david broder reviews revolutionary strategy, a new book by the cpgb’s mike macnair
There is much of value in any serious attempt to talk about the tasks of the left today, and what exactly the purpose of its existence is: Mike Macnair’s new book, which carries the subtitle “Marxism and the challenge of left unity” is certainly this. The left sects are crying out for some ideas and some definition for their project: what we have at the moment is a maelstrom of sectarian and internally undemocratic groups, with philistine hostility towards discussion and utter disdain for ideas other than those quoted from the holy texts of Lenin and Trotsky.
Mike himself makes many apt criticisms of the left groups of today, for example in terms of their bureaucratism, their pretentious “internationals” and their fake “broad left” unity initiatives. He criticises statist ideas of workers’ power. Clearly there is much to say on these matters, and this book is an important contribution to the debate: or, should I say, it is to the extent that there is any debate, since none of the left groups concerned are likely either to respond to the book or take stock of its arguments. Furthermore, as I shall describe, Mike’s own vision for the strategy for communism is in several areas somewhat mechanical, and he says little about the tasks of communists in the workers’ movement – as opposed to the arguments to be had among the organised far left – in the here and now.
Surely a central part of elaborating a strategy for revolution should be some analysis of what is happening in the world economy and the objective changes in the British, European and world working class. This should include both commentary on the current crisis, and on broader changes in class composition. If I were to write a piece on Marxism today, or how the left should organise and what its objectives and project should be, this would be the first thing I’d write. But Mike does very little of this, and draws most of his arguments and conclusions from debates had during the revolutionary wave of 1916-21, and to a lesser extent, the period of struggles between the general strike in France in May-June 1968 and the Portuguese revolution. But a lot has changed even in the last thirty years.
The working class is ever more international, and the number of people who have to sell their labour power has massively increased and now represents a majority of the world population; in the most developed capitalist countries there are increased numbers of migrant workers; significant technological advances as well as outsourcing have shrunk the industrial working class, while activities like manufacturing and mining are in sharp decline; welfarism and state capitalism, both in the former Eastern Bloc and in the West, are much weaker than thirty years ago; and many jobs have been casualised. All of these changes, allied with attacks on the workers’ movement’s rights to organise, have impacted on working-class consciousness to the extent that there is a wide current of opinion believing that the working class either barely exists or has disappeared altogether.
My point is emphatically not that economic changes have put revolution off the agenda, and neither does the changed world situation automatically disqualify past arguments about what tactics we need. Similarly, I am far from being an economic determinist: certainly I do not believe that large economic crises necessarily lead to heightened class struggle and revolutions even if the working class lacks confidence in itself and ideas for change. Such – economistic – views of “spontaneous combustion” have nothing to do with Marx’s method.
Nevertheless, changes in class composition do mean that the workers’ movement has to organise differently and alter its priorities. I am sure that one of the main subjects of discussion at the commune’s upcoming series on class struggle in the 1970s will be what has changed since then, and in what ways it is possible to import lessons of that time to today. The only reference I could find in Revolutionary strategy to this subject was a paragraph (pp. 29-30) asserting that the “growing fragmentation of labour”, i.e. smaller workplaces, means that “the means of struggle need to change: they need to shift from workplace collective organisation to district collective organisation”. Mike writes that, in this vein, trade unions ought to organise the unemployed and furthermore “perform significant welfare and education functions rather than simply being an instrument of collective bargaining on wages and conditions”.
But although community organising is all very well and good, Mike just sidesteps the question of organising workers in their workplaces too, and how to do that today. The recent – successful – London Underground cleaners’ strike shows both the possibility and necessity of organising more diverse groups of workers than the ‘classic’ industrial working class. Indeed, to use a crude phrase, the Tube cleaners ‘tick several boxes’ in this regard, in that they work in small numbers, on shifts; they are almost exclusively migrant workers; they are mostly women; the job is badly paid and it is easy to get sacked, particularly when Tube bosses raise questions over their immigration status. Of course, despite the other political issues directly relating to the strike – activists from the Campaign Against Immigration Controls and Feminist Fightback were very much involved in organising and publicising it – it does not automatically lead to some sort of “revolutionary consciousness”: but this sort of struggle is extremely important for breathing energy into trade unions and facilitating the recomposition of the workers’ movement.
