Reform coalition, or mass strike?

In the third article in this series, Mike Macnair examines the basis of two contending strategies for working class advance

My first article discussed the partial debate on questions of revolutionary strategy in the French Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire and Alex Callinicos's comments on this debate (Weekly Worker February 16). I argued that the LCR comrades were addressing genuine strategic issues, which Callinicos largely evaded; but that to tackle these issues we needed to go back to the history of the problem of 'revolutionary strategy'.

In the second article I discussed the idea that Marxism itself is a strategy - for the emancipation of the working class, through collective action for communism; and for the emancipation of "all human beings without distinction of sex or race" - ie, for communism - through the emancipation of the working class (Weekly Worker February 23). I drew out some corollaries of this strategic concept: on the one hand, rejection of dependence on the existing state, and, on the other, the need for the working class to organise and act internationally before the arrival of 'the revolution' or the socialist millennium.

I also discussed the choice made by the socialists of, first, the German SPD and, later, the Second International to prioritise the unity of the movement above all else. I concluded that the diplomatic formulation of the Gotha programme and the general principle of unity at all costs had not succeeded in suppressing strategic debate, and the core of the 'problem of strategy' began to be addressed in the debates between the right wing of the movement, the Kautskyan centre, and the leftist advocates of a 'strategy of the general strike'.

Existing debates

These tendencies drew on debates which had already begun. The 'general strike strategy' was a variant form of positions which had already been argued by the Bakuninists in the 1870s and were still maintained by anarcho-syndicalists (who were formally excluded from the International - except insofar as they appeared as representatives of trade union organisations - in 1896). The policy of the right had indirect roots in the Lassalleans' policy of demanding that the German imperial state support the workers against the capitalists; its more immediate root was the (successful) coalition policy of SPD regional leaders in southern Germany, which Engels criticised in The peasant question in France and Germany (1894).

The Kautskyan 'centre' position took its starting point from Marx's and Engels's polemics both against the anarchists at the time of the split in the First International, and against the coalitionism of the precursors of the right. But, though Kautsky (with a bit of arm-twisting from Engels) had published Marx's Critique of the Gotha programme, he had by no means internalised Marx's and Engels's criticisms of that programme. The Erfurt programme was subject to some similar criticisms from Engels and, in the German and international centre tendency, Kautsky was allied both with the true author of the Gotha programme, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and with open Lassalleans like Mehring.

The right: reform v 'utopianism'

The underlying common idea of the right wing of the movement was that the practical task of the movement was to fight for reforms in the interests of the working class. In order to win these reforms, it was necessary to make coalitions with other tendencies which were willing to ally with the workers' movement. And in order to make coalitions, it was necessary in the first place to be willing to take governmental office: it was by creating a coalition government that the possibility really arose of legislating in the interests of the working class, as well as of administrative measures (creating social security systems, etc).

Secondly, it was necessary to be willing to make substantial political compromises. Thus Engels, in The peasant question, polemicised against Vollmar's programmatic concessions to the peasantry in relation to positive subsidies for family farming and in relation to trade union issues affecting agricultural labourers employed by small farmers.

The largest compromise - but, from the point of view of the right, the smallest - would be for the workers' party to abandon its illusory and futile revolutionism; and, with it, equally illusory Marxist claims about crisis, and the notion that in an economic downswing reforms, as concessions made to the working class, would tend to be taken back unless the working class took political power into its own hands.

In the view of the right, the revolutionism was, after all, already empty of content. The German party, for example, did not call openly for the replacement of the monarchy by a republic and, though the Erfurt programme contained a good set of standard democratic-republican demands (for example, universal military training, popular militia, election of officials, including judges, and so on), these were not central to the party's agitational work (see www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1891erfurt.html).

The claim that economic downswing would produce attacks on concessions already made could perfectly well be conceded by rightists as true of the bourgeoisie; but the argument that this was also true of the state depended on the claim that the state was a class instrument in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and was thus intertwined with revolutionism.

The right did not simply argue that getting rid of revolutionism would make the workers' party into a respectable party with which other parties could do business, and which could therefore achieve coalitions, and hence concessions. It also offered a variety of theoretical objections to Marx's and Engels's arguments, based on christianity, Kantianism, nationalism and early appropriations of the marginalist economists' critiques of Marx. A relatively sophisticated version was Bernstein's Evolutionary socialism, which argued that the scientific approach of Marx and Engels was diverted by their residual Hegelianism into a utopian revolutionism.

