International or national socialism?

Jack Conrad damns all attempts to build national socialism in the epoch of global capitalism

Many comrades in the workers’ movement are haunted by the increasing global-isation of capital. From reformists to revolutionaries all the traditional British lefts feel threatened. Old Labourism - internal as Bennism, external as Scargillism; rheumy-eyed ‘official communism’ huddled around the Morning Star; beleaguered trade union syndicalists and strikists; Peter Taaffe in the Socialist Party and Tommy Sheridan in the breakaway Scottish Militant Labour; the pro-Labour sects, Socialist Workers Party, etc, would, if only they could, turn back the march of history.

The world has been joined into a single metabolism. Capital’s need for unlimited expansion sends it hunting far and wide. No country, no person remains untouched. Raw materials come back to the metropoles in enormous quantities from the most distant places. Commodities are produced across frontiers and sold to a world consumer. Global economy and global ecology mercilessly punish antiquated and blinkered notions of local exclusiveness and isolation. Humanity is interdependent. Exploitation links workers everywhere. They still speak national languages, but mutual conditions, their radical chains, make them a world-class. In the stirring battle cry of the Communist manifesto the emancipation of the workers requires a world revolution, the “forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 6, Moscow 1976, p519).

Yet though these developments are objectively progressive they utterly confound and fatally undermine programmes for instituting socialism within, through or over a single national class state. Owing everything to Otto von Bismarck and Alfred Marshall, nothing to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, national socialism was from its origins palpably anti-socialism. But nowadays - albeit Russian, Chinese, German, British, or Scottish - it is also the socialism of fools.

Much to the chagrin of our national socialists, neither a Stalin-type command economy nor the social democratic state any longer represent a coherent alternative to existing neo-liberal capitalism - interestingly showing the Labour-isation of the SWP, Chris Harman recently mounted a gallant national socialist defence of “old fashioned” trade unionism and “reformist governments” (International Socialism No73, winter 1996).

Capital never rests. It ceaselessly revolutionises the means and circumstances of production. What was useful in the 1950s must be swept aside in the 1990s. Nationalised industries become, or are absorbed by, giant transnationals, are snuffed out in the gale of international competition or are left to rot in hopeless obsolescence. The irresistible dynamic of global capital erodes and eventually prevails over even the immovable might of the most authoritarian ‘socialist’ state. Universal money subverts the anti-cosmopolitan nomenclature. The cornucopia of commodities lure every strata into support for democratic counterrevolution. Neither KGB nor Berlin Wall can save the national socialist dystopia. To preserve its power the bureaucratic elite must become bourgeois. Seclusion and self-sufficiency implodes before the capitalist mode of production.

Within neo-liberal establishment circles ‘globalisation’ is more than the latest buzz word. It serves as an ideological drug to lull workers into acceptance of permanent wage-slavery. In a world where capital is meant to be stateless and comprehensively mobile, wage and other demands on governments for improved conditions are patronisingly and poisonously attacked as self-defeating. Higher subsistence levels, or so the story goes, will simply see capital packing its bags and moving off to where labour power is dirt cheap: Burma, Mexico, Indonesia. Hence, the apologists of capital insist, ideas of launching a socialist challenge to the system and its logic are a chimera.

We do not, for one moment, accept the new-old ‘iron law of wages’ theory peddled by the academic whores of capital - like the nonsense about complete automation and Artificial Intelligence - it is a fiction invented in order to sustain the socially constructed image of a capitalism without history and without end. Through class struggle gains can undoubtedly be won. Capital cannot locate just anywhere. Even amongst the transnationals production and sales rely predominantly on the home country. Moreover supplies of “skilled workers and efficient infrastructures” are vital (J Stopford and S Strange Rival states, rival firms Cambridge 1991, p1).

The self-serving economic determinism of the neo-liberals is not only contemptible - morally and intellectually - it makes an easy target for those wanting to rescue the flailing reformist project. A good example is Ron Bellamy’s ‘Fighting the myth of globalisation’ article in the Morning Star; published over the three days of June 25, 26 and 27 1997 (he subsequently defended his case against a hapless critic in an August 8 letter). By setting-up and duly knocking down absurd and crude formulations, in general from unnamed people and/or institutions, Bellamy gives the kiss-of-life to ‘official’ communism’s cadaverous version of national socialism - the British road to socialism.

Evidently the modern state is not “powerless”. Nor do transnational companies exist in mid-air detached from “country” (Morning Star June 25 1997). Ford is rooted in the US, BMW in Germany and Toyota in Japan. These mighty states have a long and very effective record of ruthlessly defending their transnationals at home and abroad. “At least 20 companies in the 1993 Fortune 100 would not have survived at all as independent companies if they had not been saved by their respective governments in the last decade and a half” (W Ruigrok and R van Tulder The logic of international restructuring London 1995, p218). Neither does it follow that within the framework of the global market “national agents and governments have no role” (Morning Star June 26 1997). Diverse they may be but the Bank of England, the CIA and the Communist Party of China are far from irrelevant when it comes to producing and reproducing capital.

