If capitalism is so bad, why haven’t people got together and changed it?
The capitalist class in NZ is tiny. In New Zealand, fewer than 1000 people are the managers and directors of all the major companies and the vast bulk of the economic activity. There are 3.9 million other people here. Many small capitalists and a large middle class generally benefits from the dominance of the capitalists with high incomes, nice house and bach, a boat on the harbour, season tickets to Eden Park. But the bulk of the population, millions of workers and their families, Maori, women are all exploited in this society; paid less than the value they create in their work. A large minority, a third of the children live in poverty. Working people are ravaged by preventable diseases, third world epidemics are resurgent. Maori and women are systematically disadvantaged in all aspects of society. Even much of the middle class is dissatisfied by much of the direction of capitalist society; they have been major opponents of imperialist wars and abrogation of civil rights, for example.
Overseas, the disparity is even greater. The world’s 100 largest multinationals, accounting for around 20% of world production, are run by around 1000 individuals. Millions of people are starving and living in squalor. Look at the horror on the faces of the Afghan refugees.
Against this, millions of people right now are mobilised in a massive range of mobilisations against poverty, exploitation, war, and environmental destruction; often with explicitly anti-capitalist goals. There have been repeated attempts to overthrow capitalist regimes in most of Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America; tens of millions of ordinary working people have given their lives in these efforts.
How can this tiny group of capitalists retain their wealth and power against all this opposition? After all, modern societies are generally democracies; virtually every adult has an equal vote as to who gets elected to parliament and these representatives decide who can do and not do what.
But despite the apparent equality of modern democracy, parliamentary democracies are fundamentally capitalist institutions.
Capitalists have become skilled in building a series of close and long-lasting alliances with other classes, particularly the aristocracy and the middle classes; buying their support with a part of the surplus value they appropriate from the working class (a process Gramsci described as hegemony).
Marx argued that, despite its appearances, parliamentary democracy is actually a means by which the capitalists exert their dictatorship over the working class. How other than ultimately by dictatorship or force could the minority capitalist class maintain its power?
Marx and Engels argued that every state exists only because classes cannot be reconciled. If there was not conflict between classes there would be no need for a state (Engels 1888?). “The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another” (Lenin 1917, pp. 390-95). In the same way that the capitalist state maintains the minority capitalist class against the majority working class, the feudal state maintained the minority feudal lords against the majority peasant and merchant uprisings, the slaveowning state maintained the minority slaveowners against the majority peasant and slave revolts.
The essence of the state, then is what the bourgeois theorist Weber called its monopoly of force, or what Engels more pointedly emphasised, its “armed men …., prisons, and institutions of all kinds, of which gentile society knew nothing” (Engels 1888?). “A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power” (Lenin 1917)
There are five major implications of this analysis for working class aspirations for socialism:
1. “the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution” (Lenin 1917, pp. 390-95). Marx and Engels suggested in the 1860s that transition to socialism in Britain may have been possible through parliamentary means because of the absence of a militarist clique and large bureaucracy, but its subsequent plunge into imperialist militarism ruled out any such option for Lenin (Lenin 1917).
Lenin emphasised “An oppressed class which does not strive to learn to use arms, to acquire arms, only deserves to be treated like slaves. We cannot, unless we have become bourgeois pacifists or opportunists, forget that we are living in a class society from which there is no way out, nor can there be, save through the class struggle. In very class society, whether based on slavery, serfdom, or, as at present, on wage-labour. The oppressor class is always armed … That is such an elementary truth that it is hardly necessary to dwell upon it. Suffice it to point to the use of troops against strikers in all capitalist countries … Out slogan must be: arming of the proletariat to defeat, expropriate and disarm the bourgeoisie” (Lenin 1916, pp. 80-83).
2. “the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class” (Lenin 1917, pp. 390-95). The capitalist class knows this lesson from its own struggles with the feudal state, which was not only violently overthrown. This was also Marx’s conclusion, following the defeat of the Paris Commune, when the French army turned on the constitutionally legitimate Republic “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wiled it for its own purposes” (Marx 1872)
3. The working class will develop its own state form, distinct from parliamentary democracy, drawn from its own daily practices. The experience of the workers movement to date suggests that this will derive from workplace representatives, the Paris Commune, the Russian Soviets, or the Italian Workers Councils. The experience of the Chinese revolution suggests that where the peasantry is a significant ally of the working class, then village-like communal structures will also be important.
4. The victorious overthrow of the capitalist state by the working class results in the replacement of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie with the dictatorship of the working class (Marx 1852). As Lenin emphasises, the period of transition after the workers victory from capitalism to the abolition of classes with the advent of communism necessarily involves the suppression of the capitalist class until its abolition. This period “inevitably is a period of an unprecedentedly violent class struggle in unprecedentedly acute forms” (Lenin 1917)
Note this is dictatorship by the proletariat, not over the proletariat as the critics of the Bolshevik revolution alleged (eg. Kautsky, Rosenburg, Trotsky). Lenin notes the rapid rise of the Bolshevik majority in the all-Russia congresses of Soviets, from 13% June 2 1917 to 51% October 25 1917 to 61% January 10 1918 (Lenin 1918, p.47).
