Review of Hannah Sell’s Socialism in the 21st Century, Aneurin Delmas and Dominic Smith

This is the unabridged version of the article originally published in the first issue of Marxist World. For reasons of space, a much shorter version of the same piece was published which, whilst maintaining the essential thrust of the article, nevertheless was unable to provide the full detail and nuance of some of the arguments raised. Thankfully the internet spares us this problem entirely, and thus we reproduce our review in its full form. We hope the points raised provide the basis for further discussion within our movement.

Introduction

Hannah Sell’s Socialism in the 21st Century: the Way Forward for Anti-Capitalism, first published in 2002 and then republished in 2006 with a new introduction, is a short book that attempts to give an outline of what socialism is and how a socialist society could be achieved.  It was written as a contribution to the debates that arose out of the ideas put forward by the anti-World Trade Organisation movement and later the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements at the start of the 21st century.  Many of the ideas advanced by these movements were not new, and had in fact been dealt with by Marx and others over a century ago. However, it was still important to engage with these modern variants of old ideas, given the hold they had and continue to have on wide layers of radical youth and activists.

The publication of this book also presented a great opportunity to present a case for socialism and Marxism in a fresh way that would be seen as a viable alternative to those looking to anti-capitalist ideas today.  As such, Socialism in the 21st Century is representative of the policies and positions of the Socialist Party of England and Wales (part of the Committee for a Workers’ International – CWI), although much of its wider implications, as we can demonstrate later, have affected the CWI’s work in other countries.

We have chosen to issue a critique of this document as, however much some comrades in the CWI might object, we believe it is not merely an agitational book of little importance, but rather an outline of the CWI’s strategy, philosophy and fundamental positions on key questions relating to their interpretation of Marxism.  We argue this case since the text is both utilised within the Socialist Party (SP) to educate its cadres and also because it is, to date, the most detailed and comprehensive outline of the SP’s views on these questions in a single publication.  On that basis, we intend to treat this book as a serious contribution to revolutionary literature. It is our hope that comrades within the ranks of the CWI will accept this in the spirit of comradely debate and exchange intended. Our major differences with this publication revolve around the Marxist conception of capitalism and the state, the role of the revolutionary party, what socialism is and how socialism will be achieved. All page references are from the original 2002 publication.

The State

An analysis of the nature of the capitalist state is the most important dividing line between Marxists and reformists. After all, as has been proven numerous times, an erroneous view of the bourgeois state will lead the revolution astray every time. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that the single greatest reason for the failure to achieve a socialist transformation in the 20th century, where the class struggle has often reached such a pitch as to pose the objective possibility for socialism and where a radical party has been in a position of leadership of these movements more often than not, has been an accommodation to the bourgeois state and its apparatus. In contrast, differences between Marxists and reformists on other issues such as the philosophy of dialectical materialism and the Marxist analysis of capitalist crisis, whilst presenting their own unique problems in terms of incorrect perspectives, tend to be dangerous precisely because they lead a movement to accommodate itself to reforming the bourgeois state. Marxists understand the state is not a neutral body, but an instrument of class rule fundamentally built to defend the ruling bourgeois, or capitalist, class. It cannot be reformed and thus presents an obstacle for the socialist transformation of society. Hannah Sell consistently shows that she either lacks the basic, Marxist understanding on this issue, or, through an incorrect conception of the transitional programme, believes it is correct to consciously hide it. On the latter point, Marxist World have addressed this previously, most notably in our article Clarifying the Transitional Demand and Its Application: “Unfortunately, the Socialist Party continues to advance “muddleheaded reformist slogans” in its literature… To repeat, the aim of the transitional programme is ultimately to prepare the working class for action against the capitalist class, i.e. for revolution. It is not to imply that a parliamentary government can carry out the action on behalf of the class.” (Marxist World. 2015)

On page 42, Hannah Sell begins to outline her conception of the state: “A socialist economy would have to be a planned economy. This would involve bringing all of the big corporations, which control around 80% of the British economy, into democratic public ownership, under working class control.”

Even as an agitational slogan, we would have serious issues with this formulation. Marxists have always been very careful in how the demand for state or public ownership is raised.  It is important for Marxists to distinguish themselves from reformists, the majority of whom support public ownership but for very different reasons.  For reformists, public ownership is seen as one of the many means by which they attempt to mitigate the worst effects of the capitalist system, utilising it to provide welfare or to support the private sector. An example would be nationalised energy companies providing cheap, subsidised energy to private manufacturing.

Even the most pro-market conservatives are willing to resort to nationalisation where it is necessary to prevent a catastrophic collapse of capitalism, such as the various banks taken into public ownership by right-wing governments all over the world during the 2007-8 economic crisis.

