Anything but Marxism

Neither social democracy nor 'official communism' offer anything in the 21st century, writes Mike Macnair

“How can it be that in 2003 the Socialist Workers Party led what was possibly the largest demonstration in Britain ever, but in 2008 the British far left is in a dire condition of fragmentation and ineffectiveness?” One of our readers, who does not share the CPGB’s politics, posed this question to me some days ago.

Half the question is about an illusion. The massive demonstration in February 2003 owed its size not to the role of the SWP or any part of the far left, but to the (at least partial) backing of the Daily Mirror, The Independent and the BBC. Behind that backing was the fact that the British state core - the army and security services and the senior civil service - was split down the middle about whether to support US plans to invade Iraq. The role of the SWP and their allies in the Stop the War Coalition was merely analogous to that of cyber-squatters who had occupied a domain called ‘antiwar.com’, and hence could not be dispensed with.

The other half of the question is more fundamental. The left is massively weaker than - on some ideas of politics - it ‘ought to be’, given the global economic and political situation. Moreover, with the very partial and limited exception of Latin America, it is tending to get weaker as time goes on.

Left’s weakness

Capitalism in the first decade of the 21st century is not in particularly good shape. The triumphalism which greeted the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and the deepening market turn in China, is largely gone. There is increasingly widespread awareness that the free-market nostrums of the Chicago economists and the ‘Washington consensus’ produce deepening inequality both on a world scale and within individual countries. After the experience of the 1998 ‘east Asian’ and 2001 ‘dot-com’ market crashes, the ‘credit crunch’ has reminded us yet again that capitalism inherently involves bust as well as boom. Even the US army has finally realised that the extreme free-market ‘shock therapy’ imposed on Iraq after the 2003 invasion has contributed to the insurgency they seem unable to defeat.1

The political left, however, is in worse shape. This sort of statement is often made simply as a way of saying that the author’s own group’s views are not generally accepted. I do not mean to say this - though it is, of course, true that views of the sort held by CPGB comrades are shared only by a small minority. The point is that, though free-market fundamentalism is in decline, the political left in general has not benefited from this decline.

The Labour and Socialist parties are now as committed to free-market dogmas as the traditional parties of the right - in some cases more so. A large part of the former ‘official communists’ now fall into this camp: whether as being the major ‘left’ party, as in Italy, or as providing the hard core of the pro-market wing of the ‘left’, like the ex-Eurocommunist and fellow-traveller Blairites in Britain.

But this commitment has hardly benefited these parties. Though in Britain Labour has clung to office with capitalist support (now ebbing away), and in Germany, France, Spain and Italy ‘social-liberal’ parties have moved in and out of office, the underlying trend has been one of declining numerical support for all the parties of the consensus, including those which self-identify as ‘of the left’; increased abstentions; episodic surges in voting support for anything perceived as ‘an alternative’, usually on the right but occasionally on the left; and a widespread belief that ‘they’ (politicians) are all corrupt.

Hence on a global scale, religious and nationalist trends are major growing elements. The most obvious expressions are in the US - where the leverage of religious politics has not been diminished by the narrow victory of the Democrats in the 2006 Congressional elections - and the ‘muslim countries’ in the belt stretching from Morocco in the west to central Asia and Pakistan in the east, and in south-east Asia.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty characterises the islamist political movements as “islamo-fascist”. This is misleading. The US christian right is far more like the Italian Fascisti and German Nazis. Like them, it appeals to the traditions of the formation of the nation-state in which it lives (German Romantic nationalism, Italian unification and Italia irridenta, American radical protestantism). Like them, it is informed by a Dolchstosstheorie (stab-in-the-back theory) in which military failure (in the US case in Vietnam) was caused by the disloyalty of the left and the ‘liberals’. And like them, it is affected by millenarian irrationalism (the renewed Roman empire in Italy, the thousand-year Reich in Germany, the ‘end times’ in the US religious right). The islamists, in contrast, are closer to the catholic-led anti-semitic movements of late 19th century Europe.2 But the AWL’s characterisation does at least capture the fact that, though some of the islamists are currently fighting US imperialism (and its British side-kick), their domestic politics are unequivocally reactionary.

