Reply to the SPGB: The bourgeois state can't be converted - it must be destroyed

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Our recent 4-part survey of the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the occasion of this small group's centenary (WR 272, 273, 274, 276) did not call for a celebration.

We concluded that although this marginal political tendency split from the British part of the Second International in 1904 decrying 'reformism', its outlook and spirit has remained that of the opportunist wing of the workers' movement at that time which tried to revise marxism into a spineless doctrine of peaceful social change. The SPGB has retained the same anti-revolutionary mentality as the majority of the Social Democratic Parties which finally passed in to the camp of capital during the First World War, and proved their reactionary credentials in the revolutionary period that followed it.

The SPGB claims that the working class can develop and realise its socialist consciousness through voting for 'their' parliamentary candidates who can, once in a majority, 'convert' ([1]) the capitalist state into the means for the socialist transformation of society. Because of the peaceful nature of this 'conversion' there will be no need for the dictatorship of the proletariat that Marx and Engels insisted was an essential weapon of the working class struggle, nor would there be a need for a transitional period during which humanity will evolve toward a classless, stateless communist society. Consequently the SPGB, despite some initial enthusiasm, became vehemently opposed to the October Revolution of 1917, where the working class, organised in soviets, overthrew instead of 'converting' the bourgeois state and swept aside its rotten parliamentary facade.

During the First World War the SPGB, along with the opportunists and centrists in Social Democracy, rejected the international, revolutionary position of the marxist left that the working class must seize the occasion to destroy world capitalism. It took a centrist attitude, similar to Karl Kautsky's, of platonically opposing the war and waiting for a return to 'normal'.

However the distinguishing feature of the SPGB is that although it believes that capitalism can overcome its crises and that therefore reforms are still possible, it refuses to fight for them, and consequently refuses to adopt a political programme of reforming capitalism, and denies that socialism can evolve gradually in this way. Nor will it fight for bourgeois democracy even though it thinks this form of government remains an important gain for the working class ([2]). Politically the SPGB envisages a conversion of capitalism to socialism through the election of its own party to a position of power with a maximum socialist programme.

An answer criticised.

In the August 2004 Socialist Standard, the monthly magazine of the SPGB ([3]), issued a reply to our survey entitled 'A criticism answered':

"Indeed, since the ICC is rabidly anti-union, sees no difference between political democracy and political dictatorship, and espouses an anarchist stance on elections and parliament, as well as having a penchant for conspiracy theories, we suggest that they are not in a position to give other groups any lessons in how to spread socialist ideas while avoiding the dangers of sectarianism".

This retort is something of an own goal since it does reveal that the SPGB effectively defines non-sectarianism in the same way as the capitalist left as a whole: servility to the sacred agencies of the bourgeois state like the trade unions ([4]), and (attempted) participation in the parliamentary circus that disguises the dictatorship of capital over the working class. Like the entire capitalist left, it defines as sectarian anyone outside the 'broad church' of support for bourgeois democracy. In fact the rejection of this religious belief in the state is an essential precondition for an organisation that wants to be considered part of the revolutionary marxist tradition.

Everybody knows that anarchism, in theory at least, has always in every historical period rejected the state. But the SPGB are wrong to imply that the marxist position is the symmetrical opposite: participation in elections and parliament at all times and proposing the conversion of the capitalist state to socialism. The distinguishing point between marxism and anarchism on the state is not, as the opportunists of the Second International pretended, that marxism is for it, and anarchism against it. Marxism wants the smashing of the state, but unlike anarchism, believes this destruction cannot take place at any time as a result of pure will but only as the consequence of the historic struggle of the working class.

But the SPGB haven't abandoned the 'superstitious reverence' for the state, for which Engels repeatedly castigated the opportunist Social Democracy. And when they discuss "democracy and dictatorship" they have not abandoned the debating tricks and distortions that opportunism used to attack the arguments of the marxist left.

"Whereas the ICC is all in favour of elections, parliaments and 'bourgeois democracy' before 1914, after then all these became anathema to them. In fact, our refusal to denounce political democracy seems to be our worst failing in their eyes.

'Through its defence of the democratic principle', they say of us ' it actually reinforces one of the greatest obstacles facing the working class'.

Excuse us if we disagree, but we don't regard universal suffrage and political democracy within capitalism as 'one of the greatest obstacles facing the working class' The vote is a gain, a potential class weapon, a potential 'instrument of emancipation' as Marx put it. Despite Lenin's distortions quoted by the ICC, Marx and Engels always held that the bourgeois democratic republic was the best political framework for the development and triumph of the socialist movement. This is another pre-1914 socialist position we see no reason to abandon.

Certainly, political democracy under capitalism is not all that it is purported to be by many supporters of the system and it is severely limited, from the point of view of democratic theory, by the very nature of capitalism as an unequal, class-divided society. Certainly 'democracy' has become an ideology used to give capitalist rule a spurious legitimacy and to mobilise working class support for wars.

But it is still sufficient to allow the working class to organise politically and economically without too much state interference and also, we would argue, to allow a future socialist majority to gain control of political power."

It is completely false to say that the ICC was all for bourgeois democracy before 1914 and all against it afterwards. Why allege something that they must know isn't true? The SPGB want to give the impression that they are preserving the traditional marxist attitude to the state against revisionists, when the reverse is true. The SPGB want to fool people that Marx and Engels thought that the working class could achieve political power only in a peaceful way using the mechanisms of the bourgeois democratic republic. They pretend that Marx and Engels believed, as the SPGB does, that socialism could be achieved without overthrowing the bourgeois state and its fraudulent democratic mechanisms.