In each case the objective is the same: the preservation of capitalism, rather than seeing the public sector as a basis for an alternative, non-market economic system.  This is ensured by the fact that the nationalisation is carried out by the bourgeois state, an organisation that exists to safeguard capitalist property relations.  Real power in terms of the management and planning of the newly nationalised sector therefore falls into the hands of senior figures in the capitalist state bureaucracy, regardless of whatever token measures of so-called workers participation might be implemented by left-reformists. As Brian Ingham pointed out in his article What next for the trade unions? Worker Directors or the Struggle For Socialism:

“In Sweden, since 1973, workers have had two seats on the boards of capitalist firms where they sit opposite approximately four to six other directors. Two reserve worker-directors can be present but not with voting rights. In Sweden the worker representatives sit on a single tier board. The relationship is epitomised by the fact that they are supposed to leave the room when industrial action or wage bargaining is being discussed! And at the end of the meeting all the directors decide which items of their business will be kept secret. These decisions then carry the force of law.

A new feature which has recently been introduced in Sweden is the economic committee where management teams explain the balance sheets to the workers in the hopes of further involving them in the financial problems of the company to endure restraint in future wage claims.” (Ingham. 1977)

As we can see such measures are acquiesced to, when they are deemed appropriate, by the capitalist class in order to placate workers with a minimal and illusory degree of participation in order that more radical demands for workers’ control are sidelined. Worse still, these institutions are then used to place further pressure upon workers that they may agree to the demands of senior management more easily.

As a consequence, when raising the agitational demand for public ownership, Marxists have traditionally called for such sectors to be placed under democratic workers control and management. This ensures that the demand for nationalisation confronts the capitalist-class basis of such calls by directly challenging the right of the capitalist state to administer companies in the interests of capital.

On first glance this difference may appear as mere semantics, however these terms are loaded with meaning. Workers control and management implies the workers directly control things at the point of production. Working class control is broader, as it suggests the working class as a whole control the means of production but not necessarily directly, for example via elected officials or state bureaucrats. In that sense, we could say the factories in the Soviet Union were under working class control, but not control by the workers themselves. This stems from the fact that said factories had been nationalised by a workers’ state that later degenerated in to proletarian bonapartism, and that unlike a bourgeois state was independent from bourgeois property relations and was instead based upon the nationalised economy itself. Therefore such a formulation is so vague it runs the real risk of inadvertently promoting, or seeming to promote, reformist conceptions of public ownership.

A more obvious example can be found in a headline in the SP weekly newspaper read “Jail the banksters! Nationalise the banks under popular democratic control” [our emphasis] (The Socialist. 2012). Such a statement leaves out any notion of class content whatsoever.  What is popular control? Control by cooperatives? Popular share ownership? Yet again, this vagueness is open to pretty much any interpretation and as such should be utterly rejected by Marxists.

Later in the book, Hannah Sell does seem to flesh out her conception of public ownership with the following:

“It would be necessary to draw up a plan, involving the whole of society, on what industry needed to produce. At every level, in communities and workplaces, committees would be set up and would elect representatives to regional and national government – again on the basis of recall at anytime if they disagreed with their decisions. Everybody would be able to participate in real decision-making about how best to run society.” (p43)

Once again this is far too abstract. The concept of the working class ruling society as a class through, not simply its ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange via the state, but also its active role in the labour process, is not spelt out.  In fact, in Hannah Sell’s conception, workplaces are nothing more than yet another area from which to elect a layer of state functionaries who, no matter how accountable they are to the working class, cannot substitute themselves for the self-conscious activity of the working class exercising its class rule directly at the point of production.

This is no surprise when you realise that at no point has Hannah Sell distinguished between a capitalist state and a workers’ state beyond the most obscure reference to the Paris Commune that is not developed.

When you move beyond the realm of simple agitation and attempt to present a viable basis for socialism, it is necessary to explain that the planned economy, needed to begin the transition towards socialism, cannot be carried out using the existing state apparatus. Instead it is necessary, as Marx and Engels concluded on the basis of their analysis of the defeat of the Paris Commune, to smash or abolish the capitalist state and construct a new one based on the self-organisation of the working class.

Such a prospect may well seem rather remote at best, or outright utopian at worst, and we are not unsympathetic to the difficulties Hannah Sell and other Marxists have had over the years in presenting these ideas.  What must be borne in mind is that we are simply sketching out, in broad terms, the steps that would be necessary for the working class to take during a future socialist revolution, not an immediate programme to be implemented now where the conditions for such a revolution do not currently exist in Britain.

We also accept that, given the lower level of class consciousness compared to previous periods of more intense class struggle, amongst the majority of workers at this time terms such as smashing the state may seem more like anarchism than socialism or Marxism.  This is due to the lack of recent experiences by the younger generation of workers in a more militant trade union movement, where workers’ organisations, like the shop stewards movement or local trade councils, gave at least a partial glimpse to workers of the potential for the working class to build their own rival workers’ state to replace the capitalist one.  When Marxists call for abolishing the capitalist state, the implication is to build a new state based on workers’ self-organisation, rather than simply leaving a vacuum for society to collapse into. This point has been made consistently throughout Marxist literature over the last century.

