the 50s BCE, and then Antony, Octavius, Lepidus in the 40s-30s, so hardly redolent of democracy as self-government. At the time of writing the later chapters of The duties of man (around 1860), he was arguing for a fairly strongly Christianised version of Proudhonism (cooperatives linked by market relations, while prohibiting expropriations). But notwithstanding this ‘sort of’ leftism, it has to be clear that his was not a perspective of self-government in any sense, other that of the right to vote to choose which of “the best and wisest” (today’s “the great and the good”) should govern you - within the framework of entrenched rights of private property and a deeply ambiguous attitude to whether the ‘democratic’ state was allowed in its legislation to deviate from Christian ideas.
The Mazzini point also expresses in part the slipperiness of the terms, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘bourgeoisie’, which in their origins mean ‘urban citizen’ - thus ambiguous between, on the one hand, the capitalist class (which is actually the normal Marxist usage of the term) and, on the other, the urban part of the capitalist class (as opposed to agri-capitalists and rentier landlords), together with the urban petty bourgeoisie. Mazzini’s politics is pretty clearly petty bourgeois. My argument - to which I will return - is that the capitalist class cannot rule through ‘extreme democracy’, but, on the contrary, with every step towards universal suffrage, this class and its paid political agents take action to expand both judicial and bureaucratic controls on the election process and communication monopolies, and the power of the non-representative elements of the constitutional order. That does not imply that there cannot be petty bourgeois who ideologise ‘democracy’ - especially in the form of universal suffrage without self-government.
The core of comrade Rafael’s second argument has three elements. The first is the claim - which follows from the Mazzini point - that there can be ‘bourgeois democracy’. The second, going along with this, is that the dictatorship of the proletariat has to be committed in some clear institutional way to working class rule and denying ‘equal rights’ to the capitalist class; and he argues that the form of the soviet/workers’ council does this through its character as providing an occupational franchise and (relatedly) through “labour discipline based on democratic principles”.
The third is the issue of the use of Yugoslavia as a model - he does not specify at what period of Yugoslav history, but presumably between the 1950 aftermath of the Tito-Stalin split, and the 1965 sharpened market turn. And, relating to this, he maintains the broadly Pabloite-Deutscherite version of Trotskyism on the USSR and its satellites and imitators:
Despite the bureaucratic and Bonapartist distortions that these states exhibited, for their respective countries they nevertheless represented a step forward in history, just as Napoleon’s conquest of Europe was historically progressive despite the anti-democratic and anti-revolutionary character of his rule.
I am going to start with the third issue - the ‘deformed workers’ states’ - and then return to the first - ‘bourgeois democracy’ and how the capitalist class actually rules - before moving to why we need the dictatorship of the proletariat, and then in turn to how this can be possible.
Comrade Rafael’s judgment of the ‘bureaucratic workers’ states’ is one which was certainly tenable before 1989-91. I held similar views myself between joining the ‘Mandelite’-variant-Trotskyist International Marxist Group in 1974 and leaving its successor, the International Socialist Group, in 1993. From 1983-93, I was also persuaded by the arguments of comrades of the ‘neo-Marcyite’ Global Class War Tendency, led by Wadi’h Halabi, that there was an objective dynamic in the bureaucratic regimes towards the restoration of capitalism, which was expressed in oppositional and ‘liberalising’ movements, as well as in the bureaucracy itself; and that this bureaucracy would, if it was not overthrown, restore capitalism. GCWT’s view had the merit of a foresight missing in the Mandelite approach and that of most Trotskyists, though the view that the bureaucratic regimes were destined to fall was shared by Hillel Ticktin and the trend round the Critique journal. This aspect - the dynamic towards capitalism - does not appear in comrade Rafael’s use of the Yugoslav bureaucratic regime as a model.
In 1989-91, however, most of the bureaucratic regimes fell, through the action of the central Moscow bureaucracy itself (not only in the Soviet Union, but also by withdrawing support for the client regimes). They did so without the slightest action of the working class to defend its real social gains, and without the appearance of any significant left wing attempting to defend the ‘deformed workers’ states’ by overthrowing the bureaucratic restorationists. ‘There is no alternative’ to neoliberalism became world-dominant, and the ‘Fukuyama paradigm’ of the ‘end of history’ dates to the 1990s. What has been left behind is the reduction of what were formerly significant workers’ movements to gravel and forms of red-brown pure nationalism. Ex-Yugoslavia is among the worst examples of political collapse of this sort.
