Friday, November 20, 2009

1789: France’s bourgeois revolution

From the Socialist Standard, July 1989.

Up until 1789 France was an Absolutist state ruled by a king who claimed that his total power to rule had been granted him by god. All the top posts in the army, the government, the civil service, the church and the judiciary were reserved for the members of a hereditary nobility. The population was in fact divided into three "orders" or "estates": the clergy, the nobility and the rest – over 95 per cent of course – known simply as the Third Estate.

Relics of Feudalism

The vast majority of the population – some 22 or 23 million out of a total population of 25 million – were peasants who worked and lived on the land. Very few were serfs actually tied to the land or a master. It has in fact been estimated that between 30 and 40 per cent of the land in pre-1789 France belonged to peasants. But all peasants, whether landowners, tenants or share-croppers, had to pay feudal dues in money and in kind to the lord of the manor as well as tithes, payable in kind, to the church. They were obliged to use the lord’s mill, bread oven and wine press rather than have their own and to allow him to hunt freely on their land. And they were tried and judged in a court presided over by him or his appointee for minor offences and all disputes with him or among themselves concerning land matters.

These were all survivals from feudalism, though it would be inaccurate to describe French society on the eve of the revolution as feudalism. Capitalism had long been developing there and in fact many of the lordships of the manor had been bought by rich non-nobles from the towns as an investment for the income this procured them.

Nor was the nobility any longer really feudal. By this time they had become transformed into an exclusive group which, by virtue of their noble status, enjoyed various tax exemptions and a privileged access to the top posts in the state, a fact that was particularly resented by rich people of non-noble origin – the bourgeoisie – who were to provide the leadership of the French Revolution.

This – the upper echelons of the Third Estate, or non-noble rich people – is the easiest definition that can be given of the bourgeoisie. Some were merchants, others manufacturers, still others professional people, in particular lawyers of various sorts. Below them, in the towns, were the sort of people who in Paris were known as the sansculottes, literally ""those without breeches", or people who wore trousers rather than the knee-breeches and stockings then worn by the rich and those who aped them. These were the small shopkeepers and providers of various services, the master artisans and their journeymen who one day hoped to become masters themselves. Those who were condemned to a life-time of dependence on selling their labour power for a wage to a manufacturing employer were relatively few and were concentrated in certain industries and towns. One estimate puts their number at as low as 600,000.

Obstacles to Capitalist Development

Pre-1789 France is best described as a country in which capitalism had been developing within a framework of political and social institutions inherited from feudalism, which had become an obstacle to its further development. The question that then arose was: how were these obstacles to be removed? By reform from above or by revolution from below? Some of the king’s advisers and administrators were aware of what was required. The conscious economic aims of the revolution (see inset) had in fact been worked out by a group of French Rationalist Philosophers who called themselves économistes or physiocrates. They held that there were natural laws governing the production and distribution of wealth just as there were other laws of nature and that governments should let these economic laws operate spontaneously. Hence their slogan laissez-faire which strongly influenced the similar idea put forward by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations that appeared in 1776. A number of royal officials, including ministers, had been Physiocrats, but had come up against all sorts of resistance in trying to carry out reform from above.

Aims of the 1789 Revolution

POLITICAL: To establish equality between all property-owners by abolishing the privileges enjoyed by a section only of them, the nobility. To establish a constitutional government responsible to an assembly of property-owners elected on a restricted, property franchise.

ECONOMIC: To abolish internal customs duties and establish a national market. To abolish guild and government restrictions on entry into particular trades and businesses and establish freedom of enterprise and laissez-faire. To end feudal dues and tithes levied on agricultural property; rent, interest and profit to be the only legitimate forms of non work income.

