Capturing the Capitalist Citadel: From Outside and From Within

Author: Harry Ratner
Source: New Interventions, Volume 13, no 4, Summer 2011.
Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive: by Paul Flewers & David Walters in 2017 & 2018
Copyright: New Interventions & Paul Flewers. Used here with permission.

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What are the chances of successful socialist revolution world-wide? I would say ‘very small’. I can visualise many who read this bald statement will immediately decide to read no further — concluding that Harry Ratner has finally given up and can no longer be considered a socialist. So let me explain what I mean. I am saying the chances are very slim if we visualise the triumph of socialism purely in terms of Marxist ideology — or more accurately its Leninist-Trotskyist version — but more likely to be better if we look beyond the Leninist-Trotskyist scenario to other possibilities.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘the Leninist-Trotskyist scenario’. It derives from Marxist historical materialism that sees human societies developing according to objective laws through progressive stages — primitive communism, slave societies, feudalism, to present-day capitalism. The next historically-determined stage will be communism. The triumph of communism is almost guaranteed because the growing contradictions of capitalism lead to repeated crises and because capitalism has created its own grave-diggers in the shape of the proletariat. And Marxism gives to this proletariat an inevitable role — the overthrow of capitalism and its eventual replacement by a communist society. According to Marx:

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian or even the whole proletarian movement momentarily imagines to be the aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is and what it is historically compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is prescribed irrevocably and obviously in its own situation in life as well as in the entire organisation of contemporary civil society. (The Holy Family)

The engine of progress is class struggle; in the past it was the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism; today it is the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class.

Add to this the Marxist concept of the state as ‘the executive of the ruling class’ and the need for the working class to destroy the capitalist state machine and replace it with a ‘workers’ state’.

Flowing from these premises, the Leninist-Trotskyist scenario is as follows. The deepening crisis of capitalism, with economic collapse, wars and ecological disasters, drives the workers and other oppressed layers into action: strikes, factory occupations, demonstrations, riots. Socialists participate in these movements, and in the process socialist/revolutionary/radical parties are built (or, according to other comrades, existing social-democratic or left parties are transformed from within into these parties), and these parties now achieve power and proceed to start transforming society in a socialist direction.

In the Leninist-Trotskyist perspective this conquest of power is unlikely to be achieved — even in bourgeois-democratic nations — peacefully through electoral victories. Even if a radical socialist movement won a majority in parliament, reactionary forces would do their utmost to destabilise and sabotage it, and when all else failed to overthrow it by violent means as did Pinochet in Chile. Given the hatred aroused by even the mildly reformist bourgeois Barak Obama in the United States and his very limited public health measures and the antics of the loony right, the ‘militias’ and the Tea Party movement, it is likely that even the mere possibility of a socialist congress would trigger a civil war. [1]

The Conditions for Success — And Failed Revolutions

These conditions can be the coincidence of both subjective and objective factors. The main subjective factor is the political consciousness of the working class and its willingness to support the revolutionary forces. This means that the revolutionary party must be able to call on the active military support of a sufficiently large layer of the working class and the oppressed.

In the light of Marx’s expressed belief in the historically determined role of the working class, it would seem that this willingness of the working class to support revolution is almost guaranteed. It is acceptance of the truth of Marx’s assertion that gives revolutionaries the optimism and confidence that is necessary to overcome all dangers and obstacles. Here I must reluctantly pour cold water on this optimism. More than a century and a half has elapsed since Marx’s pronouncement; it is nearly a hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War indicated to Marxists that capitalism had reached the limits of its growth and opened ‘a period of wars and revolutions’. Since then we have lived through two destructive world wars, periods of mass unemployment and numerous economic crises. Yet in no advanced capitalist country has a revolutionary party, committed to socialist transformation, won the support of a majority of the working class. In no advanced capitalist country has a successful socialist revolution occurred. Only in backward Russia did a revolutionary party win power — in 1917 — and then could only hold on to power by evolving into a corrupt dictatorship that eventually collapsed back into capitalism, and that discredited the very idea of socialism in the minds of millions.

