International from the start

Mike Macnair continues his polemic against the 'national democratic revolution' schema of the Revolutionary Democratic Group's Dave Craig

Comrade Dave Craig's reply to my polemic of November last year began with the case for a combination of a "revolutionary Marxist faction" and a "socialist republican" new mass workers' party. In terms of the evidence of immediate, British political dynamics, this project is plainly unrealistic. To support it, comrade Craig advanced a pseudo-dialectical schema (drawn originally from a side comment by Trotsky), in which Chartism is negated by Labourism and Labourism, in a negation of the negation, is negated by a new and higher form of Chartism.

In my last article I exposed the fact that the historical argument for this schema is unsound and that it yields no usable analysis of the dynamics of the Labour Party, but only a sectarian attitude towards this party. But perhaps the schema can be saved by carrying the analysis to a higher level? If Britain is ripe for national "democratic revolution", then it can be predicted that the "crisis of democracy", or crisis of the British constitution, will produce the conditions for a mass workers' party of democratic revolution, and thus support the Revolutionary Democratic Group's prediction that there will be a tendency towards a "republican socialist" mass party. This will in turn (perhaps) support comrade Craig's claim that the CPGB's line of fighting for the unity of the existing Marxists, on the basis of open defence of Marxist politics, is "sectarian".

In his February 15 and March 22 articles, comrade Craig argues for the RDG's theory of "democratic permanent revolution", which purports to justify the conclusion that what is on the agenda for Britain is a national "democratic revolution". Unfortunately, comrade Craig's arguments display an utter incomprehension of the fundamentals of historical materialism, a crude mangling of dialectical reasoning and totally unrealistic practical strategic politics. The dialectics will have to be left to the third article.

Practical strategic politics

It is best to start with the practical strategic politics, because this in a sense reduces Craig's variant of a 'national revolution' to absurdity - and does so for all the other variants, too, from the British road to socialism to the Trotskyist versions. Comrade Craig proposes a national "democratic revolution" which will unite the proletariat and the petty proprietors in a common struggle for democracy.

If this revolution ends in the proletariat coming to power, it will not - because of uneven development - lead immediately to an international revolution: "The national dictatorship of the proletariat is a stage in the permanent revolution. We do not know how long this stage will last. It could in theory last for days, weeks, months or years. It could be reduced to zero, although the theory of combined and uneven development suggests this is unlikely".

Comrade Craig goes on to tell us that: "The national dictatorship of the proletariat is the transfer of political power from one class to another in one country. But democratic revolution cannot coexist with private capital. The rights of 'the democracy' and the rights of shareholders are incompatible. Therefore the inevitable consequence of the transfer of political power is the democratisation of the national economy.

"Nationalisation of major parts of the economy does not abolish world capital. It merely expropriates particular capitalists in one tiny corner of world. It is a measure necessary for democratisation and defence of the national revolution. This is a stage of state capitalism under the dictatorship of the proletariat."

Let us suppose such an event in Britain. The democratic revolution has led to the proletariat taking power under the leadership of the RDG's political line. But the international revolution must wait. The proletariat is nonetheless compelled, in order to democratise, to nationalise "major parts of the economy": ie, (from the capitalists' point of view) to steal a lot of valuable private property.

If comrade Craig's strategy is to make any sense, we must be expected to imagine that the US and other foreign capitalist owners of property in Britain which has been expropriated will not scream to their governments; and that expropriated British capitalists will not add their voices to the chorus demanding intervention against the 'tyrannical Craig regime'. Britain will not, then, be invaded or subjected to a naval blockade.

How do we get to eat?

Even so, however, there is a problem. Ninety-five percent of the fruit and 50% of the vegetables consumed in the UK are imported. In 2005 the UK imported £6.6 billion of agricultural products, £20.6 billion of mining and extractive outputs, £238 billion of manufactured products (including £18.5 billion worth of processed foods) and £442 million of electricity and gas. The UK exported £1.16 billion in agricultural output and £8 billion in processed foods. Since food is - in relative terms - low-value, we are not talking about a small gap here. There is thus a yawning gap in the UK's domestic food supply, which is made up by imports. In total, with other products, UK material imports totalled £270 billion. UK material exports totalled £210 billion. The deficit of £60 billion is at least partly made up by the UK's financial income from the City of London and from remitted profits: that is, from the UK's role in the world imperialist system.

