Preparing for power

In the seventh and concluding article in his series Jack Conrad peers into the future

Three main things have been proven in the course of these articles. Firstly, the idea of a peaceful revolution is no rightwing deviation or collapse into reformism. Marx and Engels, as we have shown, seriously considered that there existed a real possibility of a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism in countries such as Britain and the United States.

This observation is not based on disembodied quotes, misrepresentation or some universal law. We fairly and accurately represented the Marx-Engels partnership. Eg, under circumstances where the Chartists won universal suffrage using militant methods they could have quickly secured a parliamentary majority as the first decisive act of the revolution, as in the case of the Paris Commune in 1871.

Not that parliament should be left untransformed and legislative and executive functions kept separated. The House of Lords would have to go, along with the monarchy. Nor would aristocrats and bourgeois meekly accept the democratic verdict. Indeed, using whatever means left at their disposal, they resist. Those who think that by virtue of birth or money they have a divine right to rule would certainly turn arrogant minds towards organising a "slave-owners revolt".

The workers must be prepared to meet force with force and soundly defeat them. As we said in the book Which road?, a "peaceful road to socialism is possible ... but this would be due to the potential of the working class to inflict massive, irresistible and overwhelming punishment in the event of capitalist resistance" (J Conrad Which road? London 1991, p30).

Yes, the peaceful road relies on possessing abundant means of violence. Lenin also held out the possibility of a peaceful transition in Russia. Conditions of dual power in 1917 meant that the soviets of workers', soldiers' and peasants' deputies could simply brush aside the unelected provisional government and put in place the democratic rule of workers and peasants.

The people were armed. Every big factory had its red guard unit. As for the peasants in uniform, the conscripted soldiers, they only obeyed orders countersigned by the soviets. Secondly, we showed that almost without exception post-Marx-Engels Marxists completely misunderstood the term 'dictatorship of the proletariat'.

For Marx and Engels it simply meant 'rule of the working class'. Their disciples used 'dictatorship' retrogressively, in the context of special measures of force, denial of democracy and minority rule by the revolutionary elite over the population. With the degeneration of the Russian Revolution democracy and socialism increasingly drift apart both in practice and theory. Our revolution in contrast must be firmly based on democracy and the majority.

Thirdly, the propositions contained in the Weekly Worker's 'What we fight for' column are therefore fully in line with authentic Marxism.

Proposition nine: "Socialism can never come through parliament. The capitalist class will never willingly allow their wealth and power to be taken away through a parliamentary vote. They will resist, using every means at their disposal. Communists favour using parliament and winning the biggest working class representation. But workers must be readied to make revolution - peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must."

Proposition 11: "Communists fight for extreme democracy in all spheres of society. Democracy must be given a social content."

Proposition 13: "Socialism represents victory in the battle for democracy. It is the rule of the working class. Socialism is either democratic or, as with Stalin's Soviet Union, it turns into its opposite."

Evidently, it is our critics who deviate from Marxism - in virtually every case in the direction of elitism, leftism and anarchism. These left economists dogmatically rule out the possibility of a peaceful revolution in the past, the present and most definitely the future.

Presumably they are either ignorant of the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin, or completely fail to appreciate their method, which rests on a concrete examination of concrete conditions. By the same measure those who belittle the importance of using parliament and who frothily write about the dictatorship of the proletariat in terms of bloodshed, curbs on elementary democratic rights, etc, know very little of the real Marx-Engels on that particular subject.

Most of these comrades will, I am sure, carefully think matters over and reconsider. Others, of course, will stay fixedly unconvinced. Obviously such people lack seriousness, and as far as I am concerned can keep digging themselves deeper and deeper into an anarchist hole of their own making. Nature of capitalism The question that needs to be addressed now is whether the 20th century increased or decreased the possibilities of peaceful revolution. On the same basis what should be expected in the 21st century?

Put another way, have the special conditions that applied in 19th century Britain and the US, which led Marx and Engels to write about the possibility of a peaceful revolution, waxed or waned? Equally are those who rule out a state collapse, as in 1917 Russia, right or wrong?

The 20th century reveals a highly complex pattern. Broadly though, if we take the years spanning 1914 and 1945, then those who paint capitalism in the dominant tones of warmongering, colonial empires, economic decay, the destruction of democratic rights and a turn to fascism are undoubtedly not far off the mark.