Despite Bellamy’s pretensions, common sense tells us that there is no “world state”, nor a non-national “world capitalist” (Morning Star June 27 1997). NATO, the UN and the EU are by definition intra-state organisations. “Where are the armies, police forces, courts and prisons” of the world capitalist state? Bellamy artlessly inquires. What of a supra-national capitalist class? Most boards of transnationals are mono-national. Alan Sugar, Bill Gates and Silvio Berlusconi are respectively British, American and Italian. And, yes, seen from that angle capital is “owned by capitalists of one state which they export from their own nation state to others” (Letters Morning Star August 8 1997).

Furthermore, capital cannot spread evenly throughout the world. There is, Bellamy triumphantly points out, a strong regional bias. Most exports and investments are between capitalistically advanced countries. For instance, in the early 1990s three-quarters of British overseas direct investments were concentrated in North America, the EU and Japan.

Bellamy also rightly stresses that “though there are new features”, international or global capital, in the sense of capital being exported from one country to another, is in itself “no way new” (Morning Star June 25 1997). Just prior to World War I, when Britain was at its imperial zenith, investments abroad amounted to 13% of GDP - roughly the same as today. Between 1880 and 1913 British overseas capital increased fourfold to some £4 billion - “total income from foreign investments reached close on £200 million” (R Palme Dutt The crisis of Britain and the British Empire London 1957, p76). And I might add that international trade in commodity capital considerably pre-dates industrial capitalism and the inventions of Newcomen and Watt, Cugnot and Fulton (see F Braudel The wheels of commerce Berkley 1992).

The neo-liberals indulge in hyperbole. So too does Bellamy. The neo-liberals maintain that the state is powerless. This excuses dismantling the social democratic consensus. Bellamy in turn maintains that because globalisation has been much exaggerated by the neo-liberals, ipso facto the existing state can be used as the vehicle for his neo-Keynesian alternative economic strategy and in due course a British socialism. He needs a non-global capitalism to justify this programme.

There is, as the noted Marxist thinker István Mészáros suggests, a “mismatch” between capital’s material reproductive structures and its state (I Mészáros Beyond capital London 1995, p65). National capital is by definition tied up with the national state. But as freely admitted above global capital has no state formations proper. Nevertheless global capital exerts itself, albeit “in an extremely contradictory form” (ibid p68). Capital exists as a single world metabolism, but within a system of national states. Capital by its own logic demands the unlimited exploitation of labour. The national state cannot do this observes Mészáros - neither economically nor politically. Therefore other solutions are sought out ... at enormous cost in terms of human suffering. This sorry century has already witnessed two world wars, the rise, decline and rise again of imperialist parasitism, the capitalist national socialism of Adolf Hitler, and the post-capitalist national socialism of JV Stalin.

In this last named context Bellamy transparently entertains another, unstated, agenda. Implicitly the national socialism of the USSR, despite its abject failure, is exonerated - along with his own record as one of its toadying propagandists. Stalin’s USSR - naturally minus its proletarian and revolutionary genesis - actually remains Bellamy’s model. Total nationalisation for Bellamy and many others, Trotskyites included, is monstrously equated with socialism or/and a workers’ state. The result can be run bureaucratically or democratically but “property relations” are for the national socialist school the bottom line. Such a viewpoint not only involves mangling Marxist theory. It is an unsolicited gift for capital’s paid persuaders. The USSR’s terror, mass oppression, censorship, gulags, irrationality and poverty are turned into a living warning. This is what happens if you workers dare interfere with the natural order!

Bellamy is mindful of those left labour bureaucrats who after nearly two decades of Tory governments now look to the EU in the forlorn hope of salvation. In the attempt to return them to the true national socialist fold he cites figures showing that the UK government spends 56 times more on goods and services than the Jacques Delors proposed job creation programme for the EU: £2,300 per head as opposed to £41 per head. Bellamy concludes that reformist social change via the EU is a fantasy. Not only would “scrapping the Rome Treaty” be necessary, but a “majority of left national governments” on the Council of Ministers. “How long should the people of one country wait for that?” Bellamy asks, “when they can obtain their own left government”. A British socialism that weakens “transnational big businesses”, pulls out of the EU and restores welfare, would, he sincerely believes, inspire others and thereby prove to be the most effective form of “international solidarity” (Morning Star August 8 1997).