If we embark on the seizure of power by the proletariat and large-scale nationalisations - as "necessary for democratisation and defence of the national revolution", as comrade Craig puts it - there will at a minimum be a massive flight of money capital from the UK. Comrade Craig assumes that the world economy will continue capitalist while we wait for more national revolutions. How then will we pay - in capitalist money - for the food imports which are essential if we are to continue to eat?

The UK is not alone in this. Similar calculations can be made for Germany, the Netherlands and so on. It is not even only a feature of the imperialist 'north'. Iraq, for example, equally needs to import food. So does Venezuela. The truth is that the internationalisation of the material division of labour, which began with capitalism and has continued to develop further as long as capitalism has lasted, has steadily increased the immediate dependence of every country on global and continental markets and suppliers.

In reality, of course, laying impious hands on the capitalists' sacred property rights in a single country would produce a far more immediate and brutal response. For a recent example, we need only look to Zimbabwe, where a quite limited nationalist land reform project produced a reaction from international capital which has cast the country's economy into the abyss. The abyss has then been blamed on the Mugabe regime's 'economic illiteracy'.

The reality is that the dictatorship of the proletariat in a single country - for more than a year or two - is no more feasible than socialism in a single country. Russia and China produced the illusion that it was feasible, because they were overwhelmingly peasant countries, underdeveloped and therefore potentially self-sufficient in food and raw materials. Even there, there were serious famines at several points.

The price, however, is all too familiar. Leave aside the political price - which Russians and others have paid in blood and the world workers' movement continues to pay in politics - of 'socialism in one country'. Cut off from anything more than very limited access to the world markets, the Russian "state capitalism under the dictatorship of the proletariat" of the 1920s was literally unable to manage the economic balance between agriculture and industry, town and country. Hence Stalin's fake-left turn into forced collectivisation. The identical dynamic of zig-zag between 'rightist', peasant-friendly policies and 'leftist' coercion of the peasantry was also visible in the evolution of Chinese economic policy between the revolution and the opening to capitalism.

Parties in the 'official communist' tradition in practice recognise that the dictatorship of the proletariat in a single country is infeasible. Wishing to remain within the framework of national politics, in consequence they propose as an alternative a better and more democratic capitalism. This has proved merely to be a road to supporting perfectly conventional, and not more democratic, capitalist governments.

Trotskyists more orthodox than comrade Craig half-recognise that the dictatorship of the proletariat in a single country is infeasible. The result is that even the smallest Trotskyist sects make active efforts to organise their own international sects. But the strategic line of Trotskyism is simply to promote single-country 'revolution' everywhere, and hope that a domino-effect rapid spread of the revolution, plus international solidarity campaigns, will solve the problem of economic dislocation.

This is merely whistling in the wind. Military intervention may be weakened by solidarity campaigns, as happened in relation to British intervention in Russia in 1919-21. To stop economic blockade, etc would require the solidarity movement to take the levers of the economy away from the capitalists and their state: that is, to seize power. As a result of the Trotskyists' strategic commitment to single-country revolutions, Trotskyist 'internationals' are unreal: either loose talking shops, or sets of clones of a single national organisation.

Comrade Craig's theory of separation of the "national democratic revolution" and "international socialist revolution" simply fails to address the problem at all.


Though comrade Craig attributes the theory of 'stageism' to the Second International, it was actually in origin the work of Marx and Engels.

