Republican democracy and revolutionary patience

Mike Macnair concludes his series on communist strategy by throwing down the challenge to the existing left

This series has been long. I started with the partial debate on 'revolutionary strategy' in the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire's theoretical journal and the response of the Socialist Workers Party's Alex Callinicos. I argued that it was necessary to go back over the strategic debates of the past in order to go forward and effectively address strategy now.

The primary focus of the series has been to attempt to understand critically the various strategic choices made by socialists between 150 and 80 years ago, rather than echoing uncritically one or another side of the old debates, as often occurs with the left today. It is necessary to follow the former course because those choices have led up to the defeats, demoralisation and disorientation that currently affects the socialist movement internationally.

They are also, in reality, live political choices today. This has been reflected throughout the series. The fundamental choice between the perspective of the self-emancipation of the working class and forms of utopian or ethical socialism is posed to the LCR by the arguments of Artous and Durand, and in British politics - and elsewhere - by both Eurocommunism and 'green socialism'.

The coalitionist policy of the right wing of the Second International has been since 1945 the policy of Second International socialists and 'official communists' alike. The substantive difference between these policies, before first Eurocommunism and then the fall of the USSR, was that communists proposed for each country a socialist-liberal coalition that would commit to geopolitical alignment with the Soviet bloc. With this sheet anchor gone, the majority of the former 'official communists' are at best disoriented, and at worst form the right of governing coalitions (as is the case with the ex-communists and ex-fellow-travellers within the Labour Party in Britain).

Mass-strike strategy

The Bakuninist general-strike strategy descended into the 'mass-strike' strategy of the left wing of the Second International. The direct inheritors of this policy are today's collectivist anarchists and advocates of 'direct action' and 'movementism'. But its indirect inheritors are the Trotskyists. The Trotskyist idea of a 'transitional method' is that consciousness must change "in struggle" on the basis of "present consciousness".

Trotskyists imagine that partial, trade union, etc struggles can be led into a generalised challenge to the capitalist state, and in the course of that challenge the Trotskyists could guide the movement to the seizure of power in the form of 'All power to the soviets' - in spite of their marginal numbers before the crisis breaks out. Taken together with the Trotskyists' extreme bureaucratic centralism and various secretive and frontist tactics, this policy amounts almost exactly to the policy of Bakunin and the Bakuninists in 1870-73.

It has had almost as little success as the Bakuninists' projects. Before 1991, the Trotskyists could more or less plausibly account for this failure by the dominance in the global workers' movement of the Soviet bureaucracy and hence of 'official communism'. Since 1991, the global political collapse of the latter has left the Trotskyists without this excuse. Without the Soviet Union and 'official communism' to their right, the Trotskyists have proved to be politically rudderless.

To say this is not to reject in principle mass strikes - or one-day general strikes or even insurrectionary general strikes. The point is that these tactics, which may be appropriate under various conditions, do not amount to a strategy for workers' power and socialism. Socialists should certainly not oppose spontaneous movements of this sort that may arise in the course of the class struggle, but rather fight within them - as Jack Conrad's series on the 1926 general strike explains - for a political alternative to the current capitalist regime.


The fourth article in this series, on the strategy of the Kautskyan centre, may appear at first to be merely historical (Weekly Worker April 13). After all, the Kautskyan centre after its reunification with the right in 1923 collapsed into the coalitionist right, and after fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany and 1939-45, it left behind virtually no trace in the parties of the Socialist International.

However, this was not the end of the story. In the first place, much of 'Kautskyism' was reflected in the more constructive part of the politics of the Comintern - and from there, in a more limited way, in the more constructive part of the politics of Trotskyism.

Second, although the post-war 'official communist' parties were coalitionist in their political aspirations, their attachment to the USSR meant that the socialist parties and the left bourgeois parties generally refused to enter 'left coalitions' with them. The result was that the communist parties were forced in practice to act as (rather less democratic) Kautskyan parties. In doing so, they could promote a sort of class-political consciousness and a sort of internationalism, and this could provide a considerable strengthening of the workers' movement.

