The Strategy of Attrition: Part I

Conquest or Destruction of the State?

Citizen Engels

St Paul preaches to the Victorians

Right from its beginnings in early 19th century, socialism has been bedevilled by debates over strategy in a way that right-wing ideologies have not.

Would salvation come, as Fourier dreamed, from wealthy benefactors funding new communist colonies or maybe, as Proudhon envisaged, through workers founding their own mutualist enterprises and bypassing politics altogether?

Or perhaps a more aggressive stance was necessary, as advocated by the proto-syndicalist wing of the British Chartist movement in the 1830s, who even then were cognisant of workers’ leverage at the point of production and supported the use of a Grand National Holiday — aka a general strike. Or was the mainstream Chartist emphasis on political action, i.e. taking control of state-power after having won universal suffrage, the best way forward.

These strands and more were already manifest in England, then the most advanced capitalist country, in the 1830s — a long time ago. And they remain with us to this day because the problem to which they attempted to solve, namely minority rule, remains very much with us. The various tendencies correspond to available oppositional niches in a society dominated by capitalist production and therefore elite influence.

It seems obvious that an adroit mixture of the strategies, one which combined the strength of labour, the potential wealth of co-ops and the leverage of mass parties, is the goldilocks of political strategies and indeed that is the position we advocate. However, once we get into the details the obvious quickly becomes very blurry indeed. It’s hardly surprising that socialists have lacked the clarity of the right-wing since they, unlike us, are in driving seat and don’t need to change a whole lot while we are searching for a way to achieve our goals.

And it turns out that a combined arms strategy of unions, co-ops, and political party is not, in fact, the dominant orientation on the radical left, and has not been since 1917, at least in the English speaking world. There are, for example, proponents of an exclusively non-state orientation and there are supporters of political means, but who both deny that co-operatives can play a meaningful role before the working class has seized power and that tightly knit revolutionary groups are the key to success.

In this essay we are going to focus on the political arena and make case for a robust mass party strategy that aims to win political power via democratic elections, and only touch upon the role of trade unions and co-ops.

The Democratic Road

The case for choosing the democratic road is best teased out in comparison with alternative approaches, which for our purposes is going to mostly be the strategy of insurrection pursued by Anarchists and Trotskyists that is common amongst the revolutionary groups in the Anglo-phone world.

If the basic strategic choices first emerged in the 1830s, they became permanent features of the political landscape in the era of the First International (1864 – 1873) when the Anarchists and the Marxists parted ways replete with their own theoretical justifications. The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, which saw the emergence of workers’ councils, moved the debate from being one that separated Anarchists and Marxists and landed it into the heart of Marxism itself.

Let us lay our cards on the table at the outset: the political strategy advocated here involves attempting to win state power in the advanced capitalist countries through legal means, taking the democratic road if you will. In practice, this involves winning a majority through competition in elections which are broadly considered free and fair.

However, a simple description of this approach isn’t sufficient. In order to evaluate its worth, we need to compare it to alternatives, of which there is no shortage, from anti-consumerism, to back to nature primitivism, NGO lobbying, Third Worldism, and Occupyesque protesting to name some of the lesser lights. For reasons of space, we’re going to limit the alternative to the principal one offered by revolutionary socialists since 1917: the smashing of the existing state and its replacement by participatory workers councils, i.e. the primary strategy offered by both the Trotskyists and the Anarchists. Moreover, we need a way of choosing between the alternatives. As the debate between them has gone on since the days of the First International, it seems likely that both sides have valid points to make. For instance, James Bierly, in a recent article on the North Star catalogued the many practical advantages of electoralism, such as the opportunities to engage with regular people that simply aren’t there when you are hawking the Socialist Worker at a demonstration. On the other hand, the anti-parliamentary left highlights the limitations of parliament in being able to bring capital under control given the strength of the unelected bureaucracy.

The problem with these arguments is not that they are not true. Quite the opposite: the problem is that they are true, i.e. both the pro and anti parliamentary strategies have valid arguments for their respective points of view. This makes it hard to decide in favour of one or the other strategy.

