Democracy and the Left
Mike Macnair, August Nimtz, Aaron Smeaton, and Peter Staudenmaier
Platypus Review #77 | June 2015
On April 11, 2015, The Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion on democracy and the Left at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the seventh annual Platypus International Convention. In conversation were Mike Macnair, member of the Provisional Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and author of numerous works including Revolutionary Strategy (2008); August Nimtz, author of numerous works including Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (2000); Aaron Smeaton, a member of the International Communist Tendency and a contributor to leftcom.org; and Peter Staudenmaier, teacher at the Institute for Social Ecology, and veteran of anarchist, environmentalist, and anti-capitalist movements. The event was moderated by Jamie Keesling of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion. The audio recording of the event can be found at: /2015/04/22/democracy-and-the-left-2/
Howard Chandler Christy’s painting Signing of the United States Constitution (1940).
Mike Macnair: The idea of democracy comes from the Athenians. Take Sara Monoson’s book Plato’s Democratic Entanglements (2000): Even Plato, a notorious opponent of democracy, was unable to escape from the democratic culture of Athens. Aristotle says democracy is the rule of the majority who are also the poor. Aristotle was an opponent of democracy and his definition is set up to result in the idea that democracy leads to tyranny. Athenian democracy was about everybody participating in political decision-making: parrhesia, freedom of speech, making a crime of hubris (of putting yourself above other people, of saying, “Do you know who I am?”), trials by large citizen juries—a whole set of interlocking institutions, not just majority rule. All the citizens were entitled to participate but the resident foreigners, slaves, and women were not. In that sense modern democracy is profoundly different from Athenian democracy. But Athenian democracy is closer to “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, than it is to the rule of the majority.
The working class as a class has no strength other than its collective organization. The dentists walked out of the National Health Service because they could take with them their capital assets and their skills (of which they had a specialist monopoly) and borrow money from the banks to set up in private business. The working class is not in a position to walk out individually. It needs collective action. That collective action is not the creation of a natural collectivity, a Gemeinschaft like a village or a family. A constructed collectivity creates a trade union, a workers’ political party, a tenants’ association. It’s voluntary association.
That voluntary association needs to function on the basis of inclusive decision-making. Since the ascent of bureaucratic managerialism in the workers movement, not having inclusive decision-making has dissolved the ability of the organization to hold and mobilize its members. The more the branches are unable to act without the authority of the full-time official the less possible it is to keep members turning out and paying their dues to keep the organization in existence.
We no doubt missed the recent anniversary of the Self-denying Ordinance, passed by Parliament on April 3, 1645 during the English Civil War. Under the Ordinance Members of Parliament could no longer be military commanders or public officials of one sort or another and still hold their seats in Parliament. That represented a fundamental change in the way of doing war governance. In place of the medieval system of appointing military commanders and public officials based on inheritance and patronage we moved, to quote Napoleon, into “la carrière ouverte aux talents,” the system of meritocracy and managerial specialization. That marked the beginnings of the modern state. The working class needs to get beyond that modern state, beyond that meritocratic conception of equality of opportunity, to a conception of fully participative and democratic conception of running the society and the economy. Our Left is dominated by bureaucratic managerialism as are our workers’ organizations. We need our self-denying ordinance.
We need democracy in an Athenian sense but not in a wholly Athenian sense. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell proposed a global democracy in which everyone would have the right to issue electronic referenda. I imagine switching on my computer to find 25 million referenda. You can’t get rid of aspects of representative or delegated democracy. In that respect Kautsky’s book Parliamentarism, Direct Legislation by the People, and Social Democracy still has valuable things to say. Direct referenda democracy is not the solution. But we have to go beyond the conception of democracy as a means by which we “select the best ‘guy’ to do the job.”
August Nimtz: Who gets included in the demos? This is a major issue in the history of democracy, especially once the working class comes into the picture. Marx and Engels stood on the shoulders of the Levellers. The Putney Debates, 200 years before The Communist Manifesto, were of crucial importance for Marx and Engels. For them, real democracy—the rule of the people—was incompatible with inequalities in wealth, incompatible with capitalism.
