revolutionary strategy: reply by mike macnair

on friday 29th david broder posted a review of revolutionary strategy, a new book by the cpgb’s mike macnair. this provoked more than seventy comments, and mike himself has written a response, which we reproduce here.

1. Political economy and changes in the working class

The reasons for the historical cast of my book are given in two places: on page 5: “Humans have no guide to action in the future other than theorising on what has happened in the past, and we do it all the time we are awake.”. And on page 26: “When you are radically lost it becomes necessary to retrace your steps.” To offer yet another version: the left is currently screwed up; in part it is screwed up by clinging to ideas which have been tried and failed. “How far are the fundamentals of Marx and Engels’ political strategy still relevant to us today? What should we maintain, and what should we throw out, from the subsequent elaboration of strategy by socialists and communists from the late 19th to the late 20th century?” (p19).

This exercise is largely an exercise in clearing the ground in relation to strategy – long term politics. Assessing the present political economic dynamics and the dynamics of the immediate class struggle comes after this exercise.

That said, my overall judgment is that present global conditions are not in an absolute sense new, and are more like the later 19th century than they are like any part of the ‘short 20th century’ (1914-1991). The exception to this judgment is, however, the dead weight of Stalinism and Social-Democracy (and, to a lesser extent, syndicalism) which still weighs down on the workers’ movement. The US is, as Britain was then, in relative decline but still dominant: we are not, I think, on the verge of a new 1914. Globally, capitalism, and with it the proletariat – the class dependent on wage-earning – has grown dramatically at the expense of peasant and artisan production. There has been a major shift to financial globalisation. These features were also characteristic of the later 19th century. So – as you quote me – is the fact that workplaces are commonly smaller than the giant factories of the 20th century. (Richard Price, Labour in British Society (1990) is a mine of relevant material). Hence, the ‘new’ is less new than it appears.

Overall patterns and dynamics, of course, have their limits and are translated into differing forms at more local levels. Jamie Gough’s Work, Locality and the Rhythms of Capital (2003) demonstrates brilliantly on the micro-scale of London how geographical shifts and forms of organisation of production are adapted and re-adapted by capital to address the problem of controlling the workforce.

As to a couple of particular points in your comments on changes in the working class. (i) On migrant workers, in fact what is involved is a permanent dynamical contradiction of capitalism, not a novelty. More in my 2006 Yürükoğlu lecture, ‘Fortress the West’ ( (ii) Your statement that “manufacturing and mining are in sharp decline” is obviously true of the UK, but certainly not true of the global economy.

On the London Underground cleaners’ strike, this seems to me to be atypical rather than typical. The reasons are, first, that the underlying institution – the Underground – is public monopoly infrastructure, whatever ‘contracting out’ arrangements have been made in the legal forms, and Tube shut-downs by industrial action are very seriously disruptive to the City finance capitalist core of the UK economy. Second (and connected to the first) the railworkers are one of the best organised sections of the British working class and among the most militant. The cleaners are at the fringe of this system relative to drivers, etc, but they are nonetheless in a very different position to workers in small factories, offices, shops, etc., who form the clear majority of the UK working class.

Your emphasis on this point seems to me to contain an implicit syndicalism, which is the common coin of the far left: workplace organisation of the employed workers is to be the centre of any revival of the class movement. The economic conditions between the opening of the arms race around 1900 and the 1920s, and again from the beginning of rearmament in the mid 1930s, through the ‘Keynesian’ period, down to the crisis of 1981-2 and Thatcherism, strongly favoured trade union organisation at the point of production and shop-stewardism. But we are not in those times now, and the cases where workplace organisation alone will build the movement are limited. In order to rebuild the class movement from its present weak situation we are going to have to relearn lessons from a much earlier stage of its history.

2. Chávez and Mao, or “What is the left for?”

These are extremely secondary issues. My discussion of Chávez is addressed to the Chávez fan-club among leftists who take Chávez’ leftist and “Trotskyist” rhetoric as representing a political alternative. Now it may be that (as you appear to argue) Chávez is merely a bonapartist demagogue who doesn’t believe what he says. I don’t think this is proved: for all I know, Chávez himself may be sincere in his belief in his “21st century socialism”. The point I am making is that even if he is, it still doesn’t lead anywhere – precisely because it is about moral sentiments rather than strategy. “Create two, three, many Venezuelas” is rather less compelling than “create two, three, many Vietnams” (which was always an illusory strategy, but at least looked like a strategy).

