Is socialism obsolete? Is there a new ’21st century alternative’ to capitalism that is ‘more practicable’ than socialism? Is it possible to reform capitalism?
These are important questions. There is no point in making life harder than is necessary. If it were possible for some form of capitalism to take society forward and to improve the living conditions of humanity, socialism would remain nothing more than a dream. Instead, it is the very nature of capitalism which will lead to socialism becoming an idea which catches the imagination of millions.
Over the last decade increasing numbers of young people have declared themselves to be ‘anti-capitalist’. This is an important step forward: it represents a new generation deciding to fight to change society. The anti-capitalist movement has a strong conviction that the existing order of things is unjust. However, there is no similarly clear conviction about what the alternative to capitalism should be. In general, the anti-capitalist movement has, as yet, only a vague idea of what it is fighting for, as opposed to what it is fighting against.
Nonetheless, there are a number of common themes that are being taken up by prominent representatives of the anti-capitalist movement. These include:
1. Belief in small-scale and individual action
For example, that co-operatives and non-profit making production can provide an alternative. Support for ‘lifestyle’ politics and the idea that it is possible to create an alternative society in the here-and-now, if only for a minority, with the aim of inspiring widespread emulation.
2. Hostility to party politics of any kind
The rejection of, or extreme skepticism towards, structured organizations, sometimes including those of the workers’ movement, like trade unions, in favor of spontaneous individual action. This can include a rejection of the possibility of the working class being a major agent of social change.
3. Belief that new technology, particularly the internet, has fundamentally transformed the nature of struggle.
4. Skepticism about socialism
A belief that socialism would inevitably end in bureaucratic dictatorship as in the Soviet Union.
5. Skepticism towards all ideologies
A belief that the struggle to change society is best served by a mix-and-match approach, taking different ideas from many different ideologies.
6. Amongst some, particularly in the leadership of the movement, a belief that it is possible to reform capitalism into a more just system.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the dominant ideas. Of course, many anti-capitalists do not support any of these ideas, and others only support some. Some people have already decided to adopt socialist ideas and reject many of the concepts listed above. However, these ideas are strong currents within anti-capitalism and form the main strands of the non-socialist arguments in the movement.
That is not to suggest that everything listed above is totally invalid. Who can argue against skepticism towards the mainstream political parties given their record? Who could dispute that some of the ideas on alternative education, child rearing, or health would represent a step forward if they could be widely applied? Nonetheless, these ideas do not provide a program for an alternative society or, precisely, how capitalism can be overthrown and the possibility of building an alternative society realized. What is more, if these ideas are not superseded by a more worked-out program they will have a damaging and limiting effect on the anti-capitalist movement in the next few years.
Islands of Socialism?
The idea that it is possible to create alternative societies – ‘islands of socialism’ – within capitalism, is not new. Its most successful advocates were the utopian socialists, in particular Robert Owen, back in the early 19th century. Owen directed a cotton spinning mill at New Lanark, Scotland. He invented the infant school, with every child in the New Lanark colony attending from the age of two when in other cotton mills tiny children were being put to work. Whilst his competitors made their workers toil for 13 to 14 hours a day, in New Lanark the working day was ten-and-a-half hours. When a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his unemployed workers received their full wages all the time. And Owen went further, setting up a number of ‘communist colonies’ which were organized on a co-operative basis.
Owen was a pioneer to whom the socialist movement owes a debt. His ideas, developed 200 years ago, were far more advanced than those of Tony Blair today. However, Owen and other utopian socialists made a mistake in imagining that capitalism could be defeated simply by demonstrating the superiority of socialism in practice on a local and partial level. At the time Owen was working, capitalism was still in a relatively early stage of development – large-scale industry was just beginning. The idea that the ruling class could be convinced to change by setting a good example seemed more reasonable than it does now.
Today the combined sales of the world’s richest 200 companies are greater than the combined GDP of all but ten nations on earth. In other words, overweening power is concentrated in a tiny number of hands whose priority is defending their own interests. It is clearly unviable to imagine that their resistance to fundamental change could be overcome merely by the good example of local co-operatives and communes. There is no alternative but to dis-empower the capitalist class by removing its control of the economy and the state.
Some argue that co-operatives, run on a ‘fair’ and ‘equitable’ basis, could gradually prove themselves to be more efficient than capitalist firms and that, therefore, they could come to dominate the economy. Unfortunately, there is overwhelming evidence that this is no more than wishful thinking. Understandably, when faced with the closure of a workplace, groups of workers sometimes resort to establishing workers’ co-operatives to avoid redundancy. Far from representing a means of changing society, however, these co-operatives are subject to the laws of the capitalist society they exist in. This usually means that they fail because they cannot compete with ‘unfair’ capitalist companies, or capitalist relations resurface with increasing tensions between the workforce and the new management.
