Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1962: not our road to socialism

Deal with the arguments

The left needs to stop tailing spontaneity and start thinking strategically. Mike Macnair takes issue with Steve Bloom’s canonisation of Luxemburg and criticisms of democratic republicanism

My short book (or long pamphlet), Revolutionary strategy, was published in 2008; it was based on a long series of articles in this paper, published between February 16 and June 14 2006, which responded to a debate on revolutionary strategy in the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and the intervention in this debate by Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party.

The book did not make much short-term impact: it was reviewed by David Broder on the The Commune blog (now mothballed),1 and by Dave Esterson on the now defunct Permanent Revolution site.2 It was critiqued by John Robinson (in this paper) from the standpoint of the Japan Revolutionary Communist League (Kakumaru)3 and by Paul Cockshott on his website and in this paper. I responded to all4 and I think these exchanges largely raised significant issues, and added some additional clarity to what I was saying.

The larger left groups did not respond: they have an established policy of ignoring the arguments of other groups that they are not immediately ‘courting’. They especially ignore the arguments of smaller groups and of minorities within their own groups; but not these exclusively - the larger groups (SWP, the Morning Star’s CPB and the Socialist Party in England and Wales) tend to ignore each other’s arguments in publications.5 The effect is the dumbing-down of the general membership: because it is not worth addressing substantive disagreements except a caricature of the views of the Labour right, the group’s own positive views tend more and more to become mere simplified dogma, coupled with a sort of liberalism enragé that tailends whatever ideas happen to be fashionable (in The Guardian and its equivalents).

Subsequently, there has been a significant growth of interest in the ideas of Revolutionary strategy, at least outside the British Isles. It has been used as a point of reference by (among others) the Communistisch Platform in the Netherlands and the Marxist Unity Group in the USA, while the broader US Cosmonaut site, with which MUG is associated, has carried some criticisms as well. A particular recent example is Steve Bloom’s December 22 2023 criticism of the weight given by MUG authors to democratic republicanism, as a form of “schematism”.6 Arguments influenced by the book have also been offered on the German Communaut blog, and on February 10 2024 it carried a fairly substantial, explicitly ‘anti-partyist’ critique by Robert Schlosser of aspects of the book’s arguments.7

I therefore think it is worthwhile to write responses to Bloom’s and Schlosser’s arguments. Perhaps these will also raise important points and lead to increased clarity. This article will address comrade Bloom’s arguments; a following article will address comrade Schlosser’s.


Steve Bloom’s argument against democratic republicanism as a central political objective of Marxists is ipso facto an argument against ideas I have maintained in the book (and elsewhere), but he does not actually engage with the book or its arguments.

He refers to these only indirectly through a footnote reference to a contribution in discussion at the MUG congress, where he supports his position by reference to his agreement with Rosa Luxemburg, commenting:

I decided it was best to formulate the content of my article as a positive reference to Luxemburg rather than as a negative reference to something said by Macnair - which I am unable to check or document. But I do think it’s important to highlight, for readers of Cosmonaut, the fact that this seems to be an area of disagreement, at least between Macnair and me.

There should, in fact, be no difficulty in checking or documenting my position on the ‘area of disagreement’, since Googling ‘Mike Macnair Luxemburg’ produces as the first hit my 2012 article on Luxemburg, which in turn contains references to the arguments in Revolutionary strategy and elsewhere.8

Comrade Bloom’s non-engagement with Revolutionary strategy is reflected in his core argument that democratic republicanism is a ‘schema’ of the imagined form of a proletarian revolutionary process. This is based on the ideas of his youth, and of my own, in the ‘official’ or ‘Unified Secretariat’ Fourth International (USFI) of 1963-1990.9 The USFI was created by a regroupment of two Trotskyist tendencies in 1963 round the common position, expressed in comrade Bloom’s article, that the Cuban revolution demonstrated that the arguments of Trotskyism had turned into a sectarian schema, and that the essential task of the FI was to be ‘with’ the Cuban ‘revolutionaries of action’: a policy that led the FI to avoid open defence of the Cuban Trotskyists when they were prosecuted for attempting to publish Trotsky’s The revolution betrayed.

