Revolution and reforms

Mike Macnair concludes his discussion of the US left’s Kautsky debate.

I said at the end of my last article: “So far, this series has been almost wholly negative criticism. The next and final article in the series will look at what, if any, might be positive lessons for political strategy.”

I will proceed as follows. The first point is that both the working class, in order to organise itself, and the construction of socialism need political democracy; and, arising from this, that working class power and the construction of socialism require political majority support - which is not the same thing as a parliamentary majority.

The second point is that the capitalist class is not a democratic class and ‘bourgeois democracy’ is an oxymoron. From this point, in turn, it appears that access of the working class (and even access of sections of the class only) to the suffrage and electoral representation is a contradiction in the capitalist order, and one which can be exploited in the interests of the working class. Hence the utility of electoral tactics for the workers’ movement in undemocratic and anti-democratic electoral systems.

The third point is why we aim for revolution - meaning no more than the overthrow of the constitution as such and its replacement with working class rule. Growing from this, in turn, are the essential role of the minimum programme, and the possibilities of struggles for reforms as steps towards revolution.

Workers’ democracy

If it were not for the idea of ‘bourgeois democracy’ and the soviet power debates of 1918-19 it would be obvious that the working class needs democracy. On Aristotle’s definition (quoted in my last article) it would be completely transparent. And the Communist manifesto posed the immediate issue facing the working class as “the conquest of democracy”, while Engels as late as his comments on the Erfurt programme insisted that the “democratic republic” was the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Indeed, only a few small cranky groups swallow whole the 1918-19 Bolshevik polemics against ‘democracy as such’ or explicitly defend the 1920 idea that workers’ power means the dictatorship of a party of the most advanced part of the class - which is itself controlled by a central committee, which is the most advanced part of the party, which is itself controlled by a politburo, which is the most advanced part of the CC, and led by a party leader or general secretary who is the most advanced part of the politburo (Lenin, Stalin, Healy, Cliff ...).

Rather, the larger part of the far left defends ‘workers’ democracy’ and counterposes it to ‘bourgeois democracy’, while ‘official communism’ has since 1936 ostensibly defended ‘democracy as such’, meaning thereby a form of a ostensible constitutional liberalism actually subject to police controls.

The reason for this non-defence is twofold. The first point is that the actual argument of 1918-20 - that democracy is a form of the state, and the soviets, as a form of the immediate supersession of the state and class, supersede democracy - was in substance indefensible. It would only work as a Bakuninist argument that the soviets amounted to the immediate abolition of the state. Whether the Greek polis, from which we get the word ‘politics’, was a state or a form of pre-state society is debated; on Lenin’s own State and revolution definition of a state, “special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc at their command”, a democracy on Althusius’s or Lincoln’s definitions (quoted last week), would not be a state - and in fact, Lenin recognises the point very shortly after the line just quoted:

When asked why it became necessary to have special bodies of armed men placed above society and alienating themselves from it (police and a standing army), the west-European and Russian philistines are inclined to utter a few phrases borrowed from Spencer or Mikhailovsky, to refer to the growing complexity of social life, the differentiation of functions, and so on.

Such a reference seems ‘scientific’, and effectively lulls the ordinary person to sleep by obscuring the important and basic fact: namely, the split of society into irreconcilable antagonistic classes.

Were it not for this split, the “self-acting armed organisation of the population” would differ from the primitive organisation of a stick-wielding herd of monkeys, or of primitive men, or of men united in clans, by its complexity, its high technical level, and so on. But such an organisation would still be possible.

It is impossible because civilized society is split into antagonistic and, moreover, irreconcilably antagonistic classes, whose ‘self-acting’ arming would lead to an armed struggle between them.

I do not mean by this quotation to endorse Lenin’s exact argument. He argues exactly that the occupational specialisation of state officials (including soldiers, police, etc) is what makes the state a state. Then it follows that ‘democracy’ is not a form of state, except in the sense of a transitional form, towards or away from the state - unless you succumb to the liberals’ claim that the capitalist constitutional regimes are ‘democracies’.