The ABC of Communism, published in 1920 to assist the various parties of the new Communist International (prior to the period of Stalinist degeneration), carried the following passages:

“Thus the revolution destroys the old power and creates a new one, a different power from that which existed before. Of course the new power takes over some of the constituent parts of the old, but it uses them in a different way.

It follows that the conquest of state power is not the conquest of the pre-existent organization, but the creation of a new organisation, an organisation brought into being by the class which has been victorious in the struggle.” (Bukharin & Preobrazhensky. 1920)

Hannah Sell’s refusal to set out such an argument leads to further confusion when she goes into detail about how a ‘socialist government’ would resist counter-revolution. Having jumped from a workers’ movement demanding socialism to an established ‘socialist government’ without any reference to the establishment of a workers’ state, the only conclusion one can draw is that this ‘socialist government’ is utilising the existing capitalist state machine. Even in the unlikely event that enough pressure were brought to bear on the capitalist class that this allegedly ‘socialist government’ were to carry out the Socialist Party’s programme of bringing 80% of the economy into public ownership, the entire administrative apparatus of the state would be working from day one to undermine the functioning of the economy and society, trying to preserve coercive management structures and working to restore capitalist property relations as soon as possible. One only has to look at the economic sabotage and mismanagement in Venezuela to recognise this as fact.

Militant, Labour and the State

The forerunner of the Socialist Party, the Militant tendency, worked within the Labour Party from 1964 to 1991. During this period, the Labour Party was truly a mass party of the working class, albeit a reformist one. It was so pervasive amongst working class life that all serious Marxists had to participate within it. Militant, arguably necessarily, made tactical concessions when explaining their conception of the state in order to reach the advanced layers both within and outside the Labour Party who were attracted to socialist and Marxist ideas.  Had Militant openly called for abolishing the capitalist state in its public literature, it would have been expelled from the Labour Party and sidelined on the fringes of the movement.

Marxist World recognise that there is a wider debate to be had on the extent Marxists can make concessions of principle in order to critically participate within non-revolutionary organisations. However, it must be noted that Militant’s approach within the Labour Party compared favourably to the “deep entryist” groups who refused to raise Marxist ideas and criticisms of reformism, and instead sought to curry favour with non-Marxist forces and individuals in order to make unprincipled, and often short-lived, organisational gains.

In 1991, Militant left the Labour Party and formed the independent organisation Militant Labour (later to become the Socialist Party in 1997) after declaring Labour had transformed into a bourgeois party, essentially no different to the Conservatives. But such an analysis has been proved wrong by recent events in particular. Whilst it is true Tony Blair’s New Labour took the party further to the right, the notion that a Labour government led by Tribunite MPs such as the late Tony Benn would have acted as a stepping stone towards socialism is incorrect. A reformist government in power during the 1990s may have made more concessions to the working class, but fundamentally would have had to play to the tune of the ruling class. The Socialist Party, echoing strains of nostalgia for the “good old days” of the working class persist the fantasy myth of a chemically pure, reformist workers’ party, but no such organisation has ever or will ever exist. Labour still remains a bourgeois-workers party, a contradictory formation but with roots in the working class through the Trade Unions. There is no room for two reformist parties in Britain, as the rise and fall (or simply, the fall) of the Socialist Labour Party, Alliance for Green Socialism, Respect, Left Unity and Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition (TUSC) demonstrates.

Following their departure from the Labour Party and the formation of Militant Labour as an open ‘revolutionary’ party, we believe this would have been an ideal opportunity for the leadership and membership to critically review its previous programme, strategy and tactics of the past period. Unconstrained by membership of the Labour Party, Militant Labour/Socialist Party should have utilised the opportunity to raise the understanding of its members and the wider working class on issues such as the state in their more lengthy public material where there was sufficient space to explore these issues in detail.

What we mean concretely is that simply exposing the class character of the state is not sufficient. Such an understanding is not merely the preserve of Marxists, since many reformists, pseudo-radicals and even conservatives have correctly identified this as part of its nature. It is necessary to explain the necessity for workers to construct their own state in opposition to the bourgeois state in order to avoid pessimistic conclusions being drawn. The recognition of the inability of the capitalist state to break with capitalism has lead many reformist minded people to argue for the workers’ movement to moderate its demands to only those amenable to the bourgeois state. Marxism differentiates itself by pointing out another way, that of the dissolution of the bourgeois state itself in order to deny the class enemy its means of coercion and so begin the process of the transition to socialism.

Unfortunately, as a reading of Socialism in the 21st Century testifies, the Socialist Party have not gone down that road. Instead, the various tactical concessions that their previous involvement in the Labour Party imposed on them in how they presented their ideas have either simply been repeated unconsciously, or have in fact inadvertently become the actual political views of the Socialist Party.

