Tax Scams and Stock Bubbles

 

This tax bill is designed to create the appearance of a booming economy, but appearances can be deceiving. 

A year since Republicans unexpectedly seized power and they’ve finally managed to pass a major piece of legislation. After repeatedly face planting while attempting to repeal Obama care, they have passed a tax bill which guts the tax rate for corporations and top earners, reduces the deductions normal people can take, and generally shifts the tax burden even further away from the wealthy. There’s also a longer term political calculus: in addition to purposefully fucking over democratic constituencies, the deficits this bill will create will be used to justify cuts to the social safety net down the line. Trump and Republican leaders will however gloat about how good this tax cut will be for the economy, and Corporate America will be complicit in these shenanigans.  They will surely point to the stock market as proof.

 

The stock market is often used to gauge the strength of the economy. To the extent that stock prices reflect levels of profitability and productivity you could do worse. However, this isn’t always the case. Tax cuts can’t really increase the productivity of firms, only how the revenue they generate is divided. Changing how a pie is sliced does not necessarily make that pie bigger. In a context in which wages remain stagnant in real terms, bosses have little incentive to plow their savings into labor saving technology that could increase productivity. Instead they head to the casino.

 

The reality is that the stock market is likely to grow as a result of this tax cut, but not because the companies these stocks represent have become more productive. Rather companies and rich people who have more cash on hand will plow some of that into the stock market. Indeed several major companies have announced plans for stock buybacks, thus increasing demand for stocks while reducing the supply. Thus the increase we see in stock prices is largely a reflection of inflation, not actual increases in the actual value firms generate and certainly not the overall well being of “The Economy” ™.

 

I believe the smarter Republican policy people know this on some level, but again it’s part of a political calculus. In an election year likely to be brutal for Republicans, the stock market will be one thing they can point to in their defense. It’s intellectually dishonest to do so, but few would accuse the Republican party of being honest. Even fewer would accuse Trump of being an intellectual.

 

There are however real problems with inflating stock prices solely for the sake of it. The only people that benefit are people who already own stock. Given how concentrated stock ownership is, in absolute terms the benefit will also be tightly concentrated. But as stock prices rise, it increases the barriers for profitable investment, which in turn reduces the profit rate. Since economic activity only happens under capitalism to the extent it is profitable this is likely to speed up the tendency towards crisis.

 

Because this increase in the stock market will basically be a function of rich people having more money, and not an increase in productivity, there is a real potential for creating and exacerbating speculative bubbles. Just because more money is pouring into the market does not mean there is a corresponding increase in profitable investment opportunities for that money. Solid stocks will see their prices rise until it no longer makes sense to buy them. Money will then be directed toward more questionable stocks. Whether investors believe such stocks are actually good investments or just assume they’ll be able to sell for more than they bought before the house of cards collapses is immaterial. Most people will not benefit from an increase in stock prices but many will be impacted when these bubbles burst.

 

Capitalism is a system in which economic activity only occurs for the sake of profit making, not the satisfaction of human needs and desires. When the ability of firms to make a profit declines, it won’t be long until economic activity in general nosedives as well. As the economy heats up, competition between firms to precure labor and other inputs (raw materials, real estate, etc) drives costs up while competition for market share places limits to how much firms can increase prices. These dynamics tend toward a crisis of profitability. Individual firms and government agencies will attempt measures to counter or cover up this declining profitability, but eventually reality asserts itself; payments are missed, triggering a series of defaults and rounds of deflationary sell-offs as people scrounge up what money they can to stay solvent. As prices drop so to does production since by the time goods and services reach the market their price will be lower than the cost it required to make them. Unemployment spikes as production slows. The boom carried with it the seeds of the crisis, but the crisis also carries the seed of the next boom. Assets made cheap by the crisis can be profitably scooped up by capitalists fortunate enough to have weathered the storm (tending toward increased concentration of wealth). Unemployment depresses wages which means production can be resumed at a lower cost, and thus more profitably for capitalists. The business cycle begins again.

 

The tax cuts can’t alter this dynamic. At most it can shift it on the margins; the crisis occurs sooner or later, it is deeper or more shallow. But it is only one of an endless number of variables, and far from the most important.

 

Ironically this attempt to juke the stats to make the economy look good is reminiscent of the Soviet Union. Bureaucrats would routinely say the enterprises they were in charge of surpassed mandated targets of quality and quantity in order to make themselves look stable, perhaps avoiding a purge in the process. This made effective planning impossible since central planners were working with faulty information. Lying about the number of tractors you produced is an admittedly less sophisticated version of what Republicans are doing with this tax cut, but the principle is the same: manipulating statistics to make yourself look good and in the process exacerbating systemic dysfunction.

 

Ultimately the rise in stock prices represents the illusion of an increase in wealth. It is little more than a cynical PR stunt which at best will delay and at worst exacerbate the inevitable crisis. Crisis is an inevitable feature of capitalism and measures such as quantitative easing or tax cuts can only really obscure the underlying dynamics. They will alter the timing or severity of crisis or recovery only on the margins. The best economic policy can’t deliver society from the boom and bust cycle because that cycle is the result of the internal logic of capitalism, not “correct” or “incorrect” economic policy. The periodic economic crises, and the human suffering they cause, will only be transcended when the working class over throws capitalism and the state that buttresses it, replacing it with a system designed to meet human needs and desires. But a system which operates only to profit private property owners will lead to recurrent economic and ecological catastrophes.

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Four Theses On DSA

The working class must unite beyond political tendencies to build a powerful workers movement that can fight together for political and economic struggles in a united front from below. 

“The ship of Communism must not be wrecked on the rocks of revolutionary romanticism and putschism, and it must not be allowed to founder on the shoals of opportunism. Our ship must steer a straight course, full steam ahead over the stormy waves of revolutionary mass actions and mass struggles. To the masses! Win over the masses! Let us therefore, while not neglecting the struggles for the every-day needs of the masses, reveal to them the ideal of Communism.” – Clara Zetkin

  • The DSA historically developed as an organization of the labor bureaucracy attempting to push the Democratic Party to the left as the US moved into neo-liberalism and the post-war compromise collapsed. Founder Michael Harrington was committed to a strategy of Democratic Party entryism, believing that it was the only viable channel for the working class to make gains in the system through empowering their representatives in the professional class. This loyalty to the Democratic Party has made the historical DSA a reformist organization that has acted as a weak lobbying group for the Democrats. Harrington’s strategy that the DSA based itself on, that of Democratic Party entryism, has proven to be fruitless. The Democrats are committed to being as economically neoliberal as possible, and are structurally compelled to move more to the right. They are a cartel of finance capitalists and other factions of the bourgeoisie, not a mass membership party than can be influenced with internal opposition. For more info on the history of the early DSA and the failures of Democratic Party entryism, read Robert Brenner’s Paradox of Social-Democracy. 
  • The DSA of 2017 is however a different beast than what we reference above as the historical DSA. The rise of Sanders and Trump in the aftermath of social movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter created a need for a political alternative that was at least formally independent from the Democratic Party. Because of their organizing skills and infrastructure, the DSA is the org that most young socialists looking for change beyond reforming capitalism came to, despite the past history of the org. Because the DSA is a mass membership organization that is meant to be democratically run, this mass influx of young radicals shook up the traditional politics of the org. This fundamentally changed the character of the DSA, as evidenced by their exit from the traitorous Socialist International and endorsement of the Anti-Zionist boycott BDS in their last convention. The formation of caucuses such as the Refoundation Caucus and Libertarian Socialist Caucus, as well as the Praxis slate at last convention, also shows the development of what is essentially an internal struggle in the DSA to break from the pro-Democratic Party and pro-Imperialist politics of the old DSA, with old time bureaucrats already quitting because of the endorsement of BDS and driving out of cop union organizer Danny Fetonte.
  • The development of this internal struggle in the DSA gives an important opportunity for the US left to create a “pole of attraction” for all socialists that is independent from the Democratic Party. This will have to take the form of internal struggle using the democratic process to push against Democratic Party cooption in locals as well as engaging in the national politics of DSA to push for a break with the Democrats. While the DSA’s large size and infrastructure may be credited to their cooperation with the Democrats in the past, the time for a complete break is now. DSA now has the size and organizational capacity to steer an independent course. Committed Communists should not be afraid to join the influx of new members who are pushing the org away from the politics of Democratic party accommodation and towards an expression of independent working class politics. However this doesn’t mean Communists should abandon building independent organizations that are based on a distinctive Communist platform and put all of their organizational effort into the DSA.
  • The Communist League of Tampa has no interest in entryism, or covertly infiltrating the DSA to take over its leadership. We believe that the DSA exists best as a multi-tendency organization where different tendencies of the left can form a united front in labor and political campaigns. Our aim is to facilitate the DSA’s movement to the left, (pushed by the recent influx of young members), learn organizing skills, promote discussion on Socialism/Communism, and ultimately help build the DSA as a united front of the labor movement in Tampa. As democratic communists we feel that it is best to be open and transparent about our intentions in any group we work with.

