The Strategy of Attrition: Part I

by Gavin Mendel-Gleason & James O'Brien on January 1, 2014

(Part I of II, for Part II see: The Strategy of Attrition: Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus)

Conquest or Destruction of the State?


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 19th century 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 labour3 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.

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.

3. These examples follow the lines of thought of Cockshott, Cottrell, & Dieterich in their Transition to 21st Century Socialism in the European Union.

4. See our article, The Transition for further argument on this point.

(Part I of II, for Part II see: The Strategy of Attrition: Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus)

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl Davidson January 1, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Finally, some folks are talking good sense. I agree with much of this. But I’d add that our forces have to build a capacity for armed self-defense at every step, both among soldiers and veterans organizations and the like, of our own. Our adversaries may very well at some point, ie, fascist counter-attack, leave us with the sole options of insurrection and new institutions of dual power on a mass scale. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worse. I’ll study this more closely, and pass it on the others as well.


Neil January 1, 2014 at 7:09 pm

A thought provoking article,
however at the end of the day I’m not convinced by its characterisation of the modern
State and its associated argument that an emancipatory strategy needs to
struggle for socialist control of the state, mainly utilising the formal
political institutions of liberal democracy.

The main issue on which it falls
down in my view is in the claim that the form of the state in advanced
capitalist countries is based on formal or bourgeois democracy and that the rights and institutions of this political system
e.g. universal suffrage, the rule of law, civic equality, the freedom to
organise, elementary civil liberties, etc, are not mere window dressing but real
democratic rights that could form the basis for a socialist movement and a
socialist state.

I would agree
that the above mentioned rights and institutions are not to be lightly
dismissed, however I would argue that any theory of the state form that only focuses
on its formal democratic elements is inadequate. One of the most important
issues which has been overlooked is that the permanent core of the modern State
is a bureaucratic apparatus for maintaining social order and stability operating
according to an ideology of instrumental rationality, which has over time become
more and more deeply embedded throughout society and in our modes of thought. The
repression and lack of freedom embodied in the power and functioning of the
state is not in other words solely based on class and economic power and could
survive its dissolution and replacement by other forms of power.

Another important
issue that has been overlooked is the radical critique of bourgeois liberal democratic
institutions and rights. The nature and inherent limits of these, and
especially the anti-representative critique in much anarchist and libertarian thinking
is simply ignored. What makes this omission even more problematic and biased is
that not many critics of the formal democratic path to socialist (or communist)
transformation are opposed to democracy per se – far from it in fact – but to a
narrow version of which promotes elite power and disempowers the mass of
ordinary people.

Later it argues that the modern State needs to be taken over, democratised and used because it performs socially necessary functions which prevent ‘complex societies’ collapsing, and consequently that a future socialist polity would have to take over these functions. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose it seems.

I think the above is a pretty complacent, maybe even panglossian, analysis of the State and of our current historical context. In my view if we wish to develop a strategy for taking and transforming state power in a way that liberates us and allows us to alter the environmentally and socially destructive developmental path we have been heading along for so long, then we need to critique the existing form and function of the state in a far comprehensive way, and also re-consider the goals of human society, the purpose of the state, and the social bases of freedom. Personally I consider the inviolable capacity for individual and communal autonomy – rather than the capacity to vote for a political representative and the continuation of the existing state form (with the possibility, or indeed likelihood, of being oppressed by the majority and forced to conform to a majority way of life) – as the greatest potential democratic freedom to be won.


Gavin Mendel-Gleason January 4, 2014 at 7:15 am

Both of the authors came from the anarchist political organisation: Workers Solidarity Movement. As such both have had a fair amount of study and first-hand experience of “libertarian modes of organising” and it can be said that the advantages of these have left them unimpressed. The subject is covered more fully in Part II:

We don’t take a radical critique of liberal democratic institutions and rights because quite frankly the only serious problem with republican virtues are that they can not be realised without a change in the mode of production. Their status is as unrealisable, not as antagonistic to emancipation.

The analysis of the state-form in its current incarnation as somehow essentially capitalistic is, I think, the more panglossian. Certainly in an article on the party form it is impossible to fully cover both the history of the state and many important features of its current existence. Forthcoming articles will address the modern state, including importantly the secret state.


Guest January 4, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Both of these articles are really good. But in all seriousness, how does one go about bringing mass organizations of this type into existence today? We already have plenty of left-wing news outlets (which most people don’t know about), plenty of small little co-ops (which most people don’t know about and/or don’t see as connected to radical politics) and we’ve had a small amount of success getting socialists elected. How do we turn these into the foundation of a more serious and sustainable mass left politics?


Ty Hudson January 2, 2014 at 1:29 am

The “subordination not smashing” strategy posited in this essay looks a lot like what’s currently going on in Venezuela. What do people think about that?


Jason S. January 2, 2014 at 5:34 am

I think much confusion results from the phrase “smashing the state.” “Smashing” inevitably sounds violent. But what I think Marx and Engels meant in their maturity when they used the phrase was something like “dismantle the authoritarian-repressive apparatus and radically democratize everything else.” Whether or not this would be done relatively peacefully or through armed struggle would be a matter of circumstance. “Peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must,” as the Chartists put it.


Jacob Richter January 3, 2014 at 4:03 am

This article is off the mark on two fundamental points:

1) First, the class movement cannot expropriate ruling-class political power without winning over to its side the majority of the working-class demographic majority (the situation in First World countries). Because of this class dynamic, and because of various non-political motives for electoral support, the “majority of votes” isn’t a solid measure of political support (even assuming the best-case “rule of law” scenario, without any Pinochets in the wings). For more leftist critics of this article, council fetishes or hiding behind them won’t do, either.