Thus, for example, Engels wrote in 1848: "The big agricultural lands between the Baltic and the Black Sea can escape from patriarchal-feudal barbarism only through an agrarian revolution which transforms the enserfed or corvée-burdened peasants into free landowners, a revolution which is altogether the same as the French revolution in the countryside". Marx argued in 1851 that what was needed in Italy was "the complete emancipation of the peasants and the transformation of their sharecropping system into free bourgeois property". On Ireland, Engels commented in 1888 that "A purely socialist movement should not be expected from Ireland for some time. The people first want to become small landowning peasants, and when they do, the mortgages will come along and ruin them once again. In the meantime there is no reason why we should not help them to liberate themselves from the landlords: that is, to change over from a semi-feudal to a capitalistic condition".10 

Why? The answer is in the fundamentals of historical materialism. In this theory, communism has been desirable since the emergence of class society in remote antiquity - a fact expressed in the persistent episodic appearance of religious-utopian communisms - but only became feasible as a result of capitalism. This feasibility has two sides. The first is the simple increase in the total forces of production, far more rapid under capitalism than ever before, which could free the primary producers from the tyranny of endless toil and get rid of the need for fulltime permanent managers and rulers.

The second is rather different. Peasants and artisans, because they are tied to their particular property rights, specialisms and localities, cannot actually create a communism - or, indeed, a real democracy - because they cannot collectively grasp the division of labour as a whole; because their particular interests throw up conflicts which demand the state as a 'saviour from on high' to regulate them; and because they actually exploit labour - that of their wives and children - in order to accumulate. Capitalism in its own way socialises the forces of production. It is this which means that capitalism makes socialism possible.

Does the development of global capitalism mean that it is possible for 'backward' countries where there is still communal peasant agriculture to 'skip a stage', and the peasant commune become part of a socialist order? Marx, in his famous drafts of a letter to Zasulich, speculated on the possibility. Engels, in contrast, ended by arguing that in the absence of the prior development of a socialist regime in the advanced capitalist countries, the dynamic towards capitalism would remain dominant in peasant-majority countries.11 

Before 1917-18 it is clear that Lenin held Engels's view that the Russian revolution in itself was to be 'democratic' in the sense of being a revolution which brought in capitalism, and that it had to be democratic in the sense of being capitalist because of the preponderance of the peasantry in Russia. From 1905, he argued for advocacy of seizure and distribution of the landlords' land in order to win the support of the peasantry for a revolution. In Two tactics he argued that the Russian Revolution might trigger the European socialist revolution, in which case the two revolutions would come close together in time, though they were inherently separate. But even if this did not happen, the shared interest of the proletariat and peasantry in democracy would make the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' stable.12 

In Results and prospects Trotsky argued, on the basis of the experience of 1905, that the proletariat would inevitably take the lead in the revolution against tsarism. But the proletariat could not take power without implementing its minimum programme (eight-hour day, and so on). The capitalists would then resist. The proletariat would be forced to expropriate the capitalists. At this point the proletariat would come into conflict with the peasantry because of the peasantry's class commitment to private property. The proletariat should not, therefore, adopt a programme of distribution of the landlords' land, but its classical line for Germany, that the large estates should be nationalised. The new regime could only survive if the revolution immediately spread to western Europe. But it could be predicted that it would do so - in the first place because the revolutionary regime would border on Germany, and in the second because a revolution in Russia would crash the London and Paris stock markets, precipitating revolutionary crises in England and France.13 

In 1917-18 neither Lenin's predictions nor Trotsky's came true. The peasantry did enter into conflict with the new regime, as Trotsky predicted and Lenin did not, and the civil war had a three-cornered character throughout: war communism was a regime of coercion of the peasants to supply food to the cities and the armies, and ended in a series of peasant revolts. On the other hand, there was not a domino effect to Germany (the war, the German labour bureaucracy and the Polish national question stood in the way) and the Russian Revolution did not crash the London and Paris markets (Russian stocks had been heavily discounted at a much earlier stage of the war) or cause revolutionary crises in Britain and France (having won the war, Britain and France experienced only limited post-war unrest, unlike the revolutionary crises in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy).