Today, in 2011, despite the financial crisis of 2007-08, the continued attacks on living standards and welfare, the increasingly evident climatic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the influence of socialist ideas within both the working class and the population at large is the lowest it has been since the end of the nineteenth century — though there are a few green shoots here and there. What is clear, however, is that socialists must not fool themselves into thinking that the historical tide runs in their favour. Socialist ideas can triumph, but this triumph is not historically determined; it has to be fought for.

Since 1914 there have been many revolutionary situations and near-revolutions, to mention Europe alone — Germany 1918-23, Austria 1918 and 1934, Britain 1926, Spain 1936, Hungary 1918, France 1936, France, Italy and Belgium 1943-44, France 1968, Portugal 1970s. Yet in each case the revolutions aborted, were defeated (Hungary) or failed to materialise. Why? — if the working class was a potentially revolutionary as Marx argued.

Can these failures be explained by the absence of strong revolutionary parties, or mistakes of such parties where they existed, or the treachery of leaders? This is the standard argument of many comrades. Certainly there were mistakes and even betrayals. But is this a sufficient explanation?

As an example of the reasons for failure let us look at the failed revolution of 1923 in Germany, where there existed a powerful Communist Party. Its failure aroused considerable controversy within the Communist International and still does today. Trotsky attacked the leadership of the Comintern and the leadership of the German Communist Party for failing to take advantage of favourable circumstances in October to launch an insurrection and seize power. Others argued that the Anglo-French occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 and galloping inflation had created a revolutionary situation right up until August, but that after the downfall of the Cuno government in that month and its replacement by Stresemann’s government, the stabilisation of the currency and the granting of wage rises, the situation changed: ‘From then on with the workers in retreat, the economic and political situation improving, and the government prepared, all the objective factors ran counter to the idea of seizing power.’ (Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no 2, p 8) On the other hand, Trotsky argued that the situation was still revolutionary in October.

I am not concerned with who was right. In New Interventions (Volume 3, no 2, 1992) I wrote:

The point is that the mood of the working class can fluctuate so rapidly, that it can ebb and flow so rapidly under the influence of secondary conjunctural factors.

Germany in 1923 is only one instance among many. So much so that Trotsky was impelled to generalise these experiences as follows: ‘… every new sharp change in the political situation to the left places the decision in the hands of the revolutionary party. Should it miss the critical situation, the latter veers around to its opposite… the words of Lenin to the effect that two or three days can decide the fate of the international revolution have only too often been confirmed and, with the exception of the October, always from the negative side.’ (The Third International After Lenin, p 83) What does this imply about the revolutionary consciousness of the working class? That — despite Marx’s words about what ‘it is historically compelled to do’ — its ‘irrevocably prescribed action’ can only be relied on for two or three days at infrequent intervals, and that success on these rare occasions depends on the revolutionary party recognising the situation in time and getting everything right. So far, only an advanced minority of the working class has at any time attained a generalised socialist consciousness — an understanding of the necessity for socialism — strong enough not to be abandoned as a result of secondary and temporary changes in the immediate situation…

Consequently, the periods during which it has been possible for Leninist-type parties to seize power have been short-lived and infrequent. Moreover, as soon as the revolutionary regime is unable to deliver the goods (due to blockades, attempts at destabilisation, civil war and intervention by capitalist powers), the working class, in the absence of this deep socialist consciousness, is likely to turn against the revolutionary regime. This is what happened in Russia. I am not condemning the Bolsheviks for seizing power. They had every reason to expect that the Russian Revolution would spread to Germany and Western Europe, and it is easy for us to be wise with hindsight. What I am saying is that the seizure of power before the working class as a whole, or a sufficiently large section of it, has attained a generalised socialist consciousness deeply implanted enough to sustain the regime through the inevitable early period of difficulties presents serious problems, and these are directly related to the political consciousness of the working class and the general cultural level of society.