In this sense 'Kautskyism' means the struggle for an independent workers' party, intimately linked to independent workers' media, trade unions, cooperatives and so on, and for - at least symbolic - internationalism. On the other hand, it means the struggle against the ideas of short cuts to power that evade the problem of winning a majority, through coalitionism or 'conning the working class into taking power' via the mass strike. These are positive lessons for today's left.

But there are negative lessons too. The Kautskyans fostered the illusion of taking hold of and using the existing bureaucratic-coercive state. They allowed the idea of the democratic republic - in the hands of Marx and Engels the immediate ­alternative to this state - to be turned into a synonym for 'rule of law' constitutionalism. The national horizons of their strategy helped support the feeding the working class into the mincing machine of war; and so did their belief that unity in a single party was indispensable, even if it came at the price of giving the coalitionist right wing a veto.

The statist, 'rule of law' and nationalist commitments shared by the Kautskyan centre and the coalitionist right meant that they collapsed ignominiously in the face of Italian fascism and German Nazism. This lesson has been repeated over and over again in the colonial 'third world'. In the imperialist countries, since the first impulse of the post-war settlement began to fade, the electoral cycle has repeatedly produced weaker reformist governments that end in disillusionment, the temporary rise of the far right and the victory of further right centre-right governments.

These, too, are live political issues at the present date. The large majority of the existing left uses nationalist arguments and seeks to take hold of and use the existing bureaucratic-coercive state machinery.

The idea that unity of the 'broad movement' is essential, even if this means that the pro-capitalist right wing is given a veto, is the essence of the French Socialist left's decision to stick with the right rather than unify the opponents of the EU constitutional treaty, and of Rifondazione's decision to go into the Olive Tree government in Italy.


The primary inheritors in today's politics of the ideas of the early Comintern are the Trotskyist and ex-Trotskyist organisations. To a lesser extent the same is true of Maoist groups, although since the right turn of Beijing in the 1980s these have become smaller and less influential. Both sets of ideas have a wider influence in diluted form through ex-member 'independents' who have got fed up with the organised groups but not made a systematic critique of their politics.

The main burden of the subsequent articles in this series has been to try and separate out those elements in the ideas of the Comintern that were rational responses to real strategic problems from those that were blind alleys that lend support to the refusal of organised groups and 'independents' alike to unite effectively. This was particularly relevant to defeatism, the "party of a new type", and the "general staff of world revolution".

The reverse of the coin, in the case of both Trotskyist groups and independents, is the use of 'united front' and 'workers' government' slogans to justify diplomatic deals with elements of the 'official' (ie, coalitionist and nationalist) left. These almost invariably involve 'non-sectarian' sectarianism: ie, sectarianism to their left and opportunism to their right. The phenomenon can be seen in full flower in the SWP. It also informs the LCR majority's use of 'united front' policy to evade the problem of the disunity between the Ligue and Lutte Ouvrière.

The struggle for a united and effective left in the workers' movement therefore unavoidably involves a struggle for a definite break with the errors of the early Comintern that have been inherited by the Trotskyists, and with the Trotskyists' own errors in interpreting Comintern materials.

In several countries partial gains have been made by left unity. Partial willingness to break with bureaucratic centralism has been the key to both the unity and the gains. In England, the US, France and Argentina this has been absent and no progress has been made - in Argentina in spite of conditions of acute crisis in 2000-01.

At present, however, it seems depressingly likely that the continued coalitionism of the former 'official communists' and Maoists, and the Trotskyist diplomatic version of the 'united front', will result in these gains coming to nothing. The fate of the Brazilian Workers Party seems a clear example. If this depressing vista comes true, the Trotskyist sects will no doubt say, 'There you are - told you so'. But - as the failure of the sects in England, the US, France and Argentina shows - the truth will be that there has been an insufficiently critical break with the inheritance of the early Comintern.