Revolution, Counter-Revolution and Violence

What proposals does Hannah Sell advocate to defend an alleged ‘socialist government’ resting on a capitalist state apparatus?  She outlines her main proposals in two consecutive paragraphs (p52),

“Time and time again the capitalists have been prepared to use violence to protect their rule. Nevertheless, this resistance could be nullified by mobilising the mass of working-class people in support of a socialist government. The working class is potentially by far the most powerful force in society.

If a socialist government mobilised that power in support of its policies an entirely peaceful transformation of society might be achievable. However, we are realistic. The ruling class will be prepared to use whatever means at its disposal to maintain its power and privileges. A socialist government could only defend itself if it mobilised the active support of the working class. And it would only be by demonstrating its power in practice that the working class could successfully defend its democratically elected socialist government.”

It is hard to imagine how Hannah Sell could be any vaguer. What does she mean by “…mobilising the mass of working-class people in support of a socialist government”?  It could be anything from peaceful demonstrations on the streets with banners and placards, to the self-organisation of armed workers’ militias that directly confront the armed forces of the state – we simply don’t know!

Whilst we believe this vagueness is deliberate in order to appeal to all people at all levels of understanding, such an approach is ultimately opportunist and does not prepare the working class, particularly the most advanced layer, for the task of defeating attempts at counter-revolution by the capitalist state.

What would such a defence of the revolution consist of? In the unlikely (although entirely possible) event a revolutionary Marxist party were carried into parliament on the back of a mass movement, its first act to undermine the threat of counter-revolution would be use its position in the working class to organise the abolition of the very state that they took leadership of, with its representatives in parliament ready to follow the new leadership the working class throw up in its own workers’ state.

Such an action would immediately begin to undermine the organisation and social cohesion of armed sections of the capitalist state, such as the police and military, the leaders of which would, without question, refuse to simply voluntarily disband themselves and instead compel their forces to strike out in desperation. Already a senior member of the Armed Forces has publicly spoken of the threat of mutiny under a Corbyn led-Labour government “There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.” (Independent, 2015). If this is their response to merely the possibility of a mildly reformist government in four years time, imagine their reaction to full-blooded socialist revolution!

In order to quash the threat of counter-revolution, during the preceding period the working class must be prepared by a revolutionary Marxist party for such a scenario. The workers must understand the task in hand to defeat the threat of counter-revolution head on when the time arrives. This would involve, as we state in another article in this journal, The Greek Road to Socialism?,

“An appeal would have to be made to the rank and file of the army on behalf of the workers’ movement and those elements of the police not under the sway of [right-wing reaction]. Such an appeal would not be going cap in hand to the rank and file of the army and police, begging them not to intervene against the movement, but instead would confront them at full strength, through organised workers militias in defence of the revolution, with demands to disobey their officers and defect to the side of the workers’ revolution.” (Delmas. 2016)

Hannah Sell’s book does nothing to prepare workers for such events. In fact, she even goes as far to state that Pinochet’s bloody coup against the reformist Allende government in Chile could have been prevented, if only Allende had “taken different decisions” (p65)! For Hannah Sell, bad government policy such as inviting General Pinochet into the cabinet to pacify the generals was the issue in Chile, not the failure of the workers’ movement to abolish the capitalist state. Yet as Peter Taaffe had correctly pointed out in his 1979 article Militantly Against (reprinted in this journal), “Militant supported the steps which these [reformist] leaders took which advanced the movement … but attempted to show to the workers that no matter how sincere, they would inevitably seek to apply the break to the movements of the working class.  Given the fact that their program did not go beyond the framework of capitalism and they were not Marxists, this was inevitable.” (Taffe. 1979)

Hannah Sell unwittingly demonstrates the dangers of an unwillingness to use force when criticising Monbiots’ liberalism:  “[Monbiot] calls on mass movements to prevent “any faction – the corporations, the aristocracy, the armed forces, even, for that matter, trade unions and environment groups from wielding excessive power” (p71). Whilst one must assume that Hannah does not entirely agree with such a statement, she does not define socialism as a class based movement against Monbiots’ conceptions and fails to state that power must be transferred to the hands of the workers. As revolutionary Marxists we are unequivocal on this issue. We have no time for such ideas of equilibrium between interest groups in society. The proletarian masses must be the ones to wield the power if we are to shape the new socialist society. Whilst we do not make a fetish of trade unions, clearly any sort of mass workers movement must consolidate power into its own hands and build its own state in order that it can effectively challenge and defeat the inevitable attempts at violence by the capitalist class through their state.