What is the left for?
Presumably the reason why Mike’s book about strategies for revolution is largely about the debates of yesteryear is that the left today simply has no strategy for revolution all, and so there is nothing much to argue with. It is barely even true that the SWP envisage a mass strike followed by a seizure of power by themselves, since in fact they never talk about revolution or communism and have hardly any perspectives beyond their latest electoral manoeuvre or activist initiative designed to party-build and give their students ‘something to do’.
Similarly, although the supporters of Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” can at least claim to have some engagement with reality, given that Chávez is in power and enacting some meaningful reforms, they do not have any idea of what their “revolution” is actually for. All that matters is that Chávez is in power. The problem is not just, as Mike comments, that Chávez “offers no real strategic lesson for the left” (p.9) but rather that the “Bolivarian revolution” does not have any variant of the objective of working-class power at all – in fact, Chávez’s rule has not even seen expropriations and state commandism. The resurgence of the Venezuelan workers’ movement owes much to the response to the 2002 attempted coup and lock-out, but that does not reflect working-class control over the “Bolivarian revolution”. The way that Mike criticises Chávez – for not having a strategy – is off the point, and reminiscent of both the way in which Trotsky criticised Mao for not “participating actively in the front lines” of the Kuomintang and the way in which Mike has commented on that discussion in the Weekly Worker. In the WW article Mike does of course clearly assert his hostility towards Maoism and bureaucracy – much as Revolutionary strategy makes some apposite criticisms of bureaucratic ‘socialism’ – but the way he reads off tactical and military lessons from the Maoists is abstract and makes no attempt to differentiate between purely military tactics and the strategy for class struggle. Mao’s insistence on the independence of his forces is not parallel in any shape or form to third campism.
Indeed, a central difference between Mao’s ‘independent course’ and that of third camp class struggle politics is that, unlike a clique’s military efforts to seize control of government by force, which could take any number of forms and include any alliances, a working-class revolution necessarily relies on class independence (or at least vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie, if we assume that the petty bourgeoisie will just be pulled along by either the bourgeoisie or working class). If it is not an all-out class struggle, then it will not be able to abolish the state or reorganise the economy to overcome the law of value, but rather replace one set of rulers with another. As the Solidarity group once wrote in a different context, “Means and ends are mutually dependent. They constantly influence each other. The means are, in fact, a partial implementation of the end, whereas the end becomes modified by the means adopted.”
If Mao’s forces really had been a workers’ movement with a revolutionary project, then it would still have been wrong to ally with the Kuomintang – even regardless of military considerations – since it would have undermined the confidence of the working class in itself, derailed the objectives of the struggle, and the Kuomintang would have been able to ‘veto’ any manner of demands, most importantly the revolution itself. Indeed, this had more or less played out already, in 1927. But as we know, Mao was not leading a working-class or communist movement, and the problem with “surrounding the cities” was not its impractability, but that the objectives of the “people’s war” were reactionary! Obvious as it is that Mike Macnair is not a Maoist, he talks about Mao’s strategy with a somewhat detached air, and I find it hard to see any value in such discussion.
