Marxism and the state: an exchange
For socialists, the issue of the state is vital. What is its class character? What programme and policies should we put forward?
These questions were recently raised by Michael Wainwright in his statement, Re: Marxists and the State, below, in which he argues that the Socialist Party and its predecessor, Militant, have adopted a reformist as opposed to a Marxist position.
Michael has since left the party, but we still consider it important to debate the issues he raises. Lynn Walsh replies: The State: A Marxist Programme and Transitional Demands.
Re: Marxists and the State
Over the last two and half years my involvement in the Socialist Party has given me a considerable degree of organisational proficiency – the ability to intervene within the labour movement as a whole – as well as a thirst for politically educating myself so as to successfully confront opportunism and all shades of reformism.
Since becoming a member, my consciousness has dramatically shifted from left reformism towards a revolutionary Marxist perspective. The need to politically understand the dialectical interconnection between world events and the consciousness (as well as the institutions) of the working-class is of fundamental importance to the struggle against capitalism. Consciously apprehending the basic precepts of Marxism-Leninism as the guiding analytical perspective for formulating programmatic positions is an elemental necessity for any revolutionary party.
Through a fairly comprehensive review and assessment of the history of our organisation, and its methodology since 1964, I have been troubled by a number of contradictions and omissions, which lead me to question the theoretical and practical basis of our politics.
On a recent re-reading of our pamphlet "Socialism in the 21st Century" I noticed something in Chapter 6 that had not properly registered the first time:
"A socialist government could only defend itself if it mobilised the active support of the working class. And it would only be by demonstrating its power in practise that the working class could successfully defend its democratically elected socialist government."
I had thought it was our position, as a Marxist organisation, that the establishment of working class power required a revolution to create a workers' state - something entirely different from socialists gaining administration of the existing capitalist state after winning a parliamentary majority through bourgeois elections.
The "What is the state?" section of our "What is Marxism?" pack has a very different approach from that in "Socialism in the 21st Century":
"The basic attitude of Marxism to the capitalist state is summed up by Lenin in the above mentioned 'State and Revolution'. Lenin points out that Marxist revolutionaries, as opposed to reformists, say that the existing Bourgeois state cannot be seized ready-made and used in the interests of the working class. It must be broken up, smashed, and replaced by a new workers' state."
The apparent contradiction between the two positions impelled me to look further into our history on this question a bit (and even make a trip, when visiting a friend, to the Militant archive at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, Manchester) and what I found was that we have been putting forward similar ideas for a very long time. For instance, in Militant issue 767b, 27th September 1985, when elaborating upon the need for the labour movement to take control of the "commanding heights of the economy to be nationalised" as a means towards achieving Socialism, Rob Sewell correctly stated that "profit is the sole driving force of the system. To increase profitability is paramount for the capitalists who own the economy. They will through a thousand and one channels- directly or indirectly- sabotage any government that resists such plans." The latter couldn't be more true, however, (and I apologise for the lengthy quotes which follow but it is necessary to clarify this point) Sewell went on to say:
"A Labour government is always elected in times of crisis, when the desire for change is at its highest. Under these conditions the next Labour government will be a government of crisis, when the desire for change is at its highest, entirely different to any post-war Labour governments. It will be the sum of pressure and counter-pressure that will decide the path it follows. Instead of bowing the knee to capital and hoping to run capitalism better than the Tories, it should immediately push through an emergency `Enabling Act' through Parliament. [My emphasis - MW]"
This was quite an admission, which I was astonished by when I first read it. Why would a Marxist organisation suggest that parliament, the mechanism for ensuring ruling-class privilege through stable liberal-democracy will allow a Socialist republic to be "democratically", and peacefully, brought about through a Labour government? If this quote, and there are many like it from that period, is read in isolation from the rest of the text one might imagine that it has some sort of transitional quality to it even though it comes across as reformist in essence. A raw person might presume that any such "Enabling Act", if brought about, would have been defended by the Labour movement, presumably, against the violent onslaught form the owners of capital who, in that situation, would employ any means necessary to dislocate a Labour government of that kind through their influence over the army, police and foreign imperialist forces. Yet Sewell went on to argue that:
"Such emergency legislation is not new- it was used by the Tories in 1971 to nationalise Rolls Royce in less than 24 hours! Such measures used by Labour would make it possible for the House of Lords and Monarchy to be abolished and the top 200 monopolies, banks and insurance companies to be nationalised, under democratic workers' control and management.
