The decline of revolutionary Marxism in recent years is not due to objective conditions: the forces of production globally have attained astonishing levels, frighteningly so. Nor is it a lack of will or activism. What we have experienced is a profound failure of strategy.
Marx and Engels assumed at first that a mass socialist consciousness would grow dialectically out of the political and social experiences of workers, who were forced to combine against increasingly centralised and concentrated capital. Universal suffrage, once attained, would enable the working class, the majority in society, to seize state power and thereby set in motion the socialist transformation. Mass social-democratic parties formed around this strategic outlook, which was shared by a broad range of socialists.
The experience of the Paris Commune modified this strategy, by clarifying the inadequacy of trying to wield the bourgeois state against capital. Instead we would need to overthrow the existing state, by revolutionary means, and to build in its place a proletarian state based on fundamentally different forms of democracy. (Marx, 2014)
From this new perspective arose a strategy that would subsequently be implemented in Russia, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. And out of the Russian experience came an understanding that the chain of imperialism would always tend to break at its weakest link, a strategic perspective that would be confirmed in China, Cuba, and Vietnam.
The Soviet Union survived the defeat of revolutions across Europe, its consequent isolation, and the ferocious imperialist assaults launched against it. Its impact on global class struggle was, however, contradictory.
On the one hand, the very existence of the Soviet Union, particularly following the defeat of Nazi Germany and the subsequent bureaucratic overthrow of capitalist property relations across much of Eastern Europe, provided a pole of opposition to imperialism, and facilitated both the anti-colonial struggles in the South and the social democratic reforms in Western Europe. On the other hand, the failure to suppress the capital relation within the post-capitalist states, (Meszaros, 1995) and their horrific bureaucratic totalitarianism, turned many workers against communism altogether, and held them ever more tightly in the grip of social-democratic reformism.
Faced with the twin reformisms of social democracy and Stalinism, the radical left in the imperial centres made a further assumption: workers would almost certainly follow the line of least resistance and put reformist parties in office within the bourgeois states, before pursuing the riskier path of revolution. Those reformist parties would inevitably betray the class, and the harsh experience of that would impel workers towards a revolutionary consciousness.
The struggle for socialism would therefore unfold in different ways across three sectors of world revolution: the working class would lead the national struggles against imperialism in the neo-colonial countries, the ‘weakest links in the chain’, chipping away at the global power of imperialism. The internal contradictions of ‘actually existing socialism’ would be resolved by the restoration of workers’ control and proletarian democracy, through a process of political revolution. And all of this would eventually enable the working class in the imperial centres to rise up against a weakened imperialist bourgeoisie, dealing the final coup de grace to the global rule of capital.
It all seemed so straightforward … until the Soviet Union collapsed.
The neoliberal turn
The bourgeoisie hadn’t, after all, retired gracefully to the dustbin of history, as it should have done, but instead stubbornly drew lessons from the class struggle and adapted its strategy accordingly. Neoliberalism was their global strategic response to the structural crisis of capital.
The bourgeois states mobilised against trade unions, not by direct confrontation, but by giving employers, through successive waves of legislation, the legal power to bankrupt the unions, a process that has fully integrated the trade-union bureaucracy into the state as a front-line police force responsible for disciplining the working class and inhibiting industrial militancy.
Social democracy, as the political expression of the trade-union bureaucracy, and with a long history of social imperialism behind it, was easily drawn in to this ‘new realism’, and to a willing acceptance that there was no alternative to the rule of capital. A weakened trade-union movement and a compliant social democracy were powerless to inhibit the global restructuring, financialisation, and fragmentation of production.
At the geopolitical level, imperialism adopted a similar approach to the Soviet Union itself. There was no need for direct confrontation: a process of containment, which included an arms race that acted as a crucial source of accumulation for capital, but which was a severe drain on the post-capitalist command economies, was sufficient. The internal contradictions of the post-capitalist system were eventually resolved (or more accurately displaced) by the full restoration of capitalist property relations in the 1990s.
The icing on the cake for capital was that the collapse of the Soviet Union pulled the supportive rug from under the colonial revolution. Fukuyama confidently declared ‘the end of history’.
The strategic relevance of these changes was amply demonstrated in Venezuela. The ‘weakest link in the chain’ should have snapped there. The revolution was led by Chavez, an ecologically conscious socialist, who was being advised by arguably the most insightful Marxist theoreticians of our age, Meszaros and Lebowitz (Lebowitz, 2010) The revolution mobilised a huge mass movement. A democratic mass workers party was built. Councils of participatory democracy were established in the workplaces and neighbourhoods. Social programs improved material conditions for the poorest sectors of the population. Yet Venezuela remained tied to the world market, reliant on fossil fuel extraction, and vulnerable to oil price shocks.
