Illusions in so-called bourgeois democracy persist – as do illusions in workers’ councils. Mike Macnair stresses the necessity of a mass party
As Yassamine Mather has pointed out in her contribution, the Iranian left is affected by illusions in the possible role of shoras (councils) as an alternative to the regime. However, there were widespread shoras in the revolution of 1979 and immediately afterwards; but that did not lead to an upshot which was in the interests of the working class as a whole. I am going to discuss other examples, and what the underlying logic of the issue is.
I should say at the outset that there is an alternative line, which is that of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, and probably other organisations with similar positions. What has to be done now is to fight for ‘bourgeois democracy’, on the grounds that the workers’ movement is too weak to pose the question of workers’ power. In practice this means to prettify the policy of the American government, which claims to stand for ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ in Iran, as elsewhere.
But US interventions do not deliver these aims. Rather, they produce at best states radically impoverished from the pre-intervention situation, and paralysed by sectarian constitutions and corruption, as in Lebanon or Iraq; more probably they produce ‘Somalification’, meaning state failure, as in Libya. The US, since it failed to impose its preferred order in Vietnam, has pursued a policy of simply inflicting destruction. In each case it claims that it is going to create democracy, liberty and human rights. But none of these claims are to be believed, any more than the Romans’ claim that they invaded Britain in 43 AD, or the Spaniards’ claim that the conquistadors invaded central and southern America in the 1500s, to end human sacrifice and bring about ‘civilisation’.
Is a regime of councils an alternative? The idea that such a regime solves decision-making problems and renders it unnecessary to worry about creating a real party is a very common idea of the far left globally, not just the Iranian far left. Moreover, when they talk about the ‘revolutionary party’, as often as not what they mean is not a party in the same sense as the mass parties of the Second International or the Bolshevik Party. Rather, the ‘party’ in far-leftist views is to be a little group that is the ‘general staff of revolution’. It is to be a little cog, which drives the larger wheel (the councils), and the councils in turn are to be the big wheel which drives mass mobilisations.
This is a common far-left view, which comes out of people in the 1960s-70s reading Lenin’s State and revolution in the cheap Beijing or Moscow editions then available. It is a very substantial misreading of that work, because it fails to recognise that the Bolshevik Party at the time of the revolution of February 1917, although held down by repression in the war, had been the majority party of the Russian working class: the party which in 1912 won all the working class constituencies in duma elections and which put out a daily newspaper with a circulation of tens of thousands in Petrograd – even under conditions of limited legality. I have written about this confusion in an article in the Weekly Worker1 and a bit more generally in my book Revolutionary strategy (chapter two).
I give several examples there, but here I am going to give only two, which display slightly different problems.
The revolution of 1918-19 led to the creation of workers’ councils all across Germany – very large-scale indeed. There were congresses of the workers’ councils. But the rightwing Majority Social Democrats were able to persuade the trade union militants who had been involved in setting up the councils to ban political parties. The effect was that the Majority Social Democrats were still represented by way of the trade union officials, who were not excluded. (In addition there were soldiers’ councils – not, as in Russia, of the other ranks only, but including officers …). The councils on this basis were able to become instruments of the Majority Social Democrats to stabilise capitalism – just as in Iran many shoras became ‘Islamic shoras’, instruments of the developing Islamic Republic.
The ‘German lesson’ is, then, that councils without a mass workers’ political party become an agency of whatever actually existing mass political force is available to take the lead.
Another very different example is Austria, again in 1918-21. Here workers’ councils and worker factory committees were set up all over urban, suburban and industrial areas. Otto Bauer in his participant History of the Austrian Revolution (abridged translation 1925) tells us the result. The collapse of the old regime and revolution radically dislocated production. So the workers in the factories set up factory councils and they asked the Austrian Social Democratic leadership (to paraphrase), ‘The bosses have run away and we have taken over the factories, so what should we do now?’ What should they be producing in these factories? How do they get coal to fire the steam engines to run the machinery? How do they intersect with the needs of the larger society? What relationship are they going to have with the peasantry, who are the people producing food?
Now I do not think the Austrian Social Democrat leadership showed the degree of cynical manipulation of the Majority Social-Democrats in Germany, who allied with the far-right veterans organisation, the Stahlhelm, to suppress the left, and agreed with the Entente powers to keep German troops in the Baltic states as an intervention against the Russian Revolution. But the Austrians were equally committed to a peaceful road, avoiding civil war at all costs, and they were equally committed to remaining within a national framework. On that basis, they formed the judgment that the only thing which they could do was to get the councils to keep production going as far as they possibly could, and to make deals with the Entente powers to get coal into the country, and to make concessions all across the board to the peasantry and to capital in order to get the economy working. Hence, though less violently than the German Majority Social Democrats, they restabilised capitalism.
It should be said, incidentally, that neither the Majority Social Democrats in Germany nor the Austrian Social Democrats actually avoided civil war: they merely postponed it – from one which the workers might have won in 1918‑21 to one which the workers were guaranteed to lose in 1933-34, leading in turn to the Europe-wide civil war of 1939-45 (massively more destructive than a German/Austrian civil war in 1918-21 would have been).
The ‘Austrian lesson’ then is that having the councils does not solve the practical problems which are posed as soon as you take power. As soon as it is no longer the boss who is running the factory, you have to run it. And in order to run the factory you need to establish relations with all other sections of the social order which will enable the factory to run, and to do something useful for society. You need a central decision-making authority; and you need to have thought about an alternative national policy, in advance of the point when the bosses run away and you take over the factories.