Marx started out as a radical democrat and came to communist conclusions because of the reality of how liberal democracy worked—or didn’t work—in Europe, one of the few places it existed. Marx and Engels learned the lessons of the French Revolution, but what’s often underappreciated is the impact of the United States experience on them. They read Alexis de Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont. Marx was convinced that the U.S. was indeed a paragon of liberal democracy. Marx sometimes talked about the U.S. as a natural experiment because U.S. society had little to no feudal past. But social inequalities—not the least of which was chattel slavery—were beginning to build. By 1844-45, Marx’s analysis of the U.S. led him to communist conclusions: market economies lead to social inequalities over time. We need more than what even the best liberal democracy can offer.
Marx and Engels were the first socialists to argue that the fight for a socialist or communist society is through the fight for political democracy. They held political democracy to be of crucial importance, but as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. That approach was played out throughout their entire political career. Here Marx and Engels differed sharply with many anarchists who argued that the fight for political democracy is a waste of time. But how do you carry out this fight?
Marx and Engels devoted quite some attention to the question of electoral politics as a way to operationalize their views about political democracy. They insisted on participating in the electoral process and they drew important lessons from the 1848-49 revolutions. The bourgeoisie was increasingly getting cold feet about its own liberal revolution. Breathing down the bourgeoisie’s neck, as described in The Communist Manifesto, was the emerging working class that wanted real democracy. In Marx’s March 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, he asks: How can the revolution be kept in permanence? The bourgeoisie will want to stop at political democracy. Our task is to overthrow class inequality; short of that, we can’t realize democracy. The lesson of 1848-49 is that you cannot depend on the liberal bourgeoisie to carry out a consistent fight for political democracy. The working class has to organize itself independently of the bourgeoisie.
Also in the 1850 Address, Marx and Engels argue that the workers, organized independently of the bourgeoisie, had to run their own electoral candidates even if there was no prospect of getting elected. Elections were an opportunity for the workers movement to get out its ideas, to propagandize, and most importantly, to count its forces. They didn’t believe that elections in and of themselves would be the means for actually taking power. Only once the working class actually armed itself and formed militias could power be taken. They argued this in the 1850 Address, which served as the broad outline for Lenin’s strategy in 1917.
The lessons of the Paris Commune—that the working class cannot make use of the bourgeois state to carry out socialist transformation, that the working class will have to come up with new state forms—informed the 1872 Hague Congress, the last effective meeting of the First International. At that Congress, Marx and Engels argued with the anarchists, Bakunin’s followers, and succeeded in passing Resolution No. 9, winning a majority of the delegates to the position of independent working class political action. Resolution No. 9 constituted the germ for what would later become the mass working class parties within Europe.
Aaron Smeaton: I’m with the International Workers Group. We’re based in Montreal and we come primarily from labor union backgrounds. Most of us have left those institutions with an understanding that something more needs to be done. Our eldest comrade worked for the Quebec Federation of labor and constantly found himself being asked to sell people out. I worked for AFSCME as an employee, as a receptionist, during the 2011 Madison protests. I took constant calls from workers who were asking why we weren’t calling a strike. AFSCME was acting as an institution separate from the people whom it was supposedly serving. Workers who were just waking up and had a readymade political consciousness thought that the institution somehow served them and would stick up for them. They learned otherwise.
The question of real democracy should take people in struggles as its starting point. Democracy for the bourgeoisie is the freedom to lie, steal, and exploit. When the workers ask for democracy they’re asking for an entirely different thing. Our hope is to move towards workers’ democracy, towards proletarian democracy (as opposed to capitalist democracy) as it was formulated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
We look to the experiences of the Paris Commune and the St. Petersburg Soviet as beginnings that point the way forward for workers. Currently in Quebec there are student anti-austerity protests against cuts to the university system. A lot of younger people are starting to fight and yet, like the workers, they are stuck with institutions like student unions that are trying to limit them.