Against Israel, for a Workers’ Republic in the Middle East

Donald Trump’s attack on the people of Palestine is an expression of the systematic imperialism at the core of US dominated global capitalism. Only a revolution beyond national and ethnic boundaries can liberate the people of Palestine. The views here express the general position of CLT’s membership. 

The Communist League of Tampa opposes the recent decision by Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. This is a clear attack on the Palestinian people’s struggle against the settler-colonial state of Israel and furthers the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. While the Communist League opposes nationalism as such in favor of international solidarity among the working classes of the world, we recognize that not all nations are created equal. In global systems of imperialism, there is a clear and inherent divide between nations – those which benefit on the degradation, occupation, and subjugation of others, and those which are degraded, occupied, and subjugated themselves. Through this subjugation, the capacity for development in the oppressed nation is deprived through the denial of basic democratic rights, and its people are left to rely upon the oppressing nations for the most basic dignity – a dignity that is so often kept from them. In the case of Palestine and Israel, this division is clear. For any socialist who believes in universal human dignity, support for Palestinian liberation is the only way. But how will the Palestinian’s achieve their liberation?

The members of the Communist League are neither nationalists nor chauvinist pseudo-“internationalists”, but principled internationalists who believe in need for unity among the working classes of all nations against their common foe – the bourgeoisie and the system of capitalism. However, we understand that building this unity requires the overthrow of such systems which privilege one nation over another and pit their working classes against each other. We reject the proposals of nationalists who believe the only path to liberation is the balkanization of all nations into their own self-governed plots of land. We reject this as a reactionary position, which turns away from the need to organize along the lines of class towards organization along the lines of “nations”. We also reject those proposals made by the chauvinist “internationalist” who call upon the people of oppressed nations to wait on the “global communist revolution” to fight against their subjugation. While they await the “global communist revolution,” are they to simply sit by and allow violence against them to continue? This proposal merely places reliance upon revolution in the oppressing nation to “trickle-down” to the oppressed nation. Palestinians have a right to defend themselves, and should break from the reactionary nationalist and theocratic leadership of Hamas and Hezbollah, which holds back the development of the class struggle in the Middle East, and therefore the struggle against settler-colonialism itself.  

How are these principles to be applied to the case of Palestine? Instead of a two state or one state solution we advocate for liberation through a workers republic in the Middle East that unites the region beyond all national, ethnic, religious and gender divides through class interest. This is not to be done as an end in itself, but rather a means to the end of international workers revolution.  We also condemn the equivocation of Israel and Palestine, which ignores the objective political oppression caused by Settler-Colonialism, advanced as radical internationalism, but actually a liberal centrist position of imperial colorblindness.

We understand that in a class society, there is a limit to our capacity to struggle against oppressive social relations. This limit is conditioned by the very nature of class society, and in the case of capitalism, the bifurcation of humanity into the proletarian and bourgeois classes. Moreover, it is this bifurcation which gives communists our greatest tool: our common struggle fought along the lines of class. The challenge in building this common struggle, though, is in the differential development of certain elements of the class over others. For the Palestinians, this difference is clear. While our ideal situation would be for a unification between the Palestinian people and Israeli workers, their unity is reliant on a rejection of Zionism from the Israeli working class. Zionism sets the interests of Israeli workers along national lines, pitting them against Palestinians who are frequently left to work among the massive informal sector in Gaza and the West Bank. The obstacle of divided interests along national boundaries requires that Israeli workers break from Zionism. Israeli workers cannot truly struggle as a class if they do not see the Palestinian people as their comrades. This requires a hard break with current paradigms of Israeli labor and the formation of new organs to wage the class struggle. To paraphrase Moshe Machover, the vanguard of the Israeli proletariat will most likely come from youth and arab workers.

The “two-state” solution which is frequently proposed by liberals must be rejected. The project would be a failure from the outset because of the uneven power relations between the two nations, and the US backed Israel would immediately hold hegemony over a Palestinian state. The overthrow of the state of Israel is necessary. Furthermore, this solution rejects the necessity for revolutionary integrationism and only reproduces the belief that nations are to be kept separate and independent from one another. Revolutionary integrationism argues for the radical integration of nations under a multinational worker’s republic with full rights and equality of outcome for all citizens regardless of ethnic background. Such a revolution could not be isolated within a single state, but rather requires the cooperation between the working class across the Middle East and the entire world. As a long term programmatic aim for the world proletariat, we advocate for a Middle Eastern Workers Republic.

For citizens of the United States, our contribution to fighting Settler-colonialism will not come from cheerleading for Hamas, but weakening the imperialist hegemon from within through political and economic struggle against the bourgeois state and its allies. Israel is essentially a base of operation of the USA’s Empire of free trade, an extension of US imperialist hegemony. The military industrial complex in the USA makes massive profits from trade with the Israeli military and the need for a “base of operations” in the Middle East makes Israel a pawn of the US empire, not the other way around as anti-semitic conspiracy theorists would have it. As communists it is our duty to fight anti-semitism in the Palestinian Solidarity movement when it manifests, which means challenging the notion that Zionism is a expression of Judaism.

Only through the complete destruction of class society can end the oppression of the Palestinians. This doesn’t mean instantaneous world revolution, but it does require the organization of workers across national and ethnic boundaries prior to revolution occurring. Nationalist tensions in the Middle East are not limited to Israel and Palestine, as Palestinians face discrimination from other Arabs. It only through the axis of class unity that the Middle East can unite to challenge the rule of imperialism and the ruling classes in their own countries. Therefore organizing a pan-middle eastern communist party that aims for a revolution in the entire region and beyond is a potential way forward for the global class war.

The Role of the Military in the Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution’s success wouldn’t have happened without the mutiny of a class conscious army. 

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The outcome of the Russian revolution owed as much of its success to the soldiers and sailors of the military as it did to the urban proletariat. In 1917, Europe was in its third year of war, and Russia had suffered heavy losses, with  about 5,700,000 casualties by the end of 1916. Years of war weariness had drained the military of its morale, along with its willingness to defend the Czar. There was a desire among both the public and the soldiers to change conditions on the front and to bring an end to the war. Soldiers provided an impetus to the revolution, and were willing to fight for and defend it, as they viewed it as an “implicit promise that the war would soon end.” (Fitzpatrick 52). Part of the reason for the soldiers’ support for the revolution, was how they were perceived in society. Rather than being seen as a separate or hostile class, soldiers and sailors were thought of as part of the working class, and would identify their own interests with it, rather than that of their officers, who they saw as inextricably linked with the ruling class. “Traditionally, Russia’s soldiers and sailors of 1917 have been categorized as ‘proletarians’, regardless of their occupation out of uniform…It can be argued in Marxist terms that the men in the armed forces were proletarian by virtue of their current occupation, but the more important thing is that this is evidently how they regarded themselves. Importantly, they also “…saw the officers and the Provisional Government as belonging to one class, that of the ‘masters’, and identified their own interests with those of the workers and the Petrograd Soviet.” (Fitzpatrick 53).  This would prove to be a decisive factor in the February revolution, as it was the experience of being ordered to fire on peaceful demonstrators that would initially radicalize many of the soldiers. Furthermore, a major concern of the Czar’s Generals, and a decisive element in their decision to advise the Czar to abdicate, was fear that the use of the military to further suppress the revolution would only lead to further radicalization of the army.

In the months between February and October, the soldiers would go from the stance of Revolutionary Defensism, as espoused by the moderate socialists, to a more radical one, upon realizing that the Provisional Government would no more to address its concerns than would the monarchy. The October Revolution would proceed with assistance from pro-revolutionary soldiers, organized and directed by the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee. The failure of both the Czarist government, and the Provisional Government to address the concerns the soldiers; primarily their desire to end the war, and protect the revolution, would result in the collapse of both. Radical socialists, namely the Bolsheviks, as the only party to have both consistently opposed the government and defend the demands of the proletariat and the soldiers and sailors, would ultimately reap the benefits.

The most immediate cause of the February Revolution was the demand for bread and political rights by women demonstrating for International Women’s Day. They were soon joined by women textile workers, and then men from nearby steel factories. As the crowds grew larger, demonstrators began to clash with the police. Notably, the crowds were hostile towards police and symbols of the Czar, yet they attempted to win over soldiers to their side. “Increasingly this became the pattern — violent clashes with the police combined with efforts to win over the soldiers — as the crowds took over the city centre. The police were ‘theirs’ — hated agents of the regime. The people called them ‘pharaohs’ (much as some today might call the police ‘pigs’) and they had no doubts that the police would fight to the end. The soldiers, by contrast, were seen as ‘ours’ — peasants and workers in uniforms — and it was hoped that, if they were ordered to use force against the crowds, they would be as likely to come over to the people’s side. Once it became clear that this was so — from the soldiers’ hesitation to disperse the demonstrators, from the expressions on the soldiers’ faces, and from the odd wink by a soldier to the crowd — the initiative passed to the people’s side. It was a crucial psychological moment in the revolution.”  (Figes 305).

