Leading workers by the nose

Our immediate task is to pose a political alternative to the existing regime, writes Mike Macnair, not wait for the 'transitional method' to produce soviets. This article concludes his series on 'permanent revolution'

In the last article I criticised Trotsky's arguments about the relation of party and unorganised spontaneous mass class movement in connection with 'permanent revolution'.

On its own, this critique might seem to validate the arguments of the Menshevik Internationalists in favour of 'holding back' the class movement to 'achievable' limits, or the very similar arguments put forward by Otto Bauer, Karl Kautsky and so on - the 'centrists'. Or perhaps it might be held to validate the reinterpretation of Lenin's concept of the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' by the Comintern majority in the 1920s and the later 'official communists', which produced very similar (disastrous) results to the policy of the 1914-23 'centrists'.

This is certainly not my intention. These approaches were wrong; but they were wrong for reasons other than those Trotsky and the Trotskyists give.

Revolution on the agenda

The first question is whether the revolutionary overthrow of the international capitalist state order was on the agenda in the early 20th century. It comes first because at least some of the 'centrists' justified their conduct by arguing that it was not; and also because István Mészáros, in Beyond capital (1995), and Moshé Machover in 1999, have also argued for different reasons that it was not (Mészáros argues that it now is).

Three clarifications. The first is that I say "overthrow of the international capitalist state order" rather than "overthrow of capitalism". My reason for doing so was given in the third article in this series. Forced collectivisation of the petty proprietors is to be rejected. This implies a substantial period of transition between capitalism and socialism which begins with the overthrow of the international capitalist state system.

The second is that I say international capitalist state system, because the capitalist class is an international class and capitalist nation-states are not nationally autonomous entities. They are parts of an international hierarchical system of states, linked formally by treaty systems and in practice by international markets in state debt and in armaments. This state system is headed by a world-hegemon state (Britain to 1914; the US from 1945) whose armed forces are the ultimate guarantors of property rights globally and whose currency is, in consequence, the international reserve currency.

The third is that to say revolution is on the agenda can have more than one meaning. It could mean historically on the agenda, on the agenda in the medium term - that is, within decades - or conjuncturally on the agenda - that is, within a very short timescale.

I have argued before that there are two grounds in Marxism for placing proletarian revolution on the agenda. The first is that capitalism produces its own gravedigger, the proletariat. On this basis, the degree of maturity of the conditions for proletarian revolution is to be assessed by reference to the size of the proletariat relative to the other classes and the growth of the organised workers' movement as an indicator of class consciousness.

The second is that the forces of production grow beyond the capacity of the mode of production (capitalism) to manage them, with the result that they turn into forces of destruction. On this basis, the degree of maturity of the conditions for proletarian revolution is to be assessed by reference to the degree of irrationality and economic regression in the capitalist order - that is, reduction in capitalism's ability to deliver basic material well-being to the global population.

Further, declining class orders tend to produce an increase in the relative role of the state in order to manage both the reduced ability of the old class order to deliver and the rise of a new class. Thus feudalism could be said to be in decline in Europe from somewhere around the later 12th and early 13th century, when it began to face challenges for power from the bourgeoisie in the form of the larger-scale versions of the urban commune movement, though it continued to expand geographically down to the 16th century. The result was a long-term tendency for an increase in the role of the state, culminating in the 16th to 19th century absolutist regimes.

The other side of this coin is that during the period of the decline of feudalism, the bourgeoisie made, in a series of class struggles, several attempts to find a form of state which would answer to its interests. First came city republicanism, then protestantism, before finally, in the course of the 17th century Dutch and English revolutions, the bourgeoisie hit on the form of state which worked for capital: rule of law-constitutional (whether superficially liberal or authoritarian), and deficit financed/backed by capital markets.

On this basis, capitalism has indeed been in decline (at its geographical core) from the later 19th century, as it has increasingly statised in response to the rise of the proletariat; and the seizure of power by the proletariat was therefore indeed on the historical agenda from the later 19th century - signalled by the role of proletarian movements in 1848 and by the Paris Commune - in the same sense that the seizure of power by the bourgeoisie was on the historical agenda in parts of Europe from around 1200. Since the seizure of power by the proletariat is on the historical agenda, so are attempts to create a workers' state regime. They are likely at first to fail, as the bourgeoisie's early experiments did; but we hope to learn lessons from them which will allow us to do better next time.