Moreover, even so the argument still leaves wholly untouched the question of how collective decisions were to be reached under workers’ power and/or socialism. Jo Freeman’s 1970 The tyranny of structurelessness gives us the actual answer: conscious thought about decision procedures is necessary even, and indeed especially, in the absence of a ruling class or ruling bureaucracy. The working class needs to be able to make collective decisions - both for action under capitalism and to manage the socialised part of the economy, once capitalism has been overthrown.


The working class actually needs democracy, and to actually ‘conquer democracy’ (as opposed to liberal constitutionalism) is, in a fully capitalist country, to create the dictatorship of the proletariat. Hence, it should be plain that to actually take power the workers’ party needs to win clear majority political support. To institutionalise democracy is to set free factory workers-control committees, juries and local government, and reduce the impact on decision-making of the executive and judicial power. But then the consequence is that without majority support from below the actual implementation of central decisions is unavailable.

Majority political support has to be distinguished clearly from a parliamentary (or equivalent) representative majority. There are two sides to this. The first is the one which is expressed in the Russian 1918 constituent assembly and the present battles in the British Labour Party: that the representatives may cease to represent the political trend which gave them their votes. In this situation, the identification of the majority has to come through other means (in 1917-18, the soviets; it might be - as Lenin at one point in 1917 suggested - aggregate results in local government elections; in present-day Britain, the utter disorganisation of the left means that we have no such counter-barometer).

The second side is that the bourgeoisie’s anti-democratic electoral mechanisms may by contingencies produce an accidental electoral majority (or plurality) for a workers’ party which has nothing like a political majority. In this situation, the workers’ party cannot implement its programme, but is bound to do the bidding of the state core of the capitalist state. Thus the election of Lula as president of Brazil, the Syriza government in Greece.

The bulk of the left imagines that this is a desirable outcome, because the government will either itself become radicalised or raise up a radicalisation of disappointed expectations to its left. The evidence is against this. There are two cases which could be taken as examples: the first is the successive Russian provisional governments in 1917. The second is the pseudo-form of the post-1945 coalition governments in eastern Europe, where the ‘left radicalisation’ was largely just Soviet operations. In 1917, Petrograd Soviet ‘Order No1’ had destroyed government control of the garrison in the capital. In 1945-48, the armed forces in eastern Europe were already controlled by the Soviet Army.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, of minority or coalition ‘left’ government where the state power (the army, civil service, judiciary, etc) is intact, what has happened is a radicalisation of disappointed expectations to the right. It thus turns out that minority government masquerading as majority government through the luck of draw of the electoral rules is still Millerandism - the idea of taking the ministries one by one.

It is all the more true that we need a majority on the basis of the open defence of an anti-constitutional policy. This may seem hard, since the pro-capitalist parties routinely win elections on the basis of fraudulent misrepresentations. But the difference is that these parties, when they get into office, will act according to the wishes of the state core and/or of their donors; they do not need the active support of their voters to do this. A workers’ party which seeks to create political democracy and workers’ power, in contrast, does need the active support of its voters to implement its policy. The result is that it has to tell them the truth about its aims. This is an essential ground for a minimum programme that specifies the conditions under which we would be willing to take responsibility for government.


The capitalist class is not a democratic class and the idea of ‘bourgeois democracy’ is an oxymoron. The point should, at a certain level, be obvious: capitalists are quite a small minority in society (even if small capitalists who employ few workers are included). For capitalists to be the ruling class, therefore, there have to be mechanisms in place which make the state answerable to this minority and not to the proletarian and petty-proprietor majority.

The illusion that the capitalist class is a democratic class results from the fact that, in order to overthrow the European feudal state regimes - which had to happen for the capitalist breakthroughs in the commercial, agricultural and industrial revolutions to take place - the capitalists need to piggy-back on a revolution of the petty bourgeoisie and proto-proletariat against the landlord and clerical institutions. This revolution took Protestant ideological forms in the Netherlands and England, but secular democratic ideological forms in the political revolution which created the US and in the French revolution - and hence in 19th-century European and Latin American radical liberalism.