2) Second, the argument on “democratic legitimacy” is flawed. Majority political support by a radicalized working class cannot even legally “win” the state. Even in the best-case scenario, to achieve this would mean altering the entire constitutional framework by introducing a whole raft of constitutional amendments, if not a new constitution altogether, before proceeding any further. That’s why popular vote majorities and parliamentary majorities are insufficient. This support butts heads with rule-of-law constitutionalism’s army, police, civil service apparatus, and so on.

As an alternative to the article’s argument for “democratic legitimacy,” I pose the argument for class legitimacy, ignored by reformists in general and many self-proclaimed r-r-r-revolutionaries.


Alan Gibson January 3, 2014 at 3:03 pm

My response to this rehashing of the old argument for a reformist road to socialism and by implication its rejection of a militant approach to class struggle in the here and now –


Neil January 4, 2014 at 10:13 am

I agree with your critique in your referenced blog article, The only thing that ‘switches me off’ is the continued resort to arguing with reference to historical canonical sources. The only place that this is *necessary* and in the least *meaningful* is in a Marxist sect or amongst sectarians in the academy. In the rest of the wide world the reaction it provokes is I am certain entirely negative. Intellectually it smacks of a cult of ancestor worship, politically it hints at authoritarianism. Unless the limits of one’s ambitions are greater influence in the vanguard groupuscule in my opinion it is therefore politically inadvisable.


Jacob Richter January 4, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Neil, try this contemporary paper, which reeks of neither “historical canonical sources” nor “ancestor worship”:


Alan Gibson January 4, 2014 at 7:23 am

Neil, I am a “horses for courses” kind of guy.

Given that James
and Gavin’s piece attempts to place itself in an historical context of
their supposed “orthodox Marxism” as counterposed to their claims about
other political tendencies and the historical mistakes that flow from
them I felt it was appropriate to respond in this way.

There is
also the issue of audience. The original document and my response are
posted on blogs, along with Facebook links, where the main viewers are
indeed part of the small “vanguard” of the workers’ movement who are
currently interested in discussing such issues. To the extent such
people who do not value the lessons to be learnt, both positive and
negative, from the political giants on whose shoulders we stand then I
admit I am not particularly interested in engaging with them.

I am producing material for a wider audience – such as leaflets for
distribution at mass events I use a more accessible literary style,
while attempting to keep the political content the same. See for
instance the following examples: (written while I was still a member of the IBT)


Ty Hudson January 4, 2014 at 10:29 pm

I agree with Neil that Gibson’s article’s over-reliance on the authority of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky is problematic. In fact, it makes his arguments almost entirely useless. Other than a somewhat convincing argument that Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky would disagree with Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien on certain points if the latter were alive in 1871, 1918, or the mid-1920’s, what does Gibson’s article amount to? Nothing more than an exercise in quasi-religious piety. It is appropriate that his piece features prominently Lenin’s exposure of Kautsky’s “apostasy.” (I’m no more a fan of Kautsky’s WWI-era politics than anyone else reading this website, but in my view his crime was not “apostasy” but cowardice.)

In the small portion of his article that doesn’t consist of direct quotes from historical luminaries (or exegeses thereof), Gibson manages to commit some interesting errors. In arguing against Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien’s argument about the separability of the state from its current domination by the capitalist class, Gibson declares that their examples of working-class influence on the state “confus[e] exerting influence and the making of concessions.” How exactly would Gibson justify this distinction? What is influence if not the ability to force concessions?

Later on, Gibson concedes but skips over a very important point: “Of
course ‘smashing’ the existing state will not involve a ‘day one’ type
scenario in terms of every individual currently working in the wider
capitalist state but in terms of their social function it will be
transformed into something new.” This is basically a concession of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien’s point that “a further reason for not smashing the existing state is that we need it.” Gibson’s vision of not entirely dismantling the state on “day one” but nonetheless transforming it into something new in terms of its social function, is not that different from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien’s vision’s of “subordination” of the state, “extending democratisation within the state,” and, for example, using the state to “tilt the playing field in favour of workers’ self-activity.” Both visions fit nicely with Jason S’s comment (above) about thinking about the word “smash” as meaning “dismantle the authoritarian-repressive apparatus and radically democratize everything else.” (I’m not sure about Jason’s contention that that’s what Marx and Engel’s actually meant by “smash,” but frankly I don’t think that matters, unless you’re writing a biography of Marx or Engels.) At the end of the day, I think we’re arguing over a matter of degree here, not a binary opposition of two entirely distinct strategies for achieving socialism.

This last point leads me to my usual view that we should be having much more civil and less demonizing discussions about revolutionary strategy. None of us know exactly how we’re going to achieve socialism in the end, and as the movement (and capital’s reaction) develop, we’re going to have to make lots of adjustments, both small and large. (It is ironic that, in the course of quoting Marx to prove once and for all that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are not true Marxists, Gibson includes Marx’s statement that “the
practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto
itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions
for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is
laid on the revolutionary measures proposed.”)

As to debates over matters of degree: I think Gibson makes a reasonable point about what might be considered Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien’s over-emphasis on electoral activity at the expense of non-electoral organizing among the working class, which Gibson refers to as “the creation of organs of proletarian democracy as part of immediate struggles in the class war.” Of course, it’s not true that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien propose an elections-only strategy; they state early on that they advocate “an adroit mixture of the strategies, one which combine[s] the strength of
labour, the potential wealth of co-ops and the leverage of mass parties.” In any case, any effective electoral strategy would not involve mere “passive electioneering” or a neglect of ongoing organizing on the theory that “the answer to all our problems lies in the ballot box at the next election.” Personally, I would favor a greater emphasis on the building of militant labor unions rather than the building of co-ops, but again we’re talking about a matter of degree.

