One of the most perplexing things about the Socialist Left is its disregard for considering something that should be fairly obvious, that is how we conceive of the Socialist Revolution as actually happening and what we intend to do to move us from where we are in the here and now to the future Communist promised land. That is, what is our strategy? Through consciously intervening within the class struggle as it actually exists, how do we intend on eventually seizing power? What hurdles must we climb to get there, what stages must we pass through. Lets have a short and somewhat crude history lesson.
The old Socialist movement at the turn of the 20th Century had a fairly simple but empirically justifiable conception at the time, to put it somewhat crudely, with the further proletarianisation of the non wage-laouring population, brought about by the domination of the Capitalist mode of production, the Social Democrats would eventually win parliamentary elections with outright majorities ushering in the new age. Social Democratic votes were increasing over time, they were able to force concessions previously thought impossible to achieve under Capitalism from the Capitalist State. Perspectives were this could, in an evolutionary manner lead to a post-Capitalist society. Parliament was considered a neutral organ through which the Proletariat could exercise their ‘dictatorship’, that is, their majority rule.
This didn’t quite go as planned. The proletarianisation of the peasant and petty bourgeois took far longer to happen than was expected. To gain majorities would require waiting a long time or compromising the Communist programme of the proletariat to non-proletarian forces, layers of the skilled semi-proletarian, petty bourgeois, peasantry, etc. It also bought out the problem of amelioration, that is some workers did have more to lose than their chains and didn’t see the necessity for revolutionary upheaval. The concept of Aristocracy and Bureaucracy of Labour, that is the privileges of the skilled worker and the leaders of newly formed trade unions deal with these problems.
The old Socialist movement abandoned for the most part the conception of working towards a post-capitalist, prior to their betrayal in August 1914 of their internationalist programmes. This event forced a dramatic split within the international Socialist Movement, with Rosa Luxemburg denouncing it as a “stinking corpse” and Lenin demanding a complete rupture. Having seized power in Russia this old evolutionary framework of slowly subsuming the bourgeois state to proletarian interests was destroyed. Lenin famously in polemic with Kautsky relentlessly attacked the notion that the parliamentary form of government was somehow a neutral organ in the class struggle, it was necessarily a bourgeois institution which must be overturned root and branch, in Marx’s words “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”. The revolutionary state must be grounded in the new organs of proletarian power, the workers councils.
The strategy proposed by the Russian Revolutionary victory was essentially, do as we did. Organise around a Marxist programme, struggle through the trade-unions and bourgeois state institutions in an explicitly revolutionary manner towards educating the proletariat of the folly of reformism and necessity of revolution, “Agitate, Educate, Organise” as the old dictum went. Eventually the multiplication of the Proletariat and Capitalism producing crises endogenously will lead to the outbreak of mass strike waves and the formation of workers councils. On the basis of gaining proletarian majorities within these councils the Communist Party must take initiative and practice the art of insurrection.
The Russian Revolution and ascent of the Third Communist International did indeed transform Communism from the spectre Marx mentions into a real material force in society which looked very much at the time like it could win, with Revolutions breaking out throughout all of Europe bringing WWI to an end. Unfortunately, as we can all attest, they did not win. Not only did they not win but we saw the rise of Fascism and Stalinism. Where exactly the blame for this lays is not the subject of this article but I would suggest that contrary to many accounts the betrayal of individuals in positions of responsibility is not sufficient explanation.
With the rise of Stalinism the two main strategies for the most part coalesced into one, following the Social Democrats the Communist Parties under orders from Moscow more and more transformed themselves into tools of Soviet foreign diplomacy. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat as the goal of the Communist Parties was repudiated in deeds (and later explicitly in words). Work towards guaranteeing Bourgeois ‘Peaceful-Coexistence’ with Russia was the order of the day, evidenced in the tactic of the so-called Popular Front. Both Social-Democrats and Official Communist Parties now were quite simply the Left of Capital, they did not represent a threat of rupture with the Capitalist mode of production – though their grassroots membership would periodically contest this, the upper echelons utterly rejected Socialist revolution. Much good work was done, and much can be gained from studying the history of these movements but fundamentally they were no longer capable of seizing power.