Does that mean that is impossible to escape and create an alternative lifestyle within capitalism? To some degree it is possible, but only for a small minority and only to a very limited extent. Small groups can do so, but it does not offer a solution for the mass of the population. In Britain for example, New Age travelers have succeeded on a small scale. Of course, people should have every right to choose this lifestyle without the harassment and violence they suffer at the hands of the police and the courts. But it is not really possible to escape the reality of capitalism. For example, capitalism will continue destroying the planet as long as it exists. If, as is possible, a nuclear exchange was to take place between India and Pakistan, nobody – no matter what their lifestyle – could escape the consequences.
In addition, only a tiny minority of people can, or want to, do without the ‘normal’ conveniences of life. For most people an alternative lifestyle of this kind is not a possibility. In today’s society to give up work means to live in grinding poverty. Similarly, it is not realistic to expect the majority of people to give up ‘consumer goods’. Modern capitalism encourages people to buy ever more unnecessary products.
Nonetheless, many consumer goods genuinely improve the lives of working-class people. Fridges, central heating, washing machines, CD players and televisions, all improve peoples’ lives. They are part of the accumulated standard of living of sections of the working class, won through the struggles of previous decades. However, on a world scale capitalism denies even the basic elements of civilization to millions. We are fighting for a society where everyone has the right to a civilized life. Any movement based on the idea of people giving up the commodities they have won would be wrong – and would never win mass support!
It is true that many of these commodities, as they are produced and used under capitalism, play a role in destroying the environment. But this need not be the case. Modern technology could be used rationally and in an ecologically sustainable way. Surely we can keep washing machines without having environmentally destructive detergent? But this cannot be achieved by building an ‘alternative society’ on the margins of capitalism. It can only be achieved by changing the way that the whole of society operates.
The Role of the Working Class
The low level of mass working-class action in the last decade has led to a tendency to look to other social forces and means of struggle for solutions. The idea of direct action by smaller groups of individuals (often as part of a wide movement) has taken hold of the imagination of many young people.
Direct action of this kind has a very useful role to play. For example, the demonstrations and blockades in Seattle in 1999 showed how effective direct action can be. Long before the term was coined, direct action has been used in many struggles: from the suffragette movement for women’s rights to the battle against the poll tax. However, it is only successful when it is an adjunct to, and not a replacement for, other forms of struggle.
Anti-capitalism has been effective because it has found a popular echo with millions of people around the world. When deciding if direct action by small groups will be effective or not we must always assess whether it will increase support among the mass of the working class and oppressed, or undermine it? Direct action is useful if it helps to build a mass movement. If it does not, it isn’t.
Direct action is not a replacement for movements of the working class. The role of the workers in production gives it enormous power. The strength of the ‘bulldozer revolution’ in Serbia in 2000 (which overthrew Slobodan Milosevic) came primarily from the action of the working class. The miners who went on strike produced the raw material for two thirds of Serbia’s energy.
The recent 24-hour general strikes in Spain and Italy show graphically how the working class has the power to bring society to a halt. This makes the working class the most crucial force in the struggle to change society. Direct action can assist but in no way replace it. The working class is downtrodden by capitalism and the system strives to keep it ignorant and culturally backward.
Yet it has an organized power and social cohesion like no other subject class. Of course, as the example of Serbia shows, without a clear political alternative the working class will not succeed in changing society. Nonetheless, it is potentially by far the most powerful force for social change.
Under capitalism the working class is compelled to struggle collectively through strikes, demonstrations and workplace occupations in order to win concessions and defend its interests. The decisive role of the working class in the socialist revolution arises because of the collective consciousness which it develops in the workplace as a result of its role in production, and because it faces common attacks from big business which it can only defeat through collective action.
This allows it to prepare the basis for the collective, democratic control and management of society. And this lays the basis for establishing workers’ democracy and beginning the task of building socialism. It is crucial that, in the struggle for socialism, the working class takes up the demands of all the exploited and oppressed layers in society. But because of its relation to the means of production, it is the working class that plays the decisive role in changing society.
Does This Apply in Britain Today?
Are working-class people apathetic? Do we have to rely on others to lead the struggle? Surely, some argue, revolutionary movements have only taken place in so-called ‘third world’ countries. And, where they have taken place in the West, it was in the long-gone, dim-and-hazy past.