The pro and anti-electoral arguments pass each other like ships in the night because they are embedded in different theoretical frameworks. The anti-electoralist position of the Anarchists, for example, is not a stand alone affair but one that follows ineluctably from their opposition to hierarchies and representation. Similarly, the Leninist view that the positive use of electoralism is confined to more or less propaganda opportunities is derived from their view of the state as a capitalist entity which cannot be wielded by the working class for their own liberation. Rather it must be smashed and, as with the Anarchists, replaced with a form more appropriate to workers’ self-emancipation. [Note: in this essay, rather than constantly write “the Anarchists and the Leninists”, we’re going to describe their common position of smashing the state as “insurrectionary” or, more rarely, as “revolutionary”.]

So, the question as to whether socialists should put effort into running for elections and, if so, how much, can’t just be answered by listing the positive aspects of participating in elections because that case doesn’t address the issue of the state form being inherently capitalist, nor the issue of representation giving rise to oppressive hierarchies. The revolutionary opponents, or at least the more thoughtful elements, of the strategy already know those positive aspects. It’s just that in their framework these factors are outweighed by the counter-tendencies. Such a list serves a useful function in confirming the faith of the already converted, but does little to expand the coterie of modern day centrists.

Now, it isn’t possible to exhaustively deal with all the points, even in a fairly lengthy article like this one. Rather, we want to make explicit the theoretical framework in which electoralism is embedded. It is the entirety of the strategy that needs to be weighed against the entirety of the insurrectionary approach, not just electoralism per se, although that is our focus here. First let’s turn to the underlying logic of the anti-parliamentary left.

Revolution and the State

This need to smash the state, which is the core strategic aim of so many radical left groups, chimes with the language of the 19thcentury socialist movement, from which the modern insurrectionary groups are descended. There were no shortage of revolutions from the period 1789 to 1936 in Europe and the concept became very firmly embedded in their DNA.

But revolution can mean different things: e.g. it’s sometimes used in general way to describe deep change in the social structure, e.g. the women’s revolution or industrial revolution both of which involved a decades long project.

Then there is the concept of revolution as a new class coming to power, such as the rise to dominance of the bourgeoisie in France through the revolutionary 1790s. But a transfer of class power can occur in a lot of different ways, e.g. in France in the Great Revolution it was sudden and bloody, but in many countries, like Sweden or Denmark, the bourgeoise came to power peacefully and gradually. And it’s worth remembering that countries like Sweden were aristocracies from which the bourgeoisie were excluded from exercising state power and that it took decades of struggle before they were given the keys to government.

There is also a more directly political but nonetheless metaphorical use of the term, as when Mélenchon, one of the leaders of the the Left Front in France, issues a ringing call for a citizen’s revolution or when Syriza’s Tspiras likewise calls for ‘peaceful revolution’. In this case, while they are looking to greatly extend democracy and engage in structural reform of the state apparatus, they are not calling for it to be smashed and replaced with new organs of democracy.

And it is this ruptural meaning of revolution as an extra-legal seizure of power, not necessarily by coup d’état, but by perhaps by street demonstrations such as we saw in Eastern Europe in 1989 or in St Petersburg in 1917, and the destruction of the administrative apparatus that gives rise to a hostility to socialist electoralism. Attempting to win power, let alone win power democratically, to an entity you intend to abolish is clearly not going to be a high priority.

The attractiveness of conquering or destroying state power depends on our conception of the state. For those firmly situated in the Anarchist or Leninist traditions, the modern state is a capitalist one and cannot, therefore, be wielded by the working class for their own liberation. Instead it must be smashed and new, participatory organs put in its place. The reasoning underlying the need to smash it is that the state is ultimately the guarantor of capitalist domination and capitalists aren’t likely to be too accommodating in giving up their control of investment simply because a socialist party attains a majority. The putsch in Chile in 1973 is the favourite example of what the right-wing will resort to if their control of property is called into question, but there are no shortage of others: Spain 1936 is another big one. Indeed, European fascism is hard to understand without an appreciation of the fear that the elites had of a growing socialist-labour movement taking power democratically. Moreover, for the insurrectionaries, democracy in the advanced capitalist countries is a sham, with the resources available to the pro-capitalist media and politicians ensuring that the right-wing are always strong enough to win enough support to prevent the socialists from implementing their programme.

