Revolutionary strategy and Marxist conclusions

In the second in a series of articles, Mike Macnair continues his examination of right-moving Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire theorists and the response of the SWP's Alex Callinicos

The question of coalition governments has become an important subject of discussion in the European and wider left. The International Socialist Tendency Discussion Bulletin has translated from the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire's journal Critique Communiste some articles on questions of strategy, which raise important issues for today's workers' movement and far left, and which can inform this discussion.

In the first article I outlined the positions proposed by Antoine Artous and Cédric Durand and commented on Alex Callinicos's critique of them, and made some specific criticisms of all three. In this article, and another to follow, I propose to return to the history of the question of 'revolutionary strategy'. Once this history has been grasped more clearly, it will be possible to come back to the question of electoral coalitions and coalition governments.

The essence of what is discussed as 'revolutionary strategy' is its long-term character: it is the frame within which we think about how to achieve our goals over the course of a series of activities or struggles, each of which has its own tactics.

The core of the relevant strategic discussions is those of Marx and Engels and their early co-thinkers and of the Second International down to the crisis of 1914-18. There are two reasons for this. The first is that in some respects our times are closer to theirs than they are to the 'short 20th century'. On the one hand, the late 19th and early 20th century was both more 'globalised' and more dominated by financial capitals than the period of imperial blocs and wars, and the cold war, which followed it. On the other, the first part of the period was one of the scattered forces of the workers' movement beginning to pull themselves together, either from a low start, or after the defeat of the Paris Commune and of the First International; and this, again, is more like our own times than the period of massively dominant socialist and communist parties.

Secondly, I said in the first article that Artous is wrong to dispose of 1917-91 by saying that "the current period is characterised by the end of the historical cycle which began with October 1917." He is wrong because we do not start from scratch. But in another sense he is not wrong.

The truth is that 1918-21 saw the defeat of both the historic strategic concept of Bolshevism ('democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry') and those of Trotsky ('workers' government supported by the poor peasantry') and Luxemburg (that the movement, set free, would solve its own problems). The concrete form of the defeat was that Russia remained isolated.

What happened instead was to render concrete the 1850s warnings of Marx and Engels against the premature seizure of power in Germany, which formed the basis of Kautsky's 'caution' in the 1890s and 1900s. By choosing to represent the peasantry and other petty proprietors (especially state bureaucrats) the workers' party disabled itself from representing the working class, but instead became a sort of collective Bonaparte.

The Bolshevik leaders could see and feel it happening to themselves, and in 1919-1923 the Comintern flailed around with a succession of short-lived strategic concepts, each of which would - it was hoped - break the isolation of the revolution. These strategic concepts are not simply rendered obsolete by 1991. They are proved by 1991, and the fate of the other 'socialist countries', to be a strategic blind alley.

When you are radically lost it becomes necessary to retrace your steps. In the present case, this means retracing our steps to the strategic debates of the early workers' movement and the Second International, which defined the strategic choices available to socialists in the early 20th century, and in this sense led to the blind alley of 1918-91.

Marxism as a strategy

Marxism as a political position makes some very simple claims, which are very concisely expressed in the preamble to the 1880 Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, drafted by Marx:

"That the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race;

"That the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production (land, factories, ships, banks, credit);

"That there are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them:

(1) The individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress;

(2) The collective form, the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society;

"Considering that this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class - or proletariat - organised in a distinct political party;

"That such an organisation must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation ..." (text from www.revolu-tionary-history.co.uk/otherdox/Whatnext/POprog.html).

This line can be seen as a strategy from two different angles. It is a strategy for the emancipation of the working class, through collective action for communism. It is a strategy for the emancipation of "all human beings without distinction of sex or race", or for communism, through the emancipation of the working class. This single/double strategy is the long-term goal pursued by Marx and Engels from the time of the Communist manifesto on. The rest of their work - Marx's critique of political economy, the development of 'historical materialism,' etc - consists of arguments for this strategy. The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier contains a single additional element: that the proletariat must be "organised in a distinct political party".

A 'Marxist' party, then, consists in principle of nothing more than a party which is committed to the ideas that the working class can only emancipate itself - and humanity - through struggling for communism, and that the struggle for communism can only be victorious through the action of the working class.