In the 1960s this ‘non-schematism’ produced disastrous partial tailing of Che Guevara’s version of ‘prolonged people’s war’ in Latin America, and less catastrophic ‘minority violence’ attempts in Europe. This background body of ideas took the French Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire into the forefront of the student movement of 1967-68 and of the Paris évènements of May 1968, and May 68 led in turn to a theorisation of revolution in Europe in terms of the necessary stage of dual power and the creation of workers’ councils.10

The US SWP dissented, advocating an orientation round ‘democratic rights’ that was closer to that of the Communist Party USA - an approach also adopted in Latin America by the Argentinian Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores led by Nahuel Moreno, which allied with the SWP. In 1974-77 in Portugal the ‘strategy of dual power’ led the USFI majority group to tail the Portuguese Communist Party, while the pro-PST group tailed the Portuguese Socialist Party. Neither could have real political impact. Meanwhile, in 1976 a military coup overthrew the Argentinian constitutional regime, destroying the PST’s perspectives; and in 1979 revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua destroyed the SWP’s strategic conceptions.

Arising out of these failures came the US SWP’s turn to an organisationally sectarian form of ‘official’ communism, which comrade Bloom opposed; and in the 1980s, the FI majority’s (after 1990, just ‘FI’s’) turn to building “parties not programmatically delimited between reform and revolution”, which continues to the present day.

This FI policy has displayed a remarkably consistent lack of success. The ‘non-sectarianism’ of FI organisations and militants has led to them playing the role of left flank guards for ‘official lefts’ of one sort or another, against ‘sectarian’ (meaning more critical) groups; and the ‘official lefts’ go on to betray the FI groups, once their services against ‘sectarian’ lefts are no longer needed. This failure happened most spectacularly in the Brazilian Workers Party and in Italy in Rifondazione Comunista, but much more widely - in Podemos in Spain, for example; and repeatedly in various broad-front projects in Britain.

Comrade Bloom argues:

… scientific socialists do not rely solely or even primarily on our own theories - not even the theories of thinkers with the stature of Marx and Engels - in determining how we should understand and orient ourselves to the world around us. Just like scientists in any field we compare our theories to the actual experiences we have with whatever realities we are theorising about and trying to influence, understanding full well as materialists that experience trumps theory, whenever there is a conflict. We therefore always need to be adjusting our theories based on our experience.

The problem with this argument is not its underlying principle that theories have to be tested against empirical evidence. It is that the disproof by empirical evidence of ‘classical Trotskyism’ stops with the Cuban revolution and goes no further.

In scientific reason, prior theories are disproved by adverse evidence to the extent that a superior theory that explains the data with equal or greater economy of explanatory structures is produced.11 But ‘anti-schematism’ actually refuses to attempt to construct an alternative theory. It operates to deny the possibility of future experimental testing of theories.

The consequence is that anti-schematism itself becomes an untestable or ‘unfalsifiable’ claim. The FI can move as dedicated followers of fashion from Guevarism to ‘organs of dual power’ and the ‘new mass vanguard’, to the Eurocommunist ideas of the Theses on socialist democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat, to the imagination that Gorbachev and Yeltsin represent a leftwards movement, to ‘parties not delimited between reform and revolution’, to ‘eco-socialism’ … without ever being required to critically reassess their past, because to do so would be ‘schematism’.

The book Revolutionary strategy began with the critique of FI politics. It is, as a book, directed to the larger critique of the forced choice allegedly posed to the left between broad-left or popular-front coalitionism, on the one hand, and variants of the mass strike strategy, associated with the ‘revolutionary party’ as a bureaucratic-centralist sect, on the other.

The FI’s ‘non-sectarianism’ in fact entails both: coalitionism through the broad front and alliance with the ‘official lefts’ against their ‘sectarian’ critics, and the bureaucratic-centralist sect in the form of the FI’s own organisations. Witness, recently, the split of the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in December 2022, when the FI people lost their majority control of the party.12

Comrade Bloom polemicises against a part of the argument of Revolutionary strategy - that we should use the old Marx and Engels idea of the ‘democratic republic’ rather than promoting a ‘strategy of dual power’ - without actually engaging with the arguments of the book. These are not, contrary to comrade Bloom, simply going back to pre-1917 ideas. They are based on a negative judgment of the fate of the left, and of a succession of potential ‘revolutionary crises’, in the last 50 years.

The starting point of the book’s argument, in fact is that the defects of unfettered capitalism in the early 21st century are producing not a strengthening of the left, but increasing ascendancy of the nationalist/traditionalist right (pp5‑10). The evolution of politics since 2008 has quite plainly confirmed this judgment. My central explanation of the phenomenon (pp10-19) is that the left today remains in the shadow of the bureaucratic ‘socialist’ regimes and of their failure, or, in the cases of China and Vietnam, their evolution towards openly capitalist regimes. It is quite clear that Cuba under Raul Castro and now Miguel Díaz-Canel has been driven towards a ‘Chinese’ policy in this respect.

