Is a yes vote for an independent Scotland a revolutionary tactic ?

20 07 2014

Neil Davidson has recently advocated a tactical vote for Scottish independence on anti-war  grounds to weaken imperialism. (1) In his view,the Break up of Britain would make it more difficult for Westminster to help  American Imperialism . Yet whatever the form of independence, Steve James and Jordan Smith have pointed out the obvious : given the pro NATO position of the SNP,Washington will have two allies instead of one. (2) Alternatively another imperialist country could fill the power vacuum so that there would be no weakening of imperialism. The reality of any independent Scotland will probably result in more militarism as a former comrade of Davidson writes,”the SNP are committing a future  independent Scotland not only to remain in an imperialist alliance dominated by the US  ,but to potential foreign interventions in yet more countries”. (3) The other point is one made by Davidson himself back in 2007: inflating the role of Britain on the world stage makes its demise a matter of priority. (4) In any case,  the consequence of a yes vote will not be the break up of the British State.The programme of the SNP is independence lite. Key aspects of the British state apparatus such as the Monarch,the currency,and the Bank of England,  will be shared with England and Wales.



Neil Davidson does not  accept that the future of an independent Scotland  depends on what the SNP wants or envisages. (5) He assumes Scottish nationalism has a proletarian content .He asserts that”most Scots who want independence do so for eminently social  and economic measures without any embrace of nationalist ideology”,(6) Nationalism is seen as some kind of neutral class void which could be filled with socialist content. The power of nationalist ideology is ignored. It’s almost as if the saltire signified nothing but the pressure of Scottish working class interests. The assumption is that pressure from the Scottish people will push the SNP left or a Scottish capitalist state will be more susceptible to pressure from below.  The anti-war movement might have failed to stop Westminster from going to war in Iraq, but at least the Scottish people will with have a chance to stop war by influencing their new state. Some fragmentation of the British state, even on a lesser evil capitalist basis, makes the yes vote worthwhile for Davidson.

Again back in 2007 Neil had a different view. Bourgeois nationalism in Scotland was powerful and flexible : “Everything looks national  if you look at it through national spectacles”.(7) Exactly.What he had in mind was the misinterpretation of a number of significant class issues in terms of nationalism. For instance, the poll tax in Scotland was not an example of national oppression. The poll tax was an attempt to shift the tax burden onto the British working class. It was not  confined to workers in Scotland. The associated nationalist illusion was that the Scottish people are more militant than workers in England and Wales. But while the poll tax non-payment campaign started in Scotland, the poll tax was finished off by the London riots. The militant core of the great miners strike 1984-5 was in Yorkshire  not Scotland. And we should remember how Scottish nationalist sentiments helped to  undermine  the miners strike 1984-5 by  keeping the  Ravenscraig Steel Works open by using scab -coal.

Another of Neil’s former comrades, Alex Callinicos, also wants to downplay the influence of nationalism and fudge it’s bourgeois character.  (8) He emphasises that  not all capitalists are Scottish Nationalists, some businesses are not comfortable with the aim of independence. For example, Standard life and RBS.  Callinicos simply describes how the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland prior to its introduction in the rest of the UK was seen as a national humiliation. He is tolerant of this nationalist view. This is because the rise of the SNP and the prospect of an independent Scotland are not seen as nationalism, but a reflection of something else. The Vote for the SNP is seen as  a vote for Social Democracy or a Welfare State . The anti-war movement in Scotland was ignored by Westminster, and therefore it is understandable that a anti-war, anti-imperialist movement in Scotland  will look to a more representative parliament in  a new Scottish state. However, there was no national oppression in the lack of response at Westminster to anti-war demonstrations : that’s just the way bourgeois parliaments work.

The views,of Davidson and Callinicos have been taken from left nationalism. The SWP even has its own nationalist demand : Scotland should have its own currency.  The statements of Standard life and the RBS Bank about relocating if there is a Yes Vote was part of an orchestrated scare campaign : it remains to be seen if they carry out these  threats.In any case, no class is fully united in historic changes of direction.  The SNP does have  enough capitalist support from billionaires like Brian Souter of Stage Coach for a viable independence movement. All the evidence indicates that Capitalists can live with an independent Scotland. One of the reasons is that the start-up costs of a new Capitalist State is seen as a way of slashing welfare measure as the new State faces up to economic realities. The economics of the SNP are Neo -Liberal, and cutting corporation tax and business rates is their nationalist aim. As Callinicos concedes, the low wage, low tax, economy of Ireland is still the model for Scottish independence. (9 )

In contrast, in 1999, Callinicos was keen  to highlight the dangers of nationalism. The Nationalists aim to carve out a new capitalist state would result in coming to terms with the system of capitalist states, and the dominant powers in that system. (10) For the SNP this means cooperating with the EU, NATO and international capitalist financial institutions. There is also the small matter of a high level of foreign ownership of the  gas and oil industry. This is why Scottish Nationalism is not  progressive. This is another way of saying the workers have no country. It was the German Social Democratic tradition which regarded workers representation in parliament as representing the  nation. British Labourism is another example.As Roman Rosdolsky put it: “the workers have no country because they have to think of the national bourgeois state machine as a machine of oppression directed against them”. (11)  This is why internationalism is not just an aspiration.  Davidson was aware of nationalist dangers  in 2000: “It is futile to imagine that merely setting up a Scottish Nation State will by itself remove the poison of racism and hostility towards cultures which are perceived to be different” . (12)

Davidson and Callinicos do not support independence for Scotland because it is an oppressed nation. It never has been oppressed as Davidson has amply demonstrated in his historical research.  They support secession as a general democratic political right. Nonetheless, echoing Rosa Luxemburg, Hillel Ticktin makes the point that  “the simple demand for the right of nations to self-determination cannot be fulfilled under capitalism except in a formal way.” (13) Look at the austerity policies superimposed on  sovereign established nations such as Greece and Ireland by European and international financial powers. Political independence for small nations has been hollowed out. Politics and economics are intermingled. Nor is there a general right to self-determination above class interests. Nationalism destroys or reduces class antagonism. Tactical unity with Scottish nationalists is a popular  front which undermines class independence. What do Davidson and Callinicos really stand for : welfare capitalism?

Unity with the bosses,however tactical and temporary are very much the politics of the old Stalinist CPGB. The CPGB in line with other Stalinist’s throughout Europe in the 1930’s adapted nationalist symbols and flags. (14) In  Scotland the CPGB sometimes wore tartan sashes and banners showing Wallace and Bruce, and carried the Saltire. Stalinist leaders of the NUM in Scotland scaled back picketing at Ravenscraig Steel Works to save Scottish industry.The yes campaign is very much nationalist in character in the popular front tradition.Tommy Sheridan’s nationalist Referendum Campaign has the same explicit Scottish Nationalist cultural references.  The Republican Independence Campaign have the left nationalist slogans such as : Britain is for the rich, Scotland could be ours.  These campaigns Paint Scottish nationalism red as if nationalism could be proletarian.

If Callinicos and Davidson are voting Yes with illusions,Sandy McBurney is voting No with illusions. (15) He rejects any parliamentary road to state socialism in Scotland.Instead, he puts his faith in the British Labour Movement which he  manages to conflate with every class struggle in Britain in the last two hundred years. Revolutionary Chartism is lumped together  with Labourism,the great unrest 1910-14, which circumvented trade union and Labour party leaders, with the modern  trade union bureaucracy  and so on.  While he is quick to say that the nationalist left take the SNP social democratic promises as good coin, he takes the occasional historic socialist rhetoric of the Trade union and Labour party leaders as good coin. He writes that we  should not write off the socialist potential of the British Labour movement.

In effect, this is a choice for a British parliamentary road to Socialism or the British State. The Trade Union bureaucracy  and the Labour Party, are the primary components of the British Labour Movement. They are committed to the British national interest and constitutionalism. The Labour Party was a party of nation not class from the outset. He paints Labourism red. Sandy is also nostalgic for the liberal and national collectivist spirit of 1945.  He asserts that to break up the historic unity of the British Working Class movement would weaken the fight back against austerity,but admits there has been no serious fight back. This is political incoherence. Davidson and Callinicos are surely correct that it’s not about bureaucratic unity across borders, but fighting solidarity from below. Although they are inconsistent. If borders are not a barrier to solidarity then why be against separate Scottish Trade unions?  The choice is the working class struggle from below not  a British or Scottish capitalist state :a boycott of both yes and no campaigns.

Barry Biddulph


1 Neil Davidson, For a Yes vote without illusions : on the Scottish independence referendum,in The Project: a Socialist Journal,  July 2014.

2 Steve Jame and Jordan Smith,Former Scottish Socialist Party leader promotes nationalism in referendum campaign,left network,  July 2014

3 Keir Mckechnie,Yes to independence-No to Nationalism,Irish Marxist Review, Vol 12, Number 8.

4 Neil Davidson,Socialists and Scottish independence,International Socialism Journal,Spring,2007,p.47

5 Neil Davidson, for  Yes vote.

6 Neil Davidson, for a Yes Vote.

7 Neil Davidson, Socialists and Scottish Independence ,International Socialism Journal Spring , 2007,p.40

8 Alex Callinicos, Towards the Break up of Britain,International Socialism 143,2014.

9 Alex Callinicos as above

10 Alex Callinicos, Marxism and the National Question,in Scotland : Class and Nation, edited by Chris Bambery Bookmarks, 1999,p.44

11 Roman Rosdolsky,The Workers and their Country,in  In Defence of Marxism number 2,p.56 (LTT Pamphlet)

12 Neil Davidson, The origins of Scottish Nationhood,Pluto Press, London ,2000,p.202

13 Hillel Ticktin, Marxism and the National Question, in Critique 36-7,p.21

14 Lenin’s Social democratic schema of  Bourgeois Democratic revolutions in oppressed countries subject to imperialism, and tactical support for nationalists, undermined the political and organised independence of the working class and carried the seeds of the popular front. It also contributed to serious defeats and destruction of communist movements. For example in China in the 1920’s. Why would Landlords and Capitalists tolerate communists in the factories and fields even in a temporary alliance. Callinicos has made the main point in his Marxism and the National Question. Lenin did not explain how support for the national Revolution or democratic demands related to the specific struggle for Socialism. It also wrongly associated the bourgeoisie with democracy following Kautsky. It simplified bourgeois revolutions. The Bourgeois revolution was often a top down affair led by reactionary forces on Bismark’s principle of if we have to have a revolution, let us carry it out in a conservative way, rather than suffer one from below. Davidson has shown how the Bourgeois Revolution in Scotland was a top down affair.

15 Sandy McBurney, For a No Vote without illusions on the Scottish independence referendum, on-line in The Project,A socialist Journal,July 2014. The birth of Labour party was not an attempt of the working class to make a parliamentary party accountable to the working class. It was set up by the trade union bureaucracy and separated economics from politics. The Labour party was a product of defeats for the class struggle and contributed to those defeats. Sandy’s invocation of the reverential blanket phrase, the British Labour Movement, serves to mystify and obscure the complexities of the class struggle in Britain.

Nostalgia for the golden age of Labourism.

21 06 2014

Barry Biddulph review’s, The People. The rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010, Selina Todd, (John Murray,2014,£25.)

Salina Todd’s The People  is nostalgia for the spirit of 1945 :  when ” the working class became the people whose interests were synonymous with those of Britain itself”. (1)   Despite the academic research,this is  very old Labour  mythology : the people as the nation, united by Labour parliamentarians,  in the people’s war, and then the people’s peace.   It’s  patriotic nostalgia for the golden age of  Labourism and one nation welfare capitalism.(2) But her historical narrative of the  triumph of British Social Democracy, reveals a political incoherence :  the people’s  victory was not the triumph of the working class. The Attlee administration was not all it is cracked up to be.





Salina Todd informs us that the Attlee government was an austerity government, which ultimately put the demands of employers first, and gave priority to the economic demands of post war capitalism, led by the American government. The  financial elite in the city of London was allowed to conduct business as usual, and  the  public and grammar school elites were allowed to retain their privileged position. Inefficient and failing businesses were nationalised, with massive compensation, and put firmly in the control  of the old managers and owners, who ran them on conventional business lines. Most wealth remained where it was prior to the war with the majority of the economy owned by capitalists.   But all this is played down as if it didn’t really matter.

The main thing for Salina Todd is to  give all the political credit for policies  of full employment and free access to health care and secondary education to the leaders of the  Labour party.  In Salina’s words ,”It was Labour who had ensured that the people’s war brought about a people’s peace of welfare and full employment”. (3) This is a myopic,labourite and nationalist view of post war history.The post war order of top down welfare states in western Europe to modernise and strengthen Capitalism, to keep out the threat of Socialism and Communism, was built up by American capital, military power, and the new deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson. As Keynes, who negotiated a huge American loan for the Labour government, said at the time : “our post war domestic policies are impossible without American assistance” (4)Full employment was generated by an upswing of capitalism created by the world-wide destruction of values, commodities, and the built environment during the war which made the adoption of Keynesian policies feasible.

For Salina Todd,  Ernest Bevin personifies the aspirations of the workers for a better life because in the second world war coalition cabinet he “saw the demand for factory workers as an opportunity to turn the working class into the people”.(5) This  suggests that   Bevin and Labour in government, were motivated by working class interests. Yet state intervention to regulate the capitalist economy was instrumental for Bevin: a  workforce united by a national purpose was a  more productive workforce. (6) This bourgeois liberal approach had dominated the ideas of the parliamentary Labour party from its inception. Ralph Miliband summed  up the post war continuation of this approach :”from the beginning the nationalization proposals of the government were designed to achieve the sole purpose of improving the efficiency of the British capitalist economy,not as the  beginning of its wholesale transformation.”(7) It was not about a neutral state driven by the working class,but the capitalist state “operating within market dominated structures and having no fundamentally different objectives than those of private capital”. (8)

Selina Todd glosses over the wider non working class interests served by state intervention. The welfare state proposals emerged from the liberal intelligentsia, and war-time coalition government committees, which included conservatives. “The main architects of the post war reforms were in fact the progressive liberal bourgeoisie who had become committed to Keynesianism and the interventionist state in the crisis of the 1930’s.”(9) Prominent liberals such as  Keynes and Beveridge wanted to save capitalism from above not construct an alternative from below. The Churchill led coalition government accepted  the Beveridge report, and  Correlli Barnett is clear that “Churchill even accepted that  there was a broadening field for state ownership and enterprise.” (10) It was  about the capitalist state taking responsibility for unprofitable sections of the economy at the public’s expense and creating a healthier and better educated workforce for a more competitive economy.

Ernest Bevin might have introduced better facilities for workers in the royal ordinance factories, and facilitated more trade union recognition in industry during the war ,as Salina Todd notes, but the aim was to make employees work harder  for the war effort. A view shared across the political spectrum. Ernest Bevin acknowledged that”the trade union movement has become part of the state”. (11)  The integration of leading trade union officials into the state apparatus often meant workers on the shop floor had two bosses.This class collaboration at a local factory level saw union officials and employers uniting in production committees.  The autobiography of an Oxford car worker, and left trade unionist, Arthur Exell, gives us a glimpse into life on the production line during the war. (12) As secretary of the joint works production committee his job was to enforce factory discipline on trade union members. The manager approached him for help about what he considered unacceptable behaviour and  absenteeism among young women in the factory. Arthur seems to have taken a similar point of view : the problem with ” these girls” was that they were fed up and kicking against the system. what could Arthur do ? They were not members of the union. So the manager gave him permission to take time off the production line to get them into the union. The plant became 100% union. But Arthur confessed he had to come down  a bit hard on those females. (13)

Salina Todd the historian does acknowledge that ” Bevin put productivity before civil liberty. He swiftly introduced order 1305 which made strikes illegal during the war”. (14) This anti working class legislation was kept in place by the Labour Government after the war. Shortly before the  election of the post war Labour Government Churchill organised  hundreds of troops on standby to break a strike on the Surrey docks in London. Attlee and Bevin had no hesitation in following Churchill’s lead and ordered the troops to give the employers a helping hand. Troops were used as a reserve army of labour to break strikes on “at least 14 occasions between July 1945 and October 1951. ”  (15) The strikers were obviously not seen in terms of the nation as the people, and strikes were always scandalous from a parliamentary point of view.  Dockers were angry about low pay,poor working conditions, and the insecurity of daily hire and fire by the employers. Union leaders put loyalty to a Labour government before the rank and file workers.

The Attlee government had a  bureaucratic top down  paternalistic connection  with the working class. There was no attempt to draw in working class participation in decision-making . Instead, there was confidence in experts of all kinds, and Whitehall civil servants in particular. Salina Todd states the obvious, “the Labour  front bench was not committed to establishing economic and political equality”,  (16)   The military,civil service, and juridical hierarchies remained intact as did elite grammar and public schools. All this could hardly improve opportunities for workers.There was continuing  deference to unelected hereditary lords and of course the unelected Monarch. Gerrymandering continued unchallenged in the orange state in Northern Ireland, and a Labour promise on Scotland’s  devolution was ditched. The great power status of the British state was continued at the expense of working class living standards at home and workers aspirations for an alternative to capitalism internationally.(Greece)  In his understated manner, James Hinton points to the “failure to make inroads into the subordinate position of women”  (17) War time nursery and crèche provision was ended,welfare measures often  assumed a male bread-winner, and there was no provision for birth control on the NHS.  And so on.

Salina Todd  presents an image of the Labour government of 1945 as a party that, unlike Thatcherism, was based on cooperation not competition and the free market.(18)  Yet as an  historian She knows all Labour governments have been based on competition and the market.  Neo- Liberalism did not originate with Thatcherism, but with the James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1976.  The first and second Labour governments of 1924 and 1929 supported conventional capitalist economics and the gold standard : Workers benefits and pay were cut in a desperate attempt to solve capitalism’s economic crisis. There was no support from Ramsay MacDonald for the miners fight against pay cuts in the General Strike in 1926.The mass unemployed marches in the 1930’s were organised without the leadership of the Labour party.  Salina’s narrative obscures old Labour responsibility for working class defeats in the interwar years. The slump is associated with the Tory party and the post war boom is identified with Labour . Hence, the election of a Labour government in 1945  is presented as the forward march of the working class as the people. There was cooperation with trade union leaders, but this was to freeze or cut workers wages in policies of wage restraint, as in the politics  of Harold Wilson’s Labour governments of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Tony Blair was not more  wealth and market friendly than previous Labour leaders. The requirements of administrating capitalism change over time.

Even in council house building the Attlee administration relied heavily on the market and refused to nationalize the land or disturb land ownership. Land to build was bought at market prices,money was borrowed at high interest rates from finance markets and, the houses and flats were often constructed by private contractors. This followed the  pro market policies of the first Labour government  in 1924 : John Wheatley, Labour’s Housing minister said : “I have left private enterprise exactly where I found it….as the protector of the small builder I am the defender of private enterprise”. (19) In 1945 as in 1924 private enterprise was the norm. Peter Malpass  provides the overall picture of housing provision in Britain : “the idea that the market could and should provide for most people, most of the time, has underpinned British housing policy since the start of the 20th century”. (20) There was an acute housing shortage for working people in 1945, but Labour built less housing in 1948 than 1938 and fell well short of their own house building target.  Council tenants were subject to petty rules based on a notion of respectability. Salina Todd reveals that Nye Bevan, the minister responsible for housing, instructed that larger houses should go to managers and middle class professionals. Universal provision ,in housing ,as elsewhere, was adopted to avoid challenging class inequality and  income redistribution. Many workers had to resort to squatting to meet their housing need.

Salina Todd ties the formation of the modern working class with the origin  of the parliamentary Labour party. According to Salina : “in 1900 the formation of the Labour party testified to the rising significance of the industrial workers as a political force”. (21) It certainly related to the rise of the trade union bureaucracy, and its modest and defensive attempt to have a parliamentary voice to moderate  anti-trade union legislation or pass legislation in the interests of trade unions. It was very much a Liberal voice . All the early Labour leaders, Keir  Hardie, Arthur Henderson, Phillip Snowden, and Ramsay MacDonald were liberals or were influenced by Fabian blue prints for class harmony and regulated capitalism. But, between 1910 and 1914, the mass of grass-roots workers in the unions defied their union bosses,conciliation procedure, and bypassed parliament in a serious of violent mass strikes which challenged the state and parliament. The Labour Representation Committee was rendered  irrelevant. George Dangerfield described the workers actions as a “movement which took on a revolutionary course and might have reached a revolutionary conclusion”. (if not for the war in 1914) (22) The L.R.C, and later the parliamentary Labour Party served to constitutionally separate politics from economics to blunt class struggle.

In 1985 Marcel Liebman  described the liberal collectivism of Labourism as a ghost : ” a nostalgia ridiculous and poignant for something which once existed and will never exist again”. (23) But it is a nostalgia that grips the mind of many of the left in Britain today in terms of conviction or tactics.  For decades there was a hope which was  rooted in the occasional radical rhetorical flourishes,and ambiguous phrases of  Labour politics, that the Labour Party embodied a promise of Socialist change. However, with the passing of each Labour government these tactical illusions, and expectations,  have dwindled along with the influence of the purveyors of these false hopes. Then the  expectations became more vague. Did Labour offer voters a promise of  some kind of change ? John Rees, considering the prospects of a Tony Blair government in 1997 was keen to silence the ultra left pessimists who thought the pro business agenda of new Labour would  make the struggle for socialism harder or just as hard as under Thatcher. For Rees it would be easier. Why? Because expectations are not just passive electoral stuff : “expectations are something very different if they begin to force demands for a change”. (24) There was, of course, no crisis of expectations following the election of Blair. Why call up the grey and oppressive spirit of 1945 when  life has moved on ?



1 Salina Todd,The people, the rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010,John Murray, 2014,p.1

2 Salina Todd’s tabloid politics can be seen from her comparison of the rise and fall of the working class with the rise and fall of Viv Nicholson. Viv was a pools winner who coined the phrase spend, spend, spend to describe what she wanted to do  and did which brought about her downfall back into poverty. Salina’s political views are often contradicted by her views as a historian.

3 As above,p.2. With the help of Marshall aid, and other financial assistance, a variety of political forces in western Europe  introduced welfare measures. Only a narrow British view could identify welfare measures solely with Labourism.

4 Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin,The Making of Global Capitalism,Verso,London,2012,p.77

5  As above, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, p.96. According to Leo and Sam, American financial assistance  was 15% of the combined gross domestic capital of France Italy and Britain,during the Marshall Plan period.

6 Ernest Bevin had been an authoritarian trade union leader who was not overly concerned with the wishes and participation of his union membership. He was not a  leader reflecting some kind of popular class struggle or directly expressing working class demands. His connection with the working class was indirect and bureaucratic. Salina Todd’s views him as some kind of hero which reveals her own old Labour politics. Although as an academic Oxford historian she does record his anti working class actions, which again undermines her nostalgic Labourism.

7 Ralph Miliband Parliamentary Socialism,Merlin London,p.288

8 Willie Thompson,The Long Death of British Labourism,  Pluto press, London,p.29

9 Norman Ginsburg,Class Capital and Social policy, Macmillan, London, 1979,p.9

10 Corelli Barnett,The audit of War, Papermac, London,1986,p.32

11 As above , Willie Thompson,p.24

12 Arthur Exell,The politics of the production line, History workshop journal 1981. Arthur was a member of the CPGB . His reward for helping managers run a section of the Cowley car plant in Oxford during the war was exclusion from the factory during the cold war. Although he was officially a Communist, he seems to have  been rather  moderate. If he was in a factory, he was there to work not voice socialist views. He had little sympathy for one of his comrades who had the he said had the gift of the gab,  and was sacked for his communist agitation.

13 As above Arthur Exell, p.55

14 Salina Todd,as above,p.124.

15 Steve Peak,Troops in Strikes,Cobham Trust, London 1984,p.83 There were 8,000 unofficial strikes between 1947 -1951. These strikes showed a significant degree of frustration and disillusionment with the Attlee government. It was difficult to take on the trade union leaders,the employers, and the government,especially in the period when strikes were illegal.  See also  more details in A. J Davies,To Build a New Jerusalem, Abacus, 1996

16  Salina Todd as above .p.152,

17 James Hinton,Labour and Socialism, Harvester Press,Brighton,1983, p.71

18 Salina Todd p.319

19 Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party-A Marxist History, Bookmarks,London 1988,p.101

20 Peter Malpass,Housing and the Welfare state, Palgrave , London, 2005,p.209

21 As above , Salina Todd,p.15

22 George Dangerfield,The Strange Death of Liberal England, serif, London,1997, p.179.  This rebellious energy was in stark contrast to the early Labour leadership’s love of Royal garden parties and enjoying the company of the rich and famous. The parliamentary leaders were obsessed with respectability and trying to shake off propaganda about wild men in parliament. See also Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein,The Labour Party,a Marxist History,Bookmarks,London 1988. And Tom Nairn,The Anatomy of the Labour Party, in Revolution and Class Struggle, edited Robin Blackburn,Harvester press. Keir Hardie stood for a Labour party based on nation not class or socialist. Hence the name  Labour party,not Socialist party.

23 Marcel Liebman, Introduction to Socialist Register 1985,Social Democracy and After, p.21.

24 John Rees, The Class struggle under New Labour, International Socialism journal, summer 1997,p.10. At one level this was probably a cynical attempt to keep the SWP activists active and cheerful.At all levels it looked for activity in something that did not exist : a campaigning Social Democratic constituency. Lenin’s dubious category of the Labour party as a bourgeois workers party might have had some relevance for 19th century classical Social Democracy in Europe which created mass campaigning organisations. But in Britain the parliamentary Labour party was not part of any extra parliamentary mass struggle. Indeed it was an alternative to mass struggle it helped to defeat.  So there was no contradiction between a mass Socialist struggle and it’s pro- capitalist leaders. There was a separation of the political from the economic. Lenin’s critical support for Labourism simply resulted in accommodation to Social Democracy.

Is Scotland an oppressed nation?

29 04 2014

Originally posted on Sráid Marx:

Scot2 scot1

‘Is the a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013.

I remember having a brief chat with a left nationalist who argued that, in the context of a reference to Ireland, that there are degrees of national oppression. And so undoubtedly there is. What is demonstrated by the Scottish independence debate is that the measure of it, if it even exists, is very small. We know this because there is no real demand for change.

What we have had are references to “bluff, bullying and bluster” by Alex Salmond over leaders of the Labour Party, Tories and Liberal Democrats, rejecting use of sterling by a new ‘independent’ state. But even here the essential nationalist case is not that Scotland is being told what it can and cannot do…

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the jab of tragedy, the righthook of farce

9 04 2014

Originally posted on the commune:

David Broder reviews First as tragedy, then as farce by Slavoj Zizek

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane (Marx, Communist Manifesto)

As we reach the end of the ‘noughties’ this month, there is much scope for reflection on the events of the last decade. There remains a crisis of alternatives to capitalism, yet together with the current dark spectres of recession and ecological crisis, two events bookmarking the decade disrupted the ideology of ‘the End of History’. The September 11th terrorist atrocities in New York shattered the illusion of the invulnerable American military hegemon, while last October’s financial meltdown has fatally undermined the gospel of free-market economics. George W. Bush’s speeches on each occasion were the same, of course: ‘action’ was needed to defend ‘our way of life’. As Slavoj Zizek acerbically comments, this brings to mind Marx’s quip that “History always…

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2008 : The spectre of Karl Marx returned.

8 04 2014

Originally posted on the commune:

From the Commune, May 2009, a view presented at the outset of the Great Recession.

In January 2007, the Financial Times, declared that emerging market economies would continue to power ahead. Capitalism was triumphant. The ghost of Karl Marx had been laid to rest. But then just when the progress of the unfettered market appeared unstoppable it spectacularly crashed.  Some of the world’s biggest banks collapsed. The housing and credit bubble burst. In September 2008, Northern Rock in Britain and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the USA were rescued by governments with huge sums of tax payers money. The Bradford and Bingley building society was salvaged by the state and the Lehman Brothers financial empire fell to the ground. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the federal bank, in the USA, confessed that his free market confidence in the self-interest of bankers had been wrong. (1)

Bourgeois politicians were…

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The horror of the assembly line at Ford Dagenham.

18 03 2014

Barry Biddulph reviews Notoriously Militant,by Sheila Cohen,Merlin Press,2013.

This is the story of the TGWU 1/1107 Branch at the Ford Dagenham plant and how the workers on the shop floor experienced, and responded to the harsh working conditions inflicted on them by the Ford Motor Company.Sheila Cohen lets the workers speak for themselves about what they had to endure: “Imagine bending down to tie your shoe lace.Its a simple job. But imagine doing it once a minute ….during the period of a work shift. (1) The unending tedium of fixing the same nuts bolts and screws over and over again in a zombie like manner with damage to mind and body. Add to this pressure the unpaid and unpredictable lay offs, intrusive supervision and speed ups, particularly in the post war period, and you have the anger which sparks rank and file resistance.


Sheila Cohen argues in, Ramparts of Resistance ,that it is the raw material reality of exploitation on the factory floor which generates the objective possibilities of collective resistance. (2).This gives rise to what she describes as the two-faced nature of trade unionism as a movement of radical struggle from  below,rather than trade unionism as an official institution from above  in partnership with capital. But before we consider the limits and possibilities of trade unions, we will look at some aspects of her narrative of the militancy at the Ford Dagenham plant .

Ford Motor Company had forged a useful working relationship with the national officials of the trade unions in April 1944 in the Ford National Joint Negotiating Committee.(FNJNC). The TUC had helped Ford to keep out shop floor negotiating rights. The workers in the plant had a different approach.In 1946 they walked out and then occupied the plant to demand better pay and shop steward representation. The formal right to shop steward representation was won.  This left a battle for what they could and could not do. It was in the same year in the context of this Class struggle that the TGWU branch 1/1107 was established at the Dagenham factory.

In the decades that followed there was an explosion of unofficial inspired strikes and disputes at Fords Dagenham which were part of a wider grass-roots struggle which culminated in the high tide of militancy in the period 1968-1974. Although the Winter of discontent in 1979, triggered by a strike at Dagenham which smashed the governments 5% pay freeze, even topped this militancy. In 1960 there were seventy-nine walkouts at Dagenham with 100,000 hours lost; by1961 the number had risen to 184,000. Alan Thornett recollects a similar militant record in an Oxford car plant : the number of strikes at the Morris plant averaged around 300 a year from 1966-1968 culminating in 1969 with a record 624 strikes. (3) But not all these strikes ended in victory.

In 1962 there was a serious defeat at Ford Dagenham which left  17 workers on a company hit list outside the factory gate. The dispute originated in a shared outlook  between union officials,and the Ford labour relations director Lesley Blakeman. The feeling was that something had to be done about those militants who had shown disrespect to union and company procedures.  Les Kealey was sick of the trouble makers who got in the way of good relations with Ford management: a number of stewards had got into the habit of solving their own problems and order had to be restored. (4) The tactic employed was to link  wage increases to constitutional good behaviour. Further,Kealey and other national officials agreed that ” unions recognise the right of the company to exercise measures against employees who fail to comply with the conditions of their employment by taking unconstitutional action”.   (5) Days later, Bill Frances, the chair of the pain and trim shop(PTA)  which was at the core of 1107 TGWU branch, was sacked for holding a lunch time union meeting.

There was a walk out and then an overwhelming vote to stay out on strike. But a return to work was then engineered by Kealey and Blakeman. Kealey claimed that he had reached an agreement with Blakeman for a return to work for everyone without victimization. This assurance was put to the shop stewards who narrowly accepted the return the work proposal. The return to work became a carefully planned, management controlled ,phased return. The management would “decide how the shop would start again,when it would start and who would start it,no longer at the end of a wild cat strike would the men be automatically come back to their jobs” (6)  Most workers were eventually allowed back except for the 17 men who Ford management regarded as undesirable agitators. These leaders of rank and file resistance would not be allowed to return for the peace of mind of managers and national union officials .  Hours lost in strikes dropped from 184,000 in 1961 and 415,000 in 1962 to 3,400 in 1963. (7)

However, resistance resumed. In May 1968, women sawing machinists at Ford walked out on strike and into history. Their long outstanding and neglected claim for upgrading from semi skilled B grade to skilled C grade was  rejected by management. There was a four-week shutdown of the plant. The company was desperate for help. It turned to the Labour Government for assistance. Barbara Castle rushed in to rescue Ford. Over cups of tea with strike leaders Castle tried to get the women back to work with a promise of negotiations. When this failed she then met them for a second time, and persuaded the strike leaders to accept a deal  which appears to have been suggested by Blakeman following a visit to the AEU conference.The AEU and Reg Birch  had made the principle of equal pay for women the issue for the strike and given it official backing on that basis. They had not taken up the women’s demand for C grade, because this would have meant challenging the Ford Company wage structure. Claims for upgrading would have flooded in : many other workers jobs had been wrongly assessed. The compromise,accepted by the women as a basis to return to work,  was a 7% wage  increase which was 92% of the mens grade B rate,a step towards reducing differentials in pay.

Another notorious strike at Dagenham was the 1971 strike for wage parity with other car workers. This was the 9 week-long strike for parity not charity. The strike was brought to an abrupt end by  Jack Jones, leader of the TGWU, and Hugh Scanlon, head of the AEU. Jones and Scanlon,  negotiated a settlement with the government and the Ford motor company behind the backs of Dagenham shop stewards. The deal still left the Ford workforce as the lowest paid car workers. There was an increase of 9 pence an hour. Further increases of 5 pence an hour at the end of the year, and 5 pence an hour the following year. A few days prior to the sell out, Dagenham shop stewards had met Jones accidentally at Euston train station. They asked him about press reports of a backroom deal. He was deceitful saying :” I am not involved. It’s up to you lads-your running the strike”. (8) In effect the deal was imposed on Dagenham. Union Strike pay was stopped , no discussion was allowed, and a secret ballot adopted instead of the traditional show of hands at a factory meeting.

This sellout and others are not surprising. As Huw Beynon reminds us: “the trade unions are so rooted in the fabric of capitalist society that the sell out of the rank and file is bound to occur” (9)Marx had no experience of modern trade unionism or the  extent of trade union bureaucracy with its links to the state,and was  too optimistic in advocating the Unions adopt the slogan of abolition of the wages system. Nevertheless , he did identify their main fault: “they fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system” (10) Although the phase guerilla war exaggerates the feeble response to the employers of trade union officialdom today.The nature of trade Unions is located in negotiating or even accepting  the terms of exploitation not in superseding exploitation. In the words of Alex Callinicos : “confining the class struggle within the limits of capitalism presumes the interests of labour and capital can be reconciled”.(11)

Sheila does not really discuss the politics of those involved in the militancy at Dagenham in any detail so we have no understanding of what possibilities there were in going beyond workplace resistance to a wider challenge to Capitalism. Sheila view seems to be that collective action in itself is objectively  a step in a revolutionary direction. Sheila does argue elsewhere,” the need to go beyond the workplace through promoting a programme of broader political demands which would connect with existing not the desired level of consciousness among activists”. (12) This is undogmatic but politically vague. It is not a clear argument for  the politics of an alternative to the capitalist state. The problem with simply identifying something real with present consciousness is that the separation between politics and economics is reinforced, and revolutionary ideas are left at the factor gate and office door.

The contours of modern capitalism in Britain with the Labour Party and Parliament on the one hand, and trade unions on the other, was strengthened rather than weakened by the Trotskyist and Leninist  left during the period of mass militancy at Dagenham and elsewhere. The International Socialists (IS) Rank and filism was about more trade union militancy. Alex Callinicos articulates these politics when he writes: “experience shows that national rank and file movements can only be built on the initiative of revolutionary socialists . The actual programme of these movements may consist chiefly of straightforward trade union demands” (13)   The Socialist Labour League ,the forerunner of the Workers Revolutionary Party, was  very significant at the time ,but despite its hysterical revolutionary rhetoric it focused its demands on the Labour Party parliamentary left  as if there was a parliamentary road to socialism. It called for a vote for the Labour party at elections as if the party  could or would implement a revolutionary Socialist Programme.

This is where realistic politics are totally unrealistic. The tactical views of the SLL and other Trotskyist influenced militants originated in the false perspectives of the early Communist International for a workers government based on the capitalist state and the trade unions . The assumption was the traditional workers organisations and the capitalist state could be revolutionised. Despite Trotsky’s  accurate polemics against trade union and Labour leaders, he held the completely unhistorical and plain wrong view that “a revolutionary Labour Party resting on the trade unions will become in their turn a powerful instrument of recovery and resurgence” (14)  Whether it was the Great Unrest 1910-14, the General Strike or miners strikes 1926, and 1984-5, the Labour Party  was not transformed by a revolutionary dynamic.Looking to the Labour Party and the state was not a way to transform capitalism.

From Sheila’s account of the struggles on the factory floor at Dagenham we do know some of the sacked stewards were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain : Johnny McLaughlin , Bill Frances, and Kevin Halpin. But we do not have an indication of   the political role of the CPGB at Dagenham. In Huw Beynon’s study of the Ford Halewood plant, in the Liverpool area, he refers to the role of the Communist Party at Dagenham. The CPGB had a considerable number of members at the Dagenham plant, including senior stewards. Yet the CPGB “was reluctant to take a definite stand against the official union hierarchies. It had no committee based on the car industry until after 1965. (15) Johnnie Cross of the AEU, who was one of the 17 victimized workers in the defeated 1962 strike at Dagenham,  complained that the CPGB leadership was against wider rank and file links in the car industry at the time, in case it offended leading union officials.  He said that “the leading party members among the leadership of the stewards movement ducked down their little holes and stopped there” (15)

To return to Sheila’s story of the militant 1107 branch. The 1980’s into the 1990’s saw a lower level of struggle in the wider context of the surrender of the trade union bureaucracy to the anti union laws and the employers offensive. There was a rapidly growing feeling among the car workers at the plant “that the union cannot do anything about it”, and the grass-roots members were “not behind the union like they used to be”. (16) Job insecurity has a massive negative impact on confidence as well. In 1979 total employment at Dagenham was 28,583 ,by the end of  1985 it had fallen to 14,700″. (17) The Ford drive for flexibility, quality circles , and other forms of greater productivity increases were also impacting on workers independence from management. By 1985 job classifications had dropped from 550 to 52. The gap between stewards and the rank and file workers opened up.

Sheila’s title is based on a newspaper headline about the activities of the 1107 branch in this period of relative downturn. A radical leadership had  taken over the branch from an allegedly corrupt and right-wing leadership. But we do not have any explanation of why such a leadership could have arisen in such a militant branch. Nor do we have any critical assessment of the politics of the prominent members of the 1107 branch,(left Labour?)  and how this related to the world outside the shop floor.Steve Riley and Mick Gosling had taken a lead with others in tackling racism and sexism in the plant, but both were later forced out of the plant by management with the help of union officials.

Towards the end of the 1990’s the remaining workers at Dagenham were worried about the threat of plant closure. The closure was announced on 12th May 2000. Tony Woodley of the T&G ,one of a supposed awkward squad of trade union leaders, was full of strike rhetoric. The reality was there was no real urgency about strike ballots and no evidence of any trade union determination to fight the closure. The workers were kept in the dark. When a vote came no national union officials were to be seen at the plant meetings. The grass-roots workers were left with only one positive action : accept whatever redundancy money was available. Sheila comments that the drift towards closure was an example of “the pivot of union as an institution overcoming,for now,union as a movement” (18)

But for Sheila the workers will rise again as they have done in the past. So in terms of the trade unions “what makes the difference is a choice whether to seek to maximise what possibilities there are,or to remain gloomily preoccupied with the limitations and failures of the movement in a species of self-fulfilling prophesy” (19) But this comment does seem to assume trade union limitations and structures will not prevent a resurgence of workers struggles. Surely we need to take into account the failures of modern trade unionism, and not assume any fight back will go through traditional channels. As one of the militants of the 1107 branch said at the core of the resistance to Ford, the government, and trade union officialdom was the branch within the union branch. Stewards who represented workers from a number of trade unions had autonomy from the individual trade union.

What sheila’s vivid story of 1107 branch demonstrates is that workers did and can strive to transform a harsh capitalist environment. This kind of working class history does show there is a possibility that workers can unite  in the workplace, link up with local activists in the working class community, and become part of struggle against capital, the state and parliament


1 Sheila Cohen,Notoriously Militant,Merlin Press,2013,p.4

2 Sheila Cohen,Ramparts of Resistance,   Pluto Press,2006,p.13

3 Alan Thornett,From Militancy to Marxism, Left View Books, 1987 ,p.93.

4 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.75

5 Sheila Cohen,as above.p.74

6 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.77

7 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.77

8 Sheila Cohen,as above p.107

9 Huw Beynon, Working for Ford,EP Publishing 1979,p.301

10 Dave Stocking,Marxists and the Trade Unions,Workers Power pamphlet 1977,p.4

11 Sheila Cohen,The Ramparts of Resistance.p.170

11 Alex Callinicos, Socialists in the Trade Unions,Socialist Worker pamphlet,1995,p.

13 Alex Callinicos, as above,p.57

14 Leon Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol2, New park Publications,1974,p.104

15 Huw Beynon as above, p.60

16 Sheila Cohen,Notoriously Militant,p.139

17 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.146

18 Sheila Cohen,as above,p.194

19 Sheila Cohen,Ramparts of Resistance,p.150

Lenin 1917-18 : the road to the authoritarian state.

11 02 2014

The Bolshevik party, by identifying itself with the state, was to become the internal agent of counter-revolution” (1)


Lenin’s focus when he returned to Russia in 1917 was on  the facts of the revolution, rather than  outdated Bolshevik theory . He began with  what was real,rather than an abstract possibility.  (2) Lenin’s approach was about the “demands of the moment rather than abstract theory”. (3) For Lenin to repeat a general Marxist truth  in some circumstances was a distraction from practical priorities. (4) So  Despite the libertarian rhetoric  in his correspondence and political statements in early 1917, an alternative to the capitalist state was merely a theoretical aspiration. His political aim was more immediate , and pragmatic,  not the introduction of socialism,but a state-run economy which he regarded  in some sense as a transition to socialism.

Lenin’s immediate economic programme was modest and coincided with the programme of the moderate Social Democratic leaders of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Peasants Deputies. As Trotsky noted, Lenin regarded this programme as excellent, and the only programme which could provide a way out of economic collapse. (5) The Petrograd Soviet executive committee proposals, in May 1917, for state control and regulation of the economy to save the country from ruin, which Lenin agreed with, was a  programme of national salvation.  The bourgeoisie was worried about where the revolutionary mass activity could lead and would not carry out this programme . The compromising soviet leaders clung to their dogma of the bourgeois revolution led by capitalists.

For Lenin, once the Bourgeoisie was removed from political power, the road would be open to a leadership in the Soviets to head the state to provide the administration to get the economy going again.  However, Lenin’s first assessment of the development of the revolution was mistaken. He assumed a peaceful growth, on the basis of Soviet constitutionalism, as if the revolutionary dynamic would flow smoothly through Soviet elections. He underestimated the reaction of the masses to the crisis. In Trotsky’s opinion “for the party in its immense majority had not yet realised  the mightiest of the revolutionary passions that was simmering in the depths of the awakening people” (6) Writing in the cult of Lenin he left out the infallible leader’s lack of awareness.

The Bolshevik party did not plan for insurrection or connect directly with the rank and file workers and solders moving in that direction. Lenin favoured a tactic of putting demands on the class  collaborationist leaders of the Soviet to compel them into breaking with the bourgeoisie. The assumption they could be compelled to break with the bourgeoisie was the basis of the notion of a peaceful transfer of state power.  Trotsky brings out the reformist logic of this approach in these words:”the transfer of power to the Soviets meant in its immediate sense a transfer of power to the compromisers that might have been accomplished by way of simple dismissal of the bourgeois government”. (7) This policy was the dead-end of the futile demand for the Soviet moderates to take the power which resulted in a serious defeat for the revolutionary forces in Petrograd. This could have been fatal for the Bolsheviks, but Lenin learned a hard lesson enabling  the Bolsheviks to seize the state in the name of the Soviets.

The common outlook on a state controlled economy between the Bolsheviks and the Social Democratic leaders was  possible because Lenin’s political theory  was” constructed on the economic ground of the theoreticians of the Second International”. (8) Capitalist technology and science was a positive and neutral framework for socialist advance. So administrative and hierarchical forms that the bourgeois used for exploitation could be utilised for steps  to socialism. In other words,”the productive forces were unambiguously technical and to develop them meant to follow the trail blazed by Capital” (9) The undercurrent of Lenin’s State  and Revolution is the Social Democratic vision that socialism is to “organise the whole economy on the lines of the postal service”. (10) The vague idea that every cook can supervise leaves out the point about who makes the decisions. Workers power at the point of production was not part of the plan.

In the Impending Catastrophe and how to Combat it ,Lenin argued that the large-scale organisation of capitalism is a means whereby the state can expedite capitalist development. This is because state monopoly capitalism is the material preparation for capitalism and socialism can be seen in the workings of modern capitalism. This is why state control of large-scale capitalism is a step to socialism. In Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power , Lenin  even goes as far as declaring that the administrative apparatus of the banks is nine-tenths of the socialist apparatus. The state and capitalist modernisation was the way forward for Lenin. In any case,  Lenin was a  centralist by conviction and a long time admirer of factory discipline and discipline in general.

Following the October Revolution the new Bolshevik government was located, not in the soviets, but in the Bolshevik party leadership in a ministerial style cabinet, but given the revolutionary sounding name of Council of Peoples Commissars. “The new Government took over the control of various ministerial bureaucracies from the provisional government which in turn had inherited them from the Tsars council of ministers”. (11) A small number of Bolshevik intellectuals ran the ministries and the old Tsarist state bureaucracy was not smashed, but utilised and expanded outside the Soviets and workers democracy. According to Orlando Figes,over half of the bureaucrats in the Moscow offices of the commissariat in August 1918 had worked in some branch of administration before October 1917.  (12) The  bureaucratic state structure became even more massive than the pre revolutionary structure and rested on a smaller productive base: “it owed more to Tsarist bureaucratic traditions than the ideals of the revolution”. (13)

This conservative pattern was replicated in the state economy. Top down pre-revolutionary economic institutions were utilised at the expense of grass-roots workers initiative and action. At the top was Veshenka reporting to Bolshevik state leaders, and lower down were the local branches which followed instructions from above. What had been “created was a central economic department with local offices “.(14) The model was the German war economy which Alexander Bogdanov, Lenin’s old Bolshevik factional opponent, warned should not be mistaken for the emergence of a socialist system.  Lenin was not immediately concerned with an abstract  theory of a socialist economy,but with the nuts and bolts of a state system he had inherited and could pragmatically build on.

Once the Bolshevik regime settled down in the months following the revolution, Lenin outlined his economic priorities in March/ April 1918 in his thesis, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government. There would be a combination of  the Bolshevik state with the up to date achievements of capitalism. The state would create greater productivity of labour and develop the productive forces on the basis of capitalist methods and techniques. The Russian worker had to learn to work with the help of the Taylor system which Lenin once described as the last word in capitalist slavery. Furthermore, ” without the guidance of experts in the various fields of knowledge,technology and expertise,the transition to Socialism would not be possible” . (15) What was required from the workers in the factories was unquestioning obedience to the orders of the factory manager appointed by the Bolsheviks. As in previous bourgeois revolutions, dictatorship could be the vehicle for the revolutionary class. Industrial democracy had no place in this dictatorship over workers.

Prebrashensky, a left Bolshevik, argued that the logical implications of a dictatorship in industry was a dictatorship in the party. He also noticed that in Lenin’s proposals, “the power of the working class in production isn’t mentioned as on of the necessary conditions of Socialism”. (16)  But the most perceptive comment on Lenin’s  politics probably came from Ossinski who became one of the most consistent left oppositionists. Ossinski made a fundamental point: “if the proletariat itself does not know how to create the necessary prerequisites for the socialist organisation of labour,no one else can do this for it ,and no one can compel it to do this”. (17) He added that if the stick is raised against the workers those that wield it would become a new social force against the workers.

Lenin told the left Bolsheviks in 1918 that the historical time was not ripe for the commune state.Yet ironically  it was the time for  the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Not in the sense of the domination of society by the working class,but as the dictatorship of a Bolshevik  regime. This was what the young Trotsky described as substitutionism : the party substituting for the working class. Weeks after the October revolution Lenin chaired  a meeting which decided on setting up a standing army which entailed the help of ex- tsarist officers, with privileges, and later the reintroduction of the death penalty. Only a few months earlier Lenin had given the impression that he stood for  an armed people,and the standing army was part of the state that had to be smashed.  Here, as in industry, the political choice was a traditional one which was at odds with revolutionary values.

Victor Serge’s  summary of his Bolshevik experience  was that on fundamental political points they were mistaken, specifically,”in their faith in statification and in the leaning towards centralism and administration” (18) His basic criticism was that Bolshevism lacked a sense of liberty which is the point made by most of the communist opposition to Lenin following the October revolution. The left Communist critique of Lenin was that there was no freedom for the working class,and the Bolshevik leadership had chosen not to rely on the initiative and creativity of the masses. Rosa Luxemburg also took issue with Lenin’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat when she wrote,” but this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy not its elimination”. (19) The Soviet State was a misnomer. The Soviets were not built up as a revolution against the state. Instead,a  political choice was made to build up the party- state,which gave the name communism to counter-revolution.

Barry Biddulph


1 The Russian Communist Left 1918-30, 2005,P.37

2 V.I.Lenin,The tasks of the proletariat in our Revolution,Progress Publishers,Moscow,p.66. In a sense, he avoided admitting he had been mistaken in his perspectives for the Russian Revolution. Things had worked out differently and the Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry was useless in the complex reality of the interweaving of the bourgeois and proletarian revolution. He now agreed with Trotsky that the need for  a state controlled economy would take the revolution beyond the minimum programme. To use the old jargon,the commune state was the maximum programme.

3 Alan Woods,Bolshevism ,Well Red Books,London,p.93.  Alan Woods has an uncritical not to say religious view of Lenin and Trotsky.

4 Lars T Lih ,Lenin Rediscovered,Brill 2006. p.50. Lars repeats this point elswhere about Lenin not stating a Marxist truth because it did not apply in the current circumstances.Was Lenin’s political approach a casual attitude to Marxist theory or creative flexibility? Either way it was a short sighted view.

5 Leon Trotsky,The History of the Russian Revolution,Pluto Press ,London 1974,p.426-7

6 Leon Trotsky as above, p.422

7 Leon Trotsky,as above, p.816.

8 U. Santamaria and A. Manville,Lenin and the Transition,Telos, Spring 1976 p.79

9 Phillip Corrigan,Harvie Ramsay and Derek Sayer,Socialist Construction and Marxist Theory, Monthly Review Press ,New York,p.30

10 V.I.Lenin,The State and Revolution,  CW Vol 25 Progress Publishers,Moscow 1977,p. 432  The state and revolution was published in 1918 and its libertarian themes were no influence on the revolution before or after October 1917. The pamphlet was used internationally to justify the seizure of State power.

11 Sheila Fitzpatrick,The Russian Revolution , Oxford university press, 1994.p. 88

12 Orlando Figes,A people’s Tragedy,Pimlico,1996,p.689

13 Neil Harding,Lenin’s Political Thought, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1986,p.325

14 E.H Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-23,penguins Books,p.80

15 V.I Lenin,The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, CW Vol 27 Progress Publishers ,Moscow ,1980,p.15

16 The Russian Communist left,1918-30, the ICC, 2005,P.340.

17 As above p.338

18 Victor Serge,Memoirs of a Revolutionary.Oxford University Press,1963,p.76. The Serge Trotsky Papers,edited by D.J. Cotterill, Pluto Press,1994,contain some telling points about Trotsky on Kronstadt and the organisational methods of Trotskyism.

19 Rosa Luxemburg,The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B Anderson,Monthly Review Press,New York, 2004,p.308

the unknown revolution: ukraine 1917-21

27 01 2014

Originally posted on the commune:

Much has been written on the revolution in Ukrainian, on the nationalists, the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks. Yet there were others with a massive following whose role has faded from history. One such party was the Borotbisty, the majority of the million strong Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries, they formed an independent communist party seeking an independent Soviet Ukraine.

Though widely known amongst revolutionary Europe in their day, the Borotbisty were decimated during the Stalinist holocaust. Out of print for over half a century Borotbism by Ivan Maistrenko has now been republished. Maistrenko (1899-1984) was a veteran of the revolutionary movement. A red partisan in 1918-20 he was a journalist and opponent of Stalin in the 1920’s becoming deputy director of the All-Ukrainian Communist Institute of Journalism in 1931. A survivor of the gulag he lived as a post-war refugee in Germany becoming editor of the anti-Stalinist workers paper Vpered. His…

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The Scottish Independence Referendum and Revolutionary Socialists

24 01 2014
 Eric Chester writes on Scottish Independence and Nationalism.The question of Scottish independence is a complex one, an issue that requires an assessment on the theoretical level, the attitude of socialists toward nationalism, as well as a critique of the specifics of the question as it relates to Scotland and the United Kingdom. I believe that a genuinely independent Scotland would be a positive development, but that the proposal being presented by the Scottish National Party is a sham, and should not be supported. Indeed, Alex Salmond and the SNP envision a Scotland that is not independent, and is neither socialist, nor a republic.
Socialists have always been skeptical of bourgeois nationalism, correctly viewing it as a diversion from a class-based solidarity that crosses national boundaries and has a vision of a future society that is international in scope. This does not mean that we as socialists do not support the right of self-determination of an oppressed people. In fact, Westminster has conceded this point with regard to Scotland by agreeing to accept the results of the upcoming referendum as binding. Scotland clearly has a distinct history and culture. It was forcibly annexed to England, and many of its people were coerced into adopting the English language and then forcibly removed from their land. Given that Westminster has agreed to accept the referendum’s results, it would be bizarre for socialists to insist that Scotland remain a part of Britain even if a majority of its citizens expressed a desire to be independent.

The issue then is not whether Scotland has the right to be independent, it does, but whether it makes sense for socialists to advocate a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. I would suggest that as a general proposition socialists should only support national independence when this would advance the interests of the working class, and mark a significant step toward a socialist transformation of society. A truly independent Scotland, one that became a republic, that had its own currency and determined its own budget, that left NATO and closed down British military bases, and that left the European Union, such a Scotland would be worthy of socialist support.

The reality is that the SNP is not interested in an independent Scotland. Salmond is eager to placate Westminster and the English ruling class. Thus, the servile praise of the monarchy. This ploy announces loudly to all that Scotland will remain subordinate to England, even after it becomes nominally independent. The monarchy is not a purely symbolic issue. The crown powers would enable the British government to remove a Scottish government it viewed as a threat. Furthermore, the monarchy owns a considerable amount of Scottish land. Indeed, in Scotland ownership of land is concentrated in the hands of a few families, many of them descending from the old aristocracy. A truly independent Scotland would seize large landholdings, either distributing them to farmer cooperatives, or holding the land for use as national parks and wilderness.

Furthermore, Salmond has declared that he hopes that Scotland will continue to use the British pound sterling, which would cede control over interest rates and the banking system to the Bank of England and the City of London. Breaking the stranglehold of London financiers over the setting of economic policy will require a genuine independence that has as a prerequisite control over monetary policy.

Still, the global context has markedly changed since Britain reluctantly engaged in a process of decolonization after World War II. Scotland must also negotiate an acceptable transition with the United States, through NATO, and Germany, through the European Union. NATO will never agree to let Scotland to close its military bases now being used by U.S. troops as a way station to military adventures in the Middle East and beyond. The decision of a truly independent Scotland to withdraw from NATO, and to steer clear of U.S. imperialism, would represent the type of challenge to the global power structure that the SNP leadership is so anxious to avoid.

Instead, the SNP has dumped its long-held position, and voted that an independent Scotland would remain a member of NATO. Furthermore, the SNP has always called for Scotland to be free of all nuclear weapons, insisting that the Faslane base that acts as a home base for submarines armed with Trident nuclear tipped missiles had to be closed. Once having opted to remain within NATO, the SNP has had to agree that Faslane can continue to service Trident submarines until at least 2020.

And then there is the European Union. This is no longer just a common market, but rather an increasingly tightly integrated economic unit in which power is becoming more centralized, with the Germans wielding the real clout. An “independent” Scotland seeking to remain within the EU will almost certainly have to sign on to the new fiscal treaty that greatly restricts a country’s ability to determine its budget. Thus, deficit financing to spur an economic recovery will be prohibited. It is also highly likely that Scotland will have to join the Eurozone after a probationary period, since it is increasingly clear that the European Union will treat an application for membership by an independent Scotland as it would that coming from new members such as the countries of Eastern Europe.

In a globally integrated economy dominated by transnational corporations, the entire question of national independence becomes problematic. Only a rapid transition to socialism can provide a meaningful solution to this problem. Nevertheless, the difficulties confronting Scotland go far beyond this. As the SNP attempts to negotiate a smooth exit from the United Kingdom, its leaders will enter into deals that entangle Scotland in a dense web of agreements that place this supposedly independent country in a subordinate position. In the end, it is probable that the Scottish working class will be no better off than before. Indeed, it is quite possible that the working class will be worse off, confronting even more drastic austerity measures, than if Scotland had continued to move toward a greater autonomy within the framework of the existing state.

Given the choices being offered, our role as revolutionary socialists is to reject both of them and, instead, to advocate a positive alternative to the existing situation, a choice in which Scotland becomes truly independent. A ‘no’ vote is a vote for the monarchy and the British imperial state. A ‘yes’ vote is a vote for a phony nationalism that leaves Scotland still stuck in a subordinate position. Neither choice is attractive.

The referendum has all of the characteristics of the typical election in a capitalist country in which voters get to choose between an array of parties advocating similar policies. In Scotland, this means voting for either the SNP or Labour. As revolutionary socialists, we reject this as a meaningful choice. We should do the same for the options presented in the independence referendum.

Freedom From Wage Labour and Private Property in England 1649-50.

11 01 2014

 “Take notice that England is not a free people till the poor who would have no land have free allowance to dig and labour the commons and so live as comfortably as the landlord in their enclosure” Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649


Over one hundred years before Gracchus Babeuf raised the banner of common ownership  and equality in the French Revolution ,the True Leveller Gerrard Winstanley advocated that the propertyless must free the world by working together in equality without money, wages, and private property.   At the peak of the English Revolution in 1648-1649, as the Levellers tried to push the revolution forward in times of economic and political crisis, Gerrard Winstanley- in a moment of inspiration, and political passion, heard the voice of the poor and landless  as the voice of reason,which he identified as his own personal god and inner light.

The message was clear,practical and direct : work together, and eat together, on the common at St Georges Hill,Surrey. He declared that since all were born equal there was no legitimate right for a minority of landowners to rule over the majority of landless labourers.  Private ownership was rooted in violence, such as the Norman Conquest. Organised religion had also played a  role in tricking the people out of access to their means of subsistence.  Working together on the wastes and commons was merely the first step to freedom.

The true Levellers wanted the poor on landed estates to join them and refuse to work the landlords land. If the landed elite wanted private property let them work the land themselves. When thirty or forty True Leveller poor, led by Winstanley, began their bid for freedom from private property and  wage slavery on St Georges hill in April 1649,there was a violent reaction from local landowners and their clergy who were determined to stop these diggers from creating a movement to subvert the foundations of private  property,  and the  established church.

Throughout 1649 at St Georges Hill and later in early 1650 at Cobham Heath, where the remaining diggers had retreated,there was a concerted violent campaign against their settlement. The savage repression was led by Sir Frances Vincent a local lord of the manor ,Parson Platt, and farmers John Taylor and William Starr and included servants and tenants of these local notables.  Homes and buildings were destroyed,tools stolen or broken,possessions scattered, and diggers were beaten and  wounded. The legal system was used to arrest the True Levellers for trespass,  resulting in heavy fines and imprisonment. As Winstanley wrote :”Freedom is the man who would turn the world upside down. Therefore, no wonder he has enemies” (1)

Conservative writers in so far as they did not leave the True Levellers episode hidden by  a history of winners,indulge in character assassination and the personal denigration of Winstanley as incompetent hypocritical or moved by low motives, which has continued to the modern period. The historian A.L.Rowse accused Winstanley of the Politics of envy which is a very cynical and convenient view for the wealthy. In the polite words of Ivan Roots another historian,the politics of envy is “a cardinal sin in the eyes of those comfortable enough not to be tempted by it. (2) Exactly.   In 1976 J.C Davis “no more approves of Winstanley than he does of Christopher Hill” (3)

Diane Purkiss, who has recently written a book on the civil war, continues these dubious polemics and no more approves of Brian Manning’s books than she does of Winstanley. In her “People’s History” of the civil war, Purkiss sneers that for all his talk of locality Winstanley was an incomer and a townie,he might know how to graze cattle, but did he know how to grow food ? (4) Even if he was successful at grazing, he was a cattle entrepreneur ; hence he was a hypocrite in opposing commercial buying and selling. This is a perverse and poisonous polemic. Even when describing the difficulties of cloth trading in an economic crisis and the disruption of trade due to the civil war-specifically Winstanley’s trade links with Ireland she still has contempt for him as a loser. “He was never much of a business man”. (5) Here we have the conservative stereotype of the inadequate revolutionary projecting his own faults onto Society.

The diggers on St Georges hill were local parishioners. Not all parishioners were born in the Parish. Winstanley had been provided with a small piece of land by his father in law who saved the family from abject poverty. He worked as a cow- herder,scratching a living  from the land without hired labour. The allegation that he was a townie seems to come straight out of the reactionary contemporary politics of the countryside alliance. The diggers seemed to have earned their nickname and strenuous efforts were made to break their tools. If they were incompetents why not leave them to starve on St Georges Hill?  The difficulties of commercial activity for small traders like himself in the 1640’s would have given him insights into the drawbacks of buying and selling and helped him identify with those in poverty who had lost their right to the commons through enclosure. In any case,he understood that the market and capitalist development was separating the people from the land and their means of subsistence.

That only leaves her hint that since Winstanley was some kind of communist advocating common ownership of the land ,he must be some kind of totalitarian; a common theme from the cold war period.  In the words of Diane Purkiss :”By the end he too had come to believe state power might be needed to support and control his ideal society”. (6)  This is a reference to Winstanley’s Law of Freedom in a Platform written following the defeat of the diggers after a year of peaceful and brave resistance to the violent harassment of their community by the local rich.  Purkiss cannot avoid mocking Winstanley as the revolutionary who bent his knee to Cromwell’s authority  by appealing to him to implement the platform.

But Winstanley wanted to do everything he could and have his final say even if it would serve only to pacify his own spirit or the fire in his bones as he put it. Marie Louise Berneri’s opinion is that “from the contents and tone of he appeal,however,it is clear Winstanley had little hope that Cromwell would carry out the programme” (7) Marie added that Winstanley placed demands on Cromwell all the better to criticise him later when the revolution might revive. She might have a point, but it seems more likely that he was putting down a historical marker which would be a historical vindication for the True Levellers, warning Cromwell that if he refused to implement the platform, and look to the interests of the poor, he would lose his reputation in the historical long run.

Winstanley had experienced defeat and was  aware of other digger settlements suffering the same fate in the context of Cromwell’s ruthless crushing of the Leveller rank and file at Burford. He might not have been fully aware that this was a historical turning point ,but he  knew  Cromwell’s army was becoming an instrument of order and reaction. In this counter-revolutionary situation independent attempts to work the land as free men would have seemed impossible to him. Hence a desperate  appeal to Cromwell in the hope that this might influence the army in some way to reverse the reactionary trend. His conscience would not allow him to concede defeat without one last attempt to advocate the virtues of common ownership. We should remember that when he was summoned to explain himself to Fairfax, the practical leader of the army, a few weeks after the occupation of St Georges Hill, he made no such appeal. Both Winstanley, and Everard another digger, refused to doff their hats to Fairfax. They simply informed the general what they were doing.

Far from advocating a form of state collectivism Winstanley made the revolutionary point that there was no middle road :  it was freedom or tyranny. Freedom was sharing the earth as a common treasury without a property-owning state.The social context of older male voting rights was freedom from wage labour and commercial activity. Marie Berneri sums it up in modern terms : in his ideal commonwealth there is neither money, nor wages and each gives according to their ability and receives according to their need” (8) But this description is not accurate because the phrase ” each according to their ability” did not apply to women.  All male  officers of his Commonwealth would be subject to an annual election. Winstanley wanted to see “that the free possession of the land and liberties be put into the hands of the oppressed commons of England” (9) This is the point of the Paris Commune of 1871 : there can be no political freedom without economic freedom.

Winstanley’s views are remarkable from a remarkable period in history. However, he was very much a man of his time in a fundamental sense. Women are almost invisible in his Commonwealth.  The family unit is still in place with an  older man as the head of the family, responsible for children and wives. The family  would be a consumption unit. He envisaged liberty to marry for love, and wives and husbands to enjoy each other.  Adultery would not be a crime subject to punishment. Yet despite his patriarchal views he did propose to have the death penalty for anyone who raped a woman. The executioners like the solders would be elected  locally. There was then a contemporary  stress on punishment. Even so, he was far ahead of his times,in a sense too advanced, since he was out of step with historical development. Cromwell’s regime facilitated the further growth of capitalism and colonialism.  What Winstanley understood was that the separation of the producers from the means of production could only result in oppression, and  inequality.   As Norah Carlin put it : ” in the law of freedom Winstanley is concerned with abolishing the state. (10)

Barry Biddulph

January 2014.


1 Gerrard Winstanley, A Watchword to the City of London. Winstanley and his followers were not in a position to use force against their enemies, but in any case he believed that the sword created the problem of inequality in the first place and was not a solution.

2 Ivan Roots,introduction to David Petegorsky,Left Wing Democracy in the English Civil War,sandpiper books 1999,p.5

3 As above, p.9

4 Diane Purkiss,The English Civil War,Harper Perennial, London, 2007,p.526

5 As above p.520

6 As above,p.524

7 Marie Louise Berneri,Journey Through Utopia, Freedom press 1987,p.150

8 As above p.169

9 Gerrard Winstanley, The law of Freedom in a platform.

10  Norah Carlin,Marxism and the Civil War,International Socialism Journal 10, winter 1980-81 p.122

A vote for a Scottish state : a vote for left nationalism ?

17 12 2013


John Molyneux and Keir McKechnie claim that voting yes for independence in Scotland, is not necessarily a nationalist  vote. In recommending a yes vote Keir Mckechnie maintains that a vote for national independence can paradoxically become a vote against nationalism. Molyneux sets the dogmatic tone : “Marxists support the Right of Nations to self-determination and the National Liberation struggles of oppressed Nations.” (1) In other words,Lenin’s views on the national question are assumed to be true. Yet many Marxists did not and do not support the bourgeois demand of self-determination.  Rosa Luxemburg  regarded the general demand for self-determination as a utopia in the context of imperialism. Indeed,  Marx himself did not support the Right of self-determination as a general principle, even in the case of Poland.

In the words of Michael Lowy, “Marx and Engels supported Poland, less in the name of the general principle of self-determination of nations, than because of the struggle of the Poles against Tsarist Russia.” (2) Nor did Marx support the right of self-determination for the Southern Confederacy in the American Civil War. Engels ruled out the principle of self-determination for nations he regarded , in dubious terms, as ” non historic” or not viable on national or racial grounds.  Keir Mckechnie has a very uniformed  opinion that, “where there is genuine national oppression,then both workers and bosses will benefit from independence.” (3) National unity of bosses and workers is presented in a positive light as if class power did not exist. This this was not the case in China and many other national struggles in which the worker’s movement and communist organisations were repressed or destroyed. Modern nationalist movements in Zimbabwe and South Africa have not liberated the working class.

There is also a difficulty in Molyneux and Mckechnie attempting to drape themselves in Leninist orthodoxy on self-determination: they accept that Scotland is not and was not an oppressed nation. The division between oppressed and oppressor nations is at the core of Lenin’s position. Then again, the  Leninist right of self-determination is  rather over complicated for a principle;the right to self-determination does not always apply, and sometimes has to be subordinated to the exigencies of class struggle. So it has the appearance of a principle, but might not apply  in specific conditions. In a sense, it is not a general right. A general right is asserted,  but in a sense you do not have a right,  and  you might ditch it. For instance, Lenin did not always stick to the principle of self-determination following the Russian Revolution in the Ukraine ,Georgia and elsewhere. Nigel Harris is clear,that for Lenin : “the issue was still a tactical one has it had been for Marx…. not a matter of general principle.” (4)

 Lenin prided himself on what he regarded as his historically specific account of the time and place for the demand for Self-Determination. He situated the demand in the context of what he called the Democratic Bourgeois Revolution .   In Lenin’s view, the period of these revolutions in Western Europe was roughly 1789 to 1871 : ” in England (in Britain excluding Ireland ) the bourgeois revolution has been consummated long ago.”(5) His  historical context for the bourgeois revolution for  self-determination did not apply to Scotland. For Lenin at the time, ” it is precisely and solely because Russia, and her neighboring countries are passing through this phase that we must have a clause in our programme on the right of self-determination.”(6) He saw self-determination  and a democratic bourgeois revolution  as  the future in Russia and Asia.These perspectives were proved wrong by historical developments.

Despite all the political rhetoric of revolutionary democracy, the Russian Revolution took a different turn. If the spectre of the French revolution influenced the bourgeoisie in a conservative non revolutionary direction in the spring time of people’s in 1848 and after, then the fear of the revolutionary events of 1917 was  also a conservative lesson for the world bourgeoisie . Moreover, the Bolsheviks rooted their regime in the ‘ Party- State’ rather than the Soviets. As a consequence, Bolshevik state building in the “Soviet Union” led to dictatorship over workers. As early as March 1918, Lenin described the international revolution as a fairy tale, and the Soviet State set about establishing  normal relationships with other states. The treaty of Brest Litovsk was part of an overall strategy of consolidating the Bolshevik State rather than a gamble on international revolution. Neil Davidson cynically states that they “decided to survive rather than go down to glorious defeat along the lines of the Paris Commune.” (7)  Communism from below was not given a fighting chance to succeed. Instead, the ‘party- state’ counter-revolution called itself communism.

 Lenin wanted a proper state, a proper army, proper managers in the factories, and proper diplomacy. Defense of the Russian state went hand in hand with  the false perspectives of 1913-14, that the route to socialism in Asia, and other areas dominated by imperialism would be through bourgeois nationalists and bourgeois democracy . Lenin’s address to the All Russian Congress of Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East,in 1919, made it clear “you will have to base yourselves on  bourgeois nationalism.” (8) The Italian Communist, Amadeo Bordiga described this as revisionism in terms of class struggle.  Hillel Ticktin notes that the Soviet Union came to terms with the bourgeoisie on its borders, and there was a real conflict between the interests of the USSR as a secure entity, and the needs of Socialism. (9) Neil Davidson is reluctant to criticise the Bolshevik regime prior to Stalinism, and states that “what did not exist at this stage was a consistent policy of privileging Russian state interests over those of the international movement.” (9) But there was nationalism,even if it was inconsistent.

Lenin’s Support for bourgeois nationalism in China, whatever the  qualifications placed on it, proved disastrous for the communist  movement. In China the nationalist army,   trained and armed by the Bolshevik state, inflicted a historic defeat on communism, as a worker’s movement in 1927, from which it never recovered. Nigel Harris who is very much part of the IS/SWP  tradition makes the obvious point : How could the Bourgeois Democracy be so foolish as to allow communist parties to direct independent mass class based movements”.(10) The falseness of the Leninist theses on national liberation can be seen from Trotsky’s Leninist view from 1924 : there is no doubt whatsoever that if the Kuomintang party in China succeeds in uniting China under a national democratic regime,the capitalist development of China will make enormous strides forward.” (11) Tragically,capitalist development strode forward  over the bodies of thousands of communist workers in Shanghai in 1927.

M.N Roy, an Indian Communist, corrected Lenin at the Second Congress of the Communist International. His  forecast was that the local bourgeois would not play a revolutionary role due to their links with imperialism . Even today some Trotskyists  and Leninists   still support National Liberation movements when the only liberation taking place is of an elite. Surprisingly, Alex Callinicos makes the main point that Lenin did “not however resolve the problem of how the demands of the national struggle against imperialism-bourgeois democratic demands,since they could in principle be met without overthrowing capitalism related to the specific working class struggle for socialism.” (12) Yes spot on.

How does an independent Capitalist state in Scotland relate to the struggle to overthrow Capitalism ? Kier Mckechnie is not entirely confident that a Scottish State will advance the class struggle: “there is no guarantee that in itself an independent Scotland would benefit ordinary people.” So why vote yes? The explicit reason given is that it will be a vote to break up the British State, but still preserving the unity of workers North and South. But, if no national antagonism exits between workers North and South, why support a separate Scottish State?  If the border can be ignored what is the point in erecting a new barrier which might generate national hostility or national exclusiveness? In any case, the yes vote will not establish a fully independent state or break up Britain. What is on offer is a shared Monarch, and  Bank of England. The new state will remain part of NATO and the European Union . In any event, as Hillel Ticktin observes,  national independence in imperialism is formal (13)

This judgement echoes Rosa Luxemburg conclusion that “so long as capitalist states exist, so long as imperialist world politics determine and regulate the inner and outer life of a nation,there can be no national self-determination either in war or peace.” (14) Recent events in Greece support this view.  We are left with the SNP policy on trident. If there is no trident in Scotland this will hardy be a body blow to imperialism.  Although NATO membership will probably result in any SNP government ditching the no to Trident policy.  As Mckechnie writes : the SNP are committing a future independent Scotland,not only to remain in an imperialist nuclear alliance dominated by the US ,but to potential foreign intervention in yet more countries.”  This is what Mckechnie describes as the right face of the SNP. Its right face was shown in the alliance with billionaires including links with Rupert Murdoch. There is likely to be  a low corporation tax, and  harsh cuts to help a small capitalist state fighting for survival. So why vote yes ?

Underneath the Leninist justification, the underlying reason for voting yes is what Mckechnie describes as the left face of the SNP; it’s social democratic public face. Alex Salmond has stated that while independence is our idea, our politics are social democratic. The SNP promise to abolish the bedroom tax among other reforms. Advocating a yes vote is a tactic to push the SNP and the new capitalist state left. The entire project is reformist, since Scottish nationalism is not revolutionary. The hope is  for some  state reforms despite the reality of Capitalist economic crisis and the difficulties for a new Capitalist class at the head of the nation.

Despite the desire to avoid calls for unity with Scottish bosses the yes vote is precisely that. If the no vote   helps British nationalism,the yes vote helps Scottish nationalism. Kier Mckechnie asks the question : will a future Scotland be a society of equality and social justice or a low wage pro free market economy which panders to multinational business? He gambles that the Scottish state will provide the national framework for the former ,but the latter is more likely as the social content of Scottish nationalism. Abstention is not on his political horizon.  We should say no to both a British capitalist state and a Scottish capitalist state. A continuing struggle for working class interests  should not sacrifice its independence by dependency on nationalism.

Barry Biddulph


1 John Molyneux, The National Question-some basic principles, Irish Marxist Review.(vol 2 Number 8 )

2 Michael Lowy, Marxism and the National Question,in Revolution and Class Struggle,Edited by Robin Blackburn,Harvester Press, 1978.p.137, see also Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins, university of Chicago, 2010, p.151 “At no time however did Marx make National Self Determination into an abstract principle”

3 Keir Mckechnie,Yes to Independence-no to Nationalism,Irish Marxist Review. (vol 2 number 8 )

4 Nigel Harris,National Liberation,Penguin Books,London 1990,p.60

5 Lenin, The right of Nations to Self Determination,Progress Publishers,Moscow ,1971,p.83 Lenin stated that in putting forward the demand for self-determination he was not putting forward the ideal of small states. On the contrary,”other conditions being equal the class conscious proletariat will always stand for the larger State”. p.33

6 Lenin, ibid, p.50 see also the Historical Destiny of the Doctrine of Karl Marx, in Lenin : Revolution, Democracy, Socialism edited by Paul Le Blanc, Pluto Press ,London, 2008, “The West had finished with Bourgeois revolutions.The East had not yet risen to them”. p.220

7 Neil Davidson,How revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Haymarket Books Chicago 2012, p.245

8 Lenin,address to the Second all Russian Congress of Communist Organisations of the People’s of the East, November 22 ,1919. And again “the task is to wage a struggle against medieval survivals and not against Capitalism” He had already stated in May 1913 in Backward Europe and advanced Asia,that the mighty democratic movement in Asia will show that collectivism lies through democracy,”the Bourgeoisie here is as yet siding with the people against reaction”His position at this point and later was the bourgeoisie might vacillate and, we must put pressure on them. Although there was flexibility and qualifications about independent proletarian activity this was a two stage theory.

9 Neil Davidson, ibid ,p.245. The Bolshevik State supported Turkish Nationalists during the repression of communists and workers between December 1920 and January 1921. Radek and other Bolshevik leaders claimed the  Nationalists were objectively revolutionary in the first phase of the National Revolution.

10 Nigel Harris, ibid ,p.123.

11 Neil Davidson ibid ,p.217

12 Alex Callinicos,Marxism and the National Question,  in Scotland Class and Nation, edited by Chris Bambery, Bookmarks,London,p.44

13 Hillel Ticktin, Marxism,Nationalism and the National Question,after Stalinism, Critique 36-37, June 2005, p.21

14 Rosa Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Edited by peter Hudis and Kevin B Anderson,Monthly Review Press New York ,2004,p.325 (The Junius Pamphlet )

Mandela : A Hero for Capitalism

11 12 2013

Today in Johannesburg the biggest ever gathering of leaders of global capitalism is taking place to honour Nelson Mandela. They have already flooded the media with a chorus of adulation for the man and his achievements. Current and former political leaders have all rushed to heap praise on him and hold him up as a role model for future generations. The stench of hypocrisy is of course everywhere but none more pungent than that provided by the British Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron. In 1985 he was a leading member of the Federation of Conservative Students which produced the “Hang Mandela” posters and tee-shirts in support of apartheid. In 1989 he celebrated Mandela’s 26 years in prison by journeying to South Africa at the invitation of the Botha Government to discuss how to bust sanctions against apartheid. Interviewed this morning in Johannesburg on Radio 4 he did not call him a terrorist but “Madiba”. Vomit bags all round.[1]

Mandela was an exceptional man and in many ways an admirable one, not least for his bravery, his steadfastness to his cause through 27 years in prison and his sharp political insight. However, what today’s world leaders are really praising him for is the role he played in rescuing South African capitalism from the cul-de-sac of Apartheid, thereby preventing the country descending into a bloodbath of civil war and, consequently, for the service he rendered to western imperialism.

Capitalism is a system of class exploitation and oppression which reveals its brutality in naked violence when its wage-slaves stage any fight-back. The leaders it produces, such as those now praising Mandela, are generally unheroic hypocrites. Yet the system has need of heroes. It needs leaders who can camouflage the primary oppression of its wage-slaves by removing non-essential second order areas of oppression, such as racial or sexual oppression. It needs leaders who can disguise the system’s primary oppression of the working class, an oppression based on wage labour, with fine sounding phrases such as democracy, freedom and human rights for all. Leaders who can do this, such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela become its heroes. In reality capitalism has no interest in democracy, freedom or human rights. These are baubles with which it dresses itself up from time to time. We need only to remember how US, UK and European leaders were quite happy to support the Apartheid regime for forty years while democracy, freedom and human rights were trampled underfoot in the most open and flagrant manner, to understand this. Western regimes provided military equipment and intelligence to the regime to help it repress its external and internal enemies, such as the ANC and Mandela himself, and were quite happy to let African Nationalist leaders, who risked their lives for such things, rot in prison. Today Mandela is being elevated to secular sainthood and praised for forgiving his enemies amongst whom, of course, are the predecessors of those global leaders who today sing his praises. He is being held up as an example of how struggles for reforms within capitalism can lead to a better world.

It is now 19 years since the ANC came to power in South Africa and much of the myth of the “Rainbow Nation”, the better life for all, the justice and equality has been exploded. However, the aura of Mandela and the heroic freedom struggle has provided cover to the ANC regime as it enforced continued exploitation and oppression of the South African working class. With Mandela’s death this aura will fade. His death marks the end of a phase of South African history.

Mandela’s Life

Mandela’s life was remarkable by any standard. He was born in 1919 into the family of a minor Xhosa chief, a chief, however, who was not independent but beholden and ratified in his position by the SA state. He was educated at a Methodist mission school and remained a Christian all his life. He studied law, first at Fort Hare University, the school for many future leaders of the national struggles throughout Southern Africa, then at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. From its outset the ANC was dominated by western educated lawyers and journalists who had turned their backs on tribal society and demanded equal rights in capitalist society. It is little wonder, therefore, that Mandela gravitated to the ANC which he joined in 1943. Mandela’s ability and fighting spirit were soon recognised and he rose rapidly in the organisation. He was, however, generally dissatisfied with the passive leadership of the ANC and in 1944 he was co-founder of the youth section through which he tried to pursue a more radical resistance. In 1947 he was elected to the executive committee of the Transvaal ANC. The coming to power of the Afrikaner Nationalists in 1948 saw the start of legal entrenchment of Apartheid making the situation for the African majority even worse. In the early 50s, by which time he had become a practising lawyer, he and other ANC leaders tried to oppose the apartheid system with passive, Gandhi type, protests. However, peaceful protests of the early 1950s achieved nothing but repression.

In 1955 the principal programmatic document of the ANC, the “Freedom Charter” was produced and adopted by the organisation the following year. 1956 saw Mandela, together with 155 others, charged with high treason for attempting to overthrow the state by violence. The trial was to last 6 years and end with acquittal of all the defendants, much to the embarrassment of the regime. In 1960 the notorious Sharpville massacre took place. The police shot dead 69 unarmed people protesting against the internal passport system, which obliged all black people to carry a pass, which was used to restrict the areas in which they could live and work. The massacre was followed by the declaration of a state of emergency and the banning of the ANC. These events convinced Mandela that peaceful resistance to the regime was hopeless. He then travelled abroad to organise an armed resistance wing to the ANC. On returning to SA he was arrested, apparently after the CIA tipped off the SA police, and convicted of relatively minor charges, such as leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to strike. While in prison however he was charged with treason again. This led to the famous Rivonia trial of 1963/64. During this trial he defended himself admitting the charges and turning the trial into an indictment of the injustices of apartheid and the crimes of the regime. His famous final speech stated how he cherished the ideals of a democratic and free society where all were equal and declared that this was an ideal for which he was prepared to die. Instead of the expected death sentence Mandela and the other defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, with the result that he spent much of the next 27 years in the notorious Robben Island prison off Cape Town.

In the 70s and 80s the social situation in South Africa suffered a sharp deterioration. Protests intensified but massive repression and killing of protesters, on a scale dwarfing the Sharpville massacre, proved insufficient to stabilise the situation. Within the economy it had become clear to the main factions of the South African capitalist class that the migrant labour system in particular, and Apartheid in general were leading the country to catastrophe. The increased capital intensity of South African capitalism meant that a skilled stable working class was required. The strategy of the capitalists was to create an African middle class which they could use as an ally against the working class. They aimed to do this via an organisation they set up called the “Urban Foundation”, and at the same time set up African trade unions which they hoped could be used to control the class struggle. Of course, this strategy meant providing political rights to Africans as well as other rights granted to workers in the metropolitan countries. There was only one political force which could implement such a programme and that was the ANC. One of the problems with bringing the ANC into government was its endorsement of the “Freedom Charter” which called for a raft of state capitalist measures such as the nationalisation of the land, banks and mines. SA capital considered these measures suicidal in the period of globalisation. Therefore, before the ANC was un-banned the key sectors of South African capital, particularly the mining corporations, held discussions with the ANC leadership during which they were assured that the measures of nationalization enshrined in the charter would not be implemented. The ground was now prepared for the un-banning of the ANC and the release of its leaders which occurred in 1990. Mandela walked out of prison in February 1990 and so began a process of negotiations which led to the famous election of 1994 and a democratic constitution. In recognition of his role in avoiding a civil war and a bloodbath Mandela was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1993. The 1994 election led to victory for the ANC and Mandela’s installation as the country’s first democratic president. He remained as president until 1999 when he retired.

ANC and the South African Working Class

The ANC has always presented itself as an African national movement, that is, a movement which represents the interests of the entire African population. In fact the population of any country consists of classes, the main classes being the capitalist class and the working class, the former living off the exploitation of the latter. These classes have diametrically opposed interests. It is therefore simply deception to pretend that a political movement can represent the interests of the nation as a whole. In reality the ANC has always been a party representing the rising African bourgeois class and its period in power has proved this.[2] The ANC’s flirtation with the African working class has been a cynical manoeuvre to recruit workers as its foot soldiers with which to batter down the Apartheid regime and the resistance of Afrikaner nationalism. In its period in power from 1994 the ANC has taken over the management of South African capitalism and carried out this task like any other capitalist government in this period. The famous nationalisations promised in the Freedom Charter have remained firmly on paper and not been carried out. Privatisations, however, and opening of the country to global capital have been carried out. Workers’ living standards have been cut, while unemployment has increased. Where workers have tried to fight back they have been met with the full force of state repression. The most infamous example of this was the Marikana massacre of striking miners on the 16th of August 2012, where the ANC’s police shot and killed 34 striking miners in a display of naked and calculated class violence. At the same time the power of the state has been used to promote the ANC party elite into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie through the famous Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme. This programme has created a handful of black millionaires in positions of power in the mining and industrial corporations, a process which the regime tries to present as compensation for the sins of the past century, and as a demonstration that the position of Africans is improving. However, at the same time as they promote themselves to the ranks of the capitalist class they are creating an ever growing urban underclass dependent on state welfare payments and the gap between rich and poor is getting ever wider. Creating a black bourgeois class was, of course, always the ANC’s programme, but the lie, which it has maintained, is that this would somehow benefit the African working class. This lie has been cruelly exposed. On the one hand the ANC has produced a situation where, according to its own calculations, 9% of the capital of mining corporations is in the hands of black capitalists while on the other hand it has created a situation where:

  • 40% of the working age population are unemployed. This represents 6 million workers 2.8 million of whom are between 18 and 24.
  • The urban underclass, surviving on welfare payments, has increased from 2.5 million in 1999 to 12.5 million in 2012!
  • 50% of the population live below the poverty line

The famous equality for which the ANC stood had produced a society which according to Oxfam is, with Brazil, now the most unequal in terms of wealth, in the world.

Mandela was, of course, aware of the capitalist nature of the ANC’s political programme and stated this at his trial in 1964, where he described the Freedom Charter in these words:

“The charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold mining monopolies that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. The breaking up and democratization of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own, in their own name and right, mills and factories and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.”

What precisely this entailed has now been shown at Marikana.[3]

Workers and the National Struggle

Today it is a Marxist axiom that the working class should not subordinate its political forces to those of the bourgeoisie, which, of course, includes the bourgeois nationalist forces such as the ANC. As far as South Africa is concerned we have written and spoken many times about the danger of subordinating the class struggle to the demands of the national struggle, pointing out that as soon as the national struggle is successful the national bourgeoisie will turn their fire on the working class. This has happened in South Africa with a vengeance, and not only at Marikana. Empirical evidence of the dreadful situation South African workers now find themselves in is there for all to see. We quote from a recent text by “Abahlali Basemjondolo” the shack dwellers association. In a text called “The housing list versus the death list” they wrote:

“We are supposed to be living in a democratic country, a country of justice, a country where everyone should be treated as one. Yet there is a huge inequality. That inequality is economic, it is spatial and it is political. We remain divided into rich and poor. We continue to be allocated to different kinds of places that are meant for different kinds of people with different kinds of opportunities, different kinds of lives and different kinds of rights. We continue to be divided into those that have the freedom to express themselves and those that face all kinds of intimidation and repression if we commit the crime of telling the truths about our lives.

For the poor this country is a democratic prison. We are allowed to vote for our prison warders and managers but we must always remain in the prison. We must remain in silence when our shack settlements are illegally destroyed leaving us homeless. We must remain in silence when we are forcibly removed to transit camps that are only fit for animals but not for people. We must remain in silence when we are told to return to Lusikisiki*[4]* or taken to human dumping grounds far outside the cities. We must remain in silence when we are threatened, beaten, shot and killed. The politicians think that when we refuse to be silent, and when we resist repression, they can silence us by throwing some meat at us. After all these years they think that we are dogs. We are not dogs. We are people. We will continue to rebel until we are treated as human beings.” (30/10/13)

Another statement, this time from a mechanic, Ntshimane Nolala, reported by the BBC, expresses the view that black workers have been deceived into support of the ANC and the sacrifices of the national struggle have all been in vain. The words are more or less exactly what our previous texts have warned would happen. He told the BBC that:

“The only thing blacks got was the vote after every four years and the spattering of a few black elite [politicians] whose aspiration is to be next to Mandela and those of his ilk.

Today I work as a mechanic, I have no formal qualification; everything I know about fixing taxis I taught myself — this government of black people does not care about me, it has no time for me.

Yes we are free to go where we want to without fear but we are still not free, not in economic terms.

What you have in South Africa now is a handful of black people looting the scraps off the table left by those who control the economy; our leaders are enriching themselves now while the majority still have nothing — that is what has become the legacy of our freedom.

Those who died for this freedom sadly died for nothing in my view.” (6/12/13)

Much of the argument for supporting the national struggle, made by the Stalinists and Trotskyists, started from the view that Apartheid was essential to South African capitalism and hence ending it would bring South African capitalism crashing down. This would weaken western capitalism and produce a crisis in the developed capitalist countries etc. This has been shown to be complete nonsense. If anything South African capitalism is stronger as a result of the abolition of Apartheid, western imperialism has been strengthened and the class issues more confused than before.

The political arguments, these groupings defend for a two stage revolution or a permanent revolution the first stage of which amounts to state capitalism, are equally false. Any political organisation which takes on the tasks of administering capitalism, supposedly in the interests of the working class, can do no more than divide the surplus produced by the system in a more equitable way. The system remains capitalist, workers remain exploited, separated from the means of production and alienated. Meanwhile the demands for capitalist accumulation remain. The infrastructure of this system inevitably imposes itself on the political superstructure and the administrators of the system form a new exploiting class as occurred in Russia in the 1920s.

The ICT has consistently advocated that workers should pursue their own class interests for wages and conditions independently of the bourgeois nationalists. In South Africa this would have allowed the class issues involved to be clearly seen. Instead these issues have been obscured by a smokescreen of liberalism and moral outrage at racism and now, cries of betrayal by the ANC. The result is a great confusion. Projects to change the ANC leadership or to return to the state capitalism advocated in the “Freedom Charter” as, for example, the ex-ANC youth leader Malema and his “Economic Freedom Fighters” organisation advocate, are a great waste of time.

In the longer term the only struggle which can benefit the working class is that to overthrow the capitalist system and the construction of higher social form of social production, namely communism, and this has nothing to do with the system of state capitalism which was constructed in Russia. Attempts to reform the existing system, so it benefits the working class, only sow illusions in a struggle for what is now impossible. The struggle of the world’s workers needs to take a revolutionary direction. This struggle is an international one and the global working class needs to provide itself with the political organisation to carry this through.

As we wrote at the time of the Marikana massacre:

“The tragedy is that the murderous violence of capital has no borders. The same things are happening in China, Brazil and many other countries on the so-called periphery of capitalism whilst in the “democratic” West nothing like this is taking place for the simple reason that there is no visible revival of the class. However at the first significant sign of a working class response even in our political latitudes the axe of repression will not be long in striking. In Italy, for example, the juridical weapons are already in place and comprehensive experiments have already been carried out on the ground (Genoa in 2001) even though this was not realised at the time.

It is no longer a time “just” to denounce the scandal of Marikana, to weep for the dead of the international working class, it is also time to make a real effort and organise a class party, a revolutionary programme, so that the future revival of the class struggle will not have as its target just the repression of the international capitalist class but also the political objective of overthrowing this class-divided society, of breaking the iniquitous relationship between labour and capital and of destroying the mechanism of capitalist productivity. The tragic episode of Lonmin*[5]* and the 34 slaughtered workers is not the local story of a brutal event in far-off South Africa but is one act in a tragedy which is destined to be played out wherever the working class tries to raises its head”.


10 December 2013

[1] Not to be outdone, Blair also lied (surprising that) when he told Radio 4 that Mandela was always magnanimous to “Mrs Thatcher” (who condemned Mandela as a “terrorist” but supported the butcher Pinochet) when in fact he had refused to meet her. Perhaps, though, the hypocrisy of those who are going is matched only by the hypocrisy of those who are not. Benjamin Netanyahu is not going, citing the cost. This from the man who had a $180 000 bed installed in the Israeli state jet he used for his trip to London for Thatcher’s funeral. No mention, though, of the fact that Israel was one of the most resolute and materially supportive of the apartheid regime (and runs a good one of its own).

[2] See

[3] See Both the above articles can be found in pamphlet form in “The New Turmoil in South Africa” (£2 including postage from BM CWO, London WC1N 3XX)

[4] A small town in eastern Cape Province.

[5] Lonmin is the UK mining comp

ANC – A Hundred Years in the Service of Capital

6 12 2013

In January 2012 the African National Congress celebrated the hundredth anniversary of its foundation and spent R100 million (£8.2M) on the party. It has now held power continuously for almost 18 years and so its leaders saw this as a great cause for celebration. However, the celebrations were largely for the political elite and the few who have enriched themselves from the ANC’s rule. The working class, the unemployed and the impoverished millions, who have nothing whatsoever to celebrate, were conspicuous by their absence.

The ANC was founded shortly after the creation of the Union of South Africa by a handful of western educated lawyers and journalists at a time when African society still was largely tribal although the tribal economic subsistence system was being destroyed by capitalism. The ANC’s founders turned their backs on tribal society and demanded equal rights for Africans within the emerging capitalist society, rights from which the settlement after the Boer War and the act off Union specifically excluded them. A further century of capitalist development, which has entirely destroyed tribal society, replaced it with capitalist society, and produced a predominantly African working class, has seen the ANC rise to become the dominant bourgeois force in South African politics.

The ANC which has always presented itself as a national movement, in particular one representing the interests of the entire African population, has in reality always been a party representing the rising African bourgeois class. The ANC’s flirtation with the African working class has been a cynical manoeuvre to recruit workers as its foot soldiers with which it has been able to batter down the Apartheid regime and the resistance of Afrikaner nationalism. In its period in power from 1994 the ANC has taken over the management of South African capitalism and carried out this task like any other capitalist government in this period. Privatisations and opening of the country to global competition, while workers living standards have been cut, have been the order of the day. At the same time the power of the state has been used to promote the party elite into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie through the famous Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme. This programme has created a handful of black millionaires in positions of power in the mining and industrial corporations, a process which the regime tries to present as compensation for the sins of the past century, and as a demonstration that the position of Africans is improving. However, at the same time as they promote themselves to the ranks of the capitalist class they are creating an ever growing urban underclass dependent on state welfare payments and the gap between rich and poor is getting ever wider. Creating a black bourgeois class was, of course, always the ANC’s programme, but the lie, which it has maintained, is that this would somehow benefit the African working class. This lie is now being cruelly exposed. Although the issues of racial division and racial oppression have always clouded the South African situation, and have been exploited to the hilt by both the Afrikaner nationalists and the African nationalists, the real contradictions in South African society, as in capitalist society the world over, are those of class. The interests of the working class and the capitalist class are diametrically opposed and the ANC cannot reconcile the two. On the one hand the ANC has produced a situation where, according to its own calculations, 9% of the capital of mining corporations is in the hands of black capitalists while on the other hand it has created a situation where:

· 40% of the working age population are unemployed. This represents 6 million workers 2.8 million of whom are between 18 and 24.

· The urban underclass, surviving on welfare payments, has increased from 2.5 million in 1996 to 12 million in 2006[1]

· 50% of the population live below the poverty line

· 7 out of 10 black children grow up in poverty[2]

· Life expectancy has decreased from 65 years in 1994 to 53 years in 2009[3]

Such contradictions are threatening to tear the organisation apart. In the shameless enriching of its top members the ANC government has mired itself in corruption and cronyism which extends right up to the presidential office. At the 100th anniversary of its foundation there is actually little cause to celebrate.

18 Years in Power

Since coming to power the ANC has been in a tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This has been designed to shore up its power and provide political cover for its attacks on the working class. Needless to say workers have resisted the erosion of their wages and living standards and the last 2 years have seen massive strikes. In 2010 there was a civil service strike involving 1.3 million workers which lasted 20 days, and in 2011 there have been strikes in the mines, energy, petroleum, metal and paper sectors which have seen hundreds of thousands of workers down tools for pay increases. Although COSATU does its best to control and defuse these strikes, the general deterioration of workers’ conditions is putting pressure on the alliance and opening up fissures in the ANC itself. It was undoubtedly pressures from those feeling dispossessed and betrayed by the ANC which led to the ousting of the previous president Thabo Mbeki in 2008 and his replacement by the more populist Zuma. The ousting of Mbeki has led to his fraction leaving the ANC and forming a new political grouping Congress of the People (COPE).

A further rupture, and a potentially more explosive one, has been opened by the disciplining and suspension of the ANC youth leader Julius Malema. Malema was a key supporter of Zuma during the defenestration of Mbeki, but the continual deterioration of the condition of workers and the poor has led him to turn his fire on the Zuma leadership and call for the nationalisation of the mines and the expropriation of white owned farm land. These issues, which are actually specified in the “Freedom Charter,” adopted as the ANC programme in 1956, are now quite contrary to the demands of South African and international capitalists and, of course the ANC leadership. Consequently they are a great embarrassment to the ANC. His raising of these demands from the past is like the proverbial ghost appearing at the wedding feast to wreck the party. Although he has been silenced and suspended from the ANC for a period of 5 years he is giving voice to widely held grievances and the demonstrations at his trial show he has a strong following which is not going to be placated by the silencing of one man.

The unemployed are also finding a voice. A spokesman for the Unemployed People’s Movement accuses the ANC of betrayal:

“During the struggle our leaders embodied the aspirations of the people. But once they took state power they didn’t need us anymore. We were sent home. We are only called out to vote or attend rallies. But all the time our people are evicted from farms, paving way for animals as farms are turned into game reserves under the pretext of tourism. Our people are evicted from cities. Our people are denied decent education.”[4]

In recent demonstrations, the unemployed demanding jobs, housing, running water and electricity have been met with ferocity similar to that of the Apartheid regime. At a demonstration in the town of Ermelo, in one of SA’s poorest provinces, 2 protesters were shot dead by the police. At another demonstration, over precisely the same grievances, in the town of Ficksburg, a protester, Andries Tatane, was beaten to death by police in full view of the television cameras.

An explosive social situation is building up and could detonate if welfare payments are cut back. Certain commentators from within the ANC are looking nervously at the events of the Arab Spring, and seeing them as prefiguring the future for SA[5]. While it is understandable that those in the Unemployed People’s Movement and some in the ANC youth organisation see the ANC as having “betrayed” them is this really true?

Development of the ANC

As mentioned above the ANC developed in a period when African society was in the process of being changed from a tribal economic system with Africans producing their needs directly from the land to a capitalist one in which tribal men and women were converted into wage labourers. However, the enforced separation of tribesmen from their means of production, namely their land[6], and their conversion into wage labourers was accomplished by open violence and a doctrine of racism which tended to obscure the developing class divisions. Marx makes the following observation in regard to the separation of the producers from their means of production in the colonies:

“It is otherwise in the colonies. There the capitalist regime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself, instead of the capitalist. The contradiction of these two diametrically opposed economic systems, manifests itself here practically in a struggle between them. Where the capitalist has at his back the power of the mother-country, he tries to clear out of his way by force, the modes of production and appropriation, based on the independent labour of the producer. … To this end he proves how the development of the social productive power of labour, co-operation, division of labour, use of machinery on a large scale, &c., are impossible without the expropriation of the labourers, and the corresponding transformation of their means of production into capital. In the interest of so-called national wealth he seeks for artificial means to ensure the poverty of the people.”[7]

The major part of the dirty work of converting Africans into wage labourers was accomplished by the British who were quite clear as to what needed to be done. After the military defeat of the of the various tribes the British authorities started to expropriate their land and impose taxes on them in order to force them into wage labour to get the money to pay the taxes. Even after military defeat, however, this met with resistance just as described by Marx. For example the imposition of a £1 annual poll tax in Natal led to the 1906 Zulu rebellion. Earl Grey the British colonial secretary, writing in 1880, put the issue nearly as clearly as Marx. He wrote:

“The coloured people are generally looked upon by the whites as an inferior race, whose interests ought to be systematically disregarded when they come into competition with their own, and should be governed mainly with a view to the advantage of the superior race. For this advantage two things are considered to be especially necessary: first facilities should be afforded to the white colonists for obtaining the possession of the land theretofore occupied by the Native tribes; secondly, that the Kaffir population should be made to furnish as large and as cheap a supply of labour as possible.”[8]

The process set in motion by the British continued after the creation of the Union of SA and the most significant clearing Africans from the land was accomplished the year after the foundation of the ANC by the 1913 land act. This restricted African occupied land to 7% of the total land, outlawed squatting on white owned land and sharecropping. Africans were forced to become labourers on the white owned farms or workers in industry or the mines. Provision of labour for the mines, however, had been a problem for South African capitalists from the start. In the period after the Boer War the British imported Chinese workers as unskilled labour to work the mines as insufficient African workers could be found. The separation of Africans from their lands was of course the key to the solution of this problem. It allowed the migrant labour system, which was eventually enshrined in Apartheid dogma, to become the norm for the mining industry. The mining houses organised a joint recruitment agency, the Native Recruiting Corporation, which operated from 1912 onwards and recruited from the South African areas reserved for Africans, which were to be reduced to a mere 7% of the country the following year, and from the British protectorates and Mozambique.

The overt racism which accompanied this process obscured the reality of what was really happening, and was of enormous benefit to South African capital since it produced a separation of white and black workers. Enormous pay differentials between blacks and whites existed and strikes on the mines were racially divided and so could be more easily defeated. This was the case for the most significant strikes, the white miners’ strike of 1922 and the black miners’ strike of 1946. The insurrectionary strike of white miners in 1922, actually inscribed on its banner the contradictory slogan “workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.”

This is the historical context in which the ANC emerged, and it was also within this context that African workers imagined that the ANC could represent their interest since both African workers and African bourgeoisie were discriminated against and excluded from political rights. This was, however, a serious mistake as 18 years of ANC power have shown. From its foundation the ANC has represented a westernised elite wanting to have their share of the spoils of capitalism, and has not attempted to disguise this. Mandela speaking about the Freedom Charter’s demand for the nationalisation of the mines and industrial corporations said the following:

“The charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold mining monopolies that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. The breaking up and democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own, in their own name and right, mills and factories and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.”[9]

Mandela again returned to this issue in his famous speech at his trial in 1964 where he said:

“The most important political document ever adopted by the ANC is the Freedom Charter. It is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state. The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.”[10]

It is therefore incorrect to describe the ANC government since 1994 as having “betrayed” the working class as its opponents now do. It has implemented a bourgeois programme and is doing its best to foster an African bourgeois class in broadly the terms described by Mandela above.

Rise to Power

By the mid 1970’s it was clear to the main factions of the South African capitalist class that the migrant labour system in particular and Apartheid in general were leading the country to catastrophe. The increased capital intensity of South African capitalism meant that a skilled stable working class was required. Their strategy was to create an African middle class which they could use as an ally against the working class via the Urban Foundation, and African trade unions which could be used to control the class struggle. Of course, this meant providing political rights to Africans as well as other rights granted to workers in the metropolitan countries. There was only one political force which could implement such a programme and that was the ANC.

As we have shown above the ANC was on the bourgeois side of the class barricades and this made its co-option as a tool of Western and South African capital possible. Before the ANC was unbanned the key sectors of South African capital, particularly the mining corporations, had received assurances that the statist elements of the ANC’s programme, particularly the nationalisation of the mines would not be implemented. These were demands from the 50s which were considered suicidal in the period of globalisation. The slow deterioration of the social situation in the 80’s finally convinced even the Afrikaner nationalists that bringing the ANC into power was the only route by which South African capital could be rescued from the cul-de-sac in which it was trapped.

Since coming to power the ANC has not fundamentally changed the structure of South African capitalism. Having the ANC in power has benefitted South African capital in many ways, particularly in giving it access to the rest of Africa and making the opening up of trade with China, India and Brazil easier. The programme of Black Economic Empowerment which was, in fact, initiated by the South African corporations, not the ANC, has resulted in a few extremely wealthy black men who have no desire to change the present structure of things, and still remain in the top organs of the ANC. Politicians such as Cyril Ramaphosa, one time secretary of the National Mine Workers Union, and Tokyo Sexwale, ex-Robben Island prisoner, have become two of South Africa’s richest men through BEE. Both still retain their seats on the ANC’s national executive committee.[11]

All the above simply describes how the ANC has become the executive arm of South African capital. It is small wonder that the interests of the working class are ignored. The question which must be asked, however, is this “was the working class correct to ally itself with the ANC.” Our answer is emphatically “NO.”

Workers and the National Struggle

Today it is a Marxist axiom that the working class should not subordinate its political forces to those of the bourgeoisie, which, of course, includes the bourgeois nationalist forces. As far as South Africa is concerned we have written many texts pointing out the danger of subordinating the class struggle to the demands of the national struggle. The events since 1994 have certainly born out our predictions. Many of these texts, written largely during the 80s retain their immediacy and a certain prophetic quality and we intend to republish them in pamphlet form within the next few months. An example of this is a text published in April 1990 in our paper Workers Voice. We wrote:

Many black workers look to Mandela as the man who will free them from exploitation and hardship. They are greatly deceived. ….In fact the ANC’s objectives have nothing to do with the working class’s interests, they are to use the power of the state to foster a black capitalist class. …South African workers have no interest in placing themselves in the infantry of the African nationalists.[12]

Instead we advocated that workers should pursue their own interests independently of the bourgeois nationalists. This would have allowed the class issues involved to be clearly seen. Instead these issues have been obscured by a smokescreen of liberalism and moral outrage at racism. The result is a great confusion with talk of betrayal and projects to change the leadership of the ANC which can only be a great waste of time.

Much of the argument for supporting the national struggle, made by the Stalinists and Trotskyists, started from the view that Apartheid was essential to South African capitalism and hence ending it would bring South African capitalism crashing down. This would weaken western capitalism and produce a crisis in the developed capitalist countries etc. This has been shown to be complete nonsense. If anything South African capitalism is stronger as a result of the abolition of Apartheid, western imperialism has been strengthened and the class issues more confused than before.

Behind these arguments lies the theoretical debate between Lenin and other communists including Bukharin, Piatakov and Rosa Luxemburg on support for the national struggle. This argument was fought out in the period before and during the First World War. Those who argued like Luxemburg, that in the epoch of imperialism the national question is now a thing of the past, have been vindicated by the 100 years of history which have elapsed since these exchanges. However, in the Third International the Theses on the National and Colonial Question were a confused compromise between the views of Lenin, who saw cooperation with the local bourgeoisie as desirable and those (like M N Roy) who argued for an outright independent communist struggle in the colonies. This confusion was to have dire consequences for the revolutionary movement. The most tragic illustration of this confusion came in China 1926-27 when Stalin, following the original Theses but forgetting that they had called for an independent working class movement, instructed the Chinese Communist Party to place itself at the disposal of the bourgeois Koumintang of Chiang Kai Shek. This resulted in the brutal massacre of Chinese workers in Shanghai and Canton[13].

Lenin’s positions were developed in the period before World War 1 when he considered the bourgeois democratic revolution was on the historical agenda for Russia. He changed his position on nature of the future Russian revolution in April 1917 but never followed through the consequences of this. If the communist revolution is on the historical agenda, and this revolution needs to be international, as the Bolsheviks openly admitted, bourgeois nationalist revolutions can only obstruct and weaken the struggle for communism.

Lenin’s support for movements for national self determination in Europe undermined the programme for working class emancipation. This became more confused in the debates in the Third International with Lenin arguing that national movements in the colonies should be supported as they weakened the imperialism of the colonising nations. In this he was following his earlier work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism where he had argued that;

Colonial possession alone gives the monopolies complete guarantee against all contingencies in the struggle with competitors.[14]

He argued that the colonies were a key source of the “super profits” with which the imperialist powers bribed their workers to maintain social peace.

Out of such enormous super profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their own country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders in the advanced countries in a thousand different ways.[15]

Cutting off this source of super profits, he argued, would precipitate a crisis and make revolution in the capitalist heartlands easier. In the event, decolonisation did not produce the crisis in the capitalist heartlands which Lenin had so confidently predicted. This is because the capitalist system is a global system, extracting and distributing surplus value globally, and the replacement of colonial bourgeois regimes by local bourgeois regimes does not alter the system as a whole in any essential way.

Lenin also maintained that national bourgeois revolutions in the colonies could occur at the same time as communist revolution in the capitalist heartlands and in some way support this revolution.

The social revolution can come only in the form of an epoch in which are combined civil war by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and a whole series of democratic revolutionary movements, including national liberation movements, in the undeveloped, backward oppressed nations.[16]

On the contrary the communist revolution must be a world revolution and the bourgeois nationalist revolution could never support the world revolution. The world revolution would have to overthrow bourgeois nationalist revolutions if they occurred at the same time.

The mistakes of Lenin and the Third International have bequeathed a poisonous legacy which has been taken up by the left wing of the bourgeoisie, namely the counter revolution, with a vengeance. In the case of South Africa the arguments of a white workers aristocracy of labour, the theory of super profits going to the workers in the capitalist heartlands and the idea that the bourgeois nationalist revolution in the underdeveloped countries supporting workers struggle in the metropolitan countries have all been trotted out in order to justify subsuming workers struggles under the nationalist struggle.

Today the increasing globalisation of capital has made the national state national only in the sense that it is dominated by the bourgeoisie of a certain nationality. In its key aspects it exists as an agent of international capital and the imperialist alliances in which it finds itself. This can be seen in the fact that the coming to power of the ANC was facilitated by US and European capital via financial sanctions and pressure. After the removal of the threat of Russian advances in South Africa in 1989 this pressure became irresistible.

The ANC and African Nationalism in general stand completely discredited after 18 years of power. What is needed now is a clean break from the forces of nationalism and their allies COSATU and the SACP. These forces must be recognised as part of the bourgeois front opposing the emancipation of the working class. Future struggles should be outside and against these organisations. They need to be united across racial divisions and pursue class demands. Ultimately they need to be united with workers struggles worldwide and directed to the overthrow of capitalist social relations and the establishment of a communist[17] world. CP


[1] See Financial Times 5/9/2011 and 28/10/11

[2] Financial Times 12/11/11


4 See Ayanda Kota quoted in Counterfire

5 See for example M. Mbeki “South Africa. Only a matter of time before the bomb explodes” Mbeki is media consultant to the ANC. see

6 Under the Bantu tribal system land was occupied by the tribe. Individual ownership of land did not exist before it was instituted by the colonial authorities.

7 K Marx Capital Volume 1 Chapter 33

8 Quoted in The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa, B M Magubane, Monthly Review Press.

9 Mandela authorised biography, Anthony Sampson 1999

10- Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela p. 435

11 See M Mbeki Architects of Poverty p. 158.

12 See Workers Voice No 51

13 For a description of these events see H. Isaacs The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.

14 Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Peking Foreign Language Press p. 98

15 Ibid, Preface to the French and German editions.

16 Lenin Collected Works Volume 23 p. 60.

17 By communism we mean a system of global production for human needs controlled by workers through workers councils. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the state capitalist systems, incorrectly called communism, which existed in Russia and China.



29 11 2013

In what sense did Marx propose to “smash the state”?

It is well known that one of the formative political experiences of Marx’s life was his effort to mount a public defence of the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was the most dramatic and, to Marx, the most inspiring anti-capitalist revolt of his time. As the Franco-Prussian War wound down, the workers of Paris rose up and deposed the French State’s authority, replacing its rule with a new form of popular self-organization that, in Marx’s memorable phrase, did not reproduce or reorganize the state, but “smashed” it.

But what did Marx mean by “smashing the state”? And what was the nature of this Commune that he held up as a model for anti-capitalist revolution?

Should we think of the Commune, as some do today, as a “workers’ state”? Or should we think of it as, on the contrary, a form of participatory-democratic, specifically anti-statist, community-based working-class self-organization?

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Here, Marx and Engels actually make it hard to say quite which interpretation they would endorse, because sometimes they use language encouraging the statist interpretation of the Commune, and sometimes they deny outright that it was a state, “in the proper sense of the word.”

A typical statist reading can be found in a comment by Engels, in 1891, that the Commune “shattered” the “former state power,” and “replaced” it with “a new and truly democratic one” (628; page #s refer to Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed.). But this suggestion, that the Commune created a “new and truly democratic”state, seems to contradict something Engels said in 1875, when he asserted bluntly that the Commune “was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” Indeed, so insistent was he that the Commune was not a state in the proper sense, that he proposed, speaking on behalf of Marx and himself, that socialists should “replace [the word] state everywhere by Gemeinwesen[community], a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word,commune” (Letter to Bebel, 1875).

For his part, Marx also seemed ambivalent. On the one hand, he seemed to be alluding to the state when he called the Commune “a working-class government” (634). On the other hand, he regarded the most important lesson of the Commune to be the insight that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” (629). This insight, that we can’t just “take power” by putting the workers’ movement at the helm of the administrative, coercive and legislative apparatuses of the capitalist state, was in fact the only correction to the argument of the Communist Manifesto that he ever explicitly proposed. The Manifesto had failed to insist that a working-class revolution would have to smash the state, rather than taking it over, Marx concluded.

Rather than getting bogged down in verbal technicalities about the meaning of the word “state,” let’s look at what Marx thought the Commune was doing, and try to see, substantively and concretely, what he meant when he said that it smashed rather than taking over the state.

To save time, I’ll get right to the point: As Marx says, “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” (633). In other words, the state power, exercised from above, was replaced bycommunity control from below. Thus, the Commune “got rid of the standing army and the police,” according to Marx (632). “The whole of the educational institutions,” he adds, “were cleared of the influence of…the State” (632). “Judicial functionaries,” he tells us, “were divested of” their “sham independence,” and placed under community control. Or, as he vividly puts it, “like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable” (632). Moreover, and also like all other public servants, they were to be paid an average worker’s wage (632). Both the legislature of professional politicians and the administrative branch of government were to be fused (632) into the Commune’s democratic assembly, delegates to which were, once again, “elective, responsible, and revocable,” and paid the prevailing worker’s wage.

The basic idea of smashing the state, as Marx uses this term, is evidently quite clear from these passages, and countless others like them in Marx’s main work on the Commune, and his main contribution to so-called “state theory,” The Civil War in France. What he means by “smashing the state” is that the various elements of state power – the coercive apparatus; the administrative apparatus; the legislative-executive apparatus; and the judicial apparatus – this whole system of state power is either (a) abolished outright (“amputated”), or (b) in cases where it has what Marx calls “remaining legitimate functions,” these are placed under direct community control by the working class, from below.

Community control, as Marx understands it, includes four elements: that all functionaries are paid the prevailing wage in the community, and are elected by, accountable to, and removable by, the community. Thus, smashing the state, for him, means two things: abolition of all illegitimate functions, and subordination of legitimate functions to direct popular control from below.

Now, every reader of Marx will agree that he regards this process as a “conquest of political power” by the working class, or as some now say, the 99%. But is it a state? Certainly workers were governing; they were “dictating” the terms of social cooperation. Workers ruled Paris for the two months that the Commune lasted. But all of this is consistent, perhaps mostconsistent, with Engels’ formulation: that the Commune was “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word,” but a form of community-based working-class self-organization, or what Marx called “the proletariat organized as the ruling class” (490).

Dictatorship, yes; state, no.  Conquest of (social) power, yes; conquest of state power, no.


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