What is workers' power?

A workers' state cannot be determined by property forms, argues Mike Macnair

What is the political form of workers' power or the dictatorship of the proletariat? This poses both a theoretical issue (what is meant by 'the proletariat', for example) and concrete practical issues about representation and decision-making. A further question, posed by orthodox Trotskyism, is whether the working class can be said to hold social or economic power without holding political power.

Working class and workers' power

In the 1918 constitution of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (RSFSR) the local soviets were ordinary local authorities elected in cities and villages, by geographical suffrage on the basis (in cities) of one deputy per 1,000 population. The franchise was restricted to "(a) those who earn a living by productive and socially useful labour (as well as persons engaged in housekeeping, which enables the former to work productively), viz, wage and salaried workers of all groups and categories engaged in industry, trade, agriculture, etc and peasants and Cossack farmers who do not employ hired labour for profit; (b) soldiers of the Soviet army and navy; and (c) citizens belonging to categories listed in paragraphs (a) and (b) of the present article who have been to any degree incapacitated."

This is a structure radically unlike the common far-left image of soviets/workers' councils as delegates of factory committees. It is equally unlike the soviets of 1917 - delegates of factory committees, soldiers' committees, trade unions, workers' political parties, etc.

Why? The date pretty much precludes the possibility that this was part of a rightist turn by the Bolsheviks. The key is in two aspects of the franchise provisions. The first is "as well as persons engaged in housekeeping, which enables the former to work productively"; the second "citizens ... who have been to any degree incapacitated".

The point is that the 'classic image' of the soviet/workers' council form, as applied to a state as opposed to an organ for struggle, would disenfranchise a large part of the proletariat as a class. Back to a point I have made several times before. The proletariat as a class is defined in Marxist theory by its separation from the means of production: not by being at any particular moment employed, or employed in industry. The unwaged, including 'housewives' and pensioners, are part of the proletariat.

The result is that we have no grounds in theory for supposing that the soviet in its common far-left sense - the committee of delegates of factory committees, etc - is the natural political form of the social dictatorship of the proletariat as a class. We do have grounds in theory for supposing that "extreme democracy," or "democratic republicanism", as opposed to rule-of-law constitutionalism, is the natural form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. For Engels, the democratic republic means the 'commune state'; but this is not at all the same thing as the workers' council form.

The theoretical logic should therefore point us to fighting for principles and their organisational consequences - accountability, recallability and so on - rather than for the workers' council form. And these principles are better expressed by the idea of democratic republicanism than by the workers' council/soviet form.

Democratic decision-making

The question of the political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat also poses extremely concrete practical problems: the problems of collective decision-making on the national, continental and global scale. We can pose these problems most clearly by imagining how a regime of workers' power (dictatorship of the proletariat) would take decisions in Britain. But this is merely a relatively transparent example. The same problems are present in a more acute way if the problem is scaled up to decision-making in Europe or globally. They are also not merely problems of a future regime of workers' power, but present problems of the working class controlling its existing organisations (trade unions, etc) and any party or international we create.

The Russian soviets were councils of workers', soldiers' and peasants' deputies. They included direct representation of the workers' and peasants' parties (Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Social-Revolutionaries, etc). Some included representation of organisations of the unemployed. A 'workers' council' in the western sense was something rather narrower: a council of delegates of workplace committees.

A Russian-style soviet, or a trades and labour council (as opposed to a pure trades council), is perfectly capable of taking local decisions in a highly accountable and responsive way. The problem comes when you have to take national decisions (let alone international ones). Some decisions clearly have to be made at national or international level. For example, what to do about human-induced climate change clearly requires global decisions. Within a single country, for example, rail and road networks, power (gas, electricity) supply and telecommunications and IT networks require at least national-level decisions. There are other aspects in which we will probably want to take national-level decisions. For example, parts of Britain are relatively poor in local resources and are at present subsidised by other parts: what resource-transfers do we propose? Should we have a national minimum income and maximum working hours rules (traditional elements of working class policy)?