As Marx and Engels said, and which the SPGB don't say, the most democratic bourgeois republic can only be a dictatorship of capital over the working class. Whatever political form capitalist rule takes, however democratic, it will always be a dictatorship of the capitalist class to hold down the exploited. Authentic marxism has always shown that democracy and dictatorship are not exclusive opposites but complementary, interconnected, weapons of the ruling class to impose its will on the ruled.

The SPGB present the questions of political democracy and dictatorship, in themselves, without reference to their class characteristics in a given society, or to the historic period in which they develop. By presenting democracy and dictatorship as independent forms of government, without reference to their material origins and function in class society, the SPGB play the same game as the bourgeoisie when it tells stories about the superiority of democracy to dictatorship.

It's clear that for the SPGB, despite a few mild criticisms of the shortcomings of democracy within capitalism, this political form can somehow exist separately from its actual class character, that the state can exist independently of the capitalist class. It's not surprising that the SPGB, living in this political la-la land, believe that even today the state can be converted peacefully to the socialist cause.

The SPGB completely undermines the marxist theory of the state. Engels showed in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, that the state arises historically when human society becomes divided into classes. Whatever form the state takes it is needed to hold down the exploited class in the interests of a given mode of production and in the interests of the exploiting class - using whatever force it can mobilise. The state therefore becomes a parasite on the body of society. This is as true of ancient Greek democracy, which excluded the majority of the population (slaves, women and foreigners) from its deliberations, as it is of modern bourgeois democracy.

Marxism has always approached the question of the state with a method that is concrete, historical and materialist, in order to understand how the working class struggles against the bourgeoisie and its state, and how ultimately it will overthrow it, assume political power and begin the transition to communist society.

This understanding developed according to the historical experience of the working class and was always animated by revolutionary rather than legal or parliamentary considerations. In the Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx and Engels defined the revolutionary soul of the proletariat:

"In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat."

In The Class Struggles in France 1848-50 Marx made this outlook more precise. He completely identified with the Parisian proletariat that took up arms in the June insurrection against the Legislative Assembly and "in place of its demands, exuberant in form, but petty and even bourgeois in content, the concession of which it wanted to wring from the February republic, there appeared the bold slogan of revolutionary struggle: Overthrow of the bourgeoisie! Dictatorship of the working class!". And in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte published in 1852 Marx first established that the successful proletarian revolution could not be effected by redividing the spoils of the state as all previous revolutions had done, but only by concentrating "all its forces of destruction" against the state power.

The Paris Commune of 1871 fully confirmed this lesson and led Marx and Engels to reiterate the need to smash the state and made the famous correction to the Communist Manifesto: "One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.'"(Preface to the German Edition of 1872).

In the period from the defeat of the Paris Commune to the death of Engels in 1894, both he and Marx had to wage a permanent struggle (in the Critique of the Gotha Programme of 1875, in the critique by Engels of the Erfurt Programme of 1891, as well as much correspondence) to preserve this lesson against the development of opportunism on this question in the German workers' movement and in the Second International as a whole. But the opportunist leadership of the latter did a good job in delaying or suppressing or distorting these texts and articles. It was only the marxist left in the Second International, exemplified by revolutionaries like Anton Pannekoek, Rosa Luxemburg, Amadeo Bordiga and of course Lenin (in State and Revolution) who unearthed these critiques and preserved the authentically revolutionary marxist tradition on the state. It is from this revolutionary tradition that the Communist Left and the ICC descends.

Far from being "all in favour" of bourgeois democracy before 1914 and treating it as "anathema" after, the ICC preserves the authentic revolutionary thread within marxism, clearly expressed in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 on the need for "the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie". Against this the SPGB draws its inspiration from opportunists like Bernstein and Kautsky.

The marxist left, during the First World War and the revolutionary wave after it, had to separate from and fundamentally change the political programme of Social Democracy in order to return, in a changed historical period, to the genuinely revolutionary tradition of marxism that opportunism had tried to suppress, first in words and then in blood.

Como, 1/12/04.



1. "The working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic." SPGB Declaration of Principles.

2. "Our position is that political democracy is a gain for the working class but that this does not justify socialists allying themselves with capitalist parties to get it or supporting one side in a war to supposedly defend it." Socialist Standard August 2004.

3. There have been two SPGBs since a split in the early 1990s. There is now a Clapham party which publishes Socialist Standard, and an Ashbourne Grove Party which publishes Socialist Studies . Both defend the SPGB's original Declaration of Principles. The Ashbourne Grovists have yet to comment on our survey. However, an ex-SPGB member has written a 15000 word attack on this survey posted on a web discussion forum, entitled 'Social Democracy versus Left-Wing Communism'. Subsequently he has written to us disavowing some of this critique, in particular its title, because the latter implies, wrongly according to him, that the two are incompatible. In doing so he has abandoned one of the few correct statements in his first critique. Engels criticised, as did the Bolsheviks, the entire Communist International and the Communist Left the name of 'Social Democracy' because it was a theoretically false description of the goal of the proletariat. The ex-SPGBer also makes confused accusations about the ICC making concessions to Blanquism, Bordigism and minority action, which we will return to in a future issue.

4. The SPGB's respect for the trade unions is even more brazen than the 'critical' support of the leftists for these organs of capital against the working class. In the September 2004 Socialist Standard, the 'Acting General Secretary' of the SPGB addressed an open letter to the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union congratulating the union on disaffiliating from the Labour Party. As might be guessed, the letter contains no criticism of the sabotage by the FBU of the recent firefighters' strikes. No doubt the SPGB thinks it can excuse such grovelling to trade union bureaucrats by labelling the ICC's consistent denunciation of the unions as 'rabid'.

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