Thus, destruction of the state is the order of the day, with the point of note being the sequence: first, the state, as the godfather of capital, must be taken out of the equation; only then can the working class organise, through new forms such as workers’ councils, the mass participation in public life necessary to the complete the journey to socialism. In the absence of its protector, capital itself is vulnerable to expropriation by the masses, and so the revolution can move in a radical direction very quickly.

Like all good theories it carries with it some clear implications for current political activity in that the form of organisations that we aim to build are designed with the insurrectionary scenario in mind. Until a revolutionary situation arises in which the state can be smashed there are limits to what can be achieved on a mass scale since it is the process of revolution itself that draws the masses into public life.1

When revolution finally does break out, the new organs of democracy, the councils, will be the vehicle of mass participation.

The consequences for a socialist electoralism follows the chain of logic: since the state is capitalist, it cannot be a vehicle for socialist transformation and since it’s is not a vehicle for socialist transformation, elections to gain power is a non-sensical strategy. And since insurrectionary socialists have no interest in winning state power via elections, they have no need to construct political organisations that are capable of doing so. Instead, they seek to create political organisations suited to their fundamental theoretical understanding of what socialist transformation should look like, i.e. mass participatory councils with a revolutionary party as an aide.

The political position in favour of a revolutionary party coupled with mass assemblies is dual organisationalist. The compliment of mass councils is the need for an explicitly revolutionary party that interacts with the masses during the revolutionary process and is the repository of the historical mission in less propitious times. But the revolutionary party itself has a different role than the workers councils and remains separate from them and pre-revolutionary mass organisations. By separate we mean institutionally distinct, not that they never try to influence them. Although naturally a pro-insurrectionary party would like to grow, it doesn’t aim to win a majority support for itself, as an organisation, but instead view the emergence of councils as the entrance of the masses onto the stage of history.

That, in summary form, is what we’d call the classic view of the primacy of insurrection, one that was described as ‘strategy of overthrow’ in the debates of the early 20th Century and subsequently became dominant in the Anglo-sphere far left, primarily through the proliferation of Trotskyist parties, but also in substantially the same, if less irritating, form of class struggle Anarchist groups.

The Capitalist State

If an insurrectionary political strategy rests upon the state as an inherently capitalist force, then it also falls if the state doesn’t match that premise. The record of the state protecting private property in the means of production has provoked a long-running debate within Marxism about the relationship between the state and capitalism, with views ranging from seeing it as a good old fashioned executive committee of the bourgeoisie to emphasising its relative autonomy from the capitalist class.

At the more simple end of the spectrum, then, Marxists see the state as a form of class rule. It is not a free floating entity above the messy reality of class conflict but rather a tool for suppressing the exploited, that is, an organisational tool of those in control of the means of production. For much of history, this is essentially an accurate description and it remains fundamentally true to this day. In Ireland alone, the continuous and truly massive transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists arising from the latter’s losses in property speculation is a graphic illustration of the balance of class power. There is no question of a transfer of wealth in the other direction.

But modern society is more complicated than pre-capitalist social formations. The exploited are not as powerless and thus have gained a measure of influence over the state itself, the degree of which depends on the balance of class forces at any given juncture. The strength of the working class in Europe over the 20th century is reflected in the significant gains that it made, winning concessions on everything from maternity pay to lower retirement, from national health services to a reduction in militarism.

The western state is open to influence by other sectors. That is, it is dominated by capitalists and will, when push comes to shove, tend to favour their interests rather than those of other sectors. That tendency, however, demonstrates not that the state is intrinsically structured to deliver capitalism but that the social dominance of the capitalists manifests itself in the political choices made by those who control the state. Capitalist control of the investment process is key because most states are dependent on capitalists for a functioning economy, which itself is necessary to keep its population relatively satisfied and to generate income via taxation.