The strategic coordinates that I have positively argued for in this series can be summarised as follows:

1. There is no way forward from capitalism other than the self-emancipation of the working class. The ideas of a peasant-led revolution, of a long-term strategic alliance of the proletariat and peasantry as equals, of 'advanced social democracy' or of a 'broad democratic alliance' have all been proved false. They have been proved false by the fate of the so-called 'socialist countries' and by the fact that the fall of the USSR brought down with it the concessions that capital made to social democratic and left nationalist governments elsewhere in order to 'contain communism'. The idea of the 'movement of movements' has proved with extraordinary rapidity to lead nowhere.

2. The 'working class' here means the whole social class dependent on the wage fund, including employed and unemployed, unwaged women 'homemakers', youth and pensioners. It does not just mean the employed workers, still less the 'productive' workers or the workers in industry. This class has the potential to lead society forward beyond capitalism because it is separated from the means of production and hence forced to cooperate and organise to defend its interests. This cooperation foreshadows the free cooperative appropriation of the means of production that is communism.

3. The self-emancipation of the working class requires the working class to lay its hands collectively on the means of production. This does not mean state ownership of the means of production, which is merely a legal form. Without democratic republicanism, the legal form of state ownership means private ownership by state bureaucrats. It means that the working class collectively decides how the means of production are used.

4. The self-emancipation of the working class therefore means in the first place the struggle for the working class to take political power. The only form through which the working class can take political power and lay collective hands on the means of production is the democratic republic. This does not mean 'rule of law' parliamentary constitutionalism, to which it is, in fact, opposed. It means a regime in which - in addition to the political liberties partially provided by 'rule of law' constitutionalism (freedom of speech, assembly, association, movement, etc) and an extension of these liberties - all public officials are elected and recallable; there is universal military training and service and the right to bear arms and political rights in the armed forces; generalised trial by jury; freedom of information; and so on.

5. In particular, democratic republicanism implies that what has to be decided centrally for effective common action should be decided centrally, but that what does not have to be decided centrally should be decided locally (or sectorally: rail timetables, for example). Self-government of the localities, not Bonapartist centralism. But equally not federalism, which hands the ultimate power to the lawyers and turns the rights of the units of the federation into a form of private property.

The reason for points (4) and (5) is, in the first place, that the working class can only organise its cooperation through unity in action on the basis of accepting diversity of opinions; and, second, that there cannot be a common, cooperative appropriation of the means of production where there is private ownership of information, of institutional powers or of 'political careers'. Without the principles of democratic republicanism there is precisely private ownership by individuals or groups of information, of institutional powers and of 'political careers'. That is the meaning of the bureaucracies of the former 'socialist countries', of the trade unions, of the socialist and communist parties, and of the Trotskyist sects.

6. Since the only form in which the working class can actually take power is the democratic republic, it is only when this idea wins a majority in the society that the democratic republic can be achieved. Without clear majority support a democratic republic is self-evidently impossible. All ideas of an enlightened minority conning the working class into taking the power, whether through coalitions, or through the mass strike, or more generally through one or another sort of frontist arrangement of the minority party cog driving the bigger wheel (front, soviet, etc) have to be rejected.

7. To say this is not to reject either illegal or forcible action in defence of the immediate interests of the working class. The defensive action of minorities - particular sections of workers taking strike action, refusing to pay rents, organising self-defence against fascist attacks, etc - may appear to be anti-democratic because it is minority action against the wishes of an elected government.

This could be the case if the state was a democratic republic. But it is not. In spite of universal suffrage, the state regime is, in fact, oligarchic, corrupt and committed to the interests of the capitalist minority through the 'rule of law', deficit financing in the financial markets and the national-state form in the world market.

To take as good coin the capitalists' and their states' hypocritical protestations against illegal or forcible action is merely to disarm the working class, since the capitalists and the state routinely act illegally and make illegal use of force in defence of their interests. The point is to avoid making the use of force or minority action into a strategy - let alone one that attempts to evade the struggle for a majority. We cannot claim to impose our minimum programme on the society as a whole through minority action. But self-defence of workers' immediate interests by sections of the class in defiance of a governmental 'majority' created by corrupt and fraudulent means is in no sense anti-democratic.


8. The struggle for the working class to take political power involves in the here and now the organisation of a political party standing for the independent interests of the working class. This follows from the fact that the class as a class is not the same thing as the particular sections of the class, who are in employment, etc. It also follows from the fact that to emancipate itself the working class must take political power and give the lead to society as a whole.