Some CWI comrades would claim that Hannah Sell’s distortions of Marxism amounts to employing the “transitional method” in order to justify hiding the truth for fear of workers “not being ready”, and that talks of violence should only take place behind closed doors for fear of scaring away radical liberals like Monbiot. Yet the CWI otherwise has no issue with stocking James Cannon’s Socialism on Trial. Cannon was the General Secretary of the US Socialist Workers Party (not connected to the Socialist Workers Party in Britain) and the book is a publicly available transcript of his testimony following being found guilty of “conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the US government” during WW2, where he openly proclaims the violent nature of revolution and use of force. The Socialist Party describe this book as “a clear and simple explanation of the principles and aims of  revolutionary socialism [which] has become a classic of communist literature.” (Leftbooks) If Cannon is outlining the principles of revolutionary socialism, what sort of socialism is Hannah Sell advancing in Socialism in the 21st Century? Below is part of the transcript:

“Prosecution(P): Now, what is the opinion of Marxists with reference to the change in the social order, as far as its being accompanied or not accompanied by violence?

Cannon(C): It is the opinion of all Marxists that it will be accompanied by violence.

P: Why?

C: That is based, like all Marxist doctrine, on a study of history, the historical experiences of mankind in the numerous changes of society from one form to another, the revolutions which accompanied it, and the resistance which the outlived classes invariably put up against the new order. Their attempt to defend themselves against the new order, or to suppress by violence the movement for the new order, has resulted in every important social transformation up to now being accompanied by violence.….

P: Explain the sentence that I read from page 6 of the Declaration of Principles, Government’s Exhibit 1: “The belief that in such a country as the United States we live in a free democratic society in which fundamental economic change can be effected by persuasion, by education, by legal and purely parliamentary method, is an illusion.”

C: That goes back to what I said before, that we consider it an illusion for the workers to think that the ruling-class violence will not be invoked against them in the course of their efforts to organise the majority of the people.” [our emphasis] (Cannon, 1941)

Economics

How could Hannah Sell present the current Socialist Party programme as ‘Marxist’ when, as we have consistently demonstrated, they are utterly unwilling to openly speak of the class nature of the bourgeois state and the conclusions that we have shown flow from this understanding?

What underpins their theory and practice is their embrace of underconsumption theory, which tries to explain the onset of capitalist crises by lack of ‘effective demand’ (i.e. low wages). Readers can see this implied throughout the book.  Whilst CWI comrades make correct points on the unequal distribution of wealth, the implication is that tackling inequality alone would correct the unequal excesses of the capitalist system.

But inequality is built into the very fabric of capitalism. It places limits on workers’ purchasing power, but this is a permanent feature of capitalism. Inequality alone cannot explain the reoccurring nature of crises and why crises occur when they do. Trade Unions and workers organisations can and must fight for better conditions. But currently they’re doing a terrible job. Reformists in the leadership of the workers’ movement have proved to be the worst leaders and the worst tacticians, even on a limited day-to-day basis. Their willingness to accommodate themselves to the demands of capitalism means that the capitalist class comes to the bargaining table confident of negotiating from a position of power and within a framework it dictates. Moreover, the income, lifestyle and narrow-minded world-view of Union leaders in general puts them in opposition to workers on most day-to-day bread and butter issues. Ironically, a Marxist leadership – without the privileges Trade Union officialdom brings – would win many more reforms than the reformist ones!   However, the ability of workers to win permanent and lasting reforms over pay, conditions and wages over an historical period are fundamentally dependent on the objective conditions of the capital investment and profit cycle.

Marxist World have previously pointed out many times that generalised crises are fundamentally caused by movements in the rate of profit, explained by Marx’s Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (LTRPF). Capitalists will only invest if they can gain a sufficient rate of return. The advocates of underconsumption theory, like those in the CWI leadership, believe that low wages cause crises. They believe that capital investment and profit is dependent on wages, which is the very opposite of Marx’s theory.

Because Hannah Sell disregards Marx’s LTRPF and places the problems of capitalism within the realm of distribution rather than production, she believes that the capitalist class is acting irrationally by withholding investment. The implication is that economic growth would resume and the crisis would alleviate if capitalists paid their workers higher wages. But since capitalists will not invest, reasons Hannah, a ‘socialist government’ would have to do the ‘rational’ thing and substitute itself for the capitalist class and stimulate investment itself. What we therefore have is a programme for state-directed capitalism on the basis of the capitalist state. This is the root of the Socialist Party’s reformist position.

Socialism

Hannah Sell’s conception of socialism and a planned economy is alien to Marxism, and seems to pivot around the mass ownership of consumer goods, particularly, for some reason, washing machines:

“Some people argue that, in the past, … it may have been possible to plan an economy. But that today, when people want washing machines…” (p43)

“Nonetheless, many consumer goods genuinely improve the lives of working-class people. Fridges, central heating, washing machines, CD players and televisions, all improve peoples’ lives” (p58)

“Surely we can keep washing machines without having environmentally destructive detergent?” (p58)

“France in 1968 was in no way an economically backward country… In ten years car ownership had doubled, as had the number of washing machines…” (p60)

Clearly, access to useful consumer goods is an important part of improving the lives of working people. However, focusing simply on ownership of goods treats socialism as sort of crude materialistic proposition in which everyone can be “middle class”. This is further reinforced by her talk of a “mass house-building program” without any challenge to rampant landlordism or the bourgeois ideology of home ownership. Apparently Hannah Sell is intensely relaxed about comrades owning multiple properties! Of course, the reason why home ownership is such an ‘aspiration’ under capitalism is because renting is so precarious and expensive, with little rights for the tenants. The state pension for retired workers is insufficient to cover rent in the private sector, and so often the only option available is to purchase a house and hope the mortgage is paid off prior to retirement. A workers’ state would take all housing into public ownership and allocate empty housing on the basis of need, abolishing the market in housing. All upkeep requirements for the property would be transferred to the workers’ state. All mortgages would be written off and decent accommodation would become a human right.

