The role of the state: cartoon by Alan Hardman

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Marxism and the state: an exchange


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A MARXIST PROGRAMME AND TRANSITIONAL DEMANDS


The formal or 'logical' contradiction between, on the one side, demands for reforms and, on the other, spelling out the need for a socialist transformation of society reflects the very real contradiction between the objective need for socialism and the immaturity of the consciousness and organisation of the working class.

Trotsky commented on this issue during a discussion on the Transitional Programme in 1938. One issue that came up at that time was the Ludlow Amendment, a constitutional amendment moved in the US Congress which would have required a popular referendum before the US could go to war. The leadership of the US Socialist Workers Party (the US section of the Fourth International) opposed support for the Ludlow Amendment on the grounds that it would promote pacifist and democratic illusions. Trotsky disagreed, and his comments are relevant to the issue of democratic demands in general.

This is a rather long excerpt from Trotsky's comment, but it is worth quoting in full because it illuminates the issue of democratic rights:

"The [SWP] NC declaration states that the war cannot be stopped by a referendum. That is absolutely correct. This assertion is a part of our general attitude toward war, as an inevitable development of capitalism, and that we cannot change the nature of capitalism or abolish it by democratic means. A referendum is a democratic means, but no more and no less. In refuting the illusions of democracy we don't renounce this democracy so long as we are incapable of replacing that democracy by the institution of a workers' state. In principle I absolutely do not see any argument which can force us to change our general attitude toward democracy in this case of a referendum. But we should use this means as we use presidential elections, or the election in St Paul [Minnesota]; we fight energetically for our programme.

"We say: The Ludlow referendum, like other democratic means, can't stop the criminal activities of the sixty families, who are incomparably stronger than all democratic institutions. This does not mean that I renounce democratic institutions, or the fight for the referendum, or the fight to give American citizens of the age of eighteen the right to vote. I would be in favour of our initiating a fight on this; people of eighteen are sufficiently mature to be exploited, and thus to vote. But that's only parenthetical.

"Now naturally it would be better if we could immediately mobilise the workers and the poor farmers to overthrow democracy and replace it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the only means of avoiding imperialist wars. But we can't do it.

"We see that large masses of people are looking toward democratic means to stop the war. There are two sides to this: one is totally progressive, that is, the will of the masses to stop the war of the imperialists, the lack of confidence in their own representatives. They say: Yes, we sent people to parliament [Congress], but we wish to check them in this important question, which means life and death to millions and millions of Americans. That is a thoroughly progressive step. But with this they connect illusions that they can achieve this aim only by this measure. We criticise this illusion. The NC declaration is entirely correct in criticising this illusion. When pacifism comes from the masses it is a progressive tendency, with illusions. We can dissipate the illusions not by a priori decisions but during common action.

"… The situation is now different-it is not a revolutionary situation. But the question can become decisive. The referendum is not our programme, but it's a clear step forward; the masses show that they wish to control their Washington representatives. We say: It's a progressive step that you wish to control your representatives. But you have illusions and we will criticise them. At the same time we will help you realise your programme. The sponsor of the programme will betray you as the SRs [Social Revolutionaries] betrayed the Russian peasants." (The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder 1977, pp114-117)

A bourgeois cop is a bourgeois cop?

One of the demands we put forward in the Militant in 1981 (and the 1983 pamphlet) was for "The right of the police to an independent, democratic trade union organisation to defend their interests as workers." In Michael's view, however, "it is a mistake to view the police in general as 'workers in uniform' who should be treated like any other worker". The role of the police in the 1984 miners' strike, he argues, confirms the position of our 'What is Marxism?' pack, that "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 on other issues, Michael can see only one side of the issue: the reactionary, repressive role of the police as an instrument of state repression. They undoubtedly played an aggressive, repressive role during the 1984 miners' strike. The miners, as well as other sections of militant workers, certainly did not regard the police as 'any other workers'. They organised to counter police tactics, and took them on in massive confrontations, notably the battle of Orgreave. Similarly, in the 1972 miners' strikes, the flying pickets countered the police and defeated them at the famous 'battle of Saltley gates' (where miners' pickets and other workers blockaded the Midlands' coal depot). Support for trade union rights for the police ranks (or for the army ranks, for that matter) does not for a moment cloud our analysis of the role of the police and army as part of the state apparatus, or undermine the recognition of the need to organise against police or military repression.