The works of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky explain and vividly describe these features. However, what about the post-1945 period? Since then the world has seen an unparalleled economic boom, technical wonders such as micro-chips and bio-engineering, the end of colonial empires, the forward march of democratic rights across a broad front, official anti-racism and anti-fascism, and in western Europe at least the eclipse of the warfare state by the welfare state.

There are those on the left who refused to admit that things changed after 1945. In the hallowed name of Trotsky most Trotskyites closed their eyes to the reality of the great boom of the late 1940s, 50 and 60s. Ernest Mandel was a case in point. In 1947 he was doggedly denying even the possibility of a capitalist boom.

Gerry Healy performed the same dumb trick right into the 50s. Trotsky's Transitional programme was defended to the letter, along with its false premise that the system is in permanent, absolute decline. Production and GDP must contract.The operative conclusion being that strikes against wage cuts would flatly pose the question of working class state power and ending the capitalist system.

Suffice to say, that did not happen. Real wages were on a sustainable and almost uninterrupted upward curve. Equally wrong-headed are those who rely on empiricism and the superficial thinking that involves. Left reformists and modern-day Proudhonists are particularly easily seduced by what appears in front of their noses. For them reality is obvious. There is no need for scientific investigation and theory.

Marx and Engels might have been right about the 19th century. Lenin and Trotsky in their turn might have been right about capitalism pre-1945. But quite clearly since then things have undergone profound change. Capitalism no longer exhibits many of the features highlighted by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. In short, what they once said is, according to such gullible empiricists, pretty much irrelevant to the tasks and challenges of the 21st century.

Marxism is alien to any kind of dogmatism. Nor does Marxism content itself with the outward, surface appearance of things. Hence when it comes to capitalism we should aim to construct a theory which grasps the underlying and constantly moving reality of the system. In other words verifiable categories must be established and then developed through their own inner logic and self-movement in a way which conforms to our object of enquiry.

That way we can locate and understand those social laws which operated between 1914 and 1945, and then since 1945. Put very briefly, capitalism is in secular decline and society is in transition to socialism. In terms of theory Lenin and Trotsky were right.

Capitalism is moribund, decadent and is forced again and again to rely on organisation in order to put off socialism. Essential laws still operate, but are constantly overlaid by new determinants which, albeit negatively, anticipate socialism.

As argued by Hillel Ticktin in his biennial journal Critique, the dominant law of value exists side by side with the rising law of planning. Thatcherism, Reaganomics, monetarism and neoliberalism appear to run counter to this proposition. But any serious examination of present-day realities and trends shows the exact opposite. Privatisation, for example, did not mark a return to 19th century competitive private capitalism and the pristine principles of Adam Smith. On the contrary privatisation is a higher stage of monopoly competition. Nationalised monopolies are now monopolistic transnationals. With natural monopolies such as trains, telephones, water, electricity and gas, the role of the market is negligible, except perhaps when it comes to expelling labour from the means of production.

The state fixes prices and the terms and conditions of supply. In general, as capitalist accumulation reaches new heights, it becomes more social, and day-to-day direction and control passes from the owners of capital to the state or bureaucratic managers - another distinct, but contested, possibility being workers' control under capitalism. The needs of capital for continuous self-expansion are thereby partially contradicted and impaired by managerial exploitation and grand larceny, state needs or the power of workers, who are pushing at the bars of their wage slavery.

Capitalism is ever more impossible. Living labour becomes ever smaller proportionately compared to dead labour and consequently realising surplus value is increasingly problematic. What happens when capitalism as a system approaches its ideal of workerless production? There can never be complete automation, but no one can seriously deny the tendency or its unintended results for a system that relies on living labour for the surplus value that keeps it afloat and functioning.

In light of the above, the bifurcated picture presented by the 20th century can be appreciated more as a continuum. As the law of value declines, capitalism must seek out other ways of controlling labour. This is the crucial question faced by any exploitative system; and though the answers arrived at by capitalism seem to be at profound variance - fascism at one pole, the social democratic state at the other - they are actually both manifestations of the rising importance of organisation in society.