Such a step would immediately be on the agenda for a socialist state in the UK where, quite apart from the millions of workers being forced to choose between eating regular meals and paying the rent, there are 61,000 households being placed in temporary accommodation across England (Mirror. 2015), and at any given night 3,500 people are sleeping rough on the streets. (BBC News. 2016). On top of this there are 635,127 empty properties in England of which nearly 200,000 have been left vacant for more than 6 months (Mirror. 2015). Some people believe that requisitioning these properties to solve the housing crisis would violate the owners’ property rights. However, the socialist revolution will not act in the interests of bourgeois property relations, but in the interests of the workers and other impoverished sections of society. Even some radical Leftists have balked at this idea. But to those so-called socialists, the authors must pose this hypothetical question: During a revolution, if homeless families moved into these empty properties, would these socialists therefore advocate sending in workers’ militias in order to evict the families and restore the properties to their original owners?!

Hannah Sell misses one of the key philosophical points regarding socialism; the liberation of humanity from coerced labour, for the ‘free association of labour’ and the rediscovery of ‘species-being’ (true human nature). Despite all the talk of washing machines, Hannah Sell does not propose the socialisation of domestic tasks which would free woman in particular from unpaid work, which was of high importance for Bolsheviks such as Alexandra Kollontai. Socialism seeks to maximise human leisure time and allow relationships between people to develop on a higher level than the narrow limits of the bourgeois family and the traditional working week allow.

For similar philosophical reasons, Hannah Sell fails to critique the Soviet Union from the point    of the worker involved in production, and instead focuses on provision of goods and services:

“[U]p until the early 1970s the nationalized economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe produced impressive advances, especially in heavy industries, though consumer goods were generally in short supply and of poor quality. Despite their many shortcomings, however, they also provided basic education, healthcare, and other social amenities to the majority of the population.” (p44)

It seems Hannah Sell considers socialism to mean a good job, a well equipped house, regular holidays and a welfare state. Basically, a middle-class lifestyle for everyone, achieved through a ‘socialist government’ made up of elected officials. By generously broadening the conception of socialism, she makes the programme appealing to middle layers in society, not on the basis of winning them to the standpoint of the proletariat, but on the basis of their own prejudices, perhaps with them seeing themselves as future ‘socialist’ officials. Yet as Ted Grant warned in relation to such social strata,
“It is easier for the intellectuals, the radical officers, even civil servants and upper layers of professional people, doctors, dentists, lawyers and so on to make the transition to Stalinist Bonapartism than to support genuine but tiny Marxist tendencies…These stratas, apart from their economic position, are imbued with an overwhelming conceit and concern for their own importance in society. They are concerned with perks, status, standing, power, privileges, income and prestige…” (Grant. 1978). Hannah Sell’s programme leaves the door open for such Stalinist tendencies.

For all the critique of Stalinist bureaucracy i.e. “Decisions, far from being taken by society as a whole, were taken by a few privileged bureaucrats at the top” (p44), Hannah Sell’s interpretation of workers democracy would simply involve replacing unelected bureaucrats with elected ones. Such a blueprint cannot lead to workers overcoming the narrow horizons of their own work and becoming the masters of the whole of society. As Ernest Mandel (a Belgian Marxist who played a leading role in the French and European socialist movement of the post war period) said in relation to alienation, “We live in a society based on commodity production and a social division of labour pushed to the limits of overspecialisation. As a result, people in a particular job or doing a certain type of activity for a living will incline to have an extremely narrow horizon. They will be prisoners of their trade, seeing only the problems and preoccupations of their specially. They will also tend to have a restricted social and political awareness because of this limitation.” [our emphasis] (Mandel 1970)

Internationalism

Considering an imperialist intervention against a newly elected ‘socialist government’, Hannah Sell completely downplays the possibility of such an event occuring:

“It is true that the US ruling class was able to successfully use the horrific events of September 11 to temporarily win the support of the majority of US workers for the war on Afghanistan…

However, it is one thing for imperialism to win support for taking action against the reactionary, antidemocratic Taliban regime. It would be an entirely different question to justify an attack on a popular socialist government which was making open appeals to the US working class for support….

