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Revolutionary Road

Alex Callinicos

The Revolutionary Road to Socialism

Socialism from Below

THE REFORMIST TRADITION sees socialism as something which comes ‘from above’. It is to be achieved, on workers’ behalf, by an enlightened minority – MPs, trade-union leaders, Labour Party activists. ‘Leave it to us,’ they say. ‘All you need do is vote Labour at election time’. The mass of working people are expected to play a purely passive role, just looking on while others transform society for them.

This fits in with how capitalist society is organised. Working people are constantly told – at school, on television, in the press – that they are incompetent. The only people qualified to run society are the experts – the managers, civil servants, politicians, trade-union leaders.

The revolutionary socialist tradition starts from a complete and utter rejection of this arrogant and elitist approach. We stand for socialism ‘from below’. Only workers can liberate themselves. No one can do it for them. In Marx’s words, socialism is ‘the self-emancipation of the working class’.

But what evidence is there that the working class can, and will transform society? Don’t workers seem instead to accept the existing order, to judge, for example, by their overwhelming rejection of the Labour Party in the 1983 General Election?

To answer these questions we have first to look at what gives the workers the power to change the world.

Early critics described capitalism as ‘the factory system’, and that is the key point. Capitalism brings workers together into large units: factories, mines, offices, hospitals, railway systems. In these units, our labour is organised on a massive scale. Before capitalism, making a table would be the work of one, perhaps two men. Today a furniture company will use the labour of perhaps twenty workers to produce a table – ranging from the forest worker who cuts down the trees, through the designers and joiners, to the spray polishing department and finally the sales assistant. And a table is a fairly simple product. To produce all the hundreds of components that go to make a car or aeroplane, thousands of people are organised to work collectively, co-operating together on a massive scale.

Capitalism organises and exploits workers collectively. Our work is organised on the basis of social co-operation and the division of labour. Capitalism has in fact given workers tremendous collective power, power which runs factories, hospitals, schools, transport systems. This power creates all the things that we need as human beings – and often things which we do not need, such as weapons of mass destruction, for the capitalist class controls and uses this power for its own ends and its own profit.

But the collective power that is used to run a factory can also be used to stop that factory, and could be used to run it in the interests of the workers themselves.

To use their tremendous economic power, workers have to act collectively. Solidarity in going on strike and stopping your workplace is central. But this collective activity, this workers’ cooperation on a huge scale, is precisely what capitalism has organised. How is it then, we may ask, that workers do not use their collective power and simply take over? The reason, of course, is that we are constantly told we are not capable of running things – in school, in the press, on television. The whole current of ideas in society tells us that workers work, following orders handed down from above, and that this is the natural order of things. Slaves used to believe that slavery was natural too.

But there is one point at which workers challenge this order of things – when the collective power that runs factories, offices, hospitals and railways is used to stop them. And this is very important. For it means that a strike isn’t just something negative. It isn’t just a way of hitting back at the boss, of forcing him to pay higher wages. Every strike, however limited its goal, carries within it the embryo of socialism.

For what is socialism? With the frills removed, it is people collectively running society. Instead of being the prisoners of anarchic capitalist competition and the mad rush for profit at any cost, it is working together for the common good. Our tremendous co-operative power would be controlled, not by a ruling class in the search for ever greater profits, but democratically and for the fulfilment of human need.

Many dismiss socialist ideas as Utopian. It’s a good idea, they say, but people are too greedy and selfish for it to work in practice. They forget that each and every day we work together co-operatively on a massive scale. They forget too, or perhaps have never been lucky enough to experience, the co-operation and solidarity that are displayed in every strike.

This doesn’t mean that strikers set out consciously with socialist goals in mind. Of course they don’t, with very few exceptions. But collective action is the only way to win a strike. The logic of workers’ position under capitalism – collective action in production, collective action in struggle – takes us in a socialist direction.