The state’s own capacity to reproduce itself, then, is dependent on capitalist investment but importantly it is not itself a capitalist formation as is proven by the existence of non-capitalist sovereign powers throughout history. The state, as a powerful entity with a distinct history and a degree of freedom regarding accruing resources, could attempt to usurp the capitalist position by supplanting its role in the investment process. Indeed, that is what we largely advocate. But the current configuration of power within the state apparatus more or less accurately reflects capitalist power in society at large and a process of democratisation of the state is best seen as a parallel process to democratising the ownership of capital itself, rather than as either as a precursor or a successor to it. Until that balance of power is altered there is little reason to expect the state to escape its subservience to the needs of capitalists.

The state, in other words, does not operate on capitalist lines. It operates in a capitalist context. The mode of production is king not because every activity becomes capitalist (or feudal or whatever) — a position which would see it expand like a rogue Agent Smith in the Matrix films and become everything and therefore lose all explanatory power — but because it exerts the decisive selective pressure on all other social forms, including the state itself. If any social group wishes to prosper it needs to bring its behaviour into line with the dominant mode of production. Thus, non-capitalist groups, such as amateur sports clubs, often go cap in hand to capitalist corporations for sponsorship while many scientific researchers depend on them for funding.2

Because capitalism remains the strongest method of producing, those states which remain hostile to it will be deprived of investment and are placed at a disadvantage in inter-state competition, especially if they are coming late to the industrialisation. They will tend to become poorer relative to their capitalist neighbours, leading to increasing internal dissatisfaction, fracturing of elites, and their likely overthrow by either internal or external foes.

The state is not, then, an eternal verity destined to contaminate all those who touch it but rather a site of struggle that reflects the balance of forces in wider society. It is a tool whose usefulness depends very much on who is wielding it and for what purpose. And like any technology, it has evolved in response to the external pressures applied to it so that in our era it both retains a similarity to its initial function (bash heads and extract the surplus) while accruing new functions and being significantly altered by these functions and the pressures which necessitated them.

Bourgeois Democracy

But even if the premise of the state as an intrinsically capitalist one does not hold up, there is the further issue of whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation. But what is this form? Leninist critics often describe it as ‘bourgeois democracy’ and therefore not a real form of democracy at all. If that view is correct, then the case for insurrection is more or less made, with only the tactical question of whether an insurrection can be carried off at a given juncture being at issue.

But is that view correct?

Socialism arose as a political doctrine in the 19th Century, a period in which there weren’t any democracies by today’s standards of universal suffrage and freedom to organise. Indeed the most advanced democratic country, the United States, was engaged in mopping up its anti-indigenous cleansing operations and still had slavery until the 1860s, followed by another century of legal discrimination. In Europe, the situation was different, but not much better. The Continent was dominated by monarchical governments and the major powers, Prussia, Austria, and Russia were governed by absolutist regimes that were removed from democratic influence. Even France, the centre of revolutionary hope for most of the this period, was governed by monarchical and imperial regimes for the bulk of the century. The other major power, England, while more liberal was not much more democratic. Apart from the obvious and still remembered exclusion of women, workers were denied participation in the political process in the 1830s and did not begin to make headway against this legal discrimination until 1867 and there were still restrictions against them as late as 1918.

Under those conditions, the right of workers to organise themselves was highly circumscribed. In England, the Combination Acts legally restricted the ability to organise, although by the 1870s momentum was turning in the trade unions’ favour. Not to be outdone, France under Louis Napoleon clamped down on worker organisations, enabling the anti-union philosophy of Proudhon to gain a foothold. The situation was naturally worse in less developed Germany, with the Social Democratic Party itself being banned by Bismarck in 1878 until his fall from power in the early 1890s while a thoroughly rigged electoral system persisted in Prussia right up until the revolution of 1918. The restrictions in Czarist Russia are widely known: suffice it to say that it was so antiquated and that freedom of organisation was so restricted by its decaying feudal regime that even large sections of the bourgeoisie were revolutionary.

And these were just the overt, publicly declared discriminations against workers. There are many more instances of the state simply backing employers in labour disputes even to the extent of shooting at mass demonstrations. So, throughout the period in which modern socialism was emerging there were legal restrictions, even in otherwise fairly liberal countries, on the right of workers to organise and, consequently, their ability to win political power. Workers could hardly gain a majority in parliament when they were denied the vote.