The actual content of the various theoretical objections to Marxism need not be considered here. The core question is the relative value of Marxist and 'constitutionalist' arguments in terms of predictive power and, hence, as a guide to action. To address this question it is necessary to separate the rightists' positive claim - that coalitions based on programmatic concessions can win real reforms - from their negative claim, that 'revolutionism' is unrealistic, worthless and illusory.

True or false?

It should be said right away that the positive claim is true, to the extent that we are willing to treat partial gains for particular groups of workers (eg, workers in Britain; or workers in industry; or in particular industries) as gains for the working class as a whole.

This does not, in fact, depend on the fact that the workers' party is a minority party and hence needs formal coalitions. If the workers' party presents itself purely as a party of reform, it will also win members and voters from the existing parties of reform. It may then, like the British Labour Party after 1945, become a party which is in form a workers' party capable of forming a government on its own, but is in reality in itself a coalition between advocates of the independent political representation of the working class on the one hand, and liberal and statist reformers and political careerists on the other: to use Lenin's very slippery expression, a "bourgeois workers' party".

The positive claim is, however, illusory. Part of this illusory character is due to the fact that the negative claim is false. But part of it is internal. The policy of coalitions based on programmatic concessions is, as I said earlier, based on the need to form a coalition government in order to get effective reforms. But this supposes from the outset that reforms will take the form of state action to ameliorate the situation of the workers. The reform policy is therefore a policy for the growth and increasing power of the state and increased state taxation: as the Conservative press puts it, for the "nanny state".

The internal problem is that working class people are no more fond of being in perpetual parental leading-reins from the state than the middle classes: the aim of the emancipation of the working class is an aspiration to collective and individual freedom. The policy of reform through coalition governments therefore contains within itself - quite apart from the falsity of the negative claim - the seeds of its own overthrow. The petty tyrannies of the council house manager, the social services officials, the benefit officials, etc become the ground of a conservative/liberal reaction against the "nanny state" among important sections of the working class.

This is not merely a British phenomenon (the Thatcher victory in 1979). It was seen in the largest possible scale in the fall of the Stalinist regimes in 1989-91. And it has characterised the French, German and Italian electoral cycles and those of Australia, Canada and the US at least since the 1970s (in the last case, the Democrats play the role of the reformists).

The negative claim

The predictive failure of the reformists' negative claim results, most fundamentally, in the national limit of its horizons. Capitalism forms itself, from its beginnings, as a global socioeconomic formation. It is an international greasy-pole hierarchy of competing firms. Within this formation the nation-state is unavoidably a firm, and there is also a greasy-pole hierarchy of competing states. The understanding that the nation-state is a firm competing in the world market is a trivial commonplace of modern capitalist politics: the need to preserve or improve 'British competitiveness' is a constant mantra of both Labour and Tories, and equivalents can be found in the major parties of every country. It also forms part of Marx's criticism of the Gotha programme (quoted in my February 23 article). To form a government within this framework therefore necessarily commits the participants to manage the interests of the nation-state in global competition.

Success in this competition allows the basis for reforms in the interests of the national working class. Or, more exactly, of sections of the national working class: there are always groups (particularly workers in small firms, young workers, migrants, etc) who must be excluded for the sake of compromise with the middle class parties, as Engels predicted in criticising Vollmar. But this success is not 'purely economic'. Capitals are able to externalise the costs of economic downswing onto weaker states and the firms (and landlords, petty producers, etc) associated with these states. Competition on the world market is thus military-political-economic.

The policy of reform through coalition governments thus entails (a) the displacement of the business cycle onto the weaker states and their firms and populations; and (b) the displacement of the social polarisation which capitalism produces onto polarisation between nations. On the one hand, this gives the reformists' negative claims their credibility: reforms are actually achieved and social polarisation is reduced in the successful states. On the other, the reformists necessarily commit themselves to sustaining and managing an imperial military force.

Sentimental objections to imperialism and foreign adventures, and the residual commitment to the ideas of universal military service and a people's militia, inevitably give way, once reformists are actually in government, to the hard needs of sustaining the state's success and standing in the global hierarchy, which is the only means by which reforms can be sustained.

One result is that reformism of this kind tends to be marginal in the 'global south': the power of the local state is simply insufficient to displace the economic contradictions onto other states and thereby offer long-term successful reforms.