Democracy is the perfected form of capitalist rule. It’s the system whereby the capitalists come to a consensus of their own decision-making. In a republic there are the real citizens, the capitalists who rule, and then there is the labor force. We were asked to respond to Engels’s statement that “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is.” Ultimately, the overthrow of one class by another is an authoritarian act. You’re not holding their hands; you’re kicking them down and keeping them down. During the 2011 protests the ruling class descended on the protests within 12 hours of them starting. Within the first week the portable toilets showed up and you knew the Democratic Party was there. By the second week the media circus developed, draining the life out of the movement and sucking it dry.
Peter Staudenmaier: The 2011 protests in Madison were a sad but telling embodiment of the fact that democracy means such radically different things to different people. A democratically elected governor and a democratically elected state legislature made a democratically legitimate decision to deprive workers of their rights. Then people with a totally different conception of democracy, direct democracy, took over the capitol, the space where decisions are supposed to be legitimately made. It was a clash between two contrary notions of democracy: representative democracy and direct democracy. That divide has existed for 2,500 years now, going back to the Athenians, as Mike said.
On the Left we have a number of longstanding, unresolved debates about what democratic organization means. If you’ve been involved in workers collectives or anarchist politics over the last decades you will have run into one of the most important of these debates: the conflict over consensus. Is democracy primarily built around consensus? Does democracy mean that we want to reach as big of an agreement as we possibly can or, in contrast, is democracy an agonistic model that allows for debate and disagreement, that gives us a forum to work through our disputes regardless of whether or not we happen to be approaching consensus?
Our task is to apply democratic principles in our political lives, to create and embody adequate organizational forms. In the environmental, anarchist, and cooperative movements there’s a classic two-fold answer to how democratic organizations should look: spontaneous and small-scale. That vision has political appeal but it is often historically false. In history, workers’ councils and various kinds of revolutionary organizations have emerged more or less spontaneously but have then managed to continue after the revolutionary context has been crushed or dissipated. Engels’s dictum about a revolution being the most authoritarian thing imaginable has a lot of truth to it but it’s equally crucial to recognize that revolutions bring forth unexpected democratic potentials and strong anti-authoritarian elements. People who haven’t previously had the opportunity to actively participate in structuring their own lives suddenly have the opportunity to do so and, amazingly enough, a lot of them want to make use of it. Those opportunities usually don’t last very long and usually the democratic potential that bubbles up for a time goes unfulfilled. That means we haven’t yet figured out how to make it long-lasting, how to institutionalize it, how to build on it and extend it.
With that unfulfilled potential in mind I would propose a commitment to direct democracy as the core of a revived Left politics. (I’m not saying that we should forget about representative democracy entirely. I don’t have a lot of use for electoral politics but I have seen movements choose their moments and decide that tactically it makes sense—I’ll buy that.) In a North American context democracy is already a nice word to which everyone pays lip service. We can use that as an anchor to try to pull people towards a much more radical, much more fundamental critique of our society. Direct democracy could also be an effective counterweight to the authoritarian strands that do arise in revolutionary situations.
The great revolutionary C.L.R. James wrote a pamphlet titled Every Cook Can Govern in 1956, the year that the Hungarian revolution, with its workers councils, was crushed by Soviet tanks. James wrote, “democracy in Greece was itself constantly seeking to develop practically the best possible society.” I like three things about that quote. One, he’s not talking about a perfect utopia. He doesn’t say that democracy will help us create the ideal society; he says that it will help us develop practically the best possible society. Two, James was a brilliant theoretician, but he points out that democracy is in many ways a practical matter. You learn it by doing it. Third, we can see democracy as a form of constant seeking, not as a set paradigm that we just have to apply in the proper way but as an ongoing process of continually changing our responses to a constantly changing social world.
Think about the power that the Athenian ecclesia had! Many aspects of that power would be profoundly contrary to our modern political notions. The panelists brought up the Greeks in relation to democracy, but liberalism— liberal democracy—is a specifically bourgeois and modern phenomenon. Relatedly, the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed a great extension of formal voting rights. In the beginning of the 19th century a small portion of the British population had the right to vote. When it was extended, people thought that it might lead to socialism, to radical transformation. The tyranny of the majority was the fear. A similar process took place in the U.S. and South Africa where white racists fought ferociously against giving people of African descent the right to vote. Yet in almost all of these cases the often tremendous extension of the suffrage did not actually turn out to have radical results. Why is that? This seems fundamental to the problem of getting to socialism.
