By Mark L Thomas
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Which strategy for the left?

This article is over 9 years, 2 months old
In last month's Socialist Review, Ed Rooksby, a supporter of the Left Unity initiative, put forward his view that a left government can play a key role in the fight for radical change. Mark L Thomas argues this ignores the role of the state.
Issue 381

The Left Unity initiative has struck a chord with a significant number of socialists in Britain. The call by Ken Loach and others for a new left party had seen over 8,000 people put their names to it and Left Unity has now held a series of meetings and formed local groups across the country. It clearly expresses a mood for something better than the austerity agenda accepted by Labour under Ed Miliband.

This is a significant development. Maintaining political independence from Labour – even as we work with and struggle alongside Labour supporters – is a vital challenge for socialists as we head towards a general election and a potential Labour government that in practice will implement austerity. Even more fundamentally, Labourism, which seeks to channel social change within the framework of the existing state, has repeatedly acted to contain working class militancy, from the wave of strikes that swept Britain after the First World War to the upsurge of industrial struggles in the period 1968-74.

Despite the erosion of Labour’s roots it remains a powerful force and challenging its dominance remains a key task for socialists. Moreover, attempts by the left inside the Labour Party – currently undergoing something of a revival under the sponsorship of Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite – to transform Labour into a socialist organisation have invariably proved fruitless. Too often it has been socialists who have been the ones transformed instead, ending up accommodating to the right inside Labour or finding themselves marginalised within the party. Ed Rooksby is right to stress that the key question we face is how to defend jobs, wages, public services and welfare. But he also sets this in a much wider strategic framework.

While Rooksby is only putting forward his own personal views, not those of Left Unity collectively, he is in tune with the current Zeitgeist of large parts of the left internationally when he argues that a central goal is the formation of a “left government” – a government made up of radical socialists committed to challenging rather than accommodating to capital. The key here has been the dramatic rise in the electoral fortunes of Syriza, the Greek radical left party.

As Rooksby notes, it is the prospect that for the first time in a generation a radical left party might not just enter a governing coalition (as Rifondazione Comunista did as a junior partner so disastrously in Italy in 2006) but be the dominant force that has ignited enthusiasm of many who want an alternative to a mainstream social

Revival of debate
A return to questions about the nature of the state, its relationship to the working class movement and the strategy for a transition to socialism represents a revival of important debates of the left largely absent over the last three decades. The essence of Rooksby’s argument is this: that neither the reformist advocacy of piecemeal, gradual change through working inside the institutions of the existing state, nor the revolutionary approach of working solely outside and independently from the state, is realistic. Instead Rooksby argues for combining these methods in what he calls (after the Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky) “revolutionary reformism”.

In fact, such attempts to steer a course between social democratic parliamentarianism and Leninist “insurrectionism” has a long history.

Versions of this argument were put forward by socialist theorist Ralph Miliband (father to Ed) and the left Eurocommunist Nicos Poulantzas in the 1970s, for example. These in turn echo the arguments about the need to combine parliaments and workers’ councils that were put forward by Karl Kautsky and the left socialist USPD after the November 1918 revolution in Germany overthrew the Kaiser.

The real argument is not, of course, whether socialists should utilise elections or parliament as a platform and opportunity to organise, a course only ultra-lefts reject (and the SWP is not ultra-left). As even the Bolsheviks recognised that election campaigns and elected representatives can be very advantageous in the right circumstances.

The role of “left governments”
The real question is what role a left government could play in any break with capitalism. Rooksby observes that social democratic governments have found themselves responsible for the management of the capitalist economy. Where such governments are seen as any potential threat to the privileges and profits of capital control over the economic levers of society allows big business to apply enormous pressure to bring such governments to heel or to break them entirely. Even the Labour governments in 1964-70 and again in 1974-79 came under pressure from the City of London and sections of big business, with massive capital flight and investment strikes. But it is not just the power of private capital that can act to constrain the ambitions of a left government.