Largely as a result of its failure to reform itself, by the 1780s the royal government had got into such financial difficulties that bankruptcy threatened. To raise more taxes it was obliged to call a meeting of a feudal institution that had last met in 1614, the States General in which representatives of the three estates into which society was legally divided met to discuss the king’s demand for further taxes. In August 1788 the government announced the calling of a meeting of this States General for May 1789. In the intervening period the members of the various estates were to meet all over France to draw up a list of their grievances and demands to submit to the king. The rich members of the Third Estate of the towns used the opportunity not just to complain about the tax exemptions accorded to the clergy and the nobles and to call for a fairer sharing of the burden of taxation among the rich, noble as well as non-noble. They also demanded a Constitution that would allow the representatives of the Third Estate to dominate the States General and turn it into an assembly representing the whole "nation". This aim was openly expressed in an immensely influential pamphlet that appeared in 1789 called What is the Third Estate?, written by Abbé Sieyès. Sieyès answered the question by arguing that the Third Estate was everything; it, and it alone, constituted the nation, the nobility being nothing but useless and privileged parasites:

"The nobility truly a nation apart, but a bogus one which, lacking organs to keep it alive, clings to a real nation like those vegetable parasites which can live only on the sap of the plants that they impoverish and blight. The Church, the law, the army and the bureaucracy are four classes of public agents necessary everywhere. Why are they accused of aristocratism in France? Because the caste of nobles has usurped all the best posts, and takes them as its hereditary property. Thus it exploits them, not in the spirit of the laws of society, but to its own profit."

Thus spoke the bourgeoisie when it had a revolution to carry out.

The session of the States General was opened by the King, Louis XVI, in May 1789. The representatives of the Third Estate soon showed themselves to be in a militant mood, in June turning the States General, as planned, into a National Assembly and later into a Constituent Assembly, or a body charged with drawing up a constitution for France.

The Bourgeois Revolution

This wasn’t quite what Louis XVI and some of his advisers had intended and they began to think in terms of dissolving the Assembly. The king dismissed his reforming chief minister and troops were sent to surround Paris. Popular reaction was not long in coming. The bourgeoisie formed themselves into an armed "National Guard" while, on 14 July, the sansculotte crowds stormed the Bastille. Power in Paris passed into the hands of the armed, revolutionary bourgeoisie.

July 14 has traditionally been regarded as the date that the French Revolution, as the seizure of power by the bourgeoisie, took place. Another, perhaps better, case can be made out for 6 October of the same year. This was the date when, following a march of women, accompanied by members of the National Guard, from Paris to the royal palace at Versailles to demand bread, the king was forced to recognise the power and legitimacy of the National Assembly by accompanying it back to Paris. The old royal administration then collapsed throughout France and power at regional and local level also passed into the hands of the bourgeoisie.

In October the Constituent Assembly abolished all internal customs duties. In fact all indirect taxes were abolished. This presented the new regime with a financial problem – how to raise money to finance its activities? – that was solved by the confiscation and sale of the estates belonging to the church. Most church lands fell into the hands, not of the peasants who had been working them, but of rich bourgeois from the towns. The church was not in fact opposed to this measure as, in return, the clergy were to be maintained by the state as civil servants. But the Constituent Assembly went on to insist, not only that the priests should swear like all other civil servants an oath of allegiance to the constitution, but also that bishops should be elected in the same way that mayors and judges were going to be. This proved too much for the Pope who, in May 1791, put an anathema on the French Revolution which still influences the attitude of Catholic historians to the revolution to this day. But its importance at the time was that it meant that the bulk of the Catholic Church went over to the counter-revolution.

Representative Government for Property Owners

The Constitution was finally promulgated in 1791. It provided for France to be a constitutional monarchy, with the king as the hereditary head of the executive having the same sort of powers as the President of the USA. Although it did not remain in force for long it was a model constitution for the rule of the bourgeoisie, as the non-noble section of the property-owning class in society. Its preamble proclaimed in revolutionary terms the complete abolition of the aristocracy:

"There is no longer any nobility, nor peerage, nor hereditary distinction, nor distinctions between orders, nor feudal regime, nor hereditary justices, nor any order of knighthood …"

The Constitution also incorporated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen that had been adopted by the National Assembly in August 1789. Despite the declaration that "men are born and remain free and equal in rights", the Constitution went on to draw a distinction between "active" and "passive" citizens based on property as measured by the amount of tax paid. To be a simple voter, this was set at a relatively low level but some 40 per cent of the adult male population found themselves without the right to vote (as did all women). But this was not the only property qualification. The members of the legislative assembly were not elected directly by the voters; these latter voted for "electors" who in turn elected the deputies. There was a higher qualification to be chosen as an elector and an even higher one to be allowed to sit in the assembly.