I offer another – this time British – example of how this is an immediate problem. It is from a report in the (Conservative) Times newspaper about the crisis in the national health service. It turns out that a very large component of this crisis is due to ‘bed-blocking’, in that beds are taken up by aged patients, who do not need hospital treatment any more, but cannot be discharged, because local authorities cannot provide care to support them in their homes. The present Tory government proposes to ‘solve’ or at least ameliorate this problem by block-booking large numbers of hotel rooms into which to dump the aged, who are going to be discharged from hospital on the basis that their treatment is finished in order to free up hospital beds. Block-booking hotels will, of course, pass money to Conservative Party donors and activists, but will be substantially more expensive at the end of the day than restoring local authority funding …
This is only part of a complex story. In essence, the David Cameron government’s ‘austerity’ policy in 2010-16 was directed against soft targets in public spending, which meant local authorities. The Tories had already radically squeezed local authority funding by creating the ‘uniform business rate’ controlled by central government, which was regressive against small businesses for the benefit of big capital and consistently rose by less than the rate of inflation, and they and the Blair and Brown governments had refused any revaluation of house properties for the remaining local authority property taxes. The result was that local authorities have been completely dependent on central government funds. Squeezing them meant that ‘social care’ for the aged in their own homes could not be afforded. Hence there has been a growing tendency, beginning well before Covid, for hospital facilities to be ‘squeezed’ by bed-blocking.
Lying behind this story is a long-term campaign of the Tory Party, going back all the way to the foundation of the NHS in 1948, to gradually persuade the general public that ‘we can’t afford public healthcare free at the point of use’, and instead healthcare needs to be rationed by access to money: also that we need an insurance-based system (run by US private healthcare firms which have poured substantial amounts of money into the Tory Party, its think-tanks and lobbying operations). The ‘NHS crisis’ is thus the latest iteration of the policy of degrading public housing, public education, and so on, on the road to privatisation. The Tories plan these operations to take place step by step over decades.
There are two lessons from this story. The first is that saving the NHS cannot be a matter of industrial action – or of ‘workers’ control’ of the health service facilities themselves. It involves resource choices affecting society as a whole – and not just about NHS funding, but also local authority funding (and, it should be added, various other public health issues, like effective enforcement of housing standards, the availability of heating, and so on). Planning is fundamental. Soviet ‘planning’ failed, at the end of the day; but the post-1991 global experiment has categorically disproved the claimed superiority of market mechanisms.
A common left response (the AWL again) is the call to ‘tax the rich’ – or, in the alternative, to run a bigger budget deficit. The debacle of the Truss administration illustrates the uselessness of these projects: controlling the movement of capital is essential to any method to break free of the dictatorship of the financial sector.
I do not know enough about the details of policy issues in Iran to be able to draw the parallels out fully. But the point is – as with the Austrian lesson – that the workers’ movement needs to work out its own policy for healthcare, the care of the elderly, education, housing, transport, and so on. As long as it does not do so, it will be pulled along as a tail by one or another initiative of the capitalist class and its political representatives. This point was, in fact, made by Karl Marx as long ago as 1864 in the Inaugural Address of the First International.
The second lesson relates to the conduct of multi-generational fraud by the Tory Party as an institutional group and the advertising-funded, and hence corrupt, media. Our rulers set out to divide us along national lines: in Britain, for example, to split the workers’ movement between UK unionism and Scottish nationalism, or between Brexiteering nationalism and European Union neoliberalism. Again, these are long-prepared fraudulent operations. In Iran, in the immediate aftermath of 1979 a lot of the left gave partial backing to the Islamists as ‘really nationalists’ opposed to US imperialism. The supposed radicalism of the Islamists turned out to be delusive. Today, a substantial part of the left cherishes symmetrical delusions about the ‘democratic’ credentials of the USA and its covert propaganda outlets.
We need the means of combating these frauds, over the same timescale. That means that we need “poor men’s guardians” – the expression which was used in the 19th century for the early working class papers. The movement needs to reconstitute its own ability to speak, and to pursue and publicise a long-term agenda which can combat those of the Tory Party in Britain and the Islamic Republic leadership in Iran.
The workers’ movement has had a bad experience in the last century with ‘official’ communist parties dependent on the USSR, its police and its erratic diplomatic agendas; and, outside those, sects based on disagreements about points of theory and tactical issues. But, in spite of these bad experiences, fundamentally we need a struggle for a workers’ political party, which can both put forward policy proposals and establish media which are not dependent either on advertising or on taking money from dodgy sources.
That requires a party based on a political platform, which sets out both goals that reach altogether beyond the capitalist order (the ‘maximum’ programme) and immediate proposals – particularly for constitutional change, which gives power to the working class as a class (the ‘minimum’ programme). Both are needed and the whole programme needs to be short and succinct – the 1891 Erfurt Programme of the German Social Democratic Party is in translation 850 words long, while the 1903 programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is 2,550 words.
This must be a summary programme, which enables a party to get beyond personal trust in individual leaders and their individual theories, and allows it to become a working institution of the class.
First published here.
- ‘Control the bureaucrats’, November 11 2004: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/552/control-the-bureaucrats.↩︎