I can’t remember a time since the fall of the Soviet Union when the terms ‘communism’ and indeed ‘Marxism’ were so much a part of everyday political discourse. Indeed there’s something rather bewildering about the return of these terms from the margins for someone like me whose politically formative years coincided with an era (the Fukuyama-Giddens-Blair mini-Ice Age) in which even to call yourself a ‘socialist’ was to invite incredulous laughter and was taken to announce an other-worldly disconnect from reality. It wasn’t even hostile scorn as I remember. Much worse than that, it was scorn accompanied by a kind of patronising head-patting and an ‘awww bless, it’s so lovely that people still believe in all that stuff’. Conservatives weren’t scared of socialism. They thought it was funny and cute because it was to them obviously and definitely very dead. It has been strange, then, to watch these terms steadily encroach again into mainstream political debate both as positively embraced markers of political orientation and, equally, as really abject and dreaded features of the bourgeois political imaginary.
To a large extent the return of these terms to the everyday political lexicon reflected the rise of various leftist formations across Europe and the United States in the post-2008 era of austerity and permanent capitalist crisis – Syriza, (Unidas) Podemos, the Left Bloc, the movement that coalesced around Jeremy Corbyn within and outside the Labour Party and the movement that cohered in the Bernie Sanders electoral insurgencies. While none of these formations, of course, pivot(ed) on communist or Marxist politics as such, the return of a (relatively) radical left challenge in the context of a deeply shaken status quo permitted a certain disinterment of these previously half-buried terms whether in the form of bourgeois histrionics about for example a communist intention among the Labour front bench to ‘nationalise sausages’ or in terms of opening up an ideological space for young people to begin to explore new-old left horizons.
What’s harder to explain, however, is the continued currency of these terms in mainstream political discourse beyond the defeat and/or incorporation of these electoral insurgencies. While you might expect a certain hangover of interest and identification with these terms among swathes of the newly radicalized (and re-radicalised), you might also expect that the current definite and unmistakable ebbing of the leftist electoral insurgency (capped by the electoral defeat of ‘Corbynism’ after a long period of strangulation, and the smothering of the Sanders presidential campaign*) would produce immediate relief and a rapid forgetting of previous anxieties on the part of conservatives. But why, then, would Boris Johnson defend his recent ‘New Deal’ (lol) plans for post-covid state intervention with the statement, ‘My friends, I am not a communist’ – a headline-grabbing quip, yes, but a quip that implies a certain preoccupation with a sort of shadow Other, too close for comfort, with which he wishes to disassociate himself.
To some extent the BLM insurgency has inserted itself within the space recently vacated by leftist electoral challenges – and indeed to the extent that it can mobilise mass anger and direct confrontation with the state on the streets it represents, embryonically at least, a challenge to the status quo that potentially runs much deeper than, say, the Sanders presidential campaign. Certainly the right are terrified of it – but it’s not immediately clear why it should be seen, as the right seem to see it, as contiguous with (a sort of continuation and Phase 2 of) the ‘Marxist’ plot to put Sanders in the White House. Why for example, should the Republican Senator, Matt Gaetz tweet ‘Black Lives Matter is a Marxist movement’? The Reds, it seems, are still very much under the bed in conservative nightmares.
The disjunction between these nightmares and reality is all the more stark given the extent of the current disarray on the left. It’s not just that a series of leftist electoral challenges were contained and defused, it’s that their defeat clearly revealed the feet of clay on which leftist organizing has been built for many years. As Sai Engelbert has recently argued in a widely read article, the ultimate failure of socialist politics to resonate widely at a time of ‘systemic crisis, mass disillusionment with ruling class representatives and institutions, and regular as well as rapid popular (often, if not always, class based) explosions of discontent’ is testament to the fundamental weakness of the left.
Indeed the current covid-19 crisis – which shines a very clear light on the ‘long-term systematic contradictions and injustices of global capitalism’, which has at least temporarily punctured the neoliberal TINA narrative and unmistakably revealed the enormous mobilizing capacities of the state and of powerful collective solidarities too cohering (often from the ground up) on widely shared commitment to some more or less egalitarian idea of the ‘common good’ – has been, for many on the left, the moment when the penny finally dropped. If the left cannot even intervene effectively to shape the political narrative in relation this crisis – which cries out for leftist solutions and opens up a clear window of possibility for radical reconfiguration of the economy and polity – then this very clearly indicates a condition of extreme enfeeblement.
As Engelbert suggests, one by one, the historical exhaustion of the major traditions on the left has been revealed. The ‘vanguardist’ tradition embodied most obviously in Trotskyist and semi Trotskyist organisations has clearly fizzled out – their de facto irrelevance becoming abundantly clear with their effective sidelining in relation to the various (broadly) left populist surges that saw radicalizing young people flock, for example, to the movements around Corbyn and Sanders while completely bypassing the various Leninist groups. Neither have these groups appreciably capitalized on the collapse of these left populist projects. The old CPs are dead or zombified. The bizarre explosion of ‘Marxist-Leninist’ cosplaying on twitter is testament to this really – it could only really take off as a kind of semi-ironic pastiche in Europe and the US in the context of the historical wreckage of actually existing ML parties. It’s from the various strewn fragments and pieces of this wreckage that virtual identities can be constructed and played around with online, conveniently divorced from any obligation to actual ML party discipline. And of course, the defeat of Corbyn and Sanders looks very much like the final curtain for social democracy, after (what we can now perhaps admit was) a last ditch one-off attempt at a sort of Kamikaze resuscitation on the part of a coalition of forces largely to the left of social democracy – much to the enragement of most soi–disant ‘social democrats’ (read social liberals) embarrassed by the partial reanimation of the not-quite-corpse they had long since deserted during and after the collapse of the post-war settlement.
So what is going on here? Given that the right must also be aware by now of their own political hegemony and the desperate condition of the organized left why does their nightmare fear of ‘communism’ seem to persist?
On re-reading the Communist Manifesto to prepare a couple of lectures recently I was struck by several things that I’d either not noticed or forgotten from previous readings. One brief line that resonated with me in a new way for example was the famous remark (one of a few phrases drawing on imagery of necromancy and alchemy) that bourgeois society ‘has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange’ and ‘is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’. This image functions to illustrate with a certain memorable literary flair the main line of argument in the text of course which is that the developmental logic and trajectory of capitalism tends to undermine itself in the long run in terms of the immensely disruptive crises it constantly throws up and in terms of the majority class that it produces – the proletariat – in whose interest it is to abolish that system and in whom, moreover, capitalism unwittingly but increasingly vests the strategic capacity to do so.
But there’s also I think the suggestion of a psychological dimension to this too – in particular, something hinted about the collective psyche of the supposed masters of the system. Doesn’t this image suggest a certain hubristic terror on the part of the bourgeoisie – as if it recoils in fright and regret at the dark and uncontrollable forces it has unleashed?
Certainly there are other passages that suggest the bourgeoisie is itself terrorized by the remorselessly monstrous logic of a system that it simply cannot control – a system that indeed subjects the bourgeoisie to a certain kind of domination and unfreedom. The celebrated sequence of paragraphs laying bare the in-built tendency for capitalism to rapidly spread out overseas, linking areas of the world together in tightly enmeshed structures of investment and trade (what until a few years ago we used to call ‘globalisation’), for example, begins with this striking formulation: ‘The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe’. Note that the bourgeoisie is chased – almost as if it tries to flee in desperation and horror from a pursuing monster that always follows and is always-already present in its shadow.
Indeed we should remember that the famous imagery of the ‘spectre’ that all ‘the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise’ in the preamble to the Manifesto refers not so much to any (as yet) real, material forces of communism but precisely to a phantom – a largely imaginary fear that the old powers project onto the figure of what they take to be ‘communism’. Indeed, Marx and Engels’ frame their task in the Manifesto in these opening lines as precisely to dispel this ‘nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism’ – not that the analysis they present is exactly designed to allay bourgeois fears of course because they go on to present the bourgeoise with good reason to tremble. But the point is that at the time Marx and Engels were writing the Manifesto the processes in and through which capitalism was working to undermine itself set out in the text were very much in their infancy. Certainly in 1847-8 the proletariat did not yet consitute the majority of the population across Europe, large areas of the globe had yet to be firmly enmeshed within the developing world market and no communist movement as such really existed – the First International was more than a decade and a half away from formation and even that, of course, (briefly and unstably) cohered only small and scattered forces. It is interesting then that the Manifesto should begin with this reference to an as yet imaginary terror on the part of the ruling classes in Europe that frames the whole text, and that references to a psychology of barely repressed horror and anxiety on the part of the bourgeois in relation to the society they have created run through the narrative.
Could it be then that this narrative rests, in part, on the suggestion that a certain collective inner torment is a constitutive element of bourgeois thought and behaviour – as if the drive to accumulate, to grow, to expand and so on is at least partially determined by a repressed (and self-defeating) desire to escape from the terrifying, destructive and uncontrollable forces they have themselves unleased and are condemned to reproduce? Perhaps there is even the suggestion that they know, at some level, that the social order they have conjured up is unsustainable, headed inexorably toward disaster and that the instability of their system will make them, ultimately, as the Manifesto puts it in passing toward the end of Chapter 1 ‘unfit to rule’ – ‘unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society’. In fact, going further, doesn’t the tormented, haunted psyche of this ruling class imply a secret yearning for release from this hellish order? In this sense isn’t the ‘Spectre of Communism’ a projection that both conceals and expresses a repressed longing for the thing that will free the bourgeosie from its torment?
So, back to the post-2008 context and a system beset by permanent and constantly deepening economic and political dysfunction, lurching from one crisis to another. Perhaps we can see current obsession with ‘communism’ on the part of the political representatives of the bourgeoisie as intensified expression of these long-running nightmare-desires. If the bourgeoisie has at some level always secretly desired release from the forces it is condemned to reproduce and has always suspected that it is simply ‘unfit to rule’, how much more strongly must it feel the weight of this repressed terrible knowledge at a time when the exhaustion and indeed necrosis of a system that has more and more clearly reached its limits – that seems to offer little now other than further descent into climate crisis and a continuing death-spiral toward nastier and nastier forms of right wing authoritarian government – has become clearly apparent.
Indeed, might we see the increasingly grotesque and buffoonish guises of its chief political representatives – utterly absurd smirking clowns like Trump and Johnson – as a sort of disguised cry for help? The clown show at the White House and in Downing Street expresses a deep self-loathing and a kind of pleading to be put out of its misery. The ruling class no longer has any respect for itself. It wants to be relieved of the terrible burden of its authority. It sees ‘communism’ everywhere because it wants to see it everywhere because it secretly longs for an end to capitalism and its own abolition as a class.
The great trajedy, of course, is that the left is in no position to grant them their desire.
*The Left Bloc and Unidas Podemos had greater success in terms of reversing the austerity agenda – the former in ‘confidence and supply’ support for a social democratic minority government in Portugal and the latter in continuing government coalition with the PSOE – but they hardly look like radical leftist insurgencies any more if they once did.
I read this article by Charlie Post in Jacobin today – What Strategy for the US Left. It’s a critique of an article by Vivek Chibber. Both were written a while back but my eyes was caught by the prominence of the concept of ‘non reformist reforms’ – Chibber advocates it and Post is a critic.
I’d love to write a full response to this if I had any confidence at the moment, but I thought I’d just scribble down some immediate thoughts.
I think Post is bang on in many of his criticisms of Chibber’s essay – *market socialism* really?? The fundamental thing Post puts his finger on is that most ‘reformist’ accounts of socialist strategy completely ignore the structural reliance of the state (and indeed *society*) on capitalist profitability – what Fred Block and Adam Przeworski refer to as ‘business confidence’. This is why there can be no unbroken line of reforms leading from capitalism to socialism.
But what annoys me about Post’s argument is:
1) Post makes absolutely no reference to the originator of the concept of ‘non reformist reforms’, Andre Gorz, who did precisely orient this concept in terms of a ruptural strategy.
2). As usual the focus is on the concrete obstacles in the way of attempting to use the capitalist state for socialist purposes but the correctness of the revolutionary strategy is simply asserted without any indication of any of the surely considerable concrete obstacles that might attend that. As usual it’s assumed that workers councils and a parallel workers’ state can and will spontaneously spring up and moreover develop to the very advanced point at which they might provide a credible total alternative in a situation of dual power in a state like the US. As usual Zero evidence for this.
3). Capital’s structural power applies to capitalist *society* in toto – not merely to the state. We are all highly dependent, in capitalist society, on capitalist investment. A mass movement outside the state in no way escapes this somehow. In a predominantly capitalist economy an investment strike, lay offs, severe inflation on consumer goods etc will cut across soviets as much as they would cut across the capitalist state. A mass movement outside the state does not somehow float free of the various problems of ‘business confidence’. The problem is private ownership of the means of production. The problem is not overcome in any other way than via expropriation – whether this is done by the existing state or something else is wholly secondary. The main problem is- how do we hope to get to the point at which expropriation (under democratic control) is actually on the agenda as an immediate possibility.
4). Gorz (and indeed Poulantzas) were simply making the (wholly obvious) observation that any process of radicalisation in an advanced capitalist democracy will not and cannot by-pass the state. Can you really imagine, against all the recent historical evidence, any process of socialist radicalisation not – at first at least – finding (partial expression) in some sort of electoral challenge? Structural Reform is simply recognition of this blitheringly obvious reality and an attempt to think through the process of harnessing it, to take it to the point where rupture becomes an actual possibility rather than an abstract orientation in a strategy of magical thinking
Though there is a lot to admire in Etienne Balibar’s very lucid and sophisticated defence (and extension) of the logic of Lenin’s thought (see previous post for a summary and discussion of the key ideas), I do not, in the end, think that it overcomes some of the key problems in State and Revolution and other associated texts. Indeed, Balibar’s argument seems to me merely to repeat and reinforce some of the difficulties in the original texts and perhaps even to make them more visible – revealing more explicitly difficulties that often remain partly submerged in the classics.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Balibar’s argument, particularly as he sets it out in summary in relation to the first two of the three arguments (he argues are) advanced in Lenin, is the extreme (dare I use the terms? I can’t think of better ones…) reductionism and essentialism of his approach. State power is always the power of a single class that holds this power absolutely and as an indivisible whole (both state power and the class that holds it). The only possible alternative to the absolute hold on state power by the bourgeoisie as a whole, is an equally absolute hold on state power by the proletariat as a whole – and thus any given state apparatus, which realises this power in material form, is either, absolutely and simply, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, or, absolutely and simply, the dictatorship of the proletariat. This essentialist logic, in which the capitalist state is assumed to be wholly and in every respect bourgeois is also present in Lenin – but remains less explicitly stated. Here it is, in Balibar’s book, with bells on – which does at least perform the service of stating this logic in stark and unmissable terms and thus plainly signalling the implausibility of the fundamental assumptions on which the Leninist approach to state power is built. And this logic, thus stated, is in my view totally implausible.
For one thing, the wholly binary either/or logic here seems to leave no room conceptually for any kind of transition other than some form of instant and total transformation in the manner of flicking a light switch from off to on. State power is either absolutely bourgeois or absolutely proletarian – there can be no in-between, no grey area between these absolutes. Of course, we’ve seen that Balibar has quite a lot to say about the requirement for a long transitional process – the necessity of ‘a lengthy class struggle which is already in its preparatory stages before the revolution, and which becomes fully acute afterwards’ as he puts it. And indeed, as we’ve also seen, socialism, i.e the historical epoch of the DoP, is for Balibar, precisely, a long period of transitional struggle. But the problem here, surely, is that the very notion of transition – of an in-between period of transformation – is in sharp conflict with the stark either/or logic that underpins his theory of the state. We might ask, for example, how it makes sense to argue (along with Lenin) that a beginning to the process of ‘smashing’ the bourgeois state apparatus can begin before the seizure of power by way of putting socialist politicians into parliament to ‘disintegrate parliamentarism’ from within if, under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the hold of the bourgeoisie over state power is absolute and total. It’s worth noting in this respect that in his introduction to Balibar’s text, Graham Lock (offering a précis on Balibar’s argument, which he appears to accept completely) states that it is simply not the case that
even when it succeeds in electing “representatives” to the national parliament (Socialists or even Communists), the working class thereby gains the slightest grasp of State power, that it thereby holds the slightest scrap of State power. (Lock, in Balibar, p. 31)
But if it’s true that this doesn’t confer any sort of power in relation to the state under any circumstances, then how could any process of ‘disintegration’ of parliamentarism from within, such as the one that Balibar and Lenin envisage, possibly take place? Indeed, more broadly than this, it’s difficult to see, given the essentialist logic of Balibar’s approach, how any form of working class struggle could have any effect whatsoever on the integrity and functioning of the bourgeois state.
It seems to me that there’s a similar problem too in terms of what Balibar says about the DoP itself. If forms of bourgeois parliamentarism may re-assert themselves within the proletarian state apparatus and if, indeed, the bourgeois state apparatus in some sense resists the process of its own destruction even under the DoP, then this would seem to suggest that in fact the proletariat as ruling class do not necessarily hold state power absolutely under socialism. The working class, indeed, seem to possess only a rather contingent and incomplete hold over state power and the proletarian state apparatus in the period of the DoP in much of Balibar’s account. So in what sense, then, is this compatible with the underlying binary logic of absolutely either/or: either the bourgeoisie hold state power absolutely or the proletariat do? The problem here only goes deeper once we consider Balibar’s comment about every state being essentially bourgeois – even the proletarian one, since the state form is in essence a hangover from the capitalist mode of production. I guess it might be said that Balibar’s simultaneous assertion that the proletarian state is absolutely proletarian but also essentially bourgeois, is a dialectical type of contradiction and thus not really a logical absurdity – but find it quite hard to swallow this. Indeed it seems to me, moreover, that the whole idea of socialism as an epoch of transition, of “two worlds within the same world” makes little sense in conjunction with the stark essentialist and binary logic of Balibar’s underlying theoretical premisses.
It was already noted in the previous post that what Balibar has to say in relation to the process of the destruction of the bourgeois state is opaque and indeed, rather ambiguous. This ambiguity intersects with the difficulties of logical consistency mentioned above. It will be recalled that while Balibar seems fairly clear that the repressive state apparatus must undergo ‘immediate destruction’, he seems to allow that certain unspecified organs of the bourgeois state might survive the seizure of power to be incorporated into the DoP and then progressively opened up to mass intervention as part of the process of withering. This is problematical enough, but I have to say that I’m not even sure that his discussion of the different ‘methods’ and ‘rhythms’ by which the destruction of the various organs of the capitalist state will take place does not suggest that, in fact, particular ‘aspects’ of ‘the bureaucracy’ – i.e. parts of the repressive state apparatus in the Leninist schema – would be opened up to the progressive participatory control of the masses in the period of the DoP which would clearly contradict the particular injunctions about the necessity of immediately ‘smashing’ the apparatus of repression. Another, equally plausible reading of the section in question (pp. 99-110) would be to say that the institutional forms that Balibar envisions being progressively subjected to the direct intervention of the masses are, in fact, new organs of the state of a new type – i.e. the revolution completely sweeps away all bourgeois state institutions and substitutes new ones which are then gradually democratised in step with the advance of the practical organisational capacities of the working class.
