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Arguments for Revolutionary Socialism

John Molyneux

Arguments for Revolutionary Socialism

Chapter Six:
The shape of the world

Surely we must defend the national interest?

FROM THE cradle to the grave we’re encouraged to think of ourselves as members of a nation. Whether it is the World Cup or a royal wedding, the school history lesson or the latest export figures, the pressure is the same – identify with Britain, back Britain, believe Britain is best. And of course the same thing is going on in every other country. Every good little American, Japanese or Russian is meant to grow up identifying with and believing in the superiority of America, Japan, Russia or wherever. It’s all rather absurd when you stop to think about it.

But for our rulers it’s also very necessary. They want it to be so all-pervasive, so obvious, that we never stop to think about it. Patriotism reinforces the idea that there is an overriding common interest uniting boss and worker, exploiter and exploited, in this little patch of the world against bosses and workers elsewhere. And secondly it strengthens the power and authority of the state, which is the main force maintaining the rule of the exploiter over the exploited. That’s why Marxists are not nationalists, but internationalists. We see the world in class terms, not national terms.

This issue marks one of the clear dividing lines between reformists and revolutionaries, between those who accept the framework of the nation state and those who want to overthrow it. Listen to any speech by any reformist politician, left or right. You will find it full of phrases such as ‘saving our industry’ or ‘getting our country going again’. But it’s not ‘our’ industry or ‘our’ country: both are owned lock, stock and barrel by the ruling class. Every time the reformists talk this way they show themselves to be prisoners of ruling-class ideology. At the same time they strengthen such ideas within the working class.

Just as the bourgeoisie needs nationalism to bind the working class to itself, so the working class needs internationalism to establish its political independence as a class. Internationalism is also a necessity for the working class because, as the example of Russia shows, the revolution can succeed in one country for a time but if it remains isolated it cannot survive indefinitely. Either international capitalism will overthrow it directly or, as in Russia, military and economic pressure will compel the revolutionary country to compete with capitalism on the latter’s terms, that means the restoration of exploitation, class divisions and the subordination of labour to capital.

Internationalism is increasingly a necessity even in everyday trade union struggles. Faced with multinational companies playing off workers in different countries against each other, the best defence is international links between rank-and-file trade unionists. ‘Workers of the World Unite’ isn’t just a fine sounding phrase.

Marxist internationalism means rejecting the policy of import controls. Apart from the fact that they would be an economic disaster because of retaliation from other countries, they replace a struggle to defend jobs against the attacks of the British ruling class with an attempt to solve unemployment by lining up with ‘our’ bosses against the workers of Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, France or wherever.

Genuine internationalism involves much more than abandoning the cruder forms of national and racial prejudice and adopting a benevolent attitude to the peoples of the world. Nor is it a matter of an idealistic belief in ‘the brotherhood of man’ (or ‘the sisterhood of women’). Indeed it is a fundamental element of Marxist internationalism that not all men are brothers and not all women are sisters because society is divided into classes with antagonistic interests.

Instead of viewing the world from the standpoint of one national state competing with other nation states, Marxist internationalism takes as its starting point the struggle of the world working class against world capitalism. In this struggle we regard the interests of the class as a whole, internationally, as taking precedence over the temporary, short-term interests of any local or national section of the class. This kind of internationalism constitutes a very sharp break with policies declared to be ‘in the national interest’ by the media and labour movement leaders alike.

What about immigration?

The leaders of all the main political parties are agreed that there needs to be strict control of immigration. So, probably, are most ‘members of the general public’. Marxists, however, are opposed to all immigration controls. Why?

The first and most important reason is that immigration controls are racist. For a long time now ‘immigrant’ has served as a code word for ‘black’ (despite the fact that the majority of immigrants coming into Britain each year are not black, but from Europe, Australia and the USA). All the various laws introduced to limit immigration, from the original Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 to the Tory Nationality Act of 1980, have had as their main purpose stopping black people coming to Britain. Whenever a politician starts talking about ‘the immigration problem’ you can be sure that they are trying to mobilise, and cash in on, the racism that is so deeply rooted in British capitalist society.