Although becoming radical on their own, these demonstrations may not have gone as far as they did had it not been for the soldiers and sailors. The breaking point was reached when the Czar ordered that the demonstrators be put down by force.  This act would go on to break the remaining discipline among the soldiers, along with their loyalty to the regime.“Having been informed of the situation at his headquarters in Mogilev, he sent a cable to General Khabalov, Chief of the Petrograd Military District, ordering him to use military force to ‘put down the disorders by tomorrow’. There could be no better illustration of the extent to which the Tsar had lost touch with reality. Nor could there be any better guarantee of a revolution.”  (Figes 307)

On Sunday, the 26th, Police and soldiers fired upon marching workers, sparking the catalyst for the revolution. “But around midday huge crowds of workers once again assembled in the suburbs and marched towards the city centre. As they converged on the Nevsky Prospekt, the police and soldiers fired upon them from several different points…On the Nevsky, near the Gostiny Dvor, a training detachment of the Pavlovsky Regiment shot a round of blanks and then opened fire on the crowd. The people scattered behind buildings and into shops, re-emerging moments later to throw bricks and pieces of ice at the troops. Dozens of people were wounded or killed. The bloodiest incident took place on Znamenskaya Square, where more than fifty people were shot dead by a training detachment of the Volynsky Regiment…

…This shedding of blood — Russia’s second Bloody Sunday — proved a critical turning point. From this moment on the demonstrators knew that they were involved in a life-or-death struggle against the regime. Paradoxically, now that the worst had happened and some of their comrades had been killed, they felt less afraid for their own lives.  As for the soldiers, they were now confronted with a choice between their moral duty to the people and their oath of allegiance to the Tsar. If they followed the former, a full-scale revolution would occur. But if they stuck to their oath of allegiance, then the regime might still manage to survive, as it had done in 1905—6. (Figes 304)

The response to the massacre was for the soldiers to mutiny. Afterwards, soldiers returned to the barracks, and questioned what had gone on. Recognizing their own interests as bound up with the revolutionary masses, rather than their officers, the mutinies spread.  “After the shooting on the Nevsky Prospekt an angry crowd of demonstrators broke into the barracks of the Pavlovsky Regiment near the Mars Field and shouted at the soldiers that some of their trainees had been firing at the people. Visibly shaken by the news, the 4th Company of the Pavlovskys resolved to march to the Nevsky at once in order to stop the massacre. ‘They are shooting at our mothers and our sisters!’ was their rallying cry as they mutinied. About a hundred soldiers broke into the arsenal of the barracks and, taking thirty rifles, began to march towards the Nevsky. Almost immediately, they ran into a mounted police patrol on the bank of the Griboyedov Canal. They fired at them, killing one policeman, until they ran out of cartridges, whereupon they decided to return to barracks to bring out the rest of the men. (Figes 308).

“At this stage, the soldiers did not intend a full-scale mutiny, only a vocal and abusive protest against their officer for having ordered them to fire on the crowds, and a refusal to obey his commands. But when the officer found himself confronted by his angry men he made the fatal error of walking away — and then, even worse, of starting to run across the barracks yard. Sensing their power over him, the soldiers pointed their rifles towards him, and one of them shot him in the back. Suddenly the soldiers were mutineers. They scattered through the barracks, in panic as much as revolutionary fervour, calling on the other soldiers to join their mutiny…Fights broke out between loyal and rebel soldiers. The victorious mutineers stormed the regimental arsenals, killed several of their officers and spilled in their thousands on to the streets, where they spread out in all directions…(Figes 308). From this point forward, there was no going back. Soldiers were no longer willing to fight for the Czar, nor take orders from their former officers who represented him.

In order to represent their political interests, soldiers formed their own organizations.  The most basic and most important of these were soldiers’ committees. These would act as their primary political policy body, used from interpreting events, to passing resolutions, to carrying out educational activities. They acted as channels of information, and were used to communicate between the soldiers and the soviets, and even became agents through which soldiers challenged the authority of their officers. Sailors would have similar organizations with their ship, base, and fleet committees. Urban Soviets were also used to express the soldiers’ aspirations. Most cities and towns contained army garrisons, and soviets provided a means for soldiers  to unify into citywide organizations. (Wade34).

Mutinous troops not only provided a psychological and morale boost, but also much needed organization and tactics. “The mutiny of the Petrograd garrison turned the disorders of the previous four days into a full-scale revolution. The tsarist authorities were virtually deprived of military power in the capital. ‘It had now become clear to me’, Balk later wrote of the 27th, ‘that we had lost all authority.’ The spilling of the soldiers on to the streets, moreover, gave a military strength and organization to the revolutionary crowds. Instead of vague and aimless protest they focused on the capture of strategic targets and the armed struggle against the regime…They spread the mutiny to the remaining barracks…Thanks to the soldiers and officers like Linde, the first signs of real organization — armed pickets on the bridges and major intersections, barricades, field-telephones and structures of command — began to appear on the streets. Many of the soldiers were also kept busy by the task of arresting — and sometimes beating up or even murdering — their commanding officers. This was a revolution in the ranks.13”. (Figes 332) On March 2nd, Czar Nicholas was finally forced to abdicate, deciding to do so upon the advice of his military chiefs, who felt they could no longer control the army, and were afraid that any attempt to use the army to attack the revolutionary Petrograd would result in further mutinies. The Czars route home had to be rerouted several times due to revolutionary troops. News of the Czar’s abdication sparked celebrations throughout Russia. The troops were no exception, some even going as far to renounce “their hard-won tsarist medals, and often sent them to the Petrograd Soviet so that it could melt them down and put the silver to the use of the people’s cause.”  “The soldiers in the trenches were equally ecstatic, despite the initial confusion caused by the efforts of the officers to withhold the news from the capital. Red flags were raised in the trenches and red ribbons tied to the military trucks, pieces of artillery and the horses. There were parades to celebrate the revolution, military bands played the Marseillaise and soldiers wildly threw their caps into the air. On the naval ships there was a similar outburst of emotion. The red flag was raised on battleships ‘as an emblem’, in the words of the Helsingfors sailors, ‘of our freedom and our unity’.58 (Figes 336-338).

The political vacuum created after the Czar’s abdication left Petrograd in a state of “dual power”. The Provisional government on the one hand, had been created by liberal politicians of the Duma. Headed by Prince Lvov and Alexander Kerensky, it would come to represent “legal”  or “official” authority, and therefore responsibility, while  Its rival, the Petrograd Soviet, formed by Mensheviks and other socialists, was, due its support by the industrial working class and soldiers, the de facto power in Petrograd, although it had, no official or legal governing responsibility. Of the 3,000 delegates, more than two-thirds were serviceman, in a city where workers outnumbered soldiers 3 or 4 to 1. In fact, the military played such a crucial role in the formation of the soviet, that within a few days the name was unanimously changed to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers Deputies.

The soviet’s first order of business was to issue Order No. 1, a document that radically altered the structure of the army. Three major changes emerged as a result, namely: “First, it ordered the immediate formation of committees of elected representatives from the lower ranks. This quickly resulted in a network of committees throughout the entire army and navy paralleling the military command structure, from the smallest unit through regiments and armies to whole fronts, from ship committees to fleet committees. These committees gave soldiers a vehicle for challenging officer authority, changing the military system, and looking after their own interests. Second, it fundamentally altered the personal relationship between officers and men. The order forbad the use of coarse and derogatory language by officers toward soldiers and the use of honorific tities for officers. Both were standard in the Russian army. Other changes in permitted behavior by officers and soldiers reflected the soldiers’ determination to assert their personal dignity and their political and civil rights. These provisions reflected the deep social tension between the educated classes—noble and non-noble—who made up most of the officer corps and the peasant and urban lower classes who made up the rank and file soldiers. As one officer wrote, “Between us and them is an impassable gulf… [and] in their eyes we are all barins [lords]… In their eyes what has occurred is not a political but a social revolution, which in their opinion they have won and we have lost.”^ Socialist agitation reinforced this perception. Third, Order No. 1 solidified the loyalty of the soldiers to the Soviet, setting a pattern of primary loyalty to the Soviet and only conditional support for the government. Social-political affinities would have brought the soldiers under Soviet influence in time, but Order No. 1 hastened the process. As a result, the soviets now held, in fact if not theory, the preponderance of armed coercion in Petrograd and soon in the country.”(Wade 33). The practical effect of Order No. 1. was the democratization of the army, and the establishment the Petrograd Soviet as the de facto power, securing the loyalty of the revolutionary soldiers. “Order No. I therefore had strong overtones of class war, and totally failed to offer reassurance about the prospects for class co-operation. It presaged the most unworkable form of dual power, that is, a situation in which the enlisted men in the armed forces recognized only the authority of the Petrograd Soviet, while the officer corps recognized only the authority of the Provisional Government.” (Fitzpatrick 48).