So, overall, it seems that we have two equally plausible readings of Balibar’s ambiguous comments here – one in which the entire bourgeois state apparatus is ‘immediately destroyed’ and replaced with different one of new, proletarian type and which is then increasingly democratised, and another in which only (some?) repressive bourgeois state apparatuses are smashed initially while other organs and functions of the old regime (ideological state apparatuses?) are incorporated into the new framework and then progressively democratised. The trouble is that neither of these possible interpretations are compatible with the wider schema of Balibar’s argument. On the one hand the idea that the entire bourgeois state apparatus could be abolished and replaced overnight seems in tension with his dismissal of what he calls the ‘”ultra-left idea” of the immediate abolition of bourgeois institutions and the appearance out of the blue’ (p. 105) of new ones. But, on the other hand, the drift of his argument that suggests certain organs of the old state survive and are merged into the institutional framework of the DoP seems to be in outright conflict with the essentialist basic logic of his theory in which it is insisted that the capitalist state is wholly and in every respect bourgeois. Indeed, to the extent that the second of these two drifts within Balibar’s argument predominates (which it appears to me that it does), Balibar seems to find himself caught in the same process of oscillation between two incompatible positions that we have seen marks Lenin’s argument – a process wherein Lenin moves back and forth between, on the one hand, formulations that appear to pivot on a very stark logic pertaining to the absolutely capitalist nature of the entire bourgeois state and thus the need to destroy it totally and, on the other hand, more apparently qualified positions that seem to disrupt and undermine that logic. It’s difficult not to conclude that this indicates a fundamental problem with the whole Leninist approach to state power and the revolutionary process.
We should also note the extremely functionalist logic that seems to attend Balibar’s argument – something, again, that it shares with Lenin’s argument in State and Revolution and that, again, seems to point toward a fundamental problem in this tradition of thinking in relation to state power. Just as for Lenin, Balibar’s approach seems very strongly to imply the state necessarily performs a particular function determined by the class structure in which it is embedded, with very little indication of how precisely this function is (always-already) accomplished. It’s as if, in the Leninist approach as in the famous criticism of the Realist approach to the state in mainstream International Relations, the state is a kind of ‘black box’ that is always assumed, mysteriously, to function with perfect coherence and efficiency in its performance of particular systemic imperatives that are always, simply, given. Indeed there is no indication at all in Balibar’s book that capitalist states might act in any way that might be sub-optimal or dysfunctional for capital – or in ways that might conflict with the interests of particular fractions of capital.
Here, of course, Balibar’s approach seems to run into the same difficulties that are often associated with so-called ‘instrumentalist’ theories of the state – i.e. if state power is held and exercised directly, somehow, by the ruling class as a whole (as indeed Balibar argues that it is) then how is it possible to explain instances of state policy on the part of the British state historically for example that seem to have favoured particular fractions of capital (financial) over and to the detriment of others (manufacturing)? Further, given that particular capitalist states have often acted in ways that conflict with the short run interests of large swathes of capital – even if this is functional for capital as a whole in the long run (Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is often referenced as the classic case) – how can any theory of state power that pivots on the claim that the capitalist class, especially as an undifferentiated whole, directly possesses state power account for this?
What all of these essentialist, functionalist and instrumentalist elements inherent in Balibar’s perspective together imply of course, is a vision of the capitalist state as a perfectly coherent entity. In fact Balibar’s perspective is, we might say, in this respect the ne plus ultra of the ‘Leninist’ perspective on the state so roundly dismissed as almost useless by Nicos Poulantzas in State, Power, Socialism. Poulantzas’ main criticism of the ‘Leninist’ approach, of course, is that it pivots on the untenable, and in the end fundamentally absurd, assumption that ‘the State is not traversed by internal contradictions, but is a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 254). Isn’t Balibar’s apprehension of bourgeois state power as something held in an absolute way by the bourgeoisie as a whole, without regard to the internal divisions within that class, and to the total and absolute exclusion of the working class exactly a vision of the state as ‘monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind’?
We noted a broad similarity in relation to Poulantzas’ and Balibar’s approach to state power – specifically state power, for both theorists, manifests a kind of social relation. As Balibar puts it the state ‘rests on a relation of forces between classes, which it develops and reproduces’ (p. 88). But here, the superiority of Poulantzas’ approach becomes very clear in my view. Balibar’s conceptualisation of this relational basis is an extremely static one in which proletarian and popular forces are always-already subordinated to bourgeois forces and always-already totally excluded from the terrain of state power. As such, Balibar tends to focus merely on one dimension of the relation of forces that the state is seen to embody, as if the social relation in question (the balance of class forces as crystallised by the state) was one in which only a single side in this relation ever has any agency and as if this struggle was always one-way traffic. In other words, the relational dimension of Balibar’s theory is not, in the end, all that relational. The idea of a relation of forces, and certainly the idea of class relation of forces, surely connotes a process of interaction between more than one antagonistic force – and suggests, moreover, that these forces are, precisely, forces rather than merely passive recipients of pressure exerted by external agencies. Further, the idea of a relation of forces also surely implies some degree of contingency – and thus a conflict in which no particular outcome is ever wholly guaranteed and in which no specific balance of forces is ever permanent. All of this is absent from Balibar’s schema.
Poulantzas’ great insight was to understand that if state power (like all forms of power) is (class) relational, then we must grasp the mode in which struggle between classes (and class fractions) is inscribed in the institutional structure and functioning of the state. If the state is a ‘specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 129) then we must be attentive to the ways in which class antagonisms permeate the entirety of the state’s’ institutional materiality’. This means that the state cannot ever be absolutely the possession of one class (fraction) to the total exclusion of all other forces. For Poulantzas, the state as social relation, must be understood as a strategic terrain that is perpetually battled over by antagonistic social forces that are in some sense ‘present’ on that battleground – and that, as such, we must also grasp that the struggles of the working class permanently traverse the institutional materiality of the state. For Poulantzas, state structures are constantly shaped and reconfigured in response to working class struggles and therefore working class power is always to some extent manifested and embedded within the state and their interests reflected in aspects of state policy. The state’s internal class divisions become most obvious when public sector workers strike, for example, but it is also clear that state policy is moulded in response to class pressures that are brought to bear on it – including those emanating from the working class. It’s hard to explain the provision of ‘welfare’ measures, for example, without reference to working class interests, demands and mobilisation (even if ‘welfare’ measures are subordinated to the imperatives of capital accumulation).
Balibar’s one dimensional account of state power – in which that power is always exerted by one force against another passive (non) force – does not grasp any of this. Indeed, Poulantzas’ critical description of the way in which Leninist approaches to the state tend to treat power as ‘a quantifiable substance held by the State that must be taken out of its hands’, as if the state was ‘a thing-instrument that may be taken away, …[or] a fortress that may be penetrated by means of a wooden horse,.. [or] a safe that may be cracked by burglary’ (Poulantzas, 2000, 257-8) seems to apply with full force in respect to Balibar.
Interestingly, Poulantzas did seem to have Balibar in mind as a chief proponent of the crude approach to state power that he was seeking to demolish once and for all in State, Power, Socialism (SPS). There are a couple of glancing references to Balibar’s On the dictatorship of the Proletariat – one toward the beginning of Poulantzas’ book and another toward the middle and both are really pretty contemptuous! It’s worth drawing out what Poulantzas has to say about Balibar’s book specifically. One of the major targets of Poulantzas’ ire in SPS is what he calls the ‘formalist theoreticism’ of those approaches (and again the Leninist approach is the main culprit here) that treat the state as a transhistorical phenomenon and which thus assume the possibility and legitimacy of a ‘general theory of the state’ taken as an epistemologically distinct object across different modes of production. For Poulantzas, the concept of the state could not ‘have the same extension, field or meaning in the various modes of production’, or indeed across different phases of the same mode of production, because the position of the political field of the state vis-a-vis the economy has changed as relations of production and exploitation have shifted over time. In addition, the terrain of political domination varies ‘with the precise form and regime assumed by the State within each stage or phase [of capitalism]: be it a particular form of parliamentarian, or of presidential rule, fascism or military dictatorship’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 124). Thus, only a conjunctural type analysis of state power that was sensitive to the stage and phase of capitalism and to the particular form taken by a given state within these stages and phases would pass muster. This is what Poulantzas argues that Balibar signally fails to do.
For Poulantzas, Balibar was a key exponent of a ‘stupendous dogmatism’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 20) which ‘treats the general propositions of the Marxist classics as a ‘General Theory’ (the “Marxist Leninist” theory) of the State, reducing the capitalist State to a mere concretization of ”the State in general”‘. ‘With respect to political domination’, he continues, ‘this results in little more than the following kind of dogmatic banality: every State is a class State; all political domination is a species of class dictatorship; the capitalist State is a State of the bourgeoisie.’ (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 124). As Poulantzas, then remarks:
Obviously such an analysis is incapable of advancing research by a single inch. It is completely unserviceable in analysing concrete situation since it cannot account for the differential forms and historical transformations of the capitalist State except by the “tweedledum and tweedledee” kind of observation. (Poulantzas, 2000, pp. 124-5)
This, it seems to me, is an absolutely devastating observation that nails a key problem with Balibar’s approach. The logic of Balibar’s perspective is indeed to suggest that there is very little difference at all between different forms of capitalist state, since all are in essence absolutely the same – the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. State power is either in the hands of the bourgeoisie absolutely or in the hands of the proletariat absolutely – these are the only two meaningful alternatives; and of course, this dichotomous logic squeezes out of the frame of analysis any further (sub) variations or at least strongly implies that these must be insignificant. This is important because, as Poulantzas further points out:
The failings of this analysis have incalculable political consequences:… it has led to a number of political disasters, especially in the inter-war period when a strategy had to be adopted in the face of the rise of fascism. It found expression in the Comintern’s so-called ‘social-fascism’ strategy, which was based quite precisely on this conception of the State and on the inability to distinguish between the parliamentary-democratic form of State and the quite specific form that is the fascist State. (Poulantzas, 2000, p. 125)
Indeed it’s hard to see how the reductionist and essentialist approach espoused by Balibar could be inoculated against this sort of logic.*
What Poulantzas’ criticism of the ‘formalist theoreticism’ of Balibar’s book draws our attention to is that it’s Balibar’s attempt to derive a ‘General Theory’ – a ‘Marxist-Leninist theory of the State’ – from a series of general propositions in the classics that is the root of many of the problems we have encountered above in relation to the stark essentialism and functionalism of his theory. His argument boils down to the assertion of certain Leninist axioms as self-evident truths – just as Lenin’s argument, in my view, ultimately rests on the assertion as an axiom of the view he draws from Marx that the state is ‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’. But no matter how sophisticated Balibar’s argument, at its core is a defence of certain articles of faith – the capitalist state is wholly and absolutely bourgeois; while it exists it will only ever function to oppress the proletariat; it is wholly and absolutely impermeable for proletarian forces; it can only be ‘smashed’ in a frontal assault by forces wholly external to it and must be replaced with a new type of state that will be wholly and absolutely proletarian – that can only really be re-stated in the essentialist and functionalist terms that define them.
It’s worth saying, in conclusion to this discussion, that over the last 40 years since the publication of On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat Balibar has fundamentally changed his view and indeed abandoned the positions he defended in the 1970s. As he remarks in an essay (‘Communism and Citizenship: On Nicos Poulantzas’) included in his 2010 edited collection of writings, Equaliberty (published in English in 2014), his defence of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was ‘in hindsight, derisory’ and a manifestation of ‘”eschatological and prophetic dogmatism”‘ (Balibar, 2014, p. 146). Further, he goes on to comment: ‘I will… say, when it comes to the “condensation of the relation of forces” or the “relational concept of the state,” that I have long since conceded this point to Poulantzas’ (Balibar, 2014, p. 147). Class struggles he now admits do indeed traverse the state as a kind of strategic terrain and further, he says that it is necessary to reject ‘the myth of the exteriority of revolutionary forces (parties or movements) in relation to the functioning of the state in advanced capitalism’ (Balibar, 2014, p. 147). This second point in particular seems to bring Balibar into line with the fundamental coordinates of Poulantzas’ conception of the ‘democratic road to socialism’ in SPS (or better, as he put it elsewhere, the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’) – an approach which seeks to articulate extra-parliamentary mass struggle with a parallel (and dialectically intertwined) struggle within the state to reconfigure and transform its ‘institutional materiality’.
And it’s surely significant that the author of one of the most sophisticated defences of the logic of Lenin’s State and Revolution, should end up wholly abandoning it and conceding the argument to his erstwhile rival – the principal opponent of the ‘Leninist’ approach to the state and to the associated approach to strategy in those 1970s debates within and around the PCF – Nicos Poulantzas.
*We should note here that Poulantzas levies very similar criticisms against Balibar that were directed previously by Ralph Miliband against what he saw as Poulantzas’ ‘structural abstractionism’ in the celebrated debate between the theorists across several issues of New Left Review. Indeed Poulantzas’ excoriation of the ‘stupendous dogmatism’ he saw among the contemporary Marxist left was just as much self-criticism of his own earlier positions as it was a broadside against thinkers such as Balibar.
Balibar, E. (1977) On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (London, NLB)
Balibar, E. (2014) Equaliberty: Political Essays (Durham, Duke University Press)
Poulantzas, N. (2000) State, Power, Socialism (London, Verso)
In this post I want to summarise and discuss Balibar’s text – regarded now as something of a Marxist classic, and certainly a very impressive defence of the fundamental logic of the argument Lenin sets out in State and Revolution in particular. In the post that follows this I’ll move to a critique of Balibar, informed in part by Nicos Poulantzas’ perspective in his later work.
Etienne Balibar’s On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat is almost certainly one of the most, if not the most, conceptually sophisticated defences of the arguments Lenin establishes in The State and Revolution (and closely associated texts such as The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky). First published in 1976, Balibar’s book was very much a product of specific political circumstances. It was written as a political intervention in the debate within the French Communist Party (PCF) over the party’s decision at its 22nd Congress to expunge references to ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ from official party aims (and indeed to renounce this concept entirely as outdated and unsuitable for modern French conditions) and to substitute for this the objective of a ‘democratic road to socialism’. The book can be regarded as part of a wider theoretical dialogue over the ‘Eurocommunist’ trajectory of Western European CPs at the time. Indeed the PCF’s decision to drop the objective of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ should be seen in the specific context of the turn to a strategy of ‘broad’ electoral alliances on the part of the French, Spanish and Italian CPs (from 1972 the PCF had oriented its political strategy on a ‘Common Programme’ with the Socialist Party and Left Radicals) and their concurrent attempts to distance themselves from the USSR.
The other major text to emerge from this conjuncture – and from the debate within and around the PCF in particular – was Nicos Poulantzas’ State, Power, Socialism, first published two years after Balibar’s book. Indeed, we can see these two texts as polarised antagonists in this confrontation – Poulantzas elaborating a theoretical justification for a ‘democratic road to socialism’ (although we should be careful to remember that Poulantzas was well to the left of the PCF leadership – his ‘Left’ Eurocommunist conception of the transition to socialism was by no means shared by Georges Marchais), while Balibar sought to defend classical ‘Leninist’ principles. As with State, Power, Socialism, however, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat retains a very sharp relevance today that rises above the specific historical context in which it was written. It’s an attempt – an extraordinarily rich and lucid one at that – to articulate, in a rigorous way, the logic of Lenin’s thought in relation to state power and the transition to communism and I don’t think Balibar’s sophisticated interpretation/defence of ‘Leninist’ precepts in these respects has ever been surpassed. As such, it’s well worth investigating Balibar for what his text has to tell us about the continuing salience of Lenin’s thought as formulated particularly in State and Revolution.
Balibar’s book begins with his core argument (and the major thrust of his intervention in the debate within the PCF) – that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is not (as Graham Lock puts it in his introduction to Balibar’s text) ‘a policy or a strategy involving the establishment of a particular form of government or institutions but, on the contrary, an historical reality’ (Lock, in Balibar, 1977, p. 8). It is, as Balibar later puts it, ‘the reality of an historical tendency‘ – ‘a reality, just as objective as the class struggle itself, of which it is a consequence’ (Balibar, 1977, p. 134). Indeed, the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing other than socialism itself understood as the historical period of transition between capitalism and communism. As such, it is ‘not a matter of choice, a matter of policy: and it therefore cannot be “abandoned”, any more than the class struggle can be “abandoned” except in words and at the cost of enormous confusion’ (Lock, in Balibar, 1977, p. 8).
The first chapter is a very interesting critique of the way in which, as Balibar sees it, those proposing that the concept should be dropped tend to present the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ [henceforth DoP] as a particular regime, or a particular set of tactics that may well have been unavoidable given ‘Russian conditions’, but which would be unnecessary and inappropriate for an advanced bourgeois democracy such as 1970s France. Here, Balibar extrapolates an amusing kind of complicity between the ‘Tankie’ faction of the PCF and their Eurocommunist opponents. Both fundamentally agree that the DoP is ‘what existed in Russia’ (the authoritarian one party state etc.) – but while the former maintain that this provides a ‘model’ to be implemented elsewhere too, the latter reject it based on a simplistic counterposition between ‘dictatorship’ (appropriate for ‘backward’ conditions) and ‘democracy’ (possible and appropriate to the Western European context). This latter Eurocommunist position, as Balibar further suggests, allows the party leadership to pull off a dextrous manoeuvre in which it can distance itself from the USSR and proclaim its own (parliamentary) democratic credentials while also appearing to maintain some kind of fidelity to the October Revolution and (perhaps more importantly) side-stepping any potentially awkward questions about its historic support for, and formerly ultra-loyalist justification of, Stalinist practices in Russia (and beyond).
But there’s another kind of complicity between Eurocommunism and Stalinism too. In a really fascinating section Balibar recounts what he sees as an historical antecedent of the PCF’s abandonment of the DoP – ‘it was the Soviet Communists themselves, under Stalin’s direction, who first historically “abandoned” the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Balibar, 1977, p. 49 [hereafter, all references are to this text unless otherwise indicated]). Specifically in 1936, on the occasion of the introduction of the new Soviet Constitution, it was proclaimed that the class struggle was over in Russia, and that as such ‘socialism in one country’ had been achieved. It was not claimed that classes had been abolished, but that relations of antagonism between them had been eliminated and that, consequently, the Soviet state was now the ‘state of the whole people’. What this implied, of course, was that the period of DoP (the period in which a specifically proletarian state had been necessary to suppress the old ruling class) had been superseded in Russia and, further that the DoP constituted a temporary stage of transition toward socialism which was itself a distinct historical stage of transition toward communism and indeed a discrete mode of production in its own right characterised by state ownership of the means of production.