Weaker versions of the same or similar phenomena can be found widely. For example, the hindu-nationalist right is in the ascendant in India; the Koizumi and Abe governments in Japan have promoted ‘revisionist’-revanchist nationalism and remilitarisation; eastern Europe and the Russian Federation have seen strong growth of far-right trends; western Europe has witnessed repeated, so far short-lived, electoral ‘protest votes’ for far-right parties.

Left electoral alternatives to neoliberal orthodoxy are, on the whole, far weaker. The problem is that when they have got to any size they have been sucked into the role of junior partners to the ‘social-liberals’ in administering the capitalist regime, and thereby undermined their claim to offer an alternative to the neoliberal consensus. The Brazilian Workers Party (PT) - in origin a left alternative party - under Lula da Silva has become a social-liberal party of (coalition) government. The Italian Rifondazione Comunista in 2006 entered the social-liberal Prodi coalition government, with disastrous consequences in the 2008 elections. And so on.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there perhaps seemed to be a ‘non-electoral’ alternative: that of the ‘anti-globalisation movement’. On a small scale riots in London, Seattle and Genoa, on a larger scale the Mexican Zapatistas and Argentinean piqueteros were seen by anarchists and ‘council communists’ - and by some Trotskyists - as a sign that at last their time was beginning to come. The social forum movement was built at least partly in an anarchist image. However, with the inception of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001 and still more with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the destructive power of the capitalist states has thrust itself rudely on the movement. The result has unavoidably been a renewed emphasis on high politics: even in Latin America, where ‘networks of resistance’, the Zapatistas and Holloway’s ‘change the world without taking power’ had most influence, the left has shifted onto the electoral terrain.

The results have produced a continued social-liberal government in Brazil, and similar governments in Uruguay (Frente Amplio) and Chile - and governments which at least in rhetoric are to their left: Chávez in Venezuela, the victories of Morales in Bolivia and Correa in Ecuador. These are all undoubtedly political defeats for neoliberalism. However, even the Venezuelan case is not sufficiently urgent for Washington to divert major attention and resources to it. To the extent that they are not focussed on the Middle East, Washington’s eyes are on Havana.3

Chávismo has provoked enthusiastic support from a distance among a significant part of the left, and has had some influence on electoral politics elsewhere in Latin America (in the sense of increasing the political availability of left rhetoric). But it has not yet begun to reshape the left internationally, as Bolshevism did after 1917, or as Maoism and, to a lesser extent, Castroism/Guevarism did in the 1960s.

In part, this is a matter of ‘wait and see’. The left internationally has seen a large number of sometimes very radical and left-talking nationalist and third-worldist charismatic individual leaders come and go in the last half-century. Some have themselves turned ‘realist’, like Nkrumah, Museveni, Jerry Rawlings or the leaders of the South African ANC; some have been ousted and/or killed by ‘realists’ in their own nationalist movements, like Sukarno, Ben Bella or Thomas Sankara. ‘Official communists’, Maoists and Trotskyists in the process of moving towards ‘official communist’ politics, have celebrated one and all as the next Castro; for none has the celebration been long-lived. Given this background, it is understandable that in spite of the enthusiasm of a part of the left, the broader movement should effectively suspend judgment on Chávismo.

In part, and more fundamentally, the problem is that Chávismo offers no real strategic lesson for the left beyond ‘Find yourselves a charismatic leader’. (Perhaps it should be ‘Try to win junior army officers to left politics’?) Bolshevism offered a worked-out strategic line for the road beyond capitalism, whether this line was right or wrong. The same was true of Maoism. The extensive international influence of Castroism/Guevarism consisted in part in the fact that Che Guevara falsified the course of the Cuban revolution into an example of the Maoists’ ‘prolonged people’s war’ strategy. In part it was due to the fact that Castro and his co-thinkers promoted third-worldism, a dilute form of the Maoists’ global policy of ‘surrounding the cities’. In both aspects, the Cubans’ self-presentation as something different from the ‘official communist’ bureaucratic regimes and parties offered to romantic young leftists the hope of an alternative strategy. Chávismo, as yet, offers no equivalent.

