Casper David Friedrich ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’ (1818)

Rising above the smog

Dual power and the mass strike is a failed strategy that directly leads to today’s endlessly fragmented ‘far left’. Instead we need a mass Communist Party and a strategy of republican democracy. Mike Macnair replies to Steve Bloom

This is in response to comrade Steve Bloom’s article, ‘Continuing a conversation’ (Weekly Worker May 30). There is considerable obscurity in this discussion, so that significant disentangling is involved before we can get to clarity about the issues.

To start with, it would be nice to be able to just concede comrade Bloom’s arguments about who is guilty of ‘sloppy method’, but to do so would miss important substantive points of difference. Comrade Bloom’s original Cosmonaut article posed the issue of a mass-strike or ‘dual power’ approach to the question of power as an alternative to what he regards as the Marxist Unity Group’s “schema” of fighting for the democratic republic as the form of workers’ power. He footnoted the Luxemburg reference as follows:

I thought to include this reference to Luxemburg because in his comments to the recent MUG national congress Mike Macnair criticised Luxemburg’s approach, explaining that by itself a mass strike cannot solve the question of political power. That’s certainly true, but it strikes me as also quite beside the point. I have since listened again to the talk Macnair gave to the congress, which is available here, however, and do not find the reference. So I assume his comments about Luxemburg were in response to something raised in the question and discussion period. Without access to the video of that discussion 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.

In my original response to comrade Bloom (‘Deal with the arguments’ Weekly Worker February 22) I made the point that Googling ‘“Mike Macnair” Luxemburg’ would produce as the first hit in response my 2012 article on the modern far left’s use of Luxemburg, so that it is hard to see how comrade Bloom was “unable to check or document” my views on the issue. In addition, his polemic against MUG’s use of a ‘democratic republic’ perspective is in itself a polemic against my arguments in the book Revolutionary strategy, which MUG routinely use as one of their points of reference.

The effect is that comrade Bloom argues that MUG are guilty of ‘schematism’ for failing to give sufficient weight to the mass-strike and dual power perspective as a road to workers’ power; but he does not engage with the arguments explicitly against that perspective found in Revolutionary strategy, which MUG use as a reference point, or in my Luxemburg article, which would be found on a first attempt to “check or document” my oral comment on Luxemburg at the MUG convention. Actual disagreement can provoke debate, but to be useful it needs to engage with the arguments.

My argument has two sides to it. The first, in Revolutionary strategy, is that either an all-out general strike or a spontaneous mass strike wave dislocates the economy. In consequence, it immediately poses the question of what decision-making mechanisms alternative to capitalism will be used to overcome this dislocation. The spontaneous appearance of local workers’ councils quite plainly does not do the job: witness umpteen examples, but very strikingly the Austrian Räte (workers’ councils) calls on the leadership of the Social Democratic Party in 1918-19 to take planning decisions that would allow the local factories, etc, to keep running. (Of course, the SPÖ leadership, fearful of civil war and Italian intervention, told them to hand power back to the capitalists).1 The Russian case is equally an example: it was the emergency-management ‘planning’ of Sovnarkom, the government set up in October 1917, which allowed bare survival of the Russian economy after the collapse of 1917. The usual consequence is that demoralisation leads to the return of power to capital.

The flipside of this point, which is not in Revolutionary strategy, is about the lessons of the Soviet experience itself. This is that planning without republicanism (that is, that republicanism demands that managers cannot be permanently in post), and without political democracy, produces incentives to managers and officials to lie to keep their jobs, leading in turn to ‘garbage in, garbage out’ in the plan, ‘planning irrationalities’ and mass demoralisation on a much deeper level.

The second point, which is in my 2012 Luxemburg article that comrade Bloom was “unable to check or document”, is that the mass-strike strategy naturally entails a tendency to the production of small bureaucratic-centralist sects. In this respect Luxemburg and Jogiches’ Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, not Bolshevism, is the model of today’s endlessly splintered bureaucratic-centralist ‘far left’ groups. The reason is that the tasks given to the party by this conception are tasks of tactical leadership, which are inconsistent with permitting effective autonomy to local groups or sectoral fractions.