This course of events proved the falsity of the claim of Isaac Deutscher and, independently, of Michel Pablo, that comrade Rafael reproduces in the passage quoted above: that the bureaucratic regimes were analogous in their partly progressive character to the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte (or, one might add, that of Oliver Cromwell). Again, this was an understandable claim in the light of the Soviet victory in World War II, the cold war and the colonial revolutionary movements. But the 1660 fall of the English republic did not entail the restoration of the feudal revenue or the prerogative courts; the 1815 overthrow of the Napoleonic empire did not entail the restoration of the system of feudal rights or the overthrow of the Napoleonic codes. Nor did either event destroy revolutionary liberalism, which returned in England in 1679-82, 1688 and after; in France in 1830 and after.
Suppose that the Marxists (and, following them, the Trotskyists) were right, and what has to follow capitalism is the dictatorship of the proletariat, the class rule of the proletariat as a class over the state apparatus, the surviving small capitalists and the petty bourgeoisie. It is perfectly clear from the course of events in the old ‘Soviet bloc’ that the proletariat could neither rule over this state apparatus nor prevent its being perverted into an instrument of global capital.
I cannot avoid repeating here a point I made in the first chapter of my book Revolutionary strategy (2008):
Under capitalism, there is an objective dynamic for the working class to create permanent organisations to defend its immediate interests - trade unions and so on. This dynamic is present even under highly repressive political regimes: as can be seen in apartheid South Africa, South Korea before its ‘democratisation’, and so on. These organisations tend, equally, to become a significant factor in political life. It is these tendencies which support the ability of the political left to be more than small utopian circles.
Under the Soviet-style bureaucratic regimes there was no objective tendency towards independent self-organisation of the working class. Rather, there were episodic explosions; but, to the extent that the bureaucracy did not succeed in putting a political cap on these, they tended towards a pro-capitalist development. The strategic line of a worker revolution against the bureaucracy - whether it was called ‘political revolution’, as it was by the orthodox Trotskyists, or ‘social revolution’ by state-capitalism and bureaucratic-collectivism theorists - lacked a material basis.
This objection applies with equal force to those misguided souls who (like Tony Clark of the Communist Party Alliance) argue that the Soviet-style bureaucratic regimes were in transition towards socialism; that this inevitably “has both positive and negative features to begin with”, but that the transition was turned into its opposite by the seizure of power by the bourgeoisie “gain[ing] control of communist parties and socialist states under the banner of anti-Stalinism”.4
If we momentarily accept this analysis for the sake of argument, the question it poses is: why have the true revolutionaries, the Stalinists, been so utterly incapable of organising an effective resistance to this take-over, given that ‘socialism’ in their sense covered a large part of the globe and organised a large part of its population? This is exactly the same problem as the Trotskyists’ ‘political revolution’ strategy, only with a different substantive line. The weakness of Stalinist opposition to the pro-capitalist evolution of the leaderships in Moscow, Beijing, and so on, reveals the same problem as that facing the advocates of ‘political revolution’. There were neither institutional means in the regimes through which the ‘non-revisionists’ could resist revisionism, nor any objective tendency in the regimes towards ongoing mass working class self-organisation, on which opponents of revisionism could base themselves (pp11-12).
In the book, I did not explore at length why this should be the case, but sought rather to reconstruct the fundamentals of Marxist strategy in the light of the history since Marx’s and Engels’ time without taking the former Soviet Union, and so on, as a political model. That is not to say that there is nothing to learn from the history of the Soviet-bloc regimes. It is to say that we cannot use them as a model for the future. As I wrote in my previous reply to comrade Rafael, in a point to which he has not responded, “the issue is not what attitude we should take to an existing Soviet regime, but whether we should set out to repeat the Soviet experience after 1989-91: should we aim to build a wrecked car?”