AN: Yes, the Chartists often referred to the U.S. as a part of their argument for getting the vote. There was more Suffrage in the U.S. but the property owners didn’t have to worry that their property was going to get confiscated by the unwashed mob. There has never been any fundamental social-revolutionary change through the electoral arena because when you’re voting you’re not actually taking power. You’re registering a preference for a candidate or a particular policy. The ruling elites have realized that extending Suffrage gives people a false sense of power. Johnson and Kennedy were very clear about the fact that the purpose of the Voting Rights Act was to get the demonstrators off the streets. There was a debate within the Civil Rights movement exactly on this question: Should we go along with this or not? Real transformations take place in the streets, not when that energy is channeled into the electoral arena. Property has to be taken.
AS: It’s no accident that the extension of voting rights to women happened throughout Europe and North America in the early 1920s, right after the revolutionary period. Suffrage didn’t lead to the changes that people might have hoped for because part of the reason Suffrage was extended in the first place was to calm people down, to get people off the streets, to stop the protesting—not to create a democracy.
MM: I’m cautious about this argument. First, it was actually the workers movement which fought for the extension of Suffrage. Second, perhaps not so much in the U.S. but in Europe (England included), quite large-scale things (I won’t say socialism) happened as a result of the extension of Suffrage, things like public transportation systems, public health services, elaborated welfare systems, legalization of trade union action, etc. But the bourgeoisie didn’t just leave the constitution as it was when they extended Suffrage. Each extension of Suffrage in England was accompanied by taking something else away, by increases in the power of judicial review over the decision-making of local authorities. The extension of Suffrage in the 1867 Reform Act was accompanied by increased centralization of the armed forces and the police. The extension of Suffrage in the 1920s was accompanied by the Firearms Act, requiring police registration of firearms. They didn’t allow the working classes to get their grubby hands on parliamentary seats (or district council seats) under a constitution in which parliament had very extensive control. It was simultaneously necessary to reduce the power of the elected representatives and to increase the power of the monarchy, the executive, and the judiciary.
AN: During the Progressive Era, the U.S. Federal Reserve Act of 1913 ensured that the central banking system was insulated from Suffrage.
What is the relationship between democracy and capitalism? Capitalism isn’t a matter of elites or of wealth; it’s a social system. The replacement of the “laboring classes” by the modern working class, by the proletariat, attended the shift from the 18th to the 19th century. How do you understand the changing career of democracy in light of the differences between the American and French revolutions of the 18th century and the revolutions of 1848?
AN: As Mike pointed out, throughout the 19th century it was the working class that fought for Suffrage, for political democracy. The bourgeoisie got nervous about it. Marx observed that by 1848-49 the bourgeoisie had begun to look for Bonapartist solutions. The German bourgeoisie had the misfortune, as Marx and Engels would say, of coming into its own at exactly the same time as the working class was coming into its own. That delayed the liberal-democratic project there.
MM: There is a danger in saying that the working class emerges at the point when intellectuals start to recognize the working class as a class. The danger is treating the name as the moment in history. The Earl of Shaftesbury, the first opposition leader in 1679 to 1683, fled abroad to the Netherlands. Before he died, he said, ‘I have ten thousand brisk boys from Bermondsey who will back me up in this struggle against the monarchy.’ These “brisk boys from Bermondsey” were the London dockers. Peter Linebaugh’s book The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic details the exploitation of free labor in the docks in the shipping industry. And his book The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century is about the formation of the London working class—in the eighteenth century!
I’m also more cautious about Bonapartism. What happened after the Levellers were suppressed? There was a need for Oliver Cromwell.
AN: It’s the counterrevolution!
