Return to Marx

James Turley reviews Mike Macnair's 'Revolutionary strategy' November publications, 2008, pp204, £7.99

The last two decades have seen momentous and epochal shifts in world politics, taking in the fall of the Stalinist countries, the emergence of China as a serious force on the world market - and the almost total obliteration of the far left.

The anti-globalisation movement seemed to stem the tide, and it is now not uncommon for the cadres of left parties to have a ‘generation gap’ of about 10 years, with a near total absence of members between the ages of 25 and 35. Still, it has not come winging to the rescue of the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Power or any of the other starry-eyed Trotskyist and sub-Trotskyist groups who dived in feet first after Seattle. The real beneficiary has been the jumble of anti-centralist, localist ideas collectively known as social-anarchism.

Mike Macnair’s book carries the subtitle ‘Marxism and the challenge of left unity’, and indeed spends much of its bulk dealing exactly with that question. But it is also in a sense an analysis of how it came to be that the closest things to new strategic orientations in this dire period have come not from orthodox Marxism, but from the likes of John Holloway; and a brave - and lonely - attempt to come to terms with the real implications of the failure of dominant ideas on the far left to achieve anything like its stated goals.

Revised and reprinted from a long series of articles originally published in the Weekly Worker in 2006, and incorporating incidental material (particularly on Trotskyist defencism and defeatism) from other articles published since, Revolutionary strategy starts from the axiom: “When you are radically lost it becomes necessary to retrace your steps” (p26). For the Marxist movement, this means going back to the political platforms drafted by Marx and Engels, and the battles they fought against rival tendencies in the workers’ movement.

The outline of Marx’s strategy boils down to a handful of elements: the emancipation of the working class must be the activity of the working class itself; it consists in the fight for communism; it requires the smashing of the state and its radical reconstruction; and it is necessarily aninternational task (pp27-28).

The core of Mike’s argument consists in tracing these basic strategic principles through the deaths of Marx and Engels, the Second International period, the Comintern before and after Lenin’s death, and the Trotskyists. It is a story which is both repetitive and demonstrative - in each period, history shows us a terrible political collapse (for the Trotskyists, a million tiny collapses), which turns out to be a direct result of equivocation on one of the core principles.

So far, so Trot historiography by numbers. However, there is an important further step, which is the demonstration of the intimate, organic interconnections between those principles. They form a unity in which each is dependent on the others. The centrists in the Second International, for example, fudged on the question of the state - on the surface, one would expect this faulty understanding to become an issue only when the German and French sections etc had power within their grasp.

However, fudging this question allowed Kautsky and his comrades to make vast concessions to the right wing of the International, which was committed to coalitions with bourgeois parties to win reforms, thus sacrificing the principle of independent working class action. Since reforms are underwritten by the position of the given national state in the international hierarchy, they fundamentally rest on “the displacement of the downswing of the business cycle onto the weaker states and their firms and populations” (p42) and thus commit reformists to administrating imperialism. Internationalism falls too. The result in 1914 was the vote for war credits.

Likely the most controversial claim in the pamphlet is that Trotskyism is in fact an indirect inheritor not of Marx’s and Engels’ strategic ideas, but those of Bakunin (and the same is true of Rosa Luxemburg and the left communists). TheTransitional programme, Trotsky’s pre-eminent strategic document, proposes that the spontaneous struggle of the masses can be nudged into a full confrontation with the state, which the Trotskyists - until the outbreak of the crisis, numerically insignificant - can then lead to victory. This “amounts almost exactly to the policy of Bakunin and the Bakuninists in 1870-73” (p158).

This strategy fails, comrade Macnair has argued elsewhere,1 simply because revolution does not unfold in this fashion. What is immediately posed after a mass movement comes into being is not action leading to action leading to action, inexorably drawing the mass movement to power, but the necessity of broader political solutions and leadership. In other words, the masses immediately ask: ‘Who is going to form a government?’ The Portuguese revolution, for example, was almost a total wash-out for the Trotskyist groups because they had nothing to say; the only contenders were the ‘official communists’ and the social democrats.