There’s another point as well. Workers get involved in strike action for some limited goal, for higher wages or better working conditions. But once involved in struggle, united to achieve a common goal, their ideas can change. At last you’re running something for yourself, not just being part of a massive machine run by people above you. This is how workers gain confidence, gain a sense of their ability to control their own lives, their ability to change things.

Strikers also find that their own experience clashes with the dominant ideas in society. It’s difficult to believe that the police are a neutral and benevolent force when they break your picket-lines. And you soon stop believing that the unions run the country when you come out on strike.

Workers change in struggle, They learn how society is run. They also learn that collective organisation and action can challenge the way society is loaded against them. And they gain confidence in themselves.

So socialists, above all, have to be involved in workers’ struggles. For only in struggle can significant numbers of people be won to socialist politics.

This helps explain why the Labour Party is such an unfavourable terrain for socialists. The focus of Labour Party activity is not workers’ struggles, but elections. This means that the Labour Party does not relate to workers when they are most open to socialist ideas. To open the road towards socialism, a different sort of party is needed.

Trade unions and socialism

It is fashionable for some socialists to dismiss the unions as reactionary, ‘economistic’, interested only in short-term, narrow issues such as higher wages. Despite the conservative role played by trade-union officials, we can now see why this attitude is wrong. Every strike, however limited its objectives, contains the beginnings of socialism. Through trade-union battles fought over wages, jobs, hours, and conditions, workers develop the organisation, confidence and consciousness to take on what William Morris called the ‘tremendous organisation’ of capitalism. For Marx, trade unions were ‘schools of communism’, where workers become aware of their ability to transform society.

Nevertheless, trade unions themselves operate within the limits of capitalism. They seek to improve the terms on which workers are exploited, not to destroy the system which exploits them. As we have seen, this means that the unions are dominated by a bureaucracy of full-time officials who continually seek to reconcile the interests of capital and labour, even if this means betraying their own members.

Workers have responded to the betrayals of the trade-union bureaucracy in the past by creating their own organisations. These are bodies controlled by the rank and file through elected lay delegates, and used by them as a means of fighting independently of the full-time officials. The classic case in Britain is, of course, shop stewards’ organisation.

By and large, however, shop stewards’ organisation is usually highly fragmented, based on individual workplaces or sections. But there have been times when offensives by the employers and the state have forced workers to band together and create such rank-and-file movements on a national scale. The most famous of these was the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Control Movement during the First World War. Its approach was summed up by the Clyde Workers’ Committee in 1915, which stated:

We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule of law, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.

This aspiration to a rank and file united across different trades and industries has surfaced again and again in the history of the British labour movement.

But no trade union organisation, however militant, is enough to defeat capitalism. Trade unions, we are told, are concerned with economic issues, such as wages and working hours. Politics, however, is quite different. It is to do with winning elections, and that is the job of a political party – in Britain the Labour Party. A division of labour operates, with the trade unions fighting on the economic front, the parliamentary Labour Party on the political front.

This separation of politics and economics is very damaging. In reality ‘politics is concentrated economies’, as Lenin put it. In other words, politics isn’t about parliament and elections, it’s about class power. The state exists to defend the economic system through which workers are exploited. There is no separation of politics and economics.

It follows that trade-union struggle, which limits itself to the economic field, may achieve a temporary victory, but because the capitalist class remain in control of the state and the economy, they can always come back for another round. Defeated in a wave of strikes, the employers can force up unemployment and so weaken workers’ organisation.

The Polish revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg compared trade unionism to the labour of Sisyphus, who in Greek legend was condemned for all time to push a stone up a hill, only to watch it roll down again. Trade-union struggle may win a battle, but not the war.

This is true even of rank-and-file organisation. Shop stewards accept the separation of economics and politics, fighting to improve workers’ position within an individual workplace. It is only when the employers and the state launch a general offensive that rank-and-file organisations are under pressure to link together. When they do link up it is usually under the leadership of revolutionary socialists, such as happened with the Communist Party in the 1920s.

Workers’ struggles can deal with the power of the capitalist class only if they break out of the confines of trade unionism. Only by ignoring the division of economics and politics, and making our target the capitalist state can the working class hope to win a lasting victory.