Once feudal, clerical, peasant and artisan rights as obstacles to capitalist economy, and the state regime which upholds them, have been removed, however, the minoritarian character of capitalist rule has to find institutional forms.

In early capitalist regimes, which do not face significant, persistent, organised pressure from the lower orders, a common state decision-making form is a closed group, which is recruited by coopting newly wealthy families. The Venetian ‘aristocracy’ (of merchants entitled to participate in government) and the Dutch Regents both provide examples. The English House of Lords, in spite of its feudal-aristocratic ‘nobility of blood’ pretensions, in fact operated in this way before its powers were reduced under the Parliament Acts, and so did the commissions of Justices of the Peace in the localities; the boroughs also after 1688 had closed-elite systems dominant in their government, which lasted until Victorian local government reform, and persist in a diluted form in the peculiar City of London government.

Institutions of this sort have not withered away: an increased use of ‘appointed’ bodies - in practice largely cooptative - has developed in the US and England since the beginning of the capitalist counteroffensive in the 1970s, as an alternative to elected local government and to the self-government of institutions like universities.

To the extent that elections are necessary to maintain petty bourgeois support, property, income or taxation qualifications for the franchise are normal. If the Prussian three-class franchise before 1918 was peculiarly bizarre, Britain maintained property qualifications on the vote throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th. No-one can seriously claim that 19th-century Britain was not a fully capitalist country. With the (unusual) exceptions of the manoeuvres of Bismarck in 1860s Germany, universal suffrage is something extorted from the capitalist class by the rise of the workers’ movement. It is not something introduced for reasons dictated by the logic of capital.

Even before the extensions of the franchise forced on it by the emergence of workers’ movements, a bourgeois state regime requires controls against the petty bourgeoisie. These controls function both outside the electoral and representative institutions, and within them. Both have increased in importance, as the capitalists have been forced to make concessions on the franchise.

Those outside the electoral and representative institutions are called ‘checks and balances’ or the ‘separation of powers’. On the one side, the armed forces and bureaucracy are separated from the elected representatives by the role of the ‘single person’ (as it was called in the English constitutional arguments of the 1650s). Executive monarchies are now rare, but ceremonial monarchies are commonplace, and ceremonial and executive presidencies, separately elected from the election of representatives, even more so. These operate as constitutional backstops, with powers to ‘protect the constitution’ available to block the decisions of elected representatives which are inconsistent with capitalist interests, but relatively rarely used; they also ideologically represent in the constitutional order the managerial authority, which is a principle of the capitalist workplace.

On the other side, modern capitalist constitutions also assert the independence of the judiciary from the elected representatives. Overt judicial activism in relation to laws made by parliaments and other legislatures has varied; but in practice the scope of the judicial power to interpret legislation is inherently so wide, given the inherent fluidity of human language, that the legislature’s aims are very frequently frustrated by the judiciary. The independence of the judiciary - and the ‘rule of law’, which is its ideological expression - serves capitalist control for two reasons: the first is that law as such is founded on the sanctity of private property; the second is that the ‘free market in legal services’ has the effect that on average most judicial proceedings will end with the victory of the party able to spend more money on lawyers.

Controls within the electoral and representative institutions are less obvious, but still important. They consist, in essence, of mechanisms to ensure that the lower orders are represented by the paid agents of the capitalists. Engels in 1891 identified the two-party system of professional politicians in the US as a form of corruption and a means of capitalist control. But the professional politicians and the two-party system in reality went back to Whigs and Tories in the ‘rage of party’ of 1689-1714.

An important aspect of these mechanisms is the grant to the elected politicians of a term of years absolute - an exploitable property right - in their seats until the next election. It is this right which allows capitalists to buy politicians (whether immediately or by promises of rewards after they stand down, as occurred with Tony Blair). It is not the geographical suffrage which made the Russian 1918 constituent assembly anti-democratic, but the fact that there was no way for the anti-war Left Social Revolutionaries, or the Menshevik-Internationalists, to deprive the pro-war Right Social Revolutionaries and Menshevik-defencists of their seats, acquired on the basis of obsolete party lists. The defence of the right to MPs’ security of tenure against open reselection, in the interests of the bribe-payers, is at the heart of the class battle currently raging in the British Labour Party.