The stuff about Mao is even more secondary. My primary point is that Trotsky’s argument for automatic defencism in colonial and semicolonial countries attacked by imperialism does not hold water. The defencist line, and even ‘pointing your guns in the same direction’, might merely result in tying the workers’ movement to a collapsing state regime ¬- however much the left took political distance from the regime. Secondly, the far left has been recently faced with choices like those that faced Chinese communists. Taleban-defencism in Afghanistan, joining ‘the resistance’ in Iraq, are roads to extermination of the left however much the left took political distance from the Taleban or ‘the resistance’. (Quote-marks because ‘the resistance’ in Iraq is a variety of separate warlord groups with opposed interests and opposed political ideas.)

However, though I reject automatic colonial-country defencism, I do not reject revolutionary defencism as a tactic in all circumstances. Revolutionary defencism does not mean supporting the existing state or bourgeois leadership. It means addressing masses who are want to defend their country against a foreign invasion or liberate it from foreign occupation, where this attitude is justified (i.e. we are not merely in a war for redivision of the world between rival imperialists) with the idea that in order to defend against attack, it is necessary for the working class to take power away from the existing capitalist (etc.) regime.

On this I agree with Trotsky’s turn to the ‘proletarian military policy’ after the fall of France partially reshaped the political character of World War II (in Writings 1939-40). The point is that the question is in each case one of tactical judgment of how to get over to the broad masses in the concrete situation the idea that the working class needs to take power. In no case is political support for the capitalist, etc., government/ state acceptable. In some cases ‘pointing your guns in the same direction’ is right. It’s a matter of tactical judgment. In the particular case of the Hitler-Stalin pact and its subsidiary aspects, the occupation of the Baltics and eastern Poland and the invasion of Finland, it would have been right for any Russian left opponents of the regime who were able to do any sort of political work to call these scab acts even if the regime was a workers’ state. On the other hand, in the case of the German invasion of the USSR in 1941 I think it is blindingly obvious that the only way any such left opponents could reach the masses would be by a revolutionary-defencist policy, even if the Stalinist regime was properly characterised as ‘state capitalist’ or ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ or whatever.

I don’t think that such tactics compromise proletarian class-political independence from the bourgeoisie. Equally, pointing out that the bourgeoisie, or whatever, are inconsistent or vacillating in the defence of what needs to be defended does not amount to giving them political support.

3. The state

This is the central question. It involves some historical issues (the first four paragraphs of this part of the review) and some theoretical ones (the remainder of the section, including the Marx quotes selected by Cyril Smith).

(A) Historical evidence

(a) “Revolutions where parties based themselves on the existing state machinery, or the existing organisations of the workers’ movement took power, have also all failed.” True, but the Russian revolution got further than others: the earliest point at which it can really be said to have failed is the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the turn at this time to overriding the working class majority and alliance with the spetsy to create a bureaucratic state; IMO it was still possible down to 1921 that the Russians could be saved by the revolution in western Europe, in which case the Red Terror, and so on, would be remembered merely as regrettable but unavoidable emergency measures.

(b) “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.” The Hungarian Soviet Republic was indeed crushed by counter-revolution. The German and Austrian Räte were, on the contrary, in their large majority incorporated behind the Social-Democrats. (The Berlin uprising of January 1919 was a ‘July Days’, i.e. localised; the Bavarian ‘Soviet republic’ was merely a short-lived minority putsch, not a mass movement.) Most other revolutionary movements (Italy, Spain, etc.) have not got even this far with the council form.
In this respect, my point about the Russian soviets’ form of organisation is that a Congress of Soviets which met infrequently could not hold its Executive Committee to account – let alone the Sovnarkom which was theoretically accountable to the Executive Committee. In order to hold the government to account, the congress would have needed to become a standing body which met every weekday apart from holidays, like a parliament. But the form (infrequently meeting congress/ soviet – more frequently meeting executive committee, + daily meeting government) is copied from the form of workers’ organisations (trade unions and parties). The point is that the organisations of struggle are inappropriate in their forms to the task of exercising power, i.e. taking coordinating decisions for the whole society.