9. Such a political party needs to be democratic-republican in its organisational character, just as much as the form of authority that the working class needs to create in the society as a whole needs to be the democratic republic. That is, it needs the liberties (freedom of speech, etc), freedom of information, elected and recallable officials, and both central decision-making mechanisms and self-government of the localities and sectors.

The last point follows in the first place from the point made to explain points (4) and (5): the working class needs the principles of democratic republicanism in order to cooperate, and there can be no real, free cooperation where there is private property in information and in 'political careers'.

It follows in the second place from a central lesson of the Russian Revolution, repeatedly confirmed elsewhere. It is the existing party organisations of the working class that can offer an alternative form of authority to the authority of the bourgeoisie: not the trade unions, and not the improvised organisations of the mass struggle such as soviets. Moreover, all states are party-states, shaped by the parties that created them and excluding the parties that opposed their creation. Hence a bureaucratic centralist party, if it took political power, would inevitably create a bureaucratic centralist state.

10. To do the job of organising the struggle for the self-emancipation of the working class, the workers' party has to be independent of the capitalists and of the existing capitalist state. This implies that the working class has to build up its own funds, its own educational and welfare systems and its own media. Dependence on the capitalists and their state for these resources results in inability to speak against the capitalists' interests.

It implies also that the workers' party cannot accept responsibility either as a minority in a government with capitalist or pro-capitalist parties or in any government at all that is not committed to the immediate creation of the democratic republic in the interests of the working class.

The underlying reason for this point was explained in the third article and the eighth (Weekly Worker March 30, May 25). Capitalist nation-states are firms in the world market, and to defend the interests of the nation-state it is necessary to carry on the capitalists' side of the class struggle against the working class.

11. Ideally, this implies that there should be a single workers' party uniting both those who believe that the workers' interests can be defended through the existing state regime and those who insist on the struggle for the democratic republic, with this difference expressed in the form of public factions with their own press, organisation and membership, and complete freedom of criticism. At the crunch moments when it becomes necessary to do so, the working class would then have the ability to choose between these factions.

In practice, however, this is impossible. Because the state and the capitalists are on their side, the state loyalists/coalitionists will always insist on a veto on 'revolutionary' politics. This makes it necessary for those who stand for the working class taking the political power to organise a party separate from the state loyalists/coalitionists.

This, in turn, poses the question of the 'united class front': the struggle for unity in action of the whole class around immediate common goals, against the split forced by the loyalist/coalitionist demands for a veto.


12. Capitalism is an international system and both the capitalist class and the working class are international classes. The nation-state is merely a firm within the international capitalist system; it is just as much vulnerable to the flight of capital and disinvestment as are individual firms. The working class can therefore only lay collective hands on the means of production and decide democratically on their use on a world scale. The first and foremost lesson of the 'short 20th century' is the impossibility of socialism in a single country.

But exactly the same reasons mean that it is impossible to have political power of the working class or the democratic republic - for more than a few months - in a single country. The struggle for workers' power is therefore a struggle for a global democratic republic and immediately for continental democratic republics.

There is an important implication of this point: it is strategically necessary - as far as possible - to fight for a majority for working class politics on the international scale before attempting to take the power in any single country: taking the power in any single country, unless the workers' party is on the verge of at least a continental majority, is likely to lead to disaster.

13. Further, it is impossible to have full class political consciousness - ie, mass consciousness by the working class of itself as a class and its independent interests - in a single country. The independent class party of the working class, in the broadest sense, is necessarily an international party. Indeed, it is increasingly the case that cooperation of the working class in international trade union organisations is essential to defending the immediate interests of workers in the direct class struggle.

14. It is impossible to achieve either the democratic republic or the independent workers' party without rejecting both bureaucratic/Bonapartist centralism and legal federalism. This is true all the more of the struggle for the global or continental democratic republic and those for an international workers' party and international trade unions, etc. This is the fundamental lesson both of Comintern and of the petty caricatures of Comintern that the Trotskyists have made.