The organised far left across the world - the Trotskyist, Maoist, etc groups - had hopes that the ‘anti-globalisation movement’ signalled a new rise in class combativity like the later 1960s; or at least the re-emergence of a ‘new left’ trend, out of which they could hope to recruit and build. More than 10 years on from the Mandelite Fourth International’s turn to the milieu that became the ‘anti-globalisation movement’, and seven years since the ‘Battle of Seattle’, this belief has proved illusory. The organised far left has gained some ground in the trade union movement internationally. But it has done so partly through generational replacement and partly because the decline of the activist base of the socialist and communist parties has been steeper than the corresponding decline of most of the groups of the far left. At best these groups have stagnated.

The apparent novelty that allowed the far left to appear as an alternative to large numbers of radicalising youth in the 1960s and 1970s is gone - today the left has a large, hostile periphery of ex-members who remain active in the broader movement. And the far left is widely - and often accurately - perceived as undemocratic in its internal functioning, as tending to export this undemocratic practice into the broader movement and as unable to unite its own forces for effective action.

In short, capitalism unfettered has not produced the blessings the neoliberals claimed it would. Instead, it is producing deepening social inequality both within and between nations, economic instability and episodic, so far localised, crises - as Marx predicted it would. And it shows every sign of producing an increasing tendency towards utterly destructive wars - as the ‘classical Marxists’ predicted it would. But the political left has not been the gainer. The main political gainer, instead, has been the ‘anti-capitalist’ right.

Rebuild social-democracy?

A very common response of that part of the left which has not abandoned leftism altogether is to argue that the problem is simply that the rest of the left has abandoned leftism. Thus, since the social democrats have abandoned social democracy, it is necessary to build a new Labour Party, which will be more committed to left ideas. This is the substance of the project of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and of Respect - but there are similar projects everywhere. The Brazilian PT originated in this way.

The problem with this policy is that it fails to ask why the social democrats have abandoned social democracy, when they maintained it and acted on it through the 1950s-80s. The shift of Labour and similar parties to the right then appears as a motiveless betrayal. Each such betrayal from another section of the left - from Lula, from Bertinotti, from the left trade union leaders and Labour MPs who refused to back John McDonnell’s leadership bid - thus comes as a new, unpleasant surprise.

The problem is at its root the problem of ‘reform or revolution’. But it is not the problem of ‘reform or revolution’ in the way in which this is usually posed by the far left: that is, that the traditional social democrats refuse to accept the use of ‘revolutionary means’ in the sense of political strikes, demonstrations and insurrections. Rather, it is that the traditional social democrats insisted that open struggle against the state would produce only repression; hence, that the only way to obtain immediate reforms is to form a government.

Further, the only way to get to form a government (without bringing down the state, which intervenes in its own interests in elections) is to display conspicuous loyalty to the existing state order, both in the form of nationalism and arguing that reforms are in the common ‘national interest’, and in the form of constitutionalism and legalism. The traditional social democrats thus rejected not so much ‘revolutionary’ means as revolutionary ends: ie, radical change in the state order and in ‘who rules’.

This project worked as long as capital was willing to concede to labour an increasing share of the total social surplus. It thus worked to some extent, in successful imperialist countries, in the high period of classical imperialism between the 1870s and World War I, when imperialist capital was willing to use imperialist super-profits to make concessions to sections of the domestic working class in order to maintain social peace at home. It worked again and more generally in the cold war period, when global capital was willing to make substantial material concessions to the working class for the sake of the ‘containment’ of Soviet ‘communism’.

However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s this global system began to fail: the leading role of the US, which was pivotal to the system, became overextended (Vietnam and the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system) and workers and other subordinate classes began to demand too much (1968, the Italian ‘creeping May’, ‘wildcat strikers’ in the US and Germany, the British struggles of the early 1970s, Vietnam and the colonial liberation movements, the Portuguese revolution ...). Capital turned to a new policy, which was in some ways a return to its policy of the late 19th century (financialisation), in other ways a return to the days before the high period of classical imperialism (free trade and liberal natural property rights ideology). In this global context, every capital and every state is in competition with every other capital and state to reduce the share of total social surplus going to labour.