Comrade Rafael’s argument for the one-party state poses the issue a little bit more concretely. His argument is that “The only other parties that would have stood in opposition [in Yugoslavia] would have been ultra-nationalist, rightwing parties bent on some sort of fascist or reactionary state”. What class interests, then, would these parties represent? The answer, in fact, is the interests of the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie - which are the normal electoral bases of far-right parties. The argument is, then, a repetition of the case for banning opposition parties and Communist Party factions under the Russian New Economic Policy in 1921: that is, to maintain the class rule of the proletariat under conditions where the political representation of the petty proprietor classes would be likely to lead to the restoration of capitalism.
I add and stress “and Communist Party factions” because the logic is inescapable. The class interests of the petty proprietors will inevitably seek to find political expression. If they cannot find open expression, through petty-proprietor parties, they will flow into covert expression within the ruling Communist Party. It is therefore necessary to ban not only opposition parties, but also factions. This, in turn, has a logic - most clearly developed in the ‘Cannonite’ variant of Trotskyism and its imitators in the British Socialist Workers’ Party, and so on. If we are to ban factions, we have to operate control over horizontal communication between branches (which can function as a covert form of factionalism). And the apparat has to have full control over fractional sectoral bodies (trade union fractions, party women’s organisations, and so on) to prevent these, too, becoming vehicles for ‘factionalism’, which in turn become vehicles for petty-bourgeois influence in the party (as ‘bourgeois feminism’ was supposed to have infected the SWP’s Women’s Voice group, when the party apparat shut it down).
Then the question is posed: do such measures in fact prevent the expression of the class interests of the petty proprietors (nationalism, and so on)? The answer is, in fact, perfectly clear that they do not. In the USSR the ban on factions allowed the centre group in the apparat round Stalin to deploy the Cheka political police against the left (“United Opposition”) and then, having excluded them from the party, to steal a large part of their platform and deploy the Cheka again against the right (Bukharin, etc). The resulting minority-rule regime had by 1936 become an open advocate of cross-class coalitions on terms dictated by the ‘left’ capitalists (the people’s front): that is, of the Menshevism which the original bans on parties and factions sought to ban.
Yugoslavia provides another example, as the ‘communist’ full-time officials of state and party became Serbian Chetniks, Croatian Ustashe, and so on - as comrade Rafael recognises, but cannot explain.
If we ask why this should be, the answer is in my opinion that the full-time officials of states, trade unions and parties, whatever their class origins, are in their class practice or habitus a section of the intelligentsia (alongside the professionals and managers), which is itself a section of the petty-proprietor class, but whose property consists of ‘intangible’ monopolies of skills (hence the Bolsheviks’ need to use and make concessions to spetsy (specialists) from 1918 rather than tangible land, shops and so on.
The consequence, therefore, is that the use of police measures to control parties and factions will not prevent the political expression of petty-proprietor class interests, which will naturally be expressed by the police and bureaucratic controllers themselves. What they will do is prevent the political representation of proletarian interests - because, as we will see shortly, the proletariat can only defend its interests by collective organisation, and hence can only defend its interests against the petty-proprietor interests of the state, party, union, etc, bureaucrats by having the right to organise freely against them.
The capitalist class is that class which lives by investing and reinvesting money funds with a view to profit: setting in motion the circuit, money-commodity-production-commodity-money (M-C-P-Cˊ-Mˊ). The investments are necessarily to some extent in productive industry, agriculture, and so on, which are essential for there to be a social surplus product; but are more immediately as often as not in various forms of unproductive or at most very indirectly productive activities, particularly financial speculation, which redistribute the surplus product created in productive activities.
Unlike the feudal landlord class, the capitalist class does not generally govern directly. What it does is to make those who do govern dependent on it and subject to its vetoes. The capitalists’ political authority (Weber’s “legitimacy”) is based on their being “wealth-creators”, “entrepreneurs” who spot market opportunities; not their being political rulers - or even their being direct managers of their businesses, a role which they also delegate.
The capitalist class is a small and declining minority - declining, because the tendency to concentration and centralisation of capital produces both giant industrial operations and the dependency of smaller businesses on giant banks and other financial institutions. It rules socially through the support of a much larger minority - the class of petty proprietors, who have insufficient capital to live off profits without working, but who can imagine themselves as capitalists, insofar as the financial system and the housing market allows them to make savings and/or to imagine the independence of their businesses.