What is not said

I have said nothing in this summary about imperialism, although I have written on this issue at length elsewhere. The global hierarchy of nation-states is real, and justifies defeatism in the imperialist countries in relation to their colonial wars. But the primary conclusion from the Leninist theory of imperialism - the 'anti-imperialist united front', which descends to the modern left as Maoism and third-worldism - is shown by the experience of the 20th century to be a blind alley.

I have said nothing about the 'permanent revolution' versus 'stages theory'. Again, a principal lesson of the 20th century is that both approaches are blind alleys. In addition, both are strategic approaches to pre-capitalist states and countries under global capitalism. There are a few of these left, but not enough to justify treating the issues as fundamental to strategy.

I have said nothing about one of the principal issues that has divided the left: that of Soviet defencism versus third-campism. Views on the class character of the USSR, etc are important to Marxist theory. But the fall of the USSR means that this is no longer a question of strategy.

In relation to the national question, I have argued that the positive goal of the workers' party should be the international ­- continental and eventually global - democratic republic. The implication of this approach is that slogans about national 'self-determination' have a secondary tactical character.

In relation to 'gender politics' I have argued on the one hand that the self-emancipation of the working class means the self-emancipation of the whole social class dependent on the wage fund. It should be obvious that this is inconceivable without the struggle for the self-emancipation of women as part of this struggle. On the other hand, I have argued that the idea of a united, cross-class, feminist movement as an effective political actor has proved illusory in the course of the last 30 years (Weekly Worker January 23).

'Reform or revolution'

The Fourth International in general has argued for the creation of parties that are "not programmatically delimited between reform and revolution". The examples are the Brazilian Workers Party, Rifondazione, the Scottish Socialist Party and so on. Comrade Callinicos, in contrast, argues that the dividing line between 'reform and revolution' is still fundamental. His principal conclusion from this is the need for the 'Leninist' party, by which he means a bureaucratic-centralist Trotskyist party; with the consequence that alliances such as Respect (ie, coalitions and fronts) are what can be achieved on a broader level.

The burden of the whole series has been that this is an ideologised form of a real political divide. The real divide is, on the one side, for or against taking responsibility in a coalition government to run the capitalist state. On the other side, it is for or against the open advocacy of the independent interests of the working class, of the democratic republic and of internationalism (because the loyalists/coalitionists veto this open advocacy).

As I have said before (point 11), there can be partial unity around immediate tasks between the partisans of coalitionism/loyalism and those of working class political power and internationalism; but the condition of this unity is open debate and unflinching criticism of the coalitionists/loyalists by an organised party or public faction of the partisans of working class political power. Otherwise we might as well just join the Labour Party, the French Socialist Party or whatever as individuals.

The Fourth International is for unity in a party that involves at least partial suspension of criticism ('non-sectarianism'). The SWP is for unity in a coalition that equally involves at least partial suspension of criticism. In both cases this is merely to give political support to loyalism/coalitionism. The SWP's difference from the Fourth International therefore reduces to the organisational separation of the 'Leninist' - ie, bureaucratic-centralist - party, without this party having tasks of overt criticism of the coalitionists among its current allies. This is merely to be a sect.

The ideological form is thus the counterposition of 'reform' and 'revolution'.

Marxists are social revolutionaries in the sense that we seek the transfer of social leadership from the capitalist class to the working class. We are also political revolutionaries in the sense that we understand that this cannot be finally achieved without the replacement of the current political state order.

The Trotskyists' conception of 'revolution' has been the mass-strike strategy. As it has become clear that this strategy is illusory, 'revolution' reduces to the need for the 'Leninist party': that is, to a bastardised form of the false conclusions about the need for Bonapartist centralism that the Comintern drew from the belief that Europe was about to enter into generalised civil war.

At a more abstract theoretical level these ideas are given support by misinterpreting a real fact. This is that history moves at more than one speed: sometimes in a gradual, molecular fashion; sometimes in extremely rapid processes of change. It is the extremely rapid processes of change that are commonly called 'revolutions'. The Trotskyists then argue that we need a 'Leninist party' for future revolutionary times. Some Trotskyists and ex-Trotskyists reverse the point: until the outbreak of open revolutionary crisis, we do not need a revolutionary politics.