(c) Sovnarkom “was an undemocratic manoeuvre against the soviets and grassroots power”. This is illusory. OK, Rabinowitch argues that Lenin wanted an all-Bolshevik government and manoeuvred to seize power before the Congress of Soviets in order to get this. But in fact – as he makes clear – Lenin did not win his proposals in the Bolshevik CC; and the Left SRs and others agreed to the October pre-emptive strike against Kerensky, because there was a real risk that Kerensky would prevent the Congress from meeting. All parties at the Congress except the anarchists, who were numerically trivial, wanted a government to be formed. The majority certainly favoured a government of the ‘broad left’, but it was the Mensheviks and Right SRs who refused to participate in a government which included the Bolsheviks (who were either the majority or the largest minority) and therefore made such a government wholly impossible.

(d) Sovnarkom “within months – before the civil war – had bureaucratically centralised economic control and pulled the rug from underneath the factory committees.” False, for two reasons.
The first is that the civil war started with the attack of Krasnov’s Cossacks on 28-29 October, or the beginning of the operations of Alexeev’s Volunteer Army and Kaledin’s Don Cossacks in December 1917. Allied military intervention against the revolution arguably began with British political and (attempted) military support for Kornilov’s attempted coup in September 1917; certainly, the British secret service was supporting efforts to organise White military forces and paying for industrial sabotage operations from the end of October (Kettle, The Allies & the Russian Collapse).
Second, Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) turn away from workers control is datable to March-April 1918, i.e. is intimately connected with the Brest-Litovsk treaty and the associated (i) removal of Left SR support, (ii) Menshevik political revival in soviet elections, and (iii) expansion of White military operations (which is taken by anarchist and Liberal/ social-democratic critics of the Bolsheviks, though not by open rightists and military historians, to be the start of the civil war).

(e) “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.” My point is not directed primarily against the Russian Soviets – which were, in substance, (as Trotsky says, below) united fronts of all sorts of class organisations (parties, factory committees, trade unions, and some sorts of campaign groups). It is primarily directed against western interpretations of these bodies as purely delegates of workplaces.
Both the 1918 Soviet constitution, and Marx’s interpretation of the Commune constitution, propose self-government of localities (including the workplaces in those localities) through universal-suffrage councils, with the central decision-making body government taking the form of delegates from the local councils.

(f) “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.” Actually, however, this is still a fetish, in this case a fetishism of ‘organs arising from the direct class struggle’.
Compare Trotsky on Spain (1931): “We succeeded in creating Soviets in Russia only because the demand for them was raised, together with us, by the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries, although, to be sure, they had different aims in mind. We cannot create any Soviets in Spain precisely because neither the Socialists nor the syndicalists want Soviets. This means that the united front and the organizational unity with the majority of the working class cannot be created under this slogan.” ( Trotsky’s judgment was confirmed by the later events of the revolution and civil war: though the workers created militias and in places seized factories, etc., they did not create soviets. What was missing was “a party, a party, and again a party” (Trotsky).
Subsequent events have in my opinion confirmed and reconfirmed this judgment: the mass desire for revolutionary change after 1945 was overwhelmingly expressed through the revived workers’ parties and trade unions – who, of course, betrayed the masses either by restoring capitalist order, or by creating Stalinist regimes; the Hungarian workers’ councils in 1956 did not even aspire to take power; the role of the ‘committees for the defence of the revolution’ in Cuba was entirely secondary (and in any case they were created in response to government appeals); David’s own work on 1968 shows that any tendency towards the creation of workers’ councils was completely secondary in the course of events; and so on …

(B) Theoretical

(a) The core of the issue is this. Is the proletarian revolution the immediate abolition of all states and classes and the leap into the kingdom of freedom and truly human relations? Or is it merely a moment in transition in this direction, one which ‘sets free’ the logic of development:
“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistably tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.” The Civil War in France, ch 5,
Or a moment in which the working class becomes strong enough to employ general means of coercion:
“[Bakunin]: If there is a state [gosudarstvo], then there is unavoidably domination [gospodstvo], and consequently slavery. Domination without slavery, open or veiled, is unthinkable — this is why we are enemies of the state. What does it mean, the proletariat organized as ruling class?
[Marx:] It means that the proletariat, instead of struggling sectionally against the economically privileged class, has attained a sufficient strength and organization to employ general means of coercion in this struggle. It can however only use such economic means as abolish its own character as salariat, hence as class. With its complete victory its own rule thus also ends, as its class character has disappeared.” (Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy,
In the first case – that the proletarian revolution is the immediate abolition of all states and classes and the leap into the kingdom of freedom and truly human relations – an essentially spontaneist or Bakuninist approach is appropriate. The mass movement, set free of the constraints of the capitalist state system, will work out its own solutions.
In the second case, the revolution is merely the creation of “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor” and “a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule.” (both from The Civil War in France, ch 5). The revolution is then not in itself the abolition of classes, but the creation of stronger means for the proletariat to fight for its interests – to expropriate the capitalists where they have already socialised production, as in the natural monopolies and the giant oligopolistic corporations, and to subordinate the petty proprietors, (including managers, etc.) to the proletariat. The result is that it is necessary to consider the question of what political forms will have the effect of subordinating – primarily – managers and bureaucrats to those they manage.

