Trotskyite economism or revolutionary democracy?

Jack Conrad (CPGB) and Dave Craig (RDG, faction of the SWP) reply to Ian Donovan, editor of Revolution and Truth

For communists the main theoretical issue raised by comrade Donovan’s welcome article (‘Fundamentally flawed’ Weekly Worker July 23) is that of programme and programmatic method.

Ends determine means and means determine ends. Comrade Donovan utterly fails to grasp the necessity of democracy for the working class - both under capitalism and socialism - as a means and an end. However, without fighting for democracy the workers can never form themselves into a class, let alone a ruling class. Democracy is not just a good idea, an add-on luxury. It is essential for self-liberation. No democracy, no socialism. That is why comrade Donovan has such difficulty with the derisive term ‘bureaucratic socialism’ when we attach it to the Soviet Union. It is, comrade, a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron, which, yes, accurately describes the paradoxical reality of the Soviet Union under Stalin onwards. In the name of socialism the bureaucracy ruled.

The Soviet Union has definitively travelled from heroic beginnings to a pathetic grave. Instead of studying this highly complex historical phenomenon, discovering and laying bare the innate laws and mounting contradictions that drove the system forward to destruction, comrade Donovan simply repeats the talmudic-like dogmas he learnt in the 1980s school of the Spartacist League (ie, economistic Trotskyism). Apparently because of ‘socialist property forms’ - ie state property - the Soviet Union retained a permanent organic relationship with the October Revolution.

Guided by his Trotskyite economism, the comrade thereby concludes that the Soviet Union was some sort of a workers’ state, some type of socialism throughout its fleeting existence. Evidently he confuses form with content. Whatever the ideological trappings and constitutional flimflam, the plain fact is that the workers exercised no democratic - ie, positive - control over the so-called workers’ state or the product of their labour. Ipso facto the Soviet Union has to be defined as non-socialism. More, it was anti-socialism. Stalin and his cohorts reduced the workers to an atomised, rightless and terrorised slave class through a social counterrevolution. Its date was 1928.

Comrade Donovan cannot call things by their proper names. He recoils from our description of the USSR as an “exploitative” social formation. Yet the bureaucracy did not socially reproduce themselves as a ruling stratum primarily through bribery, corruption and other illegal means. These were vital, though secondary features of the system. The social formation and the bureaucracy rested on the surplus product systematically pumped out of the workers. Unlike capitalism this was achieved through political, not economic means. Workers had to be made to work, in the last analysis by force. True, police officers wore uniforms replete with the symbols of October. However, they served not the cause of universal human liberation, but an exploitative, albeit historically unviable, bureaucracy. No wonder workers refused to lift a finger to save the Soviet Union. It “isn’t worth fighting for”, they said.

Accusations of ‘Shachtmanism’ or ‘third campism’ levelled against us by comrade Donovan miss the mark. We have set ourselves the job of painstakingly developing a scientific, general theory of bureaucratic socialism in the USSR. That means learning - not as first-year pupils, but critically - from all manner of thinkers, including noteworthy post-Trotsky revolutionaries such as Max Shachtman, Tony Cliff and Hal Draper. Besides throwing ‘mud’ such supposedly ‘dirty’ labelling has another purpose. Comrade Donovan is excused from working things through logically and fearlessly, and drawing the right programmatic conclusions.

Comrade Donovan is obviously a sincere partisan of the working class and a committed communist. Unfortunately his present theory disarms him (this writer too was similarly disarmed in the past - so what I am saying here is in part self-criticism). It is taken for granted, if not gospel, by comrade Donovan that the Soviet Union was a form of workers’ state. Yet by his own admission democracy was completely absent. The comrade is thereby drawn inexorably to dismiss or downplay the centrality of democracy and self-activity for the whole socialist-communist project. Where Marx and Engels declared that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”, comrade Donovan considers that, initially at least, another social force can substitute (K Marx MECW Vol 20, Moscow 1985, p14). The theory of deformed workers’ states underlines the point. ‘Socialism’ was, according to our Trotskyite comrades, brought to Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, etc, not by the self-activity of the workers themselves. It followed either the tank tracks of Stalin’s Red Army or the car-tyre sandals of peasant-party armies.

