Presentation to the afternoon session: Why state socialism is impossible

See also :

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailNone of us in this room believes that state socialism is possible. We could all agree that it's a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. And go home.

Today, we all recognise the state as the antithesis of socialism, the enemy of a new society, an expression and conservator par excellence of the old, along with the ruling class whose privileges and mode of production it defends. The state's fate is to be smashed by the working class en route to communism. As the ICC's book puts it very succinctly, "As far as Marxism is concerned, the strength of the state is the measure of man's unfreedom."

Yet we are obliged to go a little deeper for two main reasons:

a) Because the idea that the state can be the motor of social transformation is still perpetrated by those who claim to defend working class interests - let's take the example, one among many, of Chavism in Venezuela. And illusions in this ‘road' are not absent within the proletariat in general: there still remain confusions, for example, that nationalised capital is somehow more ‘progressive' than ‘private' capital, that a state health service is preferable to a private health service. Or that, in the final analysis, the state is the only protector against such ravages as terrorism, climate change, and so on. In short, we still have to wage a war ‘for hearts and minds' as Mr Blair used to say, on this subject.

b) And because, on a more fundamental level, and despite the fact that Marx and Marxism owes its origins to a class-based critical reaction to Hegel's idealisation of the state, backtracking on this fundamental truth has been a constant feature of life within the proletariat's own political and mass organisations, from the IWW to the CI, from the Paris Commune to the Russian Revolution and its results, or rather its defeat.

Why is this? Why this constant combat on the question of the state? Why this going over what seems today to be such an elemental position, of what in essence was understood from the very beginnings of the politicised workers movement?

Firstly, and most obviously, because we live, exist, in bourgeois society. The dominant ideas are those of the ruling class, which has every interest in preserving the mythology of the eternal state. We, the proletariat in general, and its political expressions in particular, have to wage a constant fight against the penetration of the dominant ideology. This is a cliché. But a cliché is merely the truth repeated until it's lost its original - living - content. It's still the truth.

In the real movement which has unfolded in front of our eyes - in the history of our movement - this has not expressed itself abstractly but concretely at certain, particular stages, around issues specific to the conditions in which they arose. Thus the ICC's book exposes isolated examples of Marx's own illusions - under the weight of the dominant ideology and the level of development of capital at the time - that in certain countries like Britain or America - the proletariat can actually assume a dominant position through bourgeois democracy, through perhaps elections, without first destroying the state but, instead, through its mechanisms.

However such aberrations - and that's what they were - are far removed from the general line of march of Marxism which defined, refined and honed itself precisely against the incursions of the dominant ideology, and specifically its manifestations within the workers' movement expressed by reformism and anarchism.

Not just against the ideological incursions of capital, of course, which is just one side of what is a social relationship, but in light of the actual movement of the proletariat. Thus the Paris Commune - "the real movement which is worth more than a hundred programmes" - enabled Marxism to become more precise: the proletariat couldn't just take hold of the bourgeois state and use it for its own ends: in fact it was obliged to confront, to smash that state in order to assure its domination over society and effect a social transformation.

Here, in the Commune, despite its limitations in duration, extent and in the material conditions under which it arose, was posed and answered an eminently practical, political question: what is the process through which the proletariat must pass in order to transform its own conditions and those of humanity? The answer was that there is no avoiding a centralised, armed conflict with and against the ruling class's state.

Many more lessons, in embryo, too: concerning the revolutionary 'semi'- state that replaces the bourgeois state: not an end in itself, or even a direct expression of the proletariat, but one over which the proletariat will still have to retain its autonomous, political control, concerning which it would have to lop off its most pernicious expressions. Hence the mass elected and revocable delegates, mandated to carry out specific tasks, as opposed to the former bureaucratic elite answerable only to the national capital's needs. This question would be further clarified in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

Plus the fact that this experience of the Commune was the result of a war that saw, for the first time, the bourgeoisie of different countries unite against the proletariat: an end, as far as Marx was concerned, to discussions over national ‘defensive' wars, at least in the most developed heartlands of capital, even if the colonial question couldn't at this stage be resolved.

All these issues are touched on by the Marxist currents of the time. Some lessons become more ingrained than others.

However... History is not static. Clarity in the final analysis doesn't depend on abstract will and purism. It's not homogeneous throughout the class, and that goes for its revolutionary minorities.

