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Reform and revolution in Marxist-Leninist Politics

Reform and revolution in Marxist-Leninist Politics

Document dates from about 1988.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR there is a strong pressure on the left to abandon Marxism-Leninism. Various anarchist and libertarian views on the left and social democratic ones on the right, have come into greater prominence. I wish to argue that, although Marxism-Leninism may have serious weaknesses when it comes to how to organise a socialist society, it still stands head and shoulders above any alternative on how to conduct political class struggle for socialism.

Marxism-Leninism is the application of rational science to politics, in the service of communism. It is the political method of communist parties. These parties have as their aim the creation of a classless society, which they call communism. Marxist Leninists are not the only people who say they want a classless society.  Most socialists and anarchists would also share this aim. What makes a Leninist strategy different is the way it combines rational economic analysis with agitation, propaganda, organization and military leadership to achieve its ends.

Marxist Analysis of Society

The purpose of Marxist-Leninist theory is to allow communists to analyze economic and political conditions in sufficient detail to provide the basis for an effective political line. An effective political line is one which produces the maximum gains possible in the current situation.

Politics is the struggle to control or influence state power.

Political class struggle always takes place within a particular state, and since economic and political conditions differ from country to country, Marxist-Leninist analysis must focus on the specific conditions within the party's home state.

In the past it has been straight-forward to identify which is the home state. With the process of European Union it is getting harder. We currently live under a dual system of state power, in which the EC is still the weaker element. Once a single currency and European military command system are established, the EC will have become the dominant element. At that point, the establishment of an all-Europe communist party will be necessary.

A communist party must have an analysis of economy and class structure of the state that it operates in if it is to have an effective political strategy. Classic examples of this type of analysis are Lenin's  The Development of Capitalism in Russia, (Collected Works Vol 3), and Mao's Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society, (Selected Works Vol 1). The purpose of this analysis is, in Mao's words, to answer the question: 'Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?'.

This analysis can not be arrived at by a-priori reasoning. It requires an investigation. It requires the application of Marxist political economy to  contemporary economic conditions. This analysis seeks to answer several questions:
i) What are the systems of exploitation in this country? Who exploits whom? Who suffers from exploitation and who benefits from it?
It is not enough to answer these questions in a general fashion, to say simply that workers are exploited by capitalists. For a start, there will be other. non-capitalist forms of exploitation. In China the exploitation of peasants by landlords was more important than capitalist exploitation. Here one has to take into account exploitation through rent and debt and the exploitation of women by their husbands and sons.

ii) Which economic systems are growing and which are shrinking?
In Lenin's time it was a matter of arguing that communal peasant agriculture was being replaced by capitalist agriculture, and thus that the populist demand to return to communal agriculture was unrealistic. This could only be proven by detailed examination of government statistics. We need to know which categories of activity are growing and which are shrinking in terms of things like: local government work, bank employees, sales employees, security guards, factory work, the self employed.

iii) What are the contradictions inherent in the economy that may cause a crisis?

iv) Which classes are our friends and which classes are our enemies. What are the just demands that unite our friends and isolate our enemies.

Once we know the answers to these questions, then we have to work out what are the possible courses of development of our society.

There is no point to politics unless there is more than one future open to us. We have to identify, in general terms, what futures are possible so that we can fight for the one that is in the interests of the working class.

Marxist-Leninist Politics in Stable Periods

Changes in society are due chiefly to the development of the internal contradictions in society, that is, the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, the contradiction between classes, and the contradiction between the old and the new; it is the development of these contradictions that pushes society forward and gives the impetus for the supersession of the old society by the new.(Mao, On Contradiction, Selected works Vol I)
Capitalism is often stable for quite long periods. There are always contradictions in capitalism, but when exploitation and the accumulation of capital are proceeding smoothly,  then class antagonisms remain latent rather than explosive and are not manifest in open social conflict. Exploitation of wage labour always leads to struggles over wages and working conditions, but at most times only a tiny minority of workers are engaged in strikes, work-to-rules etc. This background noise of class struggle in no way threatens the social order.

In stable periods the existing form of state, laws of property and system of ideology correspond with the needs of the economic base. They allow capital to accumulate and the economy to go on developing. Examples of such periods in Britain were the late Victorian period and the 1950s and '60s.

Stable periods greatly restrict the activities of revolutionary parties. Since there is not objective social need for them, they can all too easily degenerate into sectarian irrelevance. Although unable to intervene in national politics, the communists should still engage in political activity. It may not at these times be able to wield mass influence but it must prepare theoretically, politically and organizationally for the time when it can.

It must deepen its understanding of society so that it can identify the contradictions that may come to the fore in a time of crisis.

