Lenin once described politics as ‘the most concentrated expression of economics’. What did he mean by this?
Firstly, that ultimately society rests upon its economic foundations. Ideas, institutions, laws, movements etc. make up the constitutional, political, cultural, ideological superstructure of society – and tend to perpetuate the predominant mode of production.
However, that social superstructure also reflects and embodies the contradictions which arise from the economic base. That is why there are trades unions, political parties, co-operative societies, publications and other organisations which represent – or at least claim to represent – the interests of labour against capital. It also explains why there is a continuous battle of ideas between progress and reaction, democracy and monopoly, left and right, between socialism and capitalism.
Developments in the superstructure can themselves have a significant impact on the economic base – for instance, when ideas and campaigns lead to governments and laws which extend trade union rights or nationalise key sectors of the economy.
Secondly, Lenin was reminding us that the economic relations between society’s classes determine their real class interests in the final analysis. The immediate interests of most capitalists usually include the swift maximisation of profit. The most fundamental interest of the capitalist class is clear enough – the continuation of the capitalist mode of production. Conversely, the immediate interests of most workers usually include the maximisation of wages. The fundamental interest of the working class – which is not so clear to many workers – is that capitalism be replaced by socialism. Only then will periodic crises and mass unemployment, poverty, insecurity and exploitation at work be abolished.
The class struggle between the capitalist class – including the state apparatus which serves its interests – and the working class reveals itself most obviously in the workplace. Incidentally, Marx did not invent or even propose that this struggle take place; rather, he explained why it did so. But what starts, initially, as a fight over wages and conditions becomes extended of necessity across society as a whole. This is the stage at which the working class is developing and expressing an economic or ‘trade union’ consciousness.
Labour and socialist organisations then formulate and fight for broader economic and social objectives, entering the realm of politics proper. The democratic rights of working people and their organisations also come onto the agenda. This growing political consciousness becomes revolutionary when it grasps the need to abolish capitalism altogether – and understands that this can only be done by dismantling the state apparatus as an instrument of the capitalist class and creating one that serves the interests of working people – enabling the working class to exercise political power. As Marx pointed out: ‘theory also becomes a material force as it soon as it has gripped the masses’.
Thus we arrive at the third implication of Lenin’s earlier statement. The working class has to take political power, to concentrate it in its own hands in order to change society’s economics. More specifically, the capitalist mode of production has to be replaced by a socialist one that can eventually open the way to a fully communist society.
For Marx and Engels, too, the transfer of political power from one class to another is the essence and definition of ‘revolution’. It can take place in different ways, requiring different strategies or tactics at different stages in differing conditions. In a developed capitalist country, the period leading up to or during such a transfer would most likely witness mass demonstrations and strikes at the very least. Electoral and parliamentary politics would also be likely to feature prominently in one or more stages of the process.
In different conditions, military insurrection or guerrilla war may be the only or main available avenue of struggle. Clearly, the type and degree of resistance of the ruling class to revolutionary change would be a major factor in determining the character and course of the struggle itself.
In class-divided societies, the exploiting class ultimately relies on force and the threat of force to sustain its rule. For Lenin as for Marx, therefore, despite any democratic rights won by people under capitalism – such as the right to demonstrate, speak freely or to vote – bourgeois democracy actually conceals the dictatorship of capital. This is not to underestimate the importance of fighting for and defending such rights, which enable exploited and oppressed people to organise to improve their conditions, and which allow socialists and communists to fight more extensively for political change.
But Marx and Lenin also insisted that the dictatorship of the capitalist class would have to be replaced by what they called the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Developments in the 20th century – not least the experience of fascism – have since given the word ‘dictatorship’ a wholly negative meaning in most people’s minds, quite contrary to the scientific use of the term by Marx and Lenin. Rather than representing the negation of democracy, the dictatorship of the proletariat was intended to transform it, to raise it to a higher level, to negate democracy’s own negation by monopoly capitalism. How? By reconstructing the apparatus of state power as workers’ power, so that the vast majority of the people – the working class and its allies – exercise political power.