The complicity here with the PCF’s Eurocommunist perspective was that the latter adopted similar assumptions in relation to the DoP and socialism – namely, the DoP was simply an historical mini-phase of dictatorial transition to socialism understood as a mode of production in which a universal state of the ‘whole people’, shorn of its class determination and in some sort of direct control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, would superintend a society in which class antagonisms had been overcome. The only difference is that the Eurocommunists imagined that they could move straight to ‘democratic socialism’ (at least after an initial preparatory period of reform under ‘advanced democracy’) without the need for an intervening phase of ‘dictatorship’. But socialism, Balibar argues, is nothing other than a phase of heightened class struggle – a contradictory and dialectical terrain in which two modes of production (capitalism and communism) overlap and fight it out and in which the embryonic communist potentialities thrown up within capitalism are made progressively more and more real (or not – it’s a conflictual struggle and as such the outcome is not pre-ordained) – and a phase of transition, moreover, that has to be understood to be synonymous with the DoP. Further, the Eurocommunists’ (essentially bourgeois) counterposition of ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’ as distinct alternatives rests, for Balibar, on a fundamental misrepresentation of classical Marxism’s understanding of these terms. More than anything this misrepresentation obscures the reality, from the classical Marxist perspective, that parliamentary democracy is itself a type of dictatorship. Specifically it is a particular form taken by the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’.
The main interest of Balibar’s book for me, however, is his account of what he takes to be the basis of the theory of the DoP as you find it in Lenin, and Balibar’s subsequent elaboration of a ‘more complete analysis’ (p. 63) on these foundations. The theory of the DoP, Balibar remarks, ‘can be summed up in outline in three arguments, or three groups of arguments, which are ceaselessly repeated and put to the test by Lenin’ (p. 59). These three theoretical arguments, as articulated by Balibar, are really very striking and boldly stated. The first deals with state power. Balibar sums it up thus: ‘State power is always the political power of a single class, which holds it in its capacity as the ruling class in society’ (p. 59). This implies that in capitalist society, as Balibar goes on to make plain, ‘State power is held in an absolute way by the bourgeoisie, which does not share it with any other class, nor does it divide it up among its fractions’ (p. 59). He goes on to point out that this thesis ‘has the following consequence: the only possible historical ‘alternative’ to the State power of the bourgeoisie is an equally absolute hold on State power by the proletariat’ (pp. 59-60).
The second argument focuses on the state apparatus and can be summed up ‘by saying that the State power of the ruling class cannot exist in history, nor can it be realized and maintained, without taking material form in the development and functioning of the State apparatus’ (p. 60). The core of this ‘State machine’ is constituted by the repressive state apparatus(es), though Balibar also remarks that Lenin never claimed that this core was the only aspect of this ‘State machine’. This repressive core Balibar comments, comprises ‘on the one hand, the standing army, as well as the police and the legal apparatus; and, on the other hand, the State administration or “bureaucracy”‘ (p. 60). This second thesis, he goes on to say, implies that ‘the overthrow of the State power of the bourgeoisie, is impossible without the destruction of the existing State apparatus in which the State power of the bourgeoisie takes material form’ (p. 60).
These first two arguments, Balibar argues, were not ‘discovered’ as such by Lenin – they were explicitly present in the writing of Marx and Engels. But Lenin’s contribution was, first, to ‘rescue’ these arguments from deformation and obscurity in the context of the opportunist drift of Second International social democracy and, second, to insert them ‘for the first time in an effective way into the field of practice’ (P. 61). The third argument, however, though not without its precedents, was much more Lenin’s own contribution and was discovered by him as the product of class struggles in Russia in the revolutionary period (and thus this discovery post-dates the writing of State and Revolution). This argument is the one that we have already encountered, partially, in the first chapter – that it is only communist social relations that are really incompatible or irreconcilable with capitalist ones and that socialism is a contradictory phase of transition from one mode of production to the other. This, Balibar, says ‘implies that socialism is nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – further, the DoP ‘is not simply a form of “transition to socialism”, it is not a “road of transition to socialism” – it is identical with socialism itself’ (p. 62).
Having identified these three core arguments Balibar then sets out, over the three chapters that follows, to elucidate them in more detail and draw out their further implications. One of the fundamental components of the first argument is the (strikingly Poulantzas-like) view that state power is relational – the state ‘rests on a relation of forces between classes, which it develops and reproduces’ (p. 88). Like Poulantzas, too, Balibar makes an analytical distinction between ‘state power’, on the one hand, and the ‘state apparatus’ (or what Poulantzas refers to as the state’s ‘institutional materiality’) on the other. This conceptual move (and its attribution to Lenin as a distinction at least implicit in his thought) allows Balibar to develop a very interesting interpretation of some of Lenin’s writing though I am not at all convinced that Lenin really does work on the basis of this conceptual framework. For example, Balibar suggests that the rather notorious line in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky that the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws’ is not so much, as it is often interpreted, a statement celebrating arbitrary violence without limit or restraint, but instead a statement indicating the extra-legal (or pre-legal), a priori status of the class balance of forces. Just as, for classical Marxism, bourgeois law and state apparatus, in the final analysis, are rooted in a particular set of class relations that exist prior to that law and that state apparatus (and which the latter two both reflect and reproduce), so the DoP must rest, too, on a particular balance of class forces that, in the final analysis, boils down to force. Class exploitation under capitalism is a relationship of force – whether or not the state apparatus takes a parliamentary democratic or authoritarian form. In the same way the DoP – whether or not it takes a highly repressive political institutional form – rests, in the end, on the class supremacy of the proletariat. Now, perhaps, this is an entirely obvious reading of Lenin, but I have to say that it never occurred to me before that this was what he meant – and I also have to say that I’m not really very convinced by it. I’m not convinced, that is, that this is what Lenin is really getting at in the passage just quoted and I’m sceptical that he does in fact make the wider analytical conceptual distinction Balibar says he does. Nevertheless it is food for thought.
State power belongs, absolutely, to a single class, Balibar argues, because the state is fundamentally rooted in class antagonism and in ‘the reproduction of the whole of the conditions of this antagonism’ (p. 77) – there is no third way between the maintenance and extension of this exploitation (i.e. the class interests of the bourgeoisie) and the struggle for its abolition (i.e. the class interests of the proletariat). Thus state power is either the possession of the bourgeoisie (the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) or the possession of the working class (the DoP). It also follows from this, Balibar comments, that because state power is rooted in, and reproduces, class exploitation and domination it is thus the possession of the ruling class as a whole and not merely or mainly any of its internal fractions. Further, there is no part of the state, or any of its functions, that lies outside the field of class determination. Balibar draws here on Lenin’s polemic against Vandervelde (that we’ve encountered in a previous post). He has in mind those Eurocommunist arguments that seem to suggest, like Vandervelde, that certain state apparatuses or functions manifest or serve a ‘general social interest’ – the state in ‘the broad sense’, in distinction from class repressive apparatuses (the state in ‘the narrow sense’) – and might thus, once the worst bits of the state are ‘lopped off’ (Engels!), serve a post-capitalist ‘universal social interest’. The whole of the state under capitalism is always absolutely the political power of the (whole) bourgeoisie.
What this in turn implies, of course, as we have seen, is that the whole of the existing state apparatus (which is the material form taken by the state power of the bourgeoisie, but not purely the same thing as the underlying balance of forces) must be overthrown by the proletariat and a new one, manifesting the material-institutional form of their state power constructed in its place. Balibar insists, as Lenin does of course, that the essential pivot of opportunism is its position on the state apparatus in this respect. It’s not necessarily that opportunism deviates from classical Marxism on the abstract question of the exercise of power, or denies that the proletariat must ‘take power’, or even that it refuses to use the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – ‘Social-Democratic opportunism, from Kautsky to Plekhanov to Leon Blum, always formally referred to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”‘ (p. 89). But they did so, while ‘at the same time emptying it of its practical content, the destruction of the State apparatus’ (p. 60).
The state apparatus performs two essential and intertwined functions Balibar argues (again, not unlike Poulantzas) – first it organises and unifies an otherwise fractious ruling class, and second, it organises the domination of society under that single ruling class. But the precise forms that this general double function takes will differ according to the mode of production. This leads Balibar to remark that it is imperative that we ‘grasp a very important fact, which Lenin constantly emphasised’, which is ‘the fact that each great historical epoch, based on a determinate material mode of production, comprises tendentially one type of State, i.e. one general determinate form of State’ (p. 95). ‘A ruling class’, he continues:
cannot make use of any type of State apparatus; it is obliged to organise itself in historically imperative forms, which relate to the new forms of class struggle in which it is held fast. The feudal-ecclesiastical type of organisation is completely ineffective as a means of organising the class rule of the bourgeoisie. The same general point is true of course with respect to the dictatorship of the proletariat. If the class struggle fought out by the proletariat is of a different kind from that of the bourgeoisie, it follows that, even if it does need some kind of State apparatus, it cannot purely and simply make use – as if they were instruments which could be manipulated at will – of the standing army, the law courts and their judges, the secret and special police forces, the parliamentary system, the administrative bureaucracy, immune from practically any form of control by the people…, etc.. (p. 95)
Rather a lot here seems to ride on the phrase ‘purely and simply’ (reminiscent in this sense of the famous ambiguity in Marx’s ‘cannot simply lay hold’ phrase!) and as we shall see Balibar seems to muddy the waters a little bit in his discussion of the forms that the ‘smashing’ of the bourgeois state apparatus will take, but the main thrust of his argument is the emphasis on the ‘absolute’ hold of the ruling class over ‘its’ state. A new ruling class must replace the entire old state apparatus (that manifests-reflects a particular class balance of power and particular forms of exploitation) with an entirely new type of state apparatus. Just as state power is either the state power of the bourgeoisie or that of the proletariat, a particular form of ‘state machine’ (set of apparatuses) is either a capitalist machine or a working class one. The main, defining characteristic of the proletarian state apparatus, Balibar argues, is that it institutionalises mass proletarian democracy – it functions as a sort of vector and fulcrum for the direct intervention of the masses on the political scene. In this way there is a qualitative difference between bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy and this is also an indication of the way in which the institutions of the bourgeois state apparatus – especially its core ones – are incompatible with the DoP.
This intervention of the mass of the people in the state apparatus and in the exercise of state power as it increases is also, simultaneously, the main vector for the process of the state’s ‘withering’. Since the communist mode of production which socialism, as an historical epoch of transition, takes as its objective and destination is a classless and thus stateless society, however, the state machine of the DoP must be regarded as a hangover from the capitalist mode of production with which it is still entangled. In this sense, Balibar suggests, every state apparatus – even a ‘state of a new type’ under the DoP – is always bourgeois, even when workers use it against capitalist social relations. This argument (though not I think unproblematic for his wider thesis) allows Balibar to be clear, in a way that I don’t think Lenin is in the key writings we’ve looked at, that the proletarian state at all times necessarily represents a potential threat to the working class that they must constantly guard against (as we’ve seen Lenin tends to assume an absolute synonymity between the proletariat and its state). Since the proletarian state is proletarian, but also in some sense always bourgeois – a hangover from a dying mode of production – Balibar comments that ‘the notion of the proletarian State itself designates… a contradictory reality, as contradictory as the situation of the proletariat in its role as the “ruling class” of socialist society’ (p. 122). But what overall ‘defines the dictatorship of the proletariat is the historical tendency of the State which it establishes: the tendency to its own disappearance, and not towards its reinforcement’ (p. 122).
Some of the most interesting passages in Balibar’s book (but for me also some of the most frustratingly opaque) are to be found in the section where he discusses ‘[w]hat has to be “destroyed”‘ in relation to the bourgeois state apparatus (pp 99 – 110). He is (fairly) clear, along with Lenin (at least in theory rather than in practice) that the repressive apparatus (which comprises, remember, ‘the bureaucracy’ in addition to the organs of direct coercion) must undergo ‘immediate destruction’ as ‘both the condition and a first consequence of the revolution’ (p. 99). But this does not mean that ‘all aspects of the bourgeois State apparatus can be destroyed in the same way, by the same methods, and at the same rhythm’ (p. 99). The ‘destruction of a whole State apparatus, and its replacement by new political forms of organization of the material and cultural life of society, cannot be carried out immediately, it can only be immediately begun‘ (p. 102). In this sense ‘this process of destruction’ can take no other form ‘than that of a lengthy class struggle which is already in its preparatory stages before the revolution, and which becomes fully acute afterwards’ and here Balibar takes aim at what he calls the ‘”ultra-left” idea of the immediate abolition of bourgeois institutions and the appearance out of the blue of new, “purely” proletarian institutions’ (p. 105) which he says is a myth that Lenin explicitly repudiated.
Now there’s a lot here that’s not exactly very clear. He appears to be saying that while the repressive institutions must be destroyed immediately, other organs of the bourgeois state apparatus (although I’m not certain about this…. what does he mean, precisely, by the word ‘aspects’ in the phrase ‘aspects of the bourgeois state apparatus’??) might be incorporated in the DoP – although he gives no indication of what these might be. He also appears to be saying that institutions of mass democracy cannot be set up overnight and that the institutions of the DoP must provide, in a sense, a period of apprenticeship for the working class – a phase of experimental political education which begins in advance of, and which must also extend beyond, the moment of the revolutionary seizure of power – before they can fully develop. He also appears to be saying that the bourgeois state apparatus resists destruction in as much as forms of parliamentarism and the wider social division of manual and intellectual labour are allowed to reproduce themselves within soviet type institutions (are these the ‘aspects’ of the bourgeois state apparatus that survive the initial revolutionary ‘smashing’ process rather than specific organs as such – or perhaps they are additional aspects that survive alongside these organs??). Things are not really made much clearer in this respect by the one relatively concrete example Balibar chooses to illustrate this longer term process, which is a remark from Lenin about the need to get ‘”pro-Soviet politicians into parliament'” for the purposes of ‘”disintegrating parliamentarism from within“‘ (Lenin, in Balibar, p. 106) – but this is clearly a tactic to be implemented before the seizure of power and tells us nothing about the survival of specific institutions afterwards.
The final part of Balibar’s argument (though the book also contains a ‘dossier’ comprising extracts from contributions to the debate at the PCF’s 22nd Congress – including a really interesting contribution from Althusser – and also Balibar’s postscript) focuses on the third key argument identified above. We’ve encountered the major dimensions of this argument previously, but Balibar supplements this with some interesting additional considerations. Among these he argues (along with Marx of course – but I think Balibar puts it particularly well) that communism should be seen as a ‘real tendency, already present in capitalist society itself’ and that this is true in ‘two senses, which are not originally directly related’ – on the one hand ‘in the form of the tendency to the socialisation of production and the productive forces’ and, on the other, ‘in the form of the class struggles of the proletariat, in which first the independence, and then later the ideological and political hegemony of the proletariat are manifested’ (p. 135). The particularly sharp and fascinating bit of Balibar’s argument here, however, is where he points out that while under capitalism these tendencies remain quite distinct (standing, in fact in mutual opposition – acting on each other in a conflictual relationship), under the DoP, to the extent that the working class take control of the process of the development and socialisation of the productive forces, these tendencies begin to merge. And to the extent that they merge, ‘the socialization of production tendentially ceases to take the capitalist form’ (p. 136) and segues into communism. ‘The history of the dictatorship of the proletariat’, as Balibar remarks, ‘is the history of the development and of the resolution of this contradiction’ (p. 136).
It’s in this ‘economic’ sense, then, in addition to the ‘political’ dimension of the proletarian state (though of course these two dimensions are not wholly distinct and the tendential movement toward communism also progressively merges ‘political’ and ‘economic’ relations), that socialism/the DoP represents a contradictory reality that expresses within itself a battle between two different modes of production. In this way, as Balibar rather nicely puts it, socialism is ‘two worlds within the same world, two epochs within one single historical epoch’ (p. 146). The transition from one to the other can only take the form of a long process of struggle, but moreover, this process can only unfold if, from the start, it is understood that ‘the effective realisation of socialism is only possible from the standpoint of communism’ (p. 63). That is, communism should not be treated as a distant ideal – i.e. the idea that first we consolidate socialism and only then, beyond that, does communism come on to the historical agenda. Instead, Balibar argues, socialism is nothing other than a process in which communism – already present as a ‘real tendency’ – is progressively instantiated.
Balibar, E. (1977) On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (London, NLB).
Whatever the ambiguities, silences and tensions in Lenin’s vision of the (withering) proletarian state to come in State and Revolution (see previous posts below) the core argument of the text is hard to miss – the old state must be destroyed and replaced with a new one manifesting the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘The workers,’ Lenin is clear, ‘having conquered political power will break up the old bureaucratic apparatus, they will shatter it to its very foundations, until not one stone is left upon the another and they will replace it with a new one’ (pp. 91-2). ‘A revolution’, he emphasises ‘must not consist in the new class ruling, governing with the aid of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing with the aid of a new machinery’ (p. 96) – and further, this process of breaking up the old apparatus he indicates more than once in State and Revolution can and must begin immediately, within 24 hours of the seizure of power. We’ve seen that what specifically Lenin means by the bourgeois ‘state machinery’ (its boundaries, the exact range of its institutional components) is left rather imprecisely stated, but he is certainly clear that what is to be destroyed comprises two core elements – the standing army and what he calls ‘the bureaucracy’.
Most Marxists today seem to agree that whatever the later compromises, retreats and forms of degeneration, this is precisely what happened in the early phase of the Russian revolution under the leadership of Lenin’s Bolsheviks. In this sense then Marxists today tend to take Lenin at his word in State and Revolution, regarding the text as a more or less accurate guide to the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary practice. That is, it is often taken as an established fact, a truism indeed repeated time and time again, that the old Russian state was ‘smashed’ and replaced with a new one based fundamentally on soviet power. Take for example, Ernest Mandel’s comments in his (highly readable) Introduction to Marxism:
The old state apparatus and the Provisional Government collapsed. The Second Congress of Soviets voted by a large majority for the coming to power of the workers’ and peasants’ soviets. Over the vast territory of a great country a state on the model of the Paris Commune had been set up for the first time – a workers state. (Mandel, 1979, p. 109)
Or take Joseph Choonara’s and Charlie Kimber’s Arguments for Revolution where, after echoing Lenin’s argument that the capitalist state must be smashed and replaced ‘with a new kind of state’, it is stated; ‘[t]his is what existed for a period after the Russian Revolution of 1917’ (Choonara & Kimber, 2011, p. 63).