The absence of democracy cannot be overcome by purely democratic means if only because of the absence of those means. The origins of modern socialism in an era of undemocratic states ensured that, just like many of the nationalist movements that arose at that time, they tended to be revolutionary. Given that there was no democratic way to bring the regimes to heel, some sort of revolution was going to be needed to overthrow them.

The disdain for ‘bourgeois’ democracy, although inherent in the original Anarchist position, became widespread amongst revolutionary socialists in the wake of the Lenin’s break with the Marxist Centre through his gigantic gamble on the soviet horse and the resulting flood of Bolshevik polemics.

But the whole depiction of democracy as ‘bourgeois’ is entirely unhelpful, not to mention inaccurate. So-called bourgeois or formal democracy consists of universal suffrage, the rule of law, civic equality, the freedom to organise, elementary civil liberties and so forth. Essential as democracy is to socialism, it’s not a purely socialist demand. Lots of other groups in society have an interest in the progressive democratisation of society, including minority groups, females, and even the bourgeoisie and capitalists, whose freedom to accumulate is severely constrained if the state is strong enough to operate the law in an arbitrary fashion.

For socialists, however, the importance of democracy goes further: apart from being intrinsically desirable in themselves, democratic freedoms are necessary if we are to organise large organisations at all because millions of people cannot unite as members of free institutions unless there is the ability to democratically set the fundamental policy (the constitution, the core programme), elect, supervise and if necessary hold its leadership to account; if we cannot organise to propagate new ideas and fresh criticism and finally if there are legal restrictions on their right to do so in the first place. Democratic rights are a precondition – the light and air, as the orthodox Marxists put it – for a successful mass socialist movement to exist at all. Socialism is a project of collective emancipation and this requires the support and participation of those who are to be liberated.

The elementary rights of freedom of association, organisation and so forth are therefore not bugs in the capitalist system but features of any socially advanced society, which includes but is not limited to countries in which the capitalist mode of production is dominant.

The argument that democracy is a rigged game because of the preponderance of wealth that the capitalist class can throw onto the scales is true but vacuous. That is a problem of capital ownership, not a problem of democracy. The cultural influence of capital doesn’t just vanish if an electoral system based on representative democracy is replaced by some alternative form of democracy as is shown by both the strange street revolutions occurring in the Ukraine or the victory of the nationalist leadership of the SPD in the workers’ councils elections in Germany in 1918.

If it is a problem of democracy, let us not shrink from the logical conclusion: since the vast majority of the population are workers, the very same distorting affect of wealth will intrude on the purity of the democratic process irrespective of the form used in that process, irrespective of whether we call it a state or a federation of workers councils or grassroots assemblies. A temporary dictatorship will be necessary to bridge the gap between the collapse of capitalist political power and the institution of a new mode of production, a gap that may well last some decades. Trotsky, at least in the early to mid 1920s, was honest enough to to accept the logical endpoint of his insurrectionary strategy but modern insurrectionaries are not so forthright, no doubt because they believe that the process of revolution itself radicalises the population to such a degree that the muck of capitalist propaganda is purged from their minds.

Rapture by Rupture

The problem is not with democracy, it’s with the fact that we’re not winning the battle of democracy. Since we are not legally prevented from winning, as the early socialists were, insurrection is a solution to the wrong problem. The real problems of the disparity of resources thrown into the cultural battle to gain majority support and the structural dependence of the state — and labour for that matter — on continuing capitalist investment, require quite a different solution.

Insurrectionary socialists place themselves in a bind: democracy is a fraud because of the unequal distribution of wealth in capitalist societies and the socialisation of wealth is impossible because democracy is a fraud. Their solution is the catastrophic collapse of capitalism leading to the rapid destruction of the existing political system and the swift expropriation of private property. This is simply a modern, secular, version of the rapture in which the real problem of ownership of capital is solved by pushing it into an imaginary future in which the working class, deified as the risen Messiah, delivers salvation to humanity. Ironically, it was this very approach to which Marxism — aka scientific socialism — arose in opposition. After all, there were no shortage of socialist predecessors and competitors to Marxism, and many of them, such as syndicalism, had quite the following at one stage.