In this situation, both Lenin and Trotsky in slightly different ways turned to Marx's hypotheses from his draft letter to Zasulich and re-interpreted their prior theories as meaning that the proletariat could hold power in a single country, with the support of a section of the peasantry, as opposed to the peasantry as a whole, while waiting for a more or less prolonged period for revolution in western Europe. These re-interpretations proved to be false: this is the meaning of Stalinism, that the proletariat in isolation necessarily lost political power.

The underlying problem is that classes tend to pursue their class interests - which is ABC historical materialism, and the elementary basis of 'stages'. Lenin was right as against Trotsky that in order to overthrow tsarism it was necessary to have the peasantry as a whole onside, and that the peasants would not come onside without the Narodniks' land policy. Trotsky was right as against Lenin that a worker-peasant alliance would be unstable because the class interests of peasants and workers were in conflict, and hence that a revolutionary regime could only survive with western support. The position both Lenin and Trotsky took up after 1918 - that there could be a medium-term dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry in a single country - was false for the same reason: that the proletariat and peasantry have opposed interests.

Back to comrade Craig. The issue is at the end of the day in substance the same as the issue of practical politics. The fundamental lesson of the Russian Revolution is that there is no possible national stage of the proletariat taking power separable from an international movement. The isolation of the Russian revolution led inexorably to Stalinism. It did so for the very simple, ABC Marxist, reason that classes tend to pursue their class interests.

Comrade Craig understands perfectly well that the possibility of 'stages growing over into one another' is dependent on the international character of capitalism. He goes on at length about in both his February 15 and March 22 articles. But he stubbornly refuses to recognise either the concrete practical implications (the international character of capitalism reacts back on an isolated national revolution) or the underlying ground for this fact: that classes tend to pursue their class interests, and that the proletariat and the petty proprietors have opposed interests.

'National democratic revolution'

Comrade Craig claims that "The democratic revolution is a national-popular revolution 'from below', in which the people are mobilised to change the state. There are many examples - not only the classic revolutions in England, America and France, but all modern examples in the 20th century."14  The examples may be debated. But the question for a historical materialist is: where does the dynamic towards "national-popular revolution 'from below'" come from?

In Trotsky's original 'permanent revolution' theory, as in 'stages theory' and in Lenin's account, the dynamic towards 'democratic revolution' comes from the struggle of the subordinate classes, including the capitalists, with the feudal (or other pre-capitalist) state. Let us take it for granted that this set of ideas is wrong.15  But if we abandon the idea that the bourgeois revolution is inherently the 'democratic' revolution, where does the objective dynamic towards "democratic revolution" come from?

For comrade Craig, the answer is that (1) "Both the working class and the petty bourgeoisie are effectively excluded from political power and naturally seek ways to change this ... The struggle for democracy is part of the class struggle, which is never-ending under capitalism." and (2) "Democratic reform is distinguished from democratic revolution because of the involvement of the masses and the overthrow of the existing constitution ..."16 

In these formulations comrade Craig has committed two fundamental errors. The first is that he has seized on the weakest element of Lenin's argument in Two tactics, and the one which has been most clearly disproved by the course of events since October 1917: the claim that the proletariat and petty proprietors have a common interest in democracy. This claim has been disproved in practice: the regimes based on the petty proprietors which have been created in the 20th century characteristically display Bonapartism: ie, the autonomous dictatorship of the state bureaucracy, not democracy. And it will not stand up to careful analysis of the class interests of the proletariat and petty proprietors.

The second is that comrade Craig's relation between "democratic reform" and "democratic revolution" internally involves the Cliffites' cult of 'One solution - revolution', and in this respect ignores the costs and risks of revolution. If he is right, we should expect "democratic revolutions" to be much more common than they are. Once we see why he is wrong, we will also see why there is not an objective dynamic towards 'national democratic revolution', in the sense in which comrade Craig means it, in Britain today.

Democracy and classes

For present purposes we can take democracy to mean either majority rule or the self-government of the freely associated people.17 

The proletariat has a clear interest in democracy. In the first place, the tendency - not yet fully consummated - is for the proletariat to become the large majority of members of society. Secondly, the proletariat is understood in Marxism as the class of people who are in the inheritable position of owning nothing but labour-power. Hence for the proletarians to claim that the proletariat should rule is to claim that the majority should rule.

Thirdly, the proletariat's only power in society and its only means of fighting the capitalists is consciously collective organisation. But consciously collective organisation depends on the voluntary agreement of the participants to cooperate. In this context there must be democracy. Anti-democratic practices, like bureaucratic dictatorships and so on, tend to destroy the practical agreement to cooperate. If they do not lead to unjustified splits, they lead to a gradual haemorrhaging of members and of activists, which renders the collective organisation an empty shell. Anti-democratic practices thus tend to atomise the proletariat. We have seen this in its most perfect form in bureaucratic 'socialism': the result was complete collapse, not only of the regime, but also of the working class. But it can also be seen in the gradual decay of the bureaucratically ruled organisations of the western workers' movement.

The situation of the petty proprietors is rather radically different. Comrade Craig is correct to suppose that the petty proprietors are (usually) hostile to the dominance of big capital; and this hostility can take the form of democratic ideology. But the petty proprietors have a number of reasons neither to need nor to want actual democracy.

In the first place, the petty proprietors are not in any society the social majority. The underlying reason for this is that petty proprietors exploit the labour of their wives and children - unless they substitute the labour of domestic slaves or employees.18  Thus in any society, no matter how peasant-dominated, there is always a majority subordinated to the petty proprietors. The free petty proprietors' concept of 'democracy' is thus a democracy of heads of household (patriarchs). This contradiction was always present; but with the rise of the proletariat it became acute.19 

Secondly, it is not the case that the petty proprietors have no means of defending their interests other than voluntary cooperation in collective action. We may take as a recent example English dentists. When the NHS began to offer unacceptable terms, after a brief, unsuccessful collective struggle, the majority of dentists simply withdrew as individuals from providing NHS treatment. They were able to do so because both of their petty property in their physical equipment, but more importantly their craft monopoly of intellectual property (training). Numerous parallel examples could be found.

Thirdly, as comrade Craig perfectly correctly says, "the rights of 'the democracy' and the rights of shareholders are incompatible". Democratic decision-making of the freely associated people requires laying collective hands on the means of production. But the interest of the petty proprietors as proprietors is that no hands other than their own should be laid on their property. This is the underlying reason for supposing that capitalism, which socialises the means of production in its own way, is necessary for there to be a possibility of socialism - or of real democracy.

The difference is simple. The proletariat has a real, positive interest in genuine democracy. The petty proprietors have a partial, negative interest in hostility to the oligarchy of big capital, which can take the form of democratic ideology. But they also have strong interests against genuine democracy. The idea that the proletariat and the petty proprietors have a sufficiently strong common interest in democracy to ground a stable "national democratic revolution" is nonsense. It only had any plausibility in the context of Lenin's full argument in Two tactics: viz, that the revolution was capitalist and the choice available was between a more democratic capitalism or a less democratic capitalism.


For comrade Craig, as I have already quoted, "democratic reform is distinguished from democratic revolution because of the involvement of the masses and the overthrow of the existing constitution ..." He quotes Lenin, from Two tactics, for the proposition that "It is advantageous to the working class for the necessary changes in the direction of bourgeois democracy to take place by way of revolution and not by way of reform, because the way of reform is one of delay, procrastination, the painfully slow decomposition of the putrid parts of the national organism."20  He expands on the point. Revolution is better than reform. That revolution is better than reform is in substance the only argument offered by comrade Craig for why the class struggles of the proletariat and petty proprietors against capital should create an objective dynamic towards 'democratic revolution'.

However, Lenin also wrote on more than one occasion that "Oppression alone, no matter how great, does not always give rise to a revolutionary situation in a country. In most cases it is not enough for revolution that the lower classes should not want to live in the old way. It is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to rule and govern in the old way."21  We need not take Lenin's word for it: the truth of the statement is manifest from the evidence of history. But why?

The answer is that, for all Lenin's comments in Two tactics on the advantages of revolution to the workers' movement, revolutions are costly and dangerous. A revolution consists in the overthrow of a state, which is at the end of the day an armed gang. If the workers' movement is itself armed to the teeth or wins over the large majority of the armed forces, the violence involved may be minimal. But there is a high risk of bloody defeat (the fate of many revolutionary crises in the last two centuries) and a real risk of collapse into state failure and warlordism (as in Afghanistan after 1979).

On the other side of the coin, though ruling classes and their states parasitise on the society, they also do social jobs. Afghanistan provides an example. The 'Saur Revolution' attempted to emancipate the peasantry from the landlords - but without providing any practical alternative to the loans of money or seed, insurance against hard times and so on, which the landlords provided. It also attempted to emancipate women: but without any recognition of the material role played in peasant life by the exploitation of women's labour. Unsurprisingly, the peasants backed the landlords rather than the revolution.22 

Equally, capitalists are not pure parasites, but play a real role in the social division of labour. To abolish the capitalist political oligarchy without abolishing the capitalists is an illusion: it will merely return through corruption. Comrade Craig recognises this when he says that the democracy will be forced to nationalise large parts of the economy. But to abolish the capitalists without providing a substitute for their social role - ie, a new form of social division of labour (the beginnings of socialism, the free association of the producers) - is equally illusory.

We are now in a position to understand why Lenin's statement about revolutionary situations is true. Revolutions are difficult and dangerous. For the broad masses to turn to revolution is an act of last resort when the existing regime has fallen into acute crisis. A mere sense that the regime is oppressive, unjust or even 'in decay' is not enough.

Moreover - though Lenin does not mention this - there has to be a sense that some alternative exists to the way the society is now run. In the Dutch, English and American revolutions, the revolutionaries appealed to the past against the 'innovations' of the Spanish viceroys, the Laudians and George III's government. In the European revolutions of the 19th century, the revolutionaries appealed to ideologised images of England and the United States as offering an alternative. In the Russian revolution itself and the immediate post-1918 workers' revolutionary movements in Europe, the appeal was to the imagined strength of the international workers' movement, 'represented' by the pre-war Second International. In most of the 20th century colonial revolutions, the appeal was to the supposed success of the bureaucratic 'socialist' regimes.

It follows that the class struggles of proletarians and petty proprietors against capitalists in themselves are quite insufficient to explain "democratic revolutions". Equally, Lenin's 'revolution better than reform' arguments from 1905 - when Russia was in the midst of an actual revolution - are equally insufficient, and SWP-style 'One solution - revolution' arguments, which Craig follows here, are worthless.

National and international

When Lenin wrote the passage comrade Craig quoted from Two tactics, it was transparent to everyone except aristocratic and clerical backwoodsmen that the Russian state could not "go on in the old way". The reason was that the Russian state and economic order was specifically backward, relative to the states of western Europe and the US, and had just suffered a serious military defeat at the hands of Japan. In contrast, the rise of the workers' and socialist movement, and wider criticism of capitalism, was transparently international in character - present throughout the capitalist countries - and generally understood as such.

Hence, irrespective of the validity of the argument from 'stages', Lenin's point that the tsarist state was on the verge of a specific revolution, while the question of socialist revolution was posed internationally, was clearly empirically valid.

But the present dynamics are quite different. To the extent that the British state is seen to be undemocratic and failing, it is in the same ways as the US state, the French state, the Italian state, the German state, and so on, are seen to be undemocratic and failing: corruption at the centre, public cynicism and political abstention, anomie and episodic violence on the housing estates, where the poor are concentrated, growth of regional separatism and national or sub-national consciousness, and so on. There is no specific backwardness of the British state which would create a logic towards a specific-British, national-democratic revolution.

At this point we have returned to our starting point in this article. Britain is not ripe for "national democratic revolution", which is a complete utopia. Insofar as there is an objective tendency towards revolutionary crisis in Britain (which is so far very limited and subterranean) it is driven by global dynamics, not by purely internal contradictions. The "democratic permanent revolution" as an argument for the "republican socialist party" falls to the ground.