Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

How can society be changed?

In Britain the overwhelming majority of socialists and trade unionists have generally argued that society can be transformed without violent revolution. All that is needed, they say, is for socialists to win enough popular support to gain control of the ‘traditional’ political institutions – parliament and the local councils. Then socialists will be in a position to change society by getting the existing state – the civil service, the judiciary, the police, the armed forces – to enforce laws to curtail the power of the employing class.

In this way, it has been claimed, socialism can be introduced gradually and without violence, by reforming the present set up.

This view is usually referred to as ‘reformism’, although occasionally you will hear it referred to as ‘revisionism’ (because it involves revising Marx’s ideas completely), ‘social democracy’ (although until 1914 that meant revolutionary socialism) or Fabianism (after the Fabian Society which has long propagated the reformist view in Britain). It is a view accepted by the left as well as the right of the Labour Party.

Reformism seems, at first sight, very plausible. It fits with what we are told at school, in the papers and on television – that ‘parliament runs the country’ and that ‘parliament is elected according to the democratic wishes of the people’. Yet despite that, every attempt to introduce socialism through parliament has ended in failure. Thus there were three majority Labour governments in Britain between 1945 and 1979 – with massive majorities in 1945 and 1966 – yet we are no nearer socialism than in 1945.

The experience abroad is the same. In Chile in 1970, the socialist Salvador Allende was elected president. People claimed that this was a ‘new way’ to move to socialism. Three years later the generals who had been asked to join the government overthrew Allende and the Chilean working class movement was destroyed.

There are three interconnected reasons why reformism must always fail.

Firstly, while socialist majorities in parliaments are ‘gradually’ introducing socialist measures, real economic power continues to lie in the hands of the old ruling class. They can use this economic power to shut down whole sections of industry, to create unemployment, to force up prices through speculation and hoarding, to send money abroad so creating a ‘balance of payments’ crisis, and to launch press campaigns blaming all this on the socialist government.

Thus Harold Wilson’s Labour government was forced in 1964 and again in 1966 to drop measures which would have benefited workers – by the wholesale movement of money abroad by wealthy individuals and companies. Wilson himself describes in his memoirs how:

We had now reached the situation where a newly elected government was being told by international speculators that the policy on which we had fought the election could not be implemented... The queen’s first minister was being asked to bring down the curtain on parliamentary democracy by accepting the doctrine that an election in Britain was a farce, that the British people could not make a choice between policies.

It only needs to be added that, despite Wilson’s alleged indignation, for the next six years he did indeed follow the sort of policies demanded by the speculators.

The same deliberate creation of balance of payments crises forced the Labour government elected in 1974 to introduce three consecutive sets of cuts in public spending in hospitals, schools and social services.

Allende’s government in Chile faced even greater disruption at the hands of big business. Twice, whole sections of industry were shut down by ‘bosses’ strikes’, as speculation increased prices to an enormous level and hoarding of goods by businessmen caused queuing for the necessities of life.

The second reason capitalism cannot be reformed is that the existing state machine is not ‘neutral’, but designed, from top to bottom, to preserve capitalist society.

The state controls nearly all the means of exercising physical force, the means of violence. If the organisations of the state were neutral, and did whatever any particular government told them, whether capitalist or socialist, then the state could be used to stop sabotage of the economy by big business. But look at the way the state machine operates and who really gives the orders, and you can see it is not neutral.

The state machine is not simply the government. It is a vast organisation with many different branches – the police, the army, the judiciary, the civil service, the people who run the nationalised industries and so on. Many of the people who work in these different branches of the state come from the working class – they live and get paid like workers.

But it is not these people who make the decisions. The rank and file soldiers don’t decide where wars are going to be fought or whether strikes are going to be broken; the counter clerk in the social security office does not decide how much dole will be paid out. The whole state machine is based on the principle that people on one rung of the ladder obey those on the rung above.

This is essentially the case in the sections of the state machine that exercise physical force – army, navy, air force, police. The first thing soldiers are taught when they enlist – long before they are allowed to touch weapons – is to obey orders, regardless of their personal opinions of those orders. That is why they are taught to do absurd drills. If they will follow lunatic commands on the parade ground without thinking about it, it is reckoned they will shoot when ordered to without thinking about that either.