By its very nature fascism is an emergency measure. The state is in crisis. The ruling class cannot rule in the old way but the working class is unable to take power. Fascism resolves this situation negatively in favour of capitalism, using unmediated force. Non-state fighting formations recruited from amongst the decayed and disorientated layers of society are hurled against the organised working class in order to impose a counterrevolutionary solution. Traditional bourgeois parties are banned or absorbed into the victorious fascist state-party, which itself undergoes a metamorphosis into a bureaucratic form of Bonapartism.

Such a regime is temporary. The capitalist class is saved, but politically expropriated. More to the point, controlling labour by brute force - terror, atomisation, police state, etc - is incredibly costly and wasteful. And, of course, by its very nature capital organises labour. Ground has to be given if social pressures are not to reach the critical point of revolution. That explains why, though fascism represents a mortal danger to the working class, it should not be theorised as an organic trend within capitalism.

It is not the final stage before socialism. Nor is fascism inevitable. Fascism, as Clara Zetkin famously remarked, is the "punishment" exacted upon the working class for "not making revolution". What of democracy? There are those on the left who maintain that democracy - by which we mean basic rights enjoyed by the mass of the population, such as the right to assemble, publish and organise; political parties; an elected representative system of government; measures of popular control from below, etc - is the natural outgrowth of capitalist progress and a gauge of its maturity.

A Whig theory of history echoed by Eduard Bernstein and the Mensheviks and still heard throughout the left in today's Britain. Not surprisingly those leftwingers mentally blinded by this rotten theory are prone to downplay the significance of democracy. Thankfully what is dismissively and often contemptuously called 'bourgeois democracy' is generally considered preferable to fascism. But democracy - because it is by definition bourgeois - has no particular relationship with, or leverage for, the struggle for socialism.

Socialism comes through pay and other such routine economic demands by wage slaves - the workplace relationship between worker and capitalist - and not through the mass political struggle for extreme democracy. Hence strikes are everything. Demands for the abolition of the monarchy, a federal republic and a popular militia in Britain are dismissed or derided. This all too common approach is both ahistorical and useless when it comes to bringing about the actual socialist rupture.

The capitalist, or bourgeois, class certainly fought to establish its own political rights and assert its already substantial economic influence. The threat of revolution was ostentatiously used to terrify the governing class of aristocrats and achieved the desired effect. But 1832 hardly counts as democracy. Democracy is about the masses, the demos, those below. The bourgeoisie and its privileged hangers-on never added up to anything more than five percent of the population. Indeed it is obvious in terms of history and basic interests that the capitalist class is resolutely and inherently opposed to democracy.

Capital is thoroughly anti-democratic. Think about your employer. When has the owner or boss ever voluntarily submitted the management to regular popular elections and instant recall? Within the factory, depot, college, mine, office and call centre there exists the dictatorship of a strictly hierarchical management which operates top-down. Certainly every substantial democratic right gained over the last 150 years has been won in the teeth of fierce opposition from above and owes everything to the risen or latent power of the working class.

The right to assemble, the right to publish, the right to organise did not come as an automatic result of the accumulation of capital. On the contrary all such rights come from the growth, consciousness and struggle of the working class. Luddism, Peterloo, the London Correspondence Society, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartism, the TUC, mass general unions, the formation of the Labour Party, CPGB communism, the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, the Daily Worker, Pentonville Five, etc.

True, those above reluctantly conceded the vote to male workers and then women in order that democracy in Britain could be safely hollowed out, turned into a means of getting the masses to vote every three or four years for their oppressors. Nevertheless the pulse for democracy continues to push forward from below and towards breaking the narrow bounds of capitalism and the vistas of general freedom offered by an associated society of producers and communism. Transition Let us draw together the key lines of thought sketched out above. Capitalism is a system in overall historic decline.

Capital is by its very essence undemocratic. Socialism grows inside capitalism in the forms of the increasing role of organisation and concessions to the masses. These concessions include not only the NHS, universal education, unemployment and other such benefits, but democratic rights. Naturally capitalism does everything it can to frustrate and block democracy by maintaining and renewing undemocratic institutions like the House of Lords, the monarchy, the law courts, the Church of England, the BBC, school and university curriculum, the Bank of England, MI5, the police force, army, etc.

These checks and balances against democracy, along with the ability of capital to purchase - through a combination and hard cash and flattery - the souls of writers, broadcasters and trade union functionaries, serve to protect and hide the system of exploitation. Yet everything we have described points to the growing importance of consciousness in social life and the profound weakness of capitalism.