Subordination not smashing is the order of the day

A further reason for not smashing the existing state is that we need it. The early 20th century state was already an old, complex bureaucratic entity, stretching back centuries and conquering it rather than destroying it was the aim of the European Socialist parties; indeed it was the divisive issue between them and the Anarchists. The modern state is needed for the simple reason that it performs socially necessary functions without which a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse. And compared to the pre WW I state, today’s one runs vastly more essential services like healthcare, education, food and pharmaceutical safety regulation, environmental controls, provision of infrastructure, and a civil and criminal justice system.

If those functions go unfulfilled by a future socialist polity, the day-to-day experience of life for everyone will quickly degrade leading to an erosion of support for the socialist government (or polity). Court summonses for drink driving, to take just one example, will have to be issued under a socialist administration just as much as they would under a capitalist one. In theory, the state justice system can be replaced by popular tribunals but rules of procedure, expertise in summarising and arguing the law, administrative clerks and the like cannot just be recreated at will. The legal norms are the product of a long, messy, and less than edifying social evolutionary process. Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment. The difficulties which recently cropped up in English Trotskyism have given rise to much comment about the inadequacies of the left in dealing with sexual assault cases. But they also point to the sheer difficulty of developing a viable alternative to the state justice system. Popular tribunals must fulfil those legal functions better than the old legal system if the new system is to secure legitimacy. In practice, that is extremely hard to accomplish and it is worth asking, does each administrative function need to be recreated from scratch? The question becomes all the more urgent when asked in the midst of an intense confrontation with the ruling class.

A better approach is to think about how the existing systems can be improved, principally through the extension of democracy into the apparatus, e.g. by removing the veto power of the Supreme Court or making their terms of definite duration and subject to the democratic wishes as expressed by the various political parties. Rather than destroying a useful machine we want to subordinate it for our purposes.

Learning to guide a large bureaucracy into a democratic mode of operation is a herculean task and not one that can be learned on the fly over a few weeks or months of insurrection. It takes years if not decades. In times past, the trade unions were a vital source of practical knowledge in administration but these have significantly less reach than they used to. It’s not a question of workers’ capability but of organisation, because it is only in certain forms of organisation and under certain conditions that their capacity is actually realised.

A strategy of extending democracy under the auspices of the political party reduces the level of social reorganisation that has to occur simultaneously if a confrontation with the capitalist class ever comes to a head. A large bureaucracy is a very complex machine and complex machines are far easier to break than to improve; the latter requires knowledge that tells us in advance that the change to be made is likely to increase the performance of the machine. Without such foreknowledge, any change is essentially random, and since there are vastly more ways for changes to degrade, if not wreck, the machine, changes which haven’t been carefully thought through in advance can quickly lead to severe social crisis.

The State and Socialisation

But extending democratisation within the state is only part of the party’s mission. It is of no use to have an unblemished tool which is admired but not used. As well as being the indispensable core of administering collective decision making, the state is a tool in the socialisation process. The most vital change is the co-ordination of investment. With the division of labour becoming ever more international the need for ever more intricate co-ordination arises, and the more complex that co-ordination the less able institutional forms — let alone consciously anti-institutional forms— that emerge spontaneously in the revolutionary process will be capable of mastering it. The resulting break in the chain of production will see a severe decline in living standards and an immediate, perhaps irrevocable, plummeting of political support for seeing the transition out.

The precise form that socialisation takes will vary according to circumstance, but in all cases the state, as both the overall sovereign authority and the vehicle for democratic participation must be at its centre. This does not necessarily entail an all pervasive level of control. For example, the state could mandate various banks to invest according to certain criteria which have won support through the majority socialist party.

It can also create, by using its legislative and judicial functions in a pro-labour way, a context which promotes workers’ self-activity. The dead hand of state compulsion has been a longstanding worry amongst socialists and the economic stagnation of the USSR indicates it has a real basis in fact. How then can state involvement with socialisation be coupled with self-activity? By tilting the playing field in favour of workers activity, e.g. by specifying a legal right to the products of their labour 3

or by permitting businesses to be transformed into co-operatives with public financing if a majority of workers vote for it, the state makes it in workers’ own material interest to aggressively pursue socialisation rather than stop at a welfare-state type solution.