Of course, as the story normally continues the early hopes and intentions of the Bolsheviks were dashed with the revolution’s failure to spread internationally and under the weight of isolation, blockade, foreign intervention, and the brutalising consequences of famine and civil war – not the least of these, the drafting of many of the most committed Bolshevik workers into the Red Army and the wider militarisation of the regime, the exodus of vast numbers of the proletariat to the countryside (with the declassing effects this implied) and the atrophy of the soviets. The general degeneration of the regime it’s often added was directly reflected in its grim trajectory toward ever intensifying bureaucratic centralisation and top down authoritarian statism – a process that reached its apogee with Stalin’s consolidation of his grip on power in the years after Lenin’s death. Whether the Stalinist bureaucratic state apparatus is seen in orthodox Trotskyist terms as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ or as an instance of ‘state capitalism’ (in Tony Cliff’s sense of this term rather than Lenin’s), it’s widely agreed that this was qualitatively different from what had gone before. And what had gone before was a definitely workers’ state modelled closely on the Paris Commune, with soviet power as its key characteristic – a ‘new kind of state’ built upon the smashed ruins of the old.
But whatever the merits of the argument that there was a qualitative difference between the practice and intentions of the Old Bolsheviks under Lenin on the one hand, and Stalinism on the other (an argument I largely agree with incidentally), the central claim here – that the old state was ‘smashed’ in 1917 and a new one based (however fleetingly) on soviet institutions set up in its place – is a myth.
Although Lenin claimed, in his 1918 polemic against Karl Kautsky (in between colourful insults) that in Russia ‘the bureaucratic machine has been completely smashed, razed to the ground’ and, in place of the bourgeois parliamentary state, ‘far more accessible representation has been given to the workers and peasants; their Soviets have replaced the bureaucrats, or their Soviets have been put in control of the bureaucrats’, later pronouncements were quite different.* While it was true of course that the Constituent Assembly had been dispersed (January 1918), in reality much of the old state apparatus remained almost unchanged. A later statement by Lenin from 1923 is quite instructive in this respect (and completely at odds with his earlier declaration that the old bureaucratic machine had been razed to the ground):
Our state apparatus, with the exception of the People’s Commisssariat for Foreign Affairs, represents in the highest degree a hangover of the old one, subjected to only the slightest extent to any serious change. (Lenin, cited in Rigby, 1979, p. 51)
Indeed, as T. H. Rigby demonstrates in his (highly recommended) study of the formation of the ‘Soviet’ system of government in Russia, Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917-1922, Lenin’s later comments here provide a much more accurate guide to the reality of the system put in place after the revolution than his comments in State and Revolution or the Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. As Rigby comments, there was a ‘high level of continuity in the central administrative machine of the Russian state’, before and after the revolution – so much so, that ‘the structural changes’ put into effect by the Bolsheviks ‘were scarcely greater than those sometimes accompanying changes of government in Western parliamentary systems’. ‘The personnel changes were greater,’ he continues, ‘and could perhaps be compared with those occurring in Washington in the heyday of the “spoils system”‘ (Rigby, 1979, p. 51). While it’s certainly more than plausible to say that the old ‘standing army’ was smashed during the revolution (though, of course, a new one was soon built by Trotsky very much along the lines of the old, incorporating many of the same personnel and chains of command) that other core instrument of the old state Lenin identifies – ‘the bureaucracy’ – was not.
As Rigby shows, despite Lenin’s stress in State and Revolution on the non-bureaucratic character of the new proletarian state, ‘equipping itself with an effective bureaucracy was in fact the main preoccupation of the Soviet state during its initial phase’ and moreover, ‘predominantly this expressed itself in efforts to “take over” and “set in motion” the old ministerial machine’ (Rigby, 1979, p. 14). This, of course, was something that could not be achieved immediately and for the first few weeks after the insurrection the first steps toward asserting the authority of the new regime were coordinated by the body that had organised the seizure of power in the capital – the Military Revolutionary Committee. By December 1917, however, with the abolition of the MRC, central authority had passed to what would now form the political nucleus of the revolutionary state: Sovet Narodnykh Komisarov (Council of People’s Commissars) – known as Sovnarkom. Set up by decree of the Second Congress of Soviets within hours of the insurrection, Sovnarkom was tasked with ‘administration of the country up to the convening of the Constituent Assembly’ as a ‘Temporary Worker and Peasant Government’. Membership of Sovnarkom would comprise the chairs of various commissions, or commissariats, that would constitute governmental branches of the revolutionary state, with Lenin as the chair of this central council. Sovnarkom was to operate under the sovereign authority of the Congress of Soviets and its Central Executive Committee (CEC).
Even at this very early stage, at the time of this decree, the similarities between the proposed structure of commissariats and the old ministerial structure inherited by the Provisional Government from the Tsarist regime are very striking. For one thing the division of responsibilities between the various commissariats was virtually identical to that between the old ministries, and further, there seemed little to distinguish Sovnarkom from the pre-revolutionary government executive. Sovnarkom was essentially a ‘cabinet’ of ministers along surprisingly conventional lines. As Rigby comments only two (apparently) important innovations were incorporated into the new structure of government. Firstly, the head of each government department (‘People’s Commissar’) would share authority with a ‘commission’ of which he would be a chairman (and they were all men) – but in reality commissariats rarely functioned in this way. The second major innovation was in terminology. As Rigby puts it:
In calling their government the ‘Council of People’s Commissars’, the Bolshevik leadership were seeking to de-emphasise formal and structural similarities to ‘bourgeois’ governments and to proclaim and dramatise the revolutionary role and class content they believed it to embody (Rigby, 1979, p. 6)
But even here – at the level of mere terminology – differences with the old regime can be exaggerated. As Rigby comments:
That the title of the new government contained the word ‘soviet’ (sovet) some have seen as designed to identify it with the new revolutionary institutions of the masses, as the topmost soviet in a hierarchy of soviets. This supposition seems highly dubious, since sovet is simply the usual Russian word for ‘council’, and the pre-revolutionary government executive had been called Sovet Ministrov (Council of Ministers). Rigby, 1979, p. 7).
The similarities with the pre-revolutionary, Tsarist structure at the apex of the revolutionary state were even further enhanced within a few weeks of the seizure of power with the emergence of ‘Little Sovnarkom’ – a committee set up to deal with minor administrative and financial matters in order to reduce the workload of ‘Full Sovnarkom’. Little Sovnarkom was a carbon copy of the ‘Little Council’ set up to perform a similar function on behalf of the Council of Ministers under the old regime – indeed, Little Sovnarkom may well have been set up on the advice of senior officials who had served in the Imperial government. The core organs of the revolutionary state were also serviced by a Chancellery – its role was mostly to provide secretarial services – not unlike the Chancellery that had performed similar responsibilities under the old system.
But it’s not just at the level of formal similarity that the revolutionary government was structured to conform to the main divisions of the pre-revolutionary administrative machine. Within a few months the new government had also moved literally to incorporate the extant administrative apparatuses (including most of their personnel) left over from the old regime. At first the various commissariats of the new government operated almost entirely from the Smolny Institute (where Sovnarkom was also based and where Lenin had his office) – but this only served as an initial headquarters from which the various People’s Commissars ventured out to seek to establish control over ‘their’ ministries (i.e. the old government departments), at first accompanied by Red Guards. The main task of the commissars at this time was persuade and cajole the old government officials – or at least significant sections of them – to return to work in the ministries under Bolshevik control (now renamed ‘commissariats’). With the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in early 1918, most of the initial resistance among old officials melted away and the People’s Commissars were able to transfer their offices and core support staff from Smolny to the old government department buildings – merging this new staff with the old one. This arrangement did not last long, since with the German advance in the period before Brest-Litovsk, followed by the territorial concessions made under the terms of that Treaty, the decision was made to move the seat of the government from Petrograd to Moscow – much further away from the German army. However, if anything, the shared experience among new and old staff of this transfer in March 1918 and of setting up offices in the new capital seems to have bound them closer together. The main point, here, is that what was transferred to Moscow and re-established there were, for all intents and purposes, the old ministries – their existing structures and much of their personnel more or less in toto.
None of this, of course, is to say that there were no significant changes to the state structures seized by the Bolsheviks. In the months following the revolution there were substantial reorganisations in several commissariats (including the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs mentioned in the 1923 Lenin quotation above) and, in addition, two new organs of government were set up which, as Rigby puts it, ‘were destined before long to assume great importance’ (p. 50) – the Cheka (which first cut its teeth in bloody suppression of ‘anarchists’ in Moscow – against the vigorous protest of local soviet authorities – to establish ‘order’ in preparation for the transfer of the seat of government) and the National Economic Council (NEC). But even here in the case of the NEC, there were strong lines of continuity with the old Ministry of Trade and Industry in terms of its functions and structures. Several of the old institutions of the old imperial state were, of course, destroyed – the monarchy key among these of course. But, as Rigby puts it, when ‘it came to the apparatus of the executive arm of the government, however, destruction was far less apparent’ (p. 51).
What of the soviets though – those organisations of the masses thrown up by the revolutionary struggle? As we have seen, the decree setting up Sovnarkom declared that this organ and the commissariats it coordinated should have been answerable to the Congress of Soviets (represented between congresses by its executive arm, the CEC). Indeed the 1918 Constitution defined the Congress of Soviets as the ‘supreme authority’ of the new Republic. But in practice as Rigby demonstrates, the Congress was soon sidelined by Sovnarkom and indeed, in reality, the former ‘can scarcely be said to have acted as a constraint or even as a serious influence’ (p. 162) on the latter. As the new structures of government solidified after an early period of flux and a kind of power struggle between the CEC and Sovnarkom (resolved in favour of the latter in the first half of 1918 when various departments set up by the CEC were abolished on the grounds that they duplicated the functions of the People’s Commissariats), the role of the Congress had been reduced to that of merely rubber stamping the decisions promulgated by Sovnarkom and as a source of legitimacy for those decrees.
The onset of the civil war further reduced the vitality of the Congress and CEC. In part this reflected the atrophy of local soviets under civil war conditions (and the ascendancy of the Cheka, Defence Council and Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Council as ’emergency’ organs of power), but it also reflected of course the emergence of single party dictatorship making it extremely difficult for other parties to gain representation in the soviets (incidentally, Sovnarkom initially included a small number of Left SRs – but they withdrew in protest at the terms of Brest-Litovsk). An attempt was made at the end of the civil war to revitalise the soviets which involved significant empowerment of the CEC vis-a-vis Sovnarkom (since it was realised that the latter had lost much of its legitimacy, particularly in the eyes of the peasantry, given that it was associated with the widely hated Cheka) – but as Rigby points out, the chief beneficiary of the decline in Sovnarkom’s power was the Communist Party which more and more began to act as an institutional factor of cohesion binding central government to local organs of power and increasingly imposing cohesion too in relation to the bureaucratic dysfunction of the central organs of the political executive of Lenin’s state. By 1921 the party’s Central Committee and its two chief inner organs, the Politburo and Orgburo, were ‘well on the way to becoming the true government of the Soviet Republic’ (p. 178) – a development that reached its culmination of course after Lenin’s death with Stalin’s consolidation of power.
It’s often assumed that the soviets were workplace organisations and that as such their proliferation in 1917 represented the beginnings of a new form of socialist political economy in which the bourgeois distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ began to break down, and in which these organs of proletarian power started, in embryonic forms at least, to displace the prerogatives of capital in terms of investment and production decisions. In fact, as Carmen Sirianni (1982) points out, though there was some overlap between them, the soviets were usually distinct from the organs of power that emerged within workplaces to challenge capitalist ownership and control – the factory committees. As Sirianni documents (see also Brinton 1975 for a Left Communist perspective), in the first months of the revolution hundreds of firms were taken over spontaneously from below by groups of workers forming factory committees, increasingly coordinated by a central organ – the Central Council of Petrograd Factory Committees (whose aegis in practice extended well beyond that city). Indeed, Sirianni argues that the evidence shows that the factory committees had notable successes in terms of improving productivity. But as we’ve seen in a previous post the Bolshevik leadership sought very vigorously to hold back and reverse this wave of spontaneous expropriations from below, informed by Lenin’s view that the immediate task of the revolution was to organise a transitional economy on the basis of ‘state capitalism’ – a situation in which a ‘workers’ state’ would superintend an economic base in which ‘the bourgeoisie would still retain most of the formal ownership and effective management of most of the productive apparatus’ (Brinton, 1975, p. 13).
In fact (after the October seizure of power at least) the Bolshevik leadership was overwhelmingly hostile toward the factory committee movement – Lenin wanting to restrict the involvement of workers in tasks of economic coordination to basic functions of ‘accounting and checking’ rather than anything approaching substantial decision-making power. Indeed the main function of the NEC (one of the new organs of government power mentioned above) was to rein in the factory committees, bringing them under the domination of the much more conservative and pliable trade unions, in a struggle to stamp out what the Bolshevik leadership regarded as deviant ‘syndicalist’ tendencies among the proletariat. The organs of mass struggle manifesting workers’ control of industry, then, fared even worse under Lenin than the soviets. Neither soviets nor (much less) factory committees constituted the real heart of power in the early months and years of the revolution – the major seat of power in this the ‘heroic period’ of the revolution was Sovnarkom and the commissariats.
The main structures of the ‘workers’ state’, then, that emerged under Lenin’s leadership looked very little like the description in State and Revolution. At its core were institutions and structures inherited directly and often more or less wholesale from the overthrown old regime. What might explain this? It’s very hard to account for it in terms of forced and reluctant compromises in response to civil war and the failure of the revolution to spread, because, as we have seen, the new regime’s efforts to consolidate itself were focused from the start on getting control of the extant machinery of government power and setting them in motion under a new leadership. Indeed as Rigby remarks, a ‘Russian revolutionary intent on “destroying the entire old state machine” might reasonably be expected to move quickly to the abolition of the august ministries inherited from the Tsars’ (p. 13) – but this is precisely what Lenin did not do. Of course one way of explaining all of this might be to say, along with the usual libertarian communist critique, that Lenin’s apparent turn toward a soviet, commune inspired vision in 1917 was merely a duplicitous ruse to broaden support for the Bolshevik party – part of a wider libertarian rhetoric soon dropped after the seizure of power once it no longer suited Bolshevik purposes.
But there is perhaps one fundamental line of continuity between State and Revolution and the actuality of the revolutionary state under Lenin. As we have seen, Lenin’s argument rests on a distinction between ‘politics proper’ – the domain of force and class suppression – on the one hand, and ‘non-political’ revolutionary administration on the other. This in turn seems to pivot on a utopian telos in which it is assumed that the overthrow of the old ruling class and consolidation of a workers’ state should lead eventually but inexorably (at least as long as this overthrow was generalised internationally, presumably) to communist abundance and the abolition of ‘politics’. While there seems little indication (beyond the setting up of Rabkrin, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate, in 1920 at least) of any real attempt to transform the administrative functions of the commissariats into ‘simple operations of registration, filing and checking’ to be performed by the masses themselves, Lenin’s understanding of ‘politics proper’ may retain its relevance. As Rigby suggests (though he also says this of Marxism more broadly), Lenin was supremely uninterested in constitutional or institutional forms – what really mattered was power: who held it, and which class forces did they represent. It may well have been, then, that for Lenin, as long as the Bolsheviks/ Communist Party held state power, and used this to hold down counter-revolutionary forces, the institutional forms in and through which this power was manifested really did not matter very much.
Nevertheless, it cannot be emphasised too much that the central argument of State and Revolution – a ‘revolution must not consist in the new class ruling, governing with the aid of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing with the aid of a new machinery’ – was not followed through in practice by the Bolsheviks in power. Indeed the major strategic dichotomy that has been drawn by ‘Leninists’ ever since between, on the one hand, ‘reformists’, ‘left reformists’ and so on who seek to utilise existing state institutions, and, on the other hand, ‘revolutionaries’ who seek to ‘smash’ and replace that state machinery on the basis of what Lenin’s Bolsheviks are purported to have attempted (or briefly achieved), pivots on a misunderstanding/ misrepresentation of the historical reality. As we have seen the bureaucratic apparatus of the old regime in Russia was not smashed at all – in fact Lenin’s party sought, precisely, to ‘lay hold of’ this ‘ready-made state machinery’ and to ‘wield it for its own purposes’.
* Kautsky, incidentally, has Lenin’s measure in this respect in the exchange that followed. Though he seems to agree that the Bolsheviks had got rid of the old state machine, he is clear (in a 1921 response to Trotsky) that the state apparatus presided over by Lenin looked nothing at all like the Paris Commune in any respect save one. The only way in which the Bolsheviks had remained faithful to the Commune and the Marx of 1871 had been in their merging of executive and legislative powers – and even then, as Kautsky points out, this was the worst aspect they could have copied in the circumstances of party dictatorship, ‘since the Commune’s unified powers rested on popular representation elected by universal suffrage’ (Salvadori, 1979, 270). For more on this see Salvadori, 1979, pp. 267-77.
Brinton, M. (1975) The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917 to 1921: the State and Counter-Revolution (Montreal, Black Rose)
Choonara, J. & Kimber, C. (2011) Arguments for Revolution: the Case for the Socialist Workers Party (London, SWP)
Lenin, V. I. (2002) The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Available: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/
Lenin, V. I. (2011) State and Revolution (Mansfield Centre CT, Martino)
Mandel, E. (1977) Introduction to Marxism (London, Inks Links)
Rigby, T. H. (1979) Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917-1922 (Cambridge, CUP)
Salvadori, M. (1979) Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880-1938 (London, NLB)
Sirianni, C. (1982) Workers Control & the Socialist Democracy: the Soviet Experience (London, Verso)
As suggested in the previous blogpost Lenin’s outline of the main features of the proletarian state to come is difficult to pin down. As also noted before, Lenin – as an historical materialist – could hardly be expected to draw up a detailed blueprint, but even so, his account of the major institutional forms of the proletarian dictatorship he envisages is remarkably hazy. There seem to be three basic and ambiguously intertwined forms of proletarian power in Lenin’s description – the state ‘in the shape of armed workers’ (the passages that suggest in Miliband’s terms ‘unmediated class rule’), the commune and/ or soviet institutions he mentions, and the surviving forms of state officialdom that he describes. Now perhaps I’m overthinking this, but I find it very difficult to grasp how these three forms are articulated in his description. At times he seems to suggest a synonymity between two or three of them and at other times they seem to be distinct things. So for example the officialdom he discusses, drawing on Marx’s account of the Paris Commune, seem, one would assume at least, to be officials within the ‘commune’ structures he mentions. But there’s a confusion here insofar as he seems to suggest that these ‘communes’ are more or less interchangeable with a distinct, but structurally similar alternative – the soviets (and that therefore in a proletarian state that incorporates soviet forms, state officialdom would work within these organs). The problem is that he also describes the soviets as an example of the ‘simple organisation of the armed masses‘ (p. 75) – in which case they do not seem to be part of the new (withering, semi-) bureaucracy/apparatus at all. Indeed, later on he seems to suggest that ‘workers’ deputies’ (soviet deputies??) will ‘superintend the management of the apparatus’ (p. 91)- implying an organisational distinction between soviet organs and the (withering, semi-) bureaucracy/apparatus.
