Afternoon session: Discussion of 'Why state socialism is impossible'

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Within a general agreement that the capitalist state cannot bring about revolutionary change - "revolution is the destruction of the state" - two main areas of discussion emerged:

a) The persistence of strong illusions within the working class about the state as ‘protector' of the proletariat, illusions which found an echo in the meeting itself;

b) What method to use to analyse the aims and means of the workers' struggle in the 19th century and today?

On illusions in the existing state apparatus, one comrade (Devrim, EKS) said there were certainly those who thought that state socialism existed - eg the defenders of Chavez in Venezuela - and the role of the ICC's section there was essential to counter such propaganda by clearly showing the deterioration of the proletariat's actual conditions of life. But more pernicious than the idea that the state can produce socialism is the belief that it can protect the working class, an illusion which is widespread. In Turkey, for example, many workers would currently support the idea of a coup by one faction of the state against another more ‘backward' (Islam-leaning) faction. In areas where there is no strong democratic tradition, the idea of a fight for ‘democratic rights' can be strong.

Other comrades agreed on the persistence of such illusions which had weighed heavily on important struggles such as Poland 1980 (illusions in the democratic state and ‘free' trade unionism as protector against and vanquisher of the Stalinist state) or the struggles of workers in South Africa in 1980/90 which (temporarily) had been derailed behind support of the emerging ‘anti-apartheid' faction of the state (Mandela/ANC). These examples expressed the weight of the general idea that it was possible to reform the state apparatus for the workers' benefit.

In Britain, the mistaken notion of the state as defender of workers' interests was exemplified in the proletariat's attachment to protecting ‘our free' National Health Service (NHS) from cuts in jobs and services, particularly through ‘privatization'. One comrade (DL) who had broken from the Trotskyist milieu said that even if he could be persuaded that defending the NHS was not in workers' interests, many workers would not be easily convinced.

In response, various comrades made the following points:

  • Many illusions within the proletariat on the possibility of steering the state in a more ‘beneficial' direction stemmed from the period in the 19thcentury when the struggle for lasting and meaningful reforms was both possible and necessary. Today, under radically different conditions, and despite the fact that communists like Engels had already begun to denounce the idea of the state taking over the capitalist economy as a progressive measure, the weight of such traditions still hangs heavy
  • The first time the bourgeoisie in GB became really concerned about the health of the working class was during the late 19th century Boer War when workers were not fit enough to fight for their country. In other words, state control of health was linked to the nascent war economy, to the evolution of state capitalism. The provision by the bourgeoisie (as opposed to the proletariat's own self-organisation in the 19th century) of basic health and education services was not for the benefit of ‘the poor' but to defend the needs of the ruling class, and such needs of accumulation change in different periods. In the late 1940s, after WW2, and faced with the necessity of both social control and reconstruction with a programme of full employment, the national organisation of health and education services, as well as production (widespread nationalisations) was an essential plank of state capitalism.
  • Such services are not ‘free': they are part of the social wage - ie they are the product of the collective exploitation of the proletariat and represent that portion of its means of reproducing itself not given directly in wages. One comrade estimated that this ‘free' health service had cost him £70,000 in ‘contributions' taken from his wage packet over his working life, not including dental and eye costs
  • The situation is not static: today it is state capitalism itself that is in crisis, making cuts in jobs and services; mass (if sometimes ‘hidden') unemployment reappears, workers are obliged to pay more for less in health and education while the latter is used as a social tool to ‘mop up' unemployment and turns out ill-trained graduates who struggle to find work, while pensions are also attacked. In Poland and South Africa, the workers are obliged to confront the very ‘reformed' states in which they had illusions. In Britain, where the health sector is the largest employer in the land, cuts are met by almost continual mobilisations of protest, even if these are fragmented region by region, and by trade union sabotage.
  • Thus despite the existing and inevitable illusions, this is a fertile terrain for the intervention of communists if they are able to do so ‘intelligently'. Workers remember the time when they could afford neither to visit a doctor nor receive state education and rightly want to defend their existing provisions. The communists too are against job cuts for nurses, doctors, teachers, but who is making these attacks? Why, it is the employer itself, the NHS, or the state education sector! Workers can't fight effectively if they think the state-boss is on their side. We must help ‘tear the veil' which masks this reality: they can't ‘defend the NHS' but must attack the state of which it is part and which is leading the attacks. Such struggles in the ‘advanced democracies' give an important lead to other areas of the globe.

