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Saturday, November 11, 2023

State Power and the Left today


Above:  Antonio Gramsci developed ideas of ‘War of Movement’ and ‘War of Position’: arguing there was more than one road to change.

Dr Tristan Ewins 

The other day I saw another post by a Conservative trashing Marxism, and arguing that Marxism had never succeeded in practice.  In response I argued that it depends on how you measure success.  There may never have been a communist government of the sort Marx envisaged.  Some regimes were a macabre parody of Marx’s principles.  But Marx also helped to unleash the social forces which at the same time improved society, while perhaps preventing the kind of extreme polarisation that may have driven revolution.   So in a way perhaps Marx helped mobilise forces which prevented the kind of final confrontation he envisaged.  Perhaps the success of democratic socialists and social democrats in achieving reform actually prevented the polarisation which would lead to revolution. Though from the 70s onward the Left has also declined with the embrace of neo-liberalism, the collapse of the USSR, falling wages, declining unionisation, working class militancy and class identity, and so on.  In response to these set-backs most alleged Leftists chose the strategy of capitulation ; and the embrace of identity politics as an alternative to socialism.  Not to say that identity struggles aren’t important ; but they do not replace the need to have a clear critique of political economy ; and an organised and conscious working class.

In response to those who argue there is nothing of value in reading Marxist texts today, I say this: Marxism is fine so long as you don't take Marx's or Lenin's writings as a closed book. Lots of socialist democrats were also Marxists. Marxism influenced many Social Democratic countries in Europe who have been prosperous. China is prosperous but fails to meet Marx's principles on creative freedom and fulfilment. Lenin worked under perhaps the worst possible circumstances and was driven to make terrible compromises. Then much of the world socialist movement applied his (Lenin’s) ideas ''more or less straight' into situations that demanded more nuanced and situational thinking.


Thinkers such as Gramsci, Habermas, Marcuse - remedied this to an extent.  Meanwhile Chantal Mouffe mixes Marxism with robust liberal pluralism to base a strong theory of social change today that some call 'Post-Marxism'.  (Mouffe refers to her outlook as ‘Agonism’)  But the Marxist tradition is both deep and broad - and we shouldn't shy away from borrowing from it today. But perhaps with more respect for liberalism than Lenin had.  Because the ideology of liberalism is a kind of defence in the sense that the State’s perceived legitimacy rests upon certain liberal rights and freedoms.  When those aspects of liberal ideology recede the Left typically becomes more vulnerable to brute repression.  But at the same time it causes the capitalist state to face a legitimation crisis where it's perceived legitimacy was based on liberalism.  It 'cuts both ways'.  That said, today many workers are increasingly exploited and impoverished in line with a decline of social resistance and class struggle. In part we're to blame for that ourselves on the broad Left for reverting to nebulous 'Third Way' thinking, and abandoning class and the critique of capitalism in the rush to identity politics.


Though Marx himself knew his work wasn't complete, and there's still lots of value in his works we can still draw on today. And as a tradition Marxism is very diverse and broad. But indeed his works don't solve every problem on Earth ; and with the passage of well over a century many things have changed. We do have to account for this.


One of the key factors distinguishing Marxism from mainstream liberal democracy is the Marxist critique of the State.  Marx thought the working class had to seize state power.  Lenin, meanwhile, argued this was only possible if the previous state was ‘smashed’ ; that socialists could not successfully take a hold of the ‘ready made state machinery’ to govern on behalf of working people and those who had been oppressed.  The situation which followed Revolution was referred to by Marx as ‘the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.  Many critics of Marx see this as referring to the literal Stalinist dictatorship which eventuated in the USSR.


Yet as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out dictatorship of the proletariat can be interpreted as the democratic rule of the workers ; as opposed to Lenin for whom it was the rule of the Communist Party. So 'dictatorship of the proletariat' doesn't need to mean the dictatorship of one person or party. But Lenin worked amidst a collapsing society where foreign intervention was everywhere ; and the Entente powers (Britain, the Commonwealth, and France) were determined to destroy the new government as that government had pulled out of the war. (that is, World War One) The United States and Italy had also joined the Entente.  Unfortunately the logic of the crises which followed led to centralisation in the hands of fewer and fewer people ; and the Bolsheviks turned in against themselves ; until Stalin was the only one of the old Bolsheviks who was left. (except for Alexandra Kollontai ; who became a diplomat for the ‘workers’ state’ ; and ended up as ambassador to Sweden) Engels pointed out that some authoritarianism was necessary in the midst of a Revolution – to protect the infant Communist government from its enemies.   But Gramsci pointed out that not all revolutions are the same ; and this means we should not apply the Leninist template universally.  Perhaps the Bolsheviks should have maintained the Red Army ; but allowed the Constituent Assembly to sit ; as well as the Soviets. In other words freedom - but with a backup plan. The problem would be if the Constituent Assembly tried to establish their own State ; and hence threaten sustained working class democracy.  This kind of arrangement is called ‘Dual Power’ ; where all power is not centralised in one place.  (but control of the apparatus of force can still be a decisive factor)   Also importantly: the State involves the apparatus of administration and not merely the apparatus of force.  Seeking to 'smash' the state 'root and branch' - including the apparatus of administration - could prove to be self-destructive in the final  analysis.


