At the beginning of 2014 two leading figures involved in the Left Forum process, James O’Brien and Gavin Mendel-Gleason, published two essays outlining their vision of an explicitly reformist road to socialism.
This is a reply to the first of these two pieces “The Strategy of Attrition: Part I – Conquest or Destruction of the State?” (http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=11746) in which I argue against their reformist fantasy of a peaceful coming to political power by the working class through the “democratic” bourgeois election process. I do so not only because I believe it presents an incorrect long-term strategy but also because the implications for the immediate class struggle are also profoundly negative.
I’ll start with something that might appear as just an irritation but actually indicates something about their political method and what political forces they are looking to for inspiration. The O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason essay continually uses a literary sleight of hand by associating the position the writers are arguing against with the labels “Anarchist”, “Trotskyist” and “Leninist”. The implication being that they are just presenting an orthodox Marxist response to ultra-left distortions of Marxism when in fact the whole case for simply taking over the existing state through the structures of bourgeois rule and wielding that state, more or less intact, in the interests of the working class represents a break from the politics of Marx – or at least a break with the politics of Marx after he assimilated the lessons from the experience of the Paris Commune.
“However much that state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there, some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated. 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.” (See The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association, 1871, where this point is further developed.)”
– Preface to the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/preface.htm#preface-1872)
O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason down-play the centrality to the Russian Revolutionaries of Soviets as the basis for the new working class rule by writing it off as just a mad gamble by Lenin:
“The disdain for ‘bourgeois’ democracy, although inherent in the original Anarchist position, became widespread amongst revolutionary socialists in the wake of the Lenin’s break with the Marxist Centre through his gigantic gamble on the soviet horse and the resulting flood of Bolshevik polemics.”
One wonders what they would make of Karl Marx who recognised the importance of the first major example of the distinct forms of proletarian democracy in the Paris Commune so much that he felt it necessary to make the correction to the Communist Manifesto outlined above and explained in more detail below.
(I apologise in advance for the length of this quote but it so clearly exposes the lie that the position of O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason has anything to do with the politics of Marxism):
“Paris, the central seat of the old governmental power, and, at the same time, the social stronghold of the French working class, had risen in arms against the attempt of Thiers and the Rurals to restore and perpetuate that old governmental power bequeathed to them by the empire. Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. This fact was now to be transformed into an institution. The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.
“The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.
“Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.
“Having once got rid of the standing army and the police – the physical force elements of the old government – the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the “parson-power”, by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.
“The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.
“The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subserviency to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance. Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable.
“The Paris Commune was, of course, to serve as a model to all the great industrial centres of France. The communal regime once established in Paris and the secondary centres, the old centralized government would in the provinces, too, have to give way to the self-government of the producers.
“In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents. The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal and thereafter responsible agents.
“The unity of the nation was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, to be organized by Communal Constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excresence.
“While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for the workmen and managers in his business. And it is well-known that companies, like individuals, in matters of real business generally know how to put the right man in the right place, and, if they for once make a mistake, to redress it promptly. On the other hand, nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supercede universal suffrage by hierarchical investiture.
“It is generally the fate of completely new historical creations to be mistaken for the counterparts of older, and even defunct, forms of social life, to which they may bear a certain likeness. Thus, this new Commune, which breaks with the modern state power, has been mistaken for a reproduction of the medieval Communes, which first preceded, and afterward became the substratum of, that very state power. The Communal Constitution has been mistaken for an attempt to break up into the federation of small states, as dreamt of by Montesquieu and the Girondins, that unity of great nations which, if originally brought about by political force, has now become a powerful coefficient of social production. The antagonism of the Commune against the state power has been mistaken for an exaggerated form of the ancient struggle against over-centralization. Peculiar historical circumstances may have prevented the classical development, as in France, of the bourgeois form of government, and may have allowed, as in England, to complete the great central state organs by corrupt vestries, jobbing councillors, and ferocious poor-law guardians in the towns, and virtually hereditary magistrates in the counties.”
“The multiplicity of interpretations to which the Commune has been subjected, and the multiplicity of interests which construed it in their favor, show that it was a thoroughly expansive political form, while all the previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive. Its true secret was this:
It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.
“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistably tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant. In the full consciousness of their historic mission, and with the heroic resolve to act up to it, the working class can afford to smile at the coarse invective of the gentlemen’s gentlemen with pen and inkhorn, and at the didactic patronage of well-wishing bourgeois-doctrinaires, pouring forth their ignorant platitudes and sectarian crotchets in the oracular tone of scientific infallibility.“
– The Civil War in France (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm)
O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason do correctly point out that the difference in strategic approach boils down to a difference in understanding of the role and nature of the state under capitalism:
“If an insurrectionary political strategy rests upon the state as an inherently capitalist force, then it also falls if the state doesn’t match that premise. The record of the state protecting private property in the means of production has provoked a long-running debate within Marxism about the relationship between the state and capitalism, with views ranging from seeing it as a good old fashioned executive committee of the bourgeoisie to emphasising its relative autonomy from the capitalist class.”
In attacking this conception their key argument seems to rest on the idea that the modern state in capitalist societies is somehow capable of being influenced by different classes to different degrees at different times:
“But modern society is more complicated than pre-capitalist social formations. The exploited are not as powerless and thus have gained a measure of influence over the state itself, the degree of which depends on the balance of class forces at any given juncture. The strength of the working class in Europe over the 20th century is reflected in the significant gains that it made, winning concessions on everything from maternity pay to lower retirement, from national health services to a reduction in militarism.”
This is confusing exerting influence and the making of concessions. The strength of the organised working class forced concessions from the capitalists and their state but that is quite a different thing from that state being class neutral and therefore open to being influenced one way or the other.
Later on these apologists for the bourgeois order make their orientation even clearer:
“A further reason for not smashing the existing state is that we need it. The early 20th century state was already an old, complex bureaucratic entity, stretching back centuries and conquering it rather than destroying it was the aim of the European Socialist parties; indeed it was the divisive issue between them and the Anarchists. The modern state is needed for the simple reason that it performs socially necessary functions without which a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse. And compared to the pre WW I state, today’s one runs vastly more essential services like healthcare, education, food and pharmaceutical safety regulation, environmental controls, provision of infrastructure, and a civil and criminal justice system.
“If those functions go unfulfilled by a future socialist polity, the day-to-day experience of life for everyone will quickly degrade leading to an erosion of support for the socialist government (or polity). Court summonses for drink driving, to take just one example, will have to be issued under a socialist administration just as much as they would under a capitalist one. In theory, the state justice system can be replaced by popular tribunals but rules of procedure, expertise in summarising and arguing the law, administrative clerks and the like cannot just be recreated at will. The legal norms are the product of a long, messy, and less than edifying social evolutionary process. Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment.”
Hurrah for the capitalist state – just needs a little tweak here and there and it becomes transformed into an agency for the advancement of the working class!
The reality is that their description of the state diverges fundamentally from Marxism:
“The state is not, then, an eternal verity destined to contaminate all those who touch it but rather a site of struggle that reflects the balance of forces in wider society. It is a tool whose usefulness depends very much on who is wielding it and for what purpose. And like any technology, it has evolved in response to the external pressures applied to it so that in our era it both retains a similarity to its initial function (bash heads and extract the surplus) while accruing new functions and being significantly altered by these functions and the pressures which necessitated them.”
This view of the state as a class-neutral tool able to be utilised by whichever class holds political power diverts markedly from that of Marx (as quoted here by Lenin):
Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the “ready-made state machinery”, and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.
On April 12, 1871, i.e., just at the time of the Commune, Marx wrote to Kugelmann:
“If you look up the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I declare that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it [Marx's italics--the original is zerbrechen], and this is the precondition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting.” (Neue Zeit, Vol.XX, 1, 1901-02, p. 709.)
(The letters of Marx to Kugelmann have appeared in Russian in no less than two editions, one of which I edited and supplied with a preface.)
The words, “to smash the bureaucratic-military machine”, briefly express the principal lesson of Marxism regarding the tasks of the proletariat during a revolution in relation to the state. And this is the lesson that has been not only completely ignored, but positively distorted by the prevailing, Kautskyite, “interpretation” of Marxism!
– State and Revolution (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch03.htm)
O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason might also want to reflect on the research of Lars Lih about the views of Kautsky before he had begun his flight from Marxism (Lih is here referring to a 1904 document):
“Kautsky argues that the “petty bourgeois” Jacobins of the French Revolution were able to accomplish as much as they did because they “destroyed [zerstört] the means of rule of the ruling classes”: namely, the church, the bureaucracy and the army. He then draws the lesson for later proletarian revolutionaries:
“The proletariat, as well as the petty bourgeoisie, will never be able to rule the state through these means of rule. This is not only because the officer corps, the top of the bureaucracy and the church have always been recruited from the upper classes and tied to them with the most intimate links, but also because the very nature of these bodies as means of rule includes a striving to raise themselves above the mass of the people in order to rule them, instead of serving them. They will always be for the most part anti-democratic and aristocratic …
“The conquest of state power by the proletariat, therefore, does not simply mean the conquest of [the existing] ministries, which then, without further ado, use these previous means of rule — an established state church, the bureaucracy and the officer corps — in a socialist sense. Rather, it means the dissolution [Auflösung] of these means of rule.”
The two key words in Kautsky’s discussion are zerstört and Auflösung. My German-English dictionary defines zerstoren as “wreck, ruin, destroy” and Auflösung as “dissolving, disappearance, dispersal, disbandment”. So, while Kautsky may not have used the word ‘smash’, his feelings about these bourgeois “means of rule” are hardly ambiguous.
O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason also seem completely pre-occupied with a literal interpretation of the term “smashing” in relation to the existing capitalist state and in the process gut it of its political content in relation to the tasks the working class will face in creating a new state power. Of course “smashing” the existing state will not involve a “day one” type scenario in terms of every individual currently working in the wider capitalist state but in terms of their social function it will be transformed into something new.
Just as it is necessary to understand splitting away and politically neutralising as much as possible of the military apparatus of the capitalist state as an integral part of “smashing” that military apparatus so that it no longer exists at all and is replaced by a new state (probably modelled on something like a workers’ militia). A state of a completely different sort from any that has gone before in that its conscious aim is its own withering away as an organ enforcing class rule to be replaced by bodies purely for administrative functions in the socialist future.
This is related to another of O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason’s literary sleight of hands when they attack the Marxist understanding of democracy. They claim revolutionaries depict all “democracy as ‘bourgeois’” and go on to slay that straw man as being “entirely unhelpful, not to mention inaccurate.” They then outline the positive virtues of bourgeois democracy:
“So-called bourgeois or formal democracy consists of universal suffrage, the rule of law, civic equality, the freedom to organise, elementary civil liberties and so forth.”
Of course it is not the case that Marxists see democracy per se as bourgeois but rather that democracy is not a concept separate from and standing above the class nature of society but rather it has a class content. There is bourgeois democracy and there is proletarian democracy – each serving the interests of different classes. Some of the social functions of both bourgeois and proletarian democracy and the states that enforce that rule may overlap, such as the examples O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason mention, but even then their occurrence under the different class rule will imbue them with different forms and content.
O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason argue:
“The argument that democracy is a rigged game because of the preponderance of wealth that the capitalist class can throw onto the scales is true but vacuous. That is a problem of capital ownership, not a problem of democracy. The cultural influence of capital doesn’t just vanish if an electoral system based on representative democracy is replaced by some alternative form of democracy as is shown by both the strange street revolutions occurring in the Ukraine or the victory of the nationalist leadership of the SPD in the workers’ councils elections in Germany in 1918.
“If it is a problem of democracy, let us not shrink from the logical conclusion: since the vast majority of the population are workers, the very same distorting affect of wealth will intrude on the purity of the democratic process irrespective of the form used in that process, irrespective of whether we call it a state or a federation of workers councils or grassroots assemblies. A temporary dictatorship will be necessary to bridge the gap between the collapse of capitalist political power and the institution of a new mode of production, a gap that may well last some decades. Trotsky, at least in the early to mid 1920s, was honest enough to to accept the logical endpoint of his insurrectionary strategy but modern insurrectionaries are not so forthright, no doubt because they believe that the process of revolution itself radicalises the population to such a degree that the muck of capitalist propaganda is purged from their minds.”
By counterposing “democracy” to “dictatorship” in this crude non-class based way they repeat the exact same error of their political mentor (Kautsky – in his period of political flight from Marxism) which Lenin exposed as anti-Marxist just under 100 hundred years ago:
“Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor. It is this truth, which forms a most essential part of Marx’s teaching, that Kautsky the ’Marxist” has failed to understand. On this; the fundamental issue; Kautsky offers “delights” for the bourgeoisie instead of a scientific criticism of those conditions which make every bourgeois democracy a democracy for the rich.
“Let us first remind the most learned Mr. Kautsky of the theoretical propositions of Marx and Engels which that pedant has so disgracefully “forgotten” (to please the bourgeoisie), and then explain the matter as popularly as possible.
“Not only the ancient and feudal, but also “the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage-labour by capital” (Engels, in his work on the state – The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State). “As, therefore, the state is only a transitional institution which is used in the struggle, in the revolution, to hold down one’s adversaries by force, it is sheer nonsense to talk of a ’free people’s state’; so long as the proletariat still needs the state, it does not need it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist” (Engels, in his letter to Bebel, March 28, 1875). “In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy” (Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France by Marx).; Universal suffrage is “the gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state”. (Engels, in his work on the state.) Mr. Kautsky very tediously chews over the cud in the first part of this proposition, which is acceptable to the bourgeoisie. But the second part, which we have italicised and which is not acceptable to the bourgeoisie, the renegade Kautsky passes over in silence!) “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time …. Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to represent and suppress (verund zertreten) the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in the search for workers, foremen and accountants for his business” (Marx, in his work on the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France).
“Every one of these propositions, which are excellently known to the most learned Mr. Kautsky, is a slap in his face and lays bare his apostasy. Nowhere in his pamphlet does Kautsky reveal, the slightest understanding of these truths. His whole pamphlet is a sheer mockery of Marxism!”
– The Proletarian Revolution And The Renegade Kautsky (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/prrk/democracy.htm)
Replacing “Kautsky” with “O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason” and it could be as though Lenin was writing directly in response to these present-day anti-Marxists.
Of course this recognition of the class nature of bourgeois democracy does not mean that Marxists do not struggle to maximise the space for the working class to organise within the framework of bourgeois democratic rights or refuse to participate in the bourgeois electoral process. Just like Marxists recognising that capitalism cannot be reformed into socialism (whatever O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason may argue) does not mean abstaining from the fight for pro-working class reforms under capitalism. The issue is what is presented as being temporary and tactical in the class struggle and what is presented as the strategy for fundamental change.
O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason attempt to deal with the question of the danger of capitalist reaction against encroachment on their wealth and privilege:
“At some point the reactionaries will try to move onto more aggressive measures, including investment strikes and ultimately a coup d’état. We won’t deal with the inevitable investment pressure that will be brought to bear other than to say if the socialist movement hasn’t prepared the ground well in advance by having sufficient weight in the productive sector that it can see out such a strike, then it can simply forget about instigating any structural reforms that take us in a socialist direction.
“Should the socialist-labour movement prove too resilient to fold before the disruption aimed at fostering economic breakdown, the doomsday weapon of violent reaction, whether through the mobilisation of a mass fascist movement or via a straight-forward coup d’état always looms over its head, ready to detonate. This sober fact is one of the common reasons cited by insurrectionaries when arguing for the need to smash the state itself. Unfortunately, however, while destruction may solve the problem of the military reserve option for the ruling class, it doesn’t, as we argued above, solve the problem of being able to transition to a socialist mode of production.
“And nor is it the best to counter the possibility of violent reaction. Just as democratic legitimacy is a counter to the recalcitrant bureaucracy within the civil service, it is also a weapon against those sections of the state, i.e. the security state (the political police, the intelligence agencies, the officer corps). Again, it enhances the possibility of a split within the ranks of larger security agencies, i.e. those with lots of members with ordinary functions. Many of the great revolutionary events in history, including decisive movements in the French and Russian Revolutions, were settled by the refusal of the rank and file soldiers to fire on protestors. The more we have legitimacy the easier we make it for them to disobey their reactionary officers, especially as there will likely splits within the security state, with some of their leaders having internalised the values of liberal democracy, will maintain their loyalty to the legitimate line of authority.
“Of course, should the democratic process itself come under attack, either through a frontal coup d’état or through a prolonged form of technocratic government installed by the IMF or the ECB, then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable. Until that scenario occurs, however, we need to approach the question of revolution from a defensive standpoint. As Engels put it, it’s tactically in our interests to put the ruling class in the position of having to shoot first as they would have to bear the burden of responsibility for being anti-democratic, while socialists get to be defenders of not only egalitarianism but of democracy too, thereby making it easier to split potential allies, such as small businesses, off from the right-wing. As the experience of the last century has shown the far left, it is not so easy to organise insurrection against a democratically elected government, especially in the advanced capitalist countries.”
From a revolutionary Marxist view point this is of course worse than useless as was pointed out in the mid-1920s by Trotsky:
‘But heroic promises to put up lightning resistance in the event the Conservatives should “dare” and so forth are not worth a rotten egg. One cannot lull the masses day in and day out with claptrap about a peaceful, painless transition to socialism and then at the first solid punch on the nose summon the masses to an armed response. This is the surest way of assisting reaction in the rout of the proletariat. To prove equal to a revolutionary repulse, the masses must be ideologically, organizationally and materially prepared for it. They must understand the inevitability of a sharpening of the class struggle and of its turning at a certain stage into a civil war. The political education of the working class and the selection of its leading personnel must be adjusted to such a perspective. The illusions of compromise must be fought day in and day out, that is to say, war to the death must be declared on MacDonaldism. Thus and only thus does the question stand today. ’
– Where Is Britain Going? (http://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/trotsky/britain/wibg/ch05.htm)
Once again if we were to replace “MacDonaldism” with “O’Brien/Mendel-Gleasonism” and it is like we have reanimated Trotsky along with Lenin!
Interestingly I am particularly conscious of this quote because of its use in the International Bolshevik Tendency pamphlet “Marxism vs. ‘Militant’ Reformism: The CWI’s Kautskyan Caricature of Trotskyism” (http://www.bolshevik.org/Pamphlets/CWI/militant_reformism.html).
Despite the Communist Workers International (CWI) being one of the self-proclaimed “Trotskyist” organisations which O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason claim they are arguing against the concrete programmatic perspective of the CWI (including its Irish organisation the Socialist Party) is fundamentally similar to their own approach.
· Both see the working class taking political power by a socialist party winning an election through the structures of bourgeois democracy.
· Both see their parliamentary majority passing laws which will weaken the strength of the capitalist class relative to the working class as a primary motor-force in ending the capitalist mode of production.
· Both put forward the idea that very little will have to change in terms of the existing state. This includes the repressive apparatus, the bulk of whom will apparently quietly accept the democratic mandate of the new government.
This similarity is not only apparent in relation to the issues of taking political power and its aftermath but also in terms of what might be done in a more immediate context.
Reading the O’Brien/Mendel-Gleason essay any working class militant will be struck by the almost complete absence of any reference to the immediate class struggle and the problem of interventions by the capitalist state in those struggles.
One wonders what role our friends see for their “socialist” party outside the framework of parliamentary elections.
They make it clear that they oppose the perspective of revolutionary Marxists in encouraging the creation of organs of proletarian democracy as part of immediate struggles in the class war.
“The consequences for a socialist electoralism follows the chain of logic: since the state is capitalist, it cannot be a vehicle for socialist transformation and since it’s is not a vehicle for socialist transformation, elections to gain power is a non-sensical strategy. And since insurrectionary socialists have no interest in winning state power via elections, they have no need to construct political organisations that are capable of doing so. Instead, they seek to create political organisations suited to their fundamental theoretical understanding of what socialist transformation should look like, i.e. mass participatory councils with a revolutionary party as an aide.”
Firstly it must be noted that it is not just because of future revolutionary times that communists advocate the creation of these kinds of bodies in the immediate struggles of our class. It is also because these are the forms of organisation which best facilitate the militant prosecution of the class struggle in the most democratic manner by working people.
But also what does that leave as O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason’s alternative for conducting the class struggle?
Their perspective would presumably channel working class anger at attacks on our living standards and working conditions away from creating the necessary proletarian organs of militant class struggle and instead into passive electioneering and bourgeois legality.
Why create democratic workers’ organisations able to directly defend ourselves in the ongoing day-to-day class struggle and that will train our class how to fight back against the repressive apparatus of the state when the answer to all our problems lies in the ballot box at the next election (or the one after that, or the one after that…)?
Why risk the danger of losing “democratic credibility” by doing what is necessary – like breaking the capitalist’s laws that limit industrial action, taking subsidiary strike action, building picket lines that mean don’t cross etc?
It might be noticed that there would appear to be an overlap between the O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason perspective on militant class struggle with that of the trade union bureaucracy. I don’t think that similarity is accidental.
Once again the close correlation with their supposed “Trotskyist” political opponents is also clear – as working class militants in Ireland are only too painfully aware from the recent experience of the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes. The Socialist Party continually obstructed the creation of a campaign structure based on local community groups organised in a delegated regional and national structure (a proto-workers council structure) in favour of what “coincidentally” turned out to be campaign groups based much more closely on electoral boundaries with a centralised executive type committee. The transformation of those campaign groups where the SP was politically dominate into the new Anti-Austerity Alliance to fight the upcoming council elections was clearly a plan a long time in hatching.
While O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason are not about to sign up to the Socialist Party (even the SP left-reformists being too radical it would seem) the same basic political method is at work and if they are ever able to create a political organisation expressing the political perspective outlined in their essay it could be expected to play a similar role to the SP in any future campaigns like the CAHWT.
Of course it might be argued that responding to the ramblings of two ex-WSM members as they trundle towards what they seem to hope will be a cosy life in a left-liberal think-tank is perhaps not the best use of my time. However this is of immediate relevance in the Irish context as the politics represented by O’Brien and Mendel-Gleason dominate the new organising committee of the Left Forum and so carry more weight on the Irish left than might otherwise be the case.
All class struggle militants interested in the Left Forum would do well to note the political direction being taken as it seems we will have a real fight on our hands if we hope to make the Left Forum a useful vehicle for the working class in the ongoing class war that is tearing our communities apart.