Let me do some mathematical prediction. Earlier in this article I listed all the possible revolutionary or near-revolutionary situations occurring in Europe since 1914. There were 10 in all. Let us say 12 in case I have missed any out. A total of 12 short-lived occasions during which it might have been possible for a revolutionary party to come to power. On some of these occasions such a party existed in sufficient strength (Germany 1923) but failed to take advantage due to errors. On other occasions such a party was extremely weak (Britain 1926); on other occasions (Spain 1936, France 1968) the main working-class parties were social reformist or Stalinist. Even in Russia in 1917 the Bolshevik party nearly let the opportunity slip. It was only Lenin’s frantic efforts that prodded a reluctant Central Committee to go ahead. Given all the conditions necessary for success — both subjective and objective — the odds against all being met were probably one in 10. According to this — admittedly speculative — calculation we can expect a successful revolution in any country once every 120 years! And then it would have to be followed fairly quickly by sister revolutions in several other countries.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this history is that if we rely purely on action from below the chances in the foreseeable future of socialist or communist parties achieving power — and holding on to it — in a number of countries simultaneously are very slim. However before we abandon the struggle in despair and sink into fatalism let us see if there is anything missing in the Leninist-Trotskyist perspectives I have described. Yes there is! There is the possibility of the pressure from below — the pressure of revolution — being reinforced by reform from above, from within the existing state apparatus, as a response to the threat of complete social breakdown.

The Possibility of Reform from Above — Bonapartism Revisited

It is on this question that I definitely part company with ‘orthodox’ Marxism. But I do so with some trepidation. Just as I have accused Marxists of unwarranted optimism about the revolutionary potential of the working class, so I may be accused of unwarranted optimism about the possibility of reform or restructuring from above. On what do I base this optimism if such it is?

The possibilities arise from the dual nature of the state machine. Marxism defines the state as the instrument of the ruling class — its core being ‘bodies of armed men’ and its role the preservation of the dominance of the ruling class. But the state is more than just that, as acknowledged even by Marx and Engels. In a society riven by class and ethnic conflict and even by the struggle of each against each, a structure must arise above these conflicting classes, groups and individuals in order to prevent these conflicts leading to chaos. This organism is the state; it must set the rules of conduct, a framework of laws which make possible the production of things to satisfy material needs and relatively peaceful relations between individuals and classes. The role of the state in modern society is to ensure that the above-mentioned conflicts are carried out according to certain rules (laws) that make possible the functioning of society — in this case a capitalist society. Marxists recognise this role and that in some situations the state rises above classes, balances between classes and becomes relatively independent. Marx famously pointed to Louis Bonaparte III’s regime, following his coup d’état in 1851 as balancing between classes and the bourgeoisie accepting his rule as the price of order enabling them to continue profitable investment. This phenomenon of the state becoming independent of any class and balancing between them has since been called ‘Bonapartism’ by Marxists. However, many Marxists see this as an exceptional situation and not the norm.

I would argue that there is an element of Bonapartism permanently present and that Marxists underestimate the autonomy of the state and its ability to act independently of the capitalist class per se. I have previously given examples of this — Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, wartime planning and state direction of the economy in Britain and Germany (also mentioned by Lenin). [2]

Another factor making it possible to envisage structural changes to capitalism coming from within the establishment is the difference in functions between the capitalists themselves — the bankers and directors of capitalist firms on the one hand and professional politicians and civil servants on the other. The job of the former is to run their banks and businesses and maximise profit; they do not directly run the state, make political decisions and draft laws. This is left to politicians and their civil servants and advisers. In so far as they are not individually corrupt — in the pay of or personally profiting from a particular business — their job is to enable the smooth running of the economy and maintain social order without which profitable investment is difficult. So when the economy is threatened with meltdown due to either market forces or the mistakes of bankers, or a combination of both, the politicians and the state have to intervene in the economy. This is what happened in the banking crisis of 2007-08. Governments stepped in and nationalised banks to prevent their collapse and financial meltdown. It is unfortunately true that they did this in such a way that they subsidised the bankers’ profits and bonuses and saddled the state with debts and deficits — justifying attacks on public services and welfare, pensions and wages. And they did not take the opportunity offered by these bank bailouts completely to reform the banking system and make the banks the servants of the people rather than their exploiters. The reason they failed to do so had nothing to do with inability; the British, French, German and American states had the power to draft laws and the physical force to impose them (and, let us add, the support of the rest of society) if they had done so. The reason they did not do so was ideological. These politicians, both bourgeois and Labour (in Britain) acted or failed to act because they were tied to neo-con and neo-liberal views on the need for minimum interference with market forces — on the ability of these market forces to work efficiently with minimum interference. Of course there is also corruption both subtle and indirect. Politicians hold shares in enterprises, have relatives and friends in the financial and business world; on leaving political office many find lucrative positions in businesses where their familiarity with political processes and continuing contacts opened many profitable doors. There is also the tremendous pressure of the right-wing media and professional lobbying (rampant in the USA).