Under these new global conditions the political logic of winning immediate reforms is transformed. Cutting labour’s share of the total social surplus is quite genuinely in the national interest; any concessions from capital have to be paid for, and paying for them demands maintaining the nation’s ‘competitive position’ - which turns out to mean unemployment, speed-up, loss of pension rights, cuts in the proportion of public expenditure actually applied to the end-users of public services and, conversely, increases in subsidies to capitalist building contractors and so on who supply the public services, and all the rest of the current crap.

These new world dynamics present an intense contradiction for social democrats. If they make any promises of reforms which will benefit the working class through winning government office, these promises have to be either straightforward lies (Blair and co) or fantasies which will melt away when office is actually obtained (Mitterrand in the 80s, the PT, Rifondazione and so on). In reality, the most they can really offer is to be ‘Thatcherites with a human face’. Hence the endless series of ‘betrayals’. Hence also the general perception that politicians are all corrupt and liars.

But ‘Thatcherism with a human face’ is a pretty slight reason to bother to vote for the social democracy, and even less of a reason for activists on the ground to commit time, energy and money to building these parties. Hence the gradual or not-so-gradual decay of Labour and similar parties.

The consequence is that the idea of rebuilding a mass social democratic party more to the left of the existing parties, but still within the frame of nationalism and reformism, is a futile illusion. The social democracy we already have (Blair-Brown and co, and so on) is the best and only possible sort of social democracy, as long as present global conditions continue.

Is social democracy doomed to decline and collapse (with ups and downs in the process) or can it revive? The answer depends on whether capital can turn again to conceding an increased share of the total social surplus product to labour. For this there are two conditions. The first is that capital should foresee a future of continuing or increased profits even if the concessions are made to the working class: which in the 1870s-1900s it foresaw through imperialism, and in the 1950s-60s through the US-led world order. In my opinion this is not possible without the overthrow of the military and financial power of the USA and its replacement with a new capitalist world hegemon.

The second condition is that capital should be put in fear of the working class on an international scale. The concessions on the basis of imperialism followed, in Britain, the mass movements of the 1860s around the suffrage and around anti-slavery solidarity; in continental Europe, they followed the rise of the First International and the Paris Commune. The concessions in the wake of World War II followed an immense international wave of militant hostility to capitalism beginning in the latter part of that war and continuing in the first years after it.

There is thus a paradox. There is no question of reviving social democracy by attempting to build on the basis of social democratic ideas: because these ideas are precisely about not putting the capitalists in fear. If the capitalists are put in fear by the rise of a mass workers’ movement which does not respect national borders and constitutional legality, they will probably turn to the social democrats to help them out; but, as long as the left clings to pretending to be social democrats, there will be no such movement.

Try Stalinism again?

The larger part of the global left which is not simply social democratic clings to the ideas of ‘official communism’. Cuba now stands in for the former Soviet Union: it is necessary to disregard the ‘economic liberalisation’ moves already undertaken under Fidel, Raul Castro’s expressed admiration for the Chinese sweatshop of the world, and his continuing moves to ‘liberalise’.

This ‘official communist’ politics is now shared by the very large majority of the groups originating in Trotskyism. The Socialist Workers Party’s ‘anti-imperialism’ has become Maoist-Castroist third-worldist in character with its effective political support for the neoliberal, clerical-capitalist regime in Tehran. John Rees and Alan Thornett alike - and many similar far-leftists across the globe - defend Dimitrov’s non-aggression concept of the united front from his report to the 7th Congress of the Comintern, falsely attributing it to Lenin and Trotsky, and characterise Lenin’s and Trotsky’s concept of the united front as ‘sectarianism’.

The idea of building a new mass social democratic party fails to face up to the change in global political-economic conditions since the 1980s. Falling back on ‘official communism’ fails to face up to one of the most fundamental changes of this period: that bureaucratic socialism manifestly failed.