At another point Lenin talks, incredibly confusingly, of:
the conversion of all citizens into workers and employees of one huge “syndicate” – the whole state – and the complete subordination of the whole of the work of this syndicate to the really democratic state of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. (p. 80)
Here of course (and in relation to the notorious comments about the marvellous rational efficiency of the German Post Office as a model for socialism), many readers focus on Lenin’s slightly alarming enthusiasm for the proletarian state as gigantic, regimented factory (‘the whole of society will have become one office and one factory’ (p. 84)) – but what also strikes me about this passage is its logical confusion. Does it make sense for Lenin to say that the huge syndicate is the state (‘the whole state’) while also saying in the same sentence that the work of this state is subordinated to… the state which is actually the soviets? It doesn’t make sense to me.
Neither is it really entirely clear what ‘withers’. Certainly centralised bureaucracy – presumably including all forms of officialdom – falls away and does so in proportion to increasing participation on the part of workers in the administrative business of the state as this business in turn is progressively ‘reduced to such simple operations of registration, filing and checking’ etc. etc. But do the soviets – those ‘simple organisation[s]’ of the masses – wither? As organs of class power (and thus, for Lenin, essentially organs of class violence – and he tends to emphasise that these simple organisations are specifically armed organisations) presumably they do – but this, of course, brings us squarely to the problem of institutional mediation.
Indeed Lenin’s hazy discussion of communism, drawing in the main on Engels, suggests a future in which all such permanent structures of social mediation have disappeared. Social order and coherence rests entirely on (Engels) ‘simple administrative functions of watching over social interests’ (p. 53) and on the diffusion of shared social norms – a condition in which people have ‘become accustomed to the observance of the elementary rules of social life’ (p. 74). This is not a vision of total harmony or uniformity. Lenin remarks at one point that he ‘does not expect the advent of an order of society in which the principle of subordination of minority to majority will not be observed’ (p. 68) and at another he comments: ‘[w]e are not Utopians, and we do not in the least deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, nor the need to suppress such excesses’ (p. 75). His main point in both of these passages is that under communism ‘the fundamental social cause of excess’ which is ‘the exploitation of the masses, their want and their poverty’ will have been eliminated along with class itself and as such, ‘there is no one to be suppressed – “no one” in the sense of a class, in the sense of a systematic struggle with a definite section of the population’ (p. 75) – and, because of this, ‘no special apparatus of repression’ is needed. Suppression of ‘individual excesses’ and the subordination of minority to majority (presumably on matters of social disagreement) can be effected without the need for such specialised structures.
These are comments that Alex Callinicos, for example, makes much of (along with the well known lines from Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution pertaining to his vision of communism in which there ‘would be the struggle for one’s opinions, for one’s project, for ones’ taste’ and so on) in order to defend Lenin (and classical Marxism more broadly) from the charge that it it posits a vision of absolute harmony (see Callinicos, 1991, pp. 128-31). But while Lenin does not envisage total absence of social conflict or absolute harmony he does seem to envisage something very close to that (and note that there’s nothing in State and Revolution along the lines of Trotsky’s much more dynamic vision of creativity and disagreement – written in 1924, it might be added, at a time when the increasingly sidelined Trotsky had much cause, and quite a lot of leisure-time, to reflect on the importance of difference and meaningful debate). For one thing, even if we do go along with the idea that the abolition of class exploitation will remove a fundamental source of major social conflict, it’s hard to see that the remaining conflict would manifest merely as ‘individual excesses’. Indeed this seems to assume that much of the conflict Lenin thinks will remain is not really about disagreement as such stemming from legitimate differences of opinion or interests, but about managing individual misbehaviour and dealing with transgressions against a widely shared set of ‘thick’ social norms. Further, Lenin gives us absolutely no indication of how the majorities and minorities he speaks of will be determined/discovered (if this is a reference to public decision-making it seems to require some sort of institutional mechanism of deliberation and balloting – yet this goes against Lenin’s emphasis on the withering of permanent institutional structures) and indeed no clear sense of the matters of contention in relation to which these majorities/minorities will coalesce. Is this a reference to debate over public decision-making – or are the minorities here merely the agents of ‘individual excess’?
The problems here are compounded by Lenin’s odd arguments in relation to democracy. As we have seen, Lenin argues that democracy is essentially a form of state and thus a form of class violence and as such something that will wither alongside the state more broadly. So while majorities and minorities remain under communism – there’s no (need for) democracy. This might lend weight to the second of the two interpretations above in relation to the matters of contention that Lenin seems to think will remain. But Lenin’s whole treatment of ‘democracy’ in this text is extraordinarily confusing. The basic problem is that Lenin seems to oscillate between two different definitions of democracy that aren’t really compatible. On the one hand democracy is a form of state and a form of repression (the subjection of one class by another), but on the other hand, democracy also seems to be conceived in the terms that it would normally be understood – i.e. as a process of collective decision-making encompassing public deliberation, and contestation between alternative view points as part of the social formulation of policy etc.. Even if we allow that the latter process is heavily shaped, structured and bounded by class relations and agree that the interests of the ruling class tend to prevail, the two conceptions of democracy are surely not quite the same thing. Democracy as a process is not reducible to class repression. Here, of course, we start to encroach on the key terms of the later debate between Kautsky and Lenin – and we might indeed agree with Lenin (against Kautsky) that there is no such thing as ‘pure democracy’ in abstraction from the class context in which democratic processes are embedded and institutionalised. We might also agree that parliamentary forms tend to represent ‘the best possible shell for capitalism’ etc.. But none of this means that we can entirely reduce democratic processes to structured forms of repression. In any case, much of what Lenin says about democracy does not make sense if we stick to the stark formulation: democracy as class violence. He speaks for example (quite accurately of course) of ‘restrictions, exceptions, obstacles for the poor’ that ‘in their sum total… exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics and from an active share in democracy’ (p. 72). A little further on he remarks that the dictatorship of the proletariat will produce ‘an immense expansion of democracy’ (p. 73) for the poor. So, here it seems that democracy is not so much a form of repression but an otherwise good and desirable thing from which the poor are excluded. The repression of the poor stems at least in part from their exclusion from democracy – it does not so much stem from the thing itself. Similarly, what sense does it make to speak of the ‘immense expansion of democracy’ if democracy is merely forcible suppression? What is this substance that is to be expanded if it does not refer to some sort of process of engagement over and above and much more than the suppression of the old ruling class?
We might also note that at one point Lenin remarks that ‘where there is suppression, there is also violence, there is no liberty, no democracy’ (p 73). This makes no sense at all – where there is suppression there is no democracy – given that (a couple of pages earlier) he defines democracy, as we have seen, as ‘a state recognising the subordination of minority to the majority, i.e. an organisation for the systematic use of violence by one class against another’. So democracy is essentially violence but is also something that cannot really exist where there is any violence? Incidentally we should also note, perhaps, the sinister logic lurking in the quotation in the first line of this paragraph above – ‘where there is suppression’ (as indeed there will be under the dictatorship of the proletariat) ‘there is no liberty, no democracy’ – does this not, despite the references to expanding liberties (for the workers) elsewhere, seem pre-emptively to justify any degree of curtailment of these things in the transition period, since for as long as the (proletarian) state exists, the freedoms that it promulgates are essentially illusory and unreal anyway?
But democracy – certainly in the sense of class power, but also (it seems?) in the sense of collective deliberation and decision-making on the basis of alternative conceptions of potential courses of action (which is itself essentially a form of class violence??) – seems to disappear under communism, withering alongside the state, with which it is intrinsically bound up. Here again, is a vision of communism in terms of (something close to) the classic utopian myth of ultimate and complete social harmony.
Of course, Lenin is clear that (the higher phase of ) communism lies in the far distant future. But similar problems seem to lurk in his account of the immediate post-revolutionary period too. What’s very striking about his discussion of the institutions of proletarian power is that their function (other than repression of the old ruling class) seems to be reduced entirely to processes of technical administration. Delegates, officials and other participants within them engage in ‘simple operations of registration, filing and checking’, ‘accountancy and control’, ‘watching, recording and issuing receipts’ and so on – but there’s absolutely nothing about mass participation in the formation and revision of policy. In fact there’s little indication that the soviets or other organs of proletarian power are sites of discussion or debate (there’s a brief line in this respect (p. 41) – ‘[t]he venal and rotten parliamentarian of bourgeois society is replaced in the Commune by institutions in which freedom of opinion and discussion does not degenerate into deception…’) and very little indication at all to suggest that they are arenas of deliberation or of consensus formation, or to facilitate democratic mediation of popular differences or even that different ideological and political currents will operate within them. There’s certainly no indication that these organs are a terrain of competition between different parties. Famously, indeed, Lenin hardly mentions even the vanguard party in State and Revolution, let alone gives any sense that party pluralism continues under the dictatorship of the proletariat. The institutions of the proletarian state seem curiously lifeless, sterile and uniform places in which participants simply ‘get on with the job’ of administrating society as if this was some straight-forward, value-free process about which there can be no disagreement or differences of judgement.
Indeed Lenin’s whole approach seems ultimately to rest on a distinction between ‘politics proper’ on the one hand, and a ‘non-political’, ideologically neutral form of technical administration, on the other. Following Marx and Engels, as Sirianni points out, Lenin ‘narrowly delimits the category of “politics” to the struggle between hostile classes’ and so (just as the state in his analysis is entirely collapsed into repressive force) ‘[p]olitics and political power in the transition are thus defined solely in terms of the suppression of the class enemies of the proletariat’ (Sirianni, 1982: 278). It follows from this that there are no properly political differences among the proletariat – and thus little basis for significant divisions between them. Indeed this view seems to underpin Lenin’s assumption of an absolutely identity of interest between the working class and ‘their’ proletarian state (in fact, to the extent that there seems to be little institutional mediation at all, an absolute identity full stop – the proletarian state is the proletariat). As Sirianni among many others has pointed out, it does not seem to cross Lenin’s mind that this state might ever develop interests opposed to, or act against the wishes of, the mass of the proletariat or even significant sections of it. This blindspot in Lenin’s thinking would of course, come back to haunt the Bolsheviks not long after the revolution forcing them to come up with ever more elaborate ways to justify a party dictatorship that clearly could not rely, to say the least, on the absolute support of the entire working class: (Trotsky, 1921: ‘The party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship regardless of the temporary wavering in the spontaneous moods of the masses, regardless of the temporary vacillations even in the working class’). Incidentally, Kautsky absolutely nails Lenin on this matter in his 1918 critique of the Bolsheviks’ practice – The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Here Kautsky points out that that Lenin simply asserts a summary identification of the working class with the Bolsheviks and the Soviet government but provides no indication of how the purported support of the former for the latter two might be verified. He also points out, quite rightly, that the working class is heterogenous and that class interests can be formulated and represented in various different ways. These points, by the way, are studiously ignored in Lenin’s blisteringly caustic response, The Proletarian Revolution and The Renegade Kautsky.
But, back to the distinction between ‘politics proper’ and revolutionary administration…. The institutions of the dictatorship of the proletariat thus perform a dual task – only one of which is properly ‘political’. Its political function is to organise the suppression of the old ruling class via the application of force. But its other (‘non political’) function is to train and educate the proletariat in the business of revolutionary administration. In time the first function becomes more and more unnecessary and falls away while the second one eventually produces a society in which all can take part in a process of post-political, post-democratic (and post-institutional??) governance conceived in terms of a sort of mass participatory technocracy. Sirianni (see, Sirianni, 1982: pp. 261-88) argues convincingly that Lenin’s argument here is informed by a utopian telos. Lenin, that is, (like many figures of the Second International) believed that the origins of the state and ‘political’ conflicts more broadly lay solely in the existence of material scarcity and the division of society into classes and also appears to have believed (again, like many others) that these conflicts would inevitably disappear with the abolition of capitalism and the advent of communist ‘abundance’. Thus there was little reason to fear the solidification of new relations of political domination once the old ruling class was overthrown – the proletarian state after all could be nothing other than temporary and would, at any rate, be a semi-‘state’ in an advanced condition of decomposition from the start. All that remained to be done was the continued application of revolutionary violence for a relatively short period to hold down the bourgeoisie as it exited the historical scene, while the masses were trained up in the simple skills necessary to administer a society of more or less harmonious uniformity. As Sirianni puts it:
Lenin’s tendency to conceive of mass participation in the construction of socialism largely in terms of technical administration is theoretically contiguous with his conception of communist society as an administrative utopia where the need for democracy itself vanishes and all individual and social interests are harmonised more or less automatically. (Sirianni, 1982: 282).
From this perspective, indeed, Lenin’s (temporary) enthusiasm for soviets from mid 1917 rested not on the view that these institutions represented ideal vehicles for working class emancipation on the basis that they provided democratic fora for the collective formulation of, and control over, policy – Lenin wasn’t really very interested in that – but simply because they provided a way to involve the masses in administrative tasks. Lenin is often presented by his admirers as a radical democrat – and he was, in a sense. The democracy he envisaged was a form of governance in which participation would be generalised as widely as possible – all would eventually be involved equally in the various remaining tasks of running post-capitalist society. But mass participation is not quite the same thing as democracy in the sense that most of us would understand that concept.
Callinicos, C. (1991) The Revenge of History: Marxism and the East European Revolutions (Cambridge, Polity)
Lenin, V. I. (2011) State and Revolution (Mansfield Centre CT, Martino)
Sirianni, C. (1982) Workers Control & the Socialist Democracy: the Soviet Experience (London, Verso)
I was going to write a single blogpost (the second in a planned series of three) on the ambiguities and tensions in State and Revolution and also argue, with reference to the actual process of revolution in Russia (drawing on T H Rigby’s brilliant study), that the commonly held belief that the Bolsheviks ‘smashed’ the state (however briefly) is a myth. In retrospect this was over-ambitious and the blogpost became a bit of a beast. So I’m probably going to have to break this one down into three – and expand the series to five(!!!) Here’s the first bit.
The major arguments Lenin advances in the State and Revolution are well known. Carmen Sirianni provides a usefully succinct summary:
The basic premiss of [Lenin’s] new position was taken primarily from Marx’s writings on the Commune: the proletariat cannot simply lay hold of the existing state apparatus and use it for its own purposes. Rather, this apparatus has to be smashed (zerbrechen), and an entirely new one created, fully responsive to the control of the people. The political instrument for the oppression of labour by capital cannot be the instrument for emancipation from this oppression. The main characteristics of such a state – which immediately begins to wither away since it no longer stands as an independent force above the people – are: full election and instant recall of all officials, the right to vote to working people only [Note: Sirianni is not quite correct here – as Lenin points out in his later polemic against Kautsky there is no mention of restricting the franchise in S&R], full publicity of all governmental affairs, the unity of executive and legislative functions, the suppression of a standing army and civil bureaucracy (though not of the technically trained experts within them), the payment of workers’ wages to all officials, and the enlistment of all working people in the business of state administration. Such a state would be dictatorial in relation to the old ruling classes and counter-revolutionary resistance. But it would be democratic in a new way in that it would truly represent the majority of the population. (Sirianni, 1982: p. 267)
A number of further points should be added to this summary. Lenin emphasises that ‘Two institutions are especially characteristic’ (p. 26) of the bourgeois state machinery – the bureaucracy and the standing army. This is why it is particularly important that these institutions must be suppressed by the revolutionary proletariat. These structures seem to constitute the core of the bourgeois state machinery for Lenin, but it is not quite clear in State and Revolution whether they together constitute the capitalist state in its entirety.
Certainly, state power seems to be more or less wholly reducible to the exercise of force – and, more specifically, the organisation of class repression. As Lenin puts it in one of his many very similar formulations: ‘The state is a special organisation of force; it is the organisation of violence for the suppression of some class’ (p.22). As such the main function of the proletarian state will be to organise the suppression of the old ruling class (though he also adds, somewhat ambiguously, a second function – ‘guiding the great mass of the population – the peasantry, the petty-bourgeoisie, the semi-proletarians – in the work of organising Socialist economy’ (p. 22)). But since this state will manifest the power of the majority in society over the minority it will no longer exist as a separate and distinct organ of power – it will be transformed from ‘a state of bureaucrats’ into a ‘state of armed workers’. Indeed Lenin is most emphatic that, in essence at least, the proletarian state is simply the workers armed – while it is ‘a state machine nevertheless’ it manifests ‘in the shape of armed workers who proceed to form a militia involving the entire population’. ‘What is involved here,’ Ralph Miliband comments, ‘to all appearances, is unmediated class rule’ (Miliband, 1983: 157) and certainly there are passages in State and Revolution that seem to indicate that little or no political or institutional mediation of working class power will be necessary, but these seem in rather awkward tension with those passages that indicate the survival of some form of governmental officialdom. True, Lenin is clear that all working people should take part in the business of societal administration, thus merging to a some extent government with the people (and, it seems evident, the more advanced this process of merger, the more the state withers), but it is also clear that there will be representative officials (subject to election and instant recall) and further Lenin discusses the hiring of technical experts to work under the supervision and control of the armed workers. Additionally we should note that Lenin’s discussion of the proletarian state clearly indicates that soviets and/or ‘communes’ (he does not seem to think that these two forms are synonymous) will play an important role in the new order (though note also that soviets specifically are only very fleetingly mentioned).
Finally we should add that though Lenin indicates that democracy (for the majority) will immensely expand under the dictatorship of the proletariat, it (democracy) will also begin to wither away in lockstep with the withering of the state. This is because for Lenin democracy is ‘not identical with the subordination of the minority to the majority’ – rather it is ‘a state recognising the subordination of the minority to the majority, i.e., an organisation for the systematic use of violence by one class against another, by one part of the population against another’ (p. 68). This striking (and rather odd) aspect of Lenin’s argument, in my view, is often glossed over or ignored in the commentary on him – particularly by his admirers who tend to be rather more keen to stress the expansively democratic part of his vision of socialism than they are to dwell on his emphatic comments that actually democracy is a form of class violence and that as such communism will entirely dispense with it.
As is often noted (and as the summary above indicates) State and Revolution is riddled with tensions and ambiguities. Indeed reading it can be a thoroughly confusing and frustrating experience. Lenin can seem to be saying one thing in one passage and then almost the complete opposite in the next. Indeed there are single passages that are so ambiguous that they might plausibly be interpreted in starkly opposed ways (see Miliband pp 159-60 for example). I can’t (I hope) be the only person to have read State and Revolution through several times and still not be entirely sure what the hell he’s arguing! Some of the ambiguity and vagueness of the text of course is clearly determined by the historical context in which it was written and by the particular purposes of Lenin in writing it. We should not forget that it was no part of Lenin’s perspective to imagine that he could or should, in Marx’s phrase, write recipes for the cook-shops of the future. Even if, at the time of writing State and Revolution, this future for Lenin was not necessarily so far off, he did not see it as a legitimate part of his work at that time to draw up a detailed blueprint setting out the institutional structures of a post revolutionary society and we should not expect to find one in the text. Even so, for a ‘sacred text’ that is, in Miliband’s words ‘commonly held within the Marxist tradition, to provide a theoretical and indeed a practical solution’ to the question of the state and the socialist exercise of power it is remarkably vague and unclear in many fundamental respects (and not all of these have to do with future institutional forms).