(b) Marx is ambiguous on this issue. Alongside the quotations I have just given are those used by Cyril Smith, which you cite. My opinion is that these probably mean less than Cyril made them mean.
In the quotation from the Poverty of Philosophy Cyril cut out a large part of the passage which is about coercion, as distinct from the immediate passage to the end of classes: see the text at
The quotations from The Civil War in France are not from the published text but from the first draft ( The published version reduces considerably the idea of the Commune as representing the immediate transition beyond the class order, as opposed to the beginning of the proletariat working out this transition. Since the published text was sufficiently ‘scandalous’ it is unlikely that the changes in question are made in order to ‘tone down’ Marx’s ‘real’ positions: more likely that Marx concluded that the original text overstated the point or was too close to Bakunin’s views.
The remark on Bakunin is from the Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy (1874) ( A full reading of this text is in my opinion flatly inconsistent with the use Cyril makes of it in the passage quoted. More generally, the reading of Marx as proposing the proletarian revolution as an immediate leap beyond class society seems inconsistent with Marx’s practical politics in the First International, in the various correspondence with the Germans including the Critique of the Gotha Programme, and in the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier.
Nonetheless, a reading of Marx in these terms is a possible reading.

(c) The underlying reason for supposing that the proletarian revolution is not in itself and immediately the abolition of classes is the limits – to date – of the capitalist socialisation of small-scale property and production, and particularly of small-scale intellectual property in the form of specialist skills and its concomitant, the proletarianisation of intellectual labour.
We have progressed a long way forward on this front from winter 1917-1918, when the resistance of the managers, civil servants and peasants completely dislocated the Russian economy. The Bolsheviks were then forced – and any regime whatever would also have been forced – to make major concessions to spetsy in order to get access to the information the spetsy possessed so as to get production started again, the cities supplied with food, etc. Otherwise the cities would have starved and the Whites would have won the civil war. The concessions were both in wages/ salaries/ rations, and in authority relations in the workplace and the army. That was the real reason, not ‘elitist’, ‘partyist’, or ‘vanguardist’ malevolence, for Lenin’s April 1918 turn against workers’ control.
But though we have progressed a long way, we are not yet in a place where any group of train drivers could jump into the role of general managers of a renationalised railway and run it without assistance from the technical staff – or, equally important, where any group of urban workers could go out to take over the running of a family farm (whose owner has cut production in order to coerce the workers’ regime). We are moving in that direction, both through increased general education, and through the production of books (and web materials) through which technical information can be picked up. Probably, even in a full socialist system training periods will be needed for particular tasks as well as general education and access to published information.
But let us assume for the moment that the fall of the US world-hegemony turns out to be the fall of capitalism also and the working class takes over in the coming century. It is clear that there will still be major skills and training bottlenecks, and that large areas of production will still operate on the basis of small family enterprises. The small un-socialised private ownership of information, therefore, will continue to be the basis of a class of petty proprietors separate from the proletariat – including managerial and bureaucratic specialists (and probably also one of small capitalists). The problem is how to subordinate these groups to the interests of the working class.
In fact, this is also a present problem of the workers’ movement before it gets to the point of overthrowing the capitalist state regime (as I argue in the book at pp 45-47, 62, 90-98, and 108-110). We can’t do without trade union, party, etc., full-time or part-time officials: the result of trying to do so is the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’. But the officials – even of the SWP or LCR or AWL – have common interests with managers and state bureaucrats antagonistic to the interests of the working class. The capitalist class rules through the support of the labour bureaucracy. So the problem is how to subordinate the bureaucrats to the ranks. Marx clearly thought it was easy, as can be seen in several points in the Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy. He was wrong …