Hence, when it comes to Britain and other such capitalist countries, the question of democracy is presented as a minor afterthought, a tidying up operation or an irrelevance. Indeed comrade Donovan seems convinced that the democracy in an “advanced bourgeois democracy that is today’s Britain” resulted from what he calls the “bourgeois-democratic revolution”: ie, a historically necessary and predetermined stage between feudal and capitalist society. No doubt Lenin too took the bourgeois democratic revolution as axiomatic. But he never let a bad theory get in the way of a good revolution. His thought was rich and dialectical, his revolutionary will unequalled. Fixed categories were an anathema. Hence the ‘bourgeois democratic’ revolution in Russia would in his programme be carried out against tsarism and the bourgeoisie by an alliance of the proletariat and peasantry.

There have certainly been bourgeois revolutions - that is, revolutions led by middling elements. England 1642 and France 1789 are classic examples. However, it would be profoundly mistaken to imagine that what was in both cases a bourgeois class-in-formation was a class of industrial capitalists or that their victory was over feudalism and directly ushered in capitalism.

Those who led the English revolution were commercial farmers, well-off gentlemen and the lesser nobility. In France it was lawyers and office holders. They did not overthrow feudalism. That society was long dead. As a system in Western Europe feudalism originated in the collapse of the Roman Empire before invading Germanic barbarians and had given way to centralised kingdoms and commercial trade by the 14th century - fief and vassalage characterised a military society where the elite were bound by ties of “personal” fidelity (M Bloch Feudal society Vol 1, London 1965, p147).

As to capitalism, it was not just waiting to happen. It must be located as a self-sustaining social relationship - merely personified by capitalists - specifically in time and place, and in relation to changes in the manner of the extraction of surplus from the direct producers. England was the first country of capitalism, and it was so due to unique circumstances: a relatively integrated home market, a dispossessed peasantry (or tenant- farmers), and a developed money economy. Once established, the extraordinary dynamic of capital accumulation impelled other countries - states - to follow. Capitalism in France, Prussia, Russia, etc was sponsored from above, by the autocracy, not triggered from below by traders, guild masters and shopkeepers.

Moreover it needs to be stressed that the ‘classic’ bourgeois revolutions of England and France could have had other outcomes. They could have failed or stopped far short. On the other hand they could have gone further, much further. England might then have had a radical democracy stamped by the Levellers. France a sans culottes republic. The bourgeoisie had been compelled to put itself at the front of the masses. It was in the words of Hal Draper a “social gamble” (H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 1, New York 1977, p214). Once in power over its aristocratic rivals, the new class faced the Acherontic danger. Having been mobilised for god and parliament - or equality, fraternity and liberty - the lower depths gain a sense of their own strength. Dreams of a better life are infective and in revolutionary times take material form. The “vile multitude” have therefore to be driven back into their hovels. Hence the bourgeoisie is only democratic in so far as democracy serves its narrow class interests. Cromwell, for example, crushed the Levellers and introduced a military dictatorship of major-generals. He was contemptuous of democracy.

There is nothing inherently democratic about the bourgeoisie nor the capitalist system. The democracy that exists in the advanced capitalist countries is entirely the result of the direct demands by, or implicit threat from, the working class. The notion of English liberties stretching back to the Magna Carta is a Thatcherite fairy story. Universal suffrage - or what passed for it - has been conceded in face of a mass movement, as in Belgium. Either that or it was introduced in order to incorporate the workers and create a ‘labour bodyguard’: eg, Britain in the 1870s and Bismarckian Germany. In other words the “task” of the bourgeois revolution has nothing to do with realising some capitalist paradigm, as famously argued by Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson (and echoed by comrade Donovan). There is no model of democracy under capitalism which Britain falls short of because of its monarchy, House of Lords, unwritten constitution, common law, etc.