Considering the matter historically: Under immense pressure, The French Revolution descended into Terror ; and eventually Bonapartism (dictatorship) ; But this didn't cause liberal democrats to abandon their cause. Eventually they succeeded. Neither should we on the Socialist Left abandon our cause. Most importantly we need to be outspoken about our cause ; because without this we will not mobilise anyone. Without this capitalist ideology and institutions appear beyond question ; and alternatives are seen as practically unthinkable. Also we need to be principled on issues like privatisation – as hypocrisy has a demoralising and demobilising effect  , and upcoming generations of activists are thoroughly detached form the values of their predecessors.


Lenin was a democratic centralist ; which translated to the rule of the Party - which in turn delegated power to decide and govern between Conferences to a Central Committee. He was prepared to share power with like-minded Parties such as the Left Social Revolutionaries ; but after he suffered an attempted assassination by one of their members he abandoned this. Rosa Luxemburg was scathing of over-centralisation ; pointing out that it smothered workers' democracy ; and the self-corrective dynamics of that democracy.  The wisest Central Committee was no substitute for democratic practice. You could argue that over-centralisation was a crisis-management measure - but the problem is that the Crisis never ended. And we ended up with the personal dictatorship of Stalin. The comparison between socialists and liberal democrats stands ; because even if Lenin was an over-centralist - he did not speak for all socialists. The aim should have been to balance crisis management with workers' freedom and democracy.


Some liberals have a problem with forging a State which is sympathetic to the Left ; and hence not likely to resort to extreme violence against the Left.  They presume that the modern state is democratic and impartial ; and hence all the Left has to do to change society is to win a majority in Parliament.  Problem is: apply that to the Austrian instance. At the end of World War I the Austrian Social Democrats controlled the Army. They achieved a liberal democratic revolution. But after the war they gave up State power and allowed a new conventional army to be set up. As an insurance policy they maintained their own militia. In 1934 they achieved a majority in the Constituent Assembly. Immediately the Fascists dissolved the Parliament by force - and in doing so they were supported by the regular Army. For a time the Social Democrats negotiated behind the scenes. While they did this the Army raided their arms caches and arrested their leaders. Finally what was left of the workers' militia (the Schutzbund) took up arms, fortifying the public housing estates in Vienna. But they were crushed after about a week, and many of their remaining leaders were executed. Austria was under the heel of a kind of fascism – years before the Nazis occupied the country.  (The Austrian fascist regime had clerical sympathies ; and did not want German dominance ; like Franco’s regime in Spain they were repressive ; but they did not have the Nazis’ racialized Ideology)


The point is that unless progressive forces control the Armed Forces – or otherwise influence it towards democracy - they have no guarantee they can peacefully achieve a majority and govern for their constituents. They can allow other parties to govern, yes. But they cannot afford to allow their enemies to control the armed apparatus of State if they actually have a choice in the matter. 


In Australia the prospect of radically reforming the Armed Forces seems unlikely.  Perhaps the best we can do is school the military in pluralism and democracy ; and try and ensure they never intervene inappropriately.  Unfortunately, constitutionalism is not necessarily enough ; as Reserve Powers can be used to undermine democracy. Such intervention is currently not likely as what passes for the Left in Australia does little to challenge the status-quo. The opportunity to radically reform the armed forces in Austria only occurred after a State collapse with the defeat of Austria-Hungary ; and over a million Austrian and Hungarian deaths in World War One.   But with no opportunity to radically reform the State, radicals always run the risk of falling afoul of it.


Historically, though– in the instance of Revolutionary Russia - what I'm arguing for is basically that there should have been a kind of dual power. Here, again, the Bolsheviks would have controlled the Red Army and hence that would comprise 'the last line of defense' . The Soviets would have had their sphere of influence ; but the Constituent Assembly would be enabled to do its job of representing voters as well. Though without forming a state that was hostile to the Revolution.


In a recent argument I put forward this view and was accused of hypocrisy.  I was accused of endorsing state repression ;  and hence having double standards on liberty.  It was held that radically reforming the State so the apparatus of force upheld democracy – including support for elected left-wing governments - led to actual dictatorship in the common sense of the word.