(d) The idea of the “democratic republic” is shorthand – as, in fact, the ideas of ‘soviet power’, ‘workers’ councils’ or a ‘workers’ government’ also are. What is it shorthand for? It is not a rigid blueprint for a new state, but shorthand for a set of political principles and some relevant institutions.
Republicanism is a body of political ideas, distinct from, prior to, and opposed to Liberalism, which was current between the late 17th and the mid 19th century. In the course of the 19th century fell out of favour, first among bourgeois politicians, and then (in the generation of Kautsky) in the workers’ movement. It has been revived as a modern academic political theory, alternative to Liberalism, by Philip Pettit (Republicanism (1997) and others. The reason for taking it seriously in connection with Marxism is that Marx and Engels grew up when Republicanism was still politically current and were part of the ‘democratic’, i.e. democratic-republican, movement in their youth; the Chartists were certainly Republican in their political ideas; and the republican principle of freedom from domination is a recurrent theme in Marx and Engels’ work. It’s one which they don’t, however, often refer to explicitly: the reason is that modern Liberal political theory, as distinct from Liberal political economy, was only beginning to emerge during their lives.

The central idea of Republican political theory is opposition to permanent relations of domination and subordination among humans: the lifelong authority of kings and aristocrats, and in modern times that of permanent general secretaries and ‘cadres’. Unlike Liberalism, Republicanism does not seek to escape from this problem by creating a ‘private sphere’ in which the individual is free, but by creating generalised participation in political decision-making and accountability from below.

Classical 17th-18th century republicanism held that this was only possible in a society composed of small owners. It therefore opposed large concentrations of landholding and wealth as tending to corrupt politics; but also supported the exclusion from political rights of ‘dependents’, i.e. women and wage-workers.
Democratic Republicanism broke through this barrier to advocate a republican polity which included all adults. The class fear this engendered among the capitalists led them to break off from Republicanism in favour of Liberalism. Consistent democratic republicans – like the part of the Chartist left, and like Marx and Engels – meanwhile became communists, seeing that private property in general tended to oppose the republican principle of opposition to permanent relations of domination and subordination among humans.
The core democratic republican political principles are therefore at the heart of the Marxist communist goals – as opposed to the hierarchical socialisms of Saint-Simon, etc. Democratic republican institutional forms – like the militia and the election of all state officials – also formed part of the common core programme of the early ‘Marxist’ socialist parties, the French Parti Ouvrier and the Eisenach, Gotha and Erfurt programmes.
We need to retrieve this inheritance of the past of our movement, not out of traditionalism, but because the principles and institutional ideas of democratic republicanism are powerful weapons in the battle of ideas against both the capitalists’ rule-of-law state, and against the labour bureaucracy which supports it.
Some secondary points in this context:
(i) “Mike’s alternative is only vaguely defined: he calls for a “democratic republic” with a “people’s militia”.” In fact, at pp128-129 I give a list of five bullet points including not only demands about the military but also e.g. “election and recallability of all public officials; public officials to be on an average skilled workers’ wage” and “abolition of official secrecy laws and of private rights of copyright and confidentiality.” My five bullet points are themselves examples, and I cross-refer to the CPGB’s Draft programme.
(ii) “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.” In fact, it should be clear that the actual creation of the democratic republic would be, amount to, the smashing-up of the existing bureaucratic-coercive state. Here I follow Engels in describing the Paris Commune as a “democratic republic”. But, as with the minimum programme in general, individual democratic-republican demands could be won under capitalism – and, if won, would strengthen the position of the working class in future class struggles.
(iii) “Indeed, although he says he is opposed to the rule of law, throughout the book Mike again and again refers to “democracy”.” Democratic Republicanism is opposed to the rule of law. I have argued the point more extensively in an article on the Labor Tribune website:
(iv) “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.” I think arguments that the law of value operated internally within the USSR after the forced collectivisation turn, or in Maoist China, are so unreal as to end up destroying the explanatory value of the ‘law of value’ as a theory. I agree broadly with Ticktin’s argument that the wage in the USSR was something more like a pension (“we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”); or with the view that the relationship of the worker to the firm was analogous to the serf industrial production of 18th century Russia. My point in the passage criticised (p162) is that without accountability of the bureaucrats from below, state ownership is de facto private ownership by the relevant bureaucrats. It is not capitalist ownership (which would be subject to the law of value) but pre-capitalist ownership.