Thus Marx pointed to Paris Commune of 1871, where all officials were elected by and instantly accountable to the masses, earning no more than the average worker, as a working class state in embryo – which is why the reactionary French government joined forces with the invading Prussian army to massacre the communards. The Soviet Union, too, was built initially as a working people’s democracy based on elected councils – or ‘Soviets’ in Russian – of workers, peasants and soldiers delegates. That system was subsequently eroded and distorted by civil war, foreign invasion and capitalist hostility – not least the threat of fascism – into the bureaucratic, dictatorial and repressive apparatus built during the Stalin period.
All these are reasons why Communists in Canada and elsewhere no longer use the formulation – ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ – which conveys the opposite meaning to the one intended. Rather, formulations such as ‘working class state power’ are used, which express the same thing in essence. That essence is profoundly democratic, which includes the necessity for the socialist state – in the interests of the vast majority – to be able to enact its policies and to defend itself.
When and how can revolutions be successful and so bring about such a state? Lenin suggested three sets of conditions which determine whether a revolutionary situation exists and its potential can be realised.
The first is that the ruling class – in Canada’s case the monopoly capitalists and their senior political and state officials – is no longer able to rule in the old way. Secondly, the working class is no longer prepared to be ruled in the old way. Thirdly, the working class has the revolutionary organisation and strategy required to secure revolutionary change.
Where one or more of these conditions does not exist, there is no realistic prospect of a successful outcome. Even where they do, the outcome is not always certain: a new settlement may be found whereby the old ruling class rules in a new way. Sometimes, the balance of forces can shift in the course of struggle against those who want fundamental change, for reasons which could not have been anticipated and accommodated in terms of revolutionary organisation or strategy.
Making the wrong assessment of objective conditions, having inadequate organisation in one major respect or another, pursuing an inappropriate strategy – any or all of these can lead to demoralisation or terrible defeat (although Marx and Lenin both recognised that sometimes a doomed fight is better than no fight at all – as was the case with the heroic Paris Commune).
On the other hand, for similar reasons, revolutionary opportunities can be missed.
Let’s take Lenin’s three sets of conditions in turn.
Firstly, when is the ruling class unable to continue ruling in the old way? Answer – when their system is in deep crisis.
The dialectical relationships within and between society’s superstructure and its base mean that economic and other crises are usually connected. There may be a significant social crisis, for example, expressed in terms of social degeneration and conflict as the result of structural or cyclical mass unemployment. Politically, governments can collapse as the consequence of incompetence, division or corruption, reflecting conflicting economic interests within the ruling class itself. Ideologically – perhaps reflecting a failure of monopoly capitalist ‘mass culture’ – alternative ideas and values may gain in appeal, including those of socialism and communism (although they may not be labelled or even understood as such).
Concurrently, progressive and socialist movements and organisations may be making ground in terms of their influence and capacity.
Thus is it essential that revolutionaries understand the economics and politics of capitalist crises. This means, first and foremost, analysing capitalism as it exists today and assessing the forces and trends within it.
In particular, sufficient account economically must be taken of the growth of monopoly and its impact on the accumulation of capital, the rate of profit and the nature and proportions of capitalist crises. Socially and culturally, the trend to monopoly has had specific effects on working and social conditions – not only for the working class but also for other social strata (small companies, the self-employed, middle managers and administrators) and sections of the population. The role of the monopoly-controlled mass media in controlling the flow of information and so shaping popular ideas and perceptions has had significant repercussions in Canada, for instance, for aboriginal peoples, for relations with the Quebec nation, for gender relations, and for working class unity.
Politically, the capitalist monopolies have come to exert enormous political influence in the developed capitalist countries. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described the executive of the modern state (i.e. the government and agencies of power) as ‘a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. But the triumph of monopoly over democracy has produced a qualitative change in a process intensified by two world wars. Monopoly capitalism’s economic power has effectively fused with the political power exercised by the state apparatus, establishing a system which Lenin called ‘state-monopoly capitalism’. This system enables monopoly capitalism to survive and even incorporate social-democratic (in Canada, NDP) governments.
Thus the state has come to play a significant role in regulating the economy to stimulate monopoly profit (for example through public expenditure and civil and military contracts, economic development programmes, state ownership of unprofitable but essential industries, funding for research and development, fiscal and trade policies, etc.). Many domestic and foreign policies are designed in the interests of monopoly capital, and with its direct participation, although the state also has to mediate between different sections of people including within the capitalist class itself.