But even all this does not preclude the possibility (not inevitability) of support for structural reforms and curbs on capitalism arising within the corridors of power, among politicians and their advisers — if only to ensure their continuation in office. One should not expect this when things are running relatively smoothly. But in circumstances when social breakdown as a result either of economic crises, environmental disasters and social disorder or a combination of these is imminent and the functioning of capitalism itself is at risk, is this not a possibility? The recognition even among our rulers that the existing system cannot continue as it is and needs radical reform? Did not Marx himself say that in certain circumstances of acute class struggle and crisis even a portion of the ruling class would break ranks and come over to the revolution?

All or nearly all socialists are convinced that the continued existence of capitalism and of uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources will bring about worsening climatic disasters, floods, desertication, famines, mass migrations, etc, fuelling social disorder. Add to this economic instability and you have all the conditions for mass unrest and the possibility of radical socialist/communist parties winning sufficient support to aim for power. In other words, revolutionary situations. But, as I argued above, if we look only at the situation from below, from the point of view of the Leninist-Trotskyist perspectives I outlined above, without taking into account the possibility of movements from within the corridors of power, the chances of success against a united ruling class are slim.

Opening the Gates From Within?

To illustrate my point, imagine that society is a citadel, occupied and defended by a pro-capitalist garrison. It is besieged from outside by an army of workers and oppressed led by socialist officers. The garrison is well armed, the fortress walls are strong. Only the hard core of the besieging army is disciplined and reliable. The morale of the rest fluctuates up and down, influenced by a variety of secondary factors; only at irregular intervals are they willing to storm the fortress, and the (communist) general staff of the besieging army is not always able correctly to gauge the morale of their troops, the correct moment to launch an attack. The chances of success seem remote.

But then a new factor appears. The more farsighted of the garrison realise that even if the besieging army cannot break in it will not melt away, and they see the conditions in the besieged fortress have become intolerable. They insist on negotiations and threaten to open the gates to the besiegers after reaching a compromise on how the citadel is to be run. The besiegers do not get all they want — that the citadel now be run on strict socialist lines — but get structural reforms, partial socialism.

Structural Reforms as the First Step to Socialism

What sort of compromise, what sort of interim measures are possible? Here again I must refer the reader to what I have previously written. I have argued that one of the key demands in any programme must be the complete restructure of the global financial systems — the taking of the banks into state ownership and the vesting of all decisions on major investment, both nationally and internationally, in a publicly-accountable planning body. This would make it possible both to avoid or mitigate cyclical economic crises and make possible the necessary large-scale investment in renewable and green energy — solar voltaic panels in desert regions, wind farms, the development of tidal and wave power — and soil preservation measures, anti-flood defences. All these necessary measures are hampered by lack of long-term investment and the drive for short-term profitability.

This restructuring of the financial system, this planned control of investment flows, even if the enterprises so financed remained in private ownership and worked within market mechanisms, would be a great step forward. There is already potential support for such an approach among climate scientists and even among economist experts who see the necessity for a radical restructuring of global and national financial systems. In a recent article in the Guardian the Nobel prize-winning, internationally well-known economist, Joseph Stiglitz, had this to say:

The answer… is simple: resume global growth… Restoring growth requires that all governments that have the capacity to expand aggregate demand do so… Both the US and China need structural changes, not just a readjustment of exchange rates. Even in the short run, there is much they could do to contribute to global aggregate demand: increase wages for example. Both need investments to adapt to global warming. Both need increased public spending on education and health for the poor. This alternative rests on cooperation — mutual commitments to fiscal expansion, structural reforms… A new global reserve system or an expansion of IMF ‘money’… [My emphases — HR]

Is it not possible that faced with mounting problems and imminent disaster more and more even ‘bourgeois’ politicians and their advisers and civil servants may accept the need for structural reforms? Socialists should not dismiss the possibility of a convergence between socialists and protest movements from below and pro-reform initiatives from within the power structure.