The first thing we might note here is that Lenin does not really succeed in fully substantiating his (fundamental) argument that the bourgeois state is intrinsically, necessarily and absolutely bourgeois – in the end he merely asserts this view with reference to the correctness of particular quotations taken from Marx and Engels (and sometimes Lenin’s interpretation of these quotations seems rather questionable – see, again, for example Miliband pp 164-5). Indeed, as Erik Olin Wright (1983, pp. 181-225) has elucidated, Lenin sets out what is overall a highly functionalist view of the capitalist state. As I have put it elsewhere:
As Wright suggests, Lenin treats the organisational form of the state as conceptually subordinate to the question of its structural function. That is, Lenin is much less interested in identifying the specific institutional mechanisms through which bourgeois hegemony is reproduced within and through the state, than he is in arguing that the state necessarily performs a particular function determined by the class structure in which the state is embedded. His argument ultimately rests on the assertion as an axiom of the view he draws from Marx that the state is ‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’. This line of reasoning, in itself though, explains very little about how, precisely, the state reforms the function that has been assigned to it and on what basis it is bound necessarily in every instance and at all times to perform this task. (Rooksby, 2018)
Further, as Perry Anderson has pointed out, “State and Revolution, is wholly generic in its discussion of the bourgeois state – which could be anywhere in the world from the way in which he treats it” (Anderson, 1976: 117). This is very strange given that at the time Lenin was writing, as Anderson goes on to point out, the Russian state “was categorically distinct from the German, French, English or American states with which the quotations from Marx and Engels on which Lenin relied had been concerned.” Lenin as master-tactician is widely admired among Marxists for his penetrating ability to grasp political conjunctures in their full complexity and to extrapolate quickly and flexibly from this in terms of tactical manoeuvres. But there’s little of this sort of sensitive conjunctural analysis in State and Revolution where the focus of his analysis often seems to hover in a strange non-place. The generic and unspecific nature of Lenin’s argument isn’t merely confined to his analysis of bourgeois states, of course – it also impinges on his account of the dictatorship of the proletariat which, again, seems to hover in a hazy nowhere in particular. It’s interesting to recall the literal definition of the term utopia here (no place) and to set Lenin’s vision in this context – perhaps, with not a little irony, the no place setting of State and Revolution reflects the (subdued, disavowed?) utopian dimension of his argument.
This vagueness in terms of geographical location becomes particularly significant once we remember that Lenin thought that the immediate tasks and possibilities of the revolution would, in very fundamental respects, be quite different in Russia to those that would pertain in more ‘advanced’ countries. Even after Lenin shifted from his essentially two-stage ‘model’ of transition (in which ‘the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ would take power in Russia in order to perform the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, limiting itself to these for the time being before – in the much further future – the struggle for socialism itself could really begin) to something very close to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, he still maintained that the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia would not be able to move immediately toward full socialisation of the economy given the industrial ‘backwardness’ of the country. Things are a little complicated in this respect given that Lenin seems to have believed that the historical stage of ‘state monopoly capitalism’ or ‘state capitalism’ that prevailed as the dominant form of capitalism internationally was contiguous with socialism. It was ‘a rung on the ladder of history between which and the rung called socialism there are no intermediate rungs‘. More than this, in fact, socialism is ‘nothing but state capitalism made to benefit the whole people’. So even in Germany or Britain, the dictatorship of the proletariat would still preside over an economy still run on lines at least broadly similar in some respects to what had gone before under the ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’. Even so, Lenin’s particular conception of ‘state capitalism’ in conditions of soviet (political) power in Russian conditions seems to have been much more limited.
Indeed Lenin’s vision for Russia appears to have been to introduce state capitalism along similar lines to the existing German model – he thought that the major economic task of the revolution would be to speed up the process of industrialisation and economic centralisation in Russia on a still fundamentally capitalist basis. Soviet organs would perform supervision and ‘control’ functions in relation to an economy in which basic relations of production remained essentially unchanged and in which private ownership was still the norm. Indeed, as Sirianni points out, soon after the seizure power, meetings were organised between Bolshevik representatives and various groups of capitalists to discuss proposals for setting up state-capitalist trusts in order to guarantee the continued flow of private investment into Russian industry. Further (as Sirianni also details – see pp. 103-4) in the first months of the revolution the Bolsheviks sought strenuously to prevent and hold back the wave of spontaneous worker organised expropriations of capitalist property – supporting the retention of private ownership in most cases (you don’t hear much about this from present day Leninists!). Despite the much more realistic assessment of the situation by many proponents of ‘workers’ control’ among factory committees (i.e. why on earth would you expect capitalists to invest in a revolutionary regime that proclaimed that its major aim was (eventually) to make capitalists and capital obsolete?) Lenin seems to have been convinced for quite some time that big capital could be induced to finance the first period of the Russian transition to socialism. It was only very reluctantly and through sheer unavoidable necessity in conditions of near economic collapse that in June 1918 the new regime (performing one of its many u-turns) moved decisively to nationalise all large industrial enterprises. So a key ambiguity in State and Revolution, then, is whether or not we are supposed to read what he (vaguely) describes in terms of the governance of a post-revolutionary regime as something that would apply specifically in Russia or somewhere else like Germany. Given the differences in terms of what he seems to have thought were the immediate possibilities in these different places, it’s surely a significant question – yet he gives us no clear indication of an answer.
One of the most fundamental ambiguities in the text in my view is that it is not entirely clear what he means by the destruction of the bourgeois state machine. This is particularly fundamental because of course it’s the main concern of Lenin’s polemic – the bourgeois state must be smashed. Most readers seem to think this is a relatively straightforward dimension of his argument – the entire bourgeois state must be entirely destroyed – and indeed there are passages in State and Revolution that seem absolutely unambiguous in this respect: ‘The workers having conquered political power, will break up the old bureaucratic apparatus, they will shatter it to its very foundations, until not one stone is left upon the another and they will replace it with a new one’; (pp. 91-2); ‘A revolution must not consist in the new class ruling, governing with the aid of the old state machinery, but in this class smashing this machinery and ruling, governing with the aid of a new machinery’ (p. 96); ‘revolution consists in the proletariat’s destroying the “administrative apparatus” and the whole state machinery and replacing it with a new one consisting of the armed workers’ (p. 96). These among other similar passages seem pretty clear – the old state is totally and absolutely destroyed and is also totally and absolutely replaced. And yet here too there are equivocations and ambiguities. For one thing in the section from which the latter two of the three quotations above is taken, Lenin (the context is that he’s attacking Kautsky for his ‘superstitious reverence’ for existing state ministries) appears to argue that, while it would be possible and preferable to replace existing ministries with ‘commissions of specialists’, it doesn’t in the end really matter if the ministries remain (‘this is quite unimportant’) – ‘The main thing’, he continues, ‘is whether the old state machinery (connected by thousands of threads with the bourgeoisie and saturated through and through with routine and inertia) shall remain or be destroyed and replaced by a new one’. This is very odd because it seems to suggest that the old ministries are in some way detachable from the ‘old state machinery’ – that to retain them would not necessarily mean the retention of the old ‘administrative apparatus’. This strange manoeuvre by the way becomes highly significant once we examine the structure of the ‘soviet’ state under Lenin into which the old state ministries were more less incorporated wholesale and unchanged (but renamed ‘Commissariats’) – this is for a future blogpost….
For another thing Lenin’s approving quotations of Marx and Engels on the state include Engels’ remarks from the Preface to the Civil War in France about how the state is, ‘at best, an evil, inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle… whose worst side the proletariat… will have at the earliest opportunity to lop off…’ and Marx’s comments from that text pertaining to the ‘legitimate functions’ of the ‘old governmental power’. Lenin gives no indications that these phrases throw up any complications or problems at all. Of course it might be argued that Engels is talking about ‘the state’ in a very general sense – i.e. the proletariat inherit the abstract necessity of state power (rather than taking possession of particular state organs). But it’s hard to read it in this way – and the image of ‘lopping off’ surely suggests that they take hold of the extant bourgeois machinery and get rid of the worst bits of it while (presumably) keeping hold of other parts. Marx’s reference to ‘legitimate functions’ furthermore, throws Lenin’s apparent assumption (and indeed Engels’ from whom he gets the quotation!) that the state is ‘nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another’ into some confusion. The idea of ‘legitimate functions’ on the part of the old state suggests, of course, that the activities of the state are not wholly reducible to class violence. A similar problem hovers in relation to Lenin’s occasional and fleeting reference (mentioned above) to a guidance function to be performed by the proletarian state.
Indeed, elsewhere in his writing at about this time, as T H Rigby points out, Lenin seems to introduce a qualification to his comments in State and Revolution about the destruction of the old state. ‘Lenin’, he comments, ‘distinguished between the repressive, chinovnik, aspects of the old state machine and its modern, regulative – especially economic-regulative aspects’ (Rigby, 1979, p. 13). Lenin comments in this regard:
This apparatus we need not and must not destroy. It must be wrested from subjection to the capitalists, the capitalists and their lines of influence must be cut away, sliced away, hacked away from it, it must be subjected to the proletarian soviets, it must be made broader, more all-embracing, more part of the whole people. (Lenin, cited in Rigby, 1979, p. 13)
So here, Lenin seems to allow that certain institutions of the old state, and the functions they perform, might be integrated within the new one if suitably purged and reconfigured. Of course we might remind ourselves here that Lenin seems to think that the core of the bourgeois state is constituted by the standing army and ‘the bureaucracy’ and wonder perhaps if it is his argument in State and Revolution that only these certain apparatuses that are to be smashed while others (economic-regulative) may be retained. But for one thing it is difficult to see how ‘the bureaucracy’ might be so defined as to exclude economic-regulative apparatuses (think of the modern UK Department of Transport for example – in what sense is this not part of the wider state ‘bureaucracy’). For another, this line of thought seems in tension with his rather stark formulations that state power is always definitely the political power of a particular class – the idea that some state apparatuses may (partially) escape this logic doesn’t seem to flow from this at all. Furthermore the distinction implied here between ‘good’ aspects and ‘bad’ aspects of the bourgeois state is almost precisely what Lenin later excoriates Vandervelde for in an appendix to The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Here Lenin taxes Vandervelde for his attempt to distinguish between the state in the ‘broad sense’ and the state in the ‘narrow sense’. Vandervelde argues that when Marx and Engels spoke of the abolition of the state they meant only the state in a ‘narrow sense’ of the term i.e. its repressive, authoritarian dimensions. They did not mean that the state in its ‘broad sense’ – as an organ of guidance and the representative of society’s general interests – should or could be destroyed. Lenin ridicules this – but isn’t this exactly the sort of distinction that differentiation between the repressive aspects of the old state and its economic-regulative apparatuses itself must turn on? So in other words, Lenin seems to oscillate between, on the one hand, formulations that appear to pivot on a very stark logic pertaining to the absolutely capitalist nature of the entire bourgeois state and thus the need to destroy it totally and, on the other hand, more apparently qualified positions that seem to disrupt and undermine that logic.
Anderson, P. (1979) Considerations on Western Marxism (London, Verso)
Lenin, V. I. (2002) The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Available: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/
Lenin, V. I. (2011) State and Revolution (Mansfield Centre CT, Martino)
Miliband, R. (1983) Class Power & State Power (London, Verso)
Rigby, T. H. (1979) Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917-1922 (Cambridge, CUP)
Rooksby, E. (2018)'”Structural Reform” and the Problems of Socialist Strategy Today’, Critique, Vol. 46, No. 1
Sirianni, C. (1982) Workers Control & the Socialist Democracy: the Soviet Experience (London, Verso)
Wright, E. O. (1983) Class, Crisis and the State (London, Verso)
Over the following blogposts, I want to undertake a critical appraisal of Lenin’s The State and Revolution which, for better or worse, has constituted a fundamental reference point in Marxist thought for the past century. In this first post I’ll examine the genesis and significance of the text drawing heavily on Marian Sawer’s essay ‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’ – and I hope to extrapolate a particular significance of the pamphlet that I don’t think is often grasped. In the post that follows I’ll look a little bit more closely at some of the tensions and incoherences in the text and focus too on what I take to be the core myth of the Bolshevik Revolution – the frequently encountered claim/assumption, rooted in the major precept established by Lenin in The State and Revolution in relation to the necessity of the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus, that the Bolsheviks under Lenin really did ‘smash’ the extant state institutions and replace them (however fleetingly) with soviet power. In the final post I hope to examine one of the most celebrated and conceptually sophisticated defences of the arguments Lenin establishes in The State and Revolution (and closely associated polemical texts such as The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky) – Etienne Balibar’s The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. I want to show in particular how this defence fails to overcome the incoherences in the original and indeed shows up more clearly some fundamental problems of ‘Leninist’ thought in relation to state power.
Lenin’s The State and Revolution is, as Ralph Miliband once remarked, one of the ‘sacred texts’ of Marxist thought – ‘sacred’ in the sense that the argument Lenin develops in relation to the question of the state and the socialist exercise of power has ‘enjoyed an exceptionally authoritative status for successive generations of socialists’ and indeed is ‘commonly held within the Marxist tradition, to provide a theoretical and indeed a practical solution’ to this question. Always something of an embarrassment for the Stalinist regimes given the relatively ‘libertarian’ (though this dimension of the text is often overstated and many have pointed to its at most only half-submerged authoritarian qualities) vision Lenin presents of a commune type workers’ state founded on mass participation, the text has been embraced much more enthusiastically, and with much less bad faith, by anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist currents. Indeed we might say that the State and Revolution is the core canonical text within the ‘Leninist’/ Trotskyist tradition today – a text to which socialists of this type return again and again as the major point of reference for their strategic perspective.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that the historical significance of the text goes well beyond its status as a key point of orientation within Marxist thought and debate. It is surely no exaggeration to say that The State and Revolution is one of the few texts that fundamentally changed the course of modern history since it was in the process of preparing this pamphlet (he did the library research for it, it seems, in the first two months of 1917 in Zurich, only writing these up a few months later while in hiding in Finland after ‘the July days’ – the text was not published until early 1918) that Lenin made the core conceptual leaps and political breaks with his earlier assumptions without which the October seizure of power in Russia would almost certainly not have happened. Lenin’s turn to the idea that the soviet organs that had spontaneously proliferated during the course of the February Revolution manifested revolutionary workers’ power and that , as such, Bolshevik strategy must pivot on the aim of transferring the entirety of state power from the institutions of the Provisional Government to the soviets was first enunciated publicly (much to the shock and disorientation of many of his party comrades) in his ‘April Theses’. But the genesis and gestation of this turn in his strategic orientation was clearly bound up with the research and thinking he put into the notes he made in Jan/Feb 1917 that would eventually be published as The State and Revolution.
Indeed the provenance of this text and what it reveals about Lenin’s changing thought is fascinating. Marian Sawer’s essay, ‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’ traces this process in detail, locating the development of Lenin’s thinking in relation to contemporary controversies among key figures in the Second International. As Sawer argues, the background to Lenin’s theoretical reappraisal of Marxist theory in relation to the state is to be found in the debates among socialists in the wake of the 1905 Russian revolution. For the left of the German SPD in particular, the organs of mass, participatory democracy that had spontaneously emerged in 1905 pointed the way toward forms of extra-parliamentary struggle on which socialists should orient their revolutionary strategy. Rosa Luxemburg took up this argument, of course, in The Mass Strike. But mainstream social democratic thought (before the first world war of course ‘Marxism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘social democracy’ were more or less synonymous terms) – epitomised by that of ‘the Pope of Marxism’, Karl Kautsky – rejected this, arguing that revolutionary struggle had taken the course it had in Russia, precisely because of the backwardness of autocratic Russian conditions and the absence of parliamentary institutions. As such the events of 1905 were ‘proof that political conditions in Russia were not yet ripe for proletarian revolution, rather than being a manifestation of a proletarian form of struggle or the form that a socialist revolution would take’ (Sawer).
As Sawer continues, in ‘1912 the theoretical differences between orthodox German social democracy and its left wing were clarified and sharpened in the course of debate conducted between… Anton Pannekoek and Kautsky on the relationship between the socialist movement and the state’. Pannekoek argued that in focusing its efforts on parliamentary representation, German social democracy ‘was fetishising organisational forms to which Marx had lent his authority in the pre-Paris Commune era’ (Sawer) – while these may have been appropriate while capitalism was still in its ascendant phase, in the ‘period of the decline of the bourgeois order, signalled by the growth of imperialism’ an orientation on parliament should now be seen a positive hindrance to proletarian struggle. Instead the workers’ movement should now focus on the construction, in the course of struggle, of a proletarian power structure that would constitute a real alternative to the bourgeois state – indeed it should seek the destruction of the bourgeois state. In response Kautsky (again, speaking for the orthodox view) stated that:
The goal of our political struggle remains the same as it has been up to now. The conquest of state power through winning a majority in parliament and raising parliament to be the master of government. Not, however, the destruction of state power. (Kautsky, cited in Sawer)
Sawer remarks that Lenin appears not to have been very attentive to this 1912 debate (though he would have been aware of it), but is also clear that Lenin regarded Kautsky’s views as Marxist orthodoxy right up until 1917. There is no evidence at all that before 1917 Lenin held any disagreement with Kautsky’s general position that the revolutionary process would involve the capture of the extant institutions of the bourgeois state by proletarian forces which would then use those institutions to build socialism. Indeed in a polemic with Nikolai Bukharin, Lenin stated in a piece published in December 1916 that:
Socialists are in favour of using the present state and its institutions in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class, maintaining also that the state should be used for a specific form of transition from capitalism to socialism. This transition is the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is also a state. (Lenin, cited in Sawer)
So here, less than a year before the October Revolution (and merely a few months before the ‘April Theses’ called for power to be transferred to the soviets), Lenin quite clearly envisages a very Kautskyan type revolutionary process. But, as Sawer shows, it was in the course of this polemic with Bukharin that Lenin came to a fundamental reappraisal of his thought hitherto on state power and socialist revolution.
The theory of imperialism Bukharin had elaborated in Imperialism and World Economy (1915) – foreshadowing, as Sawer points out, Lenin’s more famous pamphlet on the same theme, published the year after (and, actually, all of the best and most innovative ideas contained in the ‘classical Marxist’ approach to Imperialism were originally Bukharin’s and Hilferding’s not Lenin’s) – led Bukharin to work further on drawing out the implications of his concept of ‘state capitalism’ for socialist strategy. He seems to have worked quite closely with Pannekoek at this time and it was perhaps this connection that convinced Bukharin that the proletariat could not capture the bourgeois state machine, but should instead seek to ‘smash’ it. It was possibly via this route, then, that what were originally fairly marginal left communist ideas as articulated by Pannekoek first really entered the Bolshevik imagination – it was almost certainly the route by which these ideas first significantly impinged on Lenin’s. Bukharin presented his ideas to Lenin in an essay in 1916 entitled ‘Towards a Theory of the Imperialist State’, to be met with scornful hostility. Already suspicious of Bukharin’s ‘Semi-anarchist ideas’, Lenin complained that Bukharin’s ideas on the state were ‘entirely muddled’, ‘un-Marxist and un-Socialist’ and indeed it was in a rejoinder to Bukharin’s essay that Lenin reiterated the orthodox Kautskyan view on the state quoted above. In the same rejoinder Lenin announced his intention to publish a full article on the subject and, as Sawer shows, it was in the course of conducting the research for this article in Zurich in early 1917 that Lenin became converted to Bukharin’s views and thus underwent a 180 degree reversal in his approach to state power. That is, it was the notes that Lenin produced in preparation for an intended refutation of Bukharin’s ‘semi-anarchist ideas’ that went on to form the basis of what was eventually published as The State and Revolution (and, not for the first time, Lenin was to take the credit for ideas that he’d originally encountered via Bukharin with a pamphlet that would overshadow the latter’s prior publication!!)