Hence, while capitalism remains capitalism, it is less and less capitalist and more and more socialist. That is, of course, a completely uncontroversial general observation for Marxists. How does the gestation of socialism within a declining capitalism effect the means used by the working class when it comes to acting as the midwife for the communist society awaiting to be born?

No simple or straightforward answer can be given. Revolution is an art, not a science and depends on the balance of class forces - nationally and internationally - that obtain at a particular juncture in time. Certainly it is the responsibility of communists to encourage the working class to take the question of arms seriously. That is unfortunately not the case with the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party in England and Wales et al.

Before the reality of a revolutionary situation the mind must first be readied. Revolution is a serious business. It is a matter of life or death. If we fail to score a decisive victory, history tells us that capitalism turns to the most brutal forms of counterrevolution, including fascism. Nevertheless, the underlying trend is unmistakable.

The possibilities for peaceful revolution are waxing, not waning. The world is moving in the direction in which one can expect states to buckle and organs of dual power to arise. Put another way, the situation in Russia after the February Revolution was no aberration, but a window on the future.

To illustrate the point let us imagine for the sake of the argument that capitalism manages somehow to put off socialism for the next thousand years. We will for our purposes discount the intervention of accidents such as a Dr Strangelove triggering a World War III that destroys all human life, an asteroid colliding with the earth or a Martian invasion. Such accidents are more or less unlikely. We shall instead concentrate on capitalism and its internal contradictions. Maybe here or there the capitalist class turns to fascism. Maybe freak societies like Stalin's USSR once again appear. In historical terms they would prove fleeting.

The main methods capitalism employs in order to delay the future is organisation and, what basically amounts to the same thing, concession. Globally the working class becomes ever more numerous, better organised and educated and able to assert its needs against profit.

Meanwhile the concentration and integration of capital proceeds to levels that are breathtaking. Megamerger follows megamerger. Capitalist owners are a dying social appendage, almost totally squeezed out from the sphere of production. They are visibly useless. Managers take over. And think about the technology of a thousand years time. The average worker puts in motion machines which possess capabilities that certainly surpass my wildest dreams.

Such accumulations of dead labour in relationship to living labour, it hardly needs saying, increase the difficulty of realising surplus value many times over almost to the point of impossibility. A capitalism that cannot accumulate is defunct. One determined push and the working class can almost effortlessly step over the threshold into communism.

Transitions from one society to another can prove to be fearsomely protracted. From the decline of Rome as an exploitative system - which began with the emperor Augustus and meeting the limits of slavery - it took many hundreds of years before feudalism came to dominance in western Europe. There were any number of intermediate stages and mongrel halfway houses.

The same can be said of the transition from feudalism in western Europe to world capitalism. Actually I do not believe that socialism can be put off for a thousand years. The working class will surely find itself attempting to topple capitalism time and time again till it finally succeeds once and for all in making its universal revolution. But a point has been made. In historical terms capitalism and its essential laws are weakening.

The working class and the laws associated with socialism-communism get stronger. In these historical circumstances I think we can legitimately speculate about the possibility of winning a majority in parliament as the first act of a revolution, which - yes - takes arms seriously. To completely discount a parliamentary victory is in my view to combine pessimism and dogmatism with a worrying desire for blood revenge. On the other hand to rely on such an outcome is to descend headlong into parliamentary cretinism.

That is what Which road?, published in 1991, was squarely directed against. Leave aside the theoretical mistakes and shortcomings, inevitably the stick got bent in the drive to expose and condemn the reformism of the Marxism Today clique, the Morning Star's 'official communists' and Peter Taaffe's Militant Tendency. Probably the working class will in the future have to use some measures of violence and create its own - superior - organs of struggle that assume state power. The chances are that the bourgeois parliament will simply be dumped, not transformed.

But peaceful revolution should not be equated with a parliamentary majority. As the October 1917 shows, a soviet (or workers' council) revolution can be carried through with very little bloodshed. However, the main point stressed throughout this discussion is not the existing parliamentary system versus abstract soviets. The main point is the necessity of democracy. Democracy under capitalism and democracy under socialism. What is formal must be made substantial. That - not universal nationalisation - is what the struggle for socialism is all about.