This is only one side of the question, however. The other side of a revolutionary policy (which Michael, with his characteristic black-and-white approach, fails to see) is a policy of making a political appeal to the ranks of the police and the army and supporting their democratic rights, including the right to organise in a trade union. Anything that weakens the authoritarian control of the state over the ranks of the police (and the army) and brings their ranks, or even a section of their ranks, nearer to the workers' movement, helps create more favourable conditions of struggle for the working class.

But Trotsky rejected this approach, exclaims Michael! He proves this by an experiment. Searching an internet Trotsky archive with the word 'policeman', he came up with the following quote: "The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a worker." This quote comes from Trotsky's article, 'What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat', written in 1932. Having googled this quote from the internet, Michael appears to think that Trotsky's comment is the last word on the matter. If he conducted further searches on the context of Trotsky's comment and the situation in Germany in 1932, Michael doesn't bother to relate them to the issue under discussion. In fact, Michael generally appears to believe that demands, slogans, etc, are eternal, and that we should uphold them without concerning ourselves about changing conditions.

The situation in 1932 in Germany was not the same as in Britain in 1981 or today. Only a year before Hitler seized power, there was already an intense struggle between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution. Because of the failure of the working class to carry through a successful revolution, Germany was ruled by a series of bonapartist regimes (under chancellors Brüning, von Papen, and von Scheicher), who relied on reactionary sections of the military and the fascists to smash the workers' movement.

In the passage from which the "bourgeois cop" sentence is taken, Trotsky is arguing against the 'parliamentary cretinism' of the Social Democratic leaders. They argued that because the German army was controlled by the president of the German republic, they would not allow Hitler to come to power. Trotsky, in particular, was arguing against the wishful thinking that, because the police were originally recruited from among social-democratic workers, they would prevent the fascists from coming to power: "Consciousness is determined by environment, even in this instance." A "worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop not a worker. Of late years, these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects."

There was a pre-revolutionary situation in Germany, which (apart from the need for a revolutionary party politically armed with a Marxist programme) posed the need for workers to arm themselves, to form workers' militias, to counter the fascist onslaught. It was absolute cretinism to appeal to the government, the chancellor, etc, to protect the working class against the fascists.

"I think that Trotsky was right," says Michael. But it would only be in a world of pure abstraction that we could ignore the differences between Germany in 1932 and Britain, or for that matter France, or Germany, etc, today.

There is no question of our material arguing that, if trade union rights were conceded to the police or the army, it would be sufficient to counter the danger posed by the state to the workers' movement: "… it would be fatal to pretend, as the Communist Party leaders and the reformist left of the Labour Party do, that 'the democratisation of the state' will be sufficient in itself to guarantee the British working class and a Labour government against the fate which befell their Chilean brothers and sisters". (The State…, p31)

The state should not remain untouchable, as right-wing Labour leaders have always argued. "On the contrary, measures to make the state more accountable to the labour movement must be stepped up. But the limits of such measures must be understood by the labour movement. The capitalists will never permit their state to be 'gradually' taken away from them. Experience has shown that only a decisive change of society can eliminate the danger of reaction and allow the 'democratisation of the state machine' to be carried through to a conclusion with the establishment of a new state, controlled and managed by working people." (The State…, pp31-32)

The pamphlet gives many examples of episodes of radicalisation of sections of the police in Britain and elsewhere. In Britain, there were police strikes in 1918 and 1919 during the post-first world war crisis. Between 1970 and 1977, a series of police pay disputes, together with the general political climate, brought a radicalisation of some sections of the police. At the Police Federation conference in 1977, a young Metropolitan constable said: "We're no different from other workers. We may wear funny clothes and do society's dirty work for them. But we come from the same stock as other workers. (Boos) We have only our labour power to sell, not capital." (The State…, p45) This speaker clearly belonged to a small minority, but the fact that such a class-conscious attitude could be expressed by even one delegate was significant. Would Michael argue that Marxists should ignore such trends, regarding the ranks of the police as 'one reactionary mass' regardless of actual conditions or the mood within the police?

