Representation, not referendums
The basis of decision-making under the dictatorship of the proletariat is not the same as under communism, argues Mike Macnair
Last week in the first part of my reply to Paul Cockshott, I argued that the nature of the transitions between social formations, and the continuing significance of the petty-proprietor class - including both the ‘classic’ petty-bourgeoisie and the employed middle class - meant that if the proletariat is to take political power in Europe in this period what will follow will still be a transitional form characterised by class conflicts between the proletariat and the petty proprietors.
I concluded that the political forms we fight for as the immediate alternative to capitalist rule have to be able to reflect that continuing class conflict and to allow the proletariat to organise for it - including workers mobilising against ‘their own’ state. To quote Marx’s notes on Bakunin’s Statism and anarchy, “the proletariat organised as ruling class” means merely “that the proletariat, instead of struggling sectionally against the economically privileged class, has attained a sufficient strength and organisation to employ general means of coercion in this struggle.”
In this part I move in the first place to a highly abstract issue: the problems of collective decision-making in general - and temporarily abstracting from class society. In fact, of course, we live in class society, we have done for some thousands of years and if capitalism were overthrown worldwide tomorrow we would still live in class society, albeit under working class rule, for at least a generation or two. So the things that can be said about collective decision-making in a society without classes have to be very tentative. They can be partly, but only partly, drawn from decision-making within ruling classes, like Athenian slave-trader pirates and slave-owning artisans and farmers, as comrade Cockshott does. They can be partly, but also only partly, drawn from the positive and negative problems of decision-making in working class collective organisations.
It is necessary to go to this level of abstraction for two reasons. The first is that comrade Cockshott de facto does so. He says that communists should seek an ‘Athenian’ democracy, not a ‘Roman’ oligarchy. In a sense he is right. But to argue at this level necessarily abstracts from the political-economic and military foundations of the Athenian politeia and the Roman res publica. The second and more fundamental reason is that class society is at the end of the day a form of organisation of collective social decision-making: the ruling class, and its individual members, make the collective decisions ‘for’ the rest of us.
Every society has to have modes of taking collective decisions. Some individual decisions affect the individual alone. Many others - especially those concerning production - necessarily impact on other people. The standard example is Garret Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the commons’: if every commoner individually decides to put a few more beasts on the common, the common will be destroyed. This is usually used as an argument for private property and against communism, but since some things - like highways, or property law - must be common in even the most individual property-rights set-up, all it really proves is the necessity of social decision-making with a view to the common good.
Individual conscious thought and collective discussion leading to consensus or votes, and so on, are only a sub-set of decision-making mechanisms. Individual training and habits, collective traditions and customs, and formally adopted rules (like traffic regulations) are all decision rules. They are individual or collective ‘default settings’ in frequently encountered choices: followed unless there are strong reasons to displace them. The delegation of decisions to individuals or sub-groups is also a kind of decision rule, for the society - or organised social groups, like parties and unions - considered as a whole
Within this framework, private property in the means of production is a decision rule under which decisions affecting the common welfare are collectively delegated to the individual owner. Contrary to the fantasies of the libertarians, this delegation is in no society ever complete. On the contrary, private property produces as its inherent negation: the idea of the ‘public’, whether in the form of religious organisations, the political state or both; limits on private property; and ‘takings’ of private property for public purposes (like road-building).
The existence of ruling classes is even more clearly a decision rule which delegates decision-making power to members of the ruling class or to this class as a whole. The slaveowner directs the work of his slaves, the manorial landlord of his villeins, the capitalist of his employees. Moreover, the institutions of slavery, feudal rents, etc, and capitalist profits, fund a class elite which specialises in group public decision-making. Ruling classes do not, of course, usually emerge through a conscious decision of society as a whole to delegate decision-making power to them. Rather, their role in collective decision-making leads to them being seen as something more than simple thieves, and hence to them not being rapidly overthrown.
Private property and class do not arise by a conscious decision to allocate social decision-making power to property owners and ruling classes. But a formal and intentional delegation of decision-making power to an individual or group on a permanent or renewable basis creates what is in substance a private property right. The fact that it is not recognised in law as a property right and is not (directly) an inheritable one does not alter its character as a property right in substance. It is this private-property character which forms the basis of the turf wars between bureaucrats which I referred to in last week’s article. And it formed the interest of the Soviet bureaucracy in converting what they owned into inheritable property through the restoration of capitalism.