I use 'communism' here not to mean the ideas of 'official' communism or even the early Comintern, but rather the counterposition made much earlier by Marx and Engels in the Communist manifesto: communism implies overcoming the state, nationality and the family, as opposed to 'socialism', which is statist and nationalist and can be feudal-reactionary.

To call a party 'Marxist' thus does not in the least entail that it should be, for example, a Trotskyist party. A party which held to the strategic line of Kautsky's Road to power (without the political conclusions of Kautsky's theoretical statism, which flowered more fully in his later work) would still be a Marxist party.

The state and the nation

There are, however, two additional elements of strategy which can be found in Marx and Engels' writings, which follow from the fundamental claims.

The first concerns the question of the state. Both Marx's famous and Engels' less famous critiques of the 1875 Gotha programme of the unification of the German socialist parties are emphatic that the workers' movement must not propose dependence on the existing state or the "free state". It should be emphasised that this is not a matter of making the overthrow of the existing state the precondition for all else. The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier mostly consists of partial demands consistent with the survival of capitalism. Both Marx and Engels, in criticising the Gotha programme, insist that compromises of expression for the sake of avoiding prosecution are perfectly acceptable; the fundamental problem they see in the draft in this respect is that it miseducates the workers by promoting dependence on the state (state aid, state education, etc).

The second is that the proletarian class is an international class and the proletarian movement is necessarily an international movement. This was again a strong strain in the critiques of the Gotha programme and was already present in the Communist manifesto. It follows logically from the international character of ... capitalism.

Thus Marx in the Critique of the Gotha programme: "It is altogether self-evident that, to be able to fight at all, the working class must organise itself at home as a class and that its own country is the immediate arena of its struggle - insofar as its class struggle is national, not in substance, but, as the Communist Manifesto says, 'in form'. But the 'framework of the present-day national state' - for instance, the German empire - is itself, in its turn, economically 'within the framework' of the world market, politically 'within the framework' of the system of states. Every businessman knows that German trade is at the same time foreign trade, and the greatness of Herr Bismarck consists, to be sure, precisely in his pursuing a kind of international policy."

Beyond these points, for Marx and Engels and their co-thinkers, all else is tactics, whether it is trade union struggles, standing in elections, legality and illegality, insurrections, street-fighting and/or guerrilla warfare.

True or false?

Durand's arguments, and in a certain sense those of Artous on 'alliances', suggest that the core claim of Marxism - that the struggle for socialism is the struggle for the emancipation of the working class and that the emancipation of the working class can only be achieved through the struggle for socialism - is false. Instead, the struggle for the emancipation of the working class is part only of the struggle for human liberation: "Relations of oppression or exploitation arising from patriarchy, humanity's predatory conduct towards the rest of the biosphere, racism, the denial of political and individual freedom, choice of sexual orientation or minority cultures" are equally important and cannot be "mechanically transferred back to the resolution of the central economic conflict" (Durand).

Durand adds a further argument that the "growing complexity and fragmentation of societies" leads inter alia to "a weakening of the feeling of belonging to the working class and a spatial deconstruction of labour, which makes more fragile the forms of organisation of the traditional labour movement and encourages a decline in unionisation."

It is possible to respond to these arguments by pointing out that working class self-identification is as much a subjective as an objective reality, as Callinicos does, and by pointing to the political futility displayed in Britain by supporters of these ideas, as I did in my first article. It can be added that the "growing fragmentation of labour" has not shown any tendency to recreate genuine petty family production: on the contrary, this continues globally to retreat. What it has recreated are the conditions of widespread employment in small workplaces, etc - under which Chartism, the early trade union movement, the First International and the early socialist parties were created.

The implication then is not 'good-bye to the working class', but, rather than the means of struggle need to change, they need to shift from workplace collective organisation to district collective organisation. It is also that trade unions need to become again - as Engels called them - an alliance of the employed and the unemployed; and one which performs significant welfare functions rather than simply being an instrument of collective bargaining on wages and conditions.