Since the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is an international state system, not a series of fully independent nation-states, the proletariat can only expect to actually take political power - so as to hold it for more than a very short period - on a continental scale at minimum, and the seizure of power by the proletariat is therefore on the conjunctural agenda only when there is an acute crisis of the international state system as such.

20th century

In the first half of the 20th century, I would argue, the question of the seizure of power by the proletariat was posed in the medium term by the degree of irrationality and economic regression in the capitalist order, not by the absolute size of the proletariat and the workers' movement relative to the other classes on a world scale. But these effects of irrationality and regression were not 'absolute', expressing terminal decay of capitalism as a world order.

In this respect Lenin's Imperialism, and the inferences drawn from imperialism by Bukharin and others in 1916-21 and later by Trotsky in 1938, were wrong. Rather, the irrationality and regression flowed from the specific decline of the British-led world capitalist order. Once the power of the British empire was broken in 1940-41 and the US emerged as a new world hegemon in 1941-46, the world capitalist economy could revive and US hegemony became a vehicle for delivering material progress for a substantial period, taking the question of workers' power off the agenda in the medium term.

Within this framework, the seizure of power by the proletariat was posed conjuncturally when the international capitalist state order fell into acute crisis - that is, in 1914-20 and in 1939-48.

It was also, as it were, 'half'-posed at three other periods: (a) by the generalised rise of the workers' movement and strike struggles in the 1900s (the extreme point being the Russian revolutionary crisis of 1905); (b) in the later phase of the 1960s-70s rise in workers' struggles (the extreme points being the French 1968, the 1974-76 Portuguese revolution, and revolutionary crises in several Latin American countries); and (c) by the global depression resulting from the 1929 crash (the extreme point being the Spanish revolution and civil war).

I say 'half'-posed because in the first two cases, acute political crisis and mass class struggles did not involve an actual threat to the coherence of the armed forces of capitalist states generally. In the third case, the 1930s, the clear context was an offensive of capital against the workers' movement (rise of fascism). It would only be in the event that military resistance of the workers' movement inflicted a military defeat on the fascists and their allies within the state that this dynamic would have posed the question of workers' power.

Mészáros argues a defensible case for workers' power not being on the historical agenda in the first half of the 20th century. This is that Europe is merely a small corner of the world, and outside Europe, capitalism was still growing, not declining: capitalism had not reached its limits. He argues that it has now reached its limits, since capital is now genuinely global, and it is affected by a structural crisis reflected in structural adaptations to persistent under-utilisation of productive capacity, the penetration of the whole of the economy and society by state action, ecological crisis and so on. It follows that attempts of the proletariat to take political power in the first half of the 20th century were premature (or, more exactly, in Mészáros' argument, still within the frame of capital).

The answer to this argument is the idea proposed in the 1880s by Marx and - more cautiously - by Engels, about the possibilities of revolution in Russia. This was that if the working class took power in the European centres of capitalist industry, working class collectivism could converge with the collectivist elements in pre-capitalist peasant agriculture in Russia, thus enabling the 'east' to avoid the necessity of capitalist development. The later twisting of this argument to support 'socialism in one country' and modern third-worldism is unsound; and the further development of global capitalism has made it practically irrelevant.

But if the international revolutionary crisis at the end of World War I had issued in the conquest of power by the working class throughout Europe and central Asia, such a development would have been a real historical possibility. This view is supported by the (limited) successes of voluntary farmer cooperatives and similar projects in various countries at various times.


The 'centrists' argued that the seizure of power by the proletariat was not on the conjunctural agenda in 1914-20, in spite of the acute crisis of the international state system, for two reasons. The first is that from Kautsky's The social revolution (1901) and The road to power (1907) onwards, they posed the question of revolution only in terms of the growth of the proletariat and the workers' movement and not in terms of the decay of the capitalist order. The second is that they posed this question entirely within national frameworks, assuming that even if the proletariat might take power in their own nation-state the overthrow of other capitalist states or (hence) of the international state-system as a whole was impossible.

This approach was false. For example, the Austrian socialists persuaded the proletarian masses not to take power in 1918-19, in fear (Bauer tells us) of Italian military intervention. But Italy went on to experience its own revolutionary crisis in 1920. Similarly, the Entente was unable to carry on full-scale military operations against the Russian reds for fear of what it would do to Entente armies and home fronts; and so on. An Italian attempt to use force directly to re-impose capitalist rule in Austria in 1919 would simply have brought the Italian crisis on faster and more severely. The same result, to bring on crisis in the army and at home, would be all the more true of an Entente attempt to hold down the German working class by occupying the whole of Germany, as opposed to - as they did - occupying only the Rhineland.