MM: Counterrevolution is present in the bourgeois revolution, as Perry Anderson pointed out in the 1970s. In fact, counterrevolution was present in the bourgeois revolution as early as the conversion of the Italian city-states into one-man rule in Signoria during the 14th and early 15th centuries. In order for there to be a bourgeoisie there has to be a proletariat– a small proletariat, an interstitial proletariat, but a proletariat. The fact that the bourgeoisie needs a proletariat means that it is always afraid of the proletariat. It was Marx’s mistake to think that 1848 was the moment at which the bourgeoisie first became scared of the proletariat.
AN: The U.S. Republican Party played a revolutionary role during the Reconstruction period. The bourgeoisie got rid of the slave-owner and brought a new working class into existence. But when the working class went into motion in 1877 with the general strike, the bourgeoisie became afraid and overthrew Reconstruction. It was a real counterrevolution.
AS: National Guard armories were built across the country around that time. Young men were recruited and given weapons to crush strikes.
PS: It’s historically and politically wrong to say that there is some natural affinity between capitalism and democracy that facilitates their convergence in the course of the 19th century. A lot of people would like that answer to be true for obvious reasons but we should warn against it. It’s too simple a historical tale of where and when both capitalism and democracy emerge. If it were true it would be politically fatal. The lesson of 1848-49 is: Don’t trust liberals! They’re not going to be reliable allies when the chips are on the table. A radical vision of social transformation has only a temporary, seeming alliance with the very different liberal vision.
AN: Interestingly, a veteran of 1848-49 named Carl Schurz came to the U.S. and became a key figure in the Republican Party. Schurz was a liberal and he crossed swords with Marx exactly because Marx wanted to keep the revolution permanent and Schurz wanted to cut it off. The Paris Commune was on his brain in 1873 when he began leading the charge to pull back from Reconstruction. The liberal press was afraid of another Paris Commune in the U.S.
Mike [Macnair] characterized the “brisk boys” as wage laborers but the question wasn’t just about wage laborers or employers of labor. It was about the proletariat and the capitalists. The difference is that a capitalist cannot exercise the bourgeois function of money (which is to command the labor of others) without putting people out of work. He can’t simultaneously invest without reducing the necessity for labor. That’s what turns a member of the bourgeoisie into a capitalist. It’s subjection to that that makes a worker a proletarian, specifically in industrial society. That’s tied to the issue of Suffrage in a fundamental way. Lord Shaftesbury had no idea about the pressure of systemic unemployment and neither did his “brisk boys.” Even if there was unemployment it wasn’t the result of the nature of the reproduction of society.
August [Nimtz], was Marx a democrat who came to communism or was he a liberal who came to communism? The question that liberals are posing, which is not in Athens, is about the self-transformation of society in and through the ongoing realization of the “common good” or the “will of society”—not through political freedom, but through social freedom, through civil society; not through the exercise of political authority, but independently of that. It’s the question of society’s self-realization in history. Peter [Staudenmaier], if you say that the aim of Athenian freedom is “to produce the best possible society,” the ambiguity buried in that is that Athenian freedom is about perfecting a static concept of society. That’s not the liberal notion.
MM: There was unemployment produced by technical innovations in 17th century England. In fact, both unemployment and the need to produce unemployment protection systems appeared as early as the Italian city-states. Wind machines and water machines are just as capable of being improved in order to reduce labor inputs as steamships are. They’re less spectacular than steamships, but they’re the same thing: capital. There is capitalism alongside feudal continuity. It’s not that there was a period of petty commodity production and then capitalism grew up subsequently out of petty commodity production.
Was Marx a liberal? He certainly thought of himself as a democrat, but that doesn’t equate liberalism in the question’s sense. He was a Hegelian engaged in a critique of Hegel. Hegel was a constitutionalist, an advocate of the Anglicization of the German Constitution. The Philosophy of Right (1820) is essentially de Lolme’s description of the late 18th century English Constitution, philosophized. To describe that as ‘liberal’ is anachronistic. The liberals thought of themselves as restoring Augustan Rome—an entirely different sort of teleology from Hegel’s. This historicized reading of Hegel is incredibly narrow by comparison with what’s circulating in the context of early 19th century constitutionalism. The interpretation which the question is offering is actually just Hegelian.