The most heinous crime in any army is a refusal to obey orders – mutiny. So seriously is the offence regarded, that mutiny during time of war is still punishable by execution in Britain. Who gives the orders?

If you look at the chain of command in the British army (and other armies are no different) it goes: general – brigadier – colonel – lieutenant – NCO – private. At no stage in that chain of command do elected representatives – MPs or local councillors – get a look in. It is just as much an act of mutiny for a group of privates to obey their local MP rather than the officer. The army is a massive killing machine. The people who run it – and have the power to promote other soldiers into commanding positions – are the generals.

Of course, in theory the generals are responsible to the elected government. But soldiers are trained to obey generals, not politicians. If generals choose to give orders to their soldiers which are at variance with the wishes of an elected government, the government cannot countermand those orders. It can only try to persuade the generals to change their minds. The government knows the sorts of orders that are being given – because military affairs are invariably secret, it is very easy for generals to hide what they are doing from governments they don’t like.

That doesn’t always mean that generals always, or even usually, ignore what governments say to them. Usually in Britain they have found it convenient to go along with most of what the government suggests. But, in a life and death situation, the generals are able to put their killing machine into operation without listening at all to the government, and there is little the government can do about it. This is what the generals eventually did in Chile when Allende was overthrown.

So the question, ‘Who runs the army?’ is really, ‘Who are the generals?’ In Britain about 80 percent of the senior officers went to fee-paying ‘public’ schools – the same proportion as 50 years ago (17 years of Labour government didn’t change that). They are related to the owners of big business, belong to the same posh clubs, mix at the same social functions, share the same ideas (if you doubt this, look at the letters column in virtually any copy of the Daily Telegraph). The same goes for the heads of the civil service, the judges, the chief constables.

Do you think these people are going to obey government orders to take economic power away from their friends and relatives in big business, just because 330 people walk into a lobby in the House of Commons? Would they not be much more likely to copy the example of the Chilean generals, judges and senior civil servants, who sabotaged the government’s orders for three years and then, when the time was ripe, overthrew it?

In practice the particular ‘constitution’ we have in Britain means that those who control the state machine would be able to thwart the will of an elected left wing government far short of physically overthrowing it. If such a government were elected, it would be faced with massive economic sabotage by the employing class (factory closures, flights of money abroad, hoarding of necessities, inflationary price rises). If the government attempted to deal with such sabotage using ‘constitutional means’ – by passing laws – it would find its hands tied behind its back.

The House of Lords would certainly refuse to ratify any such law – delaying it for nine months at a minimum. The judges would ‘interpret’ any law passed in such a way as to curtail its powers. The civil service chiefs, the generals and the police chiefs would use the decisions of the judges and the House of Lords to justify their own unwillingness to do what ministers told them. They would be backed by virtually the whole press, which would scream that the government was behaving ‘illegally’ and ‘unconstitutionally’. The generals would then use such language to justify preparations to overthrow an ‘illegal’ government.

The government would be powerless to deal with the economic chaos – unless it really did act unconstitutionally and called upon rank and file civil servants, police and soldiers to turn against their superiors.

Lest anyone thinks this is all wild fantasy, it should be added that there have been at least two occasions in recent British history when generals have sabotaged government decisions they did not like.

In 1912 the House of Commons passed a bill providing for a ‘Home Rule’ parliament to run a united Ireland. The Tory leader, Bonar Law, immediately denounced the (Liberal!) government as an illegal ‘junta’ who had ‘sold the constitution’. The House of Lords naturally delayed the law as long as it could (two years then), while former Tory minister Edward Carson organised a paramilitary force in the north of Ireland to resist the law.

When the generals who commanded the British army in Ireland were told to move their troops northwards to deal with this force, they refused and threatened to resign their commissions. It was because of this action, usually called the ‘Curragh Mutiny’, that Ireland north and south didn’t get a single parliament in 1914, and remains a divided nation even today.