Comrade Donovan is a conscious apologist for bureaucratic socialism and an unwitting one for the bourgeoisie - the former is imagined as a workers’ state, the latter as the bringer of democracy. Not surprisingly then the comrade is uncomprehending when faced with our Draft programme, its minimum-maximum structure and the CPGB’s championing of democracy under capitalism as the way forward to socialism (which we view not as completely distinct from capitalism, rather as a transition - socialism, especially to begin with, retains many features of capitalism). Being a Trotskyite economist, comrade Donovan knows, no matter what the truth, that any organisation advocating a minimum programme must either be miserably reformist or naively centrist. Therefore, completely ignoring what we actually write and say, he invents his own minimalist programme for us. The CPGB, insists comrade Donovan, is, in the here and now, merely for the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a bourgeois federal republic. Hence he feels fully justified in rounding on us for having adopted “the programme of the bourgeois republicans”.

Let me patiently explain to comrade Donovan the Draft programme of the CPGB, in particular the minimum or immediate section (the maximum section is concerned with the transition to full communism). The demands set out in the minimum section are technically feasible within the parameters of capitalism. When it comes to wages we therefore accept as given the system of buying and selling labour power as a commodity. However, we put forward as a minimum price not what the bosses say they can afford but what workers need to physically and culturally reproduce themselves. The CPGB does not arbitrarily pluck a figure out of thin air. In today’s money we calculate that the minimum wage should be something like £285 per week - a level of income we also demand for pensioners, students, the unemployed, etc. Anything less is to accept relative poverty.

But our programme is not simply about defending the workers. The goal is to make the workers into a hegemonic class that can meet, challenge and defeat the bourgeoisie. For that workers need revolutionary answers to all questions in society, or a bridge between present-day non-revolutionary reality and the point of forming and institutionalising a workers’ state. Fundamentally that is a process involving consciousness, of the workers transcending themselves as an economic class and becoming a political class. Demanding higher pay and better conditions cannot do that. But a political programme that is designed to overthrow the existing constitution can, because it encompasses all classes, strata and political forces. That, comrade Donovan, is why the CPGB demands a federal republic and self-determination for Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This, contrary to your claim, is not a “minor tinkering with the format of a parliamentary regime”. It is a demand for the working class to mobilise around using its own methods. That is why in the CPGB’s minimum programme you will find sub-sections on councils of action and the workers’ militia. In other words we leave the class content of the federal republic open-ended: but we are far from indifferent. Through living struggle it can, as with every other democratic demand, be given a definite class content.

Comrade Donovan dismisses out of hand the accusation that his outlook should be characterised as economism. That’s plain silly. “Economism,” he slyly declares, “is the separation of economic struggle from political struggle.” Even if we accept this wrong definition, comrade Donovan is guilty. Faced with immediate demands for a republic and the abolition of the monarchy, he actually counterposes the workers’ state (as if Britain was in the midst of a revolutionary situation). True, like us, he argues that Marxists should oppose “all” constitutional clauses “allowing the head of state to override parliament in circumstances of ‘grave national emergency’”. Mysteriously when he proposes to “tinker” with the existing constitution it “points directly to the need for the destruction of the bourgeois state itself”. But all in all comrade Donovan considers anything short of the expropriation of the bourgeoisie a democratic diversion. Put another way, the comrade has no integrated or coherent programme for making the workers into a class. His leftist stance appears very r-r-revolutionary, but in reality it is c-c-conservative. At meetings of Truth and Revolution he can preach about the marvels of a future socialism, but in practice he leaves the workers as a slave class.

Comrade Donovan has no problem with supporting spontaneous economic demands by the workers. He lends them a Trotskyite character. From trade union disputes, either with the employer or the government, he appears to believe that political consciousness will grow. But this is entirely false. Every democratic deficit, every denial of rights, every inequality, and not only in connection with the economic struggle, can draw the masses into politics.

The cronyism of Blair and New Labour, local government corruption, the state’s treatment of ‘illegal’ migrants at Campsfield, the Stephen Lawrence murder enquiry, the institutionalisation of sectarianism in the British-Irish Agreement, the refusal to give Scotland and Wales parliaments with the power to freely separate from the United Kingdom, the censorship of TV programmes and films, the criminalisation of recreational drug takers, discrimination against 16-18 year-old male homosexuals, Aids, opposition to urban motorways - all these and countless other democratic issues, though in no way directly connected with the economic struggle, are sites of politicisation against the existing state.

