by Ernie Haberkern
“The “New Question” posed by the experience of the Labor government is not, then, whether socialism can be established by parliamentary means or only by extra-parliamentary means. It is this: Can the working class reach socialism only by its own efforts, by its direct class rule over the economic and political life of the country, or can socialism be attained without workers’ control and simply by an expropriation of the bourgeoisie carried out, one way or another, under the control and direction of a more or less benevolent workers’ bureaucracy? The spread of Stalinism has raised the same question in one way; the Labourite government in another way. If it is not the most vital question of our time, it is certainly one of the most vital. Not a few Marxists have abandoned the basic convictions of the founders and teachers of scientific socialism by replying, in effect, in the affirmative: Yes, the road to socialism lies or may lie through the domination of society by a workers’ bureaucracy or a bureaucracy that arose out of the labor movement. They have concluded that the Stalinist revolution is the socialist revolution, that Stalinist society is progressive, that the Titoist state is socialist, and the like. As for ourselves, we remain unreconstructed in our belief that the emancipation of the working class, that is, socialism, is the task of the working class itself and no one else. The experience of the Labor government, especially when considered, as it must be, in the light of the social and historical significance of the rise of Stalinism, has not modified our belief in the slightest degree and we see no grounds in the realities of British society to warrant such a modification.”
Max Shachtman, The New International, January/February 1951
This article, in which the author repudiated his long-held position that nationalization by itself was a progressive step towards socialism, argues that nationalization of private capital by the state bureaucracy, even when carried out by a party based on the working class is not a step forward. The article even goes so far as to argue that the Attlee government, if it continued on this path, was heading towards a social system that would differ little, if at all, from Stalinism.
Shachtman was rediscovering Marx and Engels’ views on the subject of statification.
THE CRÉDIT MOBILIER
In 1856 they had their first opportunity to discuss the issue. In that year, Louis Bonaparte, alias Napoleon III, entered into a scheme with the Pereire brothers, former disciples of the utopian socialist St. Simon, who set up a holding company, the Crédit Mobilier, whose aim was to buy out large sections of French industry. Marx, in a series of articles in The New York Daily Tribune, took this experiment in “imperial socialism” very seriously. He saw it, like all of Bonaparte’s schemes, as an attempt to substitute a plebiscitarian proctectorate over the working class for the democratic movement of the workers themselves. In the event, Marx went further in theory than Louis Bonaparte was bold enough to go in practice. The Crédit Mobilier ended up another failed Ponzi scheme and was soon forgotten. But Marx’s essays are worth reading if you want to understand how hostile he was to statification schemes carried out by a state bureaucracy outside the control of the organized working class.
LASSALLE & THE GERMAN SPD
From the 1870s until Engels’ death in 1895 Marx and Engels had the opportunity to directly take on the issue of state socialism inside the German Social Democracy. Their one-time comrade and friend, Ferdinand Lassalle, sought to turn the workers’ movement and the Social Democratic Party into an ally of Otto von Bismark. The “peoples’ monarch” would protect his loyal and humble working class subjects from the greed of the capitalists. What Bismarck and the monarchy would gain from this arrangement would be a docile workers movement which could be played off against the capitalist class and its demands for more control over the bureaucracy.
Part of the problem, as Marx and Engels pointed out in their debates with Lassalle, was the elevation of “the state” into a supra-historical ideal. It was a simple inversion of the classic defense of laissez-faire capitalism against “big government”. But you have to ask yourself, what use is a concept that puts the Hohenzollern and Romanov absolute monarchies in the same category with bourgeois democracies? Or uses the same term to describe the Paris Commune and the Roman Empire?
In fact, the abstract concept of “the state” was rarely used by Marx and Engels. This was especially true after the experience of the Commune. It is interesting that one of the critics of the LRC resolution uses a quote from Marx, an address to a Congress of the International, that uses the term “political power of the working class” rather than “state”. And this was before the Commune.
What characterizes the “state”, even in its bourgeois democratic form, is an unelected bureaucracy that continues to manage the economic and political affairs of the country regardless of what party is in power. Party politics, electoral politics, is for all practical purposes a mime designed to distract the attention of the mass of the population from the real rulers. As the Wizard of Oz famously remarked “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”. Do we really want to give this class more control over the economy?
ENGELS SUMS UP
Engels, in his introduction to the 1891 edition of Marx’s Civil War in France which became a source of contention with the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party, summed up his and Marx’s views on the state as follows:
Society had created its own organs to look after its common interests, originally through simple division of labor. But these organs, at whose head was the state power, had in the course of time, in pursuance of their own special interests, transformed themselves from the servants of society into the masters of society. This can be seen, for example, not only in the hereditary monarchy, but equally so in the democratic republic. It is precisely in America that we see best how there takes place this process of the state power making itself independent in relation to society, whose mere instrument it was originally intended to be. . .
Against this transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society—an inevitable transformation in all previous states—the Commune made use of two infallible means. In the first place, it filled all posts—administrative, judicial and educational—by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers.
Engels’ conclusion, for all practical purposes his last word on the question, was:
. . . the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another. and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy; and at best an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.
But today we are a long way from the Paris Commune. We are hardly in the position to overthrow the ruling class. (Although, at times it appears to be on the verge of overthrowing itself without much help from us.) Does that mean we have nothing to say, no demand to raise, in the current ongoing crisis of global capitalism?
There is an alternative to endorsing the various “bailout” nationalization schemes proposed by bourgeois politicians, especially bourgeois politicians who brand themselves “labourite”, “socialist” or “left”, on the one hand, and watching capitalist society disintegrate with a smug look on our face, on the other. In the crisis of the 1930s, an historical period we seem to be returning to, revolutionary socialists raised a number of “transitional demands”. That is, demands for various actions especially by Labour or Socialist governments which, if implemented, would ameliorate the situation of the working classes while undermining both the capitalist class and the state bureaucracy. Given their dependence on the existing state, left politicians would be hesitant to carry out such demands. But their failure to do so would increase the pressure on them from the ranks. And, if they were forced to carry out such demands, it would sharpen class conflict and drive the society closer to a final showdown.
In this short article even a bare outline of a “complete program” is not possible. But there is a current crisis in the US which we can use as a paradigm. That is the collapse of the Big Three auto companies.
The response of the Democratic Party, acting as spokesperson for the leadership of the United Auto Workers, is demanding a bailout similar to the one made by to the banks. But this time the Bush administration and the Republican party are demanding conditions of the auto workers and their unions which they did not make of their banker friends. The Republican hard right is explicit in its demands that the union be broken as a precondition for any action. They see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The UAW leadership and the Democrats have given up on everything. Not only pensions and wages and working conditions but the fund designed to finance energy efficiency programs in the industry have been sacrificed. In return the Treasury Department is to appoint a czar (that’s the word they use) to restructure the industry. That is save the jobs of upper management and as much shareholder wealth as possible while breaking the union.
What should labor and socialists be demanding of the incoming “Change” administration?
In the first place, taxpayer money should go to the pension fund and to preserving the jobs and wages of the work force. That would include retraining for those workers who will lose their jobs because, like the banks, the companies cannot continue in their present form.
In the second place, the shareholders and management, not the taxpayers and the workers, should foot the bill. If a reorganization takes place that makes economic sense, then the taxpayers might want to invest in the reorganized industry. They should not be asked to take a risk that private capital doesn’t want to take.
Above all, any intervention by the government should be under open and public supervision by the congress. Economic thinkers and pro-capitalist politicians will argue that Congress and the public lack the “scientific” qualifications of, say, Alan Greenspan. But we, and increasingly the public, know better.