When we come to take national-level decisions, the practical process of decision-making becomes problematic. We have to proceed by some form of delegation to delegate/representative, or jury-like (randomly selected) decision-makers. This is already present in the workers' council form. But when this is simply 'scaled up' to national level, the level of accountability to the masses at the base is inherently reduced. Some form of regional level is unavoidable, leaving aside the question of (as we propose) a federal regime of England, Scotland and Wales. For example, the south-east has water management problems which are common across the region, but are not shared by the north-west.

But in a hierarchy of councils, now we have arrived at the workers electing the factory committee, which elects delegates to the local council, which elects delegates to the regional council, which elects delegates to the national council ... Nick Rogers has argued forcibly in these pages that preserving accountability for national-level decisions will require some form of direct election of a national council (or parliament ...).

I am not myself convinced by this; it seems to me that collective accountability, and recallability, are critical issues, and that direct election of individuals to a national council/parliament militates against this and in favour of cults of the personality. As to bureaucratisation, Nick himself refers to the militia question, and I have previously referred to freedom of information and communication, and freedom to organise parties and factions, as partial measures against bureaucratisation. I would add, as I have also argued elsewhere, rotation of officials, or term limits: ie, the abolition of the individual political career by requiring the individual delegate/representative to return after their term of office to a 'grunt-level' job.

The point, however, is that on either Nick's analysis or mine, or almost any other, the mere fact of the form of the soviet/workers' council as a delegate committee, and the fact that such bodies grow out of the class struggle, does not solve the problems of accountability and democratic decision-making on more than a local scale.

To address these problems we have to go behind the form of the delegate committee to the underlying principles. But, once we go to the underlying principles, it is clear that how the new form of authority is originally created is quite immaterial. It may be in origin a coalition of strike committees or trades council, as the 1905 Petrograd soviet was; or a British Labour Party general management committee (some GMCs became quasi-soviets during the 1926 general strike); or an organ of local government of the existing state, as the Paris Commune was; or it may be set up by a national party - as, in fact, happened in much of Russia in 1917 and, as Trotsky argues in Lessons of October, may turn out that way again. To repeat, then, what we have to fight for is the political principles - election and recallability, abolition of judicial review, accountability, freedom of information, and so on - not the merely organisational form of the workers' council.

Trotsky's alternative

In the first article in this series I quoted Trotsky, in 1915, arguing that "revolution is first and foremost a problem of power - not of the political form ... but of the social content of power". It is worth teasing out a little what this means, for two reasons. The first is that it is connected to the orthodox Trotskyist idea that the class nature of states can be identified by reference to the 'property relations' they defend, or that predominate in them, irrespective of their political forms and the relation of these forms to classes. The second is that it is connected both to the arguments of part two of Our political tasks (1904) and to the very similar idea that there can be an immediate bridge between pure-trade-unionist consciousness and the struggle for power, and the consequent focus on economic demands, found in the 1938 Transitional programme.

The argument that the property relations it defends define the class character of the state was Trotsky's main line of argument for the claim that the USSR was a 'degenerated workers' state'. It was not his only line of argument for this position: at several points he argued, alternatively, that the USSR could be compared to a trade union controlled by gangsters. But the argument from the new 'property forms' (ie, general statisation of the major means of production), the state monopoly of foreign trade and the plan, to the class character of the state was central to his characterisation of the USSR in The revolution betrayed (chapter 9) and to his arguments for the 'progressive' role of the Soviet troops in Poland, etc in In defence of Marxism.

This argument has impeccably 'orthodox Marxist' theoretical grounds, in Engels' treatment of relations between the state and ruling classes in The origins of the family, private property and the state and in On the housing question, and in the outline of 'historical materialism' - especially the succession of different property forms - in The German ideology. It has, though, two fundamental problems. The first is that it lacks predictive power in two ways. In spite of the historical grounding of Engels's construction, it fails in predicting what will be found in the archives (etc) when studying the state in the transitions from antiquity to feudalism or from feudalism to capitalism. Secondly, Trotsky's version of Engels's argument has proved since 1945 to be utterly useless and misleading in orienting the Trotskyists, either in relation to third world nationalist regimes or in relation to political movements within the bureaucratic regimes between the 1950s and 1991.

