I know Leo Panitch pretty well and I think Martin is misrepresenting him in his report of the “parliamentary socialism” workshop at the Momentum fringe event at Labour Party conference (Solidarity 418).
When Leo dismisses “insurrection”, he means that he doesn’t think that armed struggle with the bourgeois state — civil war, which Trotsky did say was the highest form of the class struggle — is feasible. The bourgeois state has tanks, fighter planes, nukes, etc. Unless revolutionary socialists win over the majority of the rank-and-file of the armed forces well in advance of taking power, we’ll probably all get killed if we attempt armed insurrection.
Also, Leo isn’t calling for “transforming the state bit-by-bit” any more than the AWL is. You call for “a campaign for democratic and constitutional reform that is republican, anti-racist, and internationalist” in the UK. Does this count as an attempt at “transforming the state bit-by-bit”? It’s no different than what Leo would say. And is there anything innately anti-revolutionary about kind of statement by Leo (from Signs of the Times)?
“As Marx made clear from his critique of Hegel as a young man (and again in his critique of the Gotha Programme as an old man) the state needs to be turned from an imposition over society to a democratic instrument of society.
“Right wing populist attacks on bureaucracy and support for referenda and recall, like their call for further marketisation and privatisation, are part and parcel of their tax-revolt politics. But this does not have anything to do with democratisation of the state apparatus, and their hypocrisy is evident insofar as they are blindly supportive of the military and police apparatuses of the state.
What should, above all, distinguish a radical socialist programme of democratisation, moreover, is the use of the state’s resources and the engagement of public employees in facilitating the collective organisation of all the people who face the state and capital as isolated and marginalized individuals.
“The facilitation of the collective organisation of single mothers so they could stand up to the welfare agencies together and have an influence on it is an example of what I understand by the democratisation of the state as a left project.”
Reply: October not a one-off
Tigers can be restrained or evaded, but, as someone said, they cannot be skinned claw by claw. That is our view on the capitalist state. We have no plans to wrestle the tiger with our bare hands, or to try to hurl a revolutionary socialist minority against a stable capitalist state. Neither had the Bolsheviks in October 1917.
They prepared for the insurrection, in which, as Trotsky comments, “demonstrations, street fights, barricades, everything comprised in the usual idea of insurrection, were almost entirely absent”, by sending agitators to sway military units. “Since the preceding crowding-out of the government from its military bases [by the growing power of the Bolshevik-led soviets] had made resistance almost impossible, this military seizure of the final commanding heights passed off as a general rule without conflicts”.
After that, and not of their choice, the Bolsheviks had to fight a civil war against counter-revolutionaries and invading armies. Insurrection comes onto the agenda only when the capitalist state is destabilised and disrupted by mass struggle, and revolutionary socialists have majority support. Or at least, support which can be consolidated into a majority by bold initiative: one problem with the no-insurrection line is that it will lead the socialists to hesitate at the decisive moment, after which disappointed people will flood to the right (Italy 1920-21).
We quarrel with the myth that October 1917 was an out-of-the-blue rush on power, in primitive conditions, irrelevant elsewhere. We champion efforts to extend democracy under capitalism. We quarrel with basing strategy on the idea that a parliamentary socialist government, backed by movements outside parliament, can erode and transform the state without the tiger ever lashing out.
You can imagine it might not, for example that if the working class triumphs in most of Europe and then a socialist party wins a parliamentary majority in one hold-out country, the bourgeoisie of that country will lack the will to resist. But you have to prepare for the not-all-sunshine variant.
In a long-established bourgeois democracy, insurrection might well arise from a left-wing majority being elected to government; the government then being subverted through such channels as the courts, the House of Lords, the monarchy, the top civil service, etc.; and the axis of the struggle then moving outside Parliament, as workers counter-organise. This possibility is discussed in Sean Matgamna’s debate with Michael Foot, Democracy, direct action and socialism. But to be confident that parliamentary channels plus support from below are the only, and the sufficient, way to deprive the bourgeoisie of state power bit by bit, without decisive backlash, is foolish.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, an army general, through the Sunday Times, threatened “effectively... a mutiny”. Despite musings about Chile 1973, Ralph Miliband, in his book Socialism for a Sceptical Age, which Leo Panitch was summarising, proposes no tactics or preparation for the not-all-sunshine option. That is what its ruling-out of insurrection means. And that is why I think Miliband was wrong.
Martin Thomas, north London
Specificity of socialist politics
A couple of correnctions to your interview with me (Solidarity 419).
The interview has me say, “Then, while I was still at high school, I worked with Freedom Road [a Maoist group]. Though I disagreed with them, I learned a lot about organising from them. Then I went to university in Chicago and drifted into the Democratic Socialists of America, where I’ve been ever since.”
This makes it sound like I was overall hostile to FRSO. It would be better to say that I disagreed with them on certain points of theory and history. I agreed with them on much else.
Also: “There are questions about what and how much we might defend in Cuba and Venezuela against US imperialism, but views which see them as a model stand outside the box of what we publish. Some of our writers have positive things to say about Venezuela, but not as a model.”
This again might make it sound like I’m more hostile to the Cuban and Venezuelan projects — and closer to the AWL’s line —than I am. What I would say is that some of us are broadly supportive of and in solidarity with the political projects in places like Venezuela, others less so, but overall we don’t see them as models that can simply be replicated in other places, any more than the Russian Revolution is.
In other words, my emphasisis is on the specificity of socialist politics in different contexts, rather than on whether we should somehow evaluate these projects as comprehensively good or bad.
Peter Frase, New York