The State: A Marxist Programme and Transitional Demands


Reply to Michael Wainwright by Socialist Party Executive Committee member Lynn Walsh

Lynn Walsh


On 29 March 2006, Michael Wainwright posted a statement on the Socialist Party Youth Forum, ‘Re: Marxists and the State’. Having reviewed some of our material, Michael had come to the conclusion that the Socialist Party and its predecessor Militant have adopted a reformist position on the state. Several members of the list responded to his statement, answering some of his points. Very soon, however, Michael sent a slightly longer version of his statement – together with a letter resigning from the Socialist Party. Evidently, he had already decided on his exit strategy and was not interested in debating the issues he raised within the party.

We disagree with Michael, but the issues he raises are important and we think that, if there are political differences, they should be debated. Michael’s “fairly comprehensive review” actually focuses mainly on some Militant articles published in the 1980s, dealing with our general programme and the police. As it happens, some of the articles to which he refers, together with others on the question of the state, were brought together in a pamphlet, entitled ‘The State: A Warning to the Labour Movement’, published in 1983. This is available on the Socialist Party website ( The pamphlet is just one selection of articles on the state from that period, but it contains ample material to refute Michael’s criticisms. The issue of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and Immigration Service workers raised by Michael will be dealt with separately.


Surely, asks Michael, our aim is “the establishment of working class power… a revolution to create a workers’ state”. The bourgeois state must be “broken up, smashed, and replaced by a new workers’ state,” with the formation of workers’ militias, local soviets and factory committees. In the midst of a revolution, of course, like Russia in 1917 or Spain in 1936, such basic aims might provide some guidance for the drawing up of a revolutionary action programme. A situation of dual power, with a struggle for power between the capitalists and the working class, and the threat of bourgeois reaction, would undoubtedly pose the question of a struggle for power. Even in a revolutionary situation, however, a Marxist programme has to go beyond generalities of smashing the state and establishing workers’ power. In 1917 Lenin and Trotsky put forward concrete demands as the situation developed, to expose and undermine the role of the Provisional Government and to strengthen the position of the workers’ and peasants’ soviets. In relation to Spain in 1936, Trotsky advocated concrete demands that would expose the role of the Popular Front government and prepare the working class for a struggle to take power into its own hands.

But that was clearly not the position in Britain (or in other advanced capitalist countries) in the 1980s (the period mainly referred to by Michael). Parliamentary forms of rule were the norm in the post-war period, and the consciousness of the working class, including its politically advanced layers, was that, while gains could be made through industrial struggle, political change would be achieved through the election of governments based on the traditional labour or social-democratic parties (or in some countries the reformist communist parties). Our task was to expose the bourgeois limits of these reformist parties, to show the impossibility of achieving socialism through gradual, step-by-step changes in the economy and the state. The political influence of the mass reformist parties over big sections of the working class was an objective fact, and would only be undermined by a combination of events – through workers’ experience of reformist governments – and the subjective factor – the intervention of Marxist ideas and policies.

Through our publications, meetings, interventions, etc, we conducted a political struggle against reformism and Stalinism. However, theory and propaganda reaches only a relatively small, politicised layer, except in exceptional periods of intensified class struggle. Reaching broader layers requires a programme, and the key task during the period to which Michael mainly refers was to popularise the idea of a socialist programme. The key planks are the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, a plan of production, and workers’ control and management of industry. Moreover, we always stressed that such measures would have to be extended on an international basis.

By themselves, of course, such measures would not add up to a socialist society. But they pointed to the social foundations on which the working class could proceed to build a socialist society. Our programme presented the case for “the socialist transformation of society” – a popularised form of ‘socialist revolution’. We use this formulation to avoid the crude association between ‘revolution’ and ‘violence’ always falsely made by apologists of capitalism. A successful socialist transformation can be carried through only on the basis of the support of the overwhelming majority of the working class, with the support of other layers, through the most radical forms of democracy. On that basis, provided a socialist government takes decisive measures on the basis of mobilising the working class, it would be possible to carry though a peaceful change of society. Any threat of violence would come, not from a popular socialist government, but from forces seeking to restore their monopoly of wealth, power and privilege by mobilising a reaction against the democratic majority.

Until the end of the 1980s, we worked within the Labour Party, because of its dominant position as the vehicle for working-class politics. With the process of bourgeoisification of the Labour Party in the late 1980s, and the emptying out of its working-class rank and file, we turned away from Labour and have since campaigned independently as Militant Labour and subsequently as the Socialist Party. In the earlier period, however, the majority of workers, including left workers, looked to Labour governments for improvements and socialist change. That was the existing consciousness. For this to be undermined, workers had to go through the experience of successive Labour governments. During the 1970s and 1980s, we therefore posed the question to the Labour leaders: If you really want to defend workers’ interest, if you claim to be advancing towards socialism, carry through a programme that will take economic control out of the hands of big business. Nationalise the “commanding heights” of the economy and introduce workers’ control and management. The idea of an Enabling Act was put forward to cut through the reformist argument that it would be too complicated, and take too long, to get extensive nationalisation measures through parliament. It was precisely the idea of short-circuiting the parliamentary ‘checks and balances’ designed to impede any radical change.