In his discussion of communist attitudes towards war, Mike writes as if a series of correct manoeuvres and alliances could bring the revolution to its conclusion. This is problematic since on the Trotskyist left undue stress is often laid on the idea that the problem with cross-class alliances is that they are inoperable and fail, as in the case of the Spanish civil war, rather than that they are unprincipled. In fact the problem here was not that popular fronts are inadmissible because the bourgeoisie will not consistently fight fascists – for sure they cannot be relied on, but may well do so, as in the case of World War II – but rather that the formation of the alliance is in itself puts the idea of fighting capital as such off the agenda. In the case of Spain, the working-class revolution was crushed thanks to the anarchist (CNT-FAI) and centrist (POUM) leaders’ participation in the popular front. Not only was there the problem that the bourgeois Republicans made tactical errors because of their class standpoint, for example their delay in arming the working class and their refusal to grant Morocco independence and thus curry favour with Arab troops, but also that to maintain alliance with them the far left had to demobilise the revolution.
The belief that we should not bloc with sections of the bourgeoisie to fight imperialism, fascism and so on just because they are inconsistent or vacillating lends itself to support for them when they are waging such struggles. The author writes that although Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR as a gain for the working class was wrong, and so a “revolutionary defencist” attitude towards its attacks on Finland, Poland and the Baltic States in autumn 1939 would be misplaced, he would take a revolutionary defencist attitude to the USSR “in some circumstances (like the 1941 German invasion)” (p.82). Quite why he would do so is not explained.
Without exception, support for bourgeois forces means a partial abandonment of class struggle. I will clarify that by saying that in some circumstances it may be temporarily useful to “point your guns in the same direction” as a section of the ruling class – it is interesting that Hal Draper specifically counterposes this to his idea of “military support” in the ABC of National Liberation movements. Doing this is not “support” though, in terms of propping up someone else’s fight: it is merely a tactic used when fighting your own struggle for your own objectives. There is an article by the International Communist Current about Lenin’s supposed “alliance” with Kerensky against Kornilov which is quite useful on this score.
Mike is right to point out flaws with the “mass strike” idea of revolution, particularly in that the unravelling of the economy does not necessarily mean that any alternative centre of authority is posed. This was most obviously the case in the general strike in France in 1968, which I debated Mike on at the CPGB summer school this month. However, although the term “workers’ government” is abstract (indeed, the JCR, now the LCR, called for this in June 1968 while refusing to call for a vote for either major workers’ party), Mike’s alternative is not that far from it.
He criticises the left for its exaggerated interest in workers’ councils (this is hardly the case in Britain today), and argues “Workers’ councils and similar forms have appeared in many strike waves and revolutionary crises since 1917. In none have these forms been able to offer an alternative centre of authority, an alternative decision-making mechanism for the whole society. This role is unavoidably played by a government – either based on the existing military-bureaucratic state core, or on the existing organs of the workers’ movement” (p.49).
This is quite a conclusion to draw from history, given that – of course – revolutions where parties based themselves on the existing state machinery, or the existing organisations of the workers’ movement took power, have also all failed. And there is no evidence that revolutions with workers’ councils failed because these organs are unable to assert their authority: despite enjoying high degrees of authority across Germany and Russia in their brief existence, these organs were crushed by counter-revolutions. It is not the case that “it was Sovnarkom, the government formed by the Bolsheviks and initially including some of their allies, and its ability to reach out through the Bolshevik Party as a national organisation, which ‘solved’ the crisis of authority affecting Russia in 1917″: this was an undemocratic manoeuvre against the soviets and grassroots power, and indeed within months – before the civil war – had bureaucratically centralised economic control and pulled the rug from underneath the factory committees.
The author has also elsewhere criticised workers’ councils as undemocratic on the grounds that they do not represent working-class people who do not have jobs (students, pensioners, disabled people, the unemployed etc.): but in fact there is no reason why workers’ councils should just be composed of workplace delegates, and in Russia such people as Mike mentions had every right to vote in soviet elections. The point about workers’ councils is not some organisational fetish – indeed, “workers’ council” would be a somewhat inaccurate characterisation of the 1871 Paris Commune, but it was still an organ of workers’ power – but that they have in history arisen in struggle and proven to be armed organs of working-class power counterposed to the bourgeois state machinery.