The restructuring proposed above would be both a reform of capitalism and a step on the road to a socialist transformation of society. [3] It is in such a convergence of struggle from below and restructuring reforms from above that the best possibilities for social change will be found.

Winning the Battle of Ideas

I have mentioned above that one of the reasons governments have failed to take the opportunity given by the collapse of banks during the recent meltdown to restructure radically the whole system was the dominance of pro-capitalist, pro-market, anti-intervention ideology. The fact that there was not in place an alternative ideology in society generally meant that pressure for an alternative was weak not only among the masses but also within the establishment. This why it is important for socialists to win the ideological battle. Today the influence of socialist ideas both among the working class and among intellectuals is weaker than it has been at any time in the last century; it has not recovered from the damage done by the experience of Stalinism and the failures of social democracy. This must be righted and a climate of opinion favourable to socialist and radical ideas must be worked for not only within the working class but within other classes and especially among what I would call ‘social technocrats’ — scientists (especially climate scientists), economists, civil servants, academics (often called on to become advisers to politicians).

What is needed today is something similar to the Fabian Society of the early twentieth century. It created the intellectual powerhouse that permeated the labour movement with socialist and progressive ideas and contributed to the victory of Labour in 1945 and the postwar reforms in Britain and Europe. They were of course not the only factors and they could have had better teeth on many occasions. What we need today is something like a modern and stronger Fabian Society dedicated to promoting socialist ideology both in the working-class movement and outside it. I am not sure the comrades associated with the Towards a New International Tendency (Tanit) forum would like to see themselves compared with Fabians in this way, but the discussions they have initiated and their attempt to break away from the sectarianism and dogmatism of existing far-left sects and their eagerness to integrate themselves within existing movements can be likened to a modern Fabianism. Publications such as New Interventions also contribute to the flow of ideas.


1. That, I must stress, does not validate the concept of the extreme-left rejection of parliament and a call for non-existent soviets, a refusal to embark on the parliamentary road thus isolating ourselves from a majority of the working class who still believe that the only way to choose a government is through free elections. On the contrary, socialists must strive to achieve power through parliament as long as that possibility still exists and as long as the mass of the working class and the people still see parliamentary democracy as viable. At the same time, they must prepare themselves and their supporters both psychologically and organisationally to meet and defeat these threats from reaction — and, in the process, radically democratise the state machine.

2. Let us mention a negative example. Did the German capitalists directly control the Nazi Party in the Third Reich? Was the Nazi Party nothing but a creation of the German capitalist class? Hardly. The Nazi Party from its formation was supported and financed only by a few maverick businessmen; the bulk of German businessmen supported the other bourgeois politicians and originally looked with disfavour on the Nazi thugs who disrupted order and hampered trade. It was only later that, faced with the impotence of the bourgeois parties and the communist threat, they accepted Nazi rule as a defence against revolution. Of course once the Nazis were in power there was a convergence of interest. The Nazi élite cosied up to big business and capitalist enterprises were grateful to the Nazis for suppressing the trade unions. But it would be wrong to say that the Nazi state was ‘an instrument of the ruling class’ or that Germany’s going to war in 1939 was a decision taken by German big business, rather than an implementation of Nazi ideology. That German enterprises used slave labour and profited from the plundering of the conquered territories does not alter that fact. The Third Reich could be described as another instance of Bonapartism.

3. There is no reason why socialists should not then press for further steps towards socialism — the transfer of ownership of the means of production to cooperative or social ownership, democratisation of the state machine, increasing self-government of localities and communities, etc.



Created or last updated on 8 January 2018