"Compensation should only be paid on the basis of proven need. Only by taking these measures so that the `commanding heights' are brought into common ownership will the laws of capitalism be ended and a proper planning of resources be instituted."
This is, in my view, a clear and unambiguous statement of reformist methodology. The abject reliance upon the bourgeois state, or the Labour party (as a supposed revolutionary organisation) taking the reins and utilising the existing state apparatus to institute socialism rather than calling for breaking it up and the development of alternative working class organisations (workers' militias, local Soviets and factory committees) is, at best, sowing the seeds of dangerous illusions within the working-class and, at worst, preparing the future ground for an accommodation to the needs and logic of capitalism.
Re-reading our manifesto in the light of Lenin's postulations, as outlined above, I also have concerns about our approach to the question of policing. We call for:
"Community control of the police to ensure they work with and implement the policing priorities advocated by the communities."
I have come to the conclusion that the suggestion in our manifesto that socialists can establish a workers' state through parliamentary electoral activity is closely connected with the above idea which clearly implies that the police, who are a central pillar of the capitalist state, can indeed be "seized ready-made and used in the interests of the working class".
This too is apparently not a recent concoction of ours as Issue 565, 14th August 1981, in an article entitled "Make the police accountable" about a demonstration in Liverpool at that time, illustrates:
"Socialists are not opposed to the police fighting crime and arresting criminals. To fight real crime and arrest the real criminals- as even more intelligent, `liberal' policemen like Alderson, Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, recognised- needs the support of the people generally…The police must be subject to the supervision of democratically elected watch committees, which will have the power to appoint and dismiss senior officers as well as to supervise and check the role and methods of the police. Democratic watch committees must be able to discipline and, if necessary, dismiss any police officers found guilty of serious misconduct or illegal actions. There can be no doubt that there are some corrupt and racialist elements within the police, and they must be kicked out. At the same time, however, the labour movement must campaign for full trade union rights for policemen and police women. In the past, the police themselves have taken strike action and have at various times demonstrated sympathy for workers in struggle. It is in the workers' vital interests that the police force should be made democratically accountable and that the police ranks should be brought into the trade union movement."
In Issue 571, 3rd October 1981, p-8, one can see that the idea of watch committees, forwarded as a key programmatic demand of ours, could well have been taken from the good old days when, in the past, the police:
"were not always unaccountable to local authorities. When, after the formation of the Metropolitan police in 1829, police forces were gradually created in the boroughs, they were under the control of `watch committees' made up of council members, who appointed the constables, and their officers, and fixed their pay and controlled their work. When the county councils were reformed in the 1880s `standing joint committees' were created, comprising of half county councillors and half local magistrates, with similar powers to the borough watch committees."
This illumination by Lynn Walsh relating to the Brixton riots, entitled: "Make the police Accountable", refers to the historian, T.A. Crichley, as a means of expanding upon this idea that there was an organic development of police accountability which arose out of the very inception of early British capitalism. Walsh cites Crichley again by saying:
"The control of the watch committees was absolute…In its hands lay the sole power to appoint, promote and punish men of all ranks, and it had powers of suspension and dismissal. The watch committee prescribes the regulations for the force, and subject to the approval of the town council determined the rates of pay."
Presumably this quote was invoked for the purposes of not only explaining the history behind the idea of watch committees and the latter's apparent facet of democratic accountability, but also as a suggestion that this is the model for the workers movement to follow. However, later on in the article Lynn Walsh states that:
"The borough councils (in the 19th Century) were dominated by the industrial and commercial capitalist class. They paid for the police through their rates, and therefore they insisted they controlled the police…The propertied middle class which championed parliamentary government took it for granted that a body like the police, which potentially had enormous power, should be democratically controlled. This, however, was in the era before the working class had become an independent political force."
So again, we are presented here with what can only be described as the congealed illusions of our position on the police and the state. The above quote suggests, clearly, that the method for Marxists is to push the working-class organisations of Labour to take control of the existing police force (which Marxists should characterise correctly as being instruments of the capitalist state machinery) and guide them towards the interests of that class just as the middle-class industrialists had enacted a democratic check on the local police forces through the respective elected local governments. Do we really envisage a return to the by-gone era when democracy prevailed over the police force (of course, it is accepted that this was democracy for the privileged and middle classes)? Is it, perhaps, a historical insight into the potentialities of a future socialist policing system run on the basis of democratically elected local soviets, and in this way an important point to unearth when attempting to guide politically conscious layers towards the need for visualising an alternative society that is workable?