The state machine itself will not be under the control of a left government, whatever its democratic mandate. Parliament itself is only a small island of democracy surrounded by a vast ocean of very powerful unelected hierarchies that command the resources of the state and carry out its imperatives. Those who sit at the top of these hierarchies are tied not just by shared class background, education and social networks with big business but even more fundamentally by a common interest in the competitive position of British capitalism. This after all is what generates the revenues to pay for the state’s soldiers, police and civil servants.

Far from any left government being in control of this machine it is likely to find itself trapped inside it. Would pressure from a mass workers’ movement outside parliament be able to overcome this? Firstly, having accepted that the state can be utilised to achieve a social transformation, a left government will tend to see threats to the integrity of that state machine as something to be resisted – it will be under pressure to placate the army rather encourage mutinies, it will defend the decisions it senior judges make against violations of bourgeois law by militant workers and so on.

Secondly, to overcome such resistance from the state as well as capital requires more than simply pressure from workers but very high levels of mass mobilisation capable of paralysing the economy and the actions of the state.

To carry this through will require new and much more responsive democratic institutions to organise such mobilisations – workers’ councils. But such a coexistence of the capitalist state alongside an embryonic workers’ state, far from offering a framework for a transition to socialism as long at a left government sits at the helm of the old capitalist state, would be highly unstable. It would be a fight to the death between two rival centres of power, each embodying different class interests.

The experience of Spain in 1936-37 offers a historical test of this reality. The election of the Popular Front government in February 1936 was a signal for an eruption of class struggles – mass strikes and protests, land occupations and the formation of workers’ and peasants’ councils. The response a few months later was a generals’ revolt led by Franco against the Republic.

A popular armed uprising initially defeated the coup. The result was that across much of Republican Spain “dual power” existed, with workers and peasants taking over and running production and distribution themselves and forming armed militias to defend their gains. These coexisted with the, now much weakened, parliamentary regime. The Republican government insisted that the revolution had to remain within bourgeois democratic limits – and in doing so was backed by Stalin, the Republic’s main source of arms. The bourgeois democratic republic was not compatible with struggles that encroached on bourgeois control over production. In the resulting struggle tragically in Spain it was the workers’ councils that were crushed by 1937 (not least because those who led them were opposed to attempts to centralise the councils in order to launch an all out assault on the capitalist state). This in turn paved the way for the Republic’s defeat at the hands of Franco in the civil war.

Popular Unity in Chile
The experience of the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile 1970-73 only underlines the point. Allende’s government, dominated by the Socialist and Communist parties, was backed up by extra-parliamentary mobilisations with mass strikes and protests and land and factory occupations. Luis Corvalan, the general secretary of the Chilean CP, argued that given the balance of forces and strong traditions of constitutional democracy in Chile unlike much of the rest of Latin America, it was possible “to march towards socialism without civil war, although naturally maintaining an intense class struggle”.

This proved a fatal miscalculation. Working within the existing state inevitably meant defending it against the “excessive” demands of workers. It also meant protecting the integrity of the state machine, including the armed forces agianst threats from workers and rank and file soldiers and sailors. On 11 September 1973 the “other 9/11” took place – a bloody military coup by the very generals the Allende government had collaborated with, that overthrew the government and launched savage repression against the workers’ movement and the left.

Does what happened in Spain nearly 80 years ago, or in Chile 40 years ago, have any relevance to 21st century Britain? Rooksby points to the “long established tradition of liberal democracy” in Britain, and its counterpart inside the labour movement, “a long established tradition of reformism”. He concludes from this that a radical parliamentary government will inevitably be part of the process of revolutionary transformation.

All-powerful ideology?
Firstly, Rooksby’s commitment to “revolutionary reformism” and the role of a left government in parliament in any process of social transformation isn’t restricted to countries with decades of unbroken parliamentary rule. Greece, where Rooksby looks to Syriza to form a left government, experienced authoritarian forms of rule for significant parts of the 20th century until the overthrow of the military junta in 1974.