The trouble is that social revolution and political revolution alike involve both the gradual molecular processes of change and the short burst of crisis. By fetishising the short burst of crisis the Trotskyists devalue the slow, patient work of building up a political party on the basis of a minimum political programme in times of molecular processes of change. The result is, when crisis does break out, they have created only sects, not a party, and are effectively powerless.

Fight for an opposition

As I have argued, the present problem is not to fight for a workers' government, but for an opposition that will openly express the independent interests of the working class (Weekly Worker May 25). Without beginning with the struggle for an opposition, there is no chance of confronting in the future the problem of an alternative governing authority to that of the capitalists.

In parliamentary regimes, which are now a common form across most of the globe, the capitalists rule immediately through the idea that the point of elections is to give legitimacy to a government that heads up the bureaucratic-coercive state - and electing representatives to the parliament or other representative bodies is only a way of choosing a government. This fetishism of government forces the formation of parties and coalitions in which the capitalists' immediate paid agents have a veto over policy, and creates the corrupt duopoly/monopoly of the professional politicians.

Within this political regime, to govern is to serve capital; and, therefore, to create a coalition that  aims to pose as an alternative government within this political regime is also to serve capital. To fight for an opposition is to insist that we will not take responsibility for government without commitment to fundamental change in the political regime.

This is by no means to reject altogether either coalitions or blocs around single issues, or electoral agreements that can assist in getting past the undemocratic hurdles set up to secure the monopoly of the corrupt professional politicians - provided these blocs or agreements do not involve either commitment to form a government or suspension of criticism. It is perfectly acceptable to enter into such limited blocs or agreements not only with Labour and similar parties, but also with openly pro-capitalist ones. When, for example, the Liberals and some Tories opposed the religious hatred bill, they served the interests of the working class, whatever their reason for doing so.

We should not take responsibility for government without commitment to radical-democratic change. But we should propose, or support, both individual democratic reforms (such as freedom of information or a reduction in the patronage powers of the prime minister) and reforms that strengthen the position of the working class (such as a national minimum wage or limitations on working hours).

To oppose in the interests of the working class is also to build political support for the immediate defensive struggles of the working class against capital. Direct political support is valuable. But so is indirect support, where the workers' party at every opportunity challenges the undemocratic character of the political regime - its corruption, its statism, its dependence on the financial markets and so on - and puts forward the alternative of the democratic republic. This activity serves to undermine the false claims of the regime to democratic legitimacy deployed against strikers, etc.


This strategic orientation demands patience. The fundamental present problem is that after the failures of the strategies of the 20th century, in the absence of a Marxist strategic understanding, most socialists are socialists by ethical and emotional commitment only. This leads to the adoption of 'get-rich-quick' solutions that enter into the capitalist politicians' government games.

This is the trouble with the idea that the Ligue should join a new gauche plurielle project rather than addressing seriously the question of unity with Lutte Ouvrière; with Rifondazione's decision to participate in the Olive Tree government; with the PDS's participation in a coalition with the SDP in Berlin; with the SSP's orientation to an SNP-led coalition for independence; with Respect. The result is not to lead towards an effective workers' party, but towards another round of brief hope and long disillusionment.

A different sort of impatience is offered by those who split prematurely and refuse partial unity in the hope of building their own 'Leninist party': the decision of the far-left platforms (Progetto Comunista and Proposta) to split prematurely from Rifondazione; the SAV's split orientation in the WASG-PDS fusion process; the splits of the Socialist Party and Workers Power from the Socialist Alliance; and the refusal of much of the left of the SA to work as a minority in Respect. We find that, although these sects sell themselves as 'revolutionary', when they stand for election either to parliaments or in unions their policies are broadly similar to the coalitionists. They are still playing within the capitalist rules of the game.

The left, in other words, needs to break with the endless series of failed 'quick fixes' that has characterised the 20th century. It needs a strategy of patience, like Kautsky's: but one that is internationalist and radical-democratic, not one that accepts the existing order of nation-states.