From this point of view it is in my opinion clear that the ‘sectarian’ opponents of the USFI in 1963 (Healy, Lambert, Robertson, Wohlforth, etc), and the ‘official communists’ and Maoists, were both right (as against the USFI) in understanding that what was involved in Cuba was an extension of the ‘socialist bloc’, creating a regime of the same type, albeit a bit ‘softer’ than the USSR (as was also true of Yugoslavia): not a ‘third way’. The fact that the ‘sectarian Trotskyists’ did not positively solve the theoretical problem this posed for ‘orthodox Trotskyism’ does not affect this. Hence, comrade Bloom’s USFI argument falls to the ground: the various roads to the extension of the ‘socialist bloc’ led not to the dictatorship of the proletariat (working class rule), but to a blind alley necessarily ending in capitalist restoration.

In my view, this problem requires of today’s left a more systematic re-analysis of where the left comes from, and what should be retained and what discarded in the politics of the three Internationals, as well as the various failed attempts to construct a fourth. The question of democratic republicanism versus the idea that the question of workers’ power can be posed simply through Russian soviets, German or Austrian Räte, and so on, is for me a part of this argument.


Democratic republicanism is, in my view, not a particular constitutional scheme, but a set of principles. These are in the first place republican - that is, founded on the principle of liberty as non-domination - as opposed both to monarchism and other natural-hierarchy ideas, and to the liberal principle of liberty as non-interference. That is, we stand for the idea that no-one should be permanently in a position of authority and no-one permanently in a position of subordination. They are, secondly, democratic: that is, unlike classic republicanism, they do not offer republicanism only for ‘economically independent’ small-farmer or artisan patriarchs, but insist on the inclusion of wage-workers, women and so on.13

These principles are essential to socialism as such, and indeed to fully developed communism - the free association of the producers. The reason is that socialism and communism require of us humans that we take conscious, collective decisions about our productive activities, as opposed to roughly coordinating them through money and markets plus states. Under a non-republican regime, the members of the ‘elite’ are driven to falsify economic information in the interests of gaining or keeping their jobs, and the result is ‘garbage in, garbage out’ in planning. Under a non-democratic regime the excluded are driven to resist, whether at the level of rioting (eg, those without the vote in pre-20th century England) or just of endemic passive-resistance go-slow (which affected the working class and the peasantry in all the bureaucratic ‘socialist’ regimes).

They are also actually needed for the self-organisation of the working class under capitalism. The reason is that liberalism and liberal-designed constitutions for workers’ organisations deliver power to the capitalist class through the usual mechanisms of capitalist control of advertising-funded media, judicial corruption through the ‘free market in legal services’, and ordinary bribery. This is as much true of the Labour Party or trade union constitutions with liberal designs as it is of the general constitutional designs of the so-called “western democracies”. Meanwhile, forms of managerialist Bonapartism - bureaucratic centralism, and so on - in workers’ organisations tend to demobilise the members by blocking them from local and sectoral creativity. The result is organisations of imposing size, but actually hollowed out at the base (and as a result tending to decline in actual size). This is all too visible in the fate of the western labour movements in the last 50 years.

The consequence of this analysis is that comrade Bloom is just plain wrong to argue that “Soviet power in Russia leapt over the stage of the ‘democratic republic’”. The soviets could be an instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat to the extent that they functioned as democratic-republican institutions. (It has to be said that they actually expressed a worker-peasant alliance, because the proletariat was too small a class to take power on its own without an alliance with the peasantry.)

In a series of steps, however, the Bolsheviks-RCP-CPSU stripped the soviets of this character: first by rigging soviet elections in spring-summer 1918 to force through the treaty of Brest-Litovsk against the will of the clear majority; next by theorising this, through the idea that the proletariat is necessarily represented by the party as a minority, at the Second Congress of Comintern; next by bans on soviet parties; then in 1921 by banning factions in the RCP; finally by actually implementing the ban on factions by a double police coup - first against the ‘left’ in late 1927, then against the ‘right’ in early 1929.

The end result is that the proletariat as a class, far from being the power of last resort (dictatorship of the proletariat), is wholly excluded from political power, and ends up actually quasi-enserfed to the factory managers by way of the system of internal passports and the attachment of housing and welfare rights to jobs. The regime becomes a form of Bonapartism. There were still formally soviets, and they still originated as workers’ organisations. But this origin was at the end of the day insignificant.

A second negative aspect is given by the career of the 1918-19 German and Austrian Räte - workers’ organisations thrown up in struggle, but, by deciding to exclude political parties, in practice dominated by the rightwing SPD-Majority in Germany, by the SPÖ in Austria, through their trade union cadre. This pattern is actually the dominant pattern of the history half-expressed in comrade Bloom’s claim that “it’s common for popular assemblies to arise that can already begin to act as alternative governing institutions”. Yes, indeed, such bodies do commonly arise. But it is only momentarily, if at all, that they escape from the dominance of the major political parties.