Capitalism is a sub-variant of the general phenomena of private property and class. It allocates social decision-making power to a ruling class, taking the particular form of the holders of accumulations of money (including in money a wide variety of debt claims). But, contrary to the various ideologies of neoclassical, Austrian, etc economics, the money regime does not dissolve class. The substructure of capitalism remains a class order, one in which social decision-making power is delegated to the capitalist class and its individual members.
Communism is transhistorically attractive because the delegation of social decision-making power to a ruling elite, with a subordinate class excluded from social decision-making power, is in contradiction with the nature of the human species. Hence the recurrence of utopian communisms, from variants of early Christianity and Mazdakism, through various medieval heresies, to the 19th century utopian socialists.
Communism is presently posed, in a historical sense, for two reasons. The first is that capitalism tends to concentrate production to such an extent that private decision-making about productive activities produces systemically irrational results. This irrationality is expressed most starkly in periodic economic crises, like the one now going on, in which too much material wealth and productivity produces impoverishment. Through the link between capital and the state (above) it is also expressed in increasingly destructive wars.
The second reason why communism is posed is that capitalism produces and constantly expands the proletariat - a class which, because it lacks property in the means of production, needs collective, as opposed to private, decision-making in order to defend its interests. In doing so, capitalism creates the underlying conditions for a society without private property and class.
It follows that communism will need decision-making mechanisms which form the basis for voluntary solidarity: mechanisms which do not exclude anyone from social decision-making. Communism abandons the default decision rules provided by private property and money. But its mechanisms will necessarily include other decision rules, which provide default decisions or which delegate decision-making power.
To recognise this it is only necessary to imagine the case of a decision to adopt, or not to adopt, a new bicycle design at a minor bicycle factory in a small town, whether this town is to be in northern England, southern India or any other location. It would be plainly irrational for this decision and the numberless similar decisions which arise every day to be taken collectively by the five billion-odd people in the world above the age of 15. This is true even if we assume universal literacy and net access and (trustworthy) instant electronic referenda. Global decisions will need to be of rough frameworks, which are then more closely specified by local decisions; ‘local’ here including both a range of geographical instances, from continent level down to village level, and a range of sectoral instances, from the level of global shipping, through continental rails and power grids, down to workplace levels.
A different form of the problem is that of narrowing the range of possible positions to the point at which a collective decision is possible. Comrade Cockshott and his co-author, Allin Cottrell, have demonstrated that von Mises’ objection to socialism - that planning is impossible because of the complexity of the calculations involved - is false in the light of modern computing power. However, the planning exercise proposed presupposes general choices of plan goals. Put another way, the planning exercise could contribute to narrowing the range of choices by excluding impossible combinations (like capitalist politicians’ promises of both lower taxes and improved public services). But a range, very likely a large range, of different combinations of plan objects and means remain possible. To reach decisions for action among a large range of possibilities it is necessary to have means to narrow down the options.
The process of narrowing down options to get to the point where a decision is possible necessarily involves delegation arrangements. The problem is simply the natural limits of time and numbers. Consider our five billion people (above) deciding among (at a fairly conservative estimate) 850 different options for a global set of annual plan priorities ...
Take, for example, the old and somewhat more democratic form of Labour Party conference: 650 constituency parties, 20-odd affiliated trade unions and various other affiliated organisations each had the right to submit a single motion to party conference. To enable a week-long conference to take place some means was necessary to reduce the number of these that went to the vote. The means was in practice bureaucratic selection of agenda topics and ‘compositing’ of related motions. Procedural distinctions between motion and amendment, between counterposed motions and those that are not, and so on, play a similar role. I do not recommend the particular bureaucratic solutions traditional in the labour movement, but the problem is a real problem.