The third element is - paradoxical as it may seem - the fact that the government is answerable to the elected representatives. The result is that the elected representatives can, in Engels’ phrase, “make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory [be] rewarded with positions”. It is also that the capitalist media can represent every election - even local elections - as not being about a choice of representative for the constituency, but rather a choice of who should form the government. By doing so they push down to the only ‘real’ choice being between the contending gangs of paid agents for the capitalists, and even actually electing a minority party representative as being a ‘wasted vote’. Even where proportional representation is used, this possibility of gaining the spoils of office allows the professional politician the hope of obtaining a place through participation in a government coalition.

Electoral and parliamentary systems are in general designed to force the electors to choose between one or another gang of paid agents for the capitalists. ‘First past the post’ in Britain and the US is notorious for this effect; in Britain we have the added hurdle of deposits, and the Electoral Commission - which for reasons it is unwilling to explain, prohibits the CPGB and the Socialist Party in England and Wales from standing in elections in their own names. The two-round system in France has (and in the German Second Reich had) the same effect. The alternative vote allows you to cast a token vote for your minority preference, but reinforces the two-party monopoly of the professional politicians. Proportional-representation systems usually contain a threshold requirement, which gathers up minority votes for the benefit of the ‘main’ parties.

Equally important is the tendency towards concentration of the means of communication in capitalist hands, which Kautsky remarked on in 1905, describing the capitalists as “flooding the country with a commercially bribable press” (again, referring to the US). This, too, goes back to the ‘rage of party’ period.

Given the judges’ (spurious) claims to be impartial and to merely obey the legislator, it is understandable that ‘democratic socialists’ might be led to suppose that the state itself is an impartial institution. It is extraordinary that they have allowed themselves to be persuaded that advertising-funded media can in any sense be described as such.

Outside of these frameworks is the fact that the single capitalist state is always part of a system of states, and capitalists can coerce individual states by ‘flight of capital’. The practice is used, as we have seen in previous articles, in relation to quite slight issues of policy. The international integration of physical production means that it is delusive to overcome the flight of capital by the action of a single state. But the character of the cold war ‘golden age’ shows that, with serious enough threats to capitalist control on a world scale, this too can be temporarily forced into subordination.

Calling this stuff ‘democracy’ sells the pass on its political legitimacy, its spurious claims to obedience.

Suffrage and representation

The expansion of the suffrage, and the partial, limited, achievement of working class representation in parliaments and suchlike bodies, is a contradiction in the capitalist regime. It exists because of the rise of the working class.

The capitalist conception of a parliament or similar body is based on “no taxation without representation” and its corollary, “no representation without taxation” - yielding a representative body which is, as Edmund Burke put it, analogous to a shareholders’ meeting, with votes in proportion to holdings. Vesting the legislative power in such a body produces, as outcomes of the conflicts and haggling, a ‘resultant’, which roughly approximates a common interest of the bourgeoisie as a class - subject, of course, to further interactions with the executive and the judiciary.

But then the property owners who are represented in the parliament prove unable to resist the temptation to substitute indirect taxes (excise duties; modern VAT) for direct taxes, especially taxes on land. But, since everybody pays the indirect taxes, the lack of universal suffrage becomes and remains, through the 19th century and into the 20th, a political grievance. The emergence of standing workers’ organisations converted this vague grievance into a concrete (limited) programme with the 1838 People’s Charter, proposed by the “Working Men’s Association” to “the radical reformers of Great Britain and Ireland”.

A workers’ organisation with a concrete, limited programme can win elections even under restricted franchises. And by doing so it can give political voice to the working class; and it can, perhaps, move the claims of the working class beyond the guerrilla struggle of bargaining with individual employers, the construction of cooperatives, and so on, to the claims of the working class to lead society, expressed in the form of proposals for general laws.