Support for the Provisional Government, and even the moderate socialist leaders of the Soviet, would eventually wane in favor of the more radical Left SRs and Bolsheviks, as actions taken by The Provisional Government throughout the summer would cause soldiers to become increasingly radicalized. Trouble started almost immediately over the issue of the war, when, in April, attempts to defend a policy of ‘war to victory’ by Paul Miliukov, the foreign minister and Kadet leader led to massive street demonstrations and armed clashes. Known as the April Crisis, it led to the first of many restructurings of the Provisional Goverment, and the formation of the “coalition government” between socialists and liberals. (Wade 14).

Having failed to find a way to bring an end to the war, In June, in an effort to raise morale among the troops, Kerensky ordered an offensive on the Galician front, the first serious military undertaking since the February Revolution. Rather than accomplish its goal, the Kerensky offensive had the opposite effect, ending in utter disaster with 200,000 casualties, destroying what was left of morale, and further alienating the military from the Provisional Government. Desertion within the army grew, and the Offensive resulted in governmental crisis, prompting the resignation of key members, such as Prince Lvov, the head of the Provisional Government at the time.

By late summer, it was clear that basic aspirations of most groups were not being met. Most importantly, especially for the soldiers, was the issue of the war. The moderate socialist plan of Revolutionary Defensism, or for ending the war by a negotiated peace, while defending the gains of the revolution,  had failed by midsummer. The provisional government had no plan for getting Russia out of war, and in fact continued to work with the Allied Leadership. As war continued to place enormous stress on the economy, the population increasingly demanded peace. Meanwhile, the government was criticized for this by radicals, including Bolsheviks, Left SRs, and Anarchists. (Wade 44).

In the early weeks of July, in the immediate fallout of this crisis, an attempt by the Provisional Government to send troops to the front, resulted in rioting and demonstrations in Petrograd, in events known as the July days. Half a million Kronstadt sailors, soldiers, and workers, some led by local and low level Bolsheviks, marched through the streets of Petrograd, demanding Soviet power. Unfortunately, both the Moderate Socialists who headed the Pertrograd Soviet, as well as the Bolshevik leadership were unprepared, and the demonstrations degenerated into widespread drinking and looting, before finally dispersing (Fitzpatrick 28). The Bolsheviks failure to act at a time when soviet power was being demanded would cause them to temporarily lose popularity. The soldiers, sailors, and workers had shown they were ready for a transfer of power, and even for insurrection, but without adequate leadership to properly harness their revolutionary energy, their potential was wasted. Fortunately for the Bolsheviks, and for the revolution, the incompetence of Kerensky and the Provisional Government would restore the their popularity, and allow them to atone for their mistakes by October.

The final nail in the coffin between the Provisional Government and the military came at the end of August, with and event known as the Kornilov affair.  By this point, both the Revolutionary Defensist leaders, and the government, were unable to meet people’s basic needs, and popular support of the government was plummeting quickly. To restore order, conservatives began to seek a military leader, who could act as a “Napoleon” to the Russian Revolution. Many saw this figure in General Kornilov, who had recently been appointed as Commander of the Armies by Kerensky in order to restore order in the military. After becoming convinced that Kornilov was plotting a coup, Kerensky had him dismissed. Miscommunication occurred between the two parties, and under the assumption, that he would be welcomed by the Provisional Government, Kornilov dispatched troops to quell perceived disorder in Petrograd. It failed, however, “largely because of the unreliability of the troops and the energetic actions of the Petrograd workers. Railway-men diverted and obstructed the troop-trains; printers stopped publication of newspapers supporting Kornilov’s move; metalworkers rushed out to meet the oncoming troops and explain that Petrograd was calm and their officers had deceived them. Under this pressure, the troops’ morale disintegrated, the coup was aborted outside Petrograd without any serious military engagement, and General Krymov, the commanding officer acting under Kornilov’s orders, surrendered to the Provisional Government and then committed suicide. Kornilov himself was arrested at Army Headquarters, offering no resistance and taking full responsibility” (Fitzpatrick 60). The result was a complete collapse of faith in the Provisional Government.  From this point forward, soldiers were no longer willing to defend it. Any remaining morale left among them was irrevocably destroyed. Kerensky’s decision to launch an offensive would spell the beginning of the end for his government, but would be advantageous to the Bolsheviks, setting the groundwork that would eventually allow them to seize power. The failure of leadership, and the subsequent loss of faith of the revolutionary masses in it, extended beyond that of the Provisional Government. Largely due to how they handled the situation, trust was also lost in the official, Moderate Socialist leadership of the Petrograd Soviet. The combination of these factors set the stage for the October Revolution. Convinced that the Provisional Government was incapable or unwilling of defending the revolution, the majority of the armed forces had no interest in defending the government. The Bolsheviks, in declaring the Provisional Government untrustworthy from the beginning, as well as preferring a strategy of Revolutionary Defeatism (turning the imperialist war into a class war), over the moderate strategy of Revolutionary Defensism, were the sole party able to legitimately claim to support the revolution. Throughout August and September, this began to translate to institutional power as factories and army units reelected more radical delegates. Combinations of Bolsheviks, Left SRs, and Menshevik-Internationalists took control of Petrograd district soviets, trade unions, and factory committees, as well as soldiers’ committees.  By then end of September, the Revolutionary Defensist leadership of the Petrograd Soviet was replaced by Bolsheviks and Left SRs. (Wade 48).

The meeting of the Congress of Soviets, originally scheduled for October 12th, was postponed to the 25th in order for more delegates to arrive. The decision to postpone the Congress would allow the Bolsheviks the time they needed to mobilize support, and secure the transfer of power to the Soviets. In order to defend the Congress and the revolution against the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks, along with Left SRs, formed the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. The role of the MRC was to “organize meetings to rally the support of the soldiers for the Soviet and to obtain pledges from army regiments that they would obey only orders signed by the MRC. This insured that the soldiers would support the Congress of Soviets’ declaration of power, or at least not oppose it.” (Wade 52). The formation of the MRC would cause Kerensky to make his final mistake. On the morning of October 24, he dispatched military cadets and militiamen loyal to the Provisional Government to raid the printing press of Bolshevik newspapers. Once informed of this, the leaders of the MRC declared the appearance of counter-revolution. Very little actual fighting occurred, and pro-soviet forces were able to capture key strategic points in the city by nightfall.  The majority of soldiers were unwilling to fight for either side, although those who were, overwhelmingly favored the Soviet. The Provisional Government had a great deal of difficulty in trying to mobilize support.  “Through the twenty-fourth, the Soviet leaders called on workers and soldiers to defend the Congress and the revolution, while Kerensky’s government tried to find reliable military support for the growing confrontation. Their efforts met very different responses. Kerensky found little support within the city or from nearby garrisons. In fact, few soldiers were eager to fight for either side, and those who were willing overwhelmingly supported the Soviet. Some radicalized army units and the workers’ Red Guards took to the streets to defend Soviet power. In confused, largely uncoordinated, struggles that involved mostly push and shove, bluff and counterbluff, Red Guards and pro-Soviet soldiers gradually took control of bridges and key buildings.” (Wade 54). The Bolsheviks had come to power with the support of the military. The military would remain largely pro-Bolshevik, even after their transfer of power. In the elections of the Constituent Assembly, held in November, “the armed forces, whose five million votes were counted separately, the Bolsheviks had an absolute majority in the Armies of the Northern and Western Fronts and the Baltic Fleet-the constituencies they knew best, and where they were best known. On the southern fronts and in the Black Sea Fleet, they lost to the SRs and Ukrainian parties.”. (Fitzpatrick 66).

The Russian Revolution’s influence would not be confined solely to the Russian Military. The desire to bring an end to WW1 was prevalent among the population as well as the military throughout all countries involved in it. The mutinies of French troops in May and June of 1917 that followed the Nivelle Offensive, essentially a military strike, were in large part influenced by the February Revolution. In Germany in November 1918, following an order given by their officers, that would assuredly end in defeat, sailors in Kiel would mutiny and go on to set up councils of soldiers and sailors based on the Russian soviets.