It is not merely that these regimes were murderously tyrannical. The point is that all the sacrifices, both of political liberty and of material well-being, which the regimes demanded of those they ruled, have only led back to capitalism. As long as the left appears to be proposing to repeat this disastrous experience we can expect mass hostility to liberal capitalism to be expressed mainly in the form of rightism: that is, of nostalgia for the pre-capitalist social order.

Now the Trotskyists may argue that this does not affect them or, to the extent that it does, complain that this is unfair to them. After all, they opposed the bureaucratic regimes and called for their revolutionary overthrow. Some small minorities within this general trend - the Critique group, the Spartacists, the neo-Marcyites - even foresaw that the continued dictatorship of the bureaucracy would lead to a collapse, and/or back to capitalism.

Humans have no guide to action in the future other than theorising on what has happened in the past. Experiment in the physical sciences is no more than a way of formalising reliance on past actions as a guide to future actions. In politics, there can be no laboratory. Our only experimental evidence is the evidence of our history. Trotskyism as theory - and here including Critique, the Spartacists and the neo-Marcyites - predicted that the working class in the countries run by bureaucratic ‘socialist’ regimes would resist the restoration of capitalism. Trotsky - and, following him, the Spartacists and neo-Marcyites - predicted that this resistance would find a political reflection in political splits within the bureaucracy. The majority of the ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists used this prediction to conclude that there could not be a restoration of capitalism. All of these predictions were categorically false. There has been no accounting for their falsity.

The point runs deeper. Under capitalism, there is an objective dynamic for the working class to create permanent organisations to defend its immediate interests - trade unions and so on. This dynamic is present even under highly repressive political regimes - as can be seen in apartheid South Africa, South Korea before its ‘democratisation’ and so on. These organisations tend, equally, to become a significant factor in political life. It is these tendencies which support the ability of the political left to be more than small utopian circles.

Under the Soviet-style bureaucratic regimes there was no objective tendency towards independent self-organisation of the working class. Rather there were episodic explosions; but to the extent that the bureaucracy did not succeed in putting a political cap on these, they tended towards a pro-capitalist development. The strategic line of a workers’ revolution against the bureaucracy - whether it was called ‘political revolution’, as it was by the orthodox Trotskyists, or ‘social revolution’, as theorists of state capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism dubbed it - lacked a material basis.

This objection applies with equal force to those misguided souls who (like Tony Clark of the Communist Party Alliance) argue that the Soviet-style bureaucratic regimes were in transition towards socialism; that this inevitably “has both positive and negative features to begin with”, but that the transition was turned into its opposite by the seizure of power by the bourgeoisie “gain[ing] control of communist parties and socialist states under the banner of anti-Stalinism”.4

If we momentarily accept this analysis for the sake of argument, the question it poses is: why have the true revolutionaries, the Stalinists, been so utterly incapable of organising an effective resistance to this take-over, given that ‘socialism’ in their sense covered a large part of the globe and organised a large part of its population? This is exactly the same problem as the Trotskyists’ ‘political revolution’ strategy, only with a different substantive line. The weakness of Stalinist opposition to the pro-capitalist evolution of the leaderships in Moscow, Beijing and so on reveals the same problem as that facing the advocates of ‘political revolution’. There were neither institutional means in the regimes through which the ‘non-revisionists’ could resist revisionism nor any objective tendency in the regimes towards ongoing mass working class self-organisation on which opponents of revisionism could base themselves.

The Trotskyists of all varieties continue to put forward as positive socialist strategy a revolution in the image of 1917 in Russia. But, as everyone knows, what happened to the Russian Revolution was the emergence of the bureaucratic regime, which has now ended - or is in process of ending - in capitalism. Trotskyists are therefore required to account for how the bureaucratic regime arose, and to offer reasons for supposing that the process would not be duplicated anywhere else which had a ‘1917-style’ revolution.

