A criticism answered
The March, April, May and July issues of World Revolution, paper of the British section of the “left communist” group known as the International Communist Current (ICC) carried a long four-part critical article on the Socialist Party to coincide with our hundred years of existence and which described us “a group caught between sectarianism and opportunism”. The articles criticised in particular our attitude towards war, trade unions, political democracy and the development of socialist consciousness.
Before these criticisms can be answered, something needs to be said about where the ICC is coming from politically. Its basic theoretical assumption is that by 1914 capitalism had become “decadent” as an economic system in the sense that it had become unable to develop the forces of production any further. This claim is based on Rosa Luxemburg’s mistaken view that there was a flaw in Marx’s Capital, in that he had failed to recognise that a lack of purchasing power was built-in to capitalism and that therefore it had to rely on external markets to expand; once these had been exhausted – as the ICC claim had happened by 1914 – then capitalism would enter a period of economic stagnation and breakdown. (For a detailed argument as to the ICC’s mistake here see the article in the August 1980 Socialist Standard “World Revolution: Another Confused Group”.)
From this mistaken assumption, the ICC draws a political conclusion: that, after 1914, capitalism could no longer offer any lasting concessions to the working class, whether in the form of social reforms or in the form of increases in real wages. This means, according to the ICC, that working class living standards can now only be defended by revolution and that in fact the socialist revolution will develop out of the struggle to defend living standards, a quite inadequate, economistic conception of how socialist consciousness will develop.
When this analysis, and this conclusion, was first put forward by “leftwing communists” in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War it had a certain plausibility: this was a time of mass unemployment and roaring inflation there. But when it was revived by the political ancestors of the ICC in the 1960s, it made no sense at all. By then, despite the theory, capitalism had further developed the forces of production (by the application of, for instance, plastics, electronics and atomic energy); more social reform measures, in particular the so-called “Welfare State” had been enacted; and the real living standards of workers, at least in the heartlands of capitalism, had increased. To deny this was to fly in the face of the facts and to dogmatically cling to a disproved theory.
A product of the ICC’s dogma that capitalism has not been able to offer concessions since 1914 is that the ICC divides capitalism into two distinct periods – pre-1914 and post-1914 – during which different, and in the event diametrically opposed, policies are appropriate.
In the ICC’s view, whereas after 1914 revolution has been the only way to defend working class living standards, before 1914, when capitalism was still expanding and so capable of offering concessions, these could also be defended, and improved, by pressure in parliaments to enact social reforms and by trade union action, which were both therefore worthy of socialist support. In other words, the policy of European Social Democracy of having, in addition to the maximum programme of socialism, a minimum programme of social reforms to be achieved within capitalism was justified. Hence what became horribly wrong after 1914 was right before 1914.
Thus we are criticised, for instance, for having completely written off the Second International in an article on its 1910 Copenhagen Congress. The ICC takes the view that before 1914 socialists should not have broken away from the Social Democratic parties of the time and that, in Britain, the “impossiblists” in the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) should have stayed within it as a leftwing faction struggling for its reform programme to be achieved by mass action rather than through election deals and parliamentary manoeuvres. In short, the SPGB should never have been formed. Those who founded the Socialist Party should have remained within the SDF, which later became the SDP and then the British Socialist Party, and should have gone over, with the bulk of the membership of the BSP, to the Communist Party of Great Britain when it was formed in 1921.
The March article accuses the SPGB (and the Deleonist Socialist Labour Party, another impossibilist breakaway from the SDF) of making the same mistake that the ICC see William Morris and the Socialist League as having made in the 1880s, of rejecting “the struggle for reforms” and opposing “any support for reforms”. The Socialist League is even denounced for having taken up the position that the ICC now holds of rejecting “participation in parliament” and opposing “participation in elections”. What was then “sterile purism” is today a key revolutionary position, even a “class frontier”!
It’s the same with trade unionism. The early members of the SPGB are criticised for not taking a more positive attitude towards trade unions, for not seeing “the unions in a dynamic way, as part of the process of the class coming to consciousness”. The early members did in fact support trade union action on sound class lines and a large number of them were active trade unionists, but it is true that they saw such action, though part of the class struggle, as being essentially only defensive. This is still our position. But times have moved on for the ICC and, whereas they criticise us for not having been pro-trade union enough before 1914, they criticise us now (as in World Revolution 11 in 1977) for holding the view that . . . “the working class can defend itself through trade unions”. Instead, we ought to be calling, like the ICC, for the unions to be “smashed”.
If we in the Socialist Party take the same position on (not advocating) reforms and on trade unionism now as in 1904 this is not because we are committed to an “invariant dogma” as the ICC argues but because we don’t accept their particular argument that capitalism became economically decadent in 1914, and its corollary that very different policies were appropriate before and after that date. We do say, of course, that capitalism has become historically redundant, but this dates from when it had finished creating the material basis for a world socialist society, which would be some time in the last quarter of the 19th century. We can agree, too, that this justified a change of policy in some respects: the abandoning of the support Marx gave to measures and events that he felt would help capitalism create this material basis as rapidly as possible, for instance, in particular support for various nationalist movements and taking sides in wars. For our position on this see the article “Marx in his Time”.
The year 1914 was significant in that it was the year that the first world war broke out, thus confirming that capitalism had become the dominant world system and which ended by reinforcing this through the collapse of the last three dynastic states in Europe (Imperial Germany, Hapsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia). But significant as 1914 was, this was not because it was the date by which capitalism had become economically decadent in the Luxemburg/ICC sense and it did not require a change of socialist “tactics”.
The April and May articles criticise our members for having opposed the two world wars as “conscientious objectors” which the ICC sees as a mere individual and even pacifist opposition. This is an easy, not to say cheap, criticism from people who have no doubt never faced the dilemma of what to do when threatened with coercion into being trained to kill fellow workers in a war. Some SPGB members in both world wars did refuse, as a matter of principle, the status of “conscientious objector” but most took the view that if the state allows this why refuse to take advantage of it? In fact, many SPGB members were able to carry on important political work for socialism precisely because of this, something which seems to bypass the ICC completely.
The suggestion that during the Second World War the SPGB, in the words of the July article, “was used by the ruling class as a safe channel for the questioning and anger produced by the war” is a typical example of the sort of other-wordly paranoid conspiracy theory for which the ICC is well-known. This is also exemplified by their credulous reliance in the same article on a pamphlet by a disgruntled ex-member of the SPGB which advances a conspiracy theory about “factions determined to take over the Party”.
What SPGB members should have done in both world wars was, apparently, to have worked to turn, as advised by Lenin, “the present imperialist war into a civil war”. This should have involved “illegal organisation and propaganda within the army”, which presumably means that socialists should have joined the army after all. But this would have been suicidal for the individuals involved (the quickest way to a firing squad for mutiny) and massacre for the working class (as happened in Dublin in 1916 when a section of the Irish nationalist movement tried to start a civil war in the midst of an imperialist war). SPGB members rightly rejected such irresponsible advice and adopted the correct socialist position of a plague on both your houses and not a drop of working class blood for either side.
Democracy and dictatorship
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.
If political democracy under capitalism really was the great obstacle facing the working class that the ICC claim, then socialists ought logically to work for and welcome its abolition even within capitalism. While the ICC stridently calls for other such (in its view) obstacles, for instance trade unions, to be smashed, it has not dared call for the workers’ vote to be abolished or for the smashing of ballot-boxes. However, Bordiga, who they quote with favour in the May article as a commentator on “the democratic principle”, did indeed take opposition to this principle to its absurd logical conclusion, arguing in an article written in 1948 that socialists “must gladly welcome” the coming of fascism on the grounds that it is supposedly easier to mobilise the workers when there’s a naked capitalist dictatorship than when this is disguised by a democratic façade. He even claimed that workers were less oppressed under fascism than they were under democracy (see “Force, Violence and Dictatorship in the Class Struggle” (Part III) in Communist Program 3 of May 1977). The ICC itself, in its July article, challenges the statement that “it is better to live in a society where there is some degree of democracy than in one where opposition to the regime is not tolerated”. It is thus rather the ICC, in toying with such ideas, not us, that is trying to spread dangerous ideas amongst the working class.
Of course political democracy is better, from a working class point of view, than political dictatorship. The point shouldn’t need arguing. We don’t deny that having a positive attitude towards “bourgeois” political democracy under capitalism has sometimes created theoretical and policy issues for us when it has been under attack (as between the wars) and when it has not yet been established (as in the former USSR’s empire). But it’s not a solution – in fact, it’s a cop-out – to evade the problem by trying to argue that there’s no difference between political democracy and political dictatorship, that they are as bad as each other, and that workers should be indifferent as to which one exists. 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.
The ICC attributes to us a caricatured position of seeing “the development of consciousness as an accumulation of individual socialists”, as the conversion of workers one by one to socialism until there’s a “mathematical majority”, as if anyone could hold such an absurd position. Of course, as Marxists, we hold that socialist consciousness develops out of the workers’ class experience of capitalism and its problems.
If we use terms such as “majority” and “majoritarian” this is not because we are obsessed with counting the number of individual socialists, but to show that we reject minority action to try to establish socialism – majority as the opposite of minority. Socialism can only be established when through the experience of capitalism, including hearing the case for socialism (itself the distilled past experience of the working class), a majority (yes, but in the democratic rather than mere mathematical sense) have come to want it. For, despite Lenin and Bordiga, socialism can’t be imposed from above on a working class that doesn’t want or understand it. The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. And of course, unlike the ICC, we don’t think that the seizure of power by the minority Bolsheviks in November 1917 was a “proletarian revolution”.
The ICC’s own conception of the development of socialist consciousness is not at all convincing. Because, as mentioned, they think that since 1914, and still today, capitalism is unable to grant any concessions to workers that will improve their living standards, they argue that socialist consciousness will arise out of struggles by workers to stop their living standards getting worse. Thus they see the task of socialists as being to get involved in such struggles and to try to push them towards revolution as the only way of winning them in the sense of getting an increased standard of living.
We have no objection to socialists getting involved in industrial struggles but without illusions, in particular the illusion that they can have a revolutionary outcome. The socialist revolution is not likely to start from some strike over wages spreading to the whole of the working class. Certainly, workers can learn from the experience of industrial struggles against employers that socialism is the only way out and, in this sense, strikes can contribute to a growth of socialist consciousness. But so can the many other experiences of the way capitalism works againt the interests of workers (bad housing, poor health care, pollution, wars and the threat of war, etc, etc).
The ICC’s obsession with strikes shapes their whole activity beyond abstract (very abstract in their case) propaganda. When a strike occurs they go down to the picket line with leaflets denouncing the trade unions and calling on the strikers to spread the strike – unsurprisingly with no success, since when workers are on strike they are generally concerned with getting a favourable settlement not with launching a revolution (and, despite the ICC’s theory, concessions today can still be extracted from employers).
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.