The capitalist class fights back, both by reducing the authority of parliaments and similar bodies and by the methods of managing political parties in order to deny the working class any independent political voice, as discussed above. But these mechanisms of control do not always work. They contain internal contradictions, which can allow political space for a working class voice. Witness - as very imperfect examples - the Corbyn movement in the British Labour Party, the Sanders movement and the Congress ‘squad’ in the USA. The working class can win concessions if our rulers are persuaded that the alternatives to them are worse.

It is particularly important that concessions can be won from opposition. As long as the workers’ movement is infected with the idea that only by winning a government can concessions be won, the movement reinforces the two-party system of corrupt professional politicians as a means of capitalist control. It also makes itself extraordinarily vulnerable to being wrong-footed when pro-capitalist governments in fact deliver concessions. Thus, for example, the economistic British far-left groups keep going on and on about “ending austerity” even when Tory chancellor Sajid Javid has recently announced just that.


Historical change usually involves both gradual and abrupt or ‘ruptural’ processes. This point ought to be banal and obvious. That it is controversial is merely the result of the process described at the end of the last article. That is, the Fabians and their German followers, the revisionists, argued that gradual change was preferable; post-World War II cold-war Fabian/revisionist authors came up with the absurd argument that ‘ruptural’ change was impossible; their ‘revolutionary socialist’ opponents adopted a silly negation of this idea in arguing that the only real change would be ‘ruptural’ - which has the result that the very real changes in the past 50 years, from social democracy and third-world social nationalism to neoliberalism, and from neoliberalism to right-populist nationalism, disappear from view.

The fact that historical change usually involves both gradual and abrupt or ‘ruptural’ processes not only should be banal; it is also at a level of abstraction so high that the point’s only utility is the rejection of fetishes either of ‘democratic’ gradualism or of ‘revolutionary’ rupturalism. Because the ‘ruptural’ processes include not only (desirable) revolutions, but also (undesirable) counterrevolutions and wars - and analogous but less extreme political events.

The case for revolution is then not a case for ‘ruptural’ change, various sorts of which can be expected to happen at some point anyhow. It is a case for constitutional change.

The archetype ‘revolution’ is the revolution of 1688, called a ‘revolution’ quite soon after it happened, and in the modern sense. Here, King James VII and II was overthrown; a convention parliament was called, which offered the throne to Mary Stuart and her husband, William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Netherlands, on certain constitutional terms. Much of the terms were then stated in the 1689 Bill of Rights. The revolution triggered full-scale civil wars in Scotland and Ireland, and a European war. A series of further constitutional changes then took place: notably the creation of the Bank of England (originally as a means of handling war finance), and the 1700 Act of Settlement, fixing the succession to the monarchy to Protestants, and also providing security of tenure for senior judges. 1688 had the effect of allowing an explosive growth of financial and commercial capitalism, and also industrial ironfounding, etc, in its immediate aftermath.

Stating the point more generally: states are armed organised groups of persons loyal to a set of constitutional forms - the res publica Romana, the mandate of heaven, the ‘thousand-year’ (John Major) British constitution. It is this organised loyalty to a constitutional order which differentiates a state from a simple protection racket. They are tied by their constitutional forms to the classes which created them, and actively resist both alteration to these constitutional forms and the decline of the class orders of which these classes are bearers.

As long as the constitutional forms of the capitalist state continue, that state will not merely resist socialist or working class measures, but actively intervene through both legal regulation and covert political and intellectual operations to promote capitalism. And this can be seen even where what is involved is plainly irrational, as in the UK’s privatisation of housing and infrastructure in the 1980s-2000s.

Because the capitalist state artificially preserves capitalism, in order to overcome capitalism it is essential that the capitalist constitutional order should be overthrown. It is, in fact, immaterial how this is done.

It does not have to be “from below”. Of course, all states at the end of the day rest on consent, at least from junior officials, and willingness to put up with it from the inhabitants of their territories. But an important part of the English revolution of 1640 was the Scots invasion of England, which forced Charles I to recall parliament. And 1688 was primarily a Dutch invasion, albeit at the invitation of a group of British opposition leaders. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the working class seized power in continental Europe and, having done so, invaded Britain, overthrew the British constitution and created one modelled on what they had already created. This would still be a revolution.