The power of imperialism is potentially more limited today than it was almost a century ago when the Russian revolution took place in October 1917.” (p53-54)

We don’t believe this to be true when it was written in 2002, and certainly not now in 2016. In the USA, millions of workers (yes, workers) are preparing to vote for right-wing multi-billionaire Donald Trump for the Republican Party leadership, who amongst other things calls for banning all Muslims entering the US (Guardian 2015).  We cannot discount that such figures, if elected, would support military intervention against a fledgling socialist state, whitewashing it with the help of the capitalist media as a ‘communist coup’ which, given the influence the capitalist media still has on large sections of society, would be expected for at least the initial period. The idea that US workers would spontaneously down tools and offer solidarity is not realistic at this stage. Workers’ consciousness is nothing like the level it was a century ago around the time of the Russian Revolution. We believe Hannah Sell’s formulation to be one-sided and incredibly naïve. It is not that such solidarity would be impossible, but that relying simply on workers in the US to prevent such intervention may prove fatal for the nascent revolution.

For the establishment of socialism to be successful, the revolution must spread to other countries. The division of labour and production of goods is organised on a global scale. There is no possibility of “socialism in one country” for an extended period of time without either concessions to capitalism or the prospect of renewed reaction against the workers’ state. A revolution will face major difficulties unless a revolutionary International is created with mass revolutionary parties in at least the major advanced capitalist countries.

It is simply not possible to spontaneously create a mass revolutionary party after a revolution in another country has occurred because the workers will not have had the time to mature and learn the lessons of struggle against other material and ideological forces. A revolution in a single country may find itself stranded for a time, a dangerous situation indeed.

A Socialist International also acts as a ‘correcting influence’ across the various national sections so that experience can be shared and lessons learned across the International from an internationalist perspective. On top of this, such shared international experience helps to inoculate revolutionaries against the pressure to the accommodate themselves to their own national bourgeoisie’s interests, as happened to the parties of social democracy during the First World War. However, each section will have to develop its own programme and tactical approach based on the specific concrete features faced in each country. One cannot simply transplant the practice of Russian Bolshevism from 1917 to all other countries in 2016.

The Revolutionary Party

Towards the end of the book, Hannah Sell raises the issue of the need for a revolutionary Marxist party.  To her credit, she sums up the reasons for its necessity very effectively.  After replying to some of the criticisms that anti-capitalists were making at the time, such as the notion a Marxist party would inevitably attempt to impose its analysis on events, she lays out her case:
“One of the roles of a party should be to act as a memory bank of the working class and the oppressed. History, as the saying goes, belongs to the victor. Too true. And while we live in a capitalist society it will be the history that suits capitalism that will dominate. It is therefore necessary for a working class party to independently remember previous struggles from a working class standpoint – both defeats and victories – in order to apply the lessons of those struggles to the situation today. If we do not do this and fail to draw the appropriate conclusions – for example, the need to be organised or the role of the working class – we are condemning every new generation to start from scratch and to relearn, through bitter defeats, the mistakes of the past.” (p65)

We agree wholeheartedly with this summary. However, we do not believe that the Socialist Party heed their own words.  Prior to the establishment of Marxist World as an independent grouping, its supporters, excluding a few non-aligned independent Marxists, were members of different sections of the CWI, the majority from the Socialist Party of England and Wales.  In their attempts to organise as a faction, which they were ultimately unable to do so due to the refusal of the Socialist Party leadership to grant them even the minimal faction rights laid out in the Socialist Party’s constitution, they repeatedly raised the issue of the need for political education among the membership, in particular the study of all 3-volumes of Marx’s Capital.  While Capital is not an overview of previous workers’ struggle as such, the ideas it contains are even more vital to the revolutionary party and the wider working-class. Understanding Capital is essential to have a correct understanding of capitalism, from which the entire strategy and programme of a revolutionary party is built upon.

With regards to Militant’s own history, there has been an extreme reluctance on the part of the Socialist Party leadership to engage with the valuable contributions in articles, pamphlets and books by former members of Militant who later left the organisation, in particular those who left in the minority split to form Socialist Appeal (part of the International Marxist Tendency – IMT) in 1991.

By this we mean that, while the Socialist Party still sell unsold pamphlets by such individuals written back in the 1970’s or 80’s, their material, some of which were key Militant documents around the most important political events at the time, are not presented to members either as reprints or as digital copies which would help them learn the lessons of past struggles. Instead, apart from some notable exceptions, the overwhelming majority of such material remains unavailable.