The argument that always comes up in this context (usually from ‘moderates’) is that immigration must be controlled to ensure good ‘race relations’. This is both hypocritical and covertly racist. It involves saying to people ‘we don’t want you to be racist because it’s not very nice and causes a lot of trouble’, and at the same time saying ‘but we recognise that black people are a problem and we’ll do our best to keep them out’. Immigration controls increase rather than hinder the growth of racism. They concede to the outright racists of the National Front and the Tory Monday Club the main point, namely that black people are a problem.

Marxists, of course, make no concessions at all to this rubbish. It is not blacks but racism that is the problem, the legacy of Britain’s long history of imperialism (and, before that, the slave trade). It remains a powerful mechanism for dividing the working class and for diverting its anger on to vulnerable scapegoats. We must fight it tooth and nail.

This alone is more than sufficient grounds to oppose immigration controls. But even if there was no element of racism involved, if for example all the potential immigrants were white, Marxists would still be against immigration controls. It has been a consistent theme of ruling-class propaganda that social problems such as poverty, unemployment and the housing shortage are caused by there being too many people. This is a convenient excuse for the system. Every additional person entering the country is simultaneously an extra mouth to feed, person to be housed etc. and an extra worker to produce the food, build the houses and so on. If capitalism doesn’t employ them to do this necessary work it is not because there are too many people, but because the capitalist economy is in crisis and because it is concerned with profit, not human need.

When capitalism is in boom and capitalists are falling over themselves to expand their operations there is usually a labour shortage. This is overcome by drawing people into the labour force from wherever there is a cheap and convenient supply: women from the home, peasants from the countryside, immigrants from poorer countries. When the boom turns to slump nothing suits the system better than to be able to treat these workers as ‘surplus to requirements’ and to suggest they are responsible for the crisis.

Marxists reject this logic. We approach this question, as all others, not from the standpoint of a particular capitalist state, but I from the standpoint of the interests of the international working class. These are best served by the free movement of workers around the globe. Not only does this enable workers as a whole to get the best price for the sale of their labour power, it also increases the international experience of the class and aids its ultimate international unification. We therefore reject completely all attempts by the ruling class to restrict or control the international migration of labour.

So do socialists oppose national liberation movements?

The fact that Marxists are internationalists who work for the world-wide unity of the working class does not mean we are indifferent to national oppression. On the contrary we are its fiercest opponents. Marx, for example, was a lifelong supporter of independence for Poland, which then, as now, was oppressed by Russia, and independence for Ireland, then, as now, oppressed by Britain.

It may seem there is a contradiction here: internationalists supporting national liberation. However the real question is how international unity is to be achieved.

Firstly Marxists are for voluntary, not forced, international unity, and voluntary unity implies the right of separation. National oppression creates a division between the working class of the oppressor nation and the working class of the oppressed nation. This division can only be healed if the working class in the oppressor nation fights for the self-determination of the oppressed nation.

At the same time national oppression creates a certain ideological bond between the ruling class and the working class in both the oppressor nation and the oppressed. Both these bonds can only be broken if the working class opposes national oppression, especially when perpetrated by its own state. Opposition to all national oppression is therefore an essential part of real internationalism.

The rise of imperialism made this question central to socialist strategy. By the end of the 19th century a handful of advanced capitalist countries had turned most of Africa, Asia and Latin America into their colonies or semi-colonies. At the time much of the European socialist movement either openly supported or, at best, passively accepted this development. It was Lenin who saw that imperialism would inevitably generate struggles for national liberation and who argued that the working class of the advanced countries must establish an alliance with the national liberation movements against the imperialist ruling classes.

Today the nature of imperialism has somewhat changed and in most cases these colonies have been granted formal independence while the pressure of the world market ensures that their economic exploitation continues. But national liberation struggles are by no means a thing of the past. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, in Poland and Eritrea, in Ireland, in Israel and the Lebanon the fight against national oppression continues, whether that oppression is perpetrated by the United States, or Stalinist Russia, or Zionism. In all these cases Marxists give their unconditional support to the freedom fighters.

However, unconditional is not the same as uncritical. Nor does support for national liberation mean overestimating its significance. The achievement of national independence is a bourgeois democratic not a socialist task, and national revolution is not a socialist revolution unless it is led by die working class. Even then it can’t be sustained unless it becomes part of a process of international revolution.

This is particularly important because the period since 1945 has seen a succession of national revolutions led by bourgeois or petty bourgeois forces calling themselves communist or socialist. China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe are some of the main examples.