The abolition of the distinction between noble and non-noble property owners and provision for a constitutional government responsible to an assembly of property owners elected on a restricted franchise was in fact the openly declared aim of the French Revolution from the start. It was proclaimed in the Constitution of 1791 and emerged again in 1795 to survive until Napoleon seized power in 1799. Between 1792 and 1794, however, the revolution, under the impact of both an external war and an internal civil war, was to take a more radical turn but one which turned out to be no more than a detour.

The Jacobin Dictatorship

War was declared on Austria, which had taken the side of the overthrown aristocracy, in April 1792 and in July Prussia declared war on France, leading to the invasion of the country by Austrian and Prussian troops. The King, however, continued to maintain contacts with Austria and Prussia. As the invading armies advanced on Paris popular discontent over the economic and political situation broke out, leading to the storming of the royal palace and overthrow of the king on 10 August 1792. France was not declared a Republic until September, after the defeat of the invading armies at Valmy on the road to Paris, but this date marked the effective end of the monarchy. In December Louis XVI was put on trial for treason, found guilty and executed in January 1793. Thus, as in England in 1649, a king claiming to rule by divine right found out the hard way that this was not so.

A new Constitution was drawn up putting power into the hands of a national assembly elected on the basis of universal manhood suffrage. This democratic aspect, however, remained a dead letter as the new assembly allowed one of its subcommittees, the Committee of Public Safety, to assume full powers to organise and mobilise the war effort. After another uprising in Paris at the end of May power passed into the hands of the Jacobins, the most militant section of the revolutionary bourgeoisie whose best-known leader was Maximilien Robespierre.

One of the first things that was done under the new regime was to settle the land question. A law – that of 17 July 1793 – decreed the abolition of all feudal dues without compensation. The principle of the abolition of feudal dues had been proclaimed as long ago as August 1789, but had provided for this to be done by the peasants buying these rights from the lords of the manor. Naturally the peasants were not satisfied and peasant unrest, in the form of refusal to pay and the burning of chateaux and feudal title deeds, continued. The Committee on Feudalism of the various national assemblies was in an embarrassing position because the beneficiaries of feudal rights were not all nobles but included many rich members of the Third Estate.

It was never the intention of those who carried out the French Revolution to abolish the private ownership of land or to break up the big estates of the rich and divide them among the peasants. That would have been a flagrant violation of the "rights of property" which the revolution proclaimed and, under a law passed on 18 March 1793, advocating it was in fact made an offence punishable by death. As far as the land question was concerned, the aim was to abolish the burden of feudal dues on agricultural property. This meant that ground rent was considered to be a perfectly legitimate form of income and the Committee on Feudalism tried to pass off many feudal dues as being a form of ground rent. The peasants, however, would have none of this and, through keeping up the pressure, eventually obtained the abolition of feudal dues in a revolutionary way: by their pure and simple abolition without compensation and the public burning of the title deeds which had granted them. The anarchist Kropotkin in his book on The Great French Revolution regarded this as the revolution’s main achievement.

The rule of the Jacobins is generally remembered for the Terror, though in fact its main action was the prosecution of the war and the successful repulsion of the invading armies. The two were connected since the Jacobin government had to deal with counter-revolutionaries at home working in league with the invading powers. The Terror soon developed, however, into a suppression of all opposition on the grounds of the need for absolute unity to "save the nation".