In 1917 we broke at its weakest link a rusted iron chain. By the end of that century, the bourgeoisie had re-forged it in hardened steel. The Venezuelan working class hasn’t yet been able break it. We are now left with no other choice but to dismantle the padlocks in the imperial centres themselves. The spiralling descent of the US into civil war is striking confirmation of how the locus of class struggle is shifting.
Where are we now?
But our revolutionary strategy hasn’t yet evolved to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We are mired in a debilitating pessimism. We still vaguely hope that revolutions will unfold elsewhere, and that we can join in later. We critique the existing order and issue transitional demands – for a green new deal perhaps, for the reversal of cuts, for nationalisation under workers control – without really knowing how they will be realised.
We try to raise confidence and the level of combativity. We support and build demonstrations. We argue in our workplaces for industrial action, in the hope that mass strikes will resume.
But what then? How do we think we will push forward to achieve socialism? In our determination to avoid schematism, we are left with nothing but wishful thinking and the vaguest of schemas. Perhaps a Labour government will be installed. Perhaps we can push it to implement a green new deal. If and when it capitulates, or the state suppresses it, perhaps there will be an uprising. Organs of struggle will perhaps develop into organs of participatory democracy and self-defence. A situation of dual power will perhaps be resolved into a proletarian state. From there we will march onward to socialism. Perhaps.
But we aren’t in Tsarist Russia, and it isn’t 1917. (And even then the soviets didn’t spring ready formed from nowhere, like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus. The soviet form was forged in 1905, and popularised by the Bolsheviks during the intervening years.)
The Marxist left has for a long time based its activism on ossified and obsolete strategies that have been overtaken by events. One consequence of this has been for the small groups to focus exclusively on critiquing the established order and on defensive tactics. This is a recipe for fragmentation, firstly because small groups can’t meaningfully test their tactics in the class struggle, and secondly because what might begin as a small divergence can quickly expand into a chasm, under the impact of successive defeats.
Each group insists that it alone is following the correct path, and everyone else should help build its particular version of the united front. (This isn’t to say that the united front and defensive struggles, including against resurgent fascism, aren’t important. Of course they are. But if we are going to inspire a new generation to take up the fight for socialism, there has to also be a positive vision of an emancipated future, and a clear and credible idea of how to get there.)
Hayek and the godfathers of neoliberalism prepared their strategy carefully. They understood, as we do, that crises are turning points. They prepared for crises, used them to their advantage. We must do so too.
But whereas neoliberalism precipitated a structural adjustment to the already existing capitalist system, our class needs to build something radically different. We need to change ‘from top to bottom the industrial and political conditions of our existence, and consequently the whole manner of our being’(Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, 1941) The early neoliberals organised think tanks, most famously the Mont Pelerin Society, both to develop their strategy and also to popularise it. If we want to build a socialist counter hegemony, we need to do likewise (Srnicek, 2015)
We must be prepared for crises and eruptions, so that we can suggest not only tactical orientations but also a credible strategic line of march that goes beyond the immediate struggle. To develop our strategy we will need to set up forums that involve both Marxist activists and radical academics, including scientists and technologists. We know for example that very many tech workers are deeply uncomfortable with the way social media have degenerated, from what they originally believed to be liberating forces for good, into grossly manipulative corporate monsters (Orlowski, 2020) Some of those workers will be drawing generalised anti-capitalist conclusions, and they have skills our class will need to see us through a revolutionary crisis.
Settling accounts with the past
One thing is certain, however. We cannot avoid acknowledging and explaining the tragedy of the Soviet Union, not only because humanity can’t afford to repeat such a disaster, but also because without a credible balance sheet of that experience we will never be able to convince the class to risk the path of revolution. The simplistic explanations of bureaucratic degeneration and/or state capitalism are each in their own way inadequate.
Meszaros explains that the post-capitalist economies retained and entrenched the hierarchical social division of labour, and with it the antagonistic relation between capital and wage labour, and that the senior bureaucrats and managers became post-capitalist personifications of capital (Meszaros, 1995) Whereas in a capitalist economy surplus labour is extracted economically, as surplus value, in the post-capitalist capital system surplus labour was extracted politically. This crucial difference explains why capitalism can (usually) tolerate parliamentary democracy and an element of political plurality, while the post-capitalist capital system could only survive by means of total control and the repression of all dissent.
Most working-class people, including crucially those who live in the former post-capitalist countries themselves, are understandably repelled by such totalitarianism. Our strategy for ecosocialist revolution must therefore offer a convincing path towards a very different outcome if we are ever going to break workers away from their attachment to capitalist liberal democracy.