The whole system is lubricated by the exchange of money, personnel and posts between big business and the state apparatus.
The second of Lenin’s conditions is that the working class is in revolt. Why the working class? Because capitalism’s dependence on labour power is absolute, because the proletariat’s economic role has compelled it to think, fight and organise collectively, and because it has the most to gain – its own liberation – from socialist revolution. But it does not follow automatically that a dramatic worsening of people’s conditions will produce revolt, or at least not necessarily a revolt in favour of socialism. On the contrary, elements of the working and middle classes can – in such circumstances – turn instead to extreme nationalism, racism and fascism.
What is required is a sense of revolt inspired by a growing revolutionary consciousness rather than by a false consciousness of one sort or another. Such a revolutionary consciousness can develop rapidly when capitalism’s failure to realise the potential of society’s productive forces comes sharply into focus. But this does not mean that a slide into utter destitution or dictatorship will increase the potential for revolution. On the contrary, mass unemployment and the curtailment of democratic rights are typical ways in which the capitalist ruling class seeks to resolve crises and break working class organisation. By contrast, revolutionary change comes with the growth of working class organisation. As such it represents a key example of the transformation of quantity into quality.
The growth of trade union strength, successful demands for improvements in wages and conditions, the ability to enforce improvements in the social wage and in social provision are what cause crisis for capitalism and potentially fatal splits in its ruling class on how to respond.
However, this challenge will never happen spontaneously. It demands organisation and strategy. Working class organisation will be strong precisely to the degree that it can provide a clear alternative to capitalism, challenge its ideas and provide leadership for all working people on how to use the productive forces for the benefit of society as a whole. Capitalism uses part of the surplus generated by the working class to buy and bribe elements of the working class into abandoning revolutionary change and to be satisfied with cosmetic and minor changes that give capitalism a ‘kinder face’. While reforms can improve the lives of working class people, they are insufficient, often temporary and are easily taken away again with the stroke of a pen. Only the socialist revolution will lead to lasting and real improvements.
The growing polarisation between the ruling class and the working class, and changes in the production process itself, have led (and continue to lead) to the proletarianization of members of the petty bourgeoisie and sections of the ‘middle strata’. This creates an added influx of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideologies of right and ‘left’ opportunism into the working class. Right opportunism invariably seeks accomodation to and collaboration with the ruling class in order to avoid social and class conflict. Some, under the influence of petty bourgeois ‘left’ opportunism, become ‘super revolutionaries’ who apply Marxist-Leninist theory in a sectarian manner, if at all. They dismiss the role and the power of the working class in its own emancipation and resist working together with anybody ‘less pure’ than they consider themselves to be. Both trends of opportunism harm working class unity.
This battle against the ruling ideas of capitalism cannot be won among key sections of the working class and the people generally without strategy and the building of alliances.
This brings us to the third condition for successful revolution. The working class must have revolutionary organisation and strategy, not just to fight the ideological battle but to provide analysis and democratic leadership. In doing so, such organisation should seek to draw upon and involve the experience and commitment of masses of people. It needs to be able to mobilise on every front.
In an advanced and complex society, such organisation is unlikely to be concentrated entirely in a single party. It will be spread across a wide range of bodies and movements. Yet the extent to which the most active, committed, knowledgeable and influential revolutionaries can organise together within a single Marxist-Leninist party is the extent to which the revolutionary process can be given strategy, impetus and guidance.
Communist and workers’ parties bring together people who are developing a Marxist understanding of capitalism and the need to replace it. These parties draw their membership primarily from the ranks of working people, but also welcome members from a wide range of social positions who agree with the aims and principles of the party.
Such parties also seek to develop strategies for revolution suited to their own national and international conditions. As these vary from time to time and – because of capitalism’s uneven pattern of development – from country to country, there can be no single strategy or model for everywhere.
However, there are identifiable principles which should inform revolutionary strategy in an advanced, complex and diverse capitalist society such as Canada. For instance:
- The organised working class movement has to be the leading force in the fight for revolutionary change, because its position in capitalist society provides it with an unequalled capacity and motivation to abolish the capitalist mode of production.
- Different aspects of state-monopoly capitalism create the potential to unite a wide range of forces within and beyond the working class for far-reaching change, against the oppressions and depredations of capitalist society.