We have seen on numerous occasions what follows reformist experiments in national socialism. They are hardly inspirational. Spain in the mid-1930s and Chile in the early 1970s ended in bloody tragedy. France in the mid-1930s and then again in early 1980s saw a flight of capital and an almost instant programmatic reversal. Theoreticians of national socialism explain away history by insisting that the state’s powers to impose restrictions over capital were not used forcefully enough. Harman doubtless imagines he is very bold when he appendixes a call for “direct action of workers from below” to prevent actions by capital designed to “sabotage attempts to improve the condition of the mass of the people” (International Socialism No73, winter 1996). Suffice to say one only need refer to the British road to socialism to appreciate how far to the right the man has moved. Only “in the long run” would an attempt to supersede capitalism in one country “succumb to its pressures” he now argues (my emphasis, International Socialism No73, winter 1996).

By imposing authoritarian restrictions on capital - or even by abolishing capital negatively - the isolated revolutionary regime might well survive for some considerable time. However in so doing it inevitably and very quickly becomes its opposite - a freak society like Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. Year zero marks not the birth of real civilisation but horrendous barbarism. No single country - not even the richest - has within it the means necessary to positively supersede capital. Individual capitalists can be expropriated through a political revolution. But creating a sustainable and dynamic alternative mode of production is a universal task.

The fundamental mistake made by Bellamy and other national socialists is the notion that capital is a thing - money, mines, factories, food, jewels - in the grip of a class of very wealthy individuals. Ownership for them is all. In this way the modern capitalist class is, so it is said, no different from the ancient slaveowner or the feudal lord. Remove them from the levers of the state, take away their property, and hey presto there is no capitalism. Marx held all such ‘socialist’ magic in contempt. The idea that we “need capital, but not capitalists is altogether wrong” he explained. “It is posited within the concept of capital that the objective conditions of labour - and these are its own product - take on a personality towards it” (K Marx Grundrisse Harmondsworth 1973, p512).

Capital is no mere thing - like land or chattels - but a “social relationship” whereby alienated, dead, labour dominates and feeds off living labour. Capital is in essence subject-less. It is its own cause. Its determination runs from capital to the capitalist not the other way round. The individual owner is no more than the personification of an exploitative relationship; a relationship that can be assumed by anonymous fundmanagers, a friendly cooperative or Bellamy’s reformist state. Production under capitalism is separate from control. Production is not about satisfying wants. Production takes place for the sake of production. In this subjectless system capital’s objective requirement for unlimited self-expansion must overcome the subjective wishes of any of its personifications. Thereby control is alienated from everyone. Decision making simply becomes finding ways to allow capital to expand. Profits have to be realised. Accumulation must proceed. Either that or face certain extinction. The personification is in actual fact controlled by the system.

Capital has to be superseded in its totality and replaced by an open ended communist totality. Without the positive supersession of the capitalist society’s division of labour and the domination of living labour by dead labour the power of capital will reassert itself. That is why for Marxists though the workers revolution starts politically on the terrain of the national state the content of our project is to bring the product of humanity back to humanity. What decides the matter is control. Does control over the worker continue to be the unlimited self-expansion of dead labour? Or do the associated producers control the products of work and thereby stop being workers?

Mészáros puts it this way:

“Any attempt to gain control over capital by treating it as a ‘material thing’ tied to a ‘simple relation’ with its private owner - instead of instituting a sustainable alternative to its dynamic process ‘in whose various movements it is always capital’ - can only result in catastrophic failure. No juridical device can by itself remove capital from the social metabolic process as the necessary command over labour under the historically long prevailing and after the revolution unavoidably inherited circumstances. It is not possible to restitute the alienated power of command over labour to labour itself by simply targeting the private capitalist personification of capital, but only by replacing the established ‘organic system’ as the all-embracing and dominating controller of societal reproduction” (I Mészáros Beyond capital London 1995, p610).

We communists take capital at its most advanced and mature as our real point of departure. If capital is grasped as a relationship then questions such as whether or not General Motors remains American, or the degree to which governments can fix exchange rates stand revealed as secondary at best or else nothing more than smelly red herrings. For Marx and Engels there could be no socialism in one country because socialism must break out of capitalism positively, an outcome “which presupposed the universal development of the productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them”. The capital relationship cannot be positively superseded within the narrow framework of the national state. It exists at the level of the world market and world economy - and here and only here are the necessary material conditions for socialism and communism. That is why in the German ideology, written way back in 1845, Marx and Engels savaged all notions of national socialism.

Universal development produces in all countries a mass of propertyless workers and makes “each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others”.  If by foolish design or unfortunate accident the workers’ revolution remained national all that would happen is that “want is merely made general, and with it the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored”. So “empirically”, communism is only possible as the “act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once’ and simultaneously” (original emphasis K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 5, Moscow 1976, p49).

Socialism - as the stage of revolutionary transition between capitalism and communism - must and can only be the act of a world class. National or local socialism spells disaster. International socialism spells human liberation ... and that is what we inscribe on our banner.

On we march then, we the workers, and the rumour that ye hear

“Is the blended sound of battle and deliv’rance drawing near;

“For the hope of every creature is the banner that we bear,

And the world is marching on.” (William Morris 1885)