From Petrograd to Brussels: Reflections on Revolutionary Strategy then and now
The following article is taken from the third edition of ThinkLeft, the Workers’ Party’s theoretical magazine, which focused on the October Socialist Revolution, to coincide with its 100th anniversary late last year. Get your copy of ThinkLeft 3 here.
The centenary commemorations of the October Revolution have, as yet, been fairly low key. Labour movement activists with a political bent and, of course, communists have marked the year but thus far it has been of peripheral importance in mainstream culture. Its provenance as a specifically Russian revolution does not explain this relative neglect. No other revolution in history has had such a global impact and for so long. If 1789 shattered the oldest monarchy in Europe — and put the rest on protective notice — 1917 demonstrated that the masses themselves could not only unseat the placeholders of privilege but replace them, permanently. It inspired not only uprisings in Europe, and later led the resistance to fascism, it also inspired and organised anti-colonial movements across the world, which fatally undermined the global position of the old European powers.
Capitalist production continues to draw the nations of the world into ever closer interaction, driving at the same time the process of growing inequality that concentrates masses of wealth in a few hands at one pole while increasing the absolute and relative impoverishment of millions at the other. Together with the related factors of ecological damage, intra-elite domestic and geopolitical struggle, the world is heading towards a cataclysm not seen since 1914.
The United States, despite the billions poured into its propaganda, cannot even project itself convincingly as the beacon of the free world. This is not due solely to the imbecile inhabiting the White House; the discrepancy between the propaganda of freedom and the reality of imperialism is too large to ignore, even for those in the capitalist heartlands of Europe. The scepticism of millions in Latin America and the Middle East has, of course, a solid foundation based on the reality of American support for reactionary forces going back decades.
But despite the fading lustre of America’s liberal imperium, a successor system is not in sight. And by sight, we mean merely one that is held out as possible, as opposed to likely. The contrast with 1914 is significant. Whatever about the eventual failures of the Social Democrats, which at that point contained and, indeed, were often led by revolutionary Marxists, there was popular awareness that there was a mass opposition which had the expressed goal of replacing private control of production in favour social ownership.
Notwithstanding the resilience of many socialists, that popular awareness of a world beyond capitalism has eroded under the twin impacts of the collapse of the USSR and the rise of neoliberal capitalism, itself a return to the pristine days of overt state support for the capitalist class. In Europe, the resistance to the ultra-capitalism instituted from Brussels has managed to garner popular support in a number of countries: Syriza in Greece, prior to their election at any rate; Melenchon’s bid for the French presidency; the rise of Podemos in Spain; and of course Corbyn’s resuscitation of the British Labour Party.
However, opposition to rabid austerity does not amount to proposing an alternative system that fundamentally changes the mode of production. This is not to fault reforms which ameliorate the more extreme edges of austerity economics but unless married to a political programme that identifies a socialist alternative as necessary and the strategic weak points of the present system which can be attacked in order to begin the transition, the impact of the reforms will be weak. There is very little indication that the radical left in Europe, despite the significant achievement of cracking open the capitalist consensus, is even talking about systemic change.
The absence of socialism as an alternative correlates with the decline of the labour movement as the bearer of the new society. In many countries the trade unions have come to terms with their own ruling class and have abandoned the goal of socialism. The modern radical left supports better conditions for labour but it seeks their support as one interest group amongst many: women, ethnic minorities, sexual outgroups, etc. Whether this is a necessary correction to a century of neglect is not a matter I will address here; for our purposes it is enough to note that the labour movement no longer is the vehicle for general emancipation: it loses its role as the class bearing the universal human interests but the vacancy is not taken up by any other group. Hence the widespread feeling that there is no alternative, even as the current system decays inexorably.
Back to October
A standard assessment of the October revolution is that it contradicted traditional Marxist dogma: a socialist regime in predominantly peasant country went directly against the bet on the proletariat as the leading edge of social transformation. As the revolution was conducted and defended under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, the contradiction is rendered all the more acute.
The novelty of the outcome — first the victory and then the consolidation of the Bolshevik regime in peasant Russia— seems to cry out for a novel explanation and, traditionally, that explanation has taken the form identifying Bolshevism as a mutation of classical Marxism which changed from being an open, mass movement of the working class to being a conspiratorial and authoritarian project run by a narrow elite of neo-Blanquist intellectuals, with Lenin being the villain-in-chief. Unperturbed by their divergence from Marx, the Bolsheviks’ relentless pursuit of power enabled them to best their many rivals in the revolutionary upheaval of 1917. For many mainstream historians, this interpretation elegantly downs two birds with the one stone: Marx’s conception of socialism arising from the advanced working class in the advanced countries is disproved and thereby his whole intellectual project discredited, while the unscrupulousness of the Bolsheviks renders them a singularly unattractive role model for progressive change.
It is not too far-fetched to imagine that the very threat of Bolshevism predisposed western scholarship, which after all relies ultimately on society’s paymasters for its funding, to take a distinctly negative view of the Soviet experiment. The disposition was only strengthened by hostility engendered by the United States’ proclivity for a long-running Cold War. The irony is that the high levels of violence associated with the Russian Civil War and the subsequent convulsions of the 1930s had given way to a relatively soft regime in the aftermath of the Second World War, resulting in the hostility germinating from the bowels of western academia being in inverse proportion to the decreasing levels of repression on the ground.
That the Russian Revolution involved large-scale trauma is not in dispute. But whether that trauma can be ascribed solely to the revolution is another question; such is the stance of old-school conservatives in the lineage of Edmund Burke. In contrast, there are many progressives, from liberals to anarchist-communists, who view the Revolution as an opportunity lost and lost primarily because of the actions of the Bolsheviks, which are construed in terms of the familiar conspiratorial and authoritarian frame. The latter is, oddly enough, also used by many in the Trotskyist tradition as well. It is a thesis which has found the large communist parties much more unreceptive, a stance reflecting their mass membership and therefore deep roots amongst the working class. .
The defence of the Bolsheviks as being in the mainstream of European socialism — and therefore aiming towards being a mass, open, working class party has being ably conducted by Lars Lih and others. I do not propose here to recapitulate their work but rather to focus on the related issue of democratic and social revolution in relation to the origins of Marxism and early 20th century Russia before bringing the issue into the 21st century as one that is relevant to the strategic orientation of communists in Europe.
The standard narrative has been coming under pressure in recent years. As the Cold War fades, the picture of the Bolsheviks as Marxist innovators or heretics — depending on one’s preferences — has been open to challenge, one duly taken up by writers Lars Lih, Moira Donald, and others. Part of their response has been to situate the Bolsheviks, and Lenin in particular, squarely in the lineage of classical Social Democracy, that is, Social Democracy in the decades prior to the First World War, when Marxists held high positions in the national parties and Marxist-inspired programmes supplied the framework for thinking about tactical choices.
While it is true that the later Bolshevik Party did, in the aftermath of the Civil War, develop a misconception of their own history, this was less an accurate rendering of their own past than a shift to meet the ideological requirements of the times: firstly, the necessity to separate themselves from their erstwhile comrades in the Social Democratic parties of Europe and secondly, under the pressure of intense hostility across the continent.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating and the actual doctrine and practice of many of the communist parties belies the caricature of narrow, conspiratorial, and authoritarian organisations. For these were large organisations — on occasion reaching into the millions — which it is not possible to run in such a tight manner over a period of decades, particularly in the absence of war-like conditions. The sheer scale ensures that dozens of tendencies interweave and their interplay necessitates a fair degree of freedom of discussion and organisation. The image of the communists as inherently authoritarian dissolves once examined.
It is, of course, possible to marry internal democracy with a considerable dose of discipline and it is just that combination that the 19th Century Social Democrats and their later communist offshoots made a decent stab at maintaining. In our time, with the ubiquitous presence of social media it is not remotely possible to stifle expression of the most trivial thought, let alone actual political discussion. The problem lies on the other side; the very availability of means of expression lessens the need to participate with like-minded citizens in organisations.
If this was the actual practice of the CPs, does it indicate that they misconceived Lenin’s injunctions regarding the revolutionary party or disregarded them? Or is there a third possibility, namely that Lenin did not, in fact, advocate the conspiratorial organisation? But given the association of the form of the Soviet state — GULAGs, purges — with the original sin of Lenin’s extreme jacobinism, the erosion of the latter foundation threatens to topple the entire intellectual edifice which depicts the Communists as inherently authoritarian.
The Origins of Marxism & Democratic Revolution
The possibility of socialism arises from two directions. Firstly, the development of capitalist industry and the increase in productivity it drives or, to put it another way, in the ever more capable technology put at society’s disposal. Secondly, because of that drive towards industrialisation, capitalism creates its own gravediggers, the working class.
The key document in the foundation of Marxism and which informed Marxist political strategy for over 150 years is The Communist Manifesto. A fair bit of The Manifesto is given over to criticising other socialist tendencies, who we nowadays call the Utopian Socialists. For Marx and Engels were by no means the original socialists; they are part of the second wave. But they differed fundamentally not in this or that idea, but in how they structured their thought.
For example, among the early utopian socialists were those who advocated state industrialisation, a spontaneous general strike, worker co-ops, finding good hearted rich people to fund communist communes, state subsidies for employing workers, electoralism and anti-electoralism, as well as the insurrectionalism. These are best characterised as schemes, or, to put it another way, as particular strategies and tactics. This isn’t to say that they were bad ideas; for instance, today, more than ever, we need militant trade unions and co-operatives.
Marx and Engels did not, however, add a new scheme to this heap. Rather, they looked at the underlying dynamic of social evolution, which they identified as changes in its material and economic structure, in an attempt to get a handle on how social transformation could happen. Identifying that capitalism would continue to expand and thereby displace older forms of economic relationships and, secondly, that it would create a large working class, which was then only in its early stages of development, they posited the working class as the agents not only of their own liberation but of humanity as a whole.
All the above schemes or tactics were present in the working class. Marx and Engels were not opposed to those schemes per se. Rather than pick any one of them as the true faith, Marx and Engels’ emphasis on the working class itself as the emancipatory force in history enabled all these tendencies to co-exist within the labour movement insofar as they were not antagonistic to it (some socialists were snobbish about the idea that the lowly workers were the vehicle of emancipation). This enabled the labour movement, despite its internal diversity to grow as a united force, thereby vastly increasing its social influence.
Also, a lot of these schemes were the brainchild of bourgeois intellectuals, who were usually quite separate from the labour movement. The approach of Marx and Engels enabled the merger of these socialist intellectuals with the labour movement.
Marxism, therefore, is not a simple schema or set of tactics. It is the glue, a glue made of philosophy if you like, that holds the socialist-labour movement together and enables it to fulfil its historic mission. Without that glue, the labour movement falls away to being a tail of the liberal reformers on the one hand, while the revolutionaries, on the other, become mere purveyors of a tiny sect. Moreover, probably due to Marxism’s origins as the overarching philosophy of a united labour movement, it can avoid being tactically or strategically dogmatic.
If the labour movement has the potential to be the emancipator of humanity, what are the conditions under which it can fulfil its mission? In general terms, it needs the freedom to organise and that means freedom to publish leaflets and newspapers, freedom to hold meetings, and the freedom to vote; it needs the freedom to generate the institutional strength such that it can effectively control the state.
But it was just these freedoms that were lacking in 19th century Europe. In Austria, Germany, and Russia, the feudal leftovers from the Middle Ages still reigned. In order to create the conditions for its own emancipation, the first struggle the labour movement had to fight was the battle for democracy, that is the freedom to organise.
The foremost goal of these Marxist Social Democrats was to win this battle of democracy. And there was no doubt in their minds that it was the coming struggle. For most of 19th century continental Europe the State was the creature of the old aristocracy: the lower orders, having no vote, were legally excluded from participating in the state. There were legal restrictions on the right of workers to organise their own trade unions. In Russia, they were outright illegal, as were opposition political parties.
The conventional view is that Lenin and the Bolsheviks developed an altogether original conception of the revolutionary party based on narrow membership, diktat from above, and tight discipline. In reality, such a conception would not have even have been new but a reversion to the pre-Marxian conspiracies associated with Blanqui and Weitling — and with the pre-Marx Communist League for that matter. It would also have rendered pointless Russian Marxism in general. After all, there already existed in the Narodinks just such a political tendency.
If we skip forward to early 20th century Russia, we see a similar situation to that which existed in Germany 60 years previously, when Marxism was in formation: an empire with an unaccountable government; a disenfranchised population; different categories of population; restriction on women’s equality; and the land owned by ancient aristocratic families. Russia needed democratisation, and the Russian labour movement needed it too, if it wasn’t to suffocate under the Tsarist regime.
The Marxists were the foremost proponents of a democratic revolution to bring down the ancient Romanov monarchy. And amongst the Marxists, it was the Bolsheviks who were on the radical wing of democratic change.
The struggle for political freedom is of such importance that it forms the centrepiece to Lenin’s pre-revolutionary thinking: the polemic against the “Economists”, whose distinctive mark was their preference for leaving aside was in the early years of Russian Marxism makes sense only because the fight for democracy is of such central importance. Whereas the Economists wanted to leave the struggle for political freedom against the Tsar to the bourgeoisie and instead focus on economic gains, the mainstream Marxists around Lenin put the political struggle first.
The degree to which the democratisation of society as a revolutionary strategy — as opposed to an ethical impulse — is the pre-eminent Marxist approach is illustrated by the little known fact that Bolsheviks did not carry out the October Revolution as a socialist revolution. That appears shocking to us, familiar as we are with the subsequent trajectory of the USSR, with its central planning, collectivisation, etc.
But the Bolsheviks did not, in the run up to October, agitate for socialism; they did not promise that they would introduce socialism; all their leaflets, newspapers, and public meetings make no claim that they are about to launch socialism at all. The most there is are some statements from Lenin that the revolution frees up the path to taking steps towards socialism. Further, the collectivisation of the early 1930s and the accompanying development of central planning would have been wholly unnecessary if socialism had already been built. 1917 was a turning point in the journey to socialism, not its completion.
Recall that, as of 1917, the vast majority of the country are small peasants. They have just seized the land from the aristocracy and have no interest in socialism per se, even if they do support the revolution which suppresses the landlords.
The Bolsheviks had two big slogans in 1917, neither of which mentioned socialism: “All Power to the soviets” and “Peace, Bread, and Land”.
So, what’s going on? The Bolsheviks did have the goal of socialism: this was not hidden somewhere deep in their theoretical publications. Their entire leadership strata were known and dedicated socialists. They were part of the international socialist movement. So why not a socialist revolution?
The issue is not one primarily directed at the subjective state of the Bolshevik leadership but one of the objective situation. For Russia at that point was just emerging from a long period of feudalism. This involved different legal rights for men and women, different legal status for aristocrats and the lower orders — serfdom had only been abolished a few decades before and there were different voting rights for the different social strata. The aristocracy still owned about half the land of Russia; the Church was a state church and a massively wealthy business in its own right. The government was completely unaccountable to the people, despite the granting of a parliament in 1905.
All these feudal remnants had to be dealt with; the ruling elite under the Tsars had too many interests in the status quo to engage in proper reform. They owned too much land, for a start, and were too scared of the lower orders to set the ball of reform in motion. The task at hand in Russia was the democratic revolution, the overthrow of the old regime and installing popular government. To be sure, the majority of the Bolshevik leadership hoped that a radical, egalitarian revolution in backward Russia would inspire socialist revolution in the more advanced countries west (this was a standard Marxist position and not Trotsky’s). But their task in 1917 was that democratic revolution.
A Workers’ Democratic Revolution
But why were socialists working so hard for a democratic revolution; why not leave that for the bourgeoisie and instead bide their time for socialism? In fact, some socialists did that; many Mensheviks allied with the bourgeoisie in the hope that they would push through the democratic revolution, after which they would fight for socialism.
The difference with the Bolsheviks was not that they were opposed to the democratic revolution — if anything, they were the radical wing of the pro-democrats, hence the unflinching support for the workers’ councils (soviets). Rather, it was their lack of faith in the bourgeoisie to do what Cromwell and Robespierre had done in England and France, i.e. to crush the old regime. In Russia, the bourgeoisie were too weak and too scared of the rising working class to take on the Tsarist regime. Therefore, it fell to the workers, in alliance with the peasantry, to take down the old regime.
Many commentators point out the irony of the proletariat carrying out a democratic revolution, but the Marxists at the time were quite explicit: the Russian bourgeoisie are too weak to do it; only the working class has the strength to lead a revolution and then only if the peasantry were on board. The bourgeoisie were expected to be as craven as the German middle class had been in 1848; at first to support with revolution before running scared back to safe arms of the old regime, a continental version of Henry Joy McCracken’s “the rich shall ever betray the poor”. The Russian bourgeoisie even had their chance in 1917; after the Tsar had fallen in February, they were in control until October. During that time they signally failed to stabilise the country. They weren’t even a democratic force: they explicitly avoided being accountable to the previously elected parliament.
The Revolution saw a mass upsurge in political activity by the masses, including floods of political literature, demonstrations — which were previously illegal — and, of course, the most famous of all, the creation of soviets across the cities and towns of Russia. The soviets were councils of workers, elected by workers. As the bourgeoisie proved itself incapable of taking over from the Tsar, it fell to the soviets to take over. Mostly the soviets were based on the big factories, especially in the cities. This led to them being a restricted franchise, but as Russian society and institutions were falling apart, they proved to be one of the few capable of coherent action in 1917.
Lenin, being the most optimistic proponent of radical democracy, hoped that the soviets would become the organs of the new state. And while they did facilitate mass involvement in the “overthrow” stage, they proved unable to replace the bureaucratic apparatus as a means to delivering stable state administration.
Partial Allies and Permanent Goals
But the Bolsheviks did not carry out a revolution in order to put the bourgeoisie back in power. True, they did not, as I have argued, put socialism on the agenda in 1917. But they did put class power front and centre.
The democratic revolution as a suppression of the elite necessarily thrusts forth the lower orders as their replacement. In Marxist terms, the goal here is the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. It’s a rarely used phrase these days, but the idea behind it, that of the working class taking political power, remains the key precondition for moving forward to socialism. But it is not socialism itself.
If socialism is rarely mentioned in their literature pertaining to the revolution, the prospect of the workers, or the workers in conjunction with the peasantry, taking power is. In fact, it is the key issue at stake in 1917. Who is going to be in power: the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Who can win the peasantry to their power?
The Bolsheviks were not averse to working with other classes. In Russia, with the proletariat hovering at around 12% in 1914, it was simply a necessity to ally with the bourgeoisie or the peasantry. The essential difference between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks revolves around their respective choices.
But neither the bourgeoisie nor the peasantry were the decisive forces in 1917. The former were too scared of the workers to push the revolutionary changes needed to transform Russia into a modern power. The horizon of the peasantry tended to be limited to parochial concerns revolving around control of the land. The amazingly stupid decision by the White Generals to support the aristocracy ensured that the peasants would look favourably on any force capable of wiping them out.
It was the proletariat that delivered not only the energy — capturing the major cities — but the institutional strength to build up an alternative power. And, according to classical Marxist theory, the proletariat could only operate collectively which, in turn, necessitated democratic form. When the dam burst in 1917, it was the proletariat that had the institutional experience, via the soviets and their political parties, to organise an opposition capable of taking power.
The working class, therefore, had a particular interest in the democratic struggle against Tsarism. That the parties most forcefully pushing the democratic revolution would gain in popularity is thus not a surprise.
The working class has, in addition to the democratisation of society, a long-term interest in socialist revolution; that is, in addition to the democratisation of society, they have, due to their lack of ownership of the means of production, a class interest in replacing capitalism with socialist production.
It is this long-term interest in socialism that Marx refers to when he calls for “permanent revolution”, not the immediate building of socialism pace Karl Schapper and Trotsky. Marx, in fact, came in for criticisms from members of the Communist League for not advocating the immediate introduction of communism in a revolutionary situation, which is why he uses the phrase “permanent” revolution: it’s a long-term fight and even if we can’t achieve all our goals straight-away, we’re going to keep at it, even if it takes decades of class struggle, i.e. permanently.
What, then, are the lessons to be taken from Russia? The struggle for democracy was not only necessary in 19th century Europe and 20th century Russia, it was the essential factor in the rise to popularity of almost all socialist parties. The exception to this is rare.
It applies to the later struggle against fascism too. The communist parties in Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal either rose or cemented their position through leading the opposition to the fascist regimes on the continent. They were the foremost defenders of the democratic republic. In the wider world, communist parties have often led anti-colonial movements, from Cuba to Vietnam, thereby involving themselves in the democratisation of those societies. It applies in its own way to the rise of our predecessors in Sinn Féin — The Workers’ Party. The transformation of the old Sinn Féin into the Workers’ Party coincided with the party exposing the fraudulent deeds of the 26 county state: its closeness to the Catholic Church and its association with property developers, to take two examples.
In all the above cases there is a pattern: the party does not get popular on socialism alone. Socialism must be associated with democracy; otherwise it tends to just be an abstract concept to most people. For most people, democracy has connotations of equality. For socialists versed in a catechism critical of bourgeois democracy, this hope can appear naive. But historically speaking, the popular conception is true. The rule of the many tends towards an egalitarian politics.
The Bolsheviks and many socialists of that era tended to use “socialism” in a more specific sense: that of the socialisation of the means of production and, depending on the context, as a synonym for Marxism itself. There are few parties that have hit the popularity jackpot through exposition of historical materialism. It is not, of course, the function of ideology to engender mass support: its role is to organise the activists, in particular the leadership. Wider support is won through mass activity and is therefore necessarily conducted at a lower level of abstraction: the concepts become simpler, often until they can be summarised in slogans. The value of absorbing from, and then projecting back to the masses, in more political form, their hopes, is the likelihood of winning mass support. A pro-democratic party necessarily engages in mass activity and therefore develops relations amongst the people, absorbing and projecting back those democratic impulses.
But, we are told, we live in a democracy. How do we struggle for democracy if we already have it? And thinking strategically, how can we ride a bandwagon that has ground to a halt? There are, no doubt, refinements to be made to the workings of the State here but nothing that calls for a political revolution against the sort of dictatorship that the Tsar’s regime consisted of.
But if we look at things at a higher scale, the European Union towers above us as the sovereign power, unelected and unaccountable: the very embodiment of elitist class rule. The fact that it is constitutionally committed to neoliberalism, or what I call ultra-capitalism, just serves to make it more and more unpopular. It is a target to oppose and we should do so not just on the moral grounds that this or that policy is misguided but as a tactical and strategic orientation to generate mass support for the democratisation of society and, by extension, for the party that leads that fight. In other words, the European Union is a necessary enemy.
The long-running economic crises affecting the advanced capitalist economies since 2008 have naturally given rise to movements for an egalitarian redistribution of wealth. But they have also overturned the existing political status quo, with the Social Democrats in particular getting erased from the equation, such as PASOK in Greece, Labour here in Ireland, and the Socialist Party in France. They have suffered more than their conservative rivals for inflicting austerity on the working class because they repeatedly and flagrantly disregarded their own mandate. They betrayed not only their constituency, but democracy.
The popular response has been, at least where apathy is avoided, to focus on the need for genuine democracy. Quite often this takes the form of proposing more referendums or assemblies as well as making use of new technologies, as with Podemos in Spain. It’s a message that has some resonance, but it is limited by two problems: one, the problem doesn’t lie with representative democracy per se (and therefore direct democracy is no solution) and, secondly, it misidentifies the where the primary democratic failing is.
The failing is the greater strength of capital, especially over the smaller states and, secondly, the European Union, which, itself being a vehicle for the ruling class of the major states, in particular Germany, imposes constraints on domestic policy such that social democratic reforms are now very difficult to implement, where they are not outright illegal.
The struggle against capital is a democratic one in the sense of it is in the interests of the masses. However, democracy per se is not the solution. Only socialistic measures — social ownership of production — can slay that beast and thus we are back at the question that prompted the emergence of Marxism itself. In what context can the labour movement accomplish its ultimate task: socialising production?
The second obstacle to democracy, the European Union, is more amenable to attack at this juncture. It has legislated a form of ultra-capitalism in the member states, restricting state ownership and investment as well as lowering the field of workers rights to the lowest level. In a time of continuing economic crises, its imposition of a strategy of austerity rather than investment ensures that its popularity is sinking. Nor can the governing strata in the European Union easily change tack. They have directed, successfully, that restrictive rules regarding state investment be incorporated into constitutions where possible. Moreover, their success since the 1980s in forcing back the labour movement ensures that the pressure to not ride roughshod over the working class is far less pronounced than it was in the aftermath of the war. There is little reason to expect them to change tack when, from their point of view, they are winning.
Nevertheless, the sheer length of the economic crises has destabilised the political situation in Europe, as is evident by the rise of Corbyn, Podemos, etc. The significant levels of mass migration into Western Europe, the old heartland of both capital and, consequently, the labour movement, contributes to the weakness of the latter. The response is by no means guaranteed to be led by socialists. On the contrary, the far right is resurgent and nationalism threatens to become the dominant mode of expression of opposition to the neoliberal elite who are driving economic strategy at the EU level and implementing it at the national one.
The national state in Western Europe emerged from the struggle for democracy, against the continental monarchies (Bourbons, Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Romanovs). Their emergence coincided with the rise of the labour movement. Nationalism was a democratic movement, often with a mass base in the lower orders, especially the petty bourgeoisie. Its cross-class proclivities usually allowed nationalist democrats to come to terms with the elite of their own country. The acceptance by most Irish revolutionaries of 1916-1922 of the prevailing social order in post-independent Ireland was not fundamentally different to what occurred elsewhere in Europe. And in most countries, the democratic nationalists, often in alliance with or under pressure from the labour movement, did deliver significant reforms for the masses: pensions, holiday and sick pay, literacy programmes, health care, equal pay for women, social housing, and so on.
In comparison, the European Union serves thin gruel. While Ireland received significant sums for developing its infrastructure, especially in the 1990s, it also had to repay the vast debts incurred by particularly incompetent capitalists due to the pressure exerted by EU, in particular the Central Bank. It is thus not surprising that there is favourable sentiment towards the nation state while hope in the EU fades.
But the nation state cannot solve the first problem, the domination of capital over society, because of its relatively small size. The current dance by Catalan nationalists for independence from Spain leads the working class up a very short cul de sac. Catalonia is simply too small to go it alone, especially given the absence of a 21st century USSR to give it succour. The equivalent applies to nation states that seek to exit the European Union. Doing so does not remove the reality of the surrounding capitalist market, nor magically make capital investment possible on a large scale. On the contrary, the newly sovereign nation states would immediately be thrown into competition with each other, only this time without the paternal rules laid down by Brussels.
We are, then, faced with a dilemma. The EU is structurally entangled in an ultra-capitalist framework that cannot simply be changed, even if there were significant forces within the elite that were sensible enough to favour doing so. If it is hasn’t altered its approach after a decade of economic faltering (and a quarter century of sluggish growth), it is unlikely to start now.
On the other hand, the near instinctive retreat to nationalism, even in its progressive guise (think Corbyn rather than Le Pen), simply lacks the scale to take on capital. The hopelessness of the choices is reflected in the general sense that there is no alternative, or, worse, that the alternative, a sovereign national state will not work.
One of the lessons of October is that workers’ power requires a specific state form. It is not enough to advocate workers’ power in the abstract, as if a global federation of workers’ councils is a realistic alternative to the current state system. As above, the present alternatives in Europe are national states and a weakly federated and very undemocratic European Union.
The impetus is to look downwards to the national state, given its familiarity. Given the structural blocks on reform of the European Union, this is understandable. But perhaps it is time to think new thoughts.
The multiple crises building up — the long-term decline of European capitalist power vis-à-vis China and the USA, ecological degradation, automation of labour, intra-elite conflict and geopolitical jostling — mean that that the EU is not a stable formation. It has already lost support amongst large swathes of the population and is no longer the harbinger of a progressive future. Given the refusal of Germany to sanction a programme of continental investment that draws the countries together and engender some loyalty amongst the populations, the lack of stability could well manifest as disintegration in the medium term.
Communists and the labour movement as a whole do not get to dictate to capital their strategic choices. Whether they manage to hold their European project together or revert to nationalism is beyond our control. We will have to formulate our tactical choices in the contexts as they arise. But we can advocate an alternative: that of a democratic European Republic.
This cannot be based on the European Union. Apart from its absurd constitution (in reality a long-winded assertion of the rights of property), it is structurally undemocratic. Power is wielded by the powerful national states at the European Council level while the European Commission, the lower executive arm, is unaccountable to the only representative institution: the European Parliament.
This makes it very hard for there to be democratic input. Certainly, there is no shortage of lobbying but that is quite different from popular control. At the best of times, of course, democracy in a world dominated by capitalist production is far from ideal. Nevertheless, democracy provides the means by which to tame capitalism, for it provides the possibility of large-scale institution building by workers, and only such institutions — trade unions, cooperatives, and a political party — can restructure the economy along socialist lines.
Currently, democratic input is primarily available at the national level but the nation states, or at least the smaller ones, have effectively been drained of sovereignty. It is true that, if Ireland is anything to go by, the native elites have been quite happy to go along with the neoliberal strategy and it is therefore inaccurate to absolve them of responsibility in the driving down of social standards. However, there have been numerous examples of anti-neoliberal candidates (Hollande, Gilmore to take two) winning elections only to find themselves enmeshed in the long-term EU rules of the game to which they capitulate without too much fanfare.
The end result is the negation of national democracy: it doesn’t matter what political platforms win elections, the economy is going to be run on the same lines anyway. This brings actually existing democracy into disrepute and given there is no obvious way to change this dynamic through normal political means — after all, it is the negation of normal political means that is the problem — the path is cleared towards political revolution.
Given the strength of the ruling class in Germany, France and across the continent, they are unlikely to compromise, especially given the historic weakness of labour. And given the undemocratic structures of the EU, whose constitution is essentially free from any attempts at democratic revisions, the outcome is going to be significant upheaval. At its mildest this could take the form of the EU disintegrating and the national states regaining sovereignty in a relatively peaceful manner. However, the political temperature has been rising for the last decade and it is more likely that there will be social unrest accompanying any change in the constitutional order. The task of socialists is to organise to take advantage of the coming upheaval and to convert it into a political revolution from which a working class party emerges as the predominant state power.
One of the difficulties socialists have had in Western Europe is the loss of the democratic card. The outcome of the October Revolution was a one-party state. I believe there is little evidence that this was an intended outcome for the Bolsheviks; the emphasis on democracy in the years running up to 1917 in their party literature is too great. The impact of an existential civil war was the decisive factor rather than any inherent predisposition to authoritarianism. In any case, the end result was that as the western states finally democratised (in reality after fascism and the Second World War), the ability to meld the democratic and socialist struggle was greatly reduced. What is the point in making the democratisation of society your principal strategic goal if it has already been achieved? And how to square that with the template of a one-party state?
The Communist Parties who did manage to wield genuine mass support in western Europe — in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and France — had all been at the forefront of the anti-fascist struggle, i.e. they led the democratic struggle in the mid-20th century just as the original Social Democrats had in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Once democracy was achieved, all such mass parties found it difficult to develop a replacement strategy of comparable scale. But the European Union puts the issue of democracy back on the strategic table in a way it hasn’t been since 1945. The primary strategy is, once again, to win the battle for democracy. Unlike the 20th century, however, the link between socialism and the battle for democracy at the national level is not so easily forged for the simple reason that the scale of production now makes it very difficult to operate an actually independent economic policy. This isn’t to say that socialism in one country couldn’t be retried, but that it would find it difficult to be credible, especially in anything but the largest of the European economics.
Nor is there great utility in promoting a reassertion of national sovereignty for its own sake. At most it would make a less extreme form of capitalism possible. Not to be sneezed at but, given it would shut off the possibility of a European-wide socialism, it has to be questioned as to whether it would be worth it. For the reassertion of national sovereignty entails reasserting a nationalist ideology. Otherwise, it will be a technocratic affair and the modest hoped for social democratic gains wouldn’t even materialise. But ideological formation cannot be switched on and off like a tap. Once infused, it’s there for a generation at least. Moreover, from our perspective, mixing a reawakened nationalist consciousness to the increasingly unclear future constitutional status of Northern Ireland is a combustible scenario.
The preferred answer to the problem of economic scale and a resurgent nationalism becoming the dominant oppositional ideology across the continent is a centralised European Republic. To be clear, centralised in the sense that the Republic has sovereign authority over the constituent parts. A federalised state in which the member states retain ultimate sovereignty is likely to be inherently unstable.
As the European Union has been discrediting itself as a progressive force and the prospect of leaving it becomes a realistic policy choice in the wake of Brexit, there will be debates about whether doing so is something for which socialists should argue for or against. Although likely to become an issue sooner rather than later, the choice is a secondary question to be decided upon at any given juncture according to the context. More important is the programmatic question of advocating a European Republic.
The reality is that the labour movement is too weak to affect the trajectory of the EU. We can’t force it to reform itself and we can’t bring it down through even concerted opposition. It is the EU itself and its deeply destabilising policy of ultra-capitalism married to the absence of democracy that can lead to widespread social upheaval. It is only at this juncture that a European Republic on a completely new basis can be formed. The EU itself is too committed at a structural level to ultra-capitalism to attempt the centralisation, democratisation, and egalitarian reforms necessary to avoid social decay. At this point the situation demands a revolutionary solution, one that throws overboard the constitutional order underpinning the EU and begins again on a democratic, egalitarian basis. As with Russia, this will not in itself constitute socialism, but it likewise opens up the path to developing into it.
For some, the scale of a continental republic offers less democratic opportunity than the much smaller national state. But since the power of capital effectively negates the popular will of all but the most powerful countries this becomes moot. Is it better to have a small voice in a strong state or a loud voice in a subordinated one?
The traditional struggle of republicans against the British sovereignty in Northern Ireland rams right up against this obstacle as well. As it now stands, the United Kingdom, having conceded the principle of Scottish sovereignty, is itself vulnerable to break up, thereby granting Irish militant nationalism, just when it is at a low ebb, prospect of victory in the medium-term. But escape from British sovereignty no more solves the domination of capital issue than leaving the EU does. The domination of capital certainly requires institutional expression, not least a state power capable of weighing in on the class struggle, and breaking those institutions is a necessary part of pursuing a socialist path. Necessary but not sufficient. The domination of capital ultimately rests on its ability to outcompete in productive terms any rival systems. Given the current absence of communist states, especially in our region, any anti-systemic state will be starting from an isolated and probably fairly low basis in productive capital. This leaves it vulnerable to being outcompeted by capitalist states. Capitalist social relationships can be uprooted but they will, sooner or later, re-emerge if they provide the best possible “fit” to the productive forces. This can only be avoided if a more productive system can be developed rapidly such that it can withstand overt military pressure and ongoing economic competition.
The issue is not whether a workers’ republic would be preferable to current set up in Westminster, Stormont, and Leinster House. In an ideal world it would come to pass. But political strategy cannot be based on what we would like to happen but on what are the available paths at any given juncture. It is conceivable, if unlikely, that a wholly independent and socialist Ireland may come to pass if the UK and EU manage to implode sometime in the next few decades — a prospect firmly within the bounds of possibility — and thereby take the Dublin establishment down with them. But what if such victory is attained? Will the states on the continent form similar national governments and be in a position to give aid? Or, given the rise of the far right there, is a resurgent right-nationalism more likely? Further, winning power is one thing; maintaining it and being able to use it to construct a socialist society is quite another. The trajectory of the USSR and, in their different ways, that of China and Vietnam, both of whom brought the Communists to power under the motor of national independence movements, illustrate the difficulty in competing against capital. The case for pursuing a strategy of national independence must, from a socialist point of view, justify itself in terms, not of the intrinsic rights of the nation but on the possibilities of productive development and the concomitant strengthening of the working class. And ultimately it is the level of productive development that is paramount; survival itself depends on it.
The dream of a European state has excited quite a few on the liberal end of the spectrum for some time. This is no reason to disregard it of course, if only because the goal we have in mind differs substantially from theirs. But more critically, the European bourgeoisie are faltering. Just as with their historical counterparts in Germany and Russia prior to 1914, they are hesitant to complete the necessary historical tasks. The EU has been around in one guise or another since 1957 and yet each member state continues to attempt its own foreign policy and run its own security apparatus. If anything, foreign policy originates more in Washington than in Brussels. For sure, economic sovereignty is severely circumscribed but the inability to divest the member states of the final shred of sovereignty bespeaks to weakness. If they can’t use the current economic crises to knit together a state, it is unlikely they will make the move anytime soon. Further, there is every reason to think that the capitalist class in Germany in particular is happy at the current state of affairs. The EU ensures that there is a large available market while the fact that it is not yet a state removes from them the responsibilities that go with running a state, such as solidarity with less well-off regions.
If the bourgeoisie are not up to the task, are the workers? Not yet is the realistic answer. But just as the German proletariat was not ready in 1848 to overthrow the Hohenzollerns and yet organised itself in the ensuing decades, the European labour movement must think seriously about becoming the leading advocates for a European Republic. It must, as Marx said in the March Address, make itself capable of the task. An essential step in generating the social power is the emergence of a European-wide workers’ party. At present the primacy of national politics is reflected in the orientation of the left parties to their own parliaments. As capital has scaled up and globalised, the workers’ movement has not kept pace. Both the trade union and political wings of the movement need to play at the continental level if they are to regain the social influence lost since the 1980s. Beyond that, the very fact of forming a European workers’ party out of a merger of the existing national parties would in itself serve to generate consciousness around the idea of a European Republic and propel the workers’ movement to the forefront of the democratic struggle that is now in incipient revolt against the existing order.
October cannot be repeated like an old TV show being rerun on Saturday mornings. If it could be, politics would be simple indeed; we’d be able to achieve a revolution on the cheap, without having to think hard about the strategic and tactical choices facing us. Instead, it requires reflection and, while history provides a jumping off point for that reflection, political tactics can never be a copy and paste job due to the social context always being different from one era to another (and from one country to another).
The absolutist monarchies are gone forever and, following the defeat of their fascistic death spasm, the advent of the democratisation of Europe after 1945 drained the original Marxist political strategy of its momentum. Since then, however, bureaucratic capitalism has triumphed with a vengeance and so, due to the European Union, the democratic struggle has the potential once again to be the lever that raises the working class to power.
But the form the struggle takes cannot simply be transposed from Petrograd to Brussels. The old factories, where they have not been closed down, are reduced in social importance such that the role of the soviets in 1917 won’t be replicated in 21st century Europe. Moreover, the EU as it stands is only a semi-state; a revolution in the Russian capitals brought the proletariat to power in Russia. No such guarantee exists that even a successful revolution in a major European power would lead to a European state.
But if the details, vital though they are, are inevitably different, the strategy of marrying socialism to the democratic struggle remains the most likely path to victory. And just as the ultimate rejection by Lenin of a United States of Europe in 1916 was predicated on the immediate prospect of successful revolutions in national states, the conditions now are different and so the vital lesson we should draw is not his conclusion, which, as always, is inherently dependent on context, but his mode of reasoning. We are not faced with undemocratic governments in the national states — just impotent ones. The absence of democracy is now at a higher level and therefore it is to there that the struggle must be directed. The world doesn’t stand still and so neither can Marxist analysis. But if we shouldn’t slavishly follow the prescriptions of October or of Lenin, we can be inspired by them and, better, learn how to develop our tactics and strategy with a flexible but materialist approach.
James O’Brien is a member of the Workers’ Party Ard Comhairle and the Party’s National Organiser.