It was not just royalists, priests and other avowed counter-revolutionaries who were guillotined as traitors, but also all others who, for one reason or another, opposed the Jacobin government on some issue, from leftwing sansculotte groups like the Enragés to moderate but still revolutionary republicans like Danton. Suspicion grew that Robespierre was working to establish his own dictatorship. There was probably some truth in this as Robespierre and his supporters did believe in the necessity of a dictatorship to purge the people of aristocratic ideas and attitudes and to lead them to the Republic of small-scale property owners that they saw as the ideal society, and they did toy with the idea of the dictatorship of a single person to achieve this.

The Jacobins were in fact the Bolsheviks of the French Revolution just as the Bolsheviks were the Jacobins of the Russian Revolution. This affinity was consciously recognised by Lenin and Trotsky and is to this day by their followers, as the following from an SWP publication shows:

"The Jacobins were the only possible leadership capable of successfully defending the revolution. We should defend them against both revisionists and ‘left’ utopian critics" (Socialist Worker Review, May 1989)

A similar position is taken up by the so-called "Marxist" school of historians of the French Revolution, including their doyen Albert Soboul. Their books, and his in particular, remain worth reading but in so far as they "defend" the Jacobins are not a proper nor an adequate application of the materialist conception of history. Applied to the French Revolution, this would seek to analyse the economic factors that determined it rather than to defend or attack the political role played by some or other group or person in the course of it.

Whatever may have been Robespierre’s reasons for justifying the dictatorship of the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety, the bulk of the members of the national assembly (and indeed some members of the Committee itself) supported it as a necessity to win the war, both external and internal, and were ready to relax it once this had been achieved, as it had been by the summer of 1794. This was fatal for Robespierre who was overthrown on 27 July (9 Thermidor, according to the revolutionary calendar) and guillotined with his immediate followers the next day.

The Right to Unequal Property Ownership Re-asserted

The overthrow of Robespierre and the Jacobins marked the end of the radicalisation of the French Revolution and a return to its original aim of establishing a constitutional government by and for property owners. The only difference with 1791 was that this was now to be achieved within the framework of a Republic rather than of a constitutional monarchy. The Republican Constitution of 1795 reintroduced the property qualifications for being an "active" citizen, an "elector" and a deputy.

The Jacobins too had been defenders of the "sacred right of property". Where they differed from the Thermidorians (as those who overthrew them were called) was that they were not prepared to defend the existing degree of inequality of property ownership. For them property ought to be based on work and their ideal was a France in which every Frenchman would own his own farm or workshop and be able to maintain himself and his family out of the results of his own work without having to go out and work for wages for someone else. This ideal, which can only be described (using the term correctly for once) as "petty bourgeois", was an impossible one in the context of the capitalist society that had been developing in France, as was neatly revealed by an exchange that took place in the national assembly in September 1794, at a time when the Jacobins were still in power. After a Jacobin deputy had expounded the ideal of every Frenchman owning his own plot of land and working for himself, another deputy got up to speak on, according to the Minutes, "the material impossibility of transforming all Frenchmen into landholders and on the unfortunate consequences which in any event this transformation would bring". The deputy explained: "Because, on this hypothesis, everybody being obliged to cultivate his own field or vineyard in order to live, commerce, crafts and industry would soon be annihilated". In other words, a non-owning section of the population was needed to supply people to work for wages in capitalist commerce and industry.

But a Bourgeois Republic based on inequality and a Petty Bourgeois Republic based on equal property ownership were not the only two ideals thrown up in the course of the French Revolution. In 1795 and 1796 with Babeuf and the Conspiracy of the Equals another ideal was put forward: common ownership and the abolition of all property, buying and selling and money. The conspiracy never really had much chance of success as it was infiltrated from the start by government spies and probably most of those involved in it favoured the Jacobin ideal of a Republic of small property owners (as well as the Jacobin policy of a dictatorship, which Babeuf favoured too) rather than common ownership and the abolition of all property, but the Conspiracy has left us with a magnificent document, written by Sylvain Maréchal, which we reproduce in this issue.