The other side of the coin is that we can propagandise and agitate for democratic-republican principles without having to wait for mass-strike conditions to arise to pose the issue of soviet-type bodies. We can do so in the state by continuously exposing the undemocratic (plutocratic) character of the liberal or Bonapartist constitutional orders, and raising issues of democratic-republican principle (against monarchism, presidentialism, the judicial power, and so on and so on). We can do so in the workers’ movement by campaigning both against forms of liberal constitutionalism and forms of managerialism/Bonapartism.

The effect of doing so is probably not going to be short-term victories, but to spread the idea as widely as possible that what the bribe-taking media call ‘democracy’ is not democracy at all, and thereby undermine the political legitimacy of the constitutional order. This, in turn, promotes solidarity in concrete class struggles against the media, the judiciary and police, and the political institutions - and in the long run tends to create the conditions in which the rank and file of the armed forces cease to obey orders and the regime can be overthrown. But this tactical use of democratic republicanism is utterly secondary to its use in grasping the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat and assisting in explaining what went wrong in the USSR and its satellites and imitators. (Assisting in explaining - I do not suggest that it is a complete explanation. In particular, my own view - not a CPGB common position - is that the Bonapartist character of the Soviet regime expresses fundamental characteristics of the peasantry as a class.)


Comrade Bloom ends his article by calling on the MUG comrades to take more seriously alternatives to aiming for a party based on a maximum-minimum programme that has democratic-republican ideas at the core of the minimum programme. These alternatives are prolonged people’s war (he does not use the terminology, but calls it the “direct military conquest of power”), as in the Chinese and Cuban revolutions; and the strategy of dual power, which he bases on Rosa Luxemburg’s The mass strike. He does not significantly explore the strategy of prolonged people’s war, but gives more space to the “strategy of dual power”. This is fairly clearly his preferred approach, and this is reflected in his argument earlier in the article that

every case study we have where the call for a new constitution has found a meaningful echo among masses of people involves a tangible social crisis stimulated by some other issue - war, economic crash, military or other dictatorship, struggle of an oppressed people, etc …

The primary programmatic elements that a revolutionary current needs to be focused on if it wants to influence an upsurge of this kind will be those which directly address the injustices that are driving the social crisis itself, whatever they happen to be. The demand for a new constitution is appropriate, even essential, in this context. But it has to be subordinate to, and derived from, all the rest.

This is not a novelty. It was the argument of Mikhail Bakunin in his 1869 critique of the Eisenach programme, that

All the German socialists believe that the political revolution must precede the social revolution. This is a fatal error. For any revolution made before a social revolution will necessarily be a bourgeois revolution ...14

It was part of the argument of Bakuninist-turned-possibilist Paul Brousse against the ‘minimum programme’ drafted by Marx and others in 1880 and adopted by the Parti Ouvrier Français. It was, as Lars T Lih has shown in Lenin rediscovered, at the core of the arguments of the ‘Economists’ against the Iskra tendency in the Russian movement in 1902.

The issue is, again, one of testability. Here it is not just the Mandelite FI which has repeatedly failed with this policy. It has been shared across the far left, including ‘official communists’ and Maoists. Among other problems is the issue of identifying what are the relevant “injustices that are driving the social crisis itself”. The result is in the first place tailism. The movement of the masses absolutely normally begins in places unexpected by the organised left. Hence, rewriting the platform to focus on the specific injustices that have triggered the most recent mass movement necessarily produces following the mass movement.

It is in the second place unavoidable to give central priority to tactical judgments of where the masses are going or about to go. This, in turn, entails cults like those of Tony Cliff’s, or Jack Barnes’s, political ‘nose’. And, because it makes analysis of the conjuncture and tactics central to politics, it makes every serious difference about these issues into a split issue. Here the problem affects open anarchists just as much as ‘New Left’ Trotskyists.

At this point we return to where we began. Comrade Bloom’s reliance on Luxemburg’s The mass strike - in relation to which he referred to one of my casual remarks rather than my published arguments - is actually a commitment to the misconceptions of the post-1956 ‘New Left’, derived by plucking one of Luxemburg’s weaker works out of its larger context and canonising it. A more direct engagement with my arguments against this strategic line might be more productive.