During the May events of 1968 in France, the mood of the police (in contrast to the paramilitary riot police, the CRS) was affected by the mass general strike movement. Representatives of the police "tacitly let it be known that operations against workers could not only cause a grave crisis of confidence within their ranks but also the possibility of what would in effect be a police mutiny". (Beyond the Limits of the Law, Tom Bowden) The logic of Michael's position is that the advanced workers should ignore such developments, and pass over the possibility of winning sections of the police over to the side of the workers, or at least neutralising a section of the forces of the state.

In fact, Michael makes no comments on these and other episodes related in the pamphlet, demonstrating the completely abstract character of his approach to the issue of the police.

The Communist Manifesto and Marx's Demands

The problem is that Michael does not understand the Marxist idea of a programme. He is only really happy with declarations of "the fundamental principles of Marxism". "The existing bourgeois state… must be broken up, smashed, and replaced by a new workers' state." Anything less is "confusion, dissimulation, and ultimately betrayal". Michael criticises all our immediate demands as part of "a more limited reformist agenda" or "elements of an outright reformist strategy".

What is noticeable, however, is that Michael himself nowhere suggests any immediate demands that might relate to existing consciousness and provide a bridge to revolutionary aims. Marxists, he says, should not seek popularity or be afraid of being socially ostracised. It is our "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." So how, may we ask Michael, will our party "engage with, and intersect, the existing consciousness of workers" in order to change it? He offers us no guidance at all.

An important part of the historical legacy of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, is the understanding of the role of a programme in providing a bridge between existing consciousness and revolutionary objectives. In the course of their activity, they drew up various programmes, some corresponding to relatively quiet periods of class struggle and some for revolutionary situations. All of them were based on the understanding that mass consciousness lags behind social reality. In periods of social quiescence, class consciousness, even of the advanced layers of workers, may develop very slowly. Under the impact of social crisis and intensified class struggle, it can develop very rapidly. But the 'subjective factor', the involvement of a conscious revolutionary leadership, especially in the form of a mass revolutionary party, is a vital catalyst in the process. Moreover, a programme which encapsulates the vital political tasks facing the working class and at the same time engages with existing conditions and consciousness is an indispensable instrument of intervention for a revolutionary party. A Marxist programme is not merely a declaration of fundamental principles. According to circumstances, a programme has to fulfil a variety of theoretical, programmatic and immediate tasks.

Let's consider a well-known example. In February 1848, Marx and Engels published (under the banner of the Communist League) the most famous programme of all, the Manifesto of the Communist Party, just before the outbreak of the revolutions that swept Europe in that year ( www.socialistparty.org.uk/manifesto/). Clearly, the Manifesto was in many ways a declaration of fundamental principles and political objectives. It brilliantly sketched out a theoretical analysis of capitalist society and a perspective for socialist transformation under the leadership of the proletariat. But it also included a number or democratic, immediate and transitional demands.

"The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the immediate aims of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement." (Manifesto, Chapter 4) The Manifesto (Chapter 2) puts forward ten demands, calling for an end to landlordism and progressive taxation of wealthy property owners; for a national bank with a state monopoly of credit and the extension of state industries; and for free public transport and education. The aim of these demands is "to raise the working proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy".

"The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class…"

Undoubtedly, the Manifesto sets out fundamental aims, even suggesting some of the features of a future communist society. When the revolutionary wave broke out, however, Marx and Engels wrote another programmatic document, published by the Committee of the Communist League in March 1848. Published as a leaflet and reprinted in many radical newspapers throughout Germany, the 'Demands of the Communist Party in Germany' (See appendix) was at the time much more widely read than the Manifesto.