Comrade Cockshott argues that “If Macnair really wanted to follow the logic of the working class party being the most consistent advocate of democracy, what he should be demanding is:
- the replacement of all parliaments, councils, assemblies and quangos by juries drawn randomly from the population;
- the right of initiative and referendum, with taxes and the budget to be submitted to popular vote; declarations of war only by popular vote; ...
- abolition of the judiciary and magistracy; juries to be supreme in courts; no loss of liberty without jury trial.”
Under full global communism, I think that the first and third of these slogans would in principle be entirely correct; though the particular forms of decision-making organisation will, of course, be decided by future generations. The reason they would be correct is that communism involves the supersession of the ‘social division of labour’: ie, it ceases to be the case that people specialise for life in particular tasks, and in particular that some people specialise in decision-making tasks and others in doing what they are told. Doing decision-making tasks for a period of time then becomes a tedious chore, which the individuals involved are obliged to do from time to time, like jury service.
Universal decision-making by referendum with an unrestricted right of initiative would, however, be wrong even under full communism. The reason is that, completely irrespective of access and trustworthiness issues, it ignores the delegation problems - both of local decision-making and of narrowing the agenda for decision - discussed above. Imagine for a moment: you get up in the morning and log on, and find in your inbox 20 million referendum proposals to be read and voted on ...
Exactly the same problem affects a common far-left idea, that ‘representatives’, whether elected or selected at random, should be replaced by ‘delegates’ subject to imperative mandates in all their voting. If fully implemented in practice, the effect is that the meeting of the body at which the delegates vote is a complete waste of time: what has actually happened is a referendum with the voting taking place in the delegating bodies. Precisely because the effect is actually a referendum, there is only an illusion of delegation.
We do not leap instantly from capitalism to full communism. In the first part of this reply I emphasised the continuing presence of the petty bourgeoisie and the employed middle class after the immediate overthrow of capitalist rule.
Because the petty proprietors continue to exist, the immediate abolition of law and lawyers is not feasible. Comrade Cockshott’s proposal for the supremacy of the jury - the old slogan, ‘Juries judges both of law and fact’, is sound as an immediate measure. But “abolition of the judiciary and magistracy” would amount to an attempt to immediately abolish law and lawyers. They would resurface in black-market form, as they did in revolutionary France.
There is a continuing class struggle between the proletariat and the small proprietors. This class struggle is somewhat different in character from the ‘classic’ class struggle between proletarians and capitalists, which is driven by the obvious antagonism that wage cuts, longer hours and speed-up increase profits and vice versa. Rather the small proprietors have three interests opposed to those of the proletariat.
The first is an interest in obtaining an enlarged share of the social product relative to proletarians and to their competitors in the small-proprietor class (which is partially, but only partially, justified due to the higher costs of reproduction of skilled labour-power). This is reflected in conflict over the prices of products and services provided by members of the petty-proprietor class - in extreme forms the ‘scissors crises’ seen at various times in the USSR, China and Cuba. It is also reflected in managerial and bureaucratic self-dealing for special privileges.
The second is an interest in the exploitation of family labour with a view to accumulation, both to keep the small proprietor ‘above’ proletarians, and in competition with other small proprietors. This is ideologically reflected as patriarchalism, commitment to the subordination of women and of youth, and therefore opposed to the interest of the proletariat in solidarity across gender and age. It is as true of the managerial middle class as of rural small proprietors: this is seen every day in divorce-court battles over assets.
The third is an interest in retaining monopoly control of their tangible or intangible property and therefore excluding ‘outsiders’ of one sort or another both from competing access, and from decisions. This is expressed in one form in - for a couple of examples - village and small-town suspicion of ‘incomers’, and practising lawyers’ hostility to any reform which might undermine their monopoly. It takes another form in - also examples - bureaucratic ‘turf wars’, and the dictatorship of the bureaucracy in the organisations of the workers’ movement.
If petty-proprietor skill monopolies were not real, we could move immediately from capitalism to communism. But they are real, and because of this the proletariat is required not only to trade with small family producers, but also to employ the managerial middle class in the form of union, party, cooperative, state, etc. officials.
The problem of the dictatorship of the proletariat is how to keep the officials in a state of subordination to the proletarian majority, and to use an appropriate combination of carrot and stick to force them to accept a gradual process of socialisation of their monopolised skills and information.