The Paris Commune ended in a defeat, a bloody massacre, the break-up of the Ist International and a retreat of the workers' movement in general. In addition, bourgeois relations of production were still in the ascendancy: the most dynamic growth of this mode of production was still unfolding.

Thus in the wake of this defeat of the first proletarian attempt to take power, the social wealth generated by a still ascendant mode of production allowed for the further penetration of bourgeois ideas into the workers movement. The lessons of the need to smash the bourgeois state, not to use it to create socialism, were going to have to be restated.

For when the workers struggle re-emerged amidst the apparent flowering of bourgeois political economy, its growth was accompanied by a certain receding of the perspective of revolution itself, the maximum programme, in favour of pursuing the minimum programme, the necessary and possible struggle to ameliorate immediate living conditions, to win the right of a shorter working day, of the right of assembly, and so on. Such concerns weren't a deflection of a revolution that in any case was not on the immediate agenda, but a necessary part of the proletariat's education, its formation as a class, one which was genuinely able to influence affairs in its favour.

Nonetheless such successes came at a price. On the level of the revolutionary perspective, the famous Gotha programme which was meant to found the German SDP sees all kinds of illusions, including the idea that the creation of socialism depends on state-assisted workers' cooperatives. The critique made by Marx and Engels of this proposed programme obliges them to clarify, to deepen the communist programme, to insist that, contrary to its illusions, communism couldn't be declared the day after the revolution, but that a period of transition would necessarily ensue; that the object of communism wasn't the perpetuation of exchange relations, or attaching a value to individual or even collective labour power, and that the statification of capital did not equal its suppression.

In fact, long before the onset of decadence, before the lessons bequeathed by the Russian Revolution and its defeat, we can see that Marxism, from the very beginning, defined the state as the antithesis of socialism, as the expression of a society divided into classes. The capitalist state could neither be ignored nor conquered, was not and is not a tool through which the proletariat could express its revolutionary nature. State socialism is indeed a contradiction in terms, an impossibility.

Today, there are revolutionaries - and many anarchists - who take this to mean that the 19th century struggle for reforms, parliamentarism, the growth of mass unionism and mass proletarian parties was an unnecessary and dangerous detour from the maximum programme. Such views ignore the real, material conditions of the time.

It's necessary not to read back into history: not to parachute our knowledge of the appearance of the weapon of the mass strike and the creation of workers councils or soviets; the bankruptcy of the bourgeois mode of production as evidenced by the First and Second World Wars and the unprecedented economic slump that lay between them , and above all the lessons generated by the revolutionary wave - it's necessary to really understand that these events were not known to the revolutionaries of the 19th century.

We're here talking of a time where, in certain places on the planet, capitalism did not even exist. We're talking of a time when it was by no means certain that the bourgeois, let alone the proletarian revolution would triumph: when feudal political forms and autocratic dictatorship still reigned. A time when, even in those countries like France and Germany where the bourgeois economy was making great strides, the realm of political control was still in the hands of dictatorships such as those wielded by Bismarck or by Napoleon. We're talking of a time when workers were forbidden to combine, to meet, to have their own press or parties, to have their views affect the unfolding of reality through political representation, as well as through economic struggle. A time, in short, when the proletariat was still forging itself and being forged as a distinct class, when capitalism was still laying the basis for communism.

Looking at it this way, what is remarkable is not the insistence of Marxists of the day on the necessity to influence current events by being involved in them, but on their clear-sightedness in insisting that this phase would not, could not last forever, that at a certain stage in the evolution of capital, the proletarian revolution would be top of the agenda.

In his later years, through his study of the Russian question, Marx began to see that not all areas of the globe would necessarily have to go through a bourgeois stage of development, that conditions in the main capitalist centres implied that the time of moving directly to the proletarian revolution and a direct confrontation with the capitalist state was approaching on a global level.

Based on these prophetic insights, based on the actual evolution of the struggle between classes towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, revolutionaries such as Engels, Pannekoek, Luxembourg and Lenin attempted to criticise re-orient the workers movements of which they were part, began to re-assert that the time for winning advancements within capitalist society had to be subsumed into preparations for the coming struggle for proletarian power, a struggle which implied preparations for a direct confrontation with the bourgeois state.

All power to the soviets, not all power to the state: this was the Bolshevik's revolutionary translation of this situation in 1917. The defeat of the revolution proved the point in negative. From that point on, there was no question of state socialism - the discussion was about state capitalism.

KT 28.7.2007