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The Socialist Register on the state and the transition to socialism

New volume takes stock at this enormously complex moment in global capitalism

Social MovementsSocialism

“Let’s consolidate the victory of socialism.” Artwork by Konstantin Vyalov, 1932. Image courtesy Ogiz-IzoGiz.

At the invitation of the Socialist Project, I recently wrote a review of the 59th annual volume of the Socialist Register, which is devoted to assessing capital and politics in this extraordinary period. It aims to provide “a careful accounting of the organizational means by which capitalists accumulate assets and wealth [so as to] understand the parameters of power in capitalist society.” In this important undertaking, it covers a wide range of countries and specific contexts.

This is the first volume of the Socialist Register to appear in many years that Leo Panitch hadn’t been directly involved in due to his death in 2020, which dealt an enduring blow to the left in Canada and abroad. Leo was one of a group of scholars to build on the work of Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband and develop an “in and against” view of how the capitalist state might be captured by electoral means and then—with a high level of working class organization and mobilization—democratized and transformed into a mechanism to build socialism.

The volume includes a chapter by Panagiotis Sotiris, on “Mass Parties, Dual Power, and Questions of Strategy,” that throws into relief a number of key issues related to this proposition that I would like to explore. If we distinguish between those whose political agenda is about rendering capitalism more tolerable and those who actually want to create a socialist society, then the politics favoured by the Socialist Register must be viewed as a highly significant trend within the socialist left. Their conception of how society can be transformed is important and has to be considered, even if, as in my case, from a standpoint of disagreement.

The state

Sotiris rightly raises the very substantial difficulties that have beset left electoral projects. Whether these have involved efforts to move established social democratic parties to the left, as with the Corbyn project in Britain, or to create alternatives to discredited social democratic parties, as was the case with Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, the results have been less than stellar.

In this regard, Sotiris suggests that these outcomes all raise a crucial question: “by which means can the left take state power and begin the process of social transformation historically described as socialist transition?” He acknowledges “the possibility of political sequences based on the collapse of the state and forms of more or less violent insurrection” but insists that it would be “theoretically rigid and politically sectarian” to dismiss the electoral route.

Sotiris advances these ideas around the state and its transformation with the sincere intention of moving towards a socialist society. He doesn’t dispute that we live under a capitalist state but suggests that a left government could win an election and, with large-scale working class support and participation, embark on a successful project to transform the state structure.

The ideas that Sotiris explores here differ from social democratic parliamentarianism insofar as a very high level of working-class mobilization and action are involved in the process. The adaptation of the existing state in creating socialism is, of course, at odds with the model of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Sotiris concludes, however, that, while the highly influential Poulantzas rejected the concept of “dual power” advanced by Lenin and others, “what he suggests is actually close to a dual power strategy.” While I disagree with this proposition, it is certainly worth exploring.

The concept of dual power hinges on several important considerations. It focuses on forms of working class organization, especially during periods of intense social conflict, and it points to the nature of a state power under which a socialist society could develop. In The Civil War in France, Marx examined the 1871 uprising that has become known as the Paris Commune and paid great attention to the forms of working class organization that emerged.

Marx concluded that the experiences of that revolt show that “…the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” He showed how the Commune laid the basis for a participatory form of working class government very different from the systems of representative democracy that exist in many capitalist countries.

“The Commune,” Marx wrote, “was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.” Furthermore, “Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable.”

During the Russian Revolution, for a period of months between the overthrow of the Tsar and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, the state authority and new forms of working-class organization actually co-existed in a situation that can meaningfully be described as one of dual power. The soviets, as the rival working class power—one which “directly expresses the mind and will of the majority of the workers and peasants,” ultimately prevailed.

Parliamentary road

The notion of a dual power situation that Sotiris sets out is very different from this. He quotes Poulantzas who felt that “Transformation of the state apparatus… can rest only on increased intervention of the popular masses in the State: certainly through their trade-union and political forms of representation, but also through their own initiatives in the State itself.” Although the working class mobilizes, it does so, not in order to prepare to take power, but to support an incremental process of social transformation.

What is contemplated here is “a left government and a second power composed of popular organs.” It is acknowledged that this situation could present two dangers. First, there is the enemy’s reaction, which would call for “a continuous mass movement” to neutralize reactionary opposition to the incremental adoption of socialist measures. Second, there is the risk of tensions degenerating into “open opposition” between the left government and the working class organizations.

When it comes to the capacity of a mass movement to subdue resistance by capitalists and their supporters, it’s important to recognize that we are talking about socialist transformation and, therefore, the dispossession of the capitalists. The pressure of mass action, in the form of strikes and protests, may convince them to give up part of what they have, but the expropriation of their wealth, even if undertaken gradually, means a decisive level of class confrontation in which the question of state power can’t remain ambiguous.

Yet Sotiris seems to feel that an active democratic will can overcome the objections of the capitalist class and bring even their harshest enablers under control. The “profound changes inside the State” that he anticipates include “democratic control and oversight over repressive apparatuses such as the police, armed forces, and judiciary.” In my view, such oversight of the police, not to mention the central banks and the finance ministries, is entirely unrealistic and doomed to failure.

When it comes to relations between the left government and the popular organs, I fully agree that conflict between them is likely but, quite frankly, it would be entirely necessary. The “non-reformist reforms” that the government is charged with implementing would face a much rockier road than is imagined.

Whatever policies might be adopted, the disruptive power of a still cohesive capitalist class would be overwhelming. When it comes to the state structure itself, the left government would find that it had taken control of the bridge but that its influence over the engine room was remarkably limited. The institutions of the state would assert themselves in ways that would prove fatal to the pursuit of a socialist project.

Sotiris correctly notes that “movements like Syriza in Greece (or Podemos in Spain) were totally unprepared for the challenges ahead of them.” However, the future left electoral project he imagines would find itself similarly overwhelmed by events. With the implementation of any serious changes proving to be a much tougher order than expected, Syriza-like vacillation and retreat would be all but inevitable.

An attempt to modify the capitalist state and use it to incrementally create a socialist society could end in only one of two ways. Either a period of confusion and discord would open the way for the crushing of the undertaking and the restoration of a political form more to the liking of the ruling class or else the working class, through its own forms of organization, would force the pace of events. This would mean a brand of dual power that had much more in common with 1917 than the one articulated in this chapter.

As I said at the outset, the “in and against the state” view that is promoted by the Socialist Register, has considerable support on the socialist left. Given the quite extraordinary period in the evolution of global capitalism which we are living through, this perspective needs to be carefully considered, fully discussed and vigorously debated. The latest volume of the Socialist Register is an excellent basis for moving that process forward.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.

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