The primary measures of this class struggle are economic. They are general reduction of working hours, and increased availability of education (especially adult education) and retraining, in order to ‘overproduce’ holders of the skills monopolised by the managerial middle class, and other such measures.
The problem can also be tackled directly through rotation of office: that is, compulsory and short term limits, which require officials to stand down completely at the end of their period of office and return to their prior jobs or the normal labour market for a period of time before they are eligible again to stand for office.
Most fundamental, however, is the enforcement as far as practically possible of transparency. The reason is that, as I have already said, what the managerial middle class monopolises is precisely access to information.
This, in turn, requires that class-political struggle should itself take a transparent form. Under full communism, comrade Cockshott is correct that decision-makers should in principle be appointed by lot, like jurors. Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, it is in the interest of the proletariat that the class interest of the petty proprietors should be openly expressed in the form of political parties and factions - and therefore there has to be some form of elective, representative institutions for decision-making.
The alternative, as the experience of the USSR and its satellites and imitators makes clear, is not that the class interests of the petty proprietors go unrepresented. It is that, excluded from open representation, these interests are promoted in an obscure and subterranean way in secret-factional and clique struggles within the party and state apparatus. Precisely because this form of representation of petty-proprietor interests is obscure and subterranean, it actually subordinates proletarian interests to the interests of the managerial middle class.
The capitalist state
Is this argument - that the dictatorship of the proletariat needs to employ elective, representative forms, in which the small proprietors are openly represented - ‘parliamentarism’ and therefore the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie? Comrade Cockshott argues that it is an ‘aristocratic’ or ‘oligarchic’ form, and this I have addressed above: it is a transitional form. But he also argues, in relation to the question of the nature of the capitalist state, that it is central to the bourgeois character of this state.
In my book Revolutionary strategy I write: “The inner secret of the capitalist state form is not bourgeois democracy. Rather it has three elements: 1. the rule of law - ie the judicial power; 2. the deficit financing of the state through organised financial markets; and 3. the fact that capital rules, not through a single state, but through an international state system, of which each national state is merely a part.”
Comrade Cockshott responds: “This seems a little idiosyncratic, particularly point 2. True, states often do use deficit financing, and indeed one can argue that the growth in the money supply necessary for the circuit M-C-M’ can often occur this way. But why is deficit finance the key? Surely the power to tax is more important than that, and in particular the power to levy taxes in money rather than in kind. Along with this goes the right to issue money.
“... Why too does he miss out the monopoly of armed force held by the state, the existence of a standing army and salaried police? Why does he not mention the parliamentary state as the characteristic constitutional form of civil society?”
As to the “monopoly of armed force, the existence of a standing army and salaried police”, on the one hand no state anywhere has ever had an actual monopoly of armed force, and in the US and Britain in the 19th century - surely capitalist states - the standing armies were trivial in size, and salaried police an innovation which dated considerably after the seizure of power by the capitalist class. The role of ‘Pinkerton men’ and other employer-hired goons in late 19th-early 20th century US strike-breaking provides one example among many of non-state organised armed force in capitalist states. Non-state organised armed auxiliaries of the capitalist class (not just fascist bands, though they are the most striking form) also surface wherever the class struggle attains a high level of intensity.
On the other hand, every state from Pharaonic Egypt and the ancient Mesopotamian empires onward, and including the feudal kingdoms, has disposed of a sufficient preponderance of organised armed force - an ‘army in being’ or the ability to assemble one - to allow it to extract surplus in the form of tax from the inhabitants of a territory and to prevent rival states, or predatory pastoralists or sea-raiders, from interfering with this surplus-extraction.
This is comrade Cockshott’s second point - the state’s power to tax. Military preponderance and ability to assemble an army are sufficient to support territorial coherence and the extraction of tax: witness - for example - the ‘geld’ of later Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England or the more elaborate tax operations of later medieval England: at none of these periods were there standing armies.
As comrade Cockshott says, and as he and his co-authors argue at more length in Classical econophysics, state taxation is the basis of money - and money is also a prerequisite of capitalism. But money long antedates capitalism: I do not suppose that comrade Cockshott and his co-authors would characterise Lydia in the 7th century BCE, and so on, as capitalist states.