While the military alone is no substitute for the revolutionary position of the  proletariat, its is apparent that for a revolution to be successful, either passivity and an unwillingness to defend the Old Order, or a class conscious and pro-revolutionary army, is needed. There seems to be a difference in revolutionary potential between the military, and the police, who act as the first line of defense of the State. The experience of suppressing domestic uprisings; the use of force against citizens of one’s own country, these are things carried out on a daily basis by the police. Operating primarily in foreign/international territory, the military does not regularly do this, at least not in its own country. The role of family must be considered. Being ordered to fire into crowds that potentially contain wives, mothers, children could certainly inspire a revolutionary outlook. Of the women who demonstrated on International Women’s Day in February, those who had husbands at the front were particularly likely to object continuation of the way (Fitzpatrick 53).   Another potential factor is that members of the military have the exposure to soldiers from other countries, a fact that could play a role in the formation of class consciousness and the idea of proletarian internationalism, as is evidenced by revolutionary sailors in Russia and Germany. The experience of the  Russian Revolution shows that under proper historical conditions, soldiers are capable of becoming class conscious, and fighting in the interests of their own class, rather than that of their nation, or their Officers.  

 

Works Cited

 

Figes, Orlando “A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924”

Fitzpatrick, Sheila “The Russian Revolution”

Wade, Rex “The Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War”

Fashionable Incongruity: Economism, Anti-Politics, and Reductionism

Ian Hinson and Donald Parkinson take a stab at critiquing the notion of anti-political Marxism. 

Marx was not unique in being a socialist; he lived in an era where utopian communalism was actually fairly common. The social question of how best to organize society had been raised and addressed, with arguments for a classless, levelled social order having been made long before Marx. The ideas of socialist  revolution can be found in Babeuf. What made Marx and Engels different from all the utopians and “crude socialists” was that they believed the working class must take political action to organize as a class to take power. It must organize to win a better position both economically and politically within capitalism, and eventually strengthen this organization to raise the question of political, or state power, as a whole. Marx took from the Chartists just as much as the Utopian socialists; he recognized that the working class must politically organize. When French “Marxists” argued against fighting for political demands and engaging in elections, he responded by saying “if this is Marxism, I am not a Marxist”.

Despite these historical realities, some Marxists today argue for a form of “anti-political Marxism”. This is found in various ultra left currents like communization, autonomism, and the Gramscians at the blog Left-Flank. What these calls for Marxist “anti-politics” have in common is an argument centered around the notion of “the real movement,” which is based off a quote in the German Ideology. While for Marx the concept was meant to describe that the class struggle comes out of imperfect conditions set by capitalism, for the bloggers at Left Flank the real movement is some “anti-political” movement that arises from civil society against the political sphere itself. Essentially, it is wrong to try and build a socialist  movement, but rather one must wait for, and follow the “real movement” with organic ties to civil society. What this approach argues for is essentially what can be understood as economism.

Lenin’s 1901 polemic against the Russian Social Democrats laid bare the theoretical and tactical pitfalls of so called “economism”, a centering of the material elements of the workers movement over the conscious elements. In this article Lenin states:

“In order truly to give “consideration to the material elements of the movement”, one must view them critically, one must be able to point out the dangers and defects of spontaneity and to elevate it to the level of consciousness, To say, however, that ideologists (i.e., politically conscious leaders) cannot divert the movement from the path determined by the interaction of environment and elements is to ignore the simple truth that the conscious element participates in this interaction and in the determination of the path.”

Lenin’s deconstruction of this vulgarized interpretation of the relationship between the material and abstract components of a budding workers movement is useful precisely because it exposes the false dichotomy of the “spontaneous” and “premeditated.” It breaks down the bifurcation of socialist participation, and allows for a synthesis of the working class to respond to the material conditions it grapples with, while recognizing the position that consciousness plays in the direction that a revolution moves. Thus, the position of the socialist in respect to the workers movement is not to internalize a millenarian political armageddon, but to respond to the spontaneous movement of the workers, to augment the movement to one which situates itself in opposition to capital and towards the goal of a post-capitalist, socialist epoch.

Lenin grasps that the class struggle is inherently a political struggle, because it is a struggle for social power. The question of power and what class holds political domination, and in turn the balance of power of these classes and their strength through organization, is what can never be ignored. Economism instead puts the withdrawal of labor at the core of socialist activity, or at least the formation of economic resistance to capital. It sees the political development of socialist organization as reliant on the spontaneous struggle that occurs beforehand, with programme developing from the nature of struggle itself. The programme instead, is logically derived by the objective interests of classes that are always expressed politically when they’re able to have coherence.

Economism presents a narrative where organization is produced through spontaneous action, that first a labor movement must develop, and then socialists will try to merge with it to produce a party. The argument that then follows is that in lack of a labor movement, any kind of socialist political activity is simply going to be channeled into activism and sub-political spectacle. What this doesn’t take into account is that socialism, as a political movement, has historically played an integral role in the labor movement. It was first through socialist political campaigns and concentrated unionization drives that the working class developed a sense of itself as a class, and hence the kind of solidarity that would make large scale strikes possible. It is not necessarily from spontaneous mass strikes that a socialist consciousness develops, but from common association as a class in party. The core myth of economism is that the working class derives its power from the ability to withdraw labor, which is a trade unionist, rather than Marxist notion. Rather, the Marxist theory of class is that the working class develops because it is compelled to commonly politically associate beyond its divisions by its common position of dependence on the general wage fund. The working class derives its power from its need for collective, and therefore mass political solutions.

These same entanglements which cause economism to tail behind the workers movement are the same obstacles that plague so called “anti-politics.” While what is said to be “anti-politics” is rather enigmatic and elusive, the political blog “Left-Flank” breaks them down into essentially 3 points:

  1. A widespread mood among ordinary people related to Gramsci’s description of “detachment”. This can manifest in spontaneous popular outbursts or be reflected in volatile electoral results, but tends to peter out if not given some kind of direction.
  2. A political strategy by sections (or aspiring sections) of the political class, drawing on this mood for support. There are lots of variants on this, not confined to Left or Right:
  3. A consistent strategy of social revolution, which seeks to concretely intervene on the effective terrain in order to build a movement that overcomes politics by overcoming the state.

What is outlined in the above 3 points, though, is not a wave of “anti-politics,” but a reaction to the failure of the neoliberal project, which still takes place explicitly in the space of the political. What then follows is an attempt to extrapolate a wider trend towards populism as a retrogression into an aggregate depoliticization, or worse, to credit politically incoherent populist waves with a “consistent strategy of social revolution.” Not only is this malapropism a misreading of the current state of global politics, but it leads to prescriptive measures in the vein of a mass political exodus into strictly “social” forms of organization and anti-capital based action. This rejection of participation in the political spheres of influence, and the focalization of a specific demesne leaves open a vacuum which bourgeois politics are able to occupy. It’s this analysis of the ontology of the working class as not operating within the political or ideological sphere, and only the social(in relation to anti-politics) or the  material(in relation to economism) which causes these one-dimensional tactical modes to ultimately preclude any sort of influence throughout the movement, and to lag behind the workers movement as less of a participator, or a co-conspirator, but as solely a spectator.

The consistent strategy of social revolution that Left-Flank sees developing, which seeks to overcome politics and overcome the state, is a reference to the types of “movements without ideologies or demands” that spontaneously rise against the state. The Arab Spring is touted as a model for these “movements of squares” that arose in Greece, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine. There is a tendency to see the refusal of these movements to pose concrete political solutions as something liberatory in itself, and imagines a society in a state of permanent mobilization tearing down mediations that cannot be realistically continued to a conclusion. These movements of course are not “anti-political” regardless of what they claim because ultimately they feed into the machinery of the existing political forces. The hope of a movement against politics itself is an anarchist fantasy that was wiped away with the Paris Commune, which showed that the working class could only address the social question by achieving political dominance.

The truth is that this strategy reflects the ideological dominance of the petty-bourgeoisie, who are against the state but do not represent a positive class interest as an alternative. The nature of these movements, as amorphous and non-political, speaks to their class incoherence and their ability to “negate” the existing order, but not actually change it. They are simple screams in public for change from the petty-bourgeoisie, but tend to organize around a demand of anti-corruption. Anti-corruption demands are very dangerous, and can very easily play into an in-group/out-group mentality of the “good citizen” against “corrupt outsiders” that deforms class reproduction. Left-Flank deny that anti-political tendencies will lead to right wing outcomes, when there really is no reason to think this. Anti-politics has no coherence; it only stands against the state and negates its authority, but ultimately takes for granted its existence.