Contrary to Michael’s claim, we never based ourselves on the idea that a socialist programme (in the popularised form we outlined) could be carried through using existing parliamentary procedures. Regarding nationalisation: “Such a step, backed up by the power of the labour movement outside parliament, would allow the introduction of a socialist and democratic plan of production to be worked out and implemented by committees of trade unions, the shop stewards, housewives and small businessmen. With the new technology that is on hand… it would be possible both to cut the working day and enormously simplify the tasks of the working class in the supervision and control of the state.” (The Role of the State, Peter Taaffe – in The State: A Warning to the Labour Movement, p32) Even a superficial review of our material on this question would show that we warned that big business would inevitably attempt to sabotage socialist measures and we always raised the need for a mobilisation of the working class to provide mass support for any anti-capitalist measures carried out by a Labour government. We raised the need for a transformation of state institutions from top to bottom, taking them out of the hands of servants of the ruling class and placing them under the control of elected representatives of the working class. Our programme put demands on the Labour leaders, who were seen by most politicised workers as their representatives in government, but our approach was not based on an electoralist strategy.

The experience of Chile in 1970-73, to take the best known example, was repeatedly used to show the need for a root-and-branch transformation of the state. In the case of Chile, a revolutionary situation was opened up by the election of the popular front government under Allende (which included the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the bourgeois Radical Party). It had a radical programme, which included some nationalisation measures (of the copper industry, for instance), but fell far short of a programme of socialist transformation. Political developments of this type, with the election of left parties to government on the basis of mass radicalisation of the workers, are a typical scenario for the development of revolutionary crisis in capitalist countries with a parliamentary form of rule. In such a situation, Marxists have to advance a programme that relates concretely to the role of a ‘socialist’ (popular front) government and to the necessary tasks posed before the working class. In Chile between 1970-73, bald calls on the lines of ‘down with the Allende government’, ‘smash the state’ and ‘for a workers’ government’ would have been be completely inadequate.

We advocated that Marxists in Chile should call on the Allende government to take decisive control of the economy through nationalisation of the copper mines and basic industries, while supporting the poor peasants in carrying through a radical land reform. We also called for decisive measures against the developing counter-revolution, led by the tops of the military, the big landlords and capitalists. We warned that it was a fatal mistake on the part of Allende to try to buy off the military reaction by promoting the military tops to more powerful positions and increasing the pay of the officer class. While calling on Allende to take bold socialist measures, we advocated the organisation of the workers from below, with the strengthening of factory committees and the ‘cordones’, effectively local soviet-type organisations. We also advocated the democratisation of the armed forces, with the purging of reactionary officers and control of the armed forces being placed in the hands of committees of soldiers, sailors and airmen. When it was clear that the reactionary forces were preparing for a counter-revolutionary coup, we called for the arming of the working class to defend itself against a bloody reaction.

There was no question, moreover, of our treating these developments as if they were a purely Chilean development. “The lessons of Chile, written in the blood of more than 50,000 martyred workers, is a warning to the labour movement here.” (The State…, p28)

The same article (and there were many other articles elsewhere) rejected the theory of the leaders of the Communist Parties of France, Italy and Spain (the so-called ‘Euro-communist’ trend) used to justify the approach of the Socialist and Communist Party leaders in Chile under the Allende government. “However, 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. Piecemeal measures will neither satisfy the working class nor the middle class, but will inflame the opposition of the capitalists – and, moreover, give them the time and opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the labour movement. This would above all be the case when attempts are made to ‘democratise’ their state. The capitalists would take this as a signal – particularly if the army is touched – to prepare to crush the labour movement.” (The State…, pp31-32)

Again: “The lesson of Chile, where in 1973 the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende was overthrown and the workers’ movement crushed by Pinochet’s bloody counter-revolution, must be taken as a serious warning to the British as well as to the world labour movement. Chile underlies the fatal consequences of taking half measures which provoke a reaction from the ruling class while failing to give the working class decisive control of the economy and the state. In particular, the lessons of the Allende government’s fundamentally mistaken policies towards the state’s armed bodies of men must be absorbed by the British labour movement.” (Introduction – The State…, pp9-10)

The example of Chile was repeatedly used in our material to demonstrate the impossibility of a reformist ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ in Britain or elsewhere. However, the situation in Chile in 1970-73 was not the same as in Britain in the early 1980s. In Chile it was necessary to call for the arming of the workers to defend themselves and past democratic and social gains from the threatening counter-revolution.

Is Michael seriously suggesting that we should have been calling for workers’ militias and the arming of the proletariat in Britain in the 1980s – or today, for that matter? Such demands do not correspond to the situation today in Britain or most other countries, and they do not correspond to the current consciousness of even the advanced layers of workers.

Marxists have to study the history of such demands and the vital role they play in the appropriate conditions – where there is a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation in which the working class is threatened by a bloody reaction. But to raise today the slogans of ‘smashing the state’ and ‘arming the workers’ would not win workers to socialism or prepare them to carry through a change in society. On the contrary, such methods, if adopted by organisations with any real influence among workers, would alienate workers and play into the hands of our class enemies.

Our main task today is to win support for the idea of a socialist society, for a socialist transformation carried through under the leadership of the working class. There is no question of our abandoning our long-term aims. But in order to build mass support for socialism we have to present our programme in a popular form that will get a response from workers. While advocating a socialist transformation of society, we have to struggle for partial and transitional demands, for the basic interests and needs of working people.