Lenin once described politics as ‘the most concentrated expression of economics’. What did he mean by this?
THE ECONOMIC BASIS OF CLASS STRUGGLE
Firstly, that society rests ultimately upon its economic foundations. Ideas, institutions, laws, movements etc. make up the superstructure of society and tend to favour perpetuating the predominant mode of production.
However, this superstructure also reflects and embodies the contradictions which arise from the economic base.That is why there are trades unions, political parties, co-operative societies, publications and other organisations which represent—or at least claim to represent—the interests of labour against capital. It also explains why there is a continuous battle of ideas between progress and reaction, democracy and monopoly, left and right, between socialism and capitalism.
Developments in the superstructure can themselves have a significant impact on the economic base—for instance when ideas and campaigns lead to governments and laws which extend trade union rights or nationalise key sectors of the economy.
Secondly, Lenin was reminding us that the economic relations between society’s classes determine their real class interests in the final analysis.The immediate interests of most capitalists include the swift maximisation of profit.The most fundamental interest of the capitalist class is clear enough—the continuation of the capitalist mode of production. Conversely, the immediate interests of most workers usually include the maximisation of wages.The fundamental interest of the working class—which is not so clear to many workers—is for capitalism to be replaced by socialism. Only then can periodic crises and mass unemployment, poverty, insecurity, exploitation and alienation be abolished.
The class struggle between the capitalist class and the working class reveals itself most starkly in the workplace. Incidentally, Marx did not invent or even propose that this struggle take place. Rather, he explained why it did so. But what is, initially, a fight over wages, terms and conditions becomes extended of necessity across a company, an industry and even across society as a whole.This is the stage at which the working class is developing and expressing an economic or ‘trade union’ consciousness.
Labour and socialist organisations then formulate and fight for broader economic and social objectives, entering the realm of politics proper.The democratic rights of working people and their organisations also come onto the agenda.This growing political consciousness becomes revolutionary when it grasps the need to abolish capitalism altogether—and understands the necessity to so by taking and using state political power.As Marx pointed out, 'theory [i.e. a system of ideas] also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses'.
WORKING CLASS STATE POWER
Thus we arrive at the third implication of Lenin’s earlier statement.The working class has to take political power, to concentrate it in its own hands in order to change society’s economic relations. More specifically, the capitalist mode of production has to be replaced by a socialist one which can in turn prepare the conditions for transition to the higher stage of communism.
For Marx and Engels, too, the transfer of political power from one class to another is the defining essence of ‘revolution’. It can take place in different ways, requiring different strategies or tactics at different stages in differing conditions. In a developed capitalist country, the period leading up to or during such a transfer would most likely witness mass demonstrations and strikes at the very least. Electoral and parliamentary politics would also be likely to feature prominently in one or more stages of the process. In more adverse conditions, military insurrection or guerrilla war may be the main or only available avenue of struggle. Clearly, the type and degree of resistance of the ruling class to revolutionary change would be a major factor in determining the character and course of the struggle itself.
In class-divided societies, the exploiting class ultimately relies on force and the threat of force to sustain its rule. For Lenin as for Marx, therefore, despite any democratic rights won by people under capitalism—such as the rights to demonstrate, speak freely and to vote—bourgeois democracy actually conceals the dictatorship of capital. By proclaiming the equality of citizens before the law and at the ballot box, it seeks to deny or downplay the enormous distorting effects of economic power and wealth in every sphere of capitalist society, not least in the ideological and political struggle. Hence Lenin's reference to the 'democracy of the moneybags'.
This is not to underestimate the importance of fighting for and defending democratic rights, which enable exploited and oppressed people to organise to improve their conditions, and which allow socialists and Communists to fight more extensively for political change.
But Marx and Lenin also insisted that the dictatorship of the capitalist class would have to be replaced by what they called the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. By 'dictatorship' they meant the reality—under socialism as under capitalism—of rule based ultimately on force, however much that force may be regulated by laws and constitutions.
Developments in the 20th century—not least the experience of fascism—have given the word 'dictatorship' a wholly negative meaning quite different from the scientific use of the term by Marx and Lenin. Rather than representing the negation of democracy, the dictatorship of the proletariat was intended to transform it, to raise it to a higher level, to negate its negation by monopoly capitalism. How? By reconstructing the apparatus of the state so that the vast majority of the people—the working class and its allies—exercise political power.