Another Left-Flank piece titled, “Why Better Politics Can’t Make Anti-Politics Go Away,” attempts to critique a “Spiked!” article, which criticizes anti-politics for its teleological emptiness. The author of the Left-Flank article in question responds by saying that:

“Furedi argues: “The radical supporters of anti-politics overlook that the flipside of anti-politics is TINA — an acceptance of the world as it is. For without politics people are reduced to passive objects, shaped by fate.” He gives no sense that social forces are needed to profoundly change society, and that political activity underpinned by social passivity simply reproduces the current malaise. Hence he collapses into a tired and unconvincing call for a “battle of ideas” for the values he prefers. More bizarrely he claims that the deadweight of institutions like “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” is more powerful than the countercultural populist surge. Perhaps that argument would’ve rung true 30 years ago, but if the Brexit and Trump votes showed anything it was a lack of deference to the expertise and cultural authority of “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” that was in operation — a fact Furedi acknowledges but quickly forgets.”

While a lot of this is true, that social deference to expertise has been declining, and that political activity predicated on passivity simply reproduces the problematics of the current social order, it attempts to disassociate participation in the social and political realms, as if they function in mutually exclusive domains. The functional goal of participation in politics for the revolutionary is specifically to bring to light the utter ineptitude of bourgeois politics, and in turn present an alternative towards liberation. In this sense we can defer back to US Marxist Hal Draper on the role that politics play within the movement:

“The working class (unlike the bourgeoisie) cannot inseminate its own system of economic power within the old one, thereby establishing a plateau of power from which to gain the political heights. The order necessarily is the reverse. The working class–through the organization of its political movement, like every other aspiring class–must first conquer political power and then begin the process of socio economic transformation. For the bourgeoisie, political power was finally plucked as the ripe or overripe fruit of its socio economic power, its power as a possessing class. For the working class, political power is needed as the engine with which to bring a new social order into existence.”

This delineation of the role that working class politics play in overcoming capitalism is important in that it stresses the interwoven relationship of the base and superstructure. Contrary to Gramsci’s (who Left-Flank seems to take much inspiration from) conception of a “cultural hegemony,” Draper demonstrates the bottleneck that bourgeois politics play in supplementing and monopolizing a more universal hegemony, and it is only through the working class seizure and occupation of the political, social, and economic strata that this monopolization can be reversed. Hegemony is fought through counter-hegemony, which for the working class must be collective and in its highest form proposes an alternative form of governance, and therefore grasp with the political.

The dangers of this sort of fetishization for purely “social” forms of organizing/movementism, is that the real world application of its praxis has historically resulted in a spontaneous, unorganized, and premature causatum of failure. Despite romantic nostalgias for outbursts such as May 68, these “purely social” spasms aren’t able to structure or restructure themselves into an organized movement with a coherent purpose, and are either absorbed and subsumed back into the bourgeois spectacle or crushed underneath the boot of capital.  The reason for this is not because of the interminability of capitalism, but because peripheral strategic forms are unable to capture the totalization that the bourgeoisie has over the structures of social power. Only the patient construction of social and political force, the working class and its party, can come to challenge the totalizing domination that the bourgeois holds over society, not just economically, but politically and ideologically.

The social conditions that created “anti-politics” as a widespread force amongst the working class are a product of material circumstances. However, the argument of Marxism is that our material circumstances are rooted in socially and historically defined conditions that are based on social relations which result from the processes of collective human action. By acting collectively, humans can change these material circumstances, and therefore develop a new mode of production itself, socialism. So rather than tailing anti-political sentiment that spontaneously develops from an atomized existence in neo-liberal capitalism, we must go against the spontaneous consciousness, as Lenin urges us in What Is To Be Done. We must fight collectively against the material conditions that make anti-politics dominant.

The development of revolutionary strategy grounded in the material conditions of today is a much needed task that all socialists should be willing to partake in, but the process of this conceptualization has to take into account the forces of all spheres of power and influence, as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is not simply confined to the material, or social, but to life in its totality. This doesn’t mean that we indulge in the “tagtail” of bourgeois parties, as Engels said, but what it does mean is that we take a principled universalist approach to overcoming the universalist system of oppression and exploitation of capitalism and bourgeois society as whole.

 

State and Revolution: 100 years later

One Hundred Years later, State and Revolution remains one of the most beloved works of Lenin. Yet what can we learn from the attempts to implement its vision in the Russian Revolution?

State and Revolution is one of the most beloved works of Lenin, and for good reason. It is perhaps the finest work of Marxology, where digging through the notebooks of Marx and Engels is done not to prove an academic thesis but to prove an important political point: that the proletariat cannot simply inherit the bourgeois state and use it to build socialism, but must smash it in order to create a new state based on workers rule. Lenin also utilizes Marx and Engels to discern how this state is fundamentally different to the bourgeois state, drawing from Marx’s work on the Paris Commune especially. From these conclusions Lenin takes a political gamble. His party leads an insurrection to overthrow the provisional government around the call for “all power to the Soviets”, calling for a new state in Russia based on the power of the Soviets, or regional councils of workers and soldiers that were being formed both spontaneously and by party militants.

For Lenin, “all power to the Soviets” only made sense as a political slogan and plan for action when the Bolsheviks and those agreeing with their general programme had a majority in the Soviets, which in a sense were alternative “parliaments” for the working class. When the Bolsheviks were able to build a majority coalition of their party, left-SRs, anarchists and Menshevik Internationalists in the Soviets who wanted the overthrow of the government, an end to the war, and land to the peasants then “all power to the Soviets” was a slogan that made perfect sense.

So for the Bolsheviks, State and Revolution provided a sort of initial guide to how they would approach the revolution and rebuild society. The Soviets would take state power with a revolutionary programme and the working class would be armed as the military and police were demolished, the working class to take command. This would eventually happen in Russia, but initially the Soviets and the parties working within them (the Bolsheviks being the leading party) had to figure out how to run a country and develop a proletarian rather than bourgeois civil society.

Before delving into how the ideals of State of Revolution came into contradiction with the concrete realities of the revolution and what one must learn from that, I will go over the basic arguments of the book, which mostly come from the works of Marx and Engels. For Lenin, the state is defined as a “product of the irreconcilability of classes”, meaning that as long as classes exist there will be some sort of state which ensures the reproduction of those class relations with the ruling class having political hegemony. The state is not a neutral territory where classes can “reconcile” but ultimately “a power standing above society and alienating itself more and more from it”. Why is the state alien to society? Because it is a protection racket for the minority of rich capitalists, not a means for the majority of society to actually exercise control over politics. It creates “order”, but this order is strictly a bourgeois law and order that codifies the domination of the ruling class.  

Further, the state is a “special body of armed men”, the military and police, who are able execute the rule of law. Lenin mostly seems to find this important because it shows that the state is based on force. It is based not just through force, but force as executed by a special body, i.e. a separate section of the social division of labor (cops and military). The abolition of the police and armed forces, is the destruction of that part of the bourgeois state which defends and underwrites that state-form’s character as being above society; alienated from humanity as a whole.

The state is also described by Lenin as an “instrument” through which the ruling class exploits the oppressed class. This has been criticized as seeing the state as a mere instrument that classes can simply wield. But this is taking the metaphor too seriously. The point is that as long as there are class divisions, state power will exist because there will be need for a body that ensures capitalist norms of order than allow the ruling class to operate (or a body to suppress the remnants of the capitalist order if a workers state). Lenin doesn’t exactly go deep into the structural mechanics of why the state, while aiming to appear to be neutral, ultimately serves the interests of the ruling class. Part of the reason why is that the state is a tribute/tax/rentier taking organization and reproduces by taxing capitalists; therefore it has an interest in capitalist development being as successful as possible. The state also connects a strong economy to a strong military, the military bureaucracy wishing to project the hegemony of a capitalist state as dominant in the world market. In general, the state reproduces the social division of labor, and it reproduces a capitalist social division of labor. Therefore the capitalist or bourgeois state cannot act in a way that doesn’t allow for the reproduction of capitalism, and essentially provides the framework through which this can occur.

Lenin goes on to argue that classes can be abolished (though without saying at a national or international level), hence ending the social antagonisms that lead to a state existing. Yet there will be a transitional state, or dictatorship of the proletariat, that will replace the old capitalist state, based on the power of the workers. This state is sometimes called a “semi-state” because it is a state in the process of overthrowing the very foundations upon which it is based. Engels is quoted as saying “The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by that conduct the processes of production. The state is not “Abolished”. It Withers Away.Essentially, as the antagonisms of class divisions are transcended by communist relations, the state loses its power as a coercive force over society and simply becomes a means of administering society in harmonious way. This is contrary to the anarchist notion that the state itself will be abolished in an act of insurrection, or the Maoist notion that the withering of the state must be pushed along through “Cultural Revolution” or class struggle under socialism. While it is true this process will require struggle against bureaucrats, because the proletariat holds state power it can fight bureaucracy through transforming its actual roots, the social division of labor, and not just host purges to replace them with different bureaucrats.