The elephant in the room is the question of violent confrontation. Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien correctly anticipate that a socialist electoral victory would be followed by capital strikes and/or an attempt at a coup-d’etat. Their view is that our best strategic option is to establish the democratic legitimacy that comes with winning elections, and then prepare ourselves to defend the revolution against capital’s violent counterattack. Gibson dutifully quotes Trotsky to argue against this point. But what does Gibson make of Engels’s position (recently quoted by Jason S in response to a different article on this website):

“Do you realise now what a splendid weapon you in France have had in
your hands for forty years in universal suffrage; if only people had
known how to use it! It’s slower and more boring than the call to
revolution, but it’s ten times more sure, and what is even better, it
indicates with the most perfect accuracy the day when a call to armed
revolution has to be made; it’s ten to one that universal suffrage,
intelligently used by the workers, will drive the rulers to overthrow
legality, that is, to put us in the most favourable position to make the
revolution.” (Engels to Lafargue,12 November 1892)

I tend to favor the approach advocated by Mendel-Gleason, O’Brien, and Engels over the insurrectionist approach advocated by Lenin and Trotsky, but this is not the place to make a detailed argument on that point. The real point here is: what do you do when two books of the gospel contradict one another?

Finally, I’ll return to my previous point about civil discourse. We are comrades in this struggle and should treat each other as such. The accusation that O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason are a pair of sell-outs aiming for a “cosy life in a left-liberal think-tank,” with no evidence other than that they disagree with you on certain aspects of revolutionary strategy, is unacceptable discourse. Even worse, I would argue, than the pious scripture-mongering upon which Gibson’s article is based.


Alan Gibson January 5, 2014 at 9:13 am

I feel that I have dealt with Ty’s “scripture mongering” concern in my reply to Neil.

Regarding Ty’s other points.

I also think it is likely that the reason for Kautsky’s apostasy was indeed cowardice but whatever the reason that the result was apostasy is not in doubt.

On having having influence vs forcing concessions I think the difference is actually quite clear if it is taken in the context of the original piece. The content given to having influence is that the state is a neutral site for political struggle over the degree of influence which from the point of view of the working class can go from 0% to 100%. At 100% the state is effectively a workers state for all intents and purposes. This is quite different from seeing pro-working class reforms as being concessions forced out of a state that is capitalist in nature. Well at least that difference is clear to me.

As regards the issue of “smashing”. It is quite cleat to me that the military/judicial machine of the capitalist state will indeed have to be smashed (or “wrecked”, “ruined”, “destroyed”, “dissolved”, “disappeared”, “dispersed” or “disbanded” – depending on which of Lars Lih’s possible translations of Kautsky’s original German text you prefer). I also think that the wider elements of the capitalist state will need to have the upper tiers of their personnel pretty completely removed and their social function and forms fundamentally transformed.

O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason put forward quite a different view on what will have to happen to the state with no class nature that they believe rules over us.

I disagree that the difference between myself and O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason is simply a matter of degree. It is a matter of quality. This would seem implicit in their own piece so I am unclear on why Ty seeks to paper this difference over.

This is also true on the issue of building militant class struggle forms of proletarian democracy in the here and now. O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason are quite clear that they see this as an issue of a qualitative difference – I agree with them. This of course does not mean that I reject any participation in the bourgeois election process but I accept the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason case that for “insurrectionists” this is a tactical issue done primarily for propaganda reasons. But as the Engel’s piece outlines this is to “put us in the most favourable position to make the revolution.” which is quite different from the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason thesis that the election process itself, rather than a revolution, will be the means for taking political power.

Once again I am unsure why Ty seeks to paper over this qualitative difference.

I simply think it is absurd to think that it would not be until a socialist parliamentary majority started passing pro-working class laws that the capitalist class would strike back in a violent way. This is of course directly linked to the preceding point about what their strategy entails for the class struggle now, and all the way up until their parliamentary majority is achieved.

The key issue here is “democratic legitimacy” and anyone with that as a central concern is not going to be too keen, to say the least, about breaking the capitalist’s laws that limit industrial action, taking subsidiary strike action, building picket lines that mean don’t cross etc.

The comment on a think-tank is not made without any evidence. I accept that is not necessarily known to most viewers of the NorthStar blog but it is to the Irish audience my piece is primarily aimed at – the activists in the Left Forum. The proposal for a think-tank proposal slipped into Helena Sheehan’s contribution on the supposed aims of the Left Forum at a recent LF national meeting. It was actually Mendel-Gleason himself who responded to my question about where that had come from by saying it was an idea of some of those involved (including by implication himself) rather than of the Left Forum as a whole. Maybe he has retreated from that idea but it seemed to form part of his perspective.


Neil January 5, 2014 at 12:11 pm

I agree with Alan Gibson’s contention that the difference between his position and that of Mendel-Gleason & O’Brien’s is not a differences of degree but an (important) qualitative difference. It is a qualitative difference with which I side.

As I have said before I find Mendel-Gleason–O’Brien’s characterisation of the state – which leads them to perceive it as a neutral terrain for class struggle using its epiphenomenal formal-liberal democratic form – is seriously misconceived. All the flaws in their strategy flow from this, for example: over-estimating and over-valuing the socialist potential of the electoral process;treating extra-parliamentary organisation and mobilisation as secondary; not recognising the disciplining and demobilising anti-populist effects of formal democratic processes; not recognising that the bourgeois character and relative autonomy of the state from epiphenomenal electoral struggles means that in advanced capitalist societies the bourgeoisie has the means – and motive – to begin mobilising to prevent a socialist transition long before a socialist majority starts implementing transitional political and economic changes; overvaluing the significance of formal democratic legitimacy when the internal (and possibly external) forces of reaction move to crush a socialist transition and shift in power; and ignoring, or at least underestimating, the amount of destruction and change in the structures and agency (i.e. personnel) of the state would be required to begin to effect socialist transformation.

Mendel-Gleason & O’Brien – and perhaps Ty – seem to imagine a smooth, orderly, peaceful, predominantly electoral transition towards socialist democracy, that will be threatened by bourgeois forces of reaction only when it appears on the verge of succeeding. Dream on as they say ….