Comrade Bloom in ‘Continuing a conversation’ argues:

… the mass strike/dual power phenomenon has, in fact, generated the potential for socialist revolution multiple times during the history of the 20th and even the 21st century, but without effectively leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat, because a revolutionary leadership for the mass strike was lacking. Thus the absence of widespread success cannot reasonably be attributed to a flaw in the theory that this is one possible road to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But the problem posed is: what would be “a revolutionary leadership for the mass strike”? The answer, in fact, is that such a leadership would have to offer a political project for the society as a whole - not a mass-strikist project.

Witness positively Bolshevism, which had pursued an electoral path in 1912 and pursued an electoral path - again - in 1917 in the soviets (and in local elections), down to the moment at which, judging that they had a majority together with their allies, they kicked out the remaining Provisional Government in October. Witness negatively every single other case of a broad mass-strike movement with the presence of a far-left group or groups aiming to apply a dual-power strategy.

USFI’s failure

I went on to argue that comrade Bloom’s ‘anti-schematism’ was the common coin of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International’s response to the Cuban revolution, in the 1960s - but that this ‘anti-schematist’ response produced practical political tailism - albeit the people tailed by the FI majority and by the US Socialist Workers Party - the Argentinian Partido Socialista de los Trabajadores and their co-thinkers were different. I argued that the problem with comrade Bloom’s argument is that, as a matter of scientific method, “the disproof by empirical evidence of ‘classical Trotskyism’ stops with the Cuban revolution and goes no further”.

Comrade Bloom responded in his letter (April 18) that he

spent two decades (more or less) in the leadership of the FI, starting in the mid-1980s. During this time the FI majority launched what turned out to be a disastrous orientation toward building “broad mass parties” rather than what was characterised as the “sectarian” kind of cadre organisations we had been focused on in the past. I think Mike and I would have a similar balance sheet on this experience, which has essentially led to the liquidation of the FI as a principled revolutionary formation.

I believe I generated a pretty substantial record during the time I was part of the international leadership, attempting to combat the errors being made in one country after another, calling for balance-sheet discussions and more. But that’s not the main issue of concern for us today. Mike is correct to note that the turn toward “broad mass parties” was promoted in the name of rejecting the “schematism” of the FI’s historical self-conception. But a wrong turn by the FI majority in the name of combating schematism hardly justifies a subsequent rejection of any and all efforts to combat it.

I replied (Letters, April 25), making casually the point that in the 1980s-90s I was not aware of comrade Bloom’s opposition, because of the anti-democratic organisational practice of the leadership of the British section of the FI. I also (and more substantively) said:

… the polemic in my article (‘Deal with the arguments’, February 22) was not mainly about the 1980s-2000s, but that comrade Bloom’s argument for ‘anti-schematism’ was the common view of his and my own youth in the 1960s-70s USFI and its response - which he cited - to the Cuban revolution. And my article argued that this response can be seen from the subsequent history to have been false, and that ‘anti-schematism’ already produced false results in the period in which the FI majority pursued diluted Guevarism in the late 1960s-early 1970s, and in the period of the idea of the strategy of dual power and the ‘new mass vanguard’ developed after May 1968 in France, which reached a dead end in Portugal in 1974-76, before the mid-late 1980s turn to ‘parties not delimited between reform and revolution’. Comrade Bloom does not respond to these arguments, or to my point about scientific method, that “anti-schematism itself becomes an untestable or ‘unfalsifiable’ claim”.

Comrade Bloom responded to these points in his May 30 article (‘Continuing a conversation’) by turning back on me the criticism of ‘sloppy method’ in my original article:

I am ‘guilty’ (if that is the right word) of not being aware of Mike’s collected works and, therefore, failing to check them for a relevant quote about Rosa Luxemburg before I submitted my original article to Cosmonaut.

I do not in the least expect comrade Bloom to be “aware of Mike’s collected works”. But he in the first place said that he was “unable to check or document” my views on Luxemburg orally expressed, which would be found in writing in the first hit of a Google search; and he polemicises against MUG’s ‘schematist’ failure to take the mass-strike perspective seriously, while not following up the arguments the MUG themselves cite against the mass-strike perspective.