The second fundamental problem is that even if Engels's argument was partly true - the capitalist class can use its economic power to coerce states which have a variety of political forms - Trotsky's application of it does not follow. Nationalised industry (etc) without political democracy does not mean that the state will act in the interests of the working class in the same sense that capitalist property secures a capitalist state. These points need some elaboration.

State and ruling class

The substance of Engels's argument in Origins of the family and On the housing question is that the state originally arises because society has become divided into classes of possessors and non-possessors, with the result that there are sharp class conflicts which threaten to disrupt basic production. The state arises as a public power elevated above these conflicts in order to 'stand over' the society and regulate them. But the possessing class's control of the social surplus, and hence its wealth and leisure, leads to it 'capturing' the state: so the state regulates the class conflict, but ends up doing so in the collective interest of the possessing class.

It follows logically from this argument that in a social revolution the state form is relatively unimportant. What is important is the property form on which the possessing class bases its command of wealth and leisure: thus slave ownership and dominium (absolute ownership) in classical antiquity, feudal rights in the middle ages, and 'absolute' bourgeois ownership in capitalist society. This is not a conclusion which was ever drawn by Marx or Engels in relation to the workers' or socialist revolution, and it cannot in fact be legitimately drawn in relation to that revolution, as we will see below; but it might be drawn in relation to the transitions from antiquity to feudalism and from feudalism to capitalism.

In fact, however, it is profoundly unhelpful in relation to these transitions. In the first place, as Marx and Engels themselves recognised in relation to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the state form does change: absolute patrimonial monarchy is replaced by what can most conveniently be called 'constitutionalism' (ie, constitutional monarchies, dictatorships which ostensibly claim to be grounded on law, and constitutional republics), and the role of religious organisations and the clerisy in the state is radically altered. In reality, though the process is much more obscure, the state form also changes in the transition from antiquity to feudalism.10  The old state has to be overthrown in order to allow the full flowering of the new social relations: and this is as true of the Byzantine state (where it never happened and the late-antique state was simply conquered after a long decline) as it is of the Stuart or Bourbon monarchies.

Secondly, the social transitions between modes of production are long processes in which modes of production are interpenetrated. As a result, later medieval and early modern feudal states through their regular legal and repressive activity defended both declining slave-owner and rising capitalist property rights; and capitalist states may continue to this day to defend odd pockets of feudal property rights. Thus, for example, the Scots abolished feudal superiorities in 2000; manorial rights continue to exist as property rights in English law to this day (though the manorial lord is since 2001 required to register them). Marx claimed in the Critique of the Gotha programme that the first stage of socialism would continue to be governed by 'bourgeois right' (ie, law and property forms).

It would logically follow that, if the class character of the state was to be identified by the property forms it defends, it would have to be identified by the preponderant property forms within its territory. Trotsky in fact makes exactly such an analysis of the USSR in The revolution betrayed: private property, he points out, continues to exist in pretty important areas - the most productive elements of agriculture were the peasants' private plots, not the state or collective farms.11  But overall, he argues, state property and planning preponderate (chapter 9).

But this, in turn, logically implies that the idea that it is necessary to have a revolutionary overthrow of the state is quite wrong. If capitalist property relations come to preponderate, the capitalists will automatically take over the existing ('feudal') state by virtue of their command of surplus; and similarly, if state property and planning preponderate, the result will be that the working class will take over the existing ('capitalist') state. This is not a conclusion Trotsky ever drew, though the Grantites (Militant) came close to drawing it, as did Ernest Mandel's post-war theory of 'structural assimilation' of the eastern European countries into the USSR.