5. But such dictatorship by the proletariat necessarily involves an immense expansion of democracy, for the first time a democracy for the poor, for the people (Lenin 1917). As Engels argued, “the proletariat needs the state, not in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom, the state as such ceases to exist” (Engels 1875). Only then will a complete democracy become possible and be realised, a democracy without exceptions whatever. And only then will [the state] democracy begin to wither away … the people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries … observing them without force, without coercion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state.” (Lenin 1917, pp. 467-69).
There has been a long struggle within the working class movement over strategy towards the state, known as the debate between reform and revolution. Marxists criticise a one-sided emphasis solely on reform or solely on revolution. A one-sided emphasis on reform is known as reformism and is characterised as ‘right opportunism’. A one-sided emphasis on revolution is known as anarchism or ‘left opportunism’. The Marxist dialectical approach combines reform and revolution and does not seek simple opportunities but relies on sober analysis and protracted struggle.
“Unlike the anarchists, the Marxists recognise struggle for reforms, i.e. for measures that improve the conditions of working people without destroying the power of the ruling class. At the same time, however, the Marxists wage a most resolute struggle against the reformists, who directly or indirectly, restrict the aims and activities of the working class to the winning of reforms. Reformism is bourgeois deception of the workers, who despite individual improvements, will always remain wage-slaves, as long as there is the domination of capital.
“The liberal bourgeoisie grant reforms with one hand, and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery. For that reason reformism, even when quite sincere, in practice becomes a weapon by means of which the bourgeoisie corrupt and weaken the workers. The experience of all countries shows that the workers who put their trust in the reformists are always fooled …
Left opportunism takes an opposite position to reformism, emphasing attempts to seize power above all. Marx engaged in a prolonged struggle against isolated attempts to seize power, known as Jacobinism or Blanquism in the 1830s and against Bukunin’s anarchism in the 1860s. Bukunin, and anarchism to today, sees abolition of the state as the immediate task via spontaneous direct action, and opposes the Marxist emphasis on forming a workers’ party, mass movement and socialist state to consolidate power after the revolution. Lenin described anarchism as ‘revolutionary adventurism’; it is sometimes known as ‘ultra-leftism’.
Lenin bemoans “The anarchists rail at the Social-Democratic members of parliament and refuse to have anything to do with them, refuse to do anything to develop a proletarian party, a proletarian policy, and proletarian members of parliament. And in practice the anarchists’ phrase-mongering converts them into the truest accomplishes of opportunism, into the reverse side of [reformism]” (Lenin, LCW 15, p. 391).
Mao described this phenomena as “Left in form, right in essence” and saw Trotskyist groups as sharing this outlook (Source?)
Marxist-Leninists identify the source of the left and right opportunist currents in the working class movement to petty-bourgeois or middle class influences. The petty-bourgeoisie is caught between the powerful capitalist class and the growing proletariat. With privileges over the working class and some interest in small-scale private property, the petty-bourgeoisie has an interest in the survival of capitalism. But at the same time the class is exploited by the big capitalists and struggles against being driven into financial ruin and into the ranks of the proletariat and so has some sympathy for their plight. Some of them, like Marx, make a decisive break with capitalist ideology. But, in general, this unstable position between the two classes leads to vacillation and a strong emphasis on individual freedom (LCW 28.128).
Lenin describes anarchism as “bourgeois individualism in reverse … Failure to understand the development of society – the role of large-scale production – the development of capitalism into socialism. Anarchism is a product of despair. The psychology of the unsettled intellectual or the vagabond, not of the proletarian (LCW 5, p. 327).
Reformism has its origins in the leaders of the working class movement in Britain, the Fabians who went on to found the Labour Party. Engels described this group as the ‘labour aristocracy’, what we would call today the middle class. Lenin argued that the abundant profits from British imperialism allowed the bourgeoisie to pay higher wages to (and actually bribe members of) the upper strata of its workforce, particularly union leaders, giving them an interest in the maintenance of capitalism. This practice spread to other great powers, so reformism tends to be strongest in these countries and provides the basis for the “bourgeois labour parties.” (Lenin 1913b, pp. 115-20).
Against these opportunist tendencies, Lenin argues that “Understanding that where capitalism continues to exist reforms cannot be either enduring or far reaching the [advanced] workers fight for better conditions and use them to intensify the fight against wage-slavery … [In Russia] the Marxists are working tirelessly, not missing a single ‘possibility’ of winning and using reforms, and not condemning, but supporting, painstakingly developing every step beyond reformism in propaganda, agitation, mass economic struggle, etc.” (Lenin 1913, pp. 372-75).
We use the slogan ‘build the revolutionary movement through the mass struggle for reforms’.
Engels, F. (1875) Letter to Bebel, March 28.
Engels, F. (1888?). The origin of the family, private property and the state. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Lenin, V. (1913a). Marxism and reformism. Collected Works, Vol. 19. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Lenin, V. (1913b). Imperialism and the split in socialism. Collected Works, Vol. 23. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Lenin, V. (1916). The military programme of the proletarian revolution. Collected Works, Vol. 23. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Lenin, V. (1917). State and revolution. Collected Works, Vol. 25. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Lenin, V. (1918). The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Lenin, V. (1919). Theses and report on bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Collected Works, Vol. 28. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Marx, K. (1852). Letter to Weydemeyer, March 5. Selected Correspondence. Moscow: Progress Publishers, p. 86.
Marx, K. (1872). The Civil War in France. Moscow: Progress Publishers.