At a more fundamental level of theory, the authors of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier could neither have claimed that "the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race", nor that the working class needs a "distinct political party if they had believed that the working class is what Durand and Artous apparently believe it is. It is not the employed workers' strength at the point of production which animates their belief that the key to socialism is the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat and vice versa. On the contrary, it is the proletariat's separation from the means of production, the impossibility of restoring small-scale family production, and the proletariat's consequent need for collective, voluntary organisation which lead Marx and Engels to suppose that the proletariat is a potential 'universal class', that its struggles are capable of leading to socialism and to a truly human society.

This is both a positive judgment and a negative judgment. On the side of the positive judgment, it is true that the defeats the workers' movement has suffered since the new 'roll-back' offensive of capital began in the late 1970s give superficial reasons for doubt and despair. But even amid these defeats and in defeated struggles, the working class has shown the ability to draw in behind it all the oppressed and exploited in struggles like the 1984-85 miners' strike in Britain, while new movements - often unexpected by the left - have arisen and shaken local states, as, again in the 1980s, in Brazil, South Korea and South Africa. These, too, have run into the sand. But the whole history of the workers' movement - before Marx and Engels as well as after - is not one of continuous advance but of advance and retreat. The present retreats do not in themselves give grounds for supposing 'good-bye to the working class'.

The negative judgment consists in the proposition that, however weak the workers' movement, general human emancipation on the basis of petty family property and production is impossible and hence the idea of this or that section of the petty proprietors, or the undifferentiated 'people', serving as a revolutionary subject is illusory. This judgment was founded on the whole history of radical movements down to Marx and Engels' time. It has been emphatically confirmed in the 20th century - by, precisely, the defeats suffered by the workers' movement through submerging itself in a 'worker-peasant alliance', 'national movement' or 'broad democratic alliance'.

The most serious of these defeats is Stalinism itself. Stalinism did not take and hold power in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat over the other classes. It took it in the name of the worker-peasant alliance and held it in the name of a 'socialism', in which the obvious existence of classes in the Stalinist states was denied.

'Social movements'

The negative judgment is also demonstrated in a different way by the fact that the 'social movements' on which Artous and Durand place so much emphasis are themselves a broken reed. The 'women's movement' in the US and Britain, where it began, has since the later 1970s been so divided by class, race, sexuality and politics as to be no more than an ideological expression. The same is true a fortiori of the 'lesbian and gay movement'.

What began in the 1960s-70s as a common movement against racism has long splintered into a mass of much smaller ethnic and religious constituencies asserting individualised forms of identity politics. One group of elders, imams, etc are preferred interlocutors of the state; another layer has entered into the business and professional classes; neither represents the youth who periodically take to the streets.

When he states that "humanity's predatory conduct towards the rest of the biosphere" gives rise to "relations of oppression or exploitation" independent of "the central economic conflict" Durand must mean to refer to 'green politics' in its broadest sense. Yet it is even clearer than in the case of the other 'social movements' that greens are forced to choose between one or another form of economic organisation.

They are divided and unable to give a lead to society as a whole because they are unable to choose collectively one way or the other. And when a 'distinctively green' policy is produced, it offers precisely the reactionary utopia of a return to petty family production - or in extreme cases ('deep greens'), the death of the vast majority of the present world human population in order to return to an idealised version of hunter-gatherer societies.


The definition of the proletariat by its separation from the means of production (as opposed to peasants and artisans) means that the proletariat as a class includes the whole class - employed and unemployed, men, women and children - which is dependent on the wage fund. This, in turn, means that, though trade unions are one of the most immediate forms of worker organisation, it is only party organisation - organisation based in the working class districts, and tackling all the aspects of the experience of the class - which is really capable of expressing the unity of the class as a class, its independent interests, its existence as a class 'for itself'. It is party organisation which can embed the particular trade union struggles in the solidarity of the broader masses and legitimate them against the attempts of the bosses to isolate them and present them as sectional claims.