These arguments, commonplace today, are not new. For example, they were widely expounded by left-wing groups in Europe weeks before May 1968. Then, as if from nowhere, the greatest general strike in history erupted in France. This demonstrated how dangerous it is for socialists to take a superficial view of society!
France in 1968 was in no way an economically backward country. Real incomes were rising by an average of 5% a year. In ten years car ownership had doubled, as had the number of washing machines in private homes. Purchases of fridges had trebled. Over one million second homes had been bought. Television ownership was up five-fold.
At the same time, work was intensifying: hours had increased substantially to an average of 45 a week. Unemployment had risen by 70% since 1960. The regime in the factories was extremely repressive, with private armies of armed thugs policing the production lines. The government of Charles de Gaulle mixed parliamentarism with autocratic, authoritarian methods of control.
The movement was begun by students who were viciously attacked by the CRS paramilitary police. Then workers began to mobilize as well. The demonstrations were phenomenal – a million marched in Paris with hundreds of thousands more protesting throughout France. By 21 May, ten million people were taking part in a general strike.
France 1968 was not an isolated incident. There were many similar revolutionary movements in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Chile (1973) and Portugal (1974). Today the working class worldwide is, in terms of numbers, cohesion and social weight as potentially strong as in the 1960s and 1970s. However, its understanding is not as great.
The collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the wave of capitalist triumphalism that followed have led to a relative pushing back of the consciousness of the working class. Socialism is not yet seen as a viable alternative to capitalism to the degree that it was in the past. Nonetheless, when the working class lifts its little finger the world shakes and tyrants are overthrown.
The mighty movement led by the Serbian miners brushed Milosevic aside. In Argentina, four presidents, all trying to continue neo-liberal attacks on the impoverished working and middle classes, were forced from office within two weeks as the oppressed masses arose.
In Britain (see Chapter Four), in addition to the international factors, there are also specific national reasons for the undermining of confidence in the strength of the workers’ movement. In the 1970s the British working class was one of the most combative in Europe. However, the defeats inflicted by Thatcherism resulted in the driving down of living conditions in relative and absolute terms for sections of the British working class.
Sometimes defeats can lead to a temporary lack of confidence or stunning of the movement. To a degree, this is what has happened. Nonetheless, it would be impressionistic to believe that this is permanent or fail to see the opposite side of the process. Alongside this lack of confidence there is a seething anger against the existing order. At a certain stage, this will explode into mighty struggles that will demonstrate once again the power of the British working class.
Some argue that the changes that have taken place in the structure of industry have fatally undermined the strength of the working class. It is true that more people are employed in smaller workplaces than was the case 20 years ago. This can potentially undermine the feeling of collective strength and make organizing effectively more difficult. However, half of Britain’s workers still work in workplaces of 200 or more, with 30% in workplaces of 500 or more, compared to only 17% who work in workplaces with 29-50 employees.
It is also true that more workers are employed in casual, non-union work than was the case 20 years ago. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that this fundamentally undermines the workers’ potential strength. When the general trade unions were first formed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries workers had to overcome phenomenal obstacles. Casual work, in its most brutal form, was the norm.
Dockers, for example, had to line up on the docks in cages every morning waiting to see if the foreman would pick them for work that day. After mighty battles they went on to become one of the most highly organized groups of workers in Britain. Today the working class has not been driven back that far, but organizing and fighting for the rights of agency and casual workers, and those employed in small, non-union sweatshops, will form part of the rebuilding of the workers’ movement.
Does the Internet Change Any of This?
Socialists should use every available way of spreading our ideas. The internet is one such means and it is extremely useful, dramatically increasing the speed with which information can be transmitted. But it is only a tool in the hands of living forces which are not made up of computers but people.
Big business uses the internet for its own ends. We have to use it for ours – that is, to build a movement of the working class and oppressed to overthrow capitalism. It will be the movement’s strength on the ground, not in cyberspace, that will determine its success or failure. In the mass protests in the Philippines in 2001, for example, demonstrations were built for using text messaging on mobile phones. But president Joseph Estrada would not have been overthrown if text messaging was all that people had done, it was necessary to physically participate.
What’s more, under capitalism there are definite limits to the degree that we can use information technology. The majority of the world’s population still have to walk more than two miles to reach a telephone. They do not have electricity. They certainly don’t have access to the internet! Even in Britain, only a minority of working-class families are on-line. Everyone who uses the internet relies on service providers, such as Virgin or AOL, the vast majority of which are owned by multimillionaires. There is no doubt that, if they considered that the capitalist system was threatened, these people would be prepared to sabotage protests organized through their companies.