Comrades perhaps summed up this part of the discussion by saying the ICC's book Communism Is Not a Nice Idea but a Material Necessity addresses the underlying illusion: communism is utopian; we can only make capitalism more humane. This applies to the idea of defending the nationalised health service as being more humane than a privatised one.

The discussion also and inevitably touched on the question of capitalism's different periods - that of its ascendancy and that of its senility or decadence and the different conditions that these epochs impose on the form, content and even the goals of the working class and this was the second major theme examined.

For the so-called ‘anti-state' anarchists who nonetheless are often the fiercest defenders of the NHS and of nationalised rather than privatised companies, such distinctions are meaningless. Even the minority of their number who today denounce unions or parliamentary activity often do so by claiming that work for or within these institutions was always reactionary, thus ignoring the real evolution of capital and the struggles it produced at this or that moment in the past - by dismissing vast swathes of the proletariat's history and political organisation, in effect.

One disagreement which might be said to show the influence of this ‘radical'-sounding rhetoric came in a discussion on the position of Marx, Engels and the IWA concerning the American Civil War in which they - together with large swathes of the proletariat in England - supported the Union of the northern states against the slave-owners of the south. For comrade Devrim this, together with Marx's position on the1871 Franco-Prussian war, was tantamount to communists acting as recruiting sergeants for the bourgeoisie, urging workers to die for their bosses. The correct position was that of the Bolsheviks in 1914: turn the war into a class war - indeed the workers did rise up in 1871 (ie the Paris Commune).

For the ICC and other comrades, it was a question of method, of the actual situation unfolding in front of the communists' eyes, not one of universal panaceas.

In the US civil war it was a question of promoting a revolutionary mode of production - capitalism, which in turn was laying down the material basis for socialism - against the incursions of a retrogressive organisation of society in the form of the slave-holding south.

This historical, dialectical, materialist method was first popularised in The Communist Manifesto which argued that the bourgeoisie was still a revolutionary class which had yet to develop globally. In this sense, genuine bourgeois revolutions and progressive national struggles should be supported by the proletariat and its organisations. The Communist League's debate on the bourgeois revolutions of 1848 drew out the fact that such support should be strictly limited: the working class should attempt to act independently and autonomously within this process: it wasn't a case of uncritically supporting even the most radical bourgeois and petty bourgeois currents. Nonetheless, it remained a question of in which direction did the proletariat's long-term interests lie.

By 1870, there was still only one fully-developed capitalist country on the planet - it was in no way analogous to 1914 and the outbreak of WW1 which showed that on a global level, capital had completed its ‘laying of the foundations' for socialism and had therefore lost any progressive content. However even here, Marx and the 1st International recognised a change in the situation: in their first address to workers at the outbreak of the Franco Prussia war, it was a question of resisting through the friendship of German and French workers, the encroachments of Bonapartism which were seen as a threat to the development of a unified capitalism in Germany. However, once Germany became an aggressor in the war, it was a signal that ‘progressive' wars in Europe were at an end (even if this ‘lesson' was not well assimilated). Underlying this was a method which tried to look at the proletariat's historic, not just immediate interests.

In conclusion, the question is not ‘did Marx and Engels make mistakes' but was their fundamental method of understanding ‘the historic line of march' correct or not? It is only such a method which allows us today, regarding for example China, to understand that recent developments there are not some repetition of early capitalist accumulation, nor even a modern return to such methods involving gross exploitation and the despoliation of the environment, but a very real expression of the fact that state capitalism offers absolutely no perspective for the working class today other than misery and war. This was not the case in the 19th century.

KT, 15/9/07.