It must educate workers in Marxist theory so that they have the knowledge and skill required to analyze a crisis situation when it arises.

It must aid such mass struggles as do occur, and by its practical assistance gain the reputation of being selflessly committed to the interests of the working-class as a whole.

It must fight for such reforms as would improve the immediate conditions of life of the masses.

Restructuring Crises

Relative stability is the normal condition of capitalism, revolutionary crises are very rare. This is why overtly revolutionary parties rarely have a mass following. Since revolutionary situations may occur only once  in a  century, there would be little scope for communist politics were it not for the fact that lesser, restructuring crises occur more frequently.

The development of capitalism goes through phases. During the stable periods, the superstructure corresponds well to the needs of the base. The economy establishes a pattern of growth and capital accumulates. But as it does so, the process of gradual quantitative development eventually produces qualitative changes. Gradual changes in property ownership and in the sizes of different social classes undermine the original conditions favorable to growth and lead to economic difficulties. This is very abstract. A couple of historical examples will make this clearer.

a) Period leading up to World War I
In the 19th century the expansion of capitalism in Britain had rested on the  foundations of a growing working class and international free trade. The application of capitalism to agriculture along with a high birth rate ensured a constant flow of population from the countryside into the cities. This provided a pool of unemployed who could be hired at low wages, and the instability of the working population hindered the formation of trades unions except in skilled trades. At the same time the head start that British capitalism had over other countries meant that international trade provided a ready market for the ever growing output of British industry.

However, the profitable export of machinery from Britain promoted industrialisation of other countries thus creating rivals on the world market.

The process of urbanization eventually drained the reserve army of labour from the countryside.

Percentage of Population Classified as Urban
  Year 1801 1851 1901 1951
  % 25% 50% 75% 79%

As a result two of the essential preconditions of the period of stability were removed. Internationally, competition with other capitalist powers led to militarism. Domestically the stabilization of the proletariat led to increasing trades union membership, strikes of ever increasing militancy.

British capitalism could not go on as before. From about 1910 onwards it entered a restructuring crisis, which, through wars and recessions was not eventually resolved until the reforms of the 1945 government laid the basis for a new period of stable growth.

b) The period  from 1950  to 1979.
The period from 1950 till the mid 1970's saw rapid and stable economic growth. Capital accumulated rapidly and there were big increases in real wages, in stark contrast to the early years of this century. For the first 50 years of the century there was effectively no growth in real wages. What workers gained in good years they lost in the bad. At the same time the bourgeoisie devoted a trivial proportion of their profits to capital accumulation, consuming the rest in a parasitic fashion.

year  Index of 
Real Wages
Capital Accumulation
as % profit



After 1950 the picture changed. In the next 25 years real wages almost doubled, whilst accumulation either took up the greater part of profits or even exceeded them.

These changes were the effect of the progressive restructuring of capitalism that had taken place after the war: nationalization of major industries, exchange controls and Keynesian full employment policies.  These changes restricted the role of the free market and introduced an element of conscious planning of economic activity.  As such they were steps, albeit small and limited ones towards socialism. It was called at the time a mixed economy, since it mixed elements of state capitalism with private capitalism. The objectively progressive nature of state capitalism compared to private capitalism meant that both the productive forces and the working class benefited.

Dialectics claims that there are contradictions in everything. The Keynesian/Social Democratic solutions to the problems of the first half of the century, created new contradictions which, by the 1970's came to a head. There were a whole complex of contradictions:

  1. A long period of full employment hand allowed strong trades union organisation to develop. It was this which enabled workers to improve their real wages.
  2. The rapid accumulation of capital meant that more capital equipment was employed per worker. Since surplus value could only be made from the exploitation of living labour, this meant that only a diminishing portion of the capital stock was contributing to the production of surplus value. In consequence the rate of profit fell.
  3.  The enlargement of the state employment - armed forces, civil service, NHS and local government work diminished the number of workers directly exploited by the capital. Since only workers employed out of capital produce surplus value this further diminished the rate of profit.
  4.  As real wages improved, and more workers won pension schemes, savings by wage and salary earners increased. This encouraged the flooding of high streets with banks, building societies and insurance companies; all of which were basically unproductive activities. The absorption of capital and labour in these parasitic activities undermined the rate of profit.
  5. High levels of saving meant a smaller portion of wages being spent on consumption. The consequent under-consumption created ever stronger recessionary tendencies and at the same time expanded the money supply in the hands of the banks. The result was a combination of unemployment and inflation, stagflation as it was called, that had never been seen before.

The result was a new restructuring crisis: a period of economic stagnation and intensified class struggle similar to that of the first decades of the century. The contradictions meant that a restructuring of production relations were an objective necessity. Two types of restructuring were possible: a reactionary one carried out under bourgeois pressure, or a progressive one carried out under working class pressure. We now know, all too well, which one took place.