Tax and the preponderance of armed force give us a state; they do not by any means give us a capitalist state. I suggest that states - after the very earliest temple-states - are created by new ruling classes (slaveowners, feudal lords, capitalists) in particular forms which tie them to the new ruling class. These forms are then the basis of the loyalty of the state officials to the state as an organisation. This loyalty allows the state to act coherently rather than collapsing into a mass of competing small-scale protection rackets (which is the fate of failed states).
My “idiosyncratic” summary account of the capitalist state form is, then, not designed to distinguish state from non-state societies, but to distinguish capitalist states from feudal or other pre-capitalist states and from the dictatorship of the proletariat.
As to deficit finance, it is true that pre-capitalist states can and do borrow - and default on their debts. The distinctive aspect of capitalist states is the creation of organised markets in a standing state debt and the hypothecation (mortgaging) of tax income in the first place to payment of the interest charges on this debt. The practice was invented in the interstitial-capitalist, medieval Italian city-states. It became a decisive feature of the form of the capitalist state with the late 16th century Dutch revolt and the aftermath of 1688 in England. Lending to the new state was initially and for some time afterwards an overtly political, as well as an economic, act. The effect of this standing debt is that creditors become stakeholders in the state in the same sense that a company’s ‘stockholders’ or ‘debenture holders’ of standing debt stock are stakeholders in the company. The standing debt and the financial market grown up around it is the core of the integration of the capitalist class as a ruling class, one which rules the state.
Intimately linked is the ‘rule of law’, which comrade Cockshott does not discuss. The standing debt requires that the ‘first mortgage’ of tax revenue to pay debt interest must be a ‘credible commitment’. This credibility is given by the ‘rule of law’: the commitment that the state will act only by making rules which will be enforced in courts or under rules which will be enforced in courts. Feudal and antique states, whether based on personal monarchy or (some ancient cities) on the direct sovereignty of citizens or oligarchs, cannot give such commitments.
Finally and centrally, Comrade Cockshott says that I miss “the parliamentary state as the characteristic constitutional form of civil society”. ‘Civil society’ is a slippery expression here. I assume that what comrade Cockshott means is bourgeois society, rather than the ‘civil society’ of non-state public discourse, clubs, groups, etc. The reason for making this assumption is that the parliamentary constitution is a state form, not a non-state form, and parliament a component of the state order.
Having made this assumption, the answer is that, though the parliamentary state form is a common form of capitalist state, it is not a necessary form of capitalist rule. The ‘rule of law state’ requires a sharp conceptual separation of the acts of legislating (making rules for the future) adjudication (judging disputes as to the application of existing rules) and the executive power (other governmental decision-making). Such a separation is absent in Ottoman or Mughal firman, or in Tudor and early Stuart privy council and star chamber orders.
However, this conceptual separation does not require the US-style full personal separation of legislature, judiciary and executive. Witness 18th century England - certainly a ‘rule of law state’, but one where the lord chancellor was both minister and judge, and the House of Lords both ultimate court of appeal and part of the legislature.
The extreme form of this sort of unification is a capitalist military junta. In such state orders capital is still in command - mainly via the financial markets, but also via personal corruption of state officials. However, electoral representation is removed. The legislative acts of the junta are still formally marked off from their administrative acts, and the judicial system remains formally independent, though subject to certain political limits. Less extreme are pseudo-absolute empires, like the French ‘Second Empire’ of Napoleon III, Meiji Japan or Wilhelmine Germany, which had elected bodies, but with less powers than those of parliamentary regimes.
Once we recognise that these military and pseudo-absolute regimes are all still capitalist states and not pre-capitalist ones, it becomes clear that parliamentarism is not a necessary form of capitalist rule. Where capital or the state has pressing needs to avoid electoral representation or limit its effects, capital can perfectly well rule through military juntas and formally autocratic constitutions.