Even this success at the price of bloody hands cannot forever be sustained, because externalising the business cycle has its own limits. As a world top-dog state, like Britain or the US, and the lead sectors associated with this state, enter into decline, the externalised downswing phase of the business cycle returns, affecting not only them, but the other states near the top of the global hierarchy. Competition between these states intensifies. As a result, if the state as a firm is to remain globally competitive, it must endeavour to take back the reforms which have been given and drive wages, hours and working conditions down towards the global average (their true market value). The project of reform through coalition government thereby comes to offer 'reformism without reforms' or merely the 'less bad' (Blair in preference to Major, and so on).

But every other state is also doing the same thing and, the more they do it, the more global effective purchasing power declines, forcing more attacks ... in reality, this is merely the downswing of the business cycle postponed. It is accumulated in time and displaced onto a global scale, returning as global market pressure on the nation-state. The downswing of the ordinary business cycle must end in bankruptcies, which both free productive capital from the claims of overproduced fictional capital to income, and devalorise overinvested physical capital. It is the bankruptcies which free up space for a new economic upswing.

In the same way, the global downswing must end in the destruction of the global money and property claims of the declining world hegemon state: Britain in 1914-45; the US at some point in this coming century. In its (ultimately futile) efforts to put off this result, the declining world hegemon state must respond by an increased exploitation of its financial claims and its military dominance - as Britain did in the later 19th century, and as the US is doing now. The deferred and transposed business cycle can only overcome this problem by ending in war.

At the point of global war between the great powers, the illusory character of the policy of reform through coalition government becomes transparent. All that maintains the reformists are mass fear of the consequences of military defeat, and direct support from the state in the form of repression of their left opponents. Thus both 1914-18 and 1939-45 produced major weakening of the reform policy within the workers' movement and the growth of alternatives. In the event, after 1945 the destruction of British world hegemony enabled a new long phase of growth, and reformism was able to revive. We are now on the road to another collapse of reformist politics ... but what is lacking is a strategically plausible alternative.

The left: 'All out for ...'

The alternative offered by the left wing of the Second International was the 'strategy of the mass strike'. The idea was an elementary one. In the first place, the strike weapon had been and remained at the core of the effectiveness of trade union struggles for immediate demands. Secondly, the struggle for the International itself was intimately connected with the struggle for May Day - waged through international one-day strike action - from its founding Congress in 1889.

The proposal of the left was that the International could take the political initiative by extending the use of the strike weapon in support of the demands of the minimum programme. As the working class was increasingly able to win victories by this weapon, its confidence and political self-assertiveness would grow, culminating (perhaps) in a general strike which challenged for power - either demanding the transfer of political power to the working class or (in the most Bakuninist form) immediately beginning the creation of the new society out of the free cooperation begun in the strike movement.

A range of theoretical grounds have been offered for this strategic line, from theoretical anarchist reasonings, through varieties of Hegelian Marxism, to interpretations of Trotsky's Transitional programme. As with the right, the theoretical arguments need not be considered here. Like that of the right, the strategic line of the left involved both a positive predictive claim and a negative one. The negative claim was that the method of electoral struggle and coalitions - or even the effort to build permanent mass workers' organisations, as opposed to ad hoc organisations of mass struggle like strike committees - necessarily led to corruption of the workers' representatives and organisations and the evolution of these organisations into mere forms of capitalist control of the working class. The positive claim was that the method of the strike struggle could be extended and generalised. Experience has something to tell us about the value of these claims.

True or false?

The negative claim may, on its face, appear to be amply proved by the experience of the 20th century. It is certainly true of the policy of reform through coalition governments, for the reasons given above. On the experience of the 20th century, it appears to be also true of the 'Leninist party', which claimed to escape it. Those communist parties which took power became corrupt apparatuses tyrannising over the working classes of their countries, and most have ended in a return to capitalism, while most of the 'official' CPs of the capitalist countries have become simple reformist parties of the kind advocated by the right wing of the Second International. The groups to their left have, to the extent that they have attained mass support, gone down the same path and, to the extent that they have not, have in the main become fossilised sects; in either case, characterised internally by the petty dictatorship of the party bureaucracy.