I think it is worrying that we are relying on a schematically bourgeois framework, in order to serve as a blue-print, to even highlight how a future socialist policing system might operate. In any case the latter blurs the crucial issue of how to defend the class now when confronted with major attacks from the state. Further, it has become clear to me that there is an indication of a clear and unadulterated, yet somehow unconscious, augmentation of reformism on the part of our programme, as it was then, for the defence of the class:
"The end of the first world war in 1918 brought a massive radicalisation of the workers, with enormous struggles and strike battles. Labour councillors began to be elected in many towns and cities, with the emergence of a number of Labour- controlled councils. The attempt of the sate to take control of the police out of the hands of local government and concentrate it centrally was also made more urgent by the police strikes of 1918 and 1919. After the strikes, the Desborough committee was set up to overhaul the whole police structure, and many of its recommendations were adopted. One recommendation was that the power of appointment, promotion and discipline, should be transferred form the watch committees to Chief Constables.
"This, however, was still resisted in Parliament, and the powers remained formally in the hands of watch committees until 1964."
To be precise it was the 1964 Police Act (and Police (Scotland) Act 1967) that tipped the balance of power, in relation to police chiefs, away from local watch committees and towards central government.
Once again Lynn Walsh states that:
"They [MW - the ruling class] have recognised that the relative social peace of the post-war period ended with the ebbing of the economic boom. They see that the coming period, with the continued catastrophic decline of British capitalism and the inevitable erosion of living standards, will be one of head-on conflict with the working class. They have therefore discarded the old `liberal', `democratic' face of the British ruling class and instead are presenting a brutal, repressive visage. These developments, particularly with the perspective of the Andertons, make it vitally important for the labour movement to campaign for the democratisation of the police."
A defining statement, if ever there was one, on the reasoning and logic behind our position on the police. It appears that police are viewed, by us, as an isolated entity, which can become removed, or extracted, from the clutches of the capitalist state through working-class control of local watch committees. However, then another contradiction arises:
"In transforming society, it is utopian to think that the exiting apparatus of the capitalist state can be taken over and adapted by the working class. In a fundamental change of society, all the existing institutions of the state (aren't the police-force part of those existing institutions?) will be shattered and replaced by new organs of power under the democratic control of the working class. The campaign for this should go hand in hand with the battle to extend democratic control over the existing state institutions. In the case of the police, a lead has been given by the Greater London Labour Party, which included in its last GLC election manifesto proposals for democratisation of the Metropolitan police."
So, on the one hand we are prepared to argue for the "shattering" of the existing capitalist state apparatus whilst at the same time proposing that those very instruments of the state (the police etc.) can be made accountable to the local community via a "democratisation". This contradiction is too great to ignore in my view.
Recently some comrades in have raised some good questions along these same lines with regard to the immigration police who are members of the PCS:
"…taking up this issue within trade unions, especially one that organises state depts, is difficult to say the least. A great deal of skill to explain the issues is needed. But the pcs statement doesn't even try and take it up! it totally ignores it! Why doesn't the pcs statement mention the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers? it is totally passive on the issue - only concerned with the health and safety of it's own members in immigration! frankly that's the least of my concerns - and any other decent trade unionist or socialist feels the same, these people who are complicit in attacking asylum seekers and immigrants don't deserve health or safety! they clearly have no regard for the health and safety of others! (i don't think that their health and safety was ever under threat anyway from a few peaceful protesters). The 'marxist leadership' of the union should surely have supported the non-violent demonstration against deportations - they should have been on it infact, with the asylum groups, trade unionists, ssp members etc. they should also have issued a statement slamming the government's treatment of asylum seekers and immigrants, detainment, forced deportations etc. and told union members to play no part in these actions or be expelled from the union. What's the point of Marxists winning the leadership of a union if they then put sectional interests (recruiting and retaining members in immigration services) ahead of the most basic of socialist principles?
i hope we have a bloody good excuse... appeasing immigration services workers so they remain in the pcs is not a bloody good excuse. Who cares if some reactionaries would join a yellow union if the pcs took a principled stance? good riddence surely?"