In contrast, comrade Bloom argues that “Mike, for his part, is likewise ‘guilty’ of not being aware of my role in opposition to the ‘broad mass party’ line, while I was part of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International leadership starting in the 1980s. Mike, too, could easily have discovered this.”

However, this simply fails to address my April 25 point that the “polemic in my [February 22] article was not mainly about the 1980s-2000s, but that comrade Bloom’s argument for ‘anti-schematism’ was the common view of his and my own youth in the 1960s-70s USFI and its response - which he cited - to the Cuban revolution”.

Comrade Bloom comes to a point of substance when he argues that “Mike needs to remember that the trajectory of the US Socialist Workers Party during the 1960s and 70s, in which I got my training as a young activist, was not the same as what he lived through ‘in the 1960s-70s USFI’.” But I said, explicitly, that the common response of both the ‘International Secretariat’ majority and the SWP to the Cuban revolution, which grounded the 1963 ‘reunification’ of the USFI, was ‘anti-schematist’ and as such and logically led to political tailism. During the 1970s, the SWP and its co-thinkers tailed Fatah on the Palestine question and the ANC on South Africa, characterising the FI majority’s support for left critics of these nationalist leaderships as ultra-left. In the Portuguese revolution of 1974-76, while the FI majority tailed the Communist Party of Portugal and the Maoists in their support for leftist officers in the Armed Forces Movement, the SWP and the Morenistas tailed the Portuguese Socialist Party’s call for a government based on the Constituent Assembly. Tailism thus affected both sides of the USFI - although, apart from both sides tailing the Cubans, they chose different political actors to be tailed.


I argue that the concept of ‘schematism’ as a negative judgment on political projects is useless and anti-scientific, because the ‘anti-schematist’ analysis forces untestability, since a ‘non-schematic’ analysis, being essentially agnostic, can make no claims that might be testable. Comrade Bloom says: “I admit that I am perplexed by this assertion.”

The question is: what is the difference between a schema (bad thing) and a hypothesis, or (better) a building plan, an engineering design, or a medical treatment plan (all good things)? In his original critique of MUG on the topic, comrade Bloom wrote:

What is ‘schematism’? It’s a process of thought which elevates our theoretical models (schemas) of what we expect a social process to look like and thereby blinds us to a proper assessment and understanding of whatever real processes might actually unfold in life, since revolutions in the real world generally fail to match our theoretical expectations. The clearest historical illustration is ‘third-camp’ currents, which, after 1959, considered the Cuban revolution and said: ‘These events do not fit the model that our theory tells us a socialist revolution should adhere to. We therefore conclude that this is not a socialist revolution …’

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.

What comrade Bloom actually proposes, therefore - “We … always need to be adjusting our theories based on our experience” (my emphasis) is in fact empiricism without theory, because a theory that is always being adjusted to “experience” is not even a hypothesis. In my February 22 article, I wrote:

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. But ‘anti-schematism’ actually refuses to attempt to construct an alternative theory. It operates to deny the possibility of future experimental testing of theories.

And on the specific case of Cuba, I wrote:

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 his last article, comrade Bloom asks:

Was the international Trotskyist movement, when confronted with the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, stuck in a schema of the Russian model (soviet power) as the one and only true road to the dictatorship of the proletariat, yes or no?

The answer to this question is clear from the passage just quoted from my previous article: No.

Pre-1948 Trotskyism was not “a schema of the Russian model (soviet power) as the one and only true road to the dictatorship of the proletariat”. Trotsky personally and explicitly polemicised against the fetishism of the soviet model both in In defence of October, and in his writings on the Spanish revolution. The FI was an organisation founded on the decisions of the first four congresses of Comintern, plus rejection of ‘socialism in one country’ and ‘national roads to socialism’ and of the people’s front project, and the assertion of ‘permanent revolution’, meaning that the democratic revolution against colonialism, fascism, etc would inherently pose the question of the socialist revolution; and ‘political revolution’ - ie, the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship in the USSR, while preserving the nationalisations, the state monopoly of foreign trade, and the plan.