Do We Need to Be Organized
Understandably, given the record of the Stalinist dictatorships, as well as the example set by the right-wing trade union and labor movement leaders, there is an extreme skepticism about organizations amongst many young activists. A fear exists that any organization will lead to bureaucracy. In reality, organization is a vital prerequisite for democracy. It is a myth that any demonstration takes place entirely spontaneously. Every event is organized to some degree.
For all the anti-capitalist protests, for example, people wrote and printed leaflets, updated the websites and so on. However, without organization and democratic structures, there is no way to take part in collective decision-making. ‘Self-organization’, far from preventing the development of leaders, as its advocates claim, simply means that the people taking the decisions – regardless of whether those decisions are good or bad – are not accountable to the movement.
Self-organization is also very limited from a purely practical point of view. Collective decision-making – where a debate takes place, a vote is taken and a majority decision reached, which is then abided to by all – is a basic prerequisite for effective action. It is clearly crucial, for example, if a strike is to be successful.
Naomi Klein, an enthusiastic supporter of self-organization, has herself pointed out some of its practical limitations. She described an incident during the anti-World Bank protests in Washington DC. The demonstrators had surrounded the headquarters of the World Bank and IMF and had blocked every exit. The demonstrators had to decide whether to stop the blocking the exits and march on to the main demonstration or to continue their blockade.
“The compromise the council came up with was telling. ‘OK, everybody listen up,’ Kevin Danaher shouted into a megaphone. ‘Every intersection has autonomy. If the intersection wants to stay locked down, that’s cool. If it wants to come to the Ellipse [the main demonstration], that’s cool too.’
“This was impeccably fair and democratic, but there was just one problem – it made absolutely no sense. Sealing off the access points had been a coordinated action. If some intersections now opened up and other, rebel camp intersections stayed occupied, delegates on their way out of the [World Bank] meeting could just hang a right instead of a left, and they would be home free. Which, of course, is precisely what happened.
“As I watched clusters of protestors get up and wander off while others stayed seated, defiantly guarding, well, nothing, it struck me as an apt metaphor for the strengths and weaknesses of the nascent activist network.”
This is a graphic illustration of why collective decision-making is vital. Such a situation, as well as making the blockade completely ineffective, could have left the remaining blockaders vulnerable to attack from the police.
It is not only for individual demonstrations that collective organization is needed. The might of capitalism cannot be defeated on the basis of spontaneity alone. Individual movements can and do take place ‘spontaneously’, without any formal organization. But they are far more effective when they are organized.
For example, anger against the iniquitous poll tax was not created by any campaign but by the tax itself. However, the poll tax was defeated by an organized campaign of mass non-payment (led by the Anti-Poll Tax Federation in which Militant played a leading role). Without tens of thousands being actively organized in the anti-poll tax unions set up throughout Britain the poll tax would not have been defeated.
Revolutionary movements can also take place spontaneously. But capitalism is an enormously powerful system and the working class, while it has numbers on its side, is divided into many different layers and sections. Capitalism cannot be successfully and permanently removed without a workers’ organization which unites these different layers and has the necessary determination, experience and roots in the working class.
As Leon Trotsky explained in The History of the Russian Revolution:
“They [parties and leaders] constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important element in the process. Without a guiding organization the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”
In other words, it is the masses who change society, but organization in the form of a party is an essential tool without which they cannot succeed in defeating the capitalists.
Many in the anti-capitalist movement believe that any attempt to build a Marxist party is doomed to end in bureaucracy and failure. They see all parties as attempting to impose their own set of ideas on others. Of course, it is correct to reject ‘dogmatic Marxism’, which sees in every movement a mere repetition of the past. Klein, when asked if her book, No Logo, is a manifesto for the anti-capitalist movement, said:
“There is no Das Kapital for the anti-corporate movement. One of the best things about this movement is that no one is handing down a manifesto from on high.”
She goes on to explain that she sees the eclectic ideological nature of the anti-capitalist movement as a strength. Klein describes it as
“taking a little bit from Marxism, a little bit from socialism, from environmentalism, from anarchism, and also a lot of inspiration from even older places and more indigenous theories about self-determination”.
We share some of the approaches of Klein. No Logo imaginatively connects with the new generation that is drawing anti-capitalist conclusions. However, the problem with her approach is that it ignores the fact that some ideas are more effective in aiding struggle than others. When trade unionists debate which way forward for their strike, the strategy they adopt matters.