Political Failure, Social Success

Those who overthrew the Jacobins – the partisans of an unashamed Bourgeois Republic based on inequality of property ownership – were unable to establish a stable regime, mainly because most property owners turned out to favour a restoration of the monarchy and, in the end, a large number of bourgeois revolutionaries, including the Abbé Sieyès who had played such a prominent propagandistic role in preparing the seizure of power by the bourgeoisie in 1789, accepted the military dictatorship of General Napoleon Bonaparte as the only way of ensuring a stable government and preventing a royalist come-back. The seizure of power by Napoleon in 1799, and his subsequent self-proclamation as Emperor in 1804, meant that from a political point of view the French Revolution was a failure: it did not succeed in establishing a "representative government" along the lines of what had been achieved in America and which had been its original declared aim. It did, however, succeed in radically transforming the social structure of France in that all the remnants of feudalism (division of society into orders, feudal rights owed to lords of the manor) and all aristocratic privilege (tax exemptions, exclusive access for nobles to the top jobs in the government, civil service, army and church) were swept away without trace, never to return.

This was a real social revolution which emancipated the peasants from feudal exactions and which freed industry from the shackles of the guild system and created a national market for its goods by removing all internal customs posts and establishing a uniform system of weights and measures. And it opened careers in the government, army and civil servants to new men, of non-noble origin.

The achievement of the French Revolution was to abolish aristocratic privilege but it maintained, and consolidated, plutocratic privilege. After the revolution it was wealth as such and no longer noble status that constituted privilege. In short, it established a capitalist state in which the only distinction between people was the purely economic class distinction between those who owned property and those who did not. It paved the way for the last class struggle in history, which can only be ended by the victory of the propertyless class and the establishment of a classless, socialist society based on the common ownership of the means of production, as envisaged before their time by Babeuf, Maréchal, Buonarotti and others involved in the Conspiracy of the Equals of 1795-6.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Whose president is Barack Obama?

He would have us believe that he is president of “all Americans.” But how is that possible when there are such sharp conflicts of interest in American society? Does the business owner have the same interests as the workers he hires at or below the minimum wage? Or consider the health insurance company assessor whose pay and prospects depend on how many claims she denies. Does she have the same interests as those whose survival depends on her decisions?

Is Obama president of the millions of “black” Americans who voted for him with such pride in their hearts? He has not addressed the specific problems that face “black” people. True, he has raised their status simply by being president. By the same token, he provides a pretext for pretending that the issue of racism no longer exists. If he can make it, why can’t they?

Is Obama president of the millions of working people of all colors who voted for him because they hoped he would make their lives easier and more secure? Because they hoped he would stop layoffs, foreclosures, military adventures?

Look at the military budget. Look at Afghanistan. Look at the huge bank bailouts – with no relief for mortgage holders.

Obama’s bosses

This is not to say that nothing he does will be of any benefit to working people. But of one thing you can be sure. Obama’s bosses will not allow him to push through any far-reaching reform. That is, any reform that threatens important corporate interests.

Excuse me, what was that you just said? Obama’s bosses? Does the U.S. president have bosses? Isn’t he the boss?

Well, yes, formally he’s the boss. But – like every ambitious politician with his eye on the Oval Office – he went through a long process of vetting by potential wealthy sponsors. Without the backing of such individuals, he could not have got the money and media coverage he needed to run for president. (For a fuller explanation, see the article “Selecting a U.S. President: The Invisible Primaries” at

Even now he is beholden to his sponsors. In the (admittedly unlikely) event that they decide they have made a mistake, they have the means to undermine or even destroy him.

For example, one of Obama’s biggest backers was the commodity trader – that is, financial speculator – Paul Tudor Jones, whose fortune is estimated at $3.3 billion. He was instrumental in mobilizing the hedge fund business behind Obama.

Naturally, that has absolutely no connection with those unconditional bank bailouts.