According to Sawer, Lenin’s conversion emerged from a re-reading – a rediscovery – in January/February 1917 of Marx’s and Engels’ writing on the state in the wake of the Paris Commune. None of Lenin’s writings or speeches up until this point seem to show any awareness, for example, of the famous rider attached to the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto which states ‘… this programme has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Nor does he seem to have paid much attention to the text from which Marx and Engels quote in that rider – Marx’s The Civil War in France. Nor, indeed does Lenin appear previously to have attached much importance to the last chapter of the Eighteenth Brumaire in which Marx, much earlier (1851-2), makes his first comments indicating the necessity of ‘smashing’ the bourgeois state machine – “All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it”. Sawer comments that throughout the notebook Lenin used during his (re)reading of Marx and Engels on the state:
one finds Lenin heavily emphasising and annotating the comments he discovers in Marx and Engels on the need for the proletarian revolution to smash the existing state machine and substitute for it their own form of state, which is already only a ‘half state’ (substituting popular forms of administration for the old bureaucracy, etc.) and which will itself wither away as full communism is reached.
Further, there “are constant references to Kautsky’s (and to a lesser extent Plekhanov’s) suppression or over-looking of the need to smash the existing state apparatus”.
Lenin would, of course, go on to draw heavily on these texts in the middle chapters of the State and Revolution in which he brilliantly traces the trajectory of Marx’s thought on the state as it evolved in response ‘to the solid ground of historical experience’ (S&R, p 27) – ‘it was not logical theorising, but the actual course of events,… living experience’ of revolutionary struggle that allowed Marx to make his theorising in relation to the state and to the necessary form of the dictatorship of the proletariat progressively more and more concrete. In this respect ‘as everywhere, his teaching is the summing up of experience‘. What Lenin says he is doing in this text is presenting a ‘resuscitation’ of these teachings (‘our first task is to resuscitate the real teachings of Marx on the state’ (p. 7)) which have, over time, been obscured and adulterated by opportunism and in particular ‘by the present predominant Kautskyism’. He says of the 1872 rider that the real meaning of Marx’s and Engels’ comments (since, ‘distorted by the opportunists’) ‘probably, is not known to nine-tenths, if not ninety-nine hundredths, of the readers of the Communist Manifesto‘ (p. 33). But it is important to remember, here, as we have seen above, that Lenin himself seems to have been among these ninety-nine hundredths – and, indeed, was himself essentially a follower of the ‘present predominant Kautskyism’ right up until December 1916. There’s no indication of this at all in what Lenin says in The State and Revolution among all the (characteristically) invective denunciation of ‘opportunists’, ‘petty bourgeois democrats’ and so on hurled in the manner of a vengeful prophet returning from the wilderness. Lenin’s ‘resuscitation’ of these ideas came only after a very recent discovery of them on his part for the first time.
As we’ve seen figures such as Bukharin and Pannekoek and (to some extent) Luxemburg had already held to something like the ‘real teachings of Marx on the state’ before Lenin’s sudden conversion, but it was only with his conversion in the wider context of the developing revolutionary process in Russia that these ideas in relation to the necessary destruction of the bourgeois state really make an impact. Where Lenin goes beyond Bukharin and Pannekoek (and Marx) is that he explicitly identifies the soviets as ‘structurally akin to the Commune’ (Sawer) and thus as the historically discovered (core) institutional form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Interestingly, Sawer argues that at the time Lenin was preparing the materials that would go on to become the State and Revolution he had not yet received news of the reappearance of soviets in Russia – and thus the theoretical leap he makes in drawing a connection between Marx’s analysis of the Commune and soviets specifically was informed by a reappraisal of the 1905 revolutionary process. The other major innovation Lenin makes at this time (though foreshadowed somewhat by Pannekoek) was to link Marx’s propositions on the necessary destruction of the bourgeois state with the emergence of dual power as the process that would build toward this outcome. Nevertheless it’s worth pointing out that soviets make only relatively fleeting appearances in Lenin’s pamphlet (far more references to ‘the communes’) – and, indeed, (as Sawer points out) Lenin’s (always rather ambiguous) enthusiasm for soviets would not last long beyond the October Revolution. In fact (as we shall see in a following post) little power was vested in soviet institutions even before their general atrophy during the civil war – within a few weeks of the October insurrection, government power was heavily concentrated in ‘commissariats’ (essentially the old state ministries, renamed and headed up by an appointed ‘commissar’) and by Lenin’s ‘cabinet’ of commissars, Sovnarkom.
Now, given all of the above, here’s my (rather unformed, tentative) suggestion. I’ve already written something see below about ‘reformism’ as a kind of phantom category. My argument was that ‘reformism’ in the sense of a coherent strategic worldview (rather than as an often under-theorised/ untheorised practice – an approach to day to day methods of struggle (clearly as a practical orientation it’s much more real and substantial)) – has never been more than a minority current in the socialist movement. But what if we can go further and say that ‘revolutionary socialism’ in the sense that we understand it today (and, again, as a coherent strategic worldview – a sort of global approach encompassing more than just an orientation to certain forms of struggle, but also to a relatively substantial vision of a particular process of transition to socialism/communism) was essentially invented by Lenin in early 1917? And what if, in the process of this discovery/ invention of a revolutionary tradition (as we understand it today) the necessary ‘other’ of this tradition, ‘reformism’ was also created essentially ex nihilo?
The usual story that’s told in relation to this clear reform/revolution dichotomy is that it can be traced back to the 1890s. That is, a cleavage between revolutionary socialism and reformism begins to open up (particularly within the SPD – the largest, most powerful socialist party within and around which most of the strategic debates of the time tended be concentrated) as a layer of full time parliamentary, party and trade union officials start to drift away from a definitely revolutionary Marxist orthodoxy, pulling with them the mass of passive party members and voters. Of course it’s often acknowledged that this cleavage was only indistinctly and incompletely grasped by many of the key interlocutors involved in the relevant debates at the time – mostly because of the ‘theoretical cover’ for the rightward drift of mainstream social democracy provided more than anyone else by the dissembling arch-renegade Karl Kautsky. It was only really with the double shock of the capitulation of most of the leadership of most member parties of the Second International to the military interests of their national states followed by their hostility to the Bolshevik seizure of power and, in the SPD leadership’s case, their collusion with the Freikorps to crush the Spartacist revolt that those maintaining fidelity to the cause of revolution fully grasped the reality of this long half-submerged divergence. Of course, no one could deny that clear differences of emphasis emerged between the mainstream of social democracy and what Charlie Post calls the ‘militant minority’ of revolutionary activists in relation to political practice – emphasis on parliamentary or extra-parliamentary activity, attitude toward the tactic of the mass strike, the attitude toward socialist politicians joining bourgeois coalition governments and so on. It would be difficult to deny too that these orientations implied certain consequences too in terms of general political trajectory (as Rosa Luxemburg grasped of course in her polemic with Bernstein). But none of this adds up to a clear divergence, at this time, between two coherent strategic visions of socialist transformation. They are much more disagreements about tactics than they are really about a confrontation between different strategies. Even in Luxemburg’s case, the emphasis of her disagreement with Bernstein is that the end of socialist transformation must be kept in view – inseparable from the means chosen – it’s not really the counterposition of coherent ‘revolutionary strategy’ as such with a coherent ‘reformist’ one.
Moreover, the story that mainstream social democracy betrayed a clear and well-established and revolutionary orthodoxy is, I think, untenable. Whatever Marx’s and Engels’ not always consistent views about the possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism (there’s ample ammunition in various of their writings for either one of the ‘reformist’ or ‘revolutionary’ interpretations – although, for what it’s worth, the balance of the evidence, points much more convincingly toward the latter (and so on this Lenin, then, was absolutely right)), the idea that the major parties of the Second International were ever clearly committed in their official ideology to a non-parliamentary, insurrectionary road just isn’t true. ‘Leninist’ thought today tends to present Post’s ‘militant minority’ in the manner of a relatively small group of people holding fast to the established Marxist orthodoxy – keeping the flame of truth alive while others distorted and adulterated it in their drift toward opportunism and so on (just as Lenin tends to present himself as a stalwart of the revolutionary orthodoxy in State and Revolution, rather than somebody who actually has only very recently discovered that Marx thought that the existing state must be smashed). But when you look at the putatively ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxy of the Second International what you find is a widespread assumption that the revolutionary process would look something very like Kautsky’s description of revolution above – winning a majority in parliament, taking control of the existing state institutions and using them against the bourgeoisie and to abolish capitalism, perhaps in the process having to resort to defensive violence to put down a ‘slaveholder’s rebellion’ of the sort mentioned by Engels (referring to Marx’s comments on the US Civil War). So the longstanding ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxy apparently reneged on by the ‘reformists’ looks very much like…. the ‘reformism’ those renegades are said to have taken up. In reality the ‘reformism’ of the Second International ‘reformists’ was in many ways perfectly congruent the ‘revolutionary’ orthodoxy.
So perhaps in the course of producing the State and Revolution Lenin (brilliantly) originates the revolutionary socialist tradition as we understand it today. But in order for this tradition to be retrospectively read back as at least a definite, if not wholly complete, tendency within the Second International prior to 1917 clustering around an established orthodoxy, he must also retrospectively invent its ‘other’ cohering on a trajectory away from that orthodoxy. This is the function assigned to the figure of the renegade Kautsky. Now whatever one thinks of Kautsky it’s almost certainly the case that, as Massimo Salvadori puts it, Kautsky is much ‘more vilified than read’ – indeed what many socialists think of Kautsky is probably coloured almost entirely by their main (very probably their only) encounter with him via Lenin’s polemic The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. In fact, as Salvadori amply demonstrates there’s very little evidence of any apostasy at all on Kautsky’s part – he remained remarkably consistent over time in his view that the parliamentary state provided the basic institutional framework for the ‘revolutionary’ transition to socialism. Even when he spoke of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ he was clear that he was referring to the exercise of proletarian class power via parliamentary institutions. Whether or not this was/is a realistic position to hold the fact is that this was the view to which Kautsky always openly cleaved – and what’s more, as we have seen, it is a position that Lenin himself seems to have had little disagreement with until a few months before he suddenly discovered Kautsky’s longstanding ‘apostasy’. Might we say then that the figure of the ‘renegade Kautsky’ provides a kind of dramatis personae in a newly innovated myth of orthodoxy and betrayal.
So, I suppose what I am suggesting overall is that the revolutionary socialist tradition (as we know it today) – and by extension its reformist other – was essentially invented by Lenin in January/February 1917 while researching a polemic against Bukharin in a Zurich library.
Lenin, V. I. (2011) State and Revolution (Mansfield Centre CT, Martino)
Miliband, R. (1983) Class Power & State Power (London, Verso)
Post, C (2012) ‘What is Left of Leninism? New European Left Parties in Historical Perspective’, The Socialist Register 2013
Sawer, M. (1977) ‘The Genesis of State and Revolution’, The Socialist Register 1977
Toward the end of Considerations on Western Marxism (1976) Perry Anderson makes some interesting remarks about what he sees as the core problem of Lenin’s analysis of the capitalist state and bourgeois democracy in terms of its applicability in a ‘Western’ setting. They are worth quoting in full;
Lenin started his career by acknowledging the fundamental historical distinction between Western and Eastern Europe in What is to be Done? At various later dates (especially in Left-Wing Communism), he alluded to it again. But he never seriously made it an object of Marxist political reflection as such. It is notable that perhaps his greatest work, State and Revolution, is wholly generic in its discussion of the bourgeois state – which could be anywhere in the world from the way in which he treats it. In fact, the Russian state which had just been eliminated by the February Revolution was categorically distinct from the German, French, English or American states with which the quotations from Marx and Engels on which Lenin relied had been concerned. By failing to delimit a feudal autocracy unequivocally from bourgeois democracy, Lenin involuntarily permitted a constant confusion among later Marxists, that was effectively to prevent them from ever developing a cogent revolutionary strategy in the West. This could only have been done on the basis of a direct and systematic theory of the bourgeois-representative state in the advanced capitalist countries and the specific combinations of its machinery of consent and coercion, which were foreign to Tsarism. The practical consequence of this theoretical blockage was the inability of the Third International, founded and guided by Lenin, to achieve any mass implantation in the greatest centres of modern Imperialism in the twenties…. Another type of party and another type of strategy were needed in these societies and were not invented.
These comments are all the more remarkable given that at the time Anderson wrote them he cleaved to a more or less Leninist orientation – and indeed went on to affirm a few years later in his wonderful book Arguments Within English Marxism ‘the greater cogency and realism’, in comparison with the ‘reformism’ of figures such as Nicos Poulantzas and Geoff Hodgson at least, ‘of the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky’. Even here, though, Anderson’s affirmation is less than emphatic. Specifically he admits that ‘the critical weakness’ of this tradition is,
its difficulty in demonstrating the plausibility of counter-institutions of dual power arising within consolidated parliamentary democracies: all the examples of soviets or councils so far have emerged out of disintegrating autocracies (Russia, Hungary, Austria), defeated military regimes (Germany), ascendant or overturned fascist states (Spain, Portugal).*
So, again, the core problem with this strategic approach is the way in which the historical evidence indicates that it does not resonate in societies in which the institutions and traditions of parliamentary democracy are relatively consolidated and have sunk deep roots. Anderson is, surely, absolutely right about this. To think that it’s possible to transplant the dual power model of socialist revolution from the specific circumstances of Russia in February to October 1917 (an autocratic state in conditions of virtual collapse in a society exhausted by a disastrous war) to the very different conditions of, say, Western Europe today, simply doesn’t take the hegemonic strength of bourgeois democracy seriously – whatever the limitations of the latter and even given the advanced state of its ‘hollowing out’ in conditions of neoliberalism, crisis and austerity.
This isn’t to say, of course, that this problem necessarily validates the classical ‘reformist’ alternative (to the extent that this putative alternative orientation was ever really a coherent one – see the blog post below) – it doesn’t (and of course Anderson is clear that it doesn’t). But it does suggest – especially given, of course, that conditions of consolidated liberal democracy now hold in almost all ‘advanced capitalist’ countries – that the dual power strategy as it’s normal conceived needs to be fundamentally revised.
You only have to observe the typical trajectory of leftist insurgency in recent times to be convinced of this. Time and time again when leftist challenges emerge, if they go beyond mere protest, they cohere in terms of some sort of electorally focused (that is, ‘reformist’ or perhaps left social democratic) mobilisation. That is to say that, over and over and over again, even in conditions of relatively heightened struggle (as in Greece a few years ago), the working class fails to perform – fails to come anywhere close to performing – its allotted functions in the revolutionary sequence envisaged in Leninist mythology. It doesn’t spontaneously throw up soviets, doesn’t provide the longed-for conditions in which x or y self-proclaimed nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party can suddenly expand its membership and active support in great leaps and bounds, while outflanking the reformists and winning leadership of the class, doesn’t begin to construct a parallel proto-state apparatus and set in train the paralysis and decomposition of the bourgeois state machine. The 1917 redux – even a rough approximation of it in embryo – simply refuses to materialise.
Many readers will be familiar with the typical Leninist narrative today in terms of the various historical ‘near misses’ and ‘pre-revolutionary situations’ that obtained at various times (all of them a long time ago now) which are taken as signs of hope (or articles of faith) in relation to the continuing salience of the classic dual power scenario and the subterranean cunning of history which is, for some reason, sure to throw up such social explosions again in a lightning flash from the blue. Because…. Aha! Nobody expects the dual power scenario! Among the favourites here are post-WW1 Germany (an utter disaster) and Portugal 1974-5 (contained, eventually, within the limits of a broadly social democratic ‘transition’ from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, despite the best efforts of the PCP – perhaps the only CP in the West at that time that was really serious about revolution, much to the acute embarrassment of its Eurocommunist sister parties). Most of these examples are among the list Anderson sets out above in relation to the ‘critical weakness’ of the Leninist schema.
But there’s a ‘near miss’ that Anderson doesn’t mention – probably because it didn’t throw up soviets as such beyond a few rudimentary instances. Nevertheless, this has passed into the Leninist pantheon of thwarted near revolutions and was indeed a major catalyst for the reinvigoration of the Western European revolutionary left, allowing the Trotskyist tradition in particular to win a more secure niche in the European leftist eco-system, escaping to some extent the suffocating bunker to which it had previously been confined in the days of the Old Man himself. I refer of course to the ‘May Events’ in France 1968.
France, May 1968
There’s no doubt that May was a mould shattering social eruption that completely changed the political landscape – its various significances and effects rippling out far beyond France itself. In many ways ‘the events’ sounded the death knell of the post-war social order – May presaged the coming collapse of the class compromise that had cohered in a more or less social democratic form in the context of the long boom. It certainly heralded a crisis for the ‘new revisionism’ of the European social democratic left, which had assumed since the 1950s that serious social antagonism and upheaval had been confined to history by the arrival of the ‘mixed economy’ and Welfare State. For many, the street battles, demonstrations, massive and unprecedented general strikes of May, seemed at last to have vindicated the insurrectionary perspective of the revolutionary left. But among the really remarkable things about May was the ease, in the end, in which this apparently existential political and social crisis of Fifth Republic was contained within constitutional and electoral limits.
On 29th May de Gaulle fled Paris. Many observers believed that he had effectively been toppled by the ongoing strikes and demonstrations and that his official resignation would surely come very quickly. But the next day he announced in a televised address to the nation that he was dissolving parliament and calling a general election. That day five hundred thousand people demonstrated in support of de Gaulle – the biggest demonstration of May, delivering a rude shock to the left in that it seemed to reveal that the actual balance of forces in the country wasn’t necessarily in their favour. Far from it in fact. It was a taste of things to come.