In 1974 there was a rerun of the events of 1912 in miniature. The right wing sectarian Loyalists of Northern Ireland organised a general stoppage of industry, using barricades to prevent people going to work, against being forced to accept a joint Protestant-Catholic government in Northern Ireland. British ministers called on the British army and the Northern Ireland police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, to dismantle the barricades and end the strike. The senior army officers and the police commanders told the government that this would be inadvisable, and neither soldiers nor police moved against the Loyalists. The joint Protestant-Catholic government was forced to resign, the views of army officers proving more powerful than the views of the British government.

If that could happen in 1914 and 1974 with middle-of-the-road governments trying to push through mild measures, imagine what would happen if a militant socialist government was elected. Any serious reformist majority in parliament would soon be forced to make a choice: either abandon reforms in order to placate those who own industry and control the key positions in the state, or prepare for an all out conflict, which will inevitably mean the use of some kind of force, against those who control those positions.

The third reason why reformism is a dead end is that parliamentary ‘democracy’ contains inbuilt mechanisms for preventing any revolutionary movement finding expression through it.

Some reformists argue that the best way to take on the power of those who control the key positions in the state machine is for the left to obtain a majority in parliament first. This argument falls because parliaments always understate the level of revolutionary consciousness of the mass of the population.

The mass of the people will only believe that they themselves can run society when they begin in practice to change society through struggle. It is when millions of people are occupying their factories or taking part in a general strike that ideas of revolutionary socialism suddenly seem realistic.

But such a level of struggle cannot be maintained indefinitely unless the old ruling class is removed from power. If it hangs on, it will wait until the occupations or strikes decline, then use its control over the army and police to break the struggle.

And once the strikes or occupations begin to falter, the feeling of unity and confidence among the workers begins to wane. Demoralisation and bitterness set in. Even the best begin to feel that changing society was just a wild dream.

That is why employers always prefer strike votes to be taken when workers are at home by themselves, getting their ideas from the television and the newspapers, not when they are united at mass meetings, able to hear other workers’ arguments.

That is also why anti-union laws nearly always include a clause forcing workers to call off strikes while secret, postal ballots are taken. Such clauses are accurately called ‘cooling off’ periods – they are designed to pour cold water on the confidence and unity of workers.

The parliamentary electoral system contains built-in secret ballots and cooling off periods. For instance, if a government is brought to its knees by a massive strike, it is likely to say, ‘OK, wait three weeks until a general election can resolve the question democratically.’ It hopes that in the interim the strike will be called off. The workers’ confidence and unity will then fade. Employers may well be able to blacklist militants. The capitalist press and the television can begin functioning normally again, hammering home pro-government ideas. The police can arrest ‘troublemakers’.

Then when the election finally takes place, the vote will not reflect the high point of the workers’ struggles, but the low point after the strike.

In France in 1968, the government of General de Gaulle used elections in precisely this way. The reformist workers’ parties and unions told workers to end their strikes, and de Gaulle won the election.

The British Prime Minister Edward Heath tried the same trick when faced with a massively successful miners’ strike in 1974. But this time the miners were not conned. They kept their strike up – and Heath lost the election.

If workers wait for elections to decide the key issues in the class struggle, they will never reach that high point.

The workers’ state

Marx, in his pamphlet The Civil War in France, and Lenin in The State and Revolution outlined a completely different view of how socialism can be won. Neither simply pulled these ideas out of thin air: both developed their views by seeing the working class inaction – Marx saw the Paris Commune, Lenin the Russian ‘Soviets’ (workers’ councils) of 1905 and 1917.

But Marx and Lenin insisted that the working class could not begin to construct socialism until it had first destroyed the old state based on bureaucratic chains of command, and secondly created a new state based on entirely new principles. Lenin underlined how completely different this state had to be from the old by calling it ‘a commune state, a state which is not a state’.

A new state, Marx and Lenin said, was necessary if the working class was to impose its dictates on the remnants of the old ruling and middle classes. That was why they called it the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – the working class had to dictate how society was to be run. It also had to defend its revolution against attacks from ruling classes elsewhere in the world. To do these two jobs, it had to have armed forces of its own, some form of policing of society, courts, even prisons.

But if this new army, police and legal system was to be controlled by the workers, and never turn against their interests, it had to be based on completely different principles from the capitalist state. It had to be the means by which the working class as a majority dictated to the rest of society, not a dictatorship directed against the majority of the working class.

The main differences are these.