Karl Kautsky argued in Parliamentarism, plebiscites and socialism (1893) that “the parliamentary form can be an arm which has been capable of serving and has served very varied classes and parties”; and that “We can already see that a really parliamentary regime can be the instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat just as it has been that of the bourgeoisie”. It is clear enough that Kautsky’s and his followers’ attachment to parliamentary forms was critical to his opposition to the October revolution in Russia, and to the hopeless roles of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany in the 1918-19 revolution in Germany, and the Austro-Marxists in the contemporary Austrian revolution - in both cases leading to the eventual victory of fascism.
But parliamentary forms are not the same thing as representative forms; and contrary to Kautsky, the parliamentary form is a form of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. It is this because the elected parliament is part merely of the general form of rule-of-law constitutionalism. The parliament is purely a lawgiver, framed within an autonomous executive and an autonomous judiciary. Even within the role of lawgiver, the elected parliament is cramped by its dependence on the specialist lawyers in the parliamentary draftsman’s office - required by the autonomy of the judicial power.
Kautsky in Parliamentarism takes these limitations for granted. Indeed, he positively endorses them. His case against legislation by referendum is partly based on real decision difficulties, but equally strongly on the importance of the lawyers’ ‘technical assistance’ in drafting. He thinks the role of ‘technical assistance’, the growth of the state bureaucracy and the separate judicial power are results of the general extension of the division of labour, necessary in any ‘modern state’. He is a positive advocate of the ‘rule of law’.
To advocate or defend the rule of law is to support the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The same is not true of the advocacy of elected representative institutions in general.
Representative institutions do not on their own amount to the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Revolutionary Strategy I produced a short list of proposals. I went on to say that “There are certainly other aspects; more in the CPGB’s Draft programme. These are merely points that are particularly salient to me when writing.” Comrade Cockshott, like several other reviewers of the book, ignored this sentence. The redraft version of the Draft programme in my opinion strengthens what we have to say about the minimum political programme and the dictatorship of the proletariat. No doubt these proposals could be improved further. Comrade Cockshott’s ‘Athenian’ argument for an immediate shift to juries in place of elected bodies and for plebiscites would in my opinion weaken them.
- ‘Socialism is a form of class struggle’ Weekly Worker June 24.
- (1968) 162 Science pp1243-1248. There is a massive literature on the issue, not relevant to my present point.
- C Rose Property and persuasion Boulder 1994, p20 and chapters 2 and 5, makes this point within the framework of acceptance in general of pro-private-property arguments.
- See ‘A bridge too far’ Weekly Worker December 18 2003; cf also ‘The procedural is political’, November 15 2007.
- ‘Computers and economic democracy’: www.dcs.gla.ac.uk/~wpc/reports/quito.pdf; also ‘Mises, Kantorovich and economic computation’: mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/6063/1/MPRA_paper_6063.pdf
- I have omitted the third point in the list: “full political rights, including the right to elect officers in the armed forces;” because I agree with it without reservation (it is already in the CPGB Draft programme).
- More exactly the social specialisation of function. The division of labour, properly so called, will undoubtedly continue: we will not all be doing identical tasks at any one time. But ‘social division of labour’ is, though not fully scientifically accurate, the conventional expression for the lifelong specialisation I have described in the text.
- Netherlands: MC ’t Hart The making of a bourgeois state Manchester 1993; England: BG Carruthers City of capital Princeton 1996.
- Some evidence for financial market views of the issue of judicial independence in D Klerman, PG Mahoney, ‘The value of judicial independence: evidence from 18th century England’ (2005) 7 American Law and Economics Review 1-27.
- ‘Bürgerliche Gesellschaft’ - the expression usually translated as ‘civil society’ in Hegel and Marx. It is true that in the Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right Marx interprets ‘civil society’ to mean the non-state part of the society, but in doing so he departs some way from Hegel’s argument - and, I think, makes a mistake. More in my article, ‘Law and state as holes in Marxist theory’ (2006) 34 Critique 211-236.
- K Kautsky Der Parlamentarismus, die Volksgesetzgebung und die Soziademokratie (Stuttgart 1893) cited here from the French translation, Parlementarisme et socialisme (Paris 1900), pp147, 165.
- Chapter 8 (decision difficulties); chapter 9, especially pp94, 98 (drafting and technical assistance); p113 (division of labour); pp102-04 (rule of law).