Ty Hudson January 5, 2014 at 8:00 pm

I don’t agree entirely with your characterization of what Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien seem to imagine, but your points here are mostly reasonable. It would be helpful if you followed these points about the alleged weaknesses of their perspective with a detailed and concrete description of your proposed alternative. Whether or not you agree with them, Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien’s article is impressively detailed and concrete for such an inevitably hypothetical and forward-looking discussion. I honestly can’t imagine what a fundamentally different approach would look like under today’s conditions.


Alan Gibson January 5, 2014 at 9:16 pm

A large part of the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason piece refers to the question of what a workers’ state might look
like and the degree to which it takes over and transforms parts of the
wider capitalist state apparatus rather than completely destroying/replacing them.

I do think this is only a somewhat useful discussion given that this
issue will be very much dependent on the specifics in each national case
in the future when that smashing/transformation is directly on the
agenda as a real possibility. There is very little we can tell at this
point in time about that detail of how much of the Irish state (as the one confronting O’Brien, Mendel-Gleason and myself) will need
to be smashed/destroyed and what can be taken over and transformed.

therefore don’t think this is the essential point of the
O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason piece in terms of how it affects politics in the
here and now – and particularly what the Left Forum might be advocating.
That is about what their strategy means in terms of the propaganda that
is produced for how a socialist transformation will occur in strategic
terms and the directly related point of what that means for how the
working class organises in the class struggle now and going forward.

ask specific questions in my piece directly about this issue, I think this is what any detailed discussion should focus on.


Ty Hudson January 5, 2014 at 10:02 pm

That we can’t predict much of the detail in advance is a fair point. But the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason makes a reasonable effort that I think is instructive. If you don’t want to spend too much time on the future “transitional program,” then please be specific and concrete about how we should be organizing “now and going forward.” As for myself, I advocate a focus on growing our organization at all levels, especially the base, through organizing of militant trade unions and other organizations. Tactical engagement in elections (especially local ones) can be an important part of this strategy and may help lay the groundwork for broader electoral victories in the future. As our base grows, strikes and other disruptions of the smooth functioning of capitalism will continue to be important (and will become more effective than ever), but the possibility of winning major elections will become more central than before as well, along the lines that O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason suggest. The farther into the future these suppositions reach, the more uncertain they are. But I think this gives a reasonable indication of what I think we should be doing right now and why. (I can’t speak for Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.)


Alan Gibson January 5, 2014 at 10:36 pm

I would be broadly in agreement with what you outline except in terms of the emphasis on electoral activity. I have seen repeatedly, with the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes in Ireland being the most recent example, that a choice seems to have to be made between giving emphasis to the electoral and the class struggle routes. Organisations that project the strategic line of taking power through parliament, such as the CWI or as in the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason piece, tend to consistently downgrade militant class struggle in favour of passive electoralism.

I believe that it is possible to keep a primary focus on militant class struggle while participating in bourgeois elections but only if that is not presented as the strategic path.


Ty Hudson January 5, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Aha! So it is a matter of emphasis, i.e. a matter of degree! I knew all along we were essentially on the same side.


Alan Gibson January 6, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Well it depends whether this is viewed as quantitative or qualitative…

Gavin Mendel-Gjeason January 5, 2014 at 9:54 pm

We don’t treat extra-parliamentary action as secondary, and the piece begins by stating quite explicitly this fact. This piece was a defence of the electoral-leg of a multi-legged strategy.

Secondly, we don’t view the state in modern society as the least bit neutral. We view it is configured by the fact that capitalism is the dominant mode of production. This is not a problem of form, but of content and the transformation into a socialist mode of production will have to be a ratcheting process which utilises as much of the state as we are capable of capturing – concomitantly with the conquest of production and organised labour.

Our claim is that insurrection in no way absolves one of dealing with these problems. It is not the form of the state which is fundamentally at issue, and therefore smashing and reconfiguring it will be of little use.

If we woke up tomorrow and had a direct democracy, it would be just as capitalist as it is now. Half-direct democracy in Switzerland is no shining beacon of communism. While these democratic changes may be desirable for socialists, they are neither necessary nor sufficient.

That there will be mobilisation and attempts to destroy any movement of size prior to its becoming a majority is obvious. However, there is simply no short-cut around this. The demand for revolution doesn’t in any way make your chore easier, it merely makes it so the focus is on ruptural change without ever building the basis of power necessary first.

Finally: “and above all legal”

The authors have no illusions about the methods used by the security state, the police and others to abide by strict formal legality. Neither are we insistent on adherence to any sort of strict legality. There is, however, a huge advantage in doing no more than you can justify to your base – and this is the crux. The advantages of democratic legitimacy are not due to any supposed formal legality, but merely because most people want to see people take part on the basis of what is “fair”.

Of course the whole time it’s important to point out just how tilted the scales are, and how much the capitalists are willing to make a mockery of their own legal structure, and even encouraging mass acceptance of actions that violate property rights. You can see examples of “proletarian-shopping” supported by the PCE in Spain, giving such actions mass legitimacy which is in direct opposition to your contention that the democratic road necessarily supports formal legality.

But this can be used as a weapon of propaganda and support only if you’re not constantly going on about the need for minority insurrection. The value of obtaining majority support is not a legal necessity, or a moral principle. It is in fact a practical necessity because we will not win unless we massify.


Alan Gibson January 5, 2014 at 10:28 pm

Of course any socialist revolution will need majority support from the working class at the moment of revolution. Probably in the form of active support from a majority of the politically active layers and more-or-less passive support from a majority of the wider layers.

There are political traditions, including within the broader “Marxist” family, which do believe in launching an insurrection without majority support and hoping that the act will inspire the masses to move. I am not of any of those traditions and your polemic seems to have a broader aim than that. Are you now refining your definition of “insurrectionist” to just mean those who act without majority support among the working class?