The capitalist state serves the interests of a small minority of society. The workers’ state has to serve the interests of the overwhelming majority. Force in the capitalist state is exercised by a minority of hired killers, cut off from the rest of society and trained to obey upper class officers. But in a workers’ state, force would be needed only so the majority could protect themselves against anti-social acts by the remnants of the old privileged classes.

Soldiering and policing in a workers’ state can be done by ordinary workers, who mix freely with their fellow workers, share the same ideas and lead the same lives. Indeed, to make sure that groups of soldiers and police never develop separated from the mass of workers, the ‘soldiers’ and ‘police’ should be ordinary factory and office workers who take it in turns, on a rota system, to carry out these functions.

Instead of the armed forces and police being run by a small group of officers, they would be run by directly elected representatives of the mass of workers.

Parliamentary representatives in a capitalist state pass laws but leave it to full time bureaucrats, police chiefs and judges to implement them. This means that MPs and councillors can always hide behind a million excuses when their promises are not implemented. The workers’ representatives in a workers’ state would have to see their laws put into action. They, not an elite of top bureaucrats, would have to explain to the workers of the civil service, the army and so on how things should be done.

Again elected workers’ representatives would have to interpret the laws in courts.

Parliamentary representatives in a capitalist state are cut off from those who elect them by high salaries. In a workers’ state the representatives would get no more than the average workers’ wage. The same goes for those who work full time in key posts implementing the decisions of the workers’ representatives (the equivalent of present-day civil servants).

Workers’ representatives, and all those concerned with implementing workers’ decisions, would not be, as MPs, immune to removal from office for five years (or for life in the case of senior civil servants). They would be subject to at least annual elections, and to immediate recall by those who elected them if they did not implement their wishes.

Parliamentary representatives are elected by all the people living in a certain locality – upper class, middle class and working class, slum landlords as well as tenants, stockbrokers as well as labourers. In a workers’ state election would be by those who work only, with voting only after open discussion on the issues concerned. So the core of the workers’ state would be workers’ councils based on the factories, mines, docks, big offices, with groups such as housewives, pensioners, school students and students having their own representatives.

In this way, each section of the working class would have its own representative and be able directly to judge whether he or she was following their interests. In these ways, the new state cannot become a force separate from and against the majority working class – as it was in Eastern Bloc countries which called themselves ‘Communist’.

At the same time, the workers’ council system provides a means by which workers can coordinate their efforts in running industry according to a democratically decided national plan, and not end up running their factories in competition with each other. It is easy to see how modem computer technology would enable all workers to be given information on the various economic options open to society, and to direct their representatives to choose what the majority of workers thought the best set of options – for example, whether to spend resources on Concorde or on a cheap and reliable public transport system, whether to build nuclear bombs or kidney machines, and so on.

The withering away of the state

Because state power would not be something separate from the mass of the workers, it would be much less a matter of coercion than under capitalism. As the remnants of the old society against which it was directed became resigned to the success of the revolution, and as revolutions removed foreign ruling classes, there would be less and less need for coercion, until eventually workers need never take time off from work to staff the ‘police’ and the ‘army’.

This is what Marx and Lenin meant when they said the state would wither away. Instead of coercion against people, the state would become merely a mechanism of workers’ councils to decide how to produce and allocate goods.

Workers’ councils have come into being in one form or another whenever the struggle between the classes within capitalism has reached a really high level. ‘Soviet’ is the word the Russians used for workers’ councils in 1905 and 1917.

In 1918 in Germany workers’ councils were, briefly, the only power in the country. In Spain in 1936 the various workers’ parties and unions were united by ‘militia committees’ which ran the localities and were very much like workers’ councils. In Hungary in 1956 the workers elected councils to run the factories and the localities as they fought Russian troops. In Chile in 1972–73 the workers began to build ‘cordones’ – workers’ committees that linked the big factories.

The workers’ council begins life as a body workers use to coordinate their struggle against capitalism. It may start with modest functions, raising strike funds maybe, but because these bodies are based on direct election from the workers, with workers’ representatives subject to recall, they can at the highest points in the struggle coordinate the efforts of the whole working class. They can lay the basis for workers’ power.


Last updated on 12 February 2019