In short, the revolutionary overthrow of the international capitalist state order was possible in 1914-20. This is not, of course, to say that it would inevitably have succeeded but for the conduct of the 'centrists'. Nor is it - on its own - an argument against the conduct of the 'centrists'. It might be the case that the risks outweighed the possibilities. This was, in substance, what the 'centrists' claimed; and when we see why it is wrong we will also see why the 'centrists' were wrong.


Let us imagine that, though it was possible to overthrow the international state system, it was also possible to create stable (ie, for 30-40 years) liberal-constitutional capitalist states out of the collapse of the Russian, German, Austrian and Turkish empires, and in the process for the working class to win substantial concessions.

The plausibility of this scenario is given by two facts. The first is that the revolutions of the 19th century produced a number of (fairly) stable constitutional regimes (France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and even in a certain sense Germany). The second is that this was also the result of the restabilisation of capitalism after the opening of the cold war - at least in the major imperialist countries, the minor capitalist powers (Scandinavia, etc) and some of the colon countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand).

If this were the case, it would be necessary for a workers' party or international to weigh the possibility of winning the big prize (overthrowing the international capitalist state order) against the very real costs and risks involved: the human costs of civil war and international war; the risks of mass starvation and of a savage defeat of the workers' movement, as happened in Hungary (the Austro-Marxists' argument), and the risk of creating a Bonapartist 'socialist' regime which would have the effect of discrediting socialism (Kautsky's argument). In this choice, it might well be that stopping short at winning partial reforms in stable liberal-capitalist states was the better option for the international working class.

The reality, however, was that this was not possible. The acute decay of the British-led world order was 'unfinished business' which hung over the world capitalist economy until British defeats in World War II, and inability to pay for or win the war without US assistance, allowed the US to break through to world hegemony. Hence severe economic instability (1929, etc) and a renewed world war were inevitable.

Under these economic conditions stable liberal-capitalist states were very seriously problematic, and most of them collapsed. Horthy's coup in Hungary (1920) and the fascist takeover in Italy (1922) were immediate responses to failed revolutions. But, more generally, constitutional regimes were overthrown in Bulgaria in 1923 (and again, after a revival, in 1934), Poland, Portugal and Lithuania in 1926, Yugoslavia in 1929, Germany in 1933, Austria, Latvia and Estonia in 1934, Greece in 1936, Spain in the civil war of 1936-39, and Romania in 1938. German military operations in 1939-40, coupled with local capitalist defeatism, accounted for Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, leaving Sweden, Finland and Switzerland as the only countries in continental Europe with constitutional regimes which survived the period.

Hence, the Italian 'centrists' did not avoid civil war, but only postponed it by a year or two until the working class was in a weaker position; the Germans and Austrians, similarly, postponed a civil war the workers' movement could have won in 1919-20 to one they were almost bound to lose in 1933-34 (and in the case of the Germans, they did not even have the honour of fighting, but surrendered to be massacred).

In 1914 the decay of British world hegemony moved into open crisis. This situation required of the workers' movement coordinated international action against the international state system as a whole. Nationally limited choices, like those made by the 'centrists' in 1918-21, could only postpone the onset of civil war; not evade it.

This international character of the revolutionary crisis developing out of the world war is also the key to understanding the political role played in the crisis by the formation of workers' councils/soviets and the idea of 'All power to the soviets'.

The weakest link

Lenin is said to have claimed that Russia came first in the international revolutionary process because "the imperialist chain broke at its weakest link". The idea has since been much abused; probably originally it meant no more than that, as the weakest of the imperialist powers, the Russian state was the first to be brought down by the war. Technically, in terms of the political economy of imperialism, tsarist Russia should be characterised as sub-imperialist, since its economy was colonised as well as colonising. But in geopolitics Russia was a 'great power' ranking alongside the imperialist centres proper, and the international political impact of the Russian Revolution reflected this fact: revolutions in the colonies and semi-colonies have had no such global impact either before or since.

Two things are perfectly clear and are captured by the idea that in Russia the chain broke at the weakest link. The first is that the February 1917 revolution was caused by the failures of the tsarist regime in the war, both directly in military operations and in managing food supply and so on. The second is that the February revolution was not an initiative of the bourgeoisie which the proletariat supported. It was, as Trotsky argued in the first part of The history of the Russian Revolution, an initiative of the proletariat. The strike-demonstration for peace and bread on International Women's Day which triggered the revolution was precisely a proletarian and internationalist, political initiative. The Russian workers were already attempting in February to begin the European workers' revolution.