Thus Marx pointed to Paris Commune of 1871, where all officials were elected by and instantly accountable to the masses, earning no more than the average worker, as a working class state in embryo—which is why the reactionary French government joined forces with the invading Prussian army to massacre the communards.The Soviet Union, too, was built initially as a working people’s democracy based on elected councils—or ‘soviets’ in Russian—of workers, peasants and soldiers delegates.That system was subsequently eroded and distorted by civil war, capitalist blockade and foreign invasion into the bureaucratic command system built during the Stalin period.
All these are reasons why Communists in Britain and elsewhere no longer use a formulation—‘dictatorship of the proletariat’—which conveys the opposite meaning to the one intended. Rather, formulations such as ‘working class state power’ are used, which express the same thing in essence.That essence is profoundly democratic, including the necessity for the socialist state—in the interests of the vast majority—to be able to enact its policies and defend itself.
SOCIALISM AND COMMUNISM
The aim after taking state power is to build a socialist society, which Marx categorised as the first or lower phase of the communist mode of production.
Progressively, production would be planned on the basis of social (which can include state, municipal and co-operative) ownership of large enterprises and key sectors. Increasingly, people’s real and social needs would be met as society’s forces of production are developed more fully. Social inequalities would be reduced drastically although, in accordance with the slogan ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution’, differentials would continue to reward effort, skill and social usefulness.All forms of oppression on grounds of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, age etc. would be challenged and eliminated.
While the socialist state would defend itself against internal and external counter-revolution, its foreign policy would be based on principles of social justice, solidarity and peaceful co-existence.
The higher phase of communism would witness the transition to a classless society based on fulfilling and creative labour, full equality and co-operation.The state apparatus would for most purposes wither away—especially those parts of it previously required to suppress one class by another. Because now, as Marx anticipated,‘all the common springs of wealth flow more abundantly’, people’s material needs could be met in full. Society's slogan is now 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs'. For the first time in history, truly free human beings could realise their potential in a society which was fully human.
In the 20th century, the Soviet Union and socialist states of eastern Europe made enormous and historic efforts to build socialist societies.They abolished unemployment and the extremes of poverty and wealth on the basis of public ownership and economic planning. Between 1950 and 1975, their share of world industrial production rose from less than 20 per cent to more than 40 per cent with growth rates five times those in the developed capitalist countries. For the first time in the countries of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, free health and education systems were established and cultural activities promoted on a massive scale. Discrimination against women, Jews and other nationalities was substantially reduced if not abolished.
Not least, the Soviet Union saved the world's peoples from capitalist fascism and, together with its allies, supported national liberation struggles against imperialism across the globe.
All this was achieved despite the political, economic and military forces of counter-revolution, including the Cold War launched by the US and British ruling classes.
At the same time, these objective conditions led to ruling Communist parties and regimes making serious mistakes. In particular, they excluded the mass of people from economic and political decision-making, violated socialist legality on a substantial scale and came to treat Marxism as a frozen, rigid dogma.Yet Marx himself emphasised to the International Working Men’s Association that the emancipation of the working class must be an act of the working class itself.
From the experiences of past and present socialist societies such as Cuba and China, both positive and negative, the left can learn lessons for future attempts at constructing socialism.
THREE CONDITIONS FOR REVOLUTION
When and how canrevolutions be successful and so open the road to socialism in Britain and other countries? Lenin suggested three sets of conditions which determine whether a revolutionary situation exists and its potential can be realised.
The first is that the ruling class—in Britain’s case the monopoly capitalists and their senior political and state officials—is no longer able to rule in the old way. Secondly, the working class is no longer prepared to be ruled in the old way. Thirdly, the working class has the revolutionary organisation, strategy and leadership required to secure revolutionary change.
Where one or more of these conditions does not exist, there is no realistic prospect of a successful outcome. Even where they do, the outcome is not always certain: a new settlement may be found whereby the old ruling class rules in a new way. Sometimes, the balance of forces can shift in the course of struggle against those who want fundamental change, for reasons which could not have been anticipated and accommodated in terms of revolutionary organisation or strategy.
Making the wrong assessment of objective conditions, having inadequate organisation in one major respect or another, pursuing an inappropriate strategy—any or all of these can lead to demoralisation and defeat (although Marx and Lenin both recognised that sometimes a doomed fight is better than no fight at all—as was the case with the heroic Paris Commune). On the other hand, for similar reasons, revolutionary opportunities can be missed.
Let’s take Lenin’s three sets of conditions in turn.
Firstly, when is the ruling class unable to continue ruling in the old way? Answer—when their system is in deep crisis.
This must be more than the cyclical economic and periodic political crises which are intrinsic to capitalism. Such crises may require a change of government, but they rarely confront the ruling class with the necessity of finding a substantially new way to exercise political power.