Trots and LeftComs
Which brings us to the two main breakaway Marxist trends from the Social Democrats and Official Communists; Trotskyism and Left-Communism. Trotskyism developed as the International Left Opposition to the rise of Stalinism in Russia (contesting the lack of democracy and Soviet economic policy) and the subordination of Communist Parties to the national interests of the Soviet Union (particularly the Popular Front). They considered themselves the inheritors of the banner of Marx and Lenin, they upheld the decisions of the first four congresses of the Communist International.
Realising the limitations inherent in the fact that the parliamentary arena was already occupied by Social Democrats and Communists, that independently their ability to challenge them was basically futile, after all as Trotsky said Socialism had demonstrated itself “not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity”. Combating the influence of the Stalinists while the Soviet Union was empirically before the very eyes of the world Proletariat advancing industrially at breakneck pace was not easy to say the least. Attempting to work within the official communist parties was considered something of a non-starter, the absurd lies and falsifications the Soviet Union pumped out about Leon Trotsky as a Nazi wrecker of the Communist movement meant that the Communist Parties would physically attack the Trotskyists making it near impossible to actually intervene. Instead they opted for work within the Social Democratic parties with the so-called ‘French Turn’.
With the perspective of Imperialist decay, the inability for the Capitalists to any longer develop the productive forces, the staggering growth of the Soviet Union and the oncoming world war the Trotskyists took the stand point of making ‘transitional demands’ proving themselves the most revolutionary wing of the worker’s movement, waiting for the catastrophe to come, on the back of which the Fourth International would lead the world Proletariat to victory. The spontaneous rising of the revolutionary proletariat would be the result of the catastrophe, the role of the Trotskyists was considered as essentially pushing them along, ‘transitionally’ closer and closer to revolutionary consciousness at which point the insurrection would be organised.
Given the situation at the time I think this somewhat justifiable, the Left-Communists trends, primarily split between the Partyist Italians under the leadership of Amedio Bordiga and the German-Dutch Council Communists under the leadership of Anton Pannekoek, though absolutely repudiating Social Democratic entry work took a similar stand of biding their time and awaiting the great spontaneous rising. In this respect the two trends have more in common than they’d like to admit, the primary difference being that the Left-Communists rejected outright United-Front work, conceiving the Popular Front as its child. Observing the reactionary nature of the period in question Bordiga famously just went back to his day job mocking those who persisted “To wait, not for this generation, but for those of the future. The situation will change. I preserve intact my mentality: the men do not count, they do not represent anything, cannot have any influence; the facts determine the new situations. And when the situations are ripe, then the men emerge”.
After the War
World War 2 ended with Revolutionary outbreaks throughout Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe and the revolutionary victory of Mao in China and Kim in Korea. The so-called golden age of Capitalism after the war pulled the rug from under the Trotskyists and Left Communists alike. Through the rise of the Eastern Bloc and the perceived threat of Communism it represented, the rise in profitability (caused by destruction of Capital Value from the war) and the development of the mixed economy on the back of such developments the dominance of Social Democracy rose again through the forging of welfare states undermining almost totally those genuine forces which stood for Communism be they Trotskyist, Left-Communist or somewhere in between. The catastrophic downturn Trotsky had predicted did not take place, this massively disoriented the Trotskyists. Both trends suffered terrible bouts of the most bizarre and hostile sectarianism remaining largely totally irrelevant.
But with the perspective of the growth of the proletariat over time and economic development along Capitalist industrial lines common to all in one way of another there still remained hope. With the development of Keynesian mixed economy, the policy of full employment and high levels of accumulation by Capital the proletariat managed to rise again with the industrial Class Struggle peaking throughout the mid 60s to the mid 70s. Low levels of unemployment and huge factories allowed workers to gain the upper hand, realising all that “supply and demand” stuff the economists go on about could actually work in their favour, if the workers were in low supply and high demand then they could demand more in exchange for their labour. The proletariat took the initiative, the strength and confidence of which informed the various civil rights struggles.