AN: Marx was a democrat. He described communism as the left-most wing of the democratic party. The most radical communists are the most radical democrats.
AS: The Cologne Communist League was a radical democratic organization, Jacobin in its origins. They were the left wing of democracy.
Robert Michels’s book Political Parties (1911) explored the impossibility of democracy not only within the Left but in society more generally. He took the German SPD, an example close to Mike’s heart, as his exemplar. In Michels’s view, inherent social forces constantly thwarted the attempt to make a party that was simultaneously mass, socialist, democratic, and militant. That certainly seems to be the historical experience we’re dealing with, as Peter and Aaron discussed. Lukács argued that Michels described the SPD’s particular experience very well but didn’t describe the nature of the society—because, for Lukacs, the Leninist model (democratic centralism) stood as a true model that doesn’t succumb to these social pressures. In the light of history, we have to interrogate that, too. Why have attempts to create mass, socialist, and democratic organizations on the Left been so singularly unsuccessful?
MM: When Michels wrote Political Parties he was a revolutionary syndicalist influenced by Sorel and by the Italian Left around Mussolini. He followed Mussolini into Fascism. His description of the SPD has become orthodoxy in U.S. Political Science departments because it serves the interests of the U.S. state. Michels's image of the SPD, drawn for polemical purposes, has little relationship to the character of the SPD before World War I. Michels’s thesis is actually contrary to most of the work that has been done on the issue of authoritarianism in the practical functioning of the SPD. Matters were different after World War I broke out because the SPD leadership, when they decided to support the war, admitted the German political police into the affairs of the SPD. Then they did create a top-down, hierarchical regime.
The capitalist class rules through the support of the labor bureaucracy. I don't know if that’s true in the U.S. but it’s certainly true in Europe. The question of democracy and the organization of the workers’ movement is not just a question for grouplets of the far Left; it’s a question of how the working class relates to trade-union organizations, to its—Socialist, Labour and Communist—Parties. Democracy in the organizations of the Left and democracy in the society at large become inseparable from one another in that context, despite the fact that we might say that the state is not voluntary but political parties are voluntary. The Conservative Party has recently reorganized itself in order to Stalinize its internal functioning, imitating the Labour Party’s Stalinization of its internal functioning. The organizations of the working class influence the shape of politics in general.
AS: Labor unions in the U.S. do serve a specific function for the capitalist class, despite the fact that the dominant thought in some circles is that labor unions aren’t necessary anymore. In 1950 the United Auto Workers negotiated the Treaty of Detroit with the auto manufacturers. They agreed not to have a third party, not have national health insurance, etc. That has had a lasting political impact. In these institutions, and particularly in state workers unions, you are following rules that come down from the national level of the union. You have to tell people that they can't go on strike.
AN: Democratic centralism was effectively the norm of the Communist League even though the term ‘democratic centralism’ was not used. Marx asked [Andreas] Gottschalk to tender his resignation exactly because Gottschalk was not willing to carry out the line of the Communist League, the 17 demands. Fast-forward to the 1879 circular in which Marx and Engels critique the SPD. One of the issues was whether the rank-and-file had the right to critique the leadership. Marx and Engels understood that the SPD couldn’t operate as democratically as they would have liked because of the anti-socialist laws, but as soon as those laws were eliminated, Engels became very critical of the way the SPD was operating, fearful that it was beginning to infringe upon internal democracy. In the case of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, democratic centralism was also related to the question of the Duma fraction. Is the Duma fraction actually responsible to the party? The party makes a decision at a congress but is the Duma fraction going to carry it out or not?
MM: In the SPD, Max Schippel wanted to vote for the labor expansion bill which the right wing was putting forward. He knew that the party was against him but that his constituents backed him. Centralism: Schippel had to resign.
Engels’s point about the authoritarian character of revolutions has been discussed in terms of the necessity of taking property from the capitalists. However, all social revolutions have taken the form not only of a war of the people against the capitalists but also of a civil war amongst the lower classes themselves. Think of the Red Terror, or of leftist workers fighting fascist workers in the Spanish Civil War. How does Marx's concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat in a revolution relate to the question of democracy?