- The organised working class movement should wage the staunchest and most consistent fight against all forms of oppression, thereby promoting unity within and beyond its own ranks, developing its own political consciousness and enabling it to build and lead a democratic alliance against state-monopoly capitalism.
- The fight for economic, social and democratic reforms is essential in order to make inroads into the economic and political power of monopoly capital. Mobilising for and winning reforms creates the most favourable conditions for what will be decisive confrontations with the ruling class.
- The working class and its allies will use political power to transform the state apparatus into one which enables the fullest participation of the mass of people in the struggle to abolish capitalism and construct a more advanced mode of production.
Specific conditions around such crucial issues as the national question in Canada are addressed in Canada’s Future is Socialism! The Program of the Communist Party of Canada.
The international balance of forces between capital and labour can be a significant factor to take into account when devising national policies and strategies – as can the divisions between different capitalist states at the international level. International solidarity between working class and progressive forces, and between governments which represent their interests, is always desirable and sometimes essential and decisive. The struggle for peace, democracy and for the rights of nations to determine their own course of development – against imperialist aggression – has come once more to the top of the political agenda, as the US drives towards global domination.
The aim after taking state power is to build a socialist society, which Marx categorised as the first or lower phase of the communist mode of production. Progressively, production would be planned on the basis of social ownership (which can include state, municipal and co-operative forms of ownership) of key sectors and large enterprises. Increasingly, people’s real and social needs would be met as society’s forces of production are developed more fully. Social inequalities would be reduced drastically, in accordance with the slogan ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution’. All forms of oppression on grounds of gender, race, nationality, sexuality, age, etc. would be challenged and abolished.
While the socialist state would defend itself against internal and external counterrevolution, its foreign policy would be based on principles of social justice, solidarity and peaceful co-existence.
The higher phase of communism would witness the transition to a classless society based on fulfilling and creative labour, full equality and cooperation. The state apparatus would for most purposes wither away – especially those parts of it previously required for the suppression of one class by another. Because, as Marx put it, now ‘all the common springs of wealth flow more abundantly’, people’s material needs would be met in full. For the first time in history, free human beings could realise their potential in a society that was fully human. Marx described such a society as one ‘in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’
In the 20th century, the Soviet Union and socialist states of Eastern Europe made enormous and historic efforts to build socialist societies. They abolished unemployment and the extremes of poverty and wealth on the basis of public ownership and planning of their economies, reducing if not eliminating most forms of oppression. The Soviet Union saved the world from capitalist fascism, and together with its allies supported national liberation struggles against imperialism across the globe.
All this was achieved despite the political, economic and military forces of counter-revolution, including the Cold War launched by imperialism.
At the same time, these objective conditions led to ruling Communist parties and regimes making serious mistakes. In particular, they excluded the masses of people from economic and political decision-making and came to treat Marxism as a frozen, rigid dogma. Yet Marx himself emphasised to the International Working Men’s Association that the emancipation of the working class must be an act of the working class itself.
Today the new, emerging third phase of imperialism is characterised by sharpening rivalry between the leading imperialist powers and blocs of states, including in their struggle to exploit the developing and former socialist countries. This involves a greater readiness to use military force to impose pro-imperialist settlements on countries whose governments do not bow to diktats, especially diktats from the US and NATO. These developments underline the urgency not just to challenge imperialist exploitation and war, but to put an end to the capitalist mode of production once and for all.
Why and how can we do that? The study and application of Marxism helps provide the answers to these questions. As a creative, developing body of ideas, constantly being enriched by lessons from real life, it retains its unique power as a force for human liberation in the 21st century. As Lenin pointed out, Marxism is such a powerful weapon because it is true.
- Why do you think it is possible for a working class to combine a high level of trade union consciousness with a much lower level of revolutionary consciousness?
- What can be done to transform trade union consciousness into revolutionary political consciousness?
- Which forces are potential allies of the working class today, and what are the opportunities and dangers presented by such alliances?
- Marx told the German Workers’ Party in 1875 that the political class struggle is ‘national’ in form (i.e. for the working class ‘its own country is the immediate arena for its struggle’) but ‘international’ in substance. What do you think he meant and how would this apply today?
- What should be the strategic priorities for the political work of socialists and communists in Canada?