The various trends of Socialist groups through this period did indeed grow, as you’d expect but not substantially. Few actually notice this as an issue, instead simply putting the blame of failed revolutions to the betrayals of the official communists, echoing Trotsky in arguing that “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership”, without providing much explanation as to why there is such a crisis of revolutionary leadership. The Left-Communists in different forms to that of the pre-war years became more exiting and eccentric as the Situationists in France and the Autonomists in Italy, managing to have a real impact upon the Italian strike waves up to 1977 but as far as my limited understanding goes retreating into academia after this. Though it should be emphasised the importance of feminist autonomist thought in developing Historical Materialism to account for the oppression of women in the works of Federici, Dalla Costa, etc.
The 70s to Now
Then everything got a lot worse. So called ‘Neo-Liberalism’ (which we’ll discuss more at length another time) happened in the wake of the profit crisis of the early 70s. From then to now, with all the massive changes that have taken place particularly deindustrialisation, global proletarianisation, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the post-industrial reconfiguring of high income economies around finance and service sectors and fundamentally the secular collapse of profit rates and accumulation, the left still soldiers on almost as though nothing has changed.
In terms of strategy the Left marches on like zombies blissfully unaware and unquestioning of their social irreverence and ineffectiveness, expecting the tide to change in the undesignated future. Since the collapse of the old workers movement, the economic reonfigurations which have taken place and the compositional changes within the working class we need to quite seriously and in open dialogue discuss these issues. The precarious zero hour worker and surplus populations to Capital’s requirements (trends groups like Endnotes elaborate upon) need to be looked at. Where the left could await the rising workers movement based as it was upon large-scale industry with some confidence in empirical developments, the configurations and historic tasks Capitalism has managed to achieve severely limits the strength of workers in industrial disputes.
The Left today in this country, in fact in most of Europe and the US, maybe further, are for the most part (unfortunately) gambling all their hopes on Social Democratic revival in response to austerity measures, Corbyn, Tsipras and Sanders form a rather boring treacherous triumvirate of well-intentioned but fundamentally of the system soft (at best) reformists. The Socialist Left has done entry work within Social Democratic organisations before and it was a failure. Why expect any different today when the odds are stacked so much more against them (the contingencies that allowed for long-term reformist projects are no longer in place). The goal of attempting to seize control of these groups or even split away large portions, again seems like old hat to me. How this figures into proletarian seizure of power at some indistinct point in the future I have no idea. Nobody I am aware of even explicitly discusses hypothetical ways this could even work. To be frank, I have absolutely no desire to simply make Capitalism less shit, it needs to be destroyed.
This is by no means to reject struggle in place of reading books and having discussions or to disparage Union struggles, that would be absurd. We obviously should support day to day struggles against low wages, high rents, cut-backs, etc. There can be no Communist victory if such day to day reformist struggles do not form a unity with our revolutionary goals. Reforms are necessary to inform the strength and confidence of the Proletariat in struggle and to reject them would only isolate us. It’s not to disparage the fact that there is some good work being done by various socialist and anti-austerity groups either but to point out limitations.
The question then is What is to be Done, we’re back in 1902 again – though without the advantage of witnessing the working class movement empirically grow from strength to strength. We need to reconceptualise what the material source of Socialist Revolution can be now Capitalist reconfiguration has thrown into question the expectancy of old workers movement eventually reviving itself again. We need to think strategically.
Unfortunately with all the criticisms outlined I do not know what the answer to these questions is. It seems apparent to me that Revolutionary regroupment of all trends interested in a Socialist society is necessary, we need to face these issues head on rather than hide from them. In the here and now actually arguing for Communism (raw and uncut) as an educative project uniting together and confronting these issues together seems to be a start. We need to put Socialism back onto its scientific footing discovered by Marx and as in his words “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” It’s a bleak picture I know but hiding away from it won’t make it go away.