As a result of Russian priority, the question 'Should the working class seize political power in Europe?' was posed as: 'Should we copy the Russians?' And in 1918-21, this in turn was posed by the shape of the Russian Revolution, and by the role of the social democratic and trade union officials in 1914-18, as 'For or against "All power to the soviets"?'


The word 'revolution' in its modern use has three interrelated meanings. The first and most general is a short period of rapid and extensive change, as opposed to a longer gradual development: examples of this sense are the 'industrial revolution' and the 'scientific revolution'. The second is the overthrow of a constitution or state order and the creation of a new one. Marxists add a particular sense to this second meaning: social revolution means the replacement of the political power and leading role in society of one social class with that of another.

The third sense is most relevant to the present issue: revolution is the entry of the masses onto the political stage. Trotsky put the point most clearly in the preface to his The history of the Russian Revolution:

"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime."10 

It is in this sense of 'revolution', more than in the others, that Marx and Engels in the 1850 Address urged the Communist League that the German workers' "battle-cry must be: The permanent revolution". That is, the permanent presence of the masses on the political stage.

The concept of revolution as the entry of the masses onto the political stage is a striking truth, but one which can be misleading. The reason is that the masses are not wholly excluded from the political stage in non-revolutionary times. In mass-suffrage constitutional regimes, indeed, they have a licensed role in politics at election-times; and in constitutional regimes more generally mass lobbying campaigns are more or less acceptable to the state. These concessions of limited mass involvement in politics provide space for the development of permanent mass organisations: trade unions, workers' parties and so on. This can be true even of semi-constitutional regimes (half-reformed absolutisms) like pre-1914 Germany and Austria.

This has a number of consequences. The first is that, because the working class is as a class separated from the means of production, in order to defend its interests it needs to act collectively. In order to act collectively it needs to organise. And in order to act at the national or international level it needs permanent organisations and nationally (or internationally) structured decision-making. Certain technical organisational skills are collectively monopolised by the managerial and state-bureaucratic middle class, and the capitalists only give the workers free time in the demoralising form of unemployment. Hence national or international-scale workers' organisation requires an apparatus of leaders and full-timers.

But the members of this apparatus either are or become petty proprietors of intellectual property, in an identical social position to the managerial and state-bureaucratic middle class. Their common class interests with the other members of this class are opposed to the interests of the proletariat as a class. As a result, the declining capitalist state is able to rule through the support of the labour bureaucracy - just as the late-feudal absolutist state ruled through the support of state-sponsored capitalist monopoly groups and city authorities.11 

Secondly, because constitutionalism allows partial entry of the masses onto the political stage, their full entry in revolutionary crisis is less likely to appear as a sudden bolt from the blue like 1848. If we set on one side for the moment the 1914-18 war, the revolutionary wave of 1918-20 had been prepared by a prolonged Europe-wide period of growth of mass workers' organisations, of strike struggles and of electoral support for workers' parties. In 1917-19 revolutionary crises happened to be triggered by war and defeat; at other times, they have been triggered by electoral victories of left coalitions (Spain and France in the 1930s; several examples in Latin America).

Thirdly, what goes along with this is that when the masses do fully enter the political stage they bring with them their existing organisations (political parties they have joined or voted for, trade unions) and massively reinforce these organisations. Without grasping this fact, it is impossible to understand the ability of the right social democrats and 'centrists' to hold back the action of the masses, as they did in 1918-20 and as similar tendencies have repeatedly in revolutionary crises since then.

The Russian road

Russia was different. The critical difference for present purposes is that, unlike the western and central European states, the tsarist regime attempted to keep a repressive lid on mass involvement in politics. As a result, workers' organisations - and with them the labour bureaucracy - were exceptionally weak relative even to the small size of the proletariat.

The result was that when the lid did come off, in 1905 and again in 1917, the masses had to improvise. Their improvised organisations were the soviets. In this there is nothing very unusual: strike movements, for example, commonly throw up improvised organisations for the purpose of conducting the immediate struggle. What was unusual was two features. The first was that in 1905, because of the acute decay of the tsarist regime and the impotence of the Russian bourgeoisie, the Petrograd soviet half-took on the role of a counter-authority within the capital. The second was that when the regime finally collapsed in 1917 the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary supporters of the war and of class-collaboration promoted soviets all over Russia, and in June an All-Russian Congress of Soviets. They did so because their own party organisations and the trade unions were so weak and they were in acute need of some form of national organisation.