This general outline, backed up quite sufficiently by quotes from Marx and Engels, is primarily an attack on the Social-Democrats like Kautsky and Bernstein who deny the need for a violent overthrow. While Lenin was a longtime admirer of Kautsky, by 1917 he had come to see Kautsky as not sufficiently stressing the need to smash the bourgeois state in earlier works like The Social Revolution and the Day After (1903). Kautsky instead saw the proletariat’s party essentially becoming a majority in parliament, and then making parliament into the main ruling body of the state. For Lenin, bourgeois parliament was simply not a fit form of representation for the working class. Yes, work in it, but do so to destroy it was his position. Lenin goes as far to say that violent insurrection is a determining point in whether a proletarian revolution has occurred or not; at this point Lenin has no illusions of the bourgeoisie peacefully surrendering its power. This position, that it was necessary to smash the state, was not always the opinion of Lenin. It was initially Bukharin and Pannekoek who would come to convince Lenin of the correctness of this position, that it was not an anarchist deviation from Marx.  

It is also an essentially correct general outline: the proletariat overthrows the bourgeois state, the proletariat becomes the new state, and this state withers away as classes whither away. Those who saw no rupture needed between the bourgeois state and proletarian state were simply reformists in the end, as they could not grasp a key element of revolution. Lenin backs up this reading using the piece Civil War in France by Marx, where the Paris Commune, considered by Marx and Engels to be a living example of the dictatorship of the proletariat, is examined.

The Commune becomes an object of study that is meant to show what kind of state will replace the bourgeois and facilitate the rule of the workers. Lenin argues the first and most important decree is the disarming of the ruling class and the arming of the workers, replacing the police and military with the armed working class. Since the state is at its core the general means of coercion, placing these means in the hands of the workers commences the smashing of the bourgeois state. Lenin also stresses the democratic nature of the Commune, pointing out how elected officials had strict term limits, recallability, and an average worker’s wage. He also argues for simplifying the process of government to the point where any worker could be called on to participate, summed up by the saying “every cook can govern.” For Lenin both parliament and the ‘parasite state’ are also wiped away, though elective and representative features still exist. It is just that the legislative and executive branch are merged and government bodies are working bodies, e.g representative-legislative with strictly subordinate executive committees.

Much of State and Revolution also comes as a response to the anarchists as well as the social-democrats. Lenin sees the anarchists idea of abolition of the state “muddled and non revolutionary” as the state is a product of the social division of labor which is not transformed overnight and cannot be left to be controlled by the servants of capital. The anarchists simply proclaim to be for the abolition of the state, but have no plan to actually abolish it. Those who simply say they will abolish the state immediately lack an understanding of the historical conditions that produced the state and lead to its existence. Many anarchists argue that simply decentralizing power will end the state, while Lenin stresses the need for centralism and unity in the proletarian state. Yet for Lenin democracy is just as important as centralism, just not sufficient on its own, and the two are not to be counterposed. One must “develop democracy to the utmost” but not separate from the actual tasks of economic transformation in the revolution. Yet while in the proletarian state democracy is developed to the utmost, Lenin cites Engels on the ‘overcoming of democracy’, stating that in a communist future the need for democratic decision making where the majority rules over the minority will no longer be needed because there will be no need for a state.

The transition to Communism is also detailed, essentially taking the schema of dictatorship of the proletariat -> lower phase communism -> high phase communism from the the Marx’s Gothakritik. These sections essentially summarize how the development of communism from the ashes of capitalism will gradually make the state a relic of the past, replacing the rule of law via a coercive mechanism with the force of social norm in a real human community. Yet it also explains this will be a protracted process where elements of capitalism will remain and be phased out as possible. Lenin does mention the problems of bureaucracy, but acts as if simply putting them on an average salary will suffice to keep them in check.

So how does this all hold up today? First of all are the basics of Lenin’s theory of the state. The State under Capitalism is essentially a holdover of the centralized absolutist state renovated to meet the needs of capitalism and democratized to the extent popular struggles have pushed it to do so. That the state serves the ruling class is obvious, but the state also performs certain communal functions for society that cannot be left to private interests. It also has a military function that can’t be reduced to capital accumulation, as even a proletarian state would still need a military to defend itself from capitalist invasion. This is not to say these functions aren’t operated in a class biased matter, but that the state cannot simply be reduced to a body of armed men that defend the interest of the ruling class. There is a non-elected bureaucracy in the state that is not entirely parasitic but necessary for the day to day running of cities for example. Until their skills are redistributed, society will still need to rely on them, similar to how the Bolsheviks had to rely on Tsarist military generals. One could say that Lenin overestimates how quickly a complete break with the bourgeois state and its bureaucracy can take place, as if the Soviets can simply pop up and replace it once they are revolutionary enough. Yet while the Soviets can make important decisions, the actual running of the state on a day to day basis will still fall to the bureaucracy if the Soviets cannot perform their function.

This is not to say that “every cook cannot govern” contrary to Lenin, but that there are real embedded problems with bureaucracy that can’t simply be dealt with through force. Specialists and bureaucrats do contain monopolies of knowledge that allows them a privileged place in society as a result of that knowledge being necessary for society. Lenin doesn’t make a plan for dealing with this, but it becomes a problem on day one when the Red Guards have to break a Civil Servant strike opposed to the new Soviet regime. The same problem exists in industry and the military, with loyalists of the old regime being relied upon to keep society running and defending the workers republic. Relying on these specialists created problems for the proletarian state, as there was no plan to phase them out and collectivize their skills, creating the basis for a “red bureaucracy” that would become a force of conservatism in the new Soviet Republic. Some system must be developed to a) observe and control the bureaucrats and b) break down their knowledge monopolies and simplify the administration to make it so that they are easily replaceable. Breaking down these knowledge monopolies involves not only technological advances but also expansion of educational opportunities for the masses.

There is also the problem of “all power to the Soviets” as the solution to the state. Soviets are councils of workers that tend to form from strike committees in cross industry mass strikes to make decisions in those particular struggles. In a way they are “united fronts of the workers movement” where all different tendencies and trades in a region unite to make large scale political decisions in a mass struggle. After the mass struggle is over, the Soviets are no longer needed, and authority returns to the trade union and political parties. So therefore soviets have a sort of transient nature; they are not standing bodies that continuously meet to make decisions in most cases. Lenin’s aim was to turn the the Soviets into such organizations that would run society. The problem was that he ignored other important aspects of the state, such as the role of political parties.

If one has no political parties to choose from in voting for candidates, or only one, the result is that Soviets or other mass democratic assemblies simply will become rubber stamp organizations for the one ruling party. This is exactly what happened in the USSR – the Soviets tried to become the state but ultimately authority fell to the Bolshevik Party. It is similar for the local councils in Cuba. Lenin says nothing about the role of political parties in the new proletarian state in his essay, but as every political regime ever has revealed, the ruling party or parties largely determine the character of the regime. While the Bolsheviks did not seize power alone (they did so in alliance with the Left-SRs), their break with the Left SRs and the crisis of war communism sending proletarians to the front meant that the Soviets simply lost their ability to act as standing bodies of authority for the working class. By the mid 1920s Bolshevik delegates would dominate the soviets, the rest having no party affiliation with other parties being banned. No parties or even party factions meant workers had no real choices in voting for a political programme, but simply voted for the personalities of those running, or who could be best directed by the party to do their job.

A key insight that Lenin misses here, ironically enough, is the importance of the party. A Soviet democracy must actually be one where democratically organized mass parties collaborate. All states are essentially party-states to some degree, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be democratic. In general, a state is only as democratic as its ruling parties are. This means the internal regime of the those parties; do the rank and file meaningfully determine policy, are factions allowed? Even in a “one party state” different factions of the party can serve as different political options that people can vote for. This opportunity closed in 1921 with the banning of party factions. The nature of the soviets in a state where one monolithic party was ruling could only be to legitimize the rule of that party, and so any hope of bringing workers into the administration of society (which was still maintained in the course of the Civil War) was lost. The role of soviets became changed not because the Bolsheviks crushed them, but because conditions of the war, loss of interparty democracy, and the betrayal of the Left-SRs who launched a terror campaign against the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty (which also meant the armed wing of the revolution, the cheka, would become monopolized by the Bolsheviks). Whether soviets, citizens councils, or mass assemblies, these regional decision-making bodies on their own do not ensure democratic governance. This doesn’t mean rejecting such bodies, but realistically understanding their role, and the need for political parties that are themselves member-run and democratic.