Your piece seems to promote a strategy whereby violent confrontations with the bourgeoisie and their military apparatus will only occur after winning a majority in the capitalist parliament. If you now say you support militant class struggle tactics, including presumably the physical confrontations that will likely entail, why then does your piece explicitly critique the building of the necessary working class organisations to prosecute that class struggle (which history has consistently shown are of the broadly workers council type)?

Once again we seem to be at an impasse over the term “democracy”. It is difficult to have a discussion around this when you conflate all “democratic” activity separate from its class content. Just as you address the state without giving it any class content, or at least that its class content can change backwards and forwards as opposed to seeing it as an integral part of a mode of production.

Perhaps this is because you are approaching the issue of the mode of production in purely economic terms when, while that is what is at the bottom/centre, the whole mode includes the wider socio-political framework, of which democratic and state forms are a part.


Ty Hudson January 5, 2014 at 10:36 pm

This discussion is getting frustrating. You have now said a little about what your approach does not entail (insurrection without majority support), but you still haven’t said anything concrete to speak of about what it does entail. This latest comment essentially says next to nothing in five paragraphs.


Alan Gibson January 5, 2014 at 6:58 pm

regards my proposals on class struggle this is best addresses with
concrete examples. See for instance this leaflet I distributed at events
of the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes in Ireland –


Ty Hudson January 5, 2014 at 7:51 pm

So Kautsky was an apostate. Fine. Who cares? The problem is that he was a sell-out. This point is connected to your scripture-mongering, which you do not, in fact, sufficiently address in your reply to Neil. Regardless of whether your primary audience consists of people who are interested in studying Marx and the preeminent historical Marxists (nothing wrong with that interest), the fact remains that your argument depends entirely on their scriptural authority. That’s a problem. Even worse, in my opinion, is your professed lack of interest in engaging with those who are not already part of the Marxist academic milieu.

I understand the distinction you’re trying to make between influence and the ability to force concessions, but I think the distinction breaks down if you really think about it. The point is not that the state is “neutral,” but that the (gradual or sudden) conquest and subordination of the state changes its class character. As to your belief that the various elements of the capitalist state must “have the upper tiers of their personnel pretty completely removed and their social function and forms fundamentally transformed” — I’m on board with that. I’ll just point out that wholesale personnel change is the sort of influence you can exercise (or is it a concession you can force — I don’t even know anymore!) by winning enough elections. Given that you’ve already conceded that the entire dismantling of the state is not going to happen on “day one,” in what concrete respect is your vision for “smashing” the state fundamentally different from the vision of subordinating and democratizing it? I suspect that the main difference might be that you insist on trying (in vain, I think) to accomplish it without the benefit of majority support.

If you want to insist that your vision is fundamentally and completely different from that of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, knock yourself out. But don’t justify this insistence by misrepresenting what they (or I) say. Nobody is suggesting we will achieve socialism via a process resembling the content-free circus act that is broadcast on CNN every four years. We’re talking about building a mass socialist organization broad enough to win elections and deep enough to withstand and defeat the nearly-inevitable coup d’etat. This process will obviously involve a lot of conflict and activities besides just election campaigns. A victory in this circumstance amounts to a revolution (see again the short-lived revolution in 1936 Barcelona), a revolution that elections have “put us in the most favorable position to make” as Engels says. The fact that you are claiming this Engels quote as consistent with your approach is further indication to me that your approach is only different from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien’s by a matter of degree. (And the fact that you suggest Engels’s quote is inconsistent with Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien’s approach is further indication of your reliance on misrepresenting their position.) If you really think your approach is qualitatively different, it remains necessary for you to spell out the differences in a clear and concrete way. In the course of doing so, you might explain how your insurrectionist strategy would hope to neutralize the armed forces sufficiently to give the insurrection a fighting chance, without the benefit (you could call if “propaganda value” if you want) of democratic legitimacy derived from having won elections.

Democratic legitimacy is primarily a strategic, not moral, concern. (Although it could be argued that socialists should inherently be concerned with basing our new society on the consent of the majority.) It is valuable for propaganda purposes, as you concede, and the process of achieving it is extraordinarily valuable for organizational purposes. It’s a matter of battling for the advantageous position — the high ground, so to speak. If we have to go head-to-head with the U.S. military, I want to know we have majority support, I want every member of my organization to have that confidence, and I want every member of the armed forces to have the corresponding doubts. This has nothing to do with respect for bourgeois legality. Of course, at low levels of organization and public support, we might make tactical decisions not to break certain laws at certain times. (Not to make such tactical calculations would be infantile and suicidal.) This is not the same thing a fundamental deference to those laws.

Finally, as for the think tank issue. This really doesn’t matter. I don’t know Mendel-Gleason or O’Brien, and my purpose isn’t to defend them personally, but rather to defend a perspective that I share. But there are think tanks and there are think tanks. Lenin’s circle of Russian intellectuals in exile could be considered a think thank, for goodness sake. The fact that some socialist intellectual once proposed the idea of a think tank doesn’t justify the slur that he or she is a “liberal.”


Alan Gibson January 5, 2014 at 9:12 pm

I am seeking to make two main points in my piece.

Firstly that O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason’s claims to be representing orthodox Marxism with their conception of the the state being class neutral is false. I am unsure how to respond to this other than by making a variety of quotes from Marxists from the time the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason piece itself makes reference to. And I think I make the case fairly convincingly. Of course I focussed on the Marxist tradition as the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason piece placed itself in that political tradition and it is one that I also claim to stand in.

I stand by my comment about anyone claiming to be interested in the end of the capitalist system who thinks that there is nothing to be learnt from the giants of our movement (in its widest sense) on whose shoulders we stand (i.e. is of the “everything is new” persuasion). I’m not sure where the “academic” Marxist reference comes from. It could perhaps be argued that O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason are academics of a sort but that hardly applies to myself.