In the first example above, workers would not be handed the products; the socialist militants would still have to persuade the workers in each enterprise to seek their legal right. Independent jury tribunals can decide in these and other cases between employers and worker. Assuming the juries are randomly selected, as they are now, then the working class will make up its majority, thereby facilitating pro-labour judgements. Of course, if the tribunals were to return consistently anti-labour decisions, we would have good evidence that support for socialisation was waning and that a change in strategy is required. In any case, socialisation is not being imposed from above against the wishes of the majority. Emanating from a democratically elected party and dependent on the daily support of workers to further the process, the development of a co-operative economy would rest on a very solid foundation of mass support. It can assume the burden of providing collective goods so that workers co-ops can operate at much lower cost level and therefore compete with capitalist companies.

Capitalist Reaction and The Security State

The public sector is not populated by ogres, who become instruments of capital simply because of their role in the bureaucracy or due to some as yet unknown consequences of its particular form. Their specific role depends on a host of factors, not least the requirements of its own reproduction. To the extent that the apparatus depends on continued investment by capitalists in the economy, it has no choice but to align its interests with that of the capitalist class. But should another mode of production — producer co-operatives — begin to appear as a threatening cloud on the horizon, the apparatus has no intrinsic loyalty to capitalism for it is not itself a capitalist entity. To be sure, there will be personal loyalties, especially at the higher echelons who, having gone to the same posh schools, will be horrified at the thought of the plebs taking over. Should they begin to disrupt the socialisation policy of democratically chosen socialist party they will have to be neutralised and replaced by more well disposed individuals. What is of more importance is that the vast bulk of public sector workers, including the administrative workers in the Civil Service, are onside with a policy of socialisation. Only a mass party with roots throughout the community, with an organisational reach comparable to the Catholic Church of old, can hope to win the active and passive support from the bureaucracy which is necessary to carry through socialisation measures.

Nevertheless, it would hardly be surprising if elements within the apparatus attempt to disrupt the necessary structural reforms, e.g. taking control of credit, altering labour legislation in favour of trade unions and co-operatives etc. As it is, the bureaucracy stymies existing pro-capitalist governments all the time. We can expect degrees of co-operation within the state apparatus which itself will not be unaffected by the balance of forces in society generally. A rise in support for the socialist party and the increasing competitiveness of worker co-ops will enable sympathetic tendencies within the apparatus to be more vocal and to push those sitting on the fence to co-operate while resisting the disruptive efforts of the recalcitrants. But the sympathetic tendency requires direction from a legitimate government sanctioned by a democracy.

By winning the battle for democracy, we make it harder for the holdouts in the state to organise resistance. Reactionary pro-capitalist elements that attempt to disrupt socialisation will find their options have narrowed considerably once they find they have lost the co-operation of great swathes of the administrative apparatus itself while legitimacy and sheer numbers enhances the position of our allies, making it easier for them to argue for co-operation with the socialisation project. We must make it easy for them to comply with socialisation and make it costly for them to block it.

At some point the reactionaries will try to move onto more aggressive measures, including investment strikes and ultimately a coup d’état. We won’t deal with the inevitable investment pressure that will be brought to bear other than to say if the socialist movement hasn’t prepared the ground well in advance by having sufficient weight in the productive sector that it can see out such a strike, then it can simply forget about instigating any structural reforms that take us in a socialist direction. 4


Should the socialist-labour movement prove too resilient to fold before the disruption aimed at fostering economic breakdown, the doomsday weapon of violent reaction, whether through the mobilisation of a mass fascist movement or via a straight-forward coup d’état always looms over its head, ready to detonate. This sober fact is one of the common reasons cited by insurrectionaries when arguing for the need to smash the state itself. Unfortunately, however, while destruction may solve the problem of the military reserve option for the ruling class, it doesn’t, as we argued above, solve the problem of being able to transition to a socialist mode of production.