The trouble is that if the negative claim is taken seriously to be absolutely proved, it is self-defeating. The implication is that nothing can be done until the masses move into a mass strike wave, because to organise in any other situation would imply the struggle for reforms, including electoral activity' coalitions, and organisational forms which turn out to be corrupt. Unfortunately, however - as we will see in a moment - when a mass strike wave does break out, this in itself immediately poses the questions of government and forms of authority. Under these conditions, the unorganised advocates of the mass strike as an alternative to permanent organisation and the struggle for reforms are marginalised by the organised parties. Like the Russian anarchists in the summer and autumn of 1917, the anarchist CNT trade union confederation in the Spanish revolution, the Bolivian Trotskyists in 1951 and the Portuguese far left in 1974-76, they will be driven to give support to some contender for governmental power, and lose any political initiative.

What I have just said is, in fact, no novelty. It is the substance of Marx's and Engels's objection to the Bakuninists' general strike strategy, expressed (among other places) in Engels's The Bakuninists at work (1873). The Bakuninists 'rejected authority' - offering, in relation to the First International, an early form of the idea that organising and fighting for reforms leads to corruption, and advocating a form of general strike strategy. When the revolutionary movement in Spain allowed them to seize power in some localities in 1873, the result of their 'rejection of authority' was alliance with localist forces, leading to an inability to take any coordinated action to resist the counteroffensive of the military-clerical right wing against the republicans.

The underlying problem is that 'authority' is, at bottom, merely a means of collective decision-making. To 'reject authority' is therefore to reject collective decision-making and - in the end - render yourself powerless. The existing social structures of authority then reassert themselves. In the end, anarchists have themselves discovered this, in Jo Freeman's famous pamphlet The tyranny of structurelessness (1970). It happens just as much within small anarchist organisations (the 'existing social structures of authority' then being gender and class hierarchy) as in mass workers' parties.

The almost uniform failure, by processes of bureaucratisation and corruption, of workers' and socialist parties, big and small, tells us that we have not solved the problem of what sort of authority - that is, what sort of mechanisms of decision-making - will serve the interests of the working class. It also tells us that it is absolutely urgent to do so; and that the standard Trotskyist response, originated by Trotsky himself, that "the party 'regime' is not a political question", is profoundly false. The 'party regime' is inevitably the image of the sort of regime we are fighting for.

But the proposition that the tyranny of structurelessness leads to the reaffirmation of the existing social structures of authority is true not only of groups and parties, but also of mass strike movements and revolutionary crises - as the examples given above show. When we see why this is the case, we will also see why the positive side of the 'mass strike strategy' turns a partial truth into a strategic falsity.

The positive claim

Let us imagine for a moment a general strike which is both truly general (everyone who works for a wage withdraws their labour) and indefinite, to continue until certain demands are met, happening in a fully capitalist country like Britain. Power supplies are cut off, and with them water supplies and the telephone system. No trains or buses run, and no petrol can be obtained except from small owner-run petrol stations; this soon runs out. The supermarkets are closed, and no deliveries are made to those small owner-run shops that remain open. The hospitals and doctors' surgeries are closed.

It should at once be apparent that this cannot continue for more than a few days. If the result is not to be general catastrophe, the workers need not simply to withdraw their labour, but to organise positively to take over the capitalists' facilities and run them in the interests of the working class. A truly all-out indefinite general strike, therefore, immediately demands the effective de facto expropriation of the capitalists. As a result, it at once poses the question: will the state protect the capitalists' property rights? In other words, it poses the question of political power.

Now, of course, what the advocates of the mass strike strategy were calling for was not such a truly all-out indefinite general strike called by the political party. The reality of mass strike movements is something a great deal more messy, of the sort described, for Russia, in Luxemburg's The mass strike, but seen since then in many different countries at different times (See also Jack Conrad's discussion in Weekly Worker January 13 2005). The political regime falls into crisis. Some spark sets off the mass movement. Rather than a single, planned, truly all-out, indefinite general strike, there is a wave of mass strikes - some protest actions for political demands; some partial struggles for economic demands. They begin to overlap and are accompanied by political radicalisation.

But a movement of this sort still poses the question of political power, and for exactly the same reasons. A mass strike wave disrupts normal supply chains. This can be true even of a strike in a single industry, like the miners' strikes in Britain in 1972 and 1974. Equally, however, the capitalists' property rights are, from their point of view, not merely rights to things, but rights to the streams of surplus which can be made to flow from these things. The strike in itself is therefore an interference with their property, and a mass strike wave threatens the security of their property. They begin to disinvest, and to press the state for stronger action against strikers.