And that is not my particular audience either. I am interested in engaging class struggle militants, primarily those in and around the Left Forum process in Ireland, which is the the reason for my other main point being about the logic of the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason position in terms of the class struggle. In making my points about this I do not rely on quotations to nearly the same extent.

I do not think it is conceivable that there could be a revolution without the communist party, and wider activist movement supporting them, having the majority support of the wider working class. It is unclear why you would think this other than you take every straw man constructed by O’Brien and Mendle-Gleason at its face value.

As regards whether these two conceptions are qualitatively different I think that is fairly clear from the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason piece itself and certainly in terms of the impact they have on the conduct of the class struggle it is hard to see how they could be contained within a unitary organisation.

I think “left-liberal” is actually an accurate description of what the politics outlined by O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason would amount to if actually implemented by any organisation but I concede that it is a somewhat provocative phrase. I regret making the comment as it has allowed them, and their supporters as you appear to be, to focus on that and ignore the substantive question of what their approach would mean for militant class struggle.

What is your response to the questions regarding the issue of conducting the class struggle that I pose in my piece?


Ty Hudson January 5, 2014 at 10:20 pm

I don’t think O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason’s piece relies much on positioning itself as representative of “orthodox Marxism.” I’m pretty sure they don’t use that term. And they explicitly acknowledge “debates within Marxism” on the topics they discuss.

You may not be an academic, but your reliance on textual authority and exegesis is an academic trait.

I don’t remember O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason erecting any straw man about insurrections by a party with only minority support. That you might believe in such a thing was a supposition that I made because I am trying to understand what exactly it is that you advocate that is so different from what O’Brien, Mendel-Gleason, and I advocate. Of course I can imagine drastically different approaches, but none that seem remotely likely to be successful. That doesn’t mean no such approach exists — that’s why I’m asking you to describe.

As for the approach to class struggle that I advocate in the hear and now, I describe that in my immediately previous comment on this thread, posted about 10 minutes ago. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about what I say there. But what about yours? I can’t find anywhere in your article or your subsequent comments a concrete description of your view of “what is to be done,” detailed or otherwise. I suspect that is because your approach consists essentially of a radical posture rather than a concrete plan. To take the liberty of paraphrasing Engels a little bit, a concrete plan involving multiple intermediate steps is “slower and more boring than the call to revolution, but it’s ten times more sure.”


Alan Gibson January 5, 2014 at 6:46 pm

I accept the correction on use of the term “orthodox Marxist” – they use in in Part II but not in Part I.

As regards my proposals on class struggle this is best addresses with concrete examples. See for instance this leaflet I distributed at events of the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes in Ireland –


Alan Gibson January 5, 2014 at 11:01 pm

See above comment by Gavin Mendel-Gleason where he repeats his contention that what he is arguing against (and calls “insurrectionist”) is acting without majority support:

“But this can be used as a weapon of propaganda and support only if you’re not constantly going on about the need for minority insurrection.”


Alan Gibson January 5, 2014 at 7:02 pm

As regards my proposals on class struggle this is best addresses with concrete examples. See for instance this leaflet I distributed at events of the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes in Ireland –


James O'Brien January 6, 2014 at 1:50 am

Orthodox Marxism in this context refers to the Marxist Centre, i.e. the one associated with the era of the Second International and which was mainstream of Marxism up to 1917. The description of it as “Orthodox” Marxism comes from their critics in the Third International, guys like Karl Korsch. We’re not claiming it’s the only form of Marxism or even that it constitutes its major tendency (if only!), an interpretation which maybe has Alan all fired up.

But it is a component part of Marxism and was indeed the dominant form for a period and often remerges even when the ancestral link to the Second International is repudiated, e.g. the post-war Italian Communist Party is basically in that tradition.


Alan Gibson January 6, 2014 at 8:35 am

I accept the correction on use of the term “orthodox Marxist” – they use in in Part II but not in Part I.

As regards my proposals on class struggle this is best addresses with concrete examples. See for instance this leaflet I distributed at events of the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes in Ireland –


Alan Gibson January 6, 2014 at 9:51 am

Ty, I have replied to this but as it contained a link it is awaiting
moderation. I consider this to be a question best answered with a
concrete example so I have sent a link of how I attempted to do this in
the context of the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes.


James O'Brien January 6, 2014 at 2:40 am

Alan Gibson wrote:
“At the beginning of 2014 two leading figures involved in the Left Forum process, James O’Brien and Gavin Mendel-Gleason, published two essays outlining their vision of an explicitly reformist road to socialism.”

I am sure the actual organisers of the Left Forum are bemused to see me elevated to the lofty heights of a leading figure. In fact, I’d be pleasantly surprised if a good sized minority of the people who attended a Left Forum (Ireland) event even knew who I was. I hope your latest denunciation isn’t my sole fifteen minutes of infamy :)

But the misconceived tenor of your response manages to start even before that first, unfortunate, line, with the title: “A warning to class struggle militants…”

The fact that you see the need to warn people about our political views as if they were an intensely held secret is utterly bizarre and bespeaks of a paranoiac worldview.

Whether one agrees or not with the articles, they have the advantage of brutal clarity. That is in fact their purpose. There isn’t the slightest attempt to be surreptitious or to sneak in views by the back door. And we have have been publicly articulating these views for nearly two years now. In that context you issuing a warning(!) to members of the Left Forum borders on the delusional.

The suspicious mindset, which suffuses your piece, continues with the objection of our lumping Trotskyists and Anarchists together for the purposes of this essay, which you describe as a “sleight of hand”.