The post-war extension of the ‘socialist bloc’ produced an extremely widespread belief on the left that Trotskyism was simply wrong, and ‘official communism’ with the people’s front, socialism in one country and national roads to socialism was right. Trotskyism was marginalised; and a good many former Trotskyists went over to ‘official communism’. Cuba was another such case. This was a scientifically defensible approach: it treated Trotskyism as a hypothesis or plan of action that had been disproved. The trouble with this view today is that (unless you believe China is a ‘socialist country’) ‘official communism’ as a hypothesis or plan of action has now also been disproved by the fall of the ‘socialist camp’.

An alternative scientifically defensible response was to offer some explanation of the expansion of the ‘socialist camp’ that did not amount to its being a road to the global dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism. A wide variety of such explanations were offered, some of which were ‘third camp’ ones (as comrade Bloom puts it), while others (eg, James Robertson and Shane Mage of what became the Spartacists) were not. This was also a scientifically defensible response: it offered theoretical explanations for the unpredicted phenomena. Most of these theories were also disproved by the fall of the ‘socialist camp’.

What was not a scientifically defensible response was the common position of the USFI - to ‘recognise’ Cuba as a ‘socialist revolution’, but not to give a theoretical explanation of what, in this case, had to be rejected in Trotskyism as a hypothesis or plan of action. This was to substitute a commitment to agnosticism, which logically entailed tailism.

Comrade Bloom asks:

Was a majority of the Bolshevik Party, at the start of the April 1917 congress, stuck (for the moment, at least) in the schema that the Russian Revolution must, inevitably, pass through the stage of a ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ (by which the Bolsheviks meant a bourgeois-democratic dictatorship), yes or no?

The answer is plainly ‘no’, irrespective of comrades’ views of Lars T Lih’s work on April 1917, arguing that it was not a fundamental reorientation (which comrade Bloom rejects), because, as Lenin put it in 1919,

Our victory was made easier by the fact that in October 1917 we marched with the peasants, with all the peasants. In that sense, our revolution at that time was a bourgeois revolution. The first step taken by our proletarian government was to embody in a law promulgated on October 26 (old style) 1917, on the next day after the revolution, the old demands of all the peasants, which peasant soviets and village assemblies had put forward under Kerensky. That is where our strength lay; that is why we were able to win the overwhelming majority so easily. As far as the countryside was concerned, our revolution continued to be a bourgeois revolution, and only later, after a lapse of six months, were we compelled within the framework of the state organisation to start the class struggle in the countryside, to establish Committees of Poor Peasants, of semi-proletarians, in every village, and to carry on a methodical fight against the rural bourgeoisie.2

In 1921, of course, the government had to back off from the “methodical fight against the rural bourgeoisie” in face of peasant resistance. But it is clear that the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ was a workable strategic line for a country that was between 70% and 80% peasant and only about 5% proletarian;3 and the adjustments made in April, as Lenin’s 1919 comment shows, did not amount to the abandonment of this strategic line. If the Bolsheviks had started with principled agnosticism about the shape of the revolution, like the USFI’s common response to Cuba, they would not have got far enough before 1917 for their adjustments in 1917 to matter.

This relates to a point in comrade Bloom’s original Cosmonaut articles that I did not address in my reply. In his September 2023 article, ‘A practical roadmap for the workers’ movement in taking political power’, he said:

In Russia, for example, the expropriation of the expropriators began before the October revolution - especially in the countryside - and the mass political mobilisation of the workers and peasants that was the basis of that revolution depended on this process of economic expropriation as an essential stimulus.4

But the peasant land seizures in summer-autumn 1917 were in substance a jacquerie against the landlord class, like 1789-91 in France, establishing private (peasant) property - as Lenin put it, a bourgeois revolution. They were not a measure of socialisation or the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’, which referred to the expropriation of capital after capital itself had previously expropriated the peasants and artisans.


Comrade Bloom offers three reasons for characterising the liberal-constitutionalist regimes of the ‘west’ as “bourgeois democracy” rather than, as I do, as liberal regimes, mixed constitutions or plutocratic oligarchies. The first is the working class’s interest in the difference between liberal and authoritarian regimes. The second is that the word, ‘democracy’, is taken by broad masses to mean the liberal-constitutionalist regimes of the ‘west’, and using it in any other way would involve more or less elaborate explanations. The third is that not using the term, ‘bourgeois democracy’, cuts us off from the usage of the left: “Without it no-one can properly comprehend the previous history of the Marxist movement. It is a concept/term that underlies a great many of the discussions and debates that have taken place over the last century and a half.”