Economic demands and reforms must be included in a programme. But the Communist Party uses economic agitation primarily against the constitutional monarchy system itself. “In a word,” said Lenin in What is to be done?, “it subordinates the struggle for reforms, as the part to the whole, to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and socialism” (VI Lenin CW Vol 5, Moscow 1977, pp405-6).

Though he denies it, comrade Donovan does counterpose the socialist revolution and a workers’ state to a single question of democracy: in this case the abolition of the monarchy and the demand for a federal republic (from here on I am directly paraphrasing Lenin). We must on the contrary combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and strategy on all democratic demands: a republic, self-determination for Scotland and Wales, the unity of Ireland, a workers’ militia, the election of judges, equal rights and opportunities for women, etc. While capitalism exists, these demands can only be fulfilled in an incomplete or distorted manner. Yet by basing ourselves on the democracy already achieved during the course of the class struggle we can expose the democratic deficit that continues to exists under capitalism.

Communists openly say that it is necessary for the capitalists to be expropriated if all our democratic demands are to be realised. Some of our demands will be met before the overthrow of capitalism, others in the course of that overthrow, and others after it. The social revolution is not a single battle, but a period covering a series of battles over all sorts of economic and political demands, which are guaranteed only with victory over bourgeois society. It is for the sake of this final aim that we formulate every one of our democratic demands in a consistently revolutionary way.

It is quite possible that the workers in Britain will overthrow capitalism before a republic has been achieved. It is, however, quite inconceivable that the proletariat, as a historical class, will be able to defeat the bourgeoisie, unless it is prepared for that by being educated in the sprit of the most consistent and resolute revolutionary democracy. That, comrade Donovan, is the purpose of our minimum programme.

Jack Conrad

Ian Donovan, editor of Revolution and Truth, last week criticised the revolutionary democratic communist platform. Whilst we think Ian is wrong, we must give him credit for openly expounding his views, which are representative of the majority of British Marxists.

This platform was adopted in February 1998 at a conference of the CPGB and RDG, with Open Polemic as observers. The conference also adopted theses on rapprochement and factions. The effect of this was to solidify an alliance between the two organisations that had been developing in the previous period. More recently the platform has been endorsed by the Scottish Campaign for a Federal Republic, and the Trotskyist Marxist Bulletin,who “don’t disagree” with it.

It needs to be emphasised that the platform is not a programme. It is a general political statement which could equally be endorsed by French, German, South African or Indian revolutionary democratic communists. It does not contain specifically British programmatic demands such as the abolition of the House of Lords or a federal republic. It is a general platform, not a British programme.

Ian might have come forward as a revolutionary democratic communist, with some disagreement over this or that particular formulation in the platform. He could have argued for ‘friendly’ or ‘improving’ amendments for debate. The platform is not set in stone. But in fact he came out as an opponent. I argued that “at present Ian is outside our tendency and opposed fundamentally to it”. In his reply (Weekly Worker July 23) Ian confirms that this is correct. On this much we are agreed. Ian is an anti-revolutionary democratic communist.

What is at issue here is not simply this or that wording, but a fundamentally different approach to politics. It is the difference between a revolutionary democratic and an economistic method. Our historical reference point for this is international revolutionary social democracy. Bolshevism was not simply a Russian trend, whose methods were peculiar to tsarism. The words ‘revolutionary’ and ‘democracy’ were not some strange deviation from Marxism. On the contrary, they captured an essential aspect.

The method of the Bolsheviks was to give priority to political struggle (the abolition of tsarism), providing working class leadership of the democratic movement. Consequently they based their politics on a correct understanding of both bourgeois and proletarian democracy. This was later summarised in State and revolution. Lenin often use the term ‘revolutionary working class democracy’ to describe these politics. On all matters of democracy, the Bolshevik attitude could be described as militant, consistent, revolutionary and resolute. They stood at the forefront or in the vanguard of the democratic struggle.