It can make the difference between victory and defeat. This is also true on a broader scale. To give just one example: as previously mentioned, in 1973 Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, was overthrown by General Pinochet’s bloody CIA-backed coup. Allende and tens of thousands of others were killed. In the run up to the coup Allende made a number of mistaken decisions, including trying to pacify the generals by bringing Pinochet into the cabinet. As Marxists argued at the time, had he taken different decisions, the tragic outcome could have been prevented.
One of the roles of a party should be to act as a memory bank of the working class and the oppressed. History, as the saying goes, belongs to the victor. Too true. And while we live in a capitalist society it will be the history that suits capitalism that will dominate. It is therefore necessary for a working-class party to independently remember previous struggles from a working-class standpoint – both defeats and victories – in order to apply the lessons of those struggles to the situation today. If we do not do this and fail to draw the appropriate conclusions – for example, the need to be organized or the role of the working class – we are condemning every new generation to start from scratch and to relearn, through bitter defeats, the mistakes of the past.
History is a moving picture. It does not repeat itself exactly but this does not mean that the past is irrelevant. Many activists believe that the fall of the Stalinist regimes has changed the world so completely that all the struggles before 1990 are now irrelevant. This is a huge exaggeration.
The collapse of Stalinism was an ideological victory for big business and has had a major effect on the consciousness and outlook of the working class. However, it has not in any way changed the fundamental nature of capitalism or class society. Our enemy is same enemy our forebears fought. We can still learn from both the victories and the tragic defeats that they suffered in their struggle to overthrow capitalism.
By applying the method of Marxism to analyze the world and draw up a program to change it, it is possible for a party to make the difference between the success or failure of mass movements.
Nonetheless, any Marxist party worthy of the name does not ‘hand down a manifesto from on high’ but has a living, dynamic relationship with the struggles that are taking place – aiding them but also learning from them. This was true in the past. The Bolshevik party, which led the Russian revolution, did not invent the idea of soviets (workers’ committees). In fact, soviets first appeared during an earlier revolution in 1905. However, it was Trotsky, Lenin and the Bolsheviks who understood their significance and went on to raise the demand ‘all power to the Soviets’ in 1917. Without the lead given by the Bolshevik party, the Russian revolution would not have taken place.
Doesn’t the Russian experience prove that a party leads to bureaucracy?
But didn’t subsequent developments in Russia expose a fundamental link between the Bolshevik party and Stalinism? And does that mean that any attempt to replace capitalism will end in dictatorship? It is not surprising that these doubts are widespread. The ruling class has milked the collapse of the Soviet Union for everything it is worth in order to bolster its own system.
This is reflected throughout society. Owning and controlling much of the planet, the capitalists have enormous power to influence ideas. In the universities, post-modernism – which is just skepticism dressed up as a new philosophy – is the flavor of the month. It is fashionable to believe that it is naïve or dangerous to dare to try and change anything. Of course, this suits big business which does not want anything to change. But for the rest of us, fashionable ‘detachment’ means accepting that we are powerless.
Capitalism has only existed for something over 300 years. On the scale of human history that is nothing, a tiny speck of time. It is true that during that time capitalism has transformed the planet – bringing incredible technology alongside devastating want – yet it is no more permanent than any other means by which human society has been organized.
Despite the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed, writers still churn out books by the truckload, attempting to show the ‘irrelevance’ of the Russian revolution. This first successful attempt to overthrow capitalism still evokes enormous fear for big business. We should not despair at its failure. We should, rather, learn the lessons from what went wrong. To do so it is necessary to look back at the revolution itself and the years that followed.
Russia 1917 was the first time that capitalism was overthrown by working-class people. The revolution was led by the Bolshevik party. However, it was organized through the soviets – elected councils of workers, soldiers and peasants. The basic demands of the Bolsheviks were for ‘bread, peace and land’, but they explained that only by breaking with capitalism were these demands achievable.
The Bolsheviks won the leadership of the working class of Russia, not by force but by patiently explaining their ideas within the soviets. Alongside the leadership of the Bolsheviks the Russian working class was able to come to power. How did this wonderful movement – in which millions of downtrodden people were genuinely empowered because they took power in their own hands – end up in what the Soviet Union tragically became?
Marx had thought it most likely that capitalism would be defeated first in the most economically developed countries. It was here, after all, where the working class was at its most powerful and the industrial basis existed for the transition to socialism. Instead, in October 1917, the chain of world capitalism broke at its weakest link. The Soviet government inherited an underdeveloped society in a state of disintegration, exhausted by three years of world war. This made the building of socialism far harder than it would have been in a more economically advanced country. The task of spreading the revolution internationally, therefore, took on a burning urgency.