The 'Demands' constituted an immediate programme, a political weapon for the intervention of the Communist League in the developing revolutionary movement. The seventeen demands corresponded to the situation then unfolding, where the relatively weak German working class was playing a key role in the struggle for a bourgeois-democratic revolution. The Demands called for the unification of Germany under universal suffrage, and the universal arming of the people. Demands 6 to 9 were aimed at the abolition of landlordism. Like the Manifesto, the Demands call for free public transport, and progressive taxation of the wealthy. Demand 10 is for a state bank to "make it possible to regulate the credit system in the interests of the people as a whole" and "undermine the dominion of the big financial magnates". Point 16 calls for "national workshops", in effect a transitional demand that would in practice challenge the basis of capitalism: "The state guarantees a livelihood to all workers and provides for those who are incapacitated for work."

Unlike the Manifesto, however, the Demands do not call (apart from the public ownership of all transport) for the extension of state industries. There is no mention of aiming "to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class" or of wresting "all capital from the bourgeoisie" or of centralising "all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class…" The aim of the Demands, set out in the concluding paragraph, is summed up in this way: "It is in the interest of the German proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie and the small peasants to support these demands with all possible energy. Only by the realisation of these demands will the millions in Germany, who have hitherto been exploited by a handful of persons and whom the exploiters would like to keep in further subjection, win the rights and attain to that power to which they are entitled as the producers of all wealth."

The Demands were focused on the immediate task of strengthening the struggle for a bourgeois-democratic parliamentary republic in Germany, by exerting the maximum working-class pressure on the radical petit-bourgeois democrats. Despite its class limitations, a parliamentary republic was the form of government that would provide the most favourable conditions for the working class to strengthen its forces and struggle for socialism.

Were Marx and Engels, in putting forward a more limited programme in the Demands than set out in the Manifesto, guilty of dissimulation and pretence? Were they spreading illusions in bourgeois democracy? Isn't this the logic of Michael's position?

But, of course, Marx and Engels were putting forward of programme of demands that corresponded to the immediate situation of an unfolding revolution and to the consciousness of the most radical sections of the mass movement. The Demands form an action programme, a platform for intervention in a mass movement. The Demands are much more limited than the Communist Manifesto. But this did not mean for a minute that Marx and Engels had abandoned the ideas of the Manifesto, or postponed fighting for communist aims to the distant future. They did not have the idea of 'stages', later adopted by Stalinist leaders, according to which the proletariat had to accept the limits of the bourgeois-democratic revolution until it was completed, and only then proceed to socialist tasks. Nor did they have the position later adopted by social-democratic leaders (criticised by Trotsky in the Transitional Programme) of a maximum and minimum programme, independent of each other: a minimum programme of reforms achievable within the framework of capitalism and a maximum of socialism in the distant future.

In 1848 the Demands and the Manifesto complemented each other. During the course of the revolution, Marx and Engels never ceased to criticise the radical bourgeois democrats from the standpoint of the ideas set out in the Manifesto. They quickly moved from a position of critical support of the radical bourgeois democrats to a position of remorseless criticism of their political cowardice and treachery towards the working class and poor peasantry. From the outbreak of revolution through to the end, they advocated the ideological and organisational independence of the working class. The German workers, wrote Marx and Engels, must not be "misled for a single moment by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic party into refraining from the independent organisation of the party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The Revolution in Permanence!" (Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, March 1850)

The working class should not allow the radical bourgeois democrats to consolidate power solely in the interests of the bourgeoisie, but prepare for the workers to set up their own revolutionary workers' governments (in the form of "municipal councils" or "workers' committees") alongside and in opposition to bourgeois-democratic governments. (This was the germ of the theory of permanent revolution later developed by Trotsky on the eve of the 1905 revolution in Russia.) The policies of the Communist League went far beyond anything in the Demands of March 1848 and were more concrete than those set out in the Manifesto. Formally, there are many 'inconsistencies' between the Manifesto, the Demands, and Marx and Engels' statements during 1848-1850. But demands and tactics – the evolving programme of the League - were developed by Marx and Engels in response to events – not according to some abstract, logical schema of the kind Michael seems to favour.