It rules politically through a combination of institutions which subordinate states and state officials to capital in the money form. The two simplest and crudest means are the withdrawal of capital, either by extracting money to move it to another country, or (at worst) by withdrawing it from productive circulation into hoards; and the straightforward bribery of state officials.
The withdrawal of capital is both facilitated and mitigated by the existence of state deficit finance and the accompanying financial markets and central banks. The central bank can tell the government that “the markets” will not buy this or that policy; even if that does not work, a run on the currency or “loss of confidence” in the financial markets will usually do the trick.
Simple bribery is, however, problematic, because, if it is generally understood that a major firm can pay off the prime minister, then a small firm can reasonably expect to be able to pay off a local official and even an individual to hand over a little cash to a cop to make a traffic offence disappear. Then the payment to the prime minister becomes ineffective, because the central decisions it has bought are defeated by local corruption. This is, in fact, a common phenomenon both in the ‘third world’ and in the ‘bureaucratic socialist’ regimes (already, indeed, in the period of ‘war communism’ in Russia).
In addition, though capitalists in the absence of significant petty-proprietor and proletarian movements prefer cooptative regimes (Venetian ‘aristocracy’, Netherlands ‘Regents’, modern ‘trusteeships’, ‘boards’ and such-like), since they tend to push off the burden of taxation onto the lower orders, it becomes practically difficult to hold this line, and we get elected bodies and extensions of the franchise over the 19th and 20th centuries.
The result is much more complex regimes, which in theory illegalise corruption, but in practice put ‘entry barriers’ on it to allow legal forms of bribery to operate in favour of large capital, but limit the effect of small-scale forms of corruption. We are concerned here with the role of advertising-funded media - in effect, subsidies by the advertiser to pro-capitalist media and the ability of the advertiser to veto; with party political donations (and donations to individual candidates) and political advertising; and with the “free market in legal services” which is, in effect, a form of routine sale of justice to the highest bidder.
Parties and officials can also be bribed in a way which is not even really visible as a bribe to the official, in the form of offering special concessions, which appear to be for the benefit of the official’s constituents, in exchange for favours. Thus, for example, the German government on August 1 1914 made a private agreement with the trade union leaders for substantial concessions on trade union rights, if they agreed to no strikes for the duration of the war.6
The United States pursued such a policy in relation to a series of countries in eastern Europe, actually starting with Yugoslavia after the Tito-Stalin split: the USSR and all its satellites were under ‘sanctions’ throughout the cold war, but Yugoslavia, and later other ‘dissident’ regimes, received exceptions and limited access to financial markets, which allowed them a degree of industrial development.7 Part of what happened in 1985-91 is that central leaders of the USSR became convinced that collapsing the Warsaw Pact, etc would allow the USSR to get access to the financial markets to which previously Yugoslavia, Romania, Poland and China had been allowed partial access (for US geopolitical reasons).
Unfettered democracy is a problem for this regime of buying officials and governments. The problem is that - for example - the paid MP or minister might be recalled, so that many more people would have to be bribed to get what would still be an unpredictable decision; equally, generalised trial by jury would mean that to be confident of the right decision you need to bribe the jurors as well as paying a top-flight brief. In addition, unfettered democracy is likely to result (under crisis conditions) in votes to undermine debt claims and/or take land.
Hence capitalist rule pretty much universally involves anti-majoritarian constitutional provisions of one sort or another. The defence of the security of tenure of MPs, etc against ‘reselection’ implies their ability to take bribes more reliably. The primary system and related rules in the US force voters to choose between the two great corrupt cartels of professional politicians - as was already visible in the late 19th century. Monarchies and directly elected presidencies insulate the state bureaucracy and the security apparat from democratic accountability - but not from relations with the businesses to which they are connected. Judicial review and ‘human rights’ prohibit legislation which trenches on property. And so on.
Extending democracy therefore necessarily undermines capitalist confidence in the reliability (that is, bribability) of the state. It does not need the personal hostility of individual capitalists to democracy for this to lead to flights of capital - as we have seen repeatedly over the 19th and 20th centuries in response even to very timid reforms. It is not - contrary to comrade Rafael’s argument - a matter of the subjective views of individual capitalists, but of the necessary logic of the capitalists’ class position as such.