By describing that identification as a “sleight of hand” you confuse an open articulation of a position with a sneaky manoeuvre. In fact, we explicitly draw attention to our grouping together of Trotskyism and Anarchism for the purposes of this discussion (in other contexts, it is inappropriate). That is obviously the exact opposite of a sleight of hand. You don’t have to like it and I have no doubt the Anarchists don’t like it either, but you do not get to tar as sneaky what has been openly articulated. Try formulating a counter-argument instead.

To a substantive issue:

Alan complains that we depict the state as class neutral. This is the wrong way to look at the question. The state isn’t anything in isolation. It can only be understood in its context, that is, the environment in which it exists and reproduces itself.

In his rush to condemn us for our conception of the state as not being intrinsically capitalist, Alan missed the interesting point, namely, we provide an *explanation* as to why the state is structurally disposed to favour the capitalist class and, indeed, the capitalist system as a whole. To repeat them briefly: 1. Key personnel at the higher ranks identify with the capitalists, 2) Funding of the main political parties (and the media etc) depends on the goodwill of the capitalists, and 3) capitalists’ power in the production process.

Okay, so you, Alan, reject this analysis of how capitalist social power manifests itself on the state. Fair enough. You say that the state is capitalist. Grand. But you fail to provide a single argument in favour of this weirdly essentialist view.

We don’t agree with Neil’s take on the importance of instrumental rationality as argued elsewhere in this threat, but it has the virtue of being an alternative conception of how the state works irrespective of whether or not the capitalist mode of production is in the driving seat. Or an anarchist could make the case that a representational structure leads the state to being pro-capitalist, since that is, according to their theory at least, congruent with minority rule. Some sort of fruitful debate is to be had with them.

You by contrast offer nothing.

Alan Gibson wrote:
“There is bourgeois democracy and there is proletarian democracy – each serving the interests of different classes. Some of the social functions of both bourgeois and proletarian democracy and the states that enforce that rule may overlap,…but even then their occurrence under the different class rule will imbue them with different forms and content.”

Your views on the utility of democratic rights are perfunctory and meaningless unless you specify what needs to change with regard to those rights for democracy to become ‘proletarian’.

We don’t see the division of democracy into bourgeois and proletarian forms as a useful way to think about democracy at all. As is clear from the article, we locate the main problem with modern democracy to the domination exerted by the capitalist class because of their favourable position within the the capitalist mode of production.

Our contention is that increasing the power of worker organisations and, ultimately, altering the mode of production constitutes the heavyweight changes we need in order to realise some form of democratic republicanism which is itself the form best suited to transition to socialism.

You talk about class content of democracy yet you disagree with our conceptualising of it as the selective pressure exerted by the capitalist mode of production. That’s fine. As ever, you are perfectly within your rights to reject our argument. But if you want to be taken seriously, let alone actually persuade anybody, you need to come up with an alternative way of describing the class content of modern and proletarian democracy that doesn’t involve the external pressure of the balance of class forces, as advanced by us (and others of course!).

But yet again you offer nothing. You could at least echo Lenin and argue for a merger of legislative and executive power or the restriction of the franchise to wage-earners or maybe make the case for the election of every single official in the public service. But nope, instead we get vague platitudes on proletarian democracy and absolutely zero by way of detail.

You also miss the fact that the Paris Commune was based on universal suffrage and not the restricted franchise as were the Russian soviets and you glide serenely over the much greater fact that Marx and Engels were writing in the 19th century, before the collapse of the absolutist military monarchies on the continent. We’ve provided an argument as to why that is important. In this context, you quoting large swathes of Marx at us as if the collapse of the Hohenzollerns and the Romanovs never happend, is just simply irrelevant. As Ty pointed out, Marxism isn’t, to borrow a term, an invariant programme or set of analyses valid irrespective of the historical conditions.

And anyway, I think, as it happens, that we are broadly in political terms in Marx and Engels’ line of thought and can, as you know, produce my own Talmudic references to back that up. But we won’t be arguing for that line based on scripture. We’ll have a go at defending it based on a scientific mindset.

Finally, back to where you started:

Alan Gibson wrote
“It could perhaps be argued that O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason are academics of a sort…”

Ah Alan, give the personal digs a rest. Or at least do your research before putting your foot in it yet again. I am not now nor have I ever been an academic.

And Gavin is employed as a computer programmer and has never been next to near anything academic that is related to sociology/politics/history as you’d know if you had the misfortune to talk to him about algebraic topology. Fine, you want to escape the criticism that you rely on Marxist scripture. Dig yourself out of that hole of your own making and leave us out of it.


Alan Gibson January 6, 2014 at 12:29 pm

James, I think you are being too modest. Gavin is clearly one of the central figures in both a political and an organisational sense from the very beginning of the Left Forum but you are better known to the milieu than you suggest here. Certainly no-one was surprised when you attended, and fully participated in, the last national organising meeting to elect a new organising committee for the Left Forum.

As to why I gave my blog post the title I did it is because I was not the only Left Forum activist to be surprised by the degree of openness about your overt reformism that was expressed in this document. I suspect this will be the case with others I am not in direct contact with as well. There will also be those, like Ty in these comments, who will want to paper over the differences and I want to help maximise the number who instead realise that this is a very important strategic difference. The paths of reform and revolution are not just an issue for a future mass socialist movement but affect our day-to-day activity in the class struggle right here and now.

As regards the “sleight of hand” issue it relates to what I felt was your attempt to claim Marxist orthodoxy against these supposed ultra-left deviations. I challenge this assumption. Maybe calling it a “sleight of hand” is the wrong term to use but I felt it captured something of what was being done. I think my counterargument to that is well made and substantively correct.

As regards my comment about you and Gavin *perhaps* being seen as academics it was not made in relation to your employment but in how you are approaching these questions. You are looking at the question of democracy and the state in an academic way of treating them as abstract categories instead of the concrete social realities that they are.

