“We are in the business of attempting to milk a vulture.” That’s how writer Eleanor Penny described Labour’s task of transforming the state as she introduced an event with Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell last week.
Along with socialist thinkers Hilary Wainwright and Leo Panitch, they tried to explain how a Labour government will work “in and against the state”.
In other words, how it will try to use the state to introduce socialism—knowing that all of the state’s institutions will be set against it.
As Penny implied, transforming the state is an impossible task. But for over a century, that’s just what socialists who look to parliament to change society have tried to do.
“The state is a tool of power,” Penny said. “A case has been made by successive generations of leftists that this power must be wrested from the hands of the ruling classes and given to the working classes.
“This tool is by no means neutral. Because a state designed for the protection of capital’s interests will not easily be turned to the protection of the interests of the working classes.”
Every part of the state is geared towards running capitalism and helping companies and capitalists to keep making money in Britain.
Crucially, that means facilitating the exploitation of workers that is at the heart of the system.
A vast tangle of laws legitimise capitalists’ right to own property and make profits—while the police, the army and the secret service protect them.
These bodies are filled with unelected officials who share broadly the same interests as the bankers who’ll try to break a left wing government.
While financiers blackmail Labour with investment strikes and market crashes, top civil servants, generals, cops and spies will sabotage the government from inside the state.
The Labour left’s thinkers insist they know all this. As Wainwright said, “Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell understand the non-neutral nature of the state.”
So the job now is to build “the kind of counter-power that will be necessary in the face of the City, the power of the CBI, the power of the state, the power of media and their allies within the Parliamentary Labour Party and sometimes within the unions.”
What does that “counter-power” look like?
For McDonnell it means filling state institutions with people from campaigns and “communities,” and putting workers on nationalised company boards.
For Wainwright it means building “networks of resistance” outside parliament that can support those reforms and “monitor” the state and its officials.
As examples, she pointed to recent action by fast food workers, and the Focus E15 housing campaign in Newham, east London.
During that campaign, activists discovered that Newham council spent more paying interest on a loan from Barclays bank than it got through council tax.
Wainwright says this is a model example of how “militant action around basic needs,” combined with activists’ research “exposes the mere exercise of financial power”.
Meanwhile supporting “precarious workers” would mean that “when trade union rights are being legislated for and supported by the Labour government there’s already the mobilisation that can make those rights real and can enforce them from below.”
Those are both good things.
But once a campaign exposes “financial power” what does it do next?
And when enforcing Labour’s reforms means confrontation with the full might of big business and the state, what do workers have to do beat them?
Winning that confrontation has to be at the centre of any socialist strategy. But the tactic of being “in and against the state” isn’t about that. The central idea isn’t defeating the state but seizing hold of it and using it to build a socialist society.
The problem is that this makes controlling the state and keeping it intact more important than everything else.
That leads Labour—even under a left wing leadership—to make any number of compromises and concessions just to hold on to office.In opposition it means seeking unity with the Labour right to win an election.
In government it means trying to placate those forces that will try to destroy it.
Transforming Britain “for the many, not the few” becomes governing in the interest of “the nation,” including the demands of big business. Struggle outside of parliament becomes subordinated to maintaining “our government” inside parliament.
We can already see this happening.
Under pressure from right wing MPs and trade union leaders, Jeremy Corbyn dropped his fight to turn Labour into a party that will scrap Trident nuclear weapons.
For MPs, holding on to weapons that could destroy the world shows a commitment to protecting the “national security” of the state. For union leaders, that commitment also means protecting jobs.
Meanwhile McDonnell talks to left wing audiences about using the state to transfer power to ordinary people. But as business leaders openly fret about what they can do to stop a Corbyn government, McDonnell reassures them, “There’s nothing up my sleeve.
“If you don’t like the policies we’re using to achieve our objectives, if there’s another way of achieving those objectives, let me know and we’ll discuss them.”
The Labour left has never found a way around this.
Panitch warned last week that Labour “is far from the kind of organisation that is capable of seeing through a socialist strategy.” He pointed to the experiences of Syriza in Greece and the Workers Party in Brazil as warnings of what can happen to left wing parties.
Panitch said the big difficulty Labour faces is figuring out how to manage the system while also radically transforming it. “We don’t know how to do that,” he said.
Asked what Labour could do in the face of economic blackmail, and how to transform the financial system into a “public utility” he replied, “We don’t have a clue.”
The only strategy he could see was a programme of “gradual reforms building towards socialism” such as moving parts of the Bank of England to Birmingham. But “all of that falls short of what could possibly be called a socialist strategy.”
Only after “two, three or four” terms of a Labour government could it think about implementing socialism.
Elsewhere, in the most recent issue of Red Pepper magazine, Panitch writes that the task of transforming the state will be “complex, uncertain, crisis-ridden, with repeated interruptions.”
His answer is that Labour has to start with smaller reforms to local government which “may in turn spur developments at the higher levels of state power”.
The problem with this isn’t simply that it involves asking people to lower their sights. It means finding ways to dodge or avoid direct confrontation with the forces that will try to crush a Labour government.
That’s the same mistake made by Syriza, the Workers Party, and all other attempts to bring socialism through parliament.
In the magazine Panitch says, “Reform versus revolution is not a useful way to frame the dilemmas that socialists must actually confront.”
But almost 150 years ago the revolutionary Karl Marx found the answer to the problem Panitch is still grappling with.
After the French state destroyed the uprising that made the Paris Commune of 1871 by massacring the ordinary people who took part in it, Marx wrote, “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”
He meant that workers couldn’t transform the state, but had to replace it with a different form of state power altogether.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 came closest to showing what this might look like. Socialism wasn’t built through the existing state but through a network of workers’ and soldiers’ councils.
Fighting for socialism today means a different kind of movement—and a different kind of party—to the one Panitch, Wainwright and Penny talk about.
It has to look to the power of resistance by ordinary people outside parliament, in their workplaces and in the streets—not to support politicians to transform the state, but to defeat it altogether.