The proletariat as a class is the propertyless class, which depends on the wage (including the employed member of the household’s wage) or, if not in work, on the ‘social wage’ - old poor relief, modern benefits, state pensions, etc. The consequence of this situation is that workers are compelled to associate - not just in trade unions, but also in cooperatives, tenants’ associations, etc - and in collectivist political parties. The dentists could withdraw individually from the NHS, because their skills monopoly and the physical equipment they needed could serve as security for bank funding of private practice. Workers are generally not in an analogous position.
It is this circumstance which poses the issue of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to begin with. Why do we need to get beyond capitalism?
In the first place, capitalism entails the regular return of crisis in the midst of wealth, crisis arising from the overproduction of capital. We are in the midst of such a crisis now, even though the trigger has been the pandemic. Failure to make the losses fall on saver/creditor interests - which implies on capitalist interests - necessarily results in the loss of legitimacy of liberalism in favour of nationalism and a drive to war. A great-power war fought with nukes would probably mean human extinction.
Secondly - and the converse of the first point - ‘market society’ gets its legitimacy from random growth, from the ‘Kaldor-Hicks efficiency’, which amounts merely to aggregate output increasing. But the physical limits of the planet now also threaten us with extinction through random growth itself, even if war can be avoided.
These dynamics arise from the unconscious/unplanned coordination of human productive activities through money exchange. It is the point of the first part of Marx’s Capital, volume 1, that capital would logically grow out of a hypothesised regime of petty commodity production, if one was created by implementing ‘Ricardian socialist’, Proudhonist or Mazzinian Duties of man reforms - merely by the logic of competition.
Getting beyond capitalism then requires association and democratic decision-making. This is possible for the proletariat, because the proletariat’s propertylessness forces it to associate in order to achieve immediate ends (wage rises, control on hours, and so on, and so on). In contrast, the petty proprietors - including the state and labour bureaucrats - are driven to defend their personal turf and hence actually driven back towards the market.
The proletariat does not develop voluntary discipline merely by working in factories; all that factories do is show you that you cannot produce a car, or whatever, on your own; but the same is true of the sort of putting-out business, under which spinners, weavers, dyers, fullers and tailors are all engaged in domestic production under the control of a cloth-merchant capitalist, or of the 19th century blade-makers and handle-makers (and so on), working in cooperative workshops under analogous merchant-financier control in Sheffield. The proletariat develops voluntary discipline through association, through workers’ organisations of the varied sorts I have referred to above.
This point leads in turn to two final issues. The first is one I began with: the problem of the managerial-bureaucratic capture of workers’ organisations is something we need to overcome now, not an issue of ‘after the revolution’ speculation. We have a small chance of avoiding nuclear winter or runaway climate change - but only if we can get rid of the managerial-bureaucratic capture of workers’ organisations.
The second is that the workplace franchise does not amount to the dictatorship of the proletariat, because it does not overcome either the problem of the bureaucratic capture of existing workers’ organisations or the extent to which the capitalist class rules through this capture. Yes, we are for self-government in factories, for councils of action when the needs of the struggle pose them, and so on. But to pose the workplace franchise as essential to working class rule is a distraction from the more fundamental issues of demolishing the capitalists’ plutocratic-corrupt constitution and fighting for democratic decision-making against managerialism.
S Recchia and N Urbinati (eds) A cosmopolitanism of nations: Giuseppe Mazzini’s writings on democracy, nation-building and international relations Princeton 2009, chapter 13.↩︎
‘Thoughts on democracy in Europe’, cited in A de Sanctis’s review of S Mastellone Mazzini and Marx: thoughts upon democracy in Europe (2005) in Modern Italy Vol 14 (2009), pp233-37, p236.↩︎
G Mazzini The duties of man and other essays chapter 3, New York 2005, p32.↩︎
H Strachan The First World War Vol I, Oxford 2001, pp122-23.↩︎
V Zarev, ‘An unconventional method of containment - US foreign policy towards communist Yugoslavia from 1948-1956’ Prandium The Journal of Historical Studies Vol 7, No1, 2018.↩︎