Overthrowing the bourgeois state and expropriating the expropriators are, as we have learned from bitter experience, necessary but insufficient conditions for setting in motion an irreversible transition towards the realm of freedom. Capital is an organic system whose second-order mediations continuously reinforce one another, and within which ‘every economic relation presupposes every other … and everything posited is also a presupposition’ (Marx, Grundrisse, 1977) A transition to socialism can only succeed by building an alternative organic system.
Lebowitz describes the organic system we need in terms of a socialist triangle: (Lebowitz, 2010) social ownership of the means of production; social production organised by workers; and the satisfaction of communal needs and purposes as the goal of productive activity. Our strategy for ecosocialist revolution must be firmly based on all three sides of the Lebowitz triangle.
Here are just a few of the questions we will need to answer:
- How can organised workers mobilise effectively in the context of a trade-union bureaucracy that is fully integrated into the bourgeois state?
- How will our class survive the inevitable rupture with the world market that would accompany a revolutionary crisis?
- How do we socialise the means of production and ‘expropriate the expropriators’ in the context of globalised financialisation and the global fragmentation of production?
- How do we transcend the hierarchical social division of labour and build non-antagonistic relations of production, including in the spheres of social reproduction?
- How do we rapidly achieve zero carbon?
- How do we eliminate the private motor car and the jet aeroplane, and build ecologically sustainable alternative modes of mass transit?
- How do we reorganise computer technology, automation, robotics, and data management in the interest of the working class?
- How do we build a genuinely social media?
- How do we suppress exploitative trading relations, focused as they are now on finance and armaments, in order to freely transfer resources to where they are needed in the Global South?
- How do we facilitate the free movement of humans while suppressing the free movement of capital?
- How do we defeat the armed might of the imperialist bourgeois state and build in its place a genuinely defensive army of the people?
- How do we begin, in neighbourhoods and fragmented workplaces, to build meaningful organs of participatory democracy?
- How do we guarantee political pluralism in a post-capitalist state? And how do we ensure that such a state will wither away?
- How do we merge education and production, ‘the only method of producing fully developed human beings’? (Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 1976)
- How do we restructure our cities, and organise collectively for a ‘more equitable distribution of the population over the country’? (Marx K. &., 1998)
- How do we link with revolutionaries around the world, before, during, and after revolutionary crises?
All of these questions will be posed sharply as we enter and pass through the severe crises that are about to unfold. We need to be prepared. And we need to start preparing now.
Yes, we have suffered terrible defeats. Yes, the balance of forces is horribly unfavourable. Yes, creeping fascism is on the rise. Yes, the Marxist Left is weak and fragmented. But that doesn’t mean we can postpone the strategic questions indefinitely. If we delay until there is mass struggle, it will be too late. Worse still, there is less likely to even be mass struggle, since people only engage in struggle when they think they can win, and they won’t be confident of winning without a clearly defined sense of direction.
Until very recently thousands of young people up and down the country were singing ‘Ohh Jeremy Corbyn’, because they saw in Corbyn hope for radical change. Left reformism failed them, but those young people haven’t gone away, and they are still desperate for change. As are the school-student climate strikers demanding system change not climate change, and the young BLM protesters who marched in their thousands, destroyed imperial statues, and took on the fascists in central London.
A potential mass base does exist for revolutionary politics. What is needed is a credible revolutionary strategy that can mobilise it, by offering a feasible way out of the nightmare of decaying late capitalism. In the absence of such a strategy, right-wing conspiracy theories will fill the vacuum. Collectively developing and popularising that strategy is the most urgent task facing revolutionary Marxists today.
Roy Wilkes is a socialist activist in the North West England.
Lebowitz, M. (2010). The Socialist Alternative. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Marx, K. &. (1998). Communist Manifesto. London: Merlin.
Marx, K. (1941). Poverty of Philosophy. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Marx, K. (1976). Capital, Volume 1. London: Penguin.
Marx, K. (1977). Grundrisse. New York: Vintage Books.
Marx, K. (2014). The Civil War in France. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books.
Meszaros, I. (1995). Beyond Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Orlowski, J. (Director). (2020). The Social Dilemma [Motion Picture].
Srnicek, N. &. (2015). Inventing the Future. London: Verso Books.
 David Harvey warns that, “a revolutionary overthrow of this capitalist economic system is not anything that’s conceivable at the present time. It will not happen, and it cannot happen, and we have to make sure that it does not happen,” on the grounds that a rupture with so fully integrated a world market would lead to mass starvation. Instead of Harvey’s pessimism, perhaps we should instead work out a credible plan for emergency food production in the event of a decisive rupture with the world market, along the lines taken by Cuba during the special period. David Harvey, Anti Capitalist Chronicles, 19 December 2019 https://www.democracyatwork.info/acc_global_unrest