Nevertheless, crises of this kind may present opportunities to make inroads into capitalist wealth and power, to tilt the balance of forces and so create more favourable conditions for further advance. Less frequently, they may actually represent a tipping point, signifying that the conditions for revolutionary change are ripening. Revolutionaries must therefore adopt a serious, scientific approach to the study of capitalist crisis.
For instance, the dialectical relationships within and between society’s superstructure and its base indicate that economic crises are usually connected to crisis in other spheres of society.There may be a significant social crisis, for example, expressed in terms of social degeneration and conflict. Politically, governments can collapse as the consequence of incompetence, division or corruption, sometimes reflecting conflicting interests within the ruling class itself.
Ideologically, alternative ideas and values to those peddled by capitalist 'commodity culture' may be gaining in appeal, including those of socialism and communism (although they may not be fully understood as such). Progressive and socialist movements and organisations may be making ground in terms of their influence and capacity.
The second of Lenin’s conditions is that the working class is in revolt.Why the working class? Because capitalism’s dependence on labour power is absolute, because the proletariat’s economic role has compelled it to think, fight and organise collectively, and because it has the most to gain—its own liberation— from socialist revolution. But it does not follow automatically that a dramatic worsening of people’s conditions will produce revolt, or at least not necessarily one in favour of socialism. On the contrary, elements of the working and middle classes can—in desperate circumstances—turn instead to extreme nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism (which Engels described as 'the socialism of fools'), fascism or religious fundamentalism.
What is required is a sense of revolt inspired by a growing revolutionary consciousness rather than any false consciousness.An understanding of the need for fundamental change can develop rapidly, when capitalism so clearly fails to realise the potential of society’s productive forces. But this does not mean that a slide into utter destitution or dictatorship will increase the potential for revolution. On the contrary, mass unemployment and the curtailment of democratic rights are typical ways in which the capitalist ruling class seeks to resolve crises in its favour and break working class organisation.
The growing strength of the labour movement, successful fights for better wages and conditions, campaigns which increase the social wage (i.e. state pensions, benefits and public services), mass movements which prevent imperialist wars and the withdrawal of civil liberties—these are what cause political crisis for those who have the wealth and power in capitalist society, creating divisions within the ruling class about how to respond.When these battles grow, multiply and combine into a movement for revolutionary change, quantity is transformed into quality. Resistance turns into revolution.
Yet such a movement is unlikely to arise spontaneously, nor will it succeed in taking political power without the third of Lenin's conditions for victory— organisation, strategy and leadership.These will be essential to fight effectively on the economic and political fronts.
Revolutionary organisation will be strong to the degree that it can assist in the day-to-day, bread-and-butter battles that workers and their families have to fight, while also showing that any gains made will constantly have to be defended and extended. It should seek to draw upon the experience and commitment of masses of people. It needs to be able to mobilise on every front.
But as Engels reminded the German and French socialists, revolutionary organisation and leadership also have the responsibility to wage the class struggle on the ideological front, challenging the ideas and values of monopoly capitalism. This is even more important today, when the monopoly-controlled mass media control so much of the flow of information, shaping popular ideas and perceptions about class, race, gender and nationality, dictating the political agenda and producing a celebrity-obsessed 'mass culture' which does nothing to inform, educate or support the struggles of working people and their families.
In particular, the labour movement must expose and reject all attempts by the mass media, employers and right-wing governments to divide workers along national, racial or religious lines. Only by championing women's equality in every sphere of society can the labour movement help build and lead a genuinely mass movement against capitalist exploitation and all forms of oppression. Only by rejecting all manifestations of racism can the working class maintain unity and clarity of vision instead of succumbing to the most virulent draughts of poison. Only by adopting the most consistently democratic stance in favour of the right of nations to self-determination, against all kinds of national privilege and inequality, can the labour movement offer a credible alternative to nationalist ideology and divisions within the working class.
In an advanced and complex society, revolutionary organisation is unlikely to be embodied in a single political party. It will be spread across a wide range of bodies and movements.Yet the extent to which the most active, committed, knowledgeable and influential revolutionaries can organise together within a united Marxist party is the extent to which the revolutionary process can be given strategy and leadership.
Communist and workers parties bring together people who are developing a Marxist understanding of capitalism and the need to replace it.These parties draw their membership primarily from the ranks of working people, but also welcome members from a wide range of social positions who agree with the aims and principles of the party. Such parties also seek to develop strategies for revolution suited to their own national and international conditions.