In none of these cases has the working class actually come to power, yet many on the left have sought to substitute these anti-imperialist movements for the struggle of the working class in both the advanced countries and in the third world itself. Their attitude has led to repeated disillusionment as each of these regimes has failed in its apparent promise.

Marxists therefore oppose all forms of national oppression and support the struggle for national liberation, but do so as internationalists not nationalists. We do not merge with bourgeois nationalism or drop our criticism of its limitations. Instead we work to bring to the fore the working class both as the leader of the national revolution and at the same time as a part of the international working class – the only force that can bring real liberation from capitalism and imperialism and unite the human race.

What do you mean by ‘unconditional but critical’ support?

Let’s take a current and important example. What should the attitude of Marxists be to the African National Congress, one of the leading forces in the black struggle against apartheid?

The answer is clear. First of all we support the ANC unreservedly and unconditionally against the racist South African regime. We defend its right to take up arms against the repressive state; we call for the release of its political prisoners and we applaud its courage and its victories.

At the same time we are critical of the ANC’s political line and practice. We criticise its belief in a cross-class alliance of all blacks and ‘progressive’ whites, and its relative neglect of the role of the black industrial working class. We also disagree with its ‘stages’ theory, by which it separates the struggle against apartheid – the struggle for democratic political rights – from the struggle for socialism itself. For this leads to a willingness to negotiate and compromise with the representatives of white capital. Experience in other parts of the world has shown that this gives political rights to the middle class while leaving workers little better off.

However, our attitude to the ANC is only one example of a general stance – unconditional but critical support – which Marxists take towards numerous movements round the world today. For example we support the Sandinistas in Nicaragua against US intervention and the Contras but criticise their alliance with the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie and their maintenance of capitalism. Another example is the IRA, who we support against British imperialism and the Orange reactionaries but criticise for their reliance on terrorism and failure to mobilise the working class.

This is a position which people often find difficult to grasp. It seems to them a contradiction. Surely, they think, if you support a movement you shouldn’t criticise it. Or, conversely, if you criticise it you can’t really support it. Consequently, the position of critical support comes under fire from a number of directions.

From the right it is argued that if a movement pursues tactics or undertakes actions (say planting bombs) which we regard as wrong then that movement should be condemned. From the ultra-left it is sometimes argued that since Marxists have important differences with national liberation movements we should give them no support whatever. From other sections of the left (particularly the romantic left) comes the emotive argument that since these movements and their leaders display immense courage we have therefore no right to criticise them at all. All these arguments are wrong.

The right-wing argument is wrong because movements and struggles should be judged primarily not by particular actions and tactics but by the social forces they represent. To condemn a movement of the oppressed on the grounds of its tactics, even where those tactics are clearly mistaken (as with the IRA Birmingham pub bombing in 1974), is to give tacit or open support to the oppressor.

The ultra-left argument is wrong because, albeit from different motives, in refusing to support national liberation struggles it arrives at the same objective position as the right wing, and is therefore self-defeating. There is no neutrality in the class struggle. Marxists are part of the working class, part of the oppressed and part of the left. Its victories are our victories, its defeats our defeats, no matter who the leaders or what the tactics may be.

The argument for supporting liberation movements without criticism is also wrong. Courage and heroism should always be given their due but they are no guarantee of tactics that can win or of a political line that represents the interests of the working class. The IRA fights bravely, but its military strategy cannot defeat the British army; the Iranian masses braved the hideous repression of the Shah only to install the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic republic. To abandon criticism is to abandon Marxist principles and therefore to abandon our defence of the interests of the working class.

‘Unconditional but critical support’ is thus an essential position for Marxists. It is crucial for all our political work not only in relation to national liberation movements but also in the British class struggle. We supported wholeheartedly the struggle of the Liverpool Labour councillors against the Tory government, but we criticise their inadequate strategy. If tomorrow the general secretary of the TGWU finds himself before the courts for breaking Tory anti-union laws we will mobilise in his support, but we won’t drop our criticisms of him as a trade union bureaucrat.

Without the combination of both support and criticism, Marxists are condemned to either sterile sectarianism or crude opportunism.

What happened in Russia?