What is to be done is a classic statement of this revolutionary democratic approach. Lenin reminds us: “He is no social democrat who forgets in practice that ‘the communists support every revolutionary movement’ and that we are obliged for that reason to expound and emphasise general democratic tasks before the whole people, without for a moment concealing our socialist convictions. He is no social-democrat who forgets in practice to be ahead of all in raising, accentuating, and solving every general democratic question” (VI Lenin CW Vol 5, p425). The Bolsheviks fought for the most advanced democratic demands under capitalism and imperialism including demands for a republic, national self-determination, a constituent assembly, proportional representation, the right to recall elected representatives, freedom of speech, rights for all oppressed minorities and a people’s militia as against the standing army. They utilised every opportunity to use bourgeois democracy and bourgeois democratic demands.

All democratic demands were to be fought for in a revolutionary manner. Lenin explained that these demands “must be formulated and put through in a revolutionary and not reformist manner, going beyond the bounds of bourgeois legality, breaking them down, going beyond speeches in parliament and verbal protests, and drawing the masses into decisive action, extending and intensifying the struggle for every fundamental democratic demand up to the direct proletarian assault on the bourgeoisie” (VI Lenin CW Vol 22, p145). There was no contradiction between the struggle to extend every aspect of bourgeois democracy and the aim of replacing it with a higher form of workers’ democracy based on soviets.

Democratic demands are related to political struggle, in the way that wage demands are to the economic struggle. The Bolshevik politicians emphasised the struggle for democracy, and the economists emphasised the struggle for wage demands. Starting from the democratic struggle, the Bolsheviks made connections with the spontaneous economic struggle of the working class. The economists started from the opposite end, with the primacy of the economic struggle. They saw their task as supporting the economic struggle. When tsarist police attacked the picket line, the economists would show their hostility to the regime - thus lending the economic struggle itself a political character. They wanted to make ‘practical’ gains by joining the workers’ fight for higher wages and improved social conditions.

The economists wanted to derive the correct wage demands by listening to the workers and adopting the demands coming spontaneously from the masses. The Bolshevik politicians did not and could not derive their democratic demands from spontaneity. They derived them from the theories of democracy developed by international Marxism. Hence the political Bolsheviks were considered theoreticians and the economists claimed to be practical, down-to-earth activists.

For example, the demand for a federal republic might become, one day, a mass demand voiced on every picket line. But this is not the case today, and it is not the reason the RDG or CPGB adopted it. You will not hear the demand for a federal republic, unless perhaps the workers have read Lenin’s State and revolution. This pamphlet may have been brought to the workers “from the outside”: that is, from outside the picket line and the economic struggle. Thus the economists condemned the Bolsheviks for complicating matters with political theory instead of adopting the demands that had arisen spontaneously from ‘within’ the economic struggle.

I argued that the roots of Ian’s fundamental opposition to the revolutionary democratic communist platform are to be found in economism: that is, a liberal democratic, rather than a revolutionary democratic position. Ian replies that the charge of economism is “plain silly”. He tells us that “economism is the separation of economic from political struggle”. But that is plain wrong.

The “separation of economic and political struggle” is not the same as the idea that Lenin focuses on of “lending the economic struggle itself a political character” (VI Lenin CW Vol 5, p 401). Here economics and politics are not separate, but rather united on a false basis. Ian has given us a false definition of economism, whose real purpose is to cover it up. Even economists recognise a connection to politics and so does Ian. His definition means he can claim he is not an economist. But this is only because he does not understand what economism is.

So when he opposes a revolutionary democratic approach to politics, he adopts the economist method “spontaneously”. He constructs an argument as to why we should not emphasise political-democratic demands. First he divides the world into two types of countries - good and bad. Bad countries lack democracy. Here the struggle for democracy would be a good thing. Ian fully supports the prime importance of the struggle for democracy there. But Britain is a good country. It is advanced not backward. We already have computers and the internet, not like tsarist Russia. Compared to a bad country like Russia, he says, “In Britain conversely, the main agency of oppression and exploitation is the bourgeoisie itself.”

So, Ian wonders to himself, what is the point in fighting for democracy here? The bourgeoisie are already in power and they have given us as much democracy as is reasonable to expect or demand. This is how all British economists think. In a ‘good’ country like Britain, workers should concentrate on the primary question of ‘lending the economic struggle itself a political character’.

This is not to say that economists totally reject democratic demands in ‘good’ countries. Even here, they concede that some democratic demands may still be relevant. So they divide democratic demands into good ones and bad ones. Ian supports ‘good’ demands like full equality for women and proportional representation. But he is totally and absolutely opposed to bad democratic demands, the chief of which is a republic.