Responsibility of  Left

The left, who are very willing to debate what went wrong in Russia, are a lot less willing to ask what mistakes in their own strategy contributed to that victory of Thatcherism which proved such a disaster to the working-class. None of the left had a clear Marxist analysis or Leninist strategy for the situation. That they have not faced up to their mistakes in the last crisis bodes ill for the next.

The several strands of thinking which influenced the left did not correspond precisely with organizational divisions. One strand was Trotskyist catastrophism, most clearly embodied in the WRP, but shared at times by others. According to this Britain was in an immediately pre-revolutionary period, which, by means of a general strike could be turned into an actual revolution.  This view, which involved a strong dose of wishful thinking, was not widely held.

A more common attitude was syndicalist economism, according to which the key task was to encourage and support trades union militancy. To fight for structural reforms was stigmatized as a reformist distraction from the reality of the class struggle. The key thing was to preserve the independence of the trades unions, defend free collective bargaining and oppose incomes policies. This view was widely held, from the WRP, through the SWP to the trades union base of the CP.

The only view with any economic analysis to support it, was taken by the Bennite left and the CP leadership who put forward the alternative economic strategy. This was the only politically serious response.

The ultimately decisive response was that of the Labour government who, with no strategy for structural reform sought and ad-hoc social compact with the TUC to swap wage restraint for a full employment. Neither party to the negotiations was capable of delivering its side of the bargain.

With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see that the best communist strategy would have had more in common with the Bennite/CP position than any of the others. It would have concede that, the situation was not revolutionary: the state retained a monopoly of armed force, the army was loyal and the proletariat completely disarmed. The key objective thus had to be to win the most radical and progressive reforms. Genuinely progressive reforms would not only resolve the immediate economic crisis, but would strengthen the social position of the working class,  as those of 1945-50 had done.

What was required was a decisive shift of the economy towards fully fledged state capitalism.  A rough idea of what would have been required can be gained from reading Lenin's pamphlet The impending catastrophe and how to combat it., (Collected Works Vol 25). The key measures would have been:
bringing the financial institutions under state control;
state direction of investment to ensure that profits and savings were productively invested;
a prices and incomes policy regulated by a 'house of labour' made up of shop stewards delegates. (During the panic of the mid 70s this was actually proposed by the Economist magazine. It would have been an act analogous to Louis XVI's calling of the estates general.);
introduction of  workers control, with a majority on company boards being trades union delegates;
replacement of the professional army with a Swiss style defence system to guard against the danger of military coups.
These are obviously not revolutionary socialist measures. They would have been radical state capitalist ones designed to resolve the crisis on terms favorable to the workers movement. Had such gains been won, then the next restructuring crisis, occurring perhaps in the early years of the next century would have posed the question of a transition from state capitalism to socialism.

Since restructuring was objectively needed, and since the workers movement had no coherent policy for it, the way was open for the reactionary restructuring of Thatcher to be presented under the totalitarian banner that 'There Is No Alternative'.

Revolutionary Crises

A revolutionary crisis is one in which there is a real possibility of state power passing from the hands of the ruling class. In all such conjunctures the immediately decisive element is military force. Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun; at least in a crisis it does.
That force is decisive, does not imply it must be used. What is important is that the ruling class should no longer be able to call on effective violence to impose its will.
This may be the result of defeat in an earlier war. In Poland for instance, the combined effect of the German invasion, the execution of the officer class by the Soviets at Katyn, and the suppression of the Warsaw uprising, left the bourgeoisie with no effective armed forces.
It may be the result of war weariness in the army; which refuses to obey orders. Examples of this are the February 1917 revolution in Russia  or the 1975 revolution in Portugal.
It may be possible for power to be transfered peacefully; due to the collapse of the executive organs of the state and a consequent lack of co-ordination in the army, e.g., the  initial establishment of the Paris Commune after the collapse of the imperial government.
The highest form of class struggle is revolutionary civil war. In this, the armed forces of the reactionaries are crushed and the former rulers forced to flee. Examples of this are the wars led by Cromwell, Toussaint L'Overture, Lincoln, Trotsky, Mao, Castro, HoChi Min and Giap.

The importance of the military factor in revolutions is so obvious that it scarcely needs to be emphasized. Even where, as in the Paris Commune, the initial transfer of power is peaceful, it has to be followed by the construction of a revolutionary army. 'Without a peoples army the people have nothing.'