The Mass Strike

To set your sights on defeating, not just an individual employer, but the state, isn’t that asking of workers an extraordinary leap – from largely accepting the dreary everyday reality of capitalist society to seeking to free themselves through their own actions?

The answer is that people take this leap, in a small way, all the time. Every strike, however minor, interrupts the daily routine of society. It brings workers into open conflict with their exploiter, and brings them to organise themselves. As such, it is a bridge between merely accepting capitalist society, and openly organising to overthrow it.

Of course, whether strikes fulfil this potential depends largely on the circumstances which surround them. In times of economic prosperity, when employers are making large profits, they can afford to concede large wage increases in response to the threat of strike action, or strike action itself. Workers’ militancy can be contained within the framework of the system.

But during slumps such as the present one the capitalist system cannot afford to concede improvements in living standards. The bosses are more likely to demand back what they have already given, and in the United States, ‘giveback’, when workers accept actual cuts in wages, is now becoming common.

This does not mean that workers will necessarily become more political, or even more militant during times of economic depression. Mass unemployment is as likely to breed defeatism and despair, as recent experience shows. But at a certain stage the anger and frustration that has accumulated through a time of recession and defeat bursts to the surface in a wave of militancy.

Sometimes economic factors may spark this off – for example, if the economy begins to recover, and workers stop being laid off, the greater confidence this confers may precipitate large-scale strikes. This was what happened in America in the mid-1930s, when a mild industrial revival provoked a wave of mass strikes and factory occupations, which led to the unionisation of the big car and steel plants.

At other times, a political crisis may be the spark that sets things alight. France had experienced ten years of right-wing rule and a sharp squeeze of living standards when students clashed with riot police in May 1968. Within days, ten million workers were on strike in the largest general strike in European history.

Whatever the immediate cause, capitalism is liable to experience from time to time explosions of worker militancy which threaten to burst through the barriers of existing working-class organisation. Almost invariably rank-and-file workers find themselves at these times in conflict as much with their own trade-union leaders as with the employers and the state.

May 1968 is a good example. The main trade-union federation in France, the CGT, is controlled by the Communist Party, ostensibly a bitter opponent of the right-wing regime of President de Gaulle. Yet the Communist Party violently attacked the students who had sparked off the strike, and the CGT leaders as quickly as they could signed a pay deal with the government in the hope of getting their members back to work. To their horror, the rank and file rejected the agreement: they wanted more than higher wages – they wanted control of the factories.

The same pattern, of mass strike action turning into a political movement, happened in Poland in the summer of 1980. What sparked off the wave of strikes and occupations was a government decision to increase food prices. But the trade union Solidarity, when it emerged from these struggles, was a political challenge to the Polish state. It threatened to undermine the regime’s monopoly of political power.

Mass strikes break down the barrier between economics and politics. It can work in the other direction too: in May 1936 an alliance that included the French Socialist and Communist parties won a general election victory – and French workers responded with a wave of factory occupations through which they sought to translate the political victory into economic gains. In doing so they threatened the very basis of the capitalist order, and the leaders of the alliance rushed to get them back to work so that the separation of politics and economics could be restored.

Any mass strike is a challenge to the capitalist state. It threatens to mobilise workers’ economic strength against the capitalist state. This was true of the General Strike of May 1926 in Britain. The trade-union leaders protested that it was a purely industrial dispute, and proclaimed their loyalty to the constitution – but the Tory government knew otherwise. They understood that the strike could succeed only by taking on the state, and they exploited the trade-union leaders’ fear of such a confrontation to defeat the strike.

The mass strike carries within it the potential of revolution. This is most obviously true in the case of Russia 1905 and 1917, Germany 1918–23, Spain 1936–7, Hungary 1956, Portugal 1974–5, and Poland 1980–1. In each case, mass workers’ movements either toppled, or came close to toppling the existing order. But mass strikes alone cannot bring socialism – as these failures and successes have shown. Something more is needed.

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Last updated: 2 June 2015