In Britain in the recent past those Labour ward branches which had significant roots withered away, the Eurocommunists destroyed the old CPGB, and the Trotskyists were unable, due to their syndicalist-sectionalist sectarianism, to rebuild an alternative. This left the rank and file trade union militants isolated, exposed and demoralised in the face of the Thatcherite offensive. This was demonstrated positively in the 1984-85 miners' strike by the ability of the strike to generate very broad solidarity, since it was based in mining communities rather than simply the pits, and was fought in the interests of the unemployed and children as well as presently employed workers. It was demonstrated negatively in the same struggle by the fact that the Eurocommunists' removal of the party key to the trade union and Labour broad left, and their support for their Labour co-thinkers, the later Blairite 'soft left', left the broad mass sentiment of solidarity without channels to flow into generalised active resistance to the government. A movement without a political party is not enough.

More immediately, as Callinicos quite correctly points out in his response to the French texts, the social forums were in reality created by a party - the Brazilian Workers Party - and the European Social Forum has been primarily animated by Rifondazione Comunista and to a considerable extent populated by party activists wearing one or another 'social movement' hat. A movement 'without political parties' will rapidly prove to be illusory.

This, of course, leaves on one side the question: what sort of party? In a sense, this was already debated between Marx and Engels and their co-thinkers on the one hand, and the Lassalleans and Bakuninists on the other. But systematic argument - and the disastrous errors of Stalinism and Trotskyism on the question - belong to the strategies of the 20th century.

State and nation?

Durand argues that the possibilities of working class political action have been reduced by the decline of the nation-state and emergence of transnational governance structures, and the internationalisation of production. Callinicos responds - correctly - that 'globalisation' is in reality a turn in the policy of the dominant state, the US; and that class struggles have been in a series of countries forced toward state questions and the political stage.

It can be added: what's new here? After all, I have quoted Marx, above, writing in 1875, as saying that "the 'framework of the present-day national state' - for instance, the German empire - is itself, in its turn, economically 'within the framework' of the world market, politically 'within the framework' of the system of states".

A second generation of 'globalisation theorists' indeed have moved beyond the idea that globalisation is something radically new, to the idea that it is a return in some sense to the economic-political characteristics of the late 19th century. They may like this or dislike it, but the fact remains that the nationalisation of production and exchange within competing trade blocs in the mid-20th century and the 'managed trade' of the cold war period were innovations in relation to the period when Marx and Engels wrote.

Something has indeed changed. What has changed is that the foundations of a series of illusions about working class strategy are gradually being destroyed. The system of rival imperial trade blocs promoted the illusion that a really autarkic national economic and political regime was possible. The grand example of this illusion was the Soviet Union. After World War II, US imperialism's policy of the 'containment' of 'communism' led it, first, not to attempt immediately the reconquest of the USSR but to cooperate in the bureaucracy's self-blockade and, second, to make economic and political concessions both to its former rivals in Europe and Japan, and to nationalists in the semi-colonial/former colonial countries. The effect of all three was indirect concessions to the working classes. This, too, in the period 1948-79 promoted the idea that the working class (or the oppressed peoples) could achieve permanent gains through the nation-state and within the existing nation-state system.

After the disasters, from their point of view, of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the US turned to a policy of rolling back both 'communism' and the concessions made to other states and to the working class. Among the critical instruments of this shift have been the ideology and promotion of 'human rights', free-marketeering and conservative NGOs as instruments for regime change, and the more aggressive deployment of international institutions (IMF, WTO, etc, etc). The result is to reduce nation-states' room for manoeuvre and their willingness to make concessions to the local working class.

The strategic implication is that against the internationally coordinated action of the capitalists, the working class needs to develop its own internationally coordinated action. Marx and Engels both criticised the Lassalleans - and hence the Gotha programme - for putting their faith in the nation-state and (a corollary) putting off the internationally coordinated action of the working class - international strikes, etc - to an indefinite future of the 'brotherhood of peoples'. The evidence both of the 'short 20th century' and of the beginning of the 21st is utterly overwhelming in favour of the correctness of this criticism and the strategic stance it expresses.

'Unity is strength'

In 1875 the German socialists made a choice with which Marx and Engels disagreed: to unify their forces on the basis of a programme which had a 'diplomatic' character and obscured their differences. The fusion happened at just the right time: the process of German unification under Prussian leadership was accelerating, and the German economy had arrived at industrial take-off. In consequence the unified Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) was immensely successful, growing in the later 19th and early 20th century to a vast and deeply rooted system of mass organisations.