Like all his predecessors, Obama is president of the U.S. capitalist class.

Are they all the same?

Does that mean that all American politicians are the same? That there is no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans, “liberals” and “conservatives”?
Not at all.

Different politicians rely on different sponsors. Each represents a specific mix of big business interests. In general, for instance, Republicans have closer connections with the oil corporations, Democrats with Wall Street.

Different politicians also use different kinds of rhetoric and have different approaches to government. Conservative Republicans ignore popular grievances and try to distract people by exploiting their fears (of “communism,” “socialism,” “radicalism,” terrorism, Islam, foreigners, etc.) and by waving the U.S. flag. Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, convey the impression that they understand and care deeply about the daily troubles of ordinary people – perhaps even deeply enough to do something about them (that’s where things start to get fuzzy). Some of them maintain links with trade unions. For them too, however, business connections are more important.

Escaping from the trap

Where does this leave us? It is tempting to support liberal Democrats because they seem to be – and to some small extent really may be – the lesser of two evils. But that offers us no hope of ever escaping from the trap. Politicians who promise change inevitably fail to deliver most of what they promise. Then their disappointed supporters relapse into apathy and the Republicans come back. And so on and on.

It makes more sense to work toward a fundamental change in the social system. To build up media and organizations independent of capitalist control, and eventually use our votes as part of a strategy to introduce the fuller democracy of socialism. It’s a long and uphill struggle. But what real alternative is there?


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Workers State?

How could anyone have seriously argued that the workers ruled in Russia?

Incredible as it might seem millions believed that Russia under Stalin and his successors was some sort of “Workers State”. Most – those in and around the official “Communist” parties – thought it was a workers’ paradise, socialism even. A minority – the Trotskyists – wanted to have their cake and eat it: to claim credit for what they saw as Russia’s achievements but to repudiate the things they didn’t like. They called it a “degenerate Workers State”. One of these was the Belgian journalist and academic, Ernest Mandel (1923-1995), a biography of whom by Jan Willem Stutje Ernest Mandel, A Rebel’s Dream Deferred has just been published in English translation by Verso.

“Workers State” is a bit of a contradiction in terms, but if it is to mean anything it would have to mean that the workers controlled the state; which could only be done through some democratic mechanism. But the workers never controlled the state in Russia. Within a few years of the Bolsheviks seizing power in November 1917 they had suppressed all other parties and established a one-party dictatorship. While he was a member of the government Trotsky justified the description “Workers State” by arguing that the Bolshevik Party, which controlled the state, was the party of the workers who therefore controlled the state through it. When, however, he and his followers were banned too he could no longer use that argument. So, in the Revolution Betrayed (1936) he came up with another: that Russia was still a “Workers State” because most industry was nationalised, there was central planning and a state monopoly of foreign trade. This, despite his admission that state power was actually controlled by a privileged “bureaucracy” and his producing statistics to show that the workers were badly off and oppressed

This argument was so absurd that it soon aroused criticism within the ranks of his own followers. Some refused to described a state in which the workers were oppressed and powerless as a “Workers State”. They disagreed about what to call it – some saw it as a new exploitative class society, others as “state capitalism” – but agreed that it wasn’t any kind of “Workers State”, not even a degenerate one. Trotsky stuck to his “degenerate Workers State” theory till one of its agents assassinated him in 1940.

Mandel had become a Trotskyist while still a teenager and during the war took part in underground Trotskyist activity in Belgium where his family lived. He was caught in 1944 and spent the remainder of the war in labour camps in Germany. After the war he emerged as one of the leaders of the Trotskyist “Fourth International”. One of the photos in this book is of a meeting of six leaders of this organisation in Paris in 1948. Of the six two had or came to regard Russia as state-capitalist. But not Mandel. He stuck to Trotsky’s dogma, and even extended it, describing the puppet regimes Russia set up in eastern Europe as “deformed Workers States”.


In 1969, in a polemic against Michael Kidron, of the International Socialism group of Trotskyