Sunday, 9 February 2014

For A Political Revolution At The Co-op - Part 12

Lenin wrote “What Is To Be Done?” in particular historical conditions, relating to Russia at the time. Despite the fact that he makes that specificity clear, despite the fact that when he talks about the need for a professional party, he makes clear that his model is the German SPD, as others have pointed out, subsequent “Leninists” have interpreted it as a prescription for the building of the kind of small, pure sects of “professional revolutionaries” they have ended up with, more as a consequence of their increased separation from the working-class, than from choice. That separation arises from a conception of socialist revolution, which is a political rather than social revolution, which is then necessarily one driven from above, in which the role of ideas is privileged over structure, and material conditions, and where this is played out in a continual struggle over ideas and their manifestation in leadership, rather than a struggle to actually advance the economic and social position of the working-class, outside what is itself essentially an Economistic position, based upon trades unionist and reformist struggles.

In opposing Economism, Lenin ends up
bending the stick almost to a Luxemburgist
position, in which no real material change is
possible short of a sudden break via a
Political Revolution.  This almost certainly
is not what Lenin intended.  His model of the
revolutionary party was the German SPD, and
 elsewhere he speaks of revolutionary breaks
arising from a series of reforms.  Its one thing
to accept that Socialism cannot come from TU
struggles, or Parliamentary reforms, another to
believe that workers cannot build their own
 alternatives to capital prior to its overthrow, and that
 their success in doing so is an important aspect
of changing their material condition, and the ideas
that flow from it.
In reality, this leads to exactly the kind of conundrum that Lenin sought to avoid. If the position is adopted that there can be no meaningful change in the material conditions, in terms of the property relations, and the social relations built upon them – a position closer to Luxemburg actually rather than to Lenin – then you are indeed left with a view that everything must be geared to a political revolution to smash the existing state, and establish a workers' state in its place, and then to use that state to transform property relations from above. But, for such a strategy to have anything in common with Marx's theory, this would also require that workers themselves undergo a dramatic transormation in their consciousness, but one that does not itself stem from any change in their material conditions that enables them to understand how such a co-operative commonwealth can meet their requirements. It requires that the workers arrive at this socialist consciousness only on the basis of their Economistic, trades union struggles against capital, or in Luxemburg's view the "Mass Strike" – which very few workers actually engage in at any one time – together with the propaganda directed at them by the revolutionaries, and their idealistic visions of how this new society would look. It would require that the workers arrive at this revolutionary consciousness en masse, so that they could then take over the actual control and operation of this socialised property after it has been expropriated by the state.

But, what has been set out so far explains why this cannot happen. Workers may arrive at a level of radicalisation where they are prepared to overthorw the existing state, but the fact they do so, is not at all the same as them having a revolutionary class consciousness, whereby they know exactly what they want to put in its place. Recent revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia etc. demonstrate that its one thing to overthrow an existing regime, its another to put even a progressive, let alone socialist alternative in its stead. This merely re-emphasises Marx's points that the socialist revolution, precisely because it can only be created by workers themselves, requires a much higher level of consciousness and clarity by workers, and that it cannot be brought about by enlightened friends of the workers attempting to construct it simply on the basis of their own plans and propaganda.

There is a further problem with this kind of conception. The “Leninists” suffer from the kind of ultra-leftism that Lenin himself described. That is they take their own level of consciousness and transplant it on to the working class itself. This is one reason they believe that the working-class is really straining at the leash to establish a Workers Government, to engage in revolutionary struggle, but is being held back by a treacherous leadership. So, they assume that once this benevolent dictatorship arising from a political revolution, nationalises the major firms, the workers in these firms will then rush to take over the task of workers control within them. But, of course, as Lenin himself pointed out in the quote from “Capitalism in Agriculture” cited earlier, there is no reason why this will be the case. It requires that the workers have reached a level of culture and consciousness whereby they are ready to take on that function. The more developed the capitalist economy, the more workers in practice have to take on such roles the more that may be the case, but there is no reason why workers will act in that way.

The idea of Permanent Revolution, and
internationalising the struggle may have been
understood and adopted by a minority of the
more advanced Russian workers, but for the vast
majority, Stalin's proposal of securing what they had
seemed a more appetising prospect.  The majority
were more concerned with scraping a living than any
wider political activity.
As I cited earlier, despite giving as many incentives as possible for members of my union branch to turn up to meetings, few did. During a strike, many more workers are led to become radicalised and active, but invariably when the strike is over, that rapidly dissipates, whether it is won or lost. In the aftermath of a revolutionary struggle, it is no surprise that the ordinary workers that have participated feel exhausted, and have more interest in turning their energies to the everyday tasks of earning a living and looking after their families. That is another reason that it was Stalin not Trotsky that secured the support of Russian workers, especially given the natural desire of those workers to hunker down rather than involve themselves in further international adventures, thereby providing a basic support for the idea of “Socialism In One Country”.

If the workers do not naturally assume the function of control after such a revolution, and all experience shows that in their vast majority they do not, then that function must be undertaken by someone else, just as it is within the member owned, rather than worker-owned co-operatives. Those that take on that function, in the beginning may do so with the best of intentions, and a belief that it is only a matter of time before the workers themselves take over the function. But, history is replete with these kinds of changes in consciousness taking much longer than revolutionaries have anticipated, and in the meantime history and the real world moves on. The kinds of processes that have been seen in numerous organisations, as for example described by Michels in the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” result in power becoming concentrated in the hands of the elite, and over time that elite, where unchecked, by a greater power, increasingly acts in its own interests. In that respect what happened at the Co-op Bank mirrors what happened in the USSR.

In the USSR, Trotsky proposed a Political Revolution to deal with that situation. Next I will examine how a similar idea of Political Revolution can more readily be applied to the Co-op, and to other parts of the Labour Movement.

Back To Part 11

Forward To Part 13

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