It is sheer adventurism to advance revolutionary objectives in a period when military factors make the transfer of power impossible. Against every democratic and constitutional prejudice it has to be emphasized that the military situation determines where effective state power lies in a revolutionary conjuncture. Repeated experience has shown that a well disciplined army under decisive centralised command can suppress any threat to state power other than a superior army. An army can not be defeated by trades unions or other peaceful organisations of the working class.

To say that the military question is decisive in revolutionary situations, does not mean that the revolution reduces to a question of military organisation. A revolutionary war is a war of the masses and can be waged only by mobilizing the masses and relying on them. This requires that the party have a correct policy of forming a revolutionary alliance of all the oppressed; the policy of uniting all who can be united against the principle enemy. The fact that the struggle has taken an extreme form, war, does not imply that the immediate program of the CP should be extreme. The social aims of the people's war in China, were a comparatively moderate program of land reform. It aimed to unite the rural proletariat and peasantry as a whole against the landowners. Specifically socialist objectives: the formation of co-operatives and communes; were delayed until after the victory of the peoples war.

Revolutionary struggle in developed countries

What should be the attitude of communists in Britain to the military question. It is not enough to effectively ignore it by asserting that the troops, who are from working class backgrounds, would not consent to be used against workers. This is wishful thinking. There are four other approaches which at least deserve to be taken seriously:

i) Turning imperialist war into class war
This is what Lenin advocated during the first world war. The strategy worked in Russia. The preconditions for this are:
a. The existence of an imperialist war.
b. That it is prolonged.
c. That it is not an all out nuclear war.
d. That there is little prospect of 'our side' winning.
The cold war and nuclear deterrence prevented imperialist wars, and made this strategy irrelevant for its duration. If imperialist war re-emerges as a danger, this would again be an appropriate strategy.

ii) Reforming the armed forces
This strategy was advocated by Peter Tatchell and others on the left of the Labour Party. They aimed to replace a professional army with one based on a short period of conscription with general military training similar to the Swiss or former Jugoslav models. Along with this would go an attempt to change the class composition of the officer corps. This approach has a precedent in the classical social democratic program which called for a replacement of the standing army by an armed populace. Some support for it can be found in Engels article The Prussian Military Question and the German Worker's Party (The Pelican Marx Library, Political Writings, Vol 3).  In this Engels argued that a conscript army with a short period of service, which depended for its effectiveness on a general mobilization, was an unsuitable instrument for the execution of a military-coup.
Whether this such reforms would be sufficient to prevent a military coup in a time of social crisis can not be said for sure, but in comparison with Britain's current mercenary army, they would certainly be a democratic advance. There is a strong case for the worker's movement to demand such reforms from a Labour government.

iii) Urban guerilla warfare
The Maoist strategy of people's war has been successfully applied in several colonial or semi-colonial countries. This involves using the countryside to surround the towns; building up red base areas and through protracted struggle, going from guerilla war to a general offensive. No attempt to apply this in an urban context has yet resulted in victory. The nearest to an example was probably the Algerian war of independence, but this was primarily a war of national rather than social liberation.
This has led most marxists to conclude that urban guerilla struggle is inappropriate in developed capitalist countries. It is pointed out that the nature of guerilla struggle inevitably leads to the guerillas going underground and becoming isolated from the class. European experience seems to bear this out. The attempts by the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades, though sustained for several years never rose above isolated terrorism and have ceased to be a danger to the state. But it would be a mistake to conclude that this is inevitably the case.
An apparent counter example is close to home in Ireland. There, a guerilla war has been going on for more than 20 years. It has not become isolated from the population, indeed, a significant share of the working class vote goes to candidates who openly espouse the armed struggle. The fact that it has not long since been victorious is attributable not to military but to political factors: the political program of the IRA limits its appeal to around 25% of the population. Without a political program capable of broadening their base they are unable to break out of the stalemate.
Unlike the RAF and the Red Brigades, whose impetus came at first from the student movement, the nucleus of the IRA came from a section of the working class. It is this which enables them to move through the population like Mao's fish through water. It is their strong ties with the working class catholic population that prevents their eradication by the state. It thus remains possible that a genuinely working-class organisation, with a well thought out political program, could pursue the strategy of guerilla war to a successful conclusion.

iv) Formation of worker's defence guards
Trotsky raised the slogan of trades union defence guards that would go over from defending pickets to form the nucleus of a red army. In the USA there has been a strong tradition of strikers forming armed guards to defend picket lines against scabs. This is doubtless helped by the US constitution which secures the liberty to carry and bear arms. Such workers guards were successfully deployed in the 1948 communist revolution in Prague. In Britain nascent workers guards existed in  the hit squads formed during the miner's strike. It is however, hard to see how such forces could go on to challenge state power in this country, where the general populace is completely disarmed.