AN: Hal Draper's Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution: The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (1986) is very useful. The history of every successful revolution shows that ruling classes don’t go away easily. The victorious class has to impose its will on the defeated class. In the Civil War, Lincoln and his generals took measures to limit freedom of the press. If ever there was a need for a dictatorship, it was during the Reconstruction period when the defeated slave-owners began to organize the counterrevolution. The working class will similarly have to impose its will on the defeated ruling class after overthrowing it. We shouldn’t make virtue out of necessity—but it’s a necessity. You look forward to the time when you can begin to eliminate the dictatorship.
PS: When Marx spoke of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” he was referring in part to contemporaries who imagined that people like Blanqui would form a revolutionary dictatorship. Marx meant to indicate that he would rather the proletariat be the dictator.
AN: The phrase is used in documents around the Manifesto. They also use the phrase “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” In June of 1848 Tocqueville put on his sabre and sash and crushed the workers of Paris. He described what he did as the imposition of a “parliamentary dictatorship.” Never forget that Tocqueville was part of the counterrevolution!
MM: The best way to understand the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is as the class rule of the working class over the middle classes. In order to create socialism the working class needs to lay collective hands on the means of production, which includes not only land, machinery, etc., but also technical information. To lay collective hands on technical information means to de-propertize it, largely by publishing it, by replacing all forms of private transmission through apprenticeship with state education systems, etc. As long as there remain private monopolies on technical information (which is what defines the middle class as opposed to the bourgeoisie) it will remain necessary for the working class as a class to exercise political control over the middle class as a minority. From that point of view, dictatorship of the proletariat means a class regime of the working class in transition to full communism or to socialism, entailing the disappearance of the middle class as a class through the disappearance of skills monopolies.
AN: That is Draper’s line. I agree, but the dictatorship of the proletariat is more than that. At a certain moment you will have to take their property using force. There are four locations in the Manifesto where force is used to describe what happens during the transition period.
MM: I agree. This relates to electoral action. In electoral action the working class proposes laws. To propose laws is to assert that the rules have to govern society as a whole. For Marx, the Ten Hours Bill, the ten-hour working day, is the “modest Magna Carta,” the law that the working class is proposing. In Marx's response to Bakunin he argues that the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing other than the working class imposing laws on the society.
PS: I agree that in revolutionary situations there is always going to be—there always has been so far—a dynamic of violent confrontation and violent expropriation. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting our hands on the local armory so that they don’t slaughter us. But I would argue against calling that ‘authoritarian.’ Why can't we call that democratic? It comes down to whether democracy is about agreeing and reaching consensus or whether it’s an agonistic model in which we fight out real disagreements. Violence and expropriation are momentary phenomenon that are forced upon us by the situation on the ground. We want to build them out of our post-revolutionary project to the extent that we can do so without being utopian.
Classes aren’t historical actors. That idea is a residue of Marx’s Hegelian training; it makes his system work well on a philosophical level but it doesn’t work historically. Classes never take the stage, though my fellow panelists would argue that historical actors are representative of (or leading elements in) classes.
I want to revisit Mike’s answer to the question of the historical specificity of the working class. It’s not enough to point to the existence of unemployment throughout a long history of capitalism. In the Grundrisse, Marx maintains the historical specificity of the proletariat and of the proletariat’s political project in light of the specificity of capital as a self-perpetuating dynamic. The working class becomes a different kind of political category once labor becomes an open pit for capital to mine. This gives us a different historical picture of democracy, one in which the proletariat is more than just an oppositional force.
MM: Marx was unable to finish Capital because he attempted to construct it on the basis of Hegel. Capitalism cannot possibly exist without the state. It is therefore impossible to derive the phenomena, particularly credit and money, simply on the basis of the pure unfolding of the commodity. Marx wrote a series of drafts and the last of these drafts is Capital: Volume I. The Hegelian method of presentation breaks down halfway through the book. The second half of the book is a description of the evolution of capitalism out of feudalism through the processes of what Marx describes as the primitive accumulation of capital.