Secondly, bourgeois democracy isn’t an all powerful ideology, to be accepted by the mass of workers for all time simply by dint of habit. It offers to workers the promise of having at least some control over what takes places in society. It is tied to certain institutions, above all trade unions, which enable workers to bargain over the conditions under which they work and live. These in turn have to be able to deliver at some material gains or at least protection for workers if they are to be effective. Equally, for the capitalist class bourgeois democracy offers relative stability – in return for some material concessions it helps secure the consent of the majority of those on whose exploitation it depends.

But if either ruling class unwillingness to make concessions – or its determination to reverse concessions it made in the past when the system was in a healthier state – or workers’ desire for change is too great, the class compromise on which bourgeois democracy rests can begin to unravel.

If faced with a threat to its power and wealth, can anyone doubt that the British ruling class would use undemocratic methods to defend its position, and in extreme crisis with its very existence under threat even abandon liberal democracy, just as the Chilean ruling class did under Pinochet?

Weakening political structures
Of course, we are nowhere near the collapse of bourgeois democracy in Britain today. But three and half decades of neoliberalism have eroded part of the post-1945 social settlement based on a version of welfare capitalism. This in turn has weakened some of the political structures erected upon it. Where once the two main parties could command the overwhelming support of most voters and were genuine mass parties, today this is far less true.

One result is a much greater disillusionment with the institutions of bourgeois democracy and much greater volatility in British politics – so we have seen both the defeat of Labour in Bradford West by George Galloway and the Ukip surge in the last 15 months. Most workers in Britain remain committed to a version of reformism. The acceleration under the coalition government of the assault on the welfare state and workers’ living conditions fuels a desire by many to return to the post-1945 settlement. But we live under altered conditions today – we face a crisis of capitalism and not the post-war boom that meant the ruling class was prepared to accept the framework established by the 1945 Labour government.

No left government would find it possible today to restore that framework without a massive confrontation with capital, and for the reasons I outlined above it would find that the structures of the state, far from being an effective weapon in any such confrontation but would instead act to constrain, subvert or even destroy that government. Lenin used to insist that reforms are the by-products of revolutionary struggle. “Partial improvements can be (and always have been in history) merely a by-product of revolutionary class struggle.”

The stabilisation of Western capitalism in the decades that followed the Second World War, however, meant that reforms could be achieved over a protracted period without mass workers’ struggles. Today much more radical methods are needed to defend workers’ conditions – militant strikes, occupations, general strikes, mass protests and so on. The struggle for reforms is increasingly dependent on workers’ self-activity and not on the make-up of parliamentary majorities. Rookbsy is right to argue for the use of both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means. But he doesn’t recognise that these are not two equal methods; one is always subordinate to the other. There are not two agents of socialism, workers’ own struggles from below and left MPs in acting from above in parliament, but only one.

No short cuts
Elections and elected representatives can play a very helpful role in increasing the weight of the left, increasing workers’ confidence and puncturing the increasingly right wing mainstream political consensus. But that is very different to accepting that parliament and the state can be a vehicle for socialism. There can be no short cuts; socialism can only be the outcome of workers’ own activity.

The pressure on reformists, even radical ones, to subordinate mass workers’ movement to the need to run the capitalist state, or even to win a parliamentary majority, has been seen repeatedly. The Labour Party in 1974 was elected on a manifesto at least as radical as anything Syriza is offering today. It also entered office on the back of an election precipitated by a miners’ strike that had broken its Tory predecessor, the culmination of a massive upturn in workers’ struggles more generally in Britain in the early 1970s. Yet the ensuing Labour government, far from using this mass movement to pressure capital for radical reforms, was the key to successfully containing and then undermining the basis of those struggles and preparing the way for Thatcher.

Already we can see how the very electoral success of Syriza is acting to pull it rightwards as it hopes to enter office and form a government. The recent backing Syriza supporters in the teachers’ union gave to calling off a key strike which would have involved a major confrontation with the state in Greece is one example of this.

Breaking from Labour is a vital first step. But if we are to build a movement that can effectively defend, let alone reverse, the assaults on workers, we ultimately need to also break from the wider Labourist tradition, in particular that view that the existing capitalist state is capable of being an instrument of socialist transformation.

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