To take these points in reverse order. The “century and a half” is flatly mistaken. The ‘bourgeois democracy’ usage appears around 1900 - most clearly in Karl Kautsky’s The social revolution and the day after the social revolution.5 This usage cuts us off from the prior usage of ‘democracy’ by Marx, Engels and others. It also cuts us off from the classical conceptions of ‘democracy’, as in Aristotle - or, for that matter, Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, which the USA certainly is not. Yes, we should recognise the changed usage of the left. But we should do so with caution, not treat it as dispositive.

Second, the mass confusion round the meaning of ‘democracy’ and the need to explain our usage is no different - as comrade Bloom himself says - from the case of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (working class rule over the bourgeoisie and middle classes in the transition to socialism). And it is also no different from the cases of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’, both of which are currently taken by broad masses to mean the bureaucratic regimes of the ‘Soviet bloc’ before 1991. We cannot escape the need to fight for our own interpretation of the meaning of words.

Third. Comrade Bloom’s first reason for using ‘bourgeois democracy’ is that:

‘Bourgeois democracy’ is, indeed, ‘democratic’, if we are making a comparison to other forms of bourgeois rule - fascism or military dictatorship. The difference between a capitalist class that rules by ‘democratic’ means and one that relies on brute force is not trivial. It is worth fighting for in the streets, because things like the right to free speech, to assemble in mass demonstrations, to run candidates in elections, to create labour unions and other mass organisations - genuine democratic rights that characterise ‘bourgeois democracy’ (and only ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a form of bourgeois class rule) - are important for us, as we struggle to make the socialist revolution.

The trouble is that this approach - which is absolutely standard among Trotskyists - confuses the interests of the working class with those of the capitalist class and flattens what are very varying degrees to which capitalist regimes permit these rights. Yes, the working class certainly needs free speech, freedom of assembly, the right to stand in elections and freedom of association (and a whole load of other ‘pro-democratic’ rights too). But the extent to which ‘bourgeois democracies’ allow these rights is variable.

Trade unions were legalised in Britain in 1875, in the USA in 1935. Before then criminal prosecution was commonplace; in the USA, the violence of the ‘Pinkerton men’ was another repressive measure. McCarthyism in the 1950s, and today the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt, deny freedom of speech. The coming general election in the UK, called at short notice, denies many leftists the right to stand in elections under party names, because the electoral commission, created by the Blair government, sets up elaborate bureaucratic hoops to register (and simply bans some parties from standing under their own name, like the CPGB and the Socialist Party in England and Wales, while refusing to give reasons unless these parties are willing to spend £70,000-£100,000 in judicial review costs). And this is much less restrictive than the ballot access laws in the USA. And so on.

Conversely, dictatorial regimes may allow small loopholes, through which the workers’ movement may crawl to defend its interests. The tsarist regime is a classic example, but there were also many cases in the military regimes of the ‘cold war’ period.

It is merely confusing to give the name, ‘bourgeois democracy’, to the concessions of legality and rights of one sort or another that the working class has extorted from the capitalist class. We have to fight clearly and unambiguously for our interest in political democracy.

  1. Referenced at various points in O Bauer The Austrian revolution London 1925.↩︎

  2. ‘Report on bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat’ First Congress of the Comintern.↩︎

  3. D Moon, ‘Estimating the peasant population of late imperial Russia from the 1897 census: a research note’ Europe-Asia Studies Vol 48 (1996), pp141-53 (the variation depends on the definition of ‘peasant’). According to encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/labour_russian_empire, the proletariat had nine million of a total population in 1914 of 164 million, which would be around 5%.↩︎

  4. cosmonautmag.com/2023/09/a-practical-roadmap-for-the-workers-movement-in-taking-political-power↩︎

  5. It is not, in fact, Kautsky’s consistent usage. See B Lewis (trans) Karl Kautsky on democracy and republicanism Chicago 2020.↩︎