The result was that in Russia, the idea of a government and state regime controlled by the working class could be presented as 'All power to the soviets'. If the class-collaborationist Mensheviks and SRs had not already promoted the soviets as a form of national political authority, this slogan would have seemed as unrealistic as it has proved in revolutionary crises since the defeats of 1920-21. Further, to workers in western and central Europe reading accounts of the Russian Revolution, too, soviets or workers' councils could appear as an alternative form of political authority which represented the workers.

Going round the bureaucrats

This appearance was critical because of the role of the labour bureaucracy in western and central Europe in supporting the war efforts of the capitalist states. In 1914 the war was popular; in the mid-period of the war the integration of the labour bureaucrats went along with concessions, at least to workers in the war industries. But by 1916-17 popular support for the war was beginning to be exhausted and its costs bore more and more heavily on the masses, while war profiteering undermined capitalist legitimacy.

In this situation workers began to engage in actions which were not supported by the labour bureaucrats or, therefore, by the official organisations. Hence the creation of unofficial forms of ad hoc organisation like the British shop stewards' movement, which went around the bureaucracy's control of the official organisations. Only the radical left of the socialists and the syndicalists supported these actions. News of the 1917 revolution in Russia thus meant that there was European-wide identification of soviets/workers' councils as an alternative to the dictatorship of the class-collaborationist and social-patriotic bureaucrats.

Under these concrete conditions the question of the workers taking political power in Europe as a whole was posed as following the Russian road, and following the Russian road was posed as 'All power to the soviets' (or to workers' councils). But western and central Europe was not like Russia: the class-collaborationist labour bureaucrats went into the post-war revolutionary crises and political ferment in a far stronger position than their Russian equivalents.

In particular, shop-stewardism and workers' councils attempted to go round the class-collaborationist labour bureaucrats. What was needed was, rather, to throw the collaborators out and to create institutional forms which could for the future subordinate the bureaucrats to the ranks. The sentiment for general workers' unity without preconditions, which persisted even on the left and dominated the ideas of the 'centrists', enabled the class-collaborationists to take back leadership of the movement, including the workers' councils.

What the class-collaborationists did with this leadership was to create or reinforce the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. They did so by promoting rule-of-law constitutionalism, as opposed to political democratic institutions, and national unity as opposed to Europe-wide action, and through coalition governments with bourgeois or petty bourgeois parties. They did not hide what they were doing: on the contrary, they argued openly that this was the best course of action for the working class.

Neither the workers' councils in themselves nor the small and disorganised minorities in them who were directly hostile to the 'centrists' and class-collaborationists provided a means of overcoming the dominance of the class-collaborationists. That would have required the creation before the revolution broke out of substantial parties which proposed proletarian internationalist political alternatives to national roads and class-collaborationism, and democratic alternatives to liberal constitutionalism and to the dictatorship of the bureaucracy in the workers' organisations.

Conscious political choices

This history is one of conscious political choices made by the activists before the outbreak of the revolutions, and by the masses themselves during the revolutions. The German and Austrian masses were not inspired by 'transitional demands' to create workers' councils, or the Italian masses to occupy the factories. The masses intervened in these ways because they were fed up with the old regimes; because, thanks to years of growth of the workers' movement, they saw workers' power and socialism as a possible alternative; and because, in the Russian Revolution and the soviets, they thought they saw this alternative on the verge of reality. But they were then persuaded by the traditional leaders of the workers' movement, including traditional 'left' leaders, that this was not feasible, and that the best that could be obtained was capitalist 'democracy' (liberal constitutionalism).

The politics of proletarian revolution is not about leading the masses by the nose through 'transitional demands', either to cause a revolutionary crisis though the 'mass strike' or to create soviets and fight for all power to them. The masses do not need permanent 'revolutionary' political organisations to tell them when they feel that the existing regime is so intolerable that it must go.

The politics of proletarian revolution is about facilitating the partial entry of the masses on the political stage before the outbreak of revolutionary crisis, through building mass workers' organisations. And it is also about trying to pose a political alternative to the existing regime. This second task needs to begin now if we are ever to overcome the ability of the class-collaborationist labour bureaucracy to use the workers' movement to support the capitalist state. It cannot be postponed to cater for the needs of the 'transitional method'.