The Pressures On the Soviet Union
Within Russia the old ruling class fought against the revolution with every means at its disposal. The imperialist powers intervened directly, funding and arming the counter-revolutionary forces, known as the ‘Whites’. From May 1918 to the spring of 1921 civil war raged.
Alongside the determination of the workers and peasants in the Soviet Union, international solidarity was decisive in the victory of the Red Army. However, while they managed to help defeat the counter-revolution in Russia, the revolutionary movements in other countries did not succeed in taking power. The leadership of the Bolsheviks understood that this meant that their victory would be temporary. Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik party, explained:
“In all our agitation… we must explain that the misfortune which has fallen upon us is an international misfortune, that there is no way out of it but the international revolution.”
Why were the revolutionary movements in other countries, such as Germany, defeated in the aftermath of the Russian revolution? After all, the working class was far stronger in Germany and they had witnessed the success in Russia. The biggest difference was the lack of a Bolshevik-type party. The Bolsheviks had, over a long period of time, become rooted in the working class. Unlike any other party in Russia it had not buckled under the immense pressure to capitulate to right-wing reaction – despite the vacillation of a number of its leaders. Under the leadership of Lenin, the Bolsheviks were prepared to lead the working class to power.
In no other country did a party with a similar authority or outlook exist. The only international socialist organization, the Second International of which the Bolsheviks had been a part, had shattered at the beginning of the First World War. The parties of the Second International had become powerful in the early years of the 20th century. However, their leaders, while claiming to be Marxists, had become privileged and remote from the workers’ struggle. Their political degeneration was completed when they, almost to a man and woman, supported the interests of ‘their own’ imperialist, national, capitalist class in the First World War at the beginning in 1914.
This meant that the Bolsheviks had no international party to organize support for the Russian revolution. They immediately set about trying to create one. The Communist International was founded in March 1919. But it was made up of many disparate and inexperienced elements.
In Germany the most experienced revolutionaries, the heroic figures of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered in the counter-revolution in January 1919. The younger generation that flocked to the Communist International did not have the experience or authority to build the mass revolutionary parties that could lead the working class in their respective countries to power.
Although there were many opportunities for the working class to take power, particularly in Germany, those opportunities were missed. Surely, the lesson to draw from this is not that it is impossible to win socialism, but that an international party with the kind of strengths that the Bolshevik party had in Russia is necessary.
The Russian revolution was left isolated. And this was the principal cause of its degeneration. Lenin, just before the Russian revolution, had laid out four safeguards to protect a fledgling workers’ state from the rise of a privileged bureaucratic elite. They were:
1. Free and democratic elections with the right of recall of all officials.
2. No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker.
3. No standing army or police force, but the armed people.
4. Gradually, for all administrative tasks to be done in turn by all: “Every cook should be prime minister,” “when everyone is a ‘bureaucrat’ in turn, nobody can be a bureaucrat”.
If implemented, these guidelines would have protected Russia from degeneration. But it was impossible, despite the efforts of the revolutionaries, to fully implement them in such an isolated and impoverished country. Economic backwardness has a devastating effect, causing food shortages and a lack of basic necessities.
Trotsky compared the development of a bureaucracy to a policeman controlling a queue:
“When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come when they want to. When there are few goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point for the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.”
In this situation it was inevitable that a bureaucratic caste would develop and take control. Joseph Stalin was a hideous dictator but he did not create the bureaucracy, rather he was a living expression of it. It is true that Stalin was an ‘Old Bolshevik’ (a member of the party from before the revolution) but it is absolutely false to say that Stalinism arose inevitably from the nature of the Bolshevik party.
Every capitalist historian who asserts this is forced to ignore one incontrovertible fact: that to consolidate his power Stalin had to have his former comrades murdered. Lenin died in 1924 and could therefore be turned into an icon – his image used in the interests of the bureaucracy.
His words were distorted beyond any recognition to back up Stalin. In fact, Lenin had tried to warn against Stalin in the last testament that he wrote shortly before he died. Practically every member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party in 1917 was dead by 1940, most of them murdered on Stalin’s orders. As a consequence of brutal purges it is estimated that Stalin’s murderous toll in the 1930s totaled between 12-15 million people.
Nonetheless, the voice of genuine socialism did not give up without a fight. The Left Opposition, led by Trotsky, fought back. Leopold Trepper, who led the Soviet spy ring in Nazi Germany, said of the Trotskyists:
“All those who did not rise up against the Stalinist machine are responsible, collectively responsible. I am no exception to this verdict. But who did protest at the time? Who rose up to voice his outrage?
“The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honor. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great purges they could only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra.
“Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not ‘confess’ for they knew that their confession would serve neither the party nor socialism.”
Heroism, however, was not, in itself, enough. The only way the Left Opposition could win was by a successful revolution in another country. Without such a revolution the Soviet Union was left isolated. A privileged layer rose to the top and elbowed aside the working class and abandoned the revolution’s internationalist perspective. This led to the utterly false idea of socialism in one country.
Initially, the mistakes of the growing bureaucracy contributed to the defeat of the German working class. Then, as faith in international revolution dimmed further, the reformist tendencies of the bureaucracy were reinforced. In Spain in the 1930s, where the working class had power within its grasp, the Stalinists consciously derailed the revolution, allowing the murder of the best fighters for socialism.
In 1940 Trotsky was murdered in Mexico on the orders of Stalin. Stalin’s purges were not simply ‘evil’, they were designed to put a river of blood between the revolution of 1917 and the reality of Stalinism.
Today capitalist historians are most eager to bury the true history of 1917 under a pile of slander. It is the job of socialists to look more closely and discover the real story, the lessons of which can help guide our struggles today. This firstly means refuting the calumny that there is an inevitable link between organizing to change society and the development of a Stalinist bureaucracy.
The Bolshevik party was very democratic and its methods bore absolutely no resemblance to the methods of Stalinism. Of course, it was not some kind of ahistorical, perfect model and it would be foolish to imagine that such a thing could exist. The Bolsheviks had some weaknesses but they also had many strengths. These strengths are what make the Bolsheviks stand on a higher level than any other party that has yet existed, enabling them to lead the working class to power and to overthrow the capitalist order.
The world has changed dramatically over the last century. We have much to learn from the Bolsheviks. However, the oppressive tsarist regime meant that the Bolsheviks had to work in underground conditions and use clandestine methods. Today in Britain we work in a capitalist democracy which, at the moment at least, allows us to organize relatively freely. We are able to be very open, to emphasize democracy and the vital necessity of listening to, and learning from, the working class.
Can Capitalism Be Reformed or Controlled?
Although it is rarely articulated, a section of the anti-capitalist movement, particularly some of the leading figures, does not aim to overthrow capitalism but to reform it. In Britain, two of the most popular books by leading anti-capitalists have been Naomi Klein’s No Logo and George Monbiot’s Captive State – the Corporate Takeover of Britain.
Both give searing accounts of the reality of globalized capitalism and, in particular, the power of the multinationals. Fundamentally, however, their conclusions amount to the idea that it is possible to exert control over these same multinationals and to tip the balance away from big business and towards the oppressed.
Klein, for example, concludes her book by calling for citizens
“through unions, laws and international treaties” to “take control of their own labor conditions and of the ecological impact of industrialization”.
She claims that this was achieved in the 1930s in the US and could be done again, this time on “a global scale”.
Monbiot’s conclusions are similar. He calls on mass movements to prevent
“any faction – the corporations, the aristocracy, the armed forces, even, for that matter, trade unions and environment groups from wielding excessive power”.
Both authors are correct to call for mass movements to challenge the power of the multinationals. They are also correct to say that working-class people and the oppressed could win victories and improve their living conditions as a result of such movements. Every improvement in working-class life – the welfare state, the right to vote, wage increases, even the right to ramble – has been won as a result of determined struggle.
Socialists should fully support many of the reforms argued for in the anti-capitalist movement. We support, for example, the cancellation of ‘third world debt’.
The neo-colonial world spends $13 on debt repayment for every $1 it receives in grants from the imperialist countries. For most countries concerned even paying the interest on this ‘debt’ is crippling.
In sub-Saharan Africa governments spend more on servicing debt – $300 billion (£200 billion) – than on the health and education of children. These ever mounting debts are cynically used by the agencies of imperialism, the IMF and the World Bank, to pressure neo-colonial governments into toeing the line.
Toeing the line involves privatization, cuts in state spending and the opening up of the market to US and Western imperialism! But while we campaign for the cancellation of the debt, it would be wrong to argue that this measure alone would be enough. As long as power resides with a few predominantly US-owned corporations, whose interests are defended by US imperialism, it is clear that poverty will remain the norm for the bulk of humanity.
Similarly, we support the idea of campaigning for a tax on capital flows, for example, the Tobin Tax, a proposed tax on international financial transactions of around 0.5% which would be used to alleviate world poverty. Such a tax, if implemented, could raise enormous sums of money.