Bourgeois democracy is a concrete social reality with particular forms and functions. A bourgeois state is a concrete social reality with particular forms and functions.

Proletarian democracy is a concrete social reality with particular forms and functions. A workers’ state is a concrete social reality with particular forms and functions.

You seem to recognise this, at least partially, when you critique the attempts by “insurrectionists” to create proto-workers council style bodies in immediate struggles when, by implication, they should instead presumably be prioritising building the electoral party.


Alan Gibson January 6, 2014 at 12:33 pm

To the extent that the category of democracy in a society changes from bourgeois to proletarian it is when the concrete forms of proletarian democracy become dominant in society due to the seizure of power leading to the consolidation/refinement of the forms of proletarian democracy that existed alongside those of bourgeois democracy under capitalism along with the creation of new forms of proletarian democracy as part of the new workers’ state.

I know that you don’t find this way of thinking about democracy (or the state) useful but from my point of view that is merely a reflection of your departure from Marxism.

My understanding of the class nature of democracy and state power is based on the analysis outlined by Lenin – particularly in his State and Revolution and Renegade Kautsky works. If necessary I can either quote from these sources or re-work the argument in my own words. However this is fairly basic accepted Marxism, certainly not “nothing”, and as it is you who are the ones diverting from that (while implicitly claiming to understand Marxism better than Marx, Lenin & Trotsky etc – maybe they are all “weirdly essentialist” as well?) I think the onus is on you to prove you are right and they (and I) are wrong because we live in these new times after “the collapse of the absolutist military monarchies on the continent” which apparently invalidate the earlier Marxist insights on the class nature of democratic forms and state power. I actually don’t think there is anything particularly “new” in your arguments which is shown by how easily the quotes by Lenin and Trotsky against their contemporaries could be used virtually word for word against your arguments.

I confess that I am reluctant to enter into a discussion about the exact nature of the forms of proletarian democracy and the workers’ state that will exist post-revolution. This is because these exact forms will be worked out in the course of the class struggle and at best what we can say now is only very general.

What I am far more interested in discussing in detail, and likewise it seems you and Gavin (here and on Facebook) are reluctant to discuss, is what to do in the here and now of the class struggle. And the related issue of how the different strategic perspectives impact on that, both in terms of the internal logic of the arguments and the actual practice of those holding to the respective views.


Neil January 5, 2014 at 10:49 am

Thanks – I’ll try it.


James O'Brien January 6, 2014 at 1:31 am

Neil wrote:
“however I would argue that any theory of the state form that only focuses on its formal democratic elements is theoretically and politically inadequate.”

Sure, that’s why we mentioned the upper echelons of the state, the security apparatus, the influence of wealth in political funding, and the structural power of capital exerts through its domination of the production process. And we also locate the power to control the apparatus in the mass party, which has its own parallel networks of social relationships as well as the potential for winning democratic legitimacy and the infusion of an ideological and, indeed, ethical value system into the apparatus.

Neil wrote:
“One of the most important aspects that has been overlooked is that the permanent core of the modern State is a massive bureaucratic apparatus for maintaining social order and stability operating according to an ideology of instrumental rationality, which has over time become more and more deeply embedded throughout society and internalised in our modes of thought,”

Well, we take a different view of the utility of that apparatus, its composition, and its potential, as well as the value of enlightenment rationality. We do take an extremely antagonistic view of what we call the security state (the office corps, the intelligence services etc). That does need to be dealt with. We just think a good strategy for dealing with it is to win the battle for democracy.

As per the article, we see the state as existing in a wider environment, one inhabited by a variety of social actors, all of which exert a selective pressure on it to accrue certain functions and to behave according to their interest.

The state is also part of that environment and can, therefore, affect those other actors, including the labour organisations and the capitalist class itself. But, in our view, the mode of production is the decisive factor in the selection of which groups reproduce themselves and, for this reason, a state which exists in an environment dominated by feudalism will have utterly different characteristics to one which exists in an era of liberal capitalism, to one which will exist in a co-operative commonwealth.

Neil wrote:
“The repression and lack of freedom embodied in the power and functioning of the state is not in other words solely based on class and economic power and could survive its dissolution and replacement by other forms of power.”

I agree with the first part of your sentence, namely lack of freedom is not based solely on class and economic power. However, how much weight do you ascribe to the “solely” in the above sentence? Again, we are not claiming that everything can be greedily reduced to ‘class’; rather, we are arguing that the mode of production is the key factor in social reproduction of other social actors, including ones not based on class, up to and including the state. These other groups can include everything from racial supremacists, to churches, to bingo clubs, to pop groups. This doesn’t exclude other factors, just that they will come under the influence of production, albeit they will exert influence on it as well.

However, the second part of the sentence (The repression and lack of freedom embodied in the power and functioning of the state…could survive its dissolution and replacement by other forms of power) does not follow from the first.

No form of power will be able to reproduce itself for very long without gaining control of economic power, i.e. control of production. The Nazis’ technical capabilities suffered a large blow because of their political suppression of the left, who had the support of a large percentage of intellectuals, and of course Jews. In other words, their idiot blood nationalism undermined their productive capacity and they could not reproduce themselves at a competitive level.

A bureaucracy would have to replace the capitalist mode of production with a competitive economic system in order to reproduce itself. It’s possible of course that a new system could be non-socialist, e.g. an industrial feudalism, but this is unlikely to be any more viable than the Soviet model. Modern societies depend on a substantial amount of freedom in order to be competitive, even at an economic level. I wouldn’t fancy the chances of a mode of production that depended on whipping its computer programmers into delivering code. Think of all the bugs they’d let through!


James O'Brien January 6, 2014 at 1:52 am

The above comment was by my good self. Clearly, the first task upon the conquest of state power is purging the disqus comment system from the internet :)


Alan Gibson January 6, 2014 at 3:57 pm

At last something we have 100% agreement on!


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