The Russian Revolution of 1917 proved that revolution can succeed, that the working class can overthrow capitalism, and take control of society – but it also confirmed the Marxist view that a socialist revolution could survive only if it were part of an international revolution. On this Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky – indeed all Marxists before Stalin – had insisted.

Russia today is a result, not of the revolution of 1917, but of the defeat of that revolution by the Stalinist counter-revolution of the 1920s. How this defeat came about is extremely important for all socialists to understand. The essence of the 1917 revolution was the establishment of workers’ power through the rule of Soviets or workers’ councils. Both the revolution and the functioning of the Soviets depended on a working class with a high level of political consciousness, activity and enthusiasm. In 1917 the Russian working class possessed these qualities in abundance, but in the years following the revolution it lost them.

This was not because of some ‘natural law’ that revolution must fail, but because of the material conditions prevailing in Russia at the time. Above all it was because of the hideous civil war of 1918–21, backed by Britain, France and other imperialist powers. The civil war claimed the lives of a huge proportion of the most politically advanced workers who formed the core of the revolutionary Red Army. It also utterly devastated the Russian economy. Industry and transport ground to a halt. Factories stood idle, famine and epidemics raged. Many workers fled to the countryside in search of food. By 1921 the total number of industrial workers had fallen from three million to one and a quarter million, and those that remained were politically exhausted. They were simply unable to maintain the control over society they had won in October 1917.

In the absence of an active working class the Bolsheviks were forced to rely more and more on the old Tsarist officials to administer the country. In die process they themselves tended to become a bureaucracy divorced from popular control. The individual who personified and led this development was Joseph Stalin. The rise of Stalinism did not go unresisted. Lenin himself devoted the last months of his life, when he was incapacitated by illness, to a desperate struggle against bureaucracy in general and Stalin in particular. Subsequently almost all the leading Bolsheviks made some attempt to block the path of the Stalinist counterrevolution, and Trotsky remained its uncompromising opponent until his death. But all the social conditions favoured the bureaucracy, and step by step Stalin and his supporters were able to defeat their opponents until by the end of the 1920s, all effective opposition was eliminated and all workers’ rights were removed.

The only thing that could have prevented the rise of the bureaucracy was international revolution. If the revolution had spread rapidly to other European countries (as it nearly did in 1918-19) the civil war would have been won before the working class was decimated. Even as late as 1923, revolution in Germany (a real possibility) would have transformed the situation. It would have brought aid to poverty-stricken Russia and so strengthened the workers. It would have removed the threat of intervention and with it the need to compete militarily and economically with Western capitalism.

After 1923 the bureaucracy turned its back on the international revolution. It was concerned with developing its own power, not spreading workers’ power. Hence Stalin’s policy of ‘socialism in one country’. In practice this meant strengthening the Russian state in competition with the West, by exploiting the workers and peasants. The system was, and is, state capitalism.

From Stalin to Gorbachev the basic structure of power has remained unchanged. Russia today is nothing to do with socialism.

It is the opposite of socialism. But the real lesson of the Russian Revolution is not that socialist revolution can’t work. It is that revolution must spread internationally.

Was China any different?

China, with its billion-strong population and its vast land area, was in 1949 the scene of the twentieth century’s second great revolution. Yet nowadays China is hardly mentioned on the left.

It wasn’t always so. In the sixties China was a major influence on what was then known as the New Left. Generally speaking China was seen as offering an attractive alternative model of socialist construction far more dynamic and revolutionary than Russia. The decade of the 1970s was ruthless with these hopes and illusions. It saw China enter into open alliance with US imperialism, make war on Vietnam, support the murderous Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea and the South African-backed ‘Unita’ in Angola, and generally pursue a foreign policy worthy of Franco’s Spain. Internally it saw the public renunciation of the cultural revolution and much of the legacy of Mao, the opening of China to foreign capital, and even flirtation with such evidently bourgeois values as fashion and consumerism.

Small wonder then that Chinese sympathisers were disillusioned. China became a bad dream best forgotten. But the current silence about China on the left represents more than just disappointment. It also marks a failure of understanding and analysis. For events in China could be understood (and indeed predicted) only with the aid of the Marxist theory of state capitalism, first developed in relation to Russia.