The conclusion that the revolutionary overthrow of the state is not necessary follows logically from the theory; but it is inconsistent with the historical evidence, both of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and of the 20th century. This evidence suggests that, contrary to the inferences that can be drawn from the argument of Engels, the state form matters to the class character of states.

The 'property criterion' and the post-war world

The Trotskyists characterised the USSR as a 'degenerated workers' state' on the basis partly of its historical origins, but also - at least partly - on the basis of the 'property relations' it defended. On this basis, they adopted a position of unconditional defence of the USSR in wars with capitalist states. After 1945, this line of argument became theoretically and politically problematic, for three reasons.

The first problem was the extension of Soviet-type regimes, through conquest by the Red Army in much of eastern Europe and in northern Korea, and through CP-led internal revolutionary movements in Yugoslavia, Albania, China and northern Vietnam. Later on, the intersection of the class struggle with the geopolitics of the cold war was to create further Soviet-type regimes in Cuba and South Yemen and the extension of the northern Vietnamese regime to southern Vietnam and, along with it, the creation of Soviet-type regimes in Laos and Cambodia.

In these events, the 'property criterion' led to a real problem of analysis: that is, when 'workers' state defencism' was to begin in relation to these regimes. Lutte Ouvrière avoided the problem by simply refusing to characterise any of these states beyond the USSR as 'workers' states'. But the orthodox Trotskyists had no such escape. The events involved the smashing of the pre-existing state and the creation of exclusive political power in the local Communist Party (subject to the international role of the CPSU). But there was generally a significant delay before actual generalised statisation of the major means of production and 'planification'. In the intervening period, what was the class character of the new state, and was defencism called for?

The US SWP, in the process of its abandonment of Trotskyism in the 1980s, revived the idea of the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' in the form of the 'workers' and farmers' government' to fill the gap between the overthrow of the old state and full 'sovietisation'.

The second problem was that capitalist countries (with the partial exception of the USA) were characterised after World War II by a major extension of public ownership and state intervention and planning, and by 'managed' trade under the Bretton Woods/Gatt I regime. In some of the semi-colonial countries (ie, those which were formally politically independent, but in practice subordinated to imperialist capitals), and in some newly independent post-colonial regimes, this extension of the state sector went much further than it went in the imperialist countries. Did this mean that these countries had become 'workers' states'? The Mandelites dabbled with the idea in relation to Nasser's Egypt and post-independence Algeria, the Grantites in relation to Peru under Velasco Alvarado.

In relation to this question and the first, Salah Jaber in the 1980s wrote a savage polemic against the 'property criterion' in the Mandelites' theoretical journal Quatrième Internationale. Jaber's alternative theory had its own problems, but at least grasped the centrality of the character of any state as an armed organisation and the critical distinction between the overthrow of such a state and 'cold transitions' and decolonisations.12 

The third problem is one in relation to oppositional groups and movements in the countries ruled by bureaucratic 'socialist' regimes. This problem was recognised by the minority faction in the US Socialist Workers Party led by Sam Marcy and Vince Copeland in relation to the evolution of the 1956 Hungarian crisis, but its full implications only became apparent in the 1980s. If the essence of the (deformed) proletarian character of the state is the property relations (nationalisations and state monopoly of foreign trade), then political trends which do not propose to overthrow these cannot be characterised as tending towards a restoration of capitalism. Since they are thus not to the right of the Stalinists, they must be to their left. Trotskyists have thus characterised as to the 'left' of the Stalinists movements which appealed for Nato aid and brought the catholic church into government (Hungary 1956), which called for special privileges for the church (Poland 1980) and so on.

Most recently, the Mandelites characterised both Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the mid/late 1980s as 'leftists': they did not propose to overthrow the nationalised property relations, so they must be 'lefts' in the bureaucracy by virtue of their democracy rhetoric. The course of events in the late 1980s/early 1990s revealed the radical falsity of this assessment. However, the obituary of Yeltsin by Rick Simon in the May 2007 edition of Socialist Resistance still, absurdly, wriggles on this hook rather than openly admit that the judgment was wrong. Comrade Simon wriggles because recognising Yeltsin's true political character causes so many problems for the Mandelites' theory and political judgments between the late 1940s and the 1990s.13 

Working class economic dominance?