A purely Hegelian approach to political economy leaves the Left with a “degenerative research program.” (This is my view, not the Communist Party of Great Britain’s view.) A progressive research program is productive, uses new ideas, develops in new directions, etc.; a degenerative research program goes further and further into conceptual problems without solving things. The “historical materialism” version of Marxism is a progressive research program, one which has more or less conquered pre-modern history. The Hegelian conception of a pure capitalism is a degenerative research program, one which is not going anywhere. For that reason I'm not worried about the fact that Marx wrote in very Hegelian terms in the Grundrisse, that he drew very sharp lines around the working class in pure capitalism. No such pure capitalism exists or has ever existed. Marx imagines a pure capitalism as a supposition in order to critique Proudhonism and Ricardian socialism. This point is made by Makoto Itoh and the Kozo Uno school, as well as by John Harrison.
But what about the dominant mode of production?
MM: When does capitalism become dominant? My guess is that it became dominant in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris when there was no longer any possibility of restoring feudalism in Britain. The cyclical return of crises emerges from 1763 onwards. But, if you’re talking about the dominant mode of production then you’re using G.E.M. de Ste. Croix’s analysis, that of a dominant mode of production rather than a pure mode of production.
If we think about the working class simply as an oppositional force, politically, then we can project it back in history. We don't have to go to 1848 and we don't have to think about Bonapartism as a specific historical phenomenon. But if the working class is merely an oppositional force then how can the dictatorship of the working class represent freedom, represent the interests of all?
MM: That question is about more than just how big the working class is relative to the other classes.
AN: Lenin had to grapple with this question, and this is where I differ with Draper. The working class was very small in Russia. In 1905, writing in Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, Lenin raised the slogan of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” exactly because the combination of the proletariat and the peasantry was the majority. Lenin differed with Trotsky in arguing for an alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry.
The entire Jacobin tradition is obviously an ancestor of Marxism. Mike, if you take 1763 as a turning point, where do Jacobinism and the French Revolution fit into your historical narrative? Is the Jacobin tradition a liberal tradition, a bourgeois tradition, or something else? Was the French Revolution a necessary revolution?
MM: The French Revolution is the result of British world dominance. After it became dominant in Europe in 1763, the British bourgeoisie broke with its own Whiggism and became Tory in its ideology, imposing taxation and other powers upon the Americans. At the same time a proletarian movement against the slave trade emerged which resulted in the 1772 Somerset v Stewart case. This case triggered the American slave-owners’ break with Britain because any runaway slave that got to the North was automatically free as long Somerset v Stewart remained in effect. The American Revolution was a political revolution, not a social revolution. America wasn’t yet capitalist but it was a market society with market-organized production. Both the Dutch and French intervened on behalf of the American Revolution but the result was the British shutdown of the Netherlands as a financial sector, another bourgeois state in the U.S., and bankruptcy for France.
At that point, the French became, to quote the title of Richard Lachmann’s book, “capitalists in spite of themselves.” In 1789, the French elites were forced to transform themselves into capitalists and the French regime was forced to copy Britain. It got out of hand from the bourgeoisie’s point of view—the revolution became dominated by the petty bourgeois, artisans, and peasants, so it permitted capitalist development but also held it back (as with the redistribution of land to the peasantry). Then, just as the Dutch were forced to export their revolution, just as Oliver Cromwell was forced to export the British Revolution, so too was Napoleon forced to export the French Revolution. That made it a world-shaping event.
Marx hadn’t fully grasped the depth of this history when he first wrote about it in the early 1840s. He saw the French Revolution as the decisive turning point, not as a consequence of British world dominance. The French Revolution was a decisive turning point in the Continental experience but it wasn’t as decisive a turning point in the history of the development of capitalism as Marx thought it was.
Thinking in the language of Jacobinism and the French Revolution was a god-awful trap for the Russians, for Lenin and Trotsky. The Russians debated Thermidor and Bonapartism in the 1920s. There was a fear that Trotsky would play the role of Bonaparte, and Stalin won the majority largely because of this fear.
Transcribed by Watson Bernard Ladd, Josh Price, and Danny Jacobs.