Mike’s alternative is only vaguely defined: he calls for a “democratic republic” with a “people’s militia”. He criticises those who hold both that a workers’ government would incite class struggle and also that it would only be a workers’ government if it was created on the basis of class struggle: but it is not clear whether the democratic republic is meant to be the product of the revolution, or whether it is a taking-over of the existing state bureaucracy. I am opposed to the state monopoly of gun control, but the idea of a “people’s militia” has no particular relation to the working class or communism. We are not for popular sovereignty, but rather the smashing of the state machinery and of capital.
He says that “workers’ control” cannot be imposed from above, and wants the working class “to lay its hands collectively on the means of production” (p.162), “this does not mean state ownership of the means of production, which is merely a legal form. Without democratic republicanism, the legal form of state ownership means private ownership by state bureaucrats”. But the problem with state ownership in history has not just been a lack of democracy in the state, but the continuation of the law of value and wage labour. We do not just want the working class to “control” capital “democratically”, but to uproot it. Indeed, although he says he is opposed to the rule of law, throughout the book Mike again and again refers to “democracy”.
Marx poses the question far better (I have lifted these quotes from Cyril Smith’s Marx at the Millennium):
“The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society. … It is only in an order of things in which there are no more classes that social evolutions will cease to be political revolutions.” (Poverty of Philosophy)
“The Commune – the reabsorption of the state power by society as its own living forces instead of as forces controlling and subduing it, by the popular masses themselves, forming their own force instead of the organised force of their suppression – the political form of their social emancipation, instead of the artificial force (appropriated by their oppressors) (their own force opposed to and organised against them) of society wielded for their oppression by their enemies.” (Civil War in France)
“All France organised into self-working and self-governing communes … the suffrage for the national representation not a matter of sleight-of-hand for an all-powerful government, but the deliberate expression of organised communes, the state functions reduced to a few functions for general national purposes.
“Such is the Commune – the political form of the social emancipation, of the liberation of labour from the usurpations (slave-holding) of the monopolists of the means of labour, created by the labourers themselves or forming the gift of nature. As the state machinery and parliamentarism are not the real life of the ruling classes, but only the organised general organs of their dominion, so the Commune is not the social movement of the working class and therefore of a general regeneration of mankind, but the organised means of action.” (Civil War in France)
Smith also quotes Bakunin writing “There are about 40 million Germans. Does this mean that all 40 million will be members of the government?”, to which Marx responds “Certainly! For the system starts with the self-government of the communities… When class rule has disappeared, there will be no state in the present political sense.”
Indeed, nowhere in the Civil War in France does Marx refer to the idea of a workers’ state, and for that matter doesn’t criticise the communards for their lack of a revolutionary party, much unlike Trotsky’s Lessons of the Commune which exaggeratedly fetishises the question.
A strategy for communism must not only be centred on a working-class struggle for power, but an understanding of what this power would consist of. The point is not to draw up blueprints – for example, it would be meaningless to draw up a grand plan for rule by workers’ councils unless these organs actually arose in the revolutionary struggle itself – but rather to overcome the terrible failures of the past and restore the idea that working-class rule, and thus communism, is still both possible and desirable.
There will be no “spontaneous combustion” crisis-followed-by-revolution, and nor do parliamentary “enabling acts” and Chávez-style statism have anything to do with working-class self emancipation. Both of these scenarios are élitist and deny the working class, i.e. the participants in the revolution, any subjectivity of their own. Arguing against these left commonplaces is an enormous challenge, and Revolutionary strategy, in parts, goes some way towards doing that.
But the starting point for strategy cannot just be analysis of where the left is at now. The left has poor ideas and poor implantation in the working class, and there is very little prospect of changing its sectism and sectarianism any time soon. We should not in the slightest abstain from that struggle, but two other important tasks also impose themselves: first to outline our vision for society and what alternative we actually have to capitalism, and second to take part in a recomposition of the workers’ movement which gives due attention to the changes in the working class that have taken place in recent decades.