I would totally solidarise with this as it concisely encapsulates a central defect in the way in which we operate within the trade-unions. I cannot claim to have any experience in this field and I know that trade union work is both vitally important and quite difficult, and requires great skill and dedication. But it is clear to me that revolutionaries should not be trying to help immigration police do their jobs better. They should not be allowed to be members of the PCS or any other union. We should instead be proposing that the workers' movement mobilise its forces to defend immigrant workers and resist, by all possible means, immigration police attempts to harass and deport them. We should be trying to find ways to encourage immigrant workers to join with, and become a vital part of, the organised trade-union movement. A first step would be to call on the PCS to rid itself of the immigration police. We should oppose all those who want to dismember and divide our class on the basis of narrow, sectional, interests which, in the final analysis, pander towards social patriotism by placing their (British) interests above those of workers from other countries.
Further, it is a mistake to view the police in general as "workers in uniform" who should be treated like any other worker. This is particularly clear when class conflicts, such as the miners strike in 1984, collide with the strategic requirements of the police-force who are charged with suppressing civil unrest. As we say in the "What is Marxism?" pack "The police, together with the army, constitute the central `body of armed people' which is at the centre of the state apparatus. They are the first line of defence against anything which disturbs the public order of capitalism."
As an experiment, I went to the Marxist Internet Archive, looked up Trotsky to see what he would have to say. When I put in the word "policeman" the fifth quote that came up was the following from "Vital Questions for the German Proletariat," January 27, 1932:
"The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist State is a bourgeois cop, not a worker."
I think that Trotsky was right, and that we have been drastically wrong on this central issue. Our "What is Marxism?" pack makes some valuable points about the police (and the army) but at the same time suggests that it is wrong for socialists to propose their abolition because of the current low consciousness of the working class:
"However, despite our understanding of their objective role, simple demands for the abolition of the police and army would be out of line with the consciousness of many amongst the advanced layers. We attempt therefore to raise demands which are not too in advance of current consciousness but which seek to reveal and undermine the state's repressive function."
Whilst it is certainly true that our demands need to engage with, and intersect, the existing consciousness of workers if we are ever going to change it, it seems obvious to me that the demands we raise today must be consistent with our long term goals, or at least not contradict them. The problem with calls for achieving socialism through bourgeois parliamentary elections, or instituting "democratic control of the police" or demanding improvements in the working conditions of the immigration police is that they contradict the fundamental duty of socialists to inform the working-class that the capitalists' state cannot be taken over, but rather, as I quoted earlier, "It must be broken up, smashed, and replaced by a new workers' state". Rather than "revealing and undermining the state's repressive function" these demands actively encourage illusions that the capitalist state, or at least key elements of it, can be forced to serve workers' interests. We should instead be raising demands that point to the rigged nature of capitalist "democracy" and lead to the conclusion that it is necessary to shatter the bourgeois state and replace it with new working class organs of power.
It is crucial for Marxists to pose the difficult, and sometimes socially ostracising, reality that the capitalist state must be removed and replaced by alternative structures of working-class power. There is no other way, I suggest, of relating and connecting this fundamental necessity to our class other than to state the truth, even if that truth is one which diminishes our popularity. Marxists are not populists – we have a much harder task. That is the responsibility to maintain the link in the chain of revolutionary continuity by developing and charting a path towards Socialism armed with the distilled lessons of past class-struggles. We must stand firmly on the tradition based upon the historical legacies of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, for if we deviate from the latter then we will inevitably recede into empiricism and the eternal present.
I cannot accept that our party is in fact, all things considered, standing firmly within the category of revolutionary Marxism. I do not doubt that the majority of us want to fight for a Socialist change in society, however, the history of our organisation, and our programmatic positions, has significant elements of an outright reformist strategy. At the same time many SP comrades have real revolutionary fervour. I have not regretted being a member of this organisation, many of whose members are passionate, hard-working, committed and vibrant but I have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to build a party based upon a genuine Trotskyist programme, and that, in the long term, outweighs the need to mobilise the greatest number possible around a more limited reformist agenda, in the short term. Confusion, dissimulation, and ultimately betrayal are the only possible outcomes of political formations that "leave till later" the fundamental principles of Marxism. For these reasons I feel I have no choice but to resign from the Socialist Party.