PRINCIPLES OF REVOLUTIONARY STRATEGY
The science of revolution demands that any such strategy is concrete, practical and realistic. Dialectical in its understanding, it should identify the forces, means and objectives of the revolution at each of its distinct but inter-connected stages.There can be no room in such a programme for exaggerated sentiment, empty optimism or heroic posturing. Commitment to principle must be combined with tactical flexibility, recognising that the course and features of the revolutionary process will be affected by events and by the forces which seek to advance and retard it.
One fundamental issue to be clarified is the relationship between the national and international dimensions of socialist revolution.
The ongoing internationalisation of capital has led some on the left to question the viability of 'national' roads to socialism.This echoes the claims of capitalist politicians and intellectuals that little or nothing can be done to plan or regulate the economy at national level, or to take decisive action on such important matters as climate change.
Conveniently for monopoly capital, these arguments would free big business from the constraints that could be imposed on it at the level of the national (or in Britain's case multinational) state—the level at which the forces of the left and the trade union movement are at their most organised and cohesive, the level at which working people and their families can win a democratic mandate and elect a government, the only level at which state power could be brought to bear decisively on the interests of monopoly capital. It is no accident that the monopoly-dominated European Union is seeking to prevent the exertion of popular sovereignty over monopoly capital at the national level, transferring powers of economic and financial intervention to the EU Commission and European Central Bank.
At the same time, Britain's capitalist monopolies still concentrate their political influence and power at the level of the national state.The British state apparatus still acts as a powerful force for the interests of British monopoly capital, for British imperialism.Why should it have no potential to be transformed into a powerful instrument for the interests of the working class and peoples of Britain, provided EU institutions, treaties and policies are confronted?
The international balance of forces between capital and labour can be a significant factor to take into account when devising national policies and strategies—as can the divisions between different capitalist states at the international level. International solidarity between working class and progressive forces, and between governments which represent their interests, is always desirable and sometimes essential and decisive.
But none of this can replace—indeed it presupposes—the need for the labour movement and its allies to take political power at the national level. As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, the working class must 'constitute itself as the nation' and 'win the battle of democracy'.
While each country must find its own path to socialism, nonetheless there are conditions common to most if not all advanced, complex and diverse capitalist societies which determine some principles of revolutionary strategy.
For instance, the organised working class movement has to be the leading force in the fight for revolutionary change, because its position in capitalist society provides it with an unequalled capacity and motivation to abolish the capitalist mode of production.
Different aspects of state-monopoly capitalism also create the potential to unite a wide range of forces within and beyond the working class for far-reaching change.
For example, in its rapacious drive for profit, the monopoly capitalist class has increasingly polarised society with itself at the top and the working class below. This—related as it is to widespread changes in the nature of work—has 'proletarianised' many professional, technical and administrative workers.They are a source of valuable new recruits for the labour movement. Other sections of the population—small business people, farmers, the self-employed, managers— comprise 'intermediate strata' who have to work for a living, are not big capitalists, but come under intense pressure from monopoly banks, suppliers and contractors, or from top state or corporate directors.They, too, can be won for democratic and anti-monopoly policies.
The organised working class movement should wage the staunchest and most consistent fight against all forms of oppression, thereby promoting unity within and beyond its own ranks between men and women, black and white, straight and gay, young and old, developing the movement's own political consciousness and enabling it to lead a democratic alliance against state-monopoly capitalism.
The fight for economic, social and democratic reforms is essential in order to begin making inroads into the economic and political power of monopoly capital. These create more favourable conditions for decisive confrontations with the ruling class which are still to come. But a strategy of winning reforms in order to change capitalism gradually into socialism—'reformism'—is doomed to fail. It ducks the challenge of devising a strategy to take and hold state power.Anyway, reforms themselves are usually precarious, partial and likely to be revoked by the monopoly capitalists and their state when the balance of forces permits. Revolutionary strategy, therefore, needs to show why and how the struggle for reforms should be extended and transformed into a struggle for real political power.
During and immediately after the transfer of state power, the working class and its allies will also have to restructure the machinery of rule to enable the fullest direct participation of the mass of people in the revolutionary process.This will involve abolishing some parts of the old state apparatus, reforming others and incorporating new bodies which may have arisen in the course of struggle.
The Communist Manifesto proposed, in the conditions of its time, a programme of measures to massively expand society’s productive forces and make deep inroads into the economic power of the capitalist class, including: state nationalisation of the land, banking and transport services; a heavily progressive income tax aimed at the rich; the abolition of inheritance rights; an equal obligation upon all to work; and planned improvement and cultivation of the soil and wastelands. Such a programme would, Marx and Engels believed, prepare the way for revolutionising society’s mode of production
In Britain today, such an alternative economic and political strategy would involve extensive measures of democratic public ownership in key areas of the economy, controls on the export of capital, measures to promote productive industry and public services, a major redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and increased state pensions and benefits, massive investment in social housing and public transport and renewable energy, parliaments for Wales and Scotland and a legislative chamber for England in a federal Britain, more powers and resources for local government, an expansion of civil liberties including repeal of the anti-union laws and of all racist and sexist legislation, abolition of the House of Lords and the monarchy, democratisation of the intelligence services and an independent non-nuclear defence policy.