It is not necessarily ‘in one act’: the first stage of the English Revolution was the reformation, taking much of the property and overthrowing the independent political power of the church; the second stage was the civil war of the 1640s, which was ‘thrown back’, but not completely, in 1660; the third was 1688. In France, we can probably only speak unequivocally of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie from 1871, after three revolutions. And so on.

This, in turn, relates to the issue of reforms. It is possible to win big serious substantive reforms - including ones which weaken the capitalist state as such. But there are important choices to be made. The Trade Disputes Act 1906, by ousting the judges as far as possible from the sphere of industrial disputes, weakened the capitalist state. In contrast the US Wagner Act 1935 extended a capitalist state regulatory regime, in a way which temporarily benefited the trade unions, but contained within itself the basis of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. Similarly, the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 “sold the pass” to the Thatcher anti-union laws. Reforms like the 1906 act can only be permanent if the capitalists’ regime of corruption is overthrown as a whole; but they can still strengthen the working class under the capitalist regime.

The minimum programme again plays an essential role here - for the working class to orient itself in relation to supportable reform proposals (which concede, even partially, elements of our programme) and unsupportable ones (which require us to support the existing state power).

This is not ‘the truth’ about these issues. But it does propose a framework which can allow more concrete thought about the issues than the unproductive opposition of ‘democratic socialism’ and ‘revolutionary socialism’.



. ‘Containing our movement in “safe” forms’, September 12.

. J Riddell (ed) The German revolution and the debate on soviet power (London 2003) has various relevant texts.

. Helen Macfarlane’s 1850 translation reads: “the first step in the proletarian revolution will be the conquest of democracy, the elevation of the proletariat to the state of the ruling class.” T Carver and J Farr (eds) Cambridge companion to the Communist manifesto (Cambridge 2015), p275, seems preferable to others.

. https://marxists.catbull.com/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm.

. G Anderson, ‘The personality of the Greek state’ Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol 129 (2009).

. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch01.htm#s2.

. www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm.

. On Venice, see FC Lane Venice, a maritime republic Baltimore 1973, chapter 18; and J Martin and D Romano (ed) Venice reconsidered Baltimore 2000, chapters 2 and 8. Netherlands: J de Vries and A van der Woude The first modern economy Cambridge 1997, pp586-90.

. House of Lords: JV Beckett and C Jones, ‘Introduction: the peerage and the House of Lords in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ in C Jones (ed) A pillar of the constitution London 1989, chapter 1. Local government: the classic account is S and B Webb English local government London 1906-29, Vols 2 and 3. City of London: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Council_and_democracy/Councillors_democracy_and_elections/Voting_and_Registration/Voting+FAQ.htm.

. J Stewart, ‘Appointed boards and local government’ Parliamentary Affairs 48 (1995) surveyed the development in Britain at that date.

. The 1700 Act of Settlement reflects this approach in principle: judges - except the lord chancellor, who was also a minister - could no longer be removed by the king alone, but by address of both houses of parliament.

. More in M Macnair, ‘Free association versus juridification’ Critique 39 (2011).

. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/postscript.htm, quoted in last week’s article.

. See M Macnair, ‘Marxism and freedom of communication’ Critique 37 (2009) on the general point. The Kautsky quotation is Ben Lewis’s draft translation from ‘Republik und Sozialdemokratie in Frankreich’ Neue Zeit 23 (1905): “Überschwemmung des Landes mit einer käuflichen Presse”.

. R Deazley On the origin of the right to copy Oxford 2004, chapters 1 and 2; On the Stamp Act 1712, see S Harrison Poor men’s guardians London 1974.

. See, for example, T Harris Revolution London 2007; S Pincus 1688: the first modern revolution Yale 2009.

. M Macnair, ‘Socialism from below: a delusion’ Weekly Worker August 13 2015.