A bridge to existing consciousness

The Communist Manifesto and the Demands set out the tasks of the proletariat in a period of bourgeois revolutions. Trotsky's 'Transitional Programme', written in 1938, sets out the tasks for the period of the "death agony of capitalism", with a life and death struggle between fascism and communism and the approach of a new world war. Like the Manifesto, the Transitional Programme is based on a concrete, theoretical analysis of the period. It is based on a perspective.

The programme contains immediate demands, that is, for reforms, democratic rights, etc. "Indefatigably, [the Fourth International] defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers… within the framework of… [a] revolutionary perspective." But the key demands are transitional demands. For example, the demand for a "sliding scale of wages and hours" (to achieve full employment and a living wage for all workers) could not be fully implemented within the framework of crisis-ridden capitalism. The demand implies a socialist society, without spelling it out.

Discussing the Transitional Programme with US comrades, Trotsky commented that "if we present the whole socialist system it will appear to the average American as utopian, as something from Europe. We present it [in the form of a sliding scale of wages and hours] as a solution to this crisis which must assure their right to eat, drink and live in decent apartments. It is the program of socialism, but in a very popular form."

A programme is not a compilation of fundamental principles. The essential elements of a programme for socialist transformation have to be presented in a way that relates to the actual consciousness of different layers of workers. Trotsky recognised that the way a programme is presented to workers is very important. "We must combine psychology and pedagogy, build the bridge to their minds." Trotsky could never be accused of being afraid of standing out, when necessary, in defending revolutionary principles, even if it meant being isolated for a period. But he would never have willingly accepted the 'social ostracism' that Michael appears to welcome.

"… some demands," commented Trotsky in discussions on the Transitional Programme, "appear very opportunistic – because they are adapted to the actual mentality of the workers… other demands appear too revolutionary – because they reflect more the objective situation than the actual mentality of the workers."

Moreover, Trotsky pointed out that the Transitional Programme was incomplete: "… the end of the programme is not complete, because we don't speak here about the social revolution, about the seizure of power by insurrection, the transformation of capitalist society into the dictatorship [of the proletariat], the dictatorship into the socialist society. This brings the reader only to the doorstep. It is a programme for action from today until the beginning of the socialist revolution. And from the practical point of view what is now most important is how can we guide the different strata of the proletariat in the direction of the socialist revolution."

In other words, it stops short of what Michael advocates, a programme for smashing the bourgeois state and the establishment of a workers' state, a programme for an uprising and seizure of power. To have satisfied Michael, the Transitional Programme would have had to incorporate a new, updated version of Lenin's April Theses (The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution – www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/04.htm). Produced as the Russian revolution moved from its bourgeois phase to a "second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants", the Theses called for the seizure of power by the soviets of workers and peasants, the formation of a workers' republic, and control by the soviets of social production and distribution.

Clearly, the Transitional Programme of 1938 was written when there was a pre-revolutionary situation in a number of key capitalist countries, not in the middle of a deepening revolution. But by stopping short of the question of seizing power, 'leaving it till later', was Trotsky not falling into "confusion" and "dissimulation"? That is the logic of Michael's method of argument.

Michael says he recognises the need for our demands "to engage with, and intersect, the existing consciousness of workers if we are ever going to change it". The approach he advocates, however, is that we should be raising general theoretical formulas, abstract demands, such as "smash the state". Nowhere in his critique of our position, which he represents in an extremely one-sided way (to say the least), does he propose any immediate, democratic or transitional demands that would "engage with existing consciousness". He shows no recognition of the need for a flexible transitional programme that corresponds to different periods and different situations. If we were to adopt his approach, we would be doomed to political isolation – in a period that is actually becoming more and more favourable to winning workers and young people to socialist ideas. Adherence to abstract formulas might allow individuals or small groups to comment on events – and level doctrinaire criticisms of those who do engage in struggles. But the method to which Michael has now unfortunately turned will never provide a bridge between the programme of revolution and wide layers of workers and young people. If he follows this line, Michael will certainly be in no danger of becoming a populist – but, more importantly, he will not be an effective Marxist either.

 


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