  1. thecommune.wordpress.com/2008/08/29/revolutionary-strategy. This includes extensive exchanges - part being my responses to Broder and other contributors.↩︎

  2. For some reason the relevant issue of Permanent Revolution (No11 or No12) with Esterson’s critique and my response to it is not online at www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/permanent-revolution-group/index.htm. However, since Esterson’s argument was merely the Trotskyist equivalent of ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ (selective quotation plus synthetic indignation) this is not a great loss.↩︎

  3. ‘Succumbing to reformism’ Weekly Worker October 30 2008 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/743/succumbing-to-reformism); my response: ‘Sects, states and soviets’ November 27 2008 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/747/sects-states-and-soviets), and ‘Against philosopher kings’, December 11 2008 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/749/against-philosopher-kings).↩︎

  4. P Cockshott, ‘Democracy or oligarchy?’ Weekly Worker October 8 2009 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/788/democracy-or-oligarchy). A slightly variant version is printed in P Cockshott and D Zachariah Arguments for socialism chapter 13; my response: ‘Socialism is a form of class struggle’ Weekly Worker June 24 2010 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/823/socialism-is-a-form-of-class-struggle) and ‘Representation, not referendums’ July 1 2010 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/824/representation-not-referendums). This was followed by a letter from comrade Cockshott (July 1) and a further response from me, ‘Transition and abundance’ September 2 2010 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/831/transition-and-abundance).↩︎

  5. I am uncertain how far this is merely a British peculiarity. My impression is that it is, but comrades from elsewhere may be able to correct me on this. For what it is worth, my impression is also that it came out of the Cliffite tradition (at the moment at which they banned ‘permanent factions’, purged their oppositions in the early-mid 1970s and took the ‘party turn’, creating the SWP in 1977) and then spread to other groups.↩︎

  6. Communistisch Platform: communisme.nu/leeslijst; MUG: www.marxistunity.com/cadre-curriculum: Cosmonaut: cosmonautmag.com/2023/08/marxist-clarity-in-times-of-confusion-and-despair; critics include G Shaeffer (cosmonautmag.com/2021/06/democracy-and-socialism-the-two-edges-of-marxisms-knife). For Bloom, see cosmonautmag.com/2023/12/the-struggle-for-a-democratic-socialist-republic-and-the-dictatorship-of-the-proletariat. There is a continuing exchange in Cosmonaut.↩︎

  7. communaut.org/. Earlier material is translated at www.angryworkers.org/2022/02/10/the-organisation-debate-communaut; www.angryworkers.org/2024/01/31/dilemma-with-no-way-out.↩︎

  8. ‘Her life and her legacy’ Weekly Worker August 16 2012 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/927/her-life-and-her-legacy). Note 12 there refers to Revolutionary strategy (2008), chapter 2. See also ‘Spontaneity and Marxist theory’ Weekly Worker September 6 2007 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/687/spontaneity-and-marxist-theory), ‘Leading workers by the nose’, September 13 2007 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/688/leading-workers-by-the-nose), and ‘Anarchist origins of general strike slogan’, March 17 2011 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/857/anarchist-origins-of-the-general-strike-slogan).↩︎

  9. I was a member of the British section of the FI from 1974 to the early 1990s. I do not know when Steve joined the US Socialist Workers Party, which was formally a ‘sympathising group’ of the FI because of the US Voorhis Act, but he was a leader of the pro-FI opposition to the US SWP’s 1980s turn to left ‘official’ communism, and after they were purged, of the ‘Fourth Internationalist Tendency’.↩︎

  10. The building of revolutionary parties in capitalist Europe in International Internal Discussion Bulletin Vol 9, No5, November 1972 (www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fi/iidb-1972-76/index.htm). Comrade Bloom imagines that this post-1968 scheme was the one overthrown by the Cuban revolution: “A significant part of the Trotskyist movement, the tradition in which I learned my Marxism, held tightly to the ‘dual power’ model as a schema, and this tended to disorient our thinking when confronted with events like the Chinese and Cuban revolutions.” In reality, the SWP of the late 1950s and early 1960s was engaged in intervention in the beginnings of the US ‘New Left’.↩︎

  11. See, for instance, R Bhaskar A realist theory of science London 1975.↩︎

  12. Statements from both sides are translated at fourth.international/en/europe/491.↩︎

  13. Eg, ‘Republicanism and Marxism’, May 29 2003 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/482/republicanism-and-marxism). There is a good deal more literature on the civic republicanism of Marx and Engels published since then, wholly independent of my arguments - most recently Bruno Leipold’s forthcoming Citizen Marx. See also communistuniversity.uk/individual-liberty-and-class-power.↩︎

  14. libcom.org/article/critique-german-social-democratic-program-mikhail-bakunin.↩︎