Thrown onto the back foot, the PCF and Socialists (and the PSU, though it also argued that the strikes should continue) agreed to participate in the elections and immediately set about urging workers to end their strikes and go back to work. Indeed the PCF is usually identified, in the left narrative, as the treacherous bad guy in this whole process – had it thrown its weight behind the uprising rather than seeking to dampen it down at every turn things may have turned out very differently. Perhaps so. But what this narrative usually downplays is precisely the relative ease with which the PCF were able to dampen down and eventually pull the plug on the events. This requires a more serious explanation than the suggestion that an otherwise insurrectionary working class was mislead by the machinations and cowardice of their reformist leaders. What this narrative misses, in other words, is the popular hegemonic pull of parliamentary democracy and its limits. When push came to shove, the working class by and large saw little alternative. The May events had taken the Fifth Republic to the brink of the precipice – but what concretely, if the process had been pushed further, would have replaced the extant order? There were no widespread workers’ councils. There was no situation of dual power or anything like it.
The results of the general elections revealed that the Gaullists had clobbered their left wing opponents at the polls – the socialists lost 61 seats, the PCF lost 39 and the Gaullists became the first party in the Republic’s history to win an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Indeed they had made serious inroads into the working class, winning more votes among them than the PCF. In his essay ‘The Lessons of May’ Ernest Mandel offers an explanation of the election result that turns on the idea that workers and young people, demoralised by the failure of the major parties of the left to offer more radical leadership, simply abstained in large numbers. People tend to side with the political forces demonstrating the most initiative, and had the major parties of the left more resolutely backed the May actions, calling for their continuation during the election campaign rather than squashing them, the election result might have been otherwise. His account is only partially convincing, however, because you can’t help the feeling that he’s simply trying to explain away the defeat in such a way that is designed to evade the rather obvious alternative explanation – which is that the election revealed that the real balance of forces in France in May 1968 turned out to be very different to the way they might have appeared to look from a barricade in the Latin Quarter.
Lurking in Mandel’s account of the failures of the left of course is the familiar argument about ‘the absence of a well implanted revolutionary party’ that pivots on the typical Leninist counter-factual claim that, had such a thing existed in some parallel universe, it would surely have been borne forward toward power by the social forces that so desperately felt its lack in our historical time-line. But of course the absence was real and requires some sort of explanation. In fact the wider, repeated absence of such an entity over and over again in each of historical ‘near misses’ in the Leninist canon of proto-revolutionary situations needs to be accounted for too – it can’t just be a run of bad luck.
Interestingly, however, Mandel admits in this essay that the conditions for immediate insurrection did not exist. The alternative course of action he suggests is the application of a modified version of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme – or ‘structural reforms’ as he terms them in this essay. As with all such strategies of transitional demands in their Trotskyist iteration, however, the large question of who or what is to implement these structural reforms – who or what is to be demanded to deliver them – is left rather undefined. The state, yes – but specifically the Gaullists in government? Are they to be expected, even under severe pressure, to deliver a series of revolutionary reforms calculated to further unbalance and undermine French capitalism? What Mandel can’t really admit, in other words, is that he needs a ‘Left Government’ to be elected for this strategy to be vaguely feasible. The logic of the strategy necessarily pivots on a combination of extra-parliamentary mobilisation, strike action and so on on the one hand, and an electoral strategy to get a Left Government in place on the other. The strategy, in other words, demands recognition of the hegemonic weight of parliamentary democracy and the determination to work with it and to probe its limits rather than to reject it as inherently a dead end.
The sort of strategy that Mandel was groping toward here, but was unwilling to fully grasp, was worked out most fully by Andre Gorz in his essay ‘Socialism and Revolution’ written indeed in the immediate aftermath of the May events and anticipated to some extent by his book Strategy for Labor (1964). I’ve written about Gorz’s iteration of the strategy of ‘structural reform’ or ‘non reformist reforms’ elsewhere. The key point is that Gorz starts from the observation that the Leninist strategy is untenable in France and is founded on the assumption that parliamentary democratic politics can’t be neatly sidestepped or evaded. The essay is a brilliant (though at times rather opaque) attempt to think through what a left-wing government, borne forward by waves of popular mobilisation, might accomplish and how this might be steered in the direction of radical social transformation.
The events that unfolded in Chile between 1970 and 1973 are normally understood as a salutary warning as to the limits of parliamentary reformism – for very good reason. Indeed (as I’ve suggested in the previous post) we might in some ways see the Allende government as perhaps the only historical example of a seriously and definitely reformist socialism in office (as opposed to governments of ‘social reform’ in Miliband’s terms), and as such its eventual fate at the hands of the military forces in whose proclaimed ‘constitutionalism’ Allende put such store, is surely very significant. In the Leninist narrative the example of Chile is usually deployed as a sort of once and for all proof, not just of the limits of reformism, but of the impossibility of any sort of strategy for socialist change that doesn’t pivot on the model of 1917. But there are alternative lessons to be drawn.
For one thing when you read up on the history of the Popular Unity administration it’s impossible not be struck by the various choices and decisions of the Allende government and its supporters that might, actually, have been made differently. It doesn’t seem to me that the Chilean experiment was somehow inexorably doomed from the beginning to the bloody end that it met. Miliband’s considerations in this respect in his brilliant, angry essay, written in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September Coup is worth reading in this respect. In particular, it’s clear that the government had a very good idea that the military was plotting something from at least June 1973 and indeed received an explicit warning in August about the imminent coup from loyalist sailors and workers stationed at the Valparaiso naval base. Criminally, Allende chose to abandon these whistleblowers to the punishment meted out to them by their superiors (they were tortured) rather than acting on their warning. But things might have been done differently. Similarly Allende didn’t need to allow the October 1972 Law for the Control of Arms (that was passed during the Bosses’ Strike of that month) to go through – he could have vetoed it. The law provided the pretext for the army to start raiding factories in order to break up occupations and so on.
It might be objected here that these considerations are no less counter-factual ‘might have beens’ than the Leninist ‘if only there had been a well implanted revolutionary party’ manoeuvre criticised above. Further, wasn’t it the inherent logic of Allende’s constitutionalism arising from the parliamentary strategy to which he cleaved, that determined these choices? Well, yes. And no. It takes a little less of a leap of the imagination, it seems to me, to envisage alternative choices in Chile than it does to imagine the presence of a ‘well implanted revolutionary party’ in the various near miss situations in which this thing has always, very predictably, failed to exist.
But the most interesting thing, to me, about the events in Chile is less about the various wrong turns of the Allende administration, but the way in which it stimulated the emergence of an advanced form of popular power outside the state in (an often, but not entirely, tension-ridden) alliance with the Popular Unity government.
One of the remarkable dimensions of the Allende period was the way in which the economic crisis – a classic investment strike on the part of the bourgeoisie, supported by efforts at economic sabotage by the US in particular – that started to bite from 1971 and which was increasingly buttressed by a creeping political strategy of tension, tended overall to radicalise the movement in support of Popular Unity. The received political wisdom might suggest that a government overseeing an economy running more and more into serious problems of shortages and inflation would see its support collapse. But, in this case, not so. One of the best indicators of this is the way in which Popular Unity increased its share of the vote from 36% in 1970 (when it was first brought to power) to 43.4% in the Congressional elections of March 1973, after about a year and a half of economic crisis. Indeed it was probably this disastrous election result for the opposition that set it on the path of serious preparations for the coup – they knew by this stage that Popular Unity presented a real and serious threat to the continuation of capitalist power in Chile.
From mid 1972 a wave of mass activity swept across Chile in which workers and peasants started to build and extend articulated forms of popular power in their workplaces and communities. This process of radicalisation accelerated further from October of that year in response to the Bosses’ Strike, with the ‘expropriation from below’ under workers’ control of factories and other work places to keep the economy running in the face of concerted and acute economic sabotage. As Roxborough, O’Brien and Roddick describe these developments:
The organisations of Popular Unity’s political base which had been set up in the first year were revitalised: assemblies of workers in the factories, People’s Supply Committees in the poblaciones… Peasant’s Councils in the rural areas. Committees of action sprang up uniting these local organisations into bigger units: committees of all the factories in a given municipality, the so called industrial cordons, and joint committees of industries with neighbourhood organisations, the community commands.
This wave of ‘popular power’ was in no sense organised in conscious opposition to the government itself – it oriented itself as form of mass mobilisation in support and in defence of Popular Unity and to some extent as a deliberate attempt to push Allende further to deliver more fully on his promises to take Chile toward socialism. Indeed, although Allende attempted to return some of the factories expropriated in October to their capitalist owners under the terms of Plan Millas, the large majority of them were nationalised or otherwise left in the hands of the workers who now ran them.
What was emerging in Chile 1972, then, was a peculiar form of dual power. But this was no ‘classic’ dual power situation of the type envisaged in the tradition of Lenin, in which either pole of the duality confronts the other as implacable enemies in a struggle in which only one of them can prevail. Here, in Chile, dual power expressed a relation of dialectical tension in which both poles constituted a source of (at least potential) strength for the other and which opened up (at least potentially) the possibility of a positive and dynamic interplay between the two. Here, a few years after Gorz had first theorised the possibility in France, was a Left Government that had (though not entirely intentionally) provided the conditions for the emergence of popular organs of power that could really challenge the capitalist order.
Had Popular Unity more consistently embraced the possibilities opened up by this form of dual power – and had it, in particular, moved more decisively against the coup plotters things might have been very different. It’s certainly hard to see how some sort of violent denouement might have been avoided, but maybe – just maybe – this might have been contained in a form that didn’t spill over into the civil war that Allende (to his great credit, in my view) dreaded more than anything else.
The key thing to grasp about this process in Chile is that these organs of radical popular democracy – the Cordons, the Peoples’ Supply Committees, the Community Commands – would not have emerged were it not for the prior election of the Popular Unity government. The situation of dual power (‘of a special type’?) that obtained in Chile by mid to late 1972 would not have emerged by any route other than via engagement with the process of parliamentary democracy in order to put a Left Government in power that could begin to probe the limits of ‘reformism’.
Here in the Chile of 1972 then perhaps we can glimpse the ‘another type of strategy’ – in broad outlines at least – that Anderson in the quotation above suggests is needed in conditions of bourgeois democracy. It’s one that requires taking parliamentary democracy seriously in order to expand its democratic promise and to find a way beyond its present limits.
* This isn’t quite true, at least to the extent that the Cordons that emerged in the industrial centres of Chile in 1972 represented soviet type organs – but more about this below.
A problem. Most overviews of the debates on strategy within (or in the vicinity of) Marxism draw a distinction between ‘reformism’ and ‘revolutionary socialism’ or some variant of these terms. Further, many of them (Miliband’s various accounts for example) draw a further distinction between ‘reformism’ and currents of ‘social reform’ or ‘social democracy’, where the latter two terms refer to an orientation toward amelioration of capitalism, whereas the former refers to a more or less gradualist strategy that aims to go beyond capitalism. There’s usually some sort of grey area in between (dismissed rather breezily more often than not) – ‘left reformism’, the Austro-Marxists and ‘the Second and a Half International’ and the ‘Marxist Centre’ of Kautsky’s time for example – but the basic pivot remains reformists vs revolutionaries. Most would go along with something like Perry Anderson’s definition of ‘reformism’ as ‘belief in the possibility of attaining socialism by gradual and peaceful reforms within the framework of a neutral parliamentary state’. Miliband would quibble with some of that – there’s nothing *necessarily* peaceful about it for example (it depends on the willingness of the opposition to stick to constitutional methods) and nothing necessarily ‘gradual’ in the sense of a smooth evolutionary process about it either for that matter – the key pivot for Miliband is the commitment to parliamentary constitutionalism as the primary focus of the process. But no matter.
The genesis of the emerging division between these two classic orientations is usually traced back in some way to the Revisionist Controversy of the late 19th century and to the increasingly apparent gap between the rhetorical commitment to revolutionary rupture on the one hand and the parliamentary orientation of day to day practice on the other of the SPD in particular. The double shock of 1914 and 1917, it is said, brought this hitherto more or less subterranean strategic bifurcation into full view – one that’s lasted ever since (notwithstanding further complications to do with the ‘degeneration’ of the Russian Revolution and so on and the drift of Moscow backed CPs toward Popular Front reformism – this, it’s usually said, was a simple retreat into more or less classic reformism rather than a further splintering of an essentially binary division).
So far so familiar. Most accounts also acknowledge that reformist parties underwent a slow (or not so slow) drift toward social democracy – symbolised perhaps by the Godesberg Programme, the ideas of Crosland, the abandonment of Clause IV. Even so, reformism (as at least partially distinct from social democracy), it’s said, remained (remains?) a major current. So Coates and Looker, for example, claim quite confidently, as if merely rehearsing a well known truism, that it’s the ‘reformist tradition’ that ‘has managed to secure a majority of proletarian support at most times and in most countries of industrial capitalism in the twentieth century’ – certainly ‘reformism’ has always won much greater mass support in these countries than revolutionaries have (Ernest Mandel says as much too when he comments that the proletariat is ‘naturally reformist’ in non revolutionary conditions – i.e. 99.999% of the time). But… has it consistently won more support than social democracy? Really? If we’re distinguishing reformism as a separate category from social democracy (i.e. an orientation toward social reform without any definite intention to transcend capitalism) the claimed ‘reformism’ of the 20th century western proletariat looks a little dubious.
But the problem doesn’t end there. When you actually look at what the (tacit or not so tacit) ‘reformists’ of the Second International were saying it’s not really clear that many of them were ‘reformists’ in the sense defined by Anderson or Miliband. Bernstein didn’t really think this – ‘the final goal’ for him, after all, ‘was nothing’ – and neither did Kautsky whose ‘strategy of attrition’ at least up until WW1 pivoted (rhetorically at least) on the ‘accumulation of forces’ in advance of the ‘decisive day’ that would be catalysed by the final catastrophic collapse of the system – i.e. perpetual delaying tactics. The figure from this period who perhaps comes closest to Marxist ‘reformism’ as usually understood is Jean Jaures who did at times seem to envisage some sort of smooth process of evolution toward something beyond capitalism. But aside from him… who? The Fabians – the Webbs, Shaw and Wells – fit the mould fairly well in terms of the famous conception of the ‘inevitability of gradualism’, but they weren’t Marxists, and were in fact quite explicitly hostile to Marxism (at least until the Webbs discovered an admiration for the statist bureaucracy they encountered when visiting Stalin’s Soviet Union).
So who were the reformists of the Second International and beyond? Where were the figures and currents that cleaved to this classic strategic orientation? Did it ever actually exist as anything more that a phantom category – a retrospective myth?
As Miliband argues in Parliamentary Socialism the British Labour Party never really developed a strategy of reform as such, until it discovered Keynes and experienced the possibilities of state direction of the economy during World War 2. Prior to this they seemed to inhabit (or their leading figures at least seemed to inhabit) something like a ‘Kautskyan’ space in which nothing could yet be done to reform an essentially unreformable capitalism – leaving little alternative than the ‘responsible’ implementation of orthodox British Treasury policies as a sort of ‘holding tactic’ while their parliamentary forces slowly accumulated. Something similar to this orientation seemed to prevail among most other parties of the Socialist International too – with the exception of the Swedish SAP which discovered a proto-Keynesian approach relatively early, allowing it to set off on the path of ‘social reform’ (rather than ‘reformism’) a decade or so in advance of most of its sister parties.
So it wasn’t really until the 1940s that anything like ‘reformism’ as a clear, practical strategic orientation really took off – and even then the leaders, if not the rank and file, of parties like the Labour Party were clearly dominated by the perspective of ‘social reform’ by that stage. With not a little irony, then, it’s perhaps the parties of the Third International in the post war West that became the first really mass reformist formations in Marxist history. The Popular Front approach of the 30s had served as a sort of dress rehearsal for this new orientation – but it wasn’t really ‘reformism’ as such at that stage. The Popular Front was conceived quite explicitly as a purely defensive anti-fascist tactic, and the CPs were always quite convinced at this stage that meaningful reforms within what they claimed was a system in terminal decline were impossible. They supported Blum and Cabellero for example on the understanding that they were quite moderate figures who didn’t believe that a transition to socialism was anything more than a hazy, long-term prospect. The reformism proper of the Western CPs really took off in the post-war period – pioneered by the PCI in particular in the guise of Togliatti’s via italiana al socialismo. By the 1950s various ‘national roads’ to socialism (among them the CPGB’s British Road) had proliferated – all of them, very definitely, reformist. Of course, the term was never openly embraced as such by the various CPs for obvious reasons – absurdly the CPs started to redefine ‘reformism’ from this point as a position that pivoted on the support or repudiation of the ‘Imperialist foreign policy’ of the capitalist powers.
This sort of CP ‘reformism’ reached its zenith perhaps in the period of Eurocommunism – and the term describes quite accurately the strategic orientation of Berlinguer, Carrillo and Marchais (though not necessarily the left flank of Eurocommunism – Poulantzas, Claudin, Magri… but that’s another story). To the extent that this sort of strategy underpinned Berlinguer’s ‘Historic Compromise’, ‘reformism’ shaped the contours of mainstream Italian politics – at least indirectly – for a few years.
We might say, then, that ‘reformism’ dominated the workers’ movement in Italy and to some extent in France (the PCF never hegemonised the left in France the way the PCI did in Italy) from the second half of the twentieth century. But did it ever dominate the reformist ‘reformist’ parties – the formations commonly assigned as such?
Allende’s Popular Unity government probably comes the closest to a concrete example of an actually ‘reformist’ formation seeking seriously to implement an actually ‘reformist’ programme – although, again, beside Allende, the driving force behind UP’s strategy (the most scrupulously ‘reformist’ section of the coalition) was actually the Chilean CP. Much of Allende’s Socialist Party – and indeed sections of the Christian Left that broke away from the conservative Christian Democracy – was well to the left of Allende and the CP with many misgivings about Allende’s (suicidal as it turned out) unwavering and absolute commitment (at least until the eve of the 11 September coup) to gradualism and constitutionalism.
Other candidates for the designation might include the Mitterrand administration of the early 1980s (again with the CP as a driving force in the coalition) and the SAP at the time of the Meidner Plan to gradually socialise investment capital. But I’m not sure about that – although there was some sloganeering about a ‘break with capitalism’ from figures such as Michel Rocard (!) within the French coalition it’s not clear that this signalled a real intention to move beyond a radicalised form of technocratic social democratic dirigisme. It seems to me that it’s also quite hard to argue that the Swedish wage-earner funds plan was a strategy for socialism as such rather than for a more egalitarian and democratic capitalism. Perhaps the ‘Bennite’ current within the British Labour Party in the 1970s and early 80s comes the closest in recent times to an unambiguously ‘reformist’ current within a party normally referred to in the literature as, at some time and to some extent, ‘reformist’, although, again, the appellation isn’t necessarily a perfect fit given the uncertain space that the Bennite iterations of the Alternative Economic Strategy inhabited between a vision of muscular dirigisme on the one hand and a political economy beyond capitalism on the other.
So it’s not at all clear, then, that with one or two exceptions ‘reformism’ – in the sense of the term that is usually understood – has ever been more than a minority current or an occasionally significant orientation within the Western workers’ movement. Certainly there’s an argument to be made that the usual differentiation that’s made in the literature on socialist strategy in terms of the reformism/revolutionary axis is based, in relation to the first term in this opposition at least, on a myth.