Trotsky’s account was, fundamentally and correctly, that 1917 was a gamble on the short-term extension of the world revolution. But this gamble failed. And, given the failure of the Russians’ gamble, the Trotskyist account does not explain why any attempt to repeat a revolution in the image of 1917 would not end in the same way. It is ridiculous to imagine that the global, imperialist-led system of states would not bend every effort to isolate a ‘new 1917’. Countries which are more ‘developed’ than the tsarist empire in 1917 (now most countries) are more deeply integrated in the global division of labour, and isolation would therefore produce more scarcity and hence more need for a state-bureaucratic ‘policeman’.

Rather than address this problem, the Trotskyists have clung to the basic ideas of the early Comintern - especially on the party question. They insist that these have nothing to do with the rise of the bureaucracy - even as their own organisations, like the SWP, display exactly the symptoms of bureaucratic dominance described of the CPSU by Trotsky in The Third International after Lenin, and are in the process of adapting their organisations’ politics to the class-collaborationism and people’s frontism of classical Stalinism.

For the Russians, the bureaucratic degeneration of workers’ organisations was a new experience after 1917: before the revolution, the Okhrana helpfully forced the removal of potential career officials of the socialist parties and trade unions by jailing and exiling them. But it was not new to the western left: it was already identified by the Webbs in the British trade union movement in the 1890s, and by Michels in the German SPD in the 1900s.5

Bureaucratic internal norms, and ‘realistic’ nationalist-reformist and class-collaborationist politics, march inescapably hand in hand. This is as much a lesson of Britain and Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as it is of Russia since the 1920s. Just as Soviet-style bureaucratic socialism proves to be only a road back to capitalism, so the interpretation of early Comintern ideas by the majority of the organised far left proves to be only a road back to social democracy - the Brazilian case providing a particularly clear example.

Probably most people who come into contact with the organised left do not think about the issue at this level of analysis: ie, that the left has failed to account properly for Stalinism. What they see is something much simpler: that the left groups are massively divided; and, if they are familiar with the groups or pass through membership of them, that the groups are not really democratic but either no more democratic than the capitalist parliamentary constitutional regime (as is true of the Mandelite Fourth International and its larger sections) or that they are characterised by bureaucratic tyranny just like Stalinism (as is true of the SWP and numerous other far-left groups). In reality, the division is to a considerable extent the product of bureaucratic centralism, and both are at least in part produced by the failure to account properly for Stalinism.

Try Marxism

This is enough to explain why the decay of capitalism, and large episodic movements like the anti-war movement in Britain, or the movements against the EU constitution or the ‘young workers reform’ in France, and so on elsewhere, do not find political expression in the growth of the left. The fact is that the left is - in its large majority - clinging to strategic ideas which belong to objective conditions that have disappeared. Under the new conditions these ideas are politically paralysing.

What has not in the recent past been tried is the basic political prescriptions of Marx and Engels: to build the workers’ movement as an independent class movement, not as part of a ‘broader left’; for the working class to cooperate internationally under capitalism, not simply attempt to win power in single countries; to fight for concrete reforms, while refusing government office and coalitions aimed at government office; to fight for political democracy, both against the capitalist state order and against the labour bureaucracy.

This is not something which can be done by a small fragment of the left on its own, whether it is to be the CPGB or some other group. It needs the left as a whole or a large part of it to get out of the tramlines of social democratic and ‘official communist’ thought. However, as long as the left does not begin to try, it will continue to decay l


1. ‘To stem Iraqi violence, US aims to create jobs’ Washington Post December 12 2006.
2. See D Kertzer Unholy war London 2003; and my review, ‘The politics of purity’ Weekly Worker July 22 2004.
3. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, ‘Report to the president’, July 10 2006, www.cafc.gov/cafc/rpt/2006/68097.htm; signed off by co-chairs secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and secretary of commerce (and Cuban émigré) Carlos Gutierrez.
4. Comrade Clark’s letter to the Weekly Worker on this issue was partially cut, with the cut material appearing in a further letter which charged us with “expurgating” the original: the full text can be found at www.oneparty.co.uk under ‘What’s new’.
5. S Webb, B Webb Industrial democracy London 1902, p8; The history of trade unionism 1666-1920 London 1920, pp204, 466-70 - both describing the 1890s; R Michels Political parties New York 1911 (cited from the 1962 edition of the English translation).