The economy begins to come unravelled. The loss of the normal (capitalist) mechanisms of authority (decision-making) impacts on the broad masses in the form of dislocation and shortages of goods. A strike wave or revolutionary crisis can last longer than a truly all-out indefinite general strike, but it cannot last longer than a period of months - at most a couple of years. In this situation, if the workers' movement does not offer an alternative form of authority - alternative means of decision-making which are capable of running the economy - the existing social structures of authority are necessarily reaffirmed. Either the military moves in (Spain in 1873-74 and 1936, etc) or the reformists, put in power, re-establish capitalist order (Ebert-Scheidemann in 1918; everywhere in Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II; in a much weaker sense, the 1974-79 Wilson government in Britain).

The 'mass strike strategy' thus precisely fails to resolve the strategic problem of authority which the negative aspect of the left's approach - the critique of the struggle for reforms - posed.

All power to the soviets?

Lenin in 1917 believed that the Russian working class had found in the soviets - workers' councils - the solution to the strategic problem of authority posed by the mass strike movement. Growing out of the strike movement itself, the soviets created a form of authority which shared the characteristics of democracy and accountability from below which Marx described in the Paris Commune. Communism could therefore take the political form of the struggle for soviets and for soviet power.

In fact, as I have argued before, this belief was illusory (see Weekly Worker Nov 11 2004). Almost as soon as the Bolsheviks had taken power, they were forced to move from a militia to a regular army, and with it came logistics and the need for a state bureaucracy. The soviets and militia could not perform the core social function of the state, defending the society against external attack. The problem of authority over the state bureaucracy was unsolved. Lenin and the Bolsheviks fell back on the forms of authority in their party and, as these proved a problem in the civil war, almost unthinkingly militarised their party and created a corrupt bureaucratic regime.

But 'All power to the soviets' was also illusory in another sense. Even before they withered away into mere fronts for the Russian Communist Party, the soviets did not function like parliaments or governments - or even the Paris Commune - in continuous session. They met discontinuously, with executive committees managing their affairs. Though the Bolsheviks took power in the name of the soviets, in reality the central all-Russia coordination of the soviets was provided by the political parties - Mensheviks and SRs, and later Bolsheviks. It was Sovnarkom, the government formed by the Bolsheviks and initially including some of their allies, and its ability to reach out through the Bolshevik Party as a national organisation, which 'solved' the crisis of authority affecting Russia in 1917.

Subsequent history confirms this judgment. Workers' councils and similar forms have appeared in many strike waves and revolutionary crises since 1917. In none have these forms been able to offer an alternative centre of authority, an alternative decision-making mechanism for the whole society. This role is unavoidably played by a government - either based on the surviving military-bureaucratic state core, or on the existing organisations of the workers' movement.

In Cuba, for example, the overreaction of the Batista regime to a small guerrilla organisation, the July 26 Movement, in November 1958 triggered a general strike which brought the regime down. The ensuing two years saw a succession of government arrangements and a continuing wave of action by the working class in various forms. The end result was a party-state regime formed by the merger of a minority of the July 26 Movement with the much larger Popular Socialist Party (Communist Party). It was the PSP which, in the end, provided the alternative centre of authority.

Present relevance

The falsity of the line of 'All power to the soviets' brings us momentarily back to the current debate in the French Ligue. At least some in the Ligue have recognised the falsity of their variant of 'All power to the soviets' - the 'organs of dual power' line of the Tenth Congress of the Mandelite Fourth International (or, as Artous and Durand put it, the strategy of the insurrectionary general strike). But then the question is, what strategy? Durand's strategy is a version of Eurocommunism, and this was itself a variant of the positions argued by Bernstein and the right wing of the Second International. We have seen in this article that this is no strategy either.

We should also have seen that the problem with both strategies centres on the questions of government as a central coordinating authority, and the role and structural forms of the military-bureaucratic state. The right sought to form governments based on the existing state; the left adopted a strategy which, at the end of the day, evaded the whole problem of state authority. In truth, these issues, originally debated between the 1870s and 1900s, are live, unresolved questions in today's politics. In the next article we will see what, if anything, the centre tendency in the Second International led by Karl Kautsky - which until 1914 included the Bolsheviks - has to teach us on these issues.