And nor is it the best to counter the possibility of violent reaction. Just as democratic legitimacy is a counter to the recalcitrant bureaucracy within the civil service, it is also a weapon against those sections of the state, i.e. the security state (the political police, the intelligence agencies, the officer corps). Again, it enhances the possibility of a split within the ranks of larger security agencies, i.e. those with lots of members with ordinary functions. Many of the great revolutionary events in history, including decisive movements in the French and Russian Revolutions, were settled by the refusal of the rank and file soldiers to fire on protestors. The more we have legitimacy the easier we make it for them to disobey their reactionary officers, especially as there will likely splits within the security state, with some of their leaders having internalised the values of liberal democracy, will maintain their loyalty to the legitimate line of authority.

Of course, should the democratic process itself come under attack, either through a frontal coup d’état or through a prolonged form of technocratic government installed by the IMF or the ECB, then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable. Until that scenario occurs, however, we need to approach the question of revolution from a defensive standpoint. As Engels put it, it’s tactically in our interests to put the ruling class in the position of having to shoot first as they would have to bear the burden of responsibility for being anti-democratic, while socialists get to be defenders of not only egalitarianism but of democracy too, thereby making it easier to split potential allies, such as small businesses, off from the right-wing. As the experience of the last century has shown the far left, it is not so easy to organise insurrection against a democratically elected government, especially in the advanced capitalist countries.

Nor is revolution itself an inherently positive development. A fair proportion of history’s revolutions have had little progressive content, e.g. the anti-French revolt of the Spanish in the revolutionary era, while more modern mass protests regularly veer close to being essentially the useful idiots of the American foreign policy establishment – the anti-Chavez protests of 2002 being the clearest example. In Ireland, the grassroots Ulster Workers’ Councils of the mid-1970s, which led to the shutdown of the province, was entirely reactionary in nature.

A good example of the limited value of street insurrections as a gauge of progressive content is the enthusiasm which led the (Cliffite) SWP to both endorse the Muslim Brotherhood when it was benefitting from the overthrow of Mubarak and to oppose it when its democratically elected government was the subject of a military led street revolution. Rather than promote a long-term strategy of building organisations capable of outcompeting both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military they preferred to take the shortcut of insurrection. In the end, however, the shortcuts lead nowhere, since there is no shortcut to building up mass, popular organisations, the measure of which is victory in democratic elections. Neither the secular-liberals nor the socialists, both of whom lack institutions on the scale of the Muslim Brotherhood, are capable of mounting a challenge to win popular support on the scale of the Islamists and so street revolutions end up in the entirely reactionary laps of the military establishment.


Just as with a strategy of insurrection, there are political implications to attempting to conquer political power and subordinate the state to the process of socialisation. We can summarise those implications thus:

  1. Subordination requires support both active and passive support within the apparatus.
  2. Democratic legitimacy is essential to securing that support.
  3. Democratic legitimacy means winning power democratically and putting that legitimacy to the test repeatedly.
  4. Winning elections requires a mass party.

So arising from the our position on the state, a quite different conception of political strategy follows. On the one hand, insurrection with a revolutionary vanguard party and mass assemblies, on the other, mass socialist parties winning power via the existing democratic system. Or, to put the argument another way, if we don’t need an insurrection and if we don’t need an entirely new system of workers councils, we don’t require parties whose fundamental task is to promote that strategy. Because we are making socialism and not insurrection the central strategic goal, we have no need to maintain an organisationally distinct revolutionary party.

Quite the opposite. We want to merge the socialists into mass organisations so that ideologically socialist parties exist on a truly large basis over a prolonged period of time, for decades at least, for centuries if necessary.

First published on The North Star on January 1st, 2014
  1. The idea is most clearly and poetically expressed by Trotsky: “the history of a revolution is for us first of all the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of their own destiny”  
  2. We elaborate on this interpretation of capitalist domination in Science and Socialism href=””>Science and Socialism.  
  3. These examples follow the lines of thought of Cockshott, Cottrell, & Dieterich in their href=””>Transition to 21st Century Socialism in the European Union.  
  4. See our article, href=””>The Transition for further argument on this point.  

About James O'Brien

History: Tried for Bakuninist deviationism, confessed his errors and was rehabilitated. Subsequently degenerated into Kautskyist Orthodoxy. Worse, is an Irish peasant.
This entry was posted in Proletarian politics. Bookmark the permalink.