But that's not what I'm arguing. My argument is "hold on to control of the apparatus of force if you can - AS AN INSURANCE POLICY against the violent or repressive tendencies of your enemies." So THEY cannot use the state against you in an oppressive way. More generally, I'm glad for my rivals to have free speech. I'm not glad for them to have the option of using state power to repress me when things don't go their way.


In the Russian context, however, things were more complex ; as it was in the middle of a Civil War - and with foreign intervention ; there was the spectre of hunger and social collapse and so on.  Once you’ve accepted that the French Revolutionaries had to resort to crisis management under certain circumstances, then the same ought apply to the socialist Left in its struggles. But better still to avoid the kind of crises that warrant such tactics. Hence 'War of Position' is better than 'War of Movement'. (we’ll explain this shortly) It all ended badly for the Bolsheviks anyway.  There was a virtual 'repeat of history' as the rise of Stalin shadowed the previous rise of Napoleon.  So if you could achieve stability on the basis of a progressive and democratic pluralism that would be best. But it’s best if you can have that pluralism while progressives control the apparatus of force as an insurance policy. Importantly, the State is not homogenous.  While I am not a structuralist, the structuralist Marxist Nicos Poulantzas described the State as a ‘contested field’ ; upon which the logic of class struggle was ‘imprinted’.  The idea that the State can be contested without being left as a homogenous ‘instrument’ across its breadth and depth is a very important one.


This is why what Antonio Gramsci called 'war of position' is preferable to what he called 'war of movement'. In a 'war of movement' - eg: the 1917 Russian Revolution - order is collapsing and competing interests and parties rush to fill the void. In the process the struggle can become very violent. In the Russia 1917 context there was foreign intervention and White Armies besieging the Revolution.  And if Communist Parties do 'whatever it takes' there's the potential for it to end disastrously. (though in that context many feel they have no choice ; it’s easy to judge when personally you live in conditions of stability)  By contrast a 'war of position' involves a long term struggle for hegemony ; through institutions, organisations, traditions, practices, movements.  Power is gained by reaching pre-eminence in civil society - potentially through democratic processes.  And again the State can be penetrated by the process of class struggle itself.  But the fate of Salvador Allende – whose democratic socialist government in Chile was overthrown in 1973 by Pinochet with the assistance of the CIA - shows that if the armed forces are hostile it can still end in slaughter. (against the Left)   The massacre of Leftists and labour movement activists in Indonesia in 1965-1966 is an even more horrifying example: where over half a million were slain and the rivers literally ran red with blood.  The apparatus of force is perhaps the hardest part of the State to penetrate and challenge. In Australia, also, the Labor Government of Gough Whitlam was effectively overthrown in 1975 in a ‘constitutional coup’. 


Of course bourgeois regimes don't mind wars ; and there is hypocrisy when it comes to the matter of violence. Violence might become inevitable in defence of a picket line for instance. But the modern Left has an interest in not escalating violence too far ; because it does not stand a chance against the violent power of the modern State if that state is hostile.  Or more to the point ; against the State’s apparatus of force.  Perhaps the word ‘apparatus’ suggests an instrumental outlook – which is problematic – but the armed forces can be isolated from any broader class struggle. At the end of World War One, though, the establishment of workers’ armies was possible in a context where millions of workers were mobilised in the armed forces by a horrific war which had discredited the old regimes.  And the class struggle in Australia is also problematic because class consciousness is now at an all time low following the demobilisation of the labour movement in the 1980s and thereafter.  The Left has a substantial task in front of it.


So the modern struggle involves taking every opportunity to reform the State ; while engaging in cultural and social struggles ; as well as civil disobedience.  This means always pushing the boundaries ; but having the wisdom not to press them too far if there is a likely prospect of overwhelming repression.   Again: escalation beyond a certain point is not usually a wise option for the Left. 


A strong and mobilised civil society is also a defence against repression ; so achieving this is a high priority for both revolutionaries and reformers.  Perhaps the best way is a mix of reformist and revolutionary outlooks. That is: seek qualitative change ; but be prepared to achieve this incrementally.   While at the same time taking advantage of ‘watershed’ scenarios to achieve radical change more quickly.  All this involves mobilising civil society and reforming the State to contain the threat of repression.


This may also seem distanced from the reality of day to day politics ; but that current reality is one where progressive parties have limited power because of the threat of international capital strike ; and the Left’s marginalisation in Civil Society.  The Left has also largely abandoned struggles or – and ideologies of – radical democratisation, class liberation, and other progressive causes.   In other words, large parts of the modern Left have either lost their reason for being ; became irrelevant ; or limited themselves to identity struggles while only contesting political economy at the margins.  Again: Hypocrisy on issues like privatisation, and timidity on issues like tax reform, Industrial Relations reform, and social wage expansion – leave newer generations on the Left demobilised, disoriented and demoralised. But if the Left ever rediscovers itself, all these issues discussed here will once again burn with immediate relevance.

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