We believe the reason for this is that the Socialist Party leadership are concerned with losing prestige among the younger layers of membership if they were to show that comrades who later left the organisation had played a far more significant role in developing the ideas and theory than themselves. We would add that they are not alone on this issue; Socialist Appeal have adopted fundamentally the same approach, each side attempting to take the greater credit for Militant’s successes whilst marginalising the contributions of those who later found themselves in the ‘rival’ organisation. Both organisations are also to some extent embarrassed by the fact that some of this older material is in complete contradiction to their present day accommodation to reformism. In this respect, we wholeheartedly refer our readers to Trotsky’s introduction to the first Russian edition of 1905 and his comments on Karl Kautsky (who had previously been a leading figure of the workers movement in the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the most outstanding Marxist theorist of his day, only to later degenerate and accommodate himself to the bourgeois state) Today, Kautsky has retrospectively joined the ranks of the Mensheviks. He wants to reduce his past to the level of his present. But this falsification, which satisfies the claims of an unclear theoretical conscience, is encountering obstacles in the form of printed documents. What Kautsky wrote in the earlier – the better! – period of his scientific and literary activity.” (Trotsky. 1907)

Having established the need for a revolutionary party, it is unfortunate that, rather than giving at least a general outline on how such a party functions and how it differs to other types of parties, Hannah Sell is content to simply make abstract generalisations:

“The Bolshevik party was very democratic and its methods bore absolutely no resemblance to the methods of Stalinism. Of course, it was not some kind of ahistorical, perfect model and it would be foolish to imagine that such a thing could exist. The Bolsheviks had some weaknesses but they also had many strengths. These strengths are what make the Bolsheviks stand on a higher level than any other party that has yet existed, enabling them to lead the working class to power and to overthrow the capitalist order.” (p70)

There are many surprising statements made in the above paragraph. Having declared that the Bolsheviks had some weaknesses, Hannah Sell does not even attempt to enlighten us on what they were. Then again she does not inform us what their strengths were either!

Hannah Sell praises the Bolshevik Party towards the end of the paragraph, highlighting that they lead the working class to power, but does not elaborate on how they achieved this. In fact she teases the reader even more about its importance, again without going into any kind of details, and then confuses the issue further by stressing the conditions in which they worked make a direct duplication of their organisational methods inadvisable:

“The world has changed dramatically over the last century. We have much to learn from the Bolsheviks. However, the oppressive tsarist regime meant that the Bolsheviks had to work in underground conditions and use clandestine methods. Today in Britain we work in a capitalist democracy which, at the moment at least, allows us to organise relatively freely. We are able to be very open, to emphasize democracy and the vital necessity of listening to, and learning from, the working class.” (p71)

Marxist World have no reservations in giving such an outline. To quote once more from The Greek Road to Socialism?, “To win [workers] over, an organisation with a Marxist programme and analysis must be the starting point. However, this organisation will need not only the rank and file and leadership schooled in the theory and method of Marxism. It will also require the democratic space necessary to facilitate the fullest debate and the accountability of its leadership in order to draw up a programme that will appeal to the most combative layers of workers, and to ensure its own leadership is able to be corrected or jettisoned should they succumb to reformist and opportunistic pressures.” (Delmas. 2016)

Whilst seeming to echo our analysis of how a revolutionary party should function, we would caution the reader in taking Hannah Sell and the CWI’s statements at face value.  The Editorial Introduction at the start of this journal gives a taste of the real approach the Socialist Party leadership has towards democracy in a revolutionary party.

References

BBC News. 2016. Rough sleeping up 30% as 3,500 face night on streets, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35658972

Bukharin, NI & Preobrazhensky, E. 1920. The ABC of Communism, https://www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1920/abc/03.htm

Cannon, J. 1941. Socialism On Trial, https://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1941/socialism/ch01.htm

Delmas, A. 2016. The Greek Road to Socialism?, http://marxistworld.net/2016/02/the-greek-road-to-socialism/

Guardian. 2015. Donald Trump: ban all Muslims entering US, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/07/donald-trump-ban-all-muslims-entering-us-san-bernardino-shooting

Grant, T. 1978. The Colonial Revolution and the Deformed Workers’ States, https://www.marxists.org/archive/grant/1978/07/colrev.htm

Independent. 2015. British Army ‘could stage mutiny under Corbyn’, says senior serving general http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/british-army-could-stage-mutiny-under-corbyn-says-senior-serving-general-10509742.html

Ingham, B. 1977. What Next For the Trade Unions? Worker Directors or the Struggle For Socialism, Militant International Review September 1977

Leftbooks, http://leftbooks.co.uk/epages/950002679.sf/en_GB/?ObjectID=2017229

Mandel, E. 1970. The Causes of Alienation, https://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/19xx/xx/alien.htm

Marxist World. 2015. Clarifying the Transitional Programme and its Application, http://marxistworld.net/2015/03/clarifying-the-transitional-programme-and-its-application/

Mirror. 2015. Housing crisis: There are 10 empty homes for every homeless family in England, http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ampp3d/housing-crisis-10-empty-homes-5008151

Taaffe, P. 1979. Militantly Against, Comment: Communist Fortnightly Review 3/3/1979

The Socialist. 2012. Jail the banksters! Nationalise the banks under popular democratic control, http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/14801

Trotsky, L. 1907. “1905” https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1907/1905/pre.htm#fst

 

 

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1 Comment

    • Williamher

      Enjoyed every bit of your article post. Fantastic.

      reply

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