In fact, Revolutionary strategy argues that communists have much to learn on this score from the Second International centre (Kautskyite) tendency and its arguments against both the left and right.

Kautsky’s was a “strategy of patience” (p56). It was necessary to build mass parties - slowly in periods of relative social peace and explosively in times of unrest. The working class is strong because it is large and ever-growing, but also because its separation from the means of production makes class solidarity an objective, obvious and constant necessity. The party had, therefore, to organise a majority of the working class, becoming the expression of its unity and the vehicle for its action, and enjoy at least passive support from a majority of the society as a whole.

This contrasts with ‘quick fixes’ emanating from the centre’s rivals. The left’s fetishisation of strike waves underestimated the importance of an already existing mass party apparatus to their success; the right’s pursuit of coalitions would lead to the subordination of the workers to the petty proprietors, and ultimately political catastrophe. Mike names the fate of the Indonesian Communist Party, physically obliterated in a military coup; the Ciliwung river was dammed with communist corpses, and the final death toll topped three quarters of a million.

This leaves the key problem of the Kautskyites’ collapse into social pacifism at the outbreak of World War I. We have seen that equivocation on the question of the state had disastrous consequences for Kautsky’s struggle against the right. Elements of Lenin’s critique of Kautsky, therefore, have a distinct validity - The state and revolution’s insistence that the bourgeois state must be smashed and extensive reference to Marx’s and Engels’ writings on the Paris Commune, for example.

On the question of internationalism, however, it is necessary to go further not only than Lenin, but also Marx and Engels. The events of 1848 left them with a perspective for linked but distinct national revolutions (p136); in reality, this was a false view of even that year, and the proletarian revolution is necessarily international in form. The model of an international with a centre directing the activity of national parties is insufficient - tasks of international solidarity inevitably arise, and in reality only coordinated action against bourgeois power on a continental scale will produce the possibility of success.

This in turn requires the ability of groups of national sections, as well as particular membership strata (railway drivers, for instance), to organise action independently of the micro-management of the international centre. It therefore raises the spectre which has been haunting my review somewhat: the party question.

The conclusions reached here - that parties must have a strict and absolute democratic-republican character, with full-timers subordinated to a membership active in the organisation’s life - will not come as any surprise to regular readers of this paper, but worthy of note is Mike’s rigorous location of the party question at the core of debates which often seemed to be about other things. The bureaucratic organisational norms inherited from the Comintern and the official trade union movement are seen to have turned difficult problems - the united front, international organisation, the 1914-20 split with the social-chauvinist right - into insurmountable ones, time after time.

There are a couple of niggling problems with the text: much of the material on defeatism and defencism relies on a distinctive theory of imperialism, outlined in an earlier series of articles2, and, while it is not the primary subject of this work, one or two pages of outline may have clarified things a little. Much of the material marshalled in support of Mike’s strategic conclusions at debates and meetings has also failed to make it in, with the result that some pertinent points (for example, the falsity of ‘all power to the soviets’) have been made more effectively elsewhere.

It also seems to me a little mean-spirited to describe the Trotskyists’ wrangling over the Russian question as “a bizarre body of competing theological dogmas” (p143). The fact that it has surfaced again and again as a split question is regrettable, to say the least; however, the Soviet Union remains a crucial test case for Marxist analysis, and despite the fact that most of it is simply wrong, the debates in the Trotskyist movement on the Stalinist countries and the vast resultant theoretical product is rather the best of its legacy than the worst.

Still, there is no point sparing the hyperbole - this is a vastly important book, not simply the “beginning of a re-examination”, as modestly advertised on the back cover, but a forceful and unsparing intervention that - if there is any justice in the world - will seriously reshape debates on the early Comintern and the Second International, as well as restore to their rightful place the strategic thinking of Marx and Engels themselves. Revolutionary strategy shows the workers’ movement the way to a massive step forward - whether it will take that step is another matter.


1. For example, at Communist University 2007.
2. Weekly Worker July 29, August 5, August 12 2004.


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