THE GENERAL CRISIS OF CAPITALISM
What, then, are the prospects for socialist revolution in the early 21st century?
In the century just gone, the international Communist movement identified what it called the 'general crisis' of capitalism.This denoted the breakdown of the capitalist mode of production in all the main spheres of society.
Globally, imperialism faced the rise of the socialist system led by the Soviet Union which hugely strengthened the left-wing and working class movements, changing the balance of forces within countries and internationally.The imperialist system of direct colonial rule had collapsed and numerous countries were striving to liberate themselves from over-dependence on private, mostly Western capital. Economically, monopoly had intensified its grip on every major branch of production, distribution and exchange and aggravated the tendency towards economic and financial crisis. Socially, capitalism was unable or unwilling to put an end to a wide range of oppressions relating to gender, race, sexuality, age and nationality. Capitalist society was losing its optimism and cohesion, with many people experiencing psychological problems—often arising from stress—and ever larger sections of the population demonstrating their disaffection through self-destructive, anti-social or escapist behaviour. Politics was becoming increasingly corrupted by big business as the ideological apparatus of state-monopoly capitalism—notably the mass media—abandoned earlier bourgeois notions of inquiry, integrity and improvement in favour of vulgar populism, cynicism, defeatism, consumerism and anti-socialism (often expressed in the form of anti-Communism).
The collapse of the socialist systems in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe temporarily suppressed the main political characteristic of capitalism's general crisis.Yet, after the briefest lull and much empty rhetoric about the 'peace dividend' and a 'new world order' free from poverty and oppression, all the characteristics of the general crisis have returned to the fore, more pronounced and seemingly intractable than before.
The sharpening conflict between the capitalist monopolies and their respective states and blocs of states, including in their efforts to control energy supplies and exploit the former socialist countries of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, has unleashed a new wave of authoritarianism, racism and war
The world-wide scramble for monopoly profit is depleting the Earth's nonrenewable energy resources without regard for the immediate environmental or longer term ecological consequences.Vital research, development and exploitation of renewable and less harmful energy sources are neglected because bigger profits can be made by the capitalist monopolies elsewhere, dictating the priorities of capitalist states accordingly.A system based on the ruthless exploitation of all physical resources, driven by the accumulation of capital and the maximisation of profit, will never be able to solve the problems of global warming and energy depletion which confront our planet and its people. Public ownership and planning of energy resources and transport systems is the minimum required at national level to lay the basis for a solution. International levels of co-operation, agreement and planning between states will also be essential.
Economically, the initiative in world development is passing to China and India. Politically, too, imperialist power now faces a renewed challenge from developing countries and mass popular movements determined to withstand US aggression and throw off the shackles of neo-colonialism. Countries such as China, Brazil and South Africa are not prepared to accept US and European Union diktat while, in Latin America, Cuba and Venezuela have taken the lead in forging a continental left-wing alternative to dollar imperialism.
Around the world, the anti-war, anti-globalisation and environmental movements have joined resurgent Communist parties and trades unions to constitute an emerging new 'superpower', opposed to US imperialism and capitalist globalisation.
State-monopoly capitalism shows no sign of being able to eliminate the severe, deep-rooted, structural problems which belie its claims to be a humane, civilised system. Only by transcending the capitalist mode of production can we secure the future of the Earth and its peoples.The need for the working class to emancipate itself and the whole of humanity becomes ever more urgent.
How can this be achieved? The study and application of Marxism helps provide the answers to these questions.As a creative, developing body of ideas, constantly being enriched by lessons from real life, it retains its unique power as the force for human liberation in the 21st century.
1.Why do you think it is possible for a working class to combine a high level of trade union consciousness with a much lower level of revolutionary consciousness?
2.Marx told the German Workers’ Party in 1875 that the political class struggle is ‘national’ in form (i.e. for the working class ‘its own country is the immediate arena for its struggle’) but ‘international’ in substance.What do you think he meant and how would this apply today? 3.What can be done to transform trade union consciousness into revolutionary political consciousness? 4.Which forces are potential allies of the working class today—and what are the opportunities and hazards presented by such alliances? 5.What should be the strategic priorities for the political work of socialists and communists in Britain?