An argument often made (see Brinton’s Bolsheviks and Workers Control) is that the Party essentially betrayed the Soviets by promoting its authority against their authority, overthrowing the authentic revolution. In this narrative the Soviets are basically “destroyed” by the Bolsheviks. What happened was moreso that the Soviets were hollowed out and the Bolshevik Party was the only force left to fill in the gap of authority. Ultimately, for the soviets to have governed, it would have been in partnership with a political party/parties and not in opposition to them. It is not possible to remove political parties from councils without banning parties outright, which would simply be a way to destroy programmatic politics and meaningful democracy. Political parties are not contrary to democracy, but essential for it, as no parties means no real political choices can be voted on, just personalities. Rather than looking at the question in terms of “do the Soviets govern or does the party govern” we should look at it in terms of “how will the parties and councils work together to ensure a government based on proletarian democracy.”

There is also the question of how useful the model of the “Soviet pyramid” for socialists governance is. To summarize, the model works where lower bodies elect delegates to regional bodies, and these delegates then elect the delegate of higher, central bodies. This idea is supposed to give more power to lower regional bodies but instead allows a single party to more easily concentrate power within the councils. This is because of a mediary regional council elects the central council, which creates a degree of separation between the voters and the central council. This ‘pyramid’ can have even more layers of mediation between the voters and the central gov, increasingly alienating the voters from their representatives. A more simple way to go would be to have local councils elected by locals and a central council elected universally that local councils are responsible to. While Soviet pyramid model is favored by Trotskyists, Council Communists, and Anarchists as “more democratic” it is actually less democratic.

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An example of the “Soviet Pyramid” model from Cornelius Castoriadis, 1972.

 

This is not to dismiss the importance of councils of workers and local assemblies of governance in the revolution. As Engels pointed out in a footnote to Marx’s 1850 Address to the Communist League, “local and provincial government” can become “the most powerful lever of the revolution”. He cites the example of the local assemblies and communes of governance in the French Revolution, which were able to fall within the general laws set by the national assembly while pushing the revolution forward. It was these types that were first destroyed in the Thermidor according to Engels. Furthermore Engels argues that such “local and provincial governance does not “stand in contradiction to political, national centralization.” Rather than seeing a strict dichotomy between the locals and central governance Engels sees them both playing a cooperative role.

There is no doubt that such organizations like the Soviets becoming hollowed out signified a defeat for the Russian Revolution. Yet one must understand that the power of the Soviets ultimately failed because the party regime failed, and both must work together to be truly democratic. Organizations like the citizens councils of the Paris Commune and the Russian Soviets where the masses partake in government are essential for any kind of “proletarian civil society” to exist. The point is that we cannot count on the spontaneous activities of councils to solve the problem of governance; they are not a solution to bureaucracy on their own.  

Of course one cannot blame the failures of the Bolsheviks to overcome bureaucracy on Lenin’s lack of clear vision or a theoretical blunder. Ultimately the question of bureaucracy comes down to class struggle, the battle for proletarians to control officials and specialists through democratic measures. Yet Russian proletarians faced a situation of being in a peasant dominated country with a lack of modernization, hoping their revolution would spread internationally. To quote Rosa Luxemburg: “It would be demanding something superhuman from Lenin and his comrades if we should expect of them that under such circumstances they should conjure forth the finest democracy, the most exemplary dictatorship of the proletariat and a flourishing socialist economy. By their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international socialism, they have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions. The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.”

Lenin wrote more about issues of bureaucracy in his latter years, after it became clear the vision of Soviet democracy was not the immediate outcome of the revolution. Instead the regime of the NEP, closer economically to Lenin’s original plans, took place of the unfeasible attempt at ‘war communism’ and Lenin began in his last days to try and solve the problem of bureaucracy. Ultimately, a full on Thermidor with the rise of Stalinism ensured these issues would never be properly dealt with, the NEP society that was the ultimate outcome of the revolution being destroyed in favor of a militaristic bureaucratic industrialism.

While State and Revolution is a masterpiece of communist theory, it has certain limitations that have been shown by the historical attempts to apply its ideas. It does provide a useful framework for thinking about the state, emphasizing the importance of its inherently class nature.What it doesn’t contain is all the answers about the complexity of the state during the transition to communism and exact answers to how one will construct the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rather than simply studying State and Revolution on its own we must study the Russian Revolution to see where its assumptions hold up, and when they don’t, why this is the case.

On the NFL, Dysfunctional Presidents, and Dysfunctional Politics

Trump kind of looks like an old, deflated football.

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The whole kerfuffle over the NFL protests is pretty funny when you think about it. For a time it looked as if they might fizzle out. The owners had made an example of Kaepernick and there are reports that they were closing ranks to blacklist other participants. The players (most of whom don’t get paid as well as one may think and will only have a handful of earning years before their bodies give out) seemed to be mostly keeping their heads down. Then Trump went and opened his big dumb mouth and heaped abuse on NFL player/protesters. In doing so he rallied not only players who would have otherwise stayed out of all this, but even owners and executives who were doing everything they could to put this issue to rest. In addition to showing the class nature of free speech under capitalism (“you don’t have free speech when you’re at work!”) this controversy  has once again revealed what a bad politician Trump is.

That Trump isn’t very good at this isn’t a novel observation; politicos on both sides of the isle recognize this. This is a guy whose complete lack of tact, inability to grasp policy details and follow a coherent strategy means he’s not been able to notch a single major legislative accomplishment in spite of controlling every branch of the federal government. His attempts to lobby congressional Republicans often end up comically backfiring.  And while Trump’s tenure has by no means been harmless, both his campaign and his administration have been rife with unforced errors and unnecessary fights.

Less remarked on is what this says about the political class. If a half bright fool like Trump can walk all over the best prospects in both parties what does that say about the competency of America’s “best and brightest.” He didn’t do this through some kind of Machiavellian maneuvering. Nor is the staff he surrounded himself with doing him many favors. This is how helpless the political class is. Trump is like a bull that wandered into a china shop and was able to break everything because  we assumed the dishes were much stronger than they actually were. He dispatched the front runner in the Republican primary through a combination of name calling and suggesting that maybe the Iraq war wasn’t the best idea. He defeated the Democrats because they insisted on nominating an unpopular candidate that, even without real and imagined scandals, was an avatar for all of the opportunism and rightward drift of the Democratic party. Oh, and by the way she also supported the Iraq War.

The effects of the Iraq War on the politics of the United States is extremely under analyzed. The Iraq war was poorly thought out, poorly executed, and disastrous by virtually any rubric. It’s lead to a rolling crisis the scope of which is difficult to comprehend. It’s probably the worst foreign policy blunder in US history. It was also supported by the “Responsible Adults” in both parties and the media (perhaps explaining its lack of analysis). It would be weird if this did not result in some kind of crisis of confidence in the political elites.

Because of the nature of American discourse (particularly around militarism) the discontent the war and it’s aftermath inspires is often expressed irrationally and projected onto other issues. For example many a white, flag-standing-for patriot I’ve encountered resent the fact that US service people are constantly put in harm’s way by these interminable series of conflicts, not to mention exorbitant amount of money spent. But instead of blaming the ruling class which created this mess, blame is redirected at Muslims and Arabs whose supposed violence and fanaticism necessitates these endless wars. Since mainstream sources can’t or won’t really question American Imperialism or its role in the middle east (US use of force can only ever be a strategic mistake, never a moral one) the only explanation for the endless wars and repressive regimes is some version of the clash of civilizations. Thus potential anti-war sentiment is transformed by racism into grudging support for the latest bombing campaign. That’s just one example of the way our politics is deformed by the Iraq war and its aftermath; the subject could (and should) be a book.

The impact of the Iraq war on US politics is not felt all at once, like other more one off events. Rather it’s more of a festering would continually poisoning the body politic. It certainly aided the rise of both Obama and Trump. Obama’s anti-war stance played an important part in his victory over Clinton in the 2008 primaries. Eight years later Trump could stand on debate stages with both Republicans and Democrats and plausibly claim to be the only one untarnished by the debacle. Now he’s like Pooh Bear, except instead of getting his head stuck in a jar of honey he got it stuck in the executive branch.

That the political class couldn’t get it together to put down a guy like this shows how little legitimacy and popular support the current order has. There is a deep desire for alternatives. Trump fell ass backwards into this opening, while Bernie charged purposely through it. This is why I think Bernie would have won; not because I like his tepid brand of social democratic new dealism. Rather he presented an alternative to a technocratic neoliberalism that isn’t aging very well.

Imagine if the working class could pose it’s own alternative. Imagine if it had it’s own institutions of mutual aid, of economic and political organization, or of education capable of posing a challenge not just to neoliberalism and bald reaction, but to the state and capital themselves. What would that even look like? It’s hard to say in 2017 when those institutions seem so mired in the past yet still so far in the future. But if there’s hope in this belly of reaction that we find ourselves in maybe it’s that this weird opening will allow us to build the organizations that one day pose that alternative. Or at least the organizations that build those organizations.