The result was that the principle of unity at all costs became generalised and incorporated into the strategy of the socialist movement. Unifications and attempts to unify divided forces were promoted in France, Italy and elsewhere. Supporters could point to the awful example of disunited and hence ineffective socialist movements in Britain, the USA and - perhaps surprising to modern far-left eyes - Russia.

Were the leaders of the Second International right to incorporate the principle of unity at all costs into their strategy? The answer is complex and will require consideration of the great split during and immediately after 1914-18, the Comintern's party concept, and the 'united front' and 'popular front' policies. But some assessment can be made of the elementary idea.

The positive effects of broad unity - in substance a 'snowball effect' - were demonstrated in the rise of the SDP and more broadly Second International. They have been reconfirmed positively by the growth of the communist parties in their 'popular front' periods, and more recently by the successes of such unitary attempts as the Brazilian Workers Party, Rifondazione's opening to the Italian far left groups and Scottish Militant Labour's creation of the Scottish Socialist Party.

They have been reconfirmed negatively by the incapacity of the splintered Trot left to get beyond small squabbling groups: the SWP, in spite of its feigned lofty indifference to the groups smaller than itself, is perceived by the broad masses as being in the same league as them, and the same is true of the larger groups in every country. Even the LCR and Lutte Ouvrière, with approx 5% of the votes each in the 2002 presidential election, are held back from a real breakthrough by their disunity.

On the other hand, in a certain sense the European working class in 1914-18 paid the price of 'unity at all costs'. It did so not at the outbreak of war, when the leaders were carried along by the nationalisms of the mass of the class, but when the character of the war became clear, as the statist-nationalist right wing held the whip hand over an anti-war left which was afraid to split the movement. Rather similarly, Chinese workers in 1927, Spanish workers in 1937-39, French workers in 1940, Indonesian workers in 1965 and Chilean workers in 1973 paid a savage price for the communist parties' policy of 'unity at all costs'.

More immediately, it is far from clear that the Gotha policy actually succeeded in setting the difference between Eisenachers and Lassalleans on one side. By the 1890s, the SDP had escaped from illegality and reached a size at which attitudes to the state and government participation (at least in the provinces) became a live issue. The question of the state, government, coalitions and socialist strategy then resurfaced for debate in the SDP and (in varying forms) across the Second International. The questions were not posed in identical forms to the differences between Eisenachers and Lassalleans, but their underlying principle was common.

Three 'strategic hypotheses'

Around the turn of the 19th and 20th century we can identify roughly three 'strategic hypotheses' in the socialist movement. The right wing is traditionally identified with reference to Eduard Bernstein's Evolutionary socialism, though it in fact included various forms of 'pure trade unionist' politics, ethical socialism and so on. The centre can be identified roughly with reference to Karl Kautsky's (relatively late) The road to power. The left can similarly be identified, even more roughly, and equally on the basis of a late text, with Rosa Luxemburg's The mass strike, the political party and the trade unions. "Even more roughly" because Luxemburg's position is in some respects intermediate between the Kautskyites and the core of the left.

This history is directly material to the LCR comrades' texts, and yet they are silent on it. Durand's argument is for all practical purpose a recapitulation under different forms of Bernstein's Evolutionary socialism. Artous and Durand alike identify the 'strategy of the insurrectionary general strike' as growing out of 1970s Trotskyist reappropriation of 1920s Comintern documents. Its actual roots in the 'mass strike strategy' debated in the Second International have gone missing. With them has also gone missing both the devastating critique of this 'strategy' mounted by the centre and right, and the extent to which Luxemburg's The mass strike involved a modification of the voluntarism of the original strategy.

In a sense, too, we could make an analogy between Callinicos's position and Kautsky's in the SDP's and Second International's debates. Like Kautsky, Callinicos is verbally 'orthodox' and insists on 'revolution'. Like Kautsky's, Callinicos's 'revolutionism' is deferred to an indefinite future date. Like the SDP's, the actual political practice of the Socialist Workers Party protests the objectionable actions of the British state - but does not offer a direct political challenge to its form as a state.

Both the content of the debate in the Second International and its limitations are, then, essential if we are to understand modern strategic questions rather than merely repeating old errors.