In 1916 Lenin took up cudgels against a new trend within the working class movement which he called “imperialist economism”. The problem was that these new economists

“cannot solve the problem of how to link the advent of imperialism with the struggle for reforms and democracy - just as the economism of blessed memory could not link the advent of capitalism with the struggle for democracy. Hence - complete confusion concerning the ‘unachievability’ of democratic demands under imperialism. Hence the ignoring of the political struggle now, at present, immediately, and at all times, which is impermissible for a Marxist” (VI Lenin CW Vol 23, p16).

In a follow-up article, Lenin attacks one of the chief imperialist economists, Kievsky. He draws attention to “the contemptuous attitude of the imperialist economist towards democracy” (the same contemptuous attitude shared by Ian Donovan). Lenin points out that the imperialist economists are demoralised. They wonder what the point is in arguing for self-determination of nations when imperialism has trampled this into the grounds. What is the point in “talking and thinking about a republic, when there is absolutely no difference whatsoever between the most democratic republics and the most reactionary monarchies”?

Lenin totally exposes the falsity of Kievsky’s arguments against democratic demands. He says

“Kievsky is very angry when told that he has given way to fear, to the extent of rejecting democracy in general. He is angry and objects: I am not against democracy, only against one democratic demand, which I consider ‘bad’. But though Kievsky is offended, and though he ‘assures’ us that he is not ‘against’ democracy, his arguments - or more correctly, the endless errors in his arguments - prove the very opposite” (VI Lenin CW Vol 23, p23).

Surely Lenin could have written this against Ian Donovan. For Ian assures us he is not ‘against’ democracy, but only against one democratic demand that he considers ‘bad’: namely, the demand for a republic. Ian is in a favour of equal rights for women and proportional representation which he thinks are good, even when the bourgeoisie is in power. But it would be a terrible setback if the workers won a republic! So every day Ian supports the economic struggle for higher pay and more social welfare under the bourgeoisie. He even raises the demand for proportional representation and women’s rights under the bourgeoisie. But he cannot bring himself to call for a republic because the bourgeoisie might still be in power.

Of course Ian is in favour of abolishing the monarchy. But he has placed a very special condition on this. Parliament must be abolished at exactly the same time. If the monarchy is abolished before parliament then we will be a republic - the very thing that Ian opposes. On the other hand we are permitted to fight for equal rights for women or women’s right to vote or proportional representative even without the abolition of parliament.

This is the same type of inconsistency and confusion which Ian shares with the ‘imperialist economists’. As Lenin explains,

“It is all one and the same theoretical and practical political error Kievsky [or Ian Donovan] unwittingly makes at every step. He thinks he is arguing only against self-determination [or a republic in Ian’s case], He wants to argue only against self-determination, but the result - against his will and conscience, and that is a curious thing! - is that he has adduced not a single argument which could not be just as well applied to democracy in general” (VI Lenin CW Vol 23, p24).

The logic of Kievsky (and Ian) is simply to counterpose socialism to democracy. But if we counterpose socialism to a republic or self-determination, it is just as logical to counterpose socialism to women’s rights or freedom of speech. Lenin explains the logic of Kievsky’s argument thus: “The ‘only’ thing that can be ‘opposed’ to imperialist war is socialism; socialism alone is the way out; ‘hence’ to advance democratic slogans in our minimum programme - ie, under capitalism - is a deception or an illusion, befuddlement or postponement, etc of the slogan of the socialist revolution” (VI Lenin CW Vol 23, p24). Lenin suggests that “to say that is to show a lack of understanding of the relationship between capitalism and democracy, between socialism and democracy”.

Against the revolutionary democratic demand for a republic, Ian tells us that “socialism alone is the way out”. He thinks, like an imperialist economist, that to call for a republic is “a deception, illusion, befuddlement”, etc. But it is Ian who is befuddled. The root of that error is in economistic politics. Ian has invented nothing new. He is merely repeating economistic ultra-leftism of the Kievsky variety, an ailment shared by large sections of British Marxism.

Dave Craig