Even the modest Tobin Tax might raise £140 billion a year! However, the ‘if implemented’ proviso is an important one. Who could implement the Tobin Tax? How would it be possible to separate the introduction of such a measure in a world of uncontrolled capital flows – which national governments are unable to control – from the need for wider, socialist measures?
When the Labour government of 1964 introduced a mild corporation tax, the British ruling class went on a ‘strike of capital’. Because that government remained within the framework of capitalism, it was compelled to retreat and water down the tax until it became completely harmless to capitalist interests. Without a state monopoly of foreign trade and the nationalization of the banks, a Tobin Tax could not work. It would be like sneaking up on a wild tiger and trying to surreptitiously pull its teeth out one by one.
This does not preclude the ruling class of different countries, even advanced capitalist countries, from introducing taxes on capital movements on a national basis in the future. At the moment, the imperialist powers would bitterly oppose such measures. Nonetheless, in order to bail out capitalism in an extreme economic crisis, they would be prepared to take all kinds of seemingly unthinkable steps. However, any such taxes would be limited to a national basis and, crucially, would not be used to alleviate world poverty. They would be implemented in the interests of the capitalists.
No matter how hard people fight, or how many progressive laws are passed, capitalism will never be a ‘fair’ system. As previously explained, capitalism is based on private property and the exploitation of working people’s labor power.
At every opportunity, the bosses will attack the living conditions of working people to increase their own profits. As Marx stated, while the capitalist class owns the means of production it will exploit the working class. When wealth and power are concentrated in an ever-smaller group of multinational companies, the idea that they can be controlled and made to act in a ‘fair’ way is more utopian than ever.
What is more, capitalism is a system in crisis. Klein and Monbiot put forward what are fundamentally Keynesian ideas – increasing government spending (traditionally on socially useful infrastructure projects and increasing welfare) to boost the economy. Klein harks back to the 1930s when US president Franklin D Roosevelt implemented the Keynesian New Deal.
However, it is wrong to imagine that Keynesian policies can solve the problems of capitalism. In the whole history of capitalism there was only a very short period when the living standards of a majority of workers in the advanced capitalist countries improved steadily – from 1950 to the mid-1970s.
This post-war economic upswing has been the only period when capitalism appeared that it might partially overcome its problems. For particular historical reasons – including the massive destruction of capital in Europe and the deaths of 55 million people during the Second World War – capitalism grew extremely rapidly and could therefore afford to make concessions to the working class. Average annual growth in the ‘advanced capitalist countries’ was, in real terms, 5% during the post-war upswing. By contrast, in the 1990s it averaged 2.3%.
After the war, Keynesian policies were very much in vogue and are often associated with this time. However, while they helped to prolong the upswing, they did not create it. In fact, when the economic upswing reached its limits in the early 1970s, Keynesian policies began to exacerbate all the problems in the system, leading to massive inflation.
Once the upswing had reached its limits, and came to an end in the early 1970s, big business has attempted to take back all that it had once conceded. This included a dramatic turn away from Keynesian policies. It is likely that in the future, under the impact of economic crises, the ruling class in some countries will be forced to reintroduce some of these methods again. To an extent this has already begun. After all, while the US government criticizes other countries for carrying out Keynesian-type, protectionist measures, this is the only description that can be given to Bush’s massive ‘farm bill’ subsidy increases given to US agribusiness.
The fundamental weakness of capitalism means that these policies will fail to recreate the relative stability of the post-war upswing. Japan has already attempted to use neo-Keynesian methods to kick-start its economy, the second largest in the world, with no success. After a decade of stagnation Japanese capitalism has now slumped back into recession. Unemployment is the highest for over 50 years. The growing anger in Japanese society is so palpable that the ruling class is terrified. This has given rise to the latest joke amongst Japanese bankers: ‘What is the difference between Japan and Argentina? Two years.’
Notwithstanding the improvements won during the two decades after the Second World War, the whole history of the 20th century proves that it is not possible to ‘reform’ capitalism. Klein talks about the magnificent movements of the working class that took place in the 1930s. These movements and the catastrophic crisis of capitalism forced the Roosevelt government to introduce the New Deal. But this did not stabilize capitalism. The crisis of capitalism in the 1920s and 1930s led to the rise of fascism and the nightmare of the Second World War. It was only after this orgy of destruction that capitalism was able to enjoy a brief period of stability and growth.
It is the grim reality of 21st century capitalism that will lead a new generation to rediscover the ideas of genuine socialism. In general, humanity never goes back to its starting point but takes on board the accumulated experiences of previous generations. The ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are already being searched out by a minority in the young anti-capitalist movement. In the future it will be working-class people in their millions who rediscover and adopt the ideas and methods of Marxism.