The Chinese Revolution of 1949, for all its scale and grandeur, was never a workers’ revolution. The working class played no active role in it whatsoever. Rather it was a military victory in which a peasant-based army led by a middle-class political elite conquered the cities from the outside. The result was not workers’ control or workers’ power, still less socialism, but the establishment of the political elite as a new ruling class. The aim of this new ruling class, despite its radical rhetoric, was not world revolution but the independent, national development of China in competition with the rest of world capitalism.

The very low level of economic development in China necessitated the extraction of a high level of exploitation of its workers and peasants. The numerous power struggles within Chinese Communism were about how to achieve the aim of national development, not about the goal itself – which was shared by all factions.

Once this basic dynamic of the regime is understood, recent events in China are cause for neither surprise nor despondency. China broke from Russia in the late 1950s because it did not wish to become a Russian client state like Poland or Hungary. For a while it attempted to develop its economy alone in opposition to both the superpowers. The failure of this attempt has forced it to establish links with more developed economies.

The importance of all this for Marxists is that it was the decisive test for the kind of third world nationalist ‘socialism’ many on the left still worship from afar. In terms of traditions and language Mao stood far closer to Marxism than Castro or the Sandinistas. In terms of size and resources it was far better placed than Nicaragua or Tanzania to achieve independent economic development. But China has neither achieved socialism nor even sustained its economic independence from international capital.

The fate of the Chinese Revolution provides crucial confirmation of two basic Marxist propositions: firstly that there is no substitute for the working class as the agent of socialism, and secondly that capitalism has created an integrated world economy from which there is no ultimate escape except through world revolution.

But isn’t a simultaneous world revolution impossible?

Yes, a world revolution that takes place everywhere at once is impossible or extremely unlikely. But this isn’t what Marxists are talking about. What we are proposing is that successfully carrying out a revolution in one country can become the starting point for spreading the revolution internationally. This was the strategy proposed by Lenin and Trotsky, and it is one that is entirely realistic.

Socialism in one country is impossible because sooner or later world capitalism will either overthrow an isolated revolution by military force or it will do what it did to Russia. The isolated Russian economy was forced to compete in a world market on terms laid down by capitalism. The result was the restoration of capitalist economic relations. Russian workers suffered super-exploitation as Stalin built new industries to compete with the West.

But the return of exploitation was not inevitable. There was an alternative road, presented by Leon Trotsky, who began from the perspective of spreading the revolution. There are a number of reasons why this was possible – and why it would be possible in any truly revolutionary upheaval.

Firstly, the crisis of capitalism which creates the conditions for revolutionary upheavals would be an international not a national crisis. This is bound to be the case because the capitalist economy is fully international: every national economy is integrated into that world economy. As a result the conditions creating the revolution in one country would exist in many other countries at the same time.

Secondly, the victory of the working class in one country would inspire workers in other countries to follow their example. It would show workers could take power and raise workers’ confidence enormously. An outline would exist of the basic strategy and tactics to be used.

Thirdly, the existence of workers’ power in one country would provide a focus from which a worldwide revolutionary movement could be supported and organised. This doesn’t mean imposing revolution by force. It means drawing together the most advanced workers of all countries to discuss how the fight for workers’ power could be carried on and how the maximum international solidarity for the revolutionary struggle could be mobilised.

All these factors were at work in the years following the Russian Revolution. The First World War, which helped cause the revolution, also plunged all of Europe into a revolutionary storm. The German Emperor was overthrown and the Austrian Empire collapsed. In Bavaria and Hungary there were short-lived Soviet Republics. In Germany the revolution seemed set to succeed in both 1919 and 1923 while Italy saw a massive wave of factory occupations in 1920.

The Russian Revolution was a tremendous encouragement to those workers involved. The idea of Soviets – or workers’ councils – as the basis for workers’ power, was taken up by the workers of many countries during the course of the struggle. And in 1919 the Bolsheviks were able to found the Communist International – organising revolutionary workers worldwide.

But the revolutionary wave was defeated – and capitalism survived – though it was a close thing. Today the possibility of such an international wave of revolution is even greater than in 1917 to 1923. The development of capitalism has strengthened its international nature. The working class in every country is larger and has greater economic power than in Russia in 1917. The development of international communications and transport has made international contact far easier. Such developments will increase the impact of any revolutionary breakthrough and help spread the ideas of workers’ power.

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Last updated: 5 June 2015