Engels' theory of the state in On the housing question and Origins makes the form of the state secondary, because the ruling class rules through its economic control of property relations and hence of surplus, which allows it in turn to control the state indirectly. This argument is in my opinion untrue, or at least incomplete: new ruling classes (feudal, capitalist) have to overthrow old state forms and create new ones. Even if it was true, however, it could not be applied to the case of the working class, contrary to Kautsky's arguments in The social revolution and The road to power and to Trotsky's arguments in 1915 and in The revolution betrayed.

The problem is: what does it mean for the proletariat as a class to 'own' the means of production? In relation to the slave-owner, feudal landlord and capitalist classes the answer is perfectly clear. The social relations of production give individual members of these classes, or family groups, private decision-making powers over privately held particular assets (land, cattle, slaves, money, etc) and the streams of surplus which arise from the exploitation of these assets. It is these private decision-making powers which are classified in law as 'possession' and 'ownership'. Their existence means that it can be argued (as Engels does) that a ruling, exploiting class can control a state of any form by directly or indirectly bribing state officials.

But then it is plainly the case that the proletariat as a class cannot 'own the means of production' so as to be able to control the state officials by bribery. The nearest approach would be to have a Proudhonist 'market socialism', in which worker cooperatives are linked by a market. But, as Marx demonstrated in Capital (and has been proved since then by Yugoslav experiments), such a regime tends to collapse into capitalism by way of competition between the cooperatives under market conditions. The emancipation of the proletariat requires laying collective hands on the means of production as a whole, not merely on particular factories and so on.

Yugoslav-style 'self-management' and cooperatives under capitalism have another lesson for us. Nominal worker ownership is merely an empty juridical form as long as the managers are not subordinated to the workers by democratic-republican political forms (freedom of information, election and recallability, term limits, income limits on public officials, and so on). Without these forms, the power of decision, and therefore the true possession of the factory and the surplus (if any) it produces, is in the managers' hands. In other words, the proletariat as a class cannot be economically dominant except through democratic-republican political forms.

But we can turn the point on its head. Let us imagine that we do create democratic-republican political forms in the state, but we statise only those parts of the economy which are either 'pure rent' institutions (the financial sector and the landlord's right to ground rent), are natural monopolies (transport infrastructure, utilities and extractive industries), have become monopolistic or oligopolistic through capitalist concentration (eg, car production, big pharmaceuticals, 'white goods' and so on) or are clearly socially necessary but cannot be carried on without subsidy (large-scale farming, education, health). This still leaves a substantial 'small and medium enterprise' sector in which capital has not yet socialised the forces of production.

Democratic republican political forms work against efficient bribery and prioritise majority decisions over the rights of private property. This is why the capitalist class violently prefers 'rule of law' and 'separation of powers' constitutionalism to even weak democratic republicanism: as it demonstrated in the 1650s in England, in the 1780s-1800s in the US and in the 1790s-1800s in France.14 

The result, therefore, is that through the democratic republican political forms, the working class as a class can directly manage those parts of the economy which capital has already directly socialised, and can also protect the interests of workers in the remaining 'private sector' through general laws (maximum hours, minimum wage, freedom of association in trade unions, abolition of commercial secrecy, etc). In other words, the working class as a class can dominate the state and "set free the elements of the new society with which old, collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant"15  through winning the democratic republic - without nationalising everything in sight in order to create a purported 'economic' dominance of the working class, which is anyhow illusory without democratic republicanism.

We return, therefore, to the point from which we started. The form of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the political form of the democratic republic: not local 'councils of action' as such, and not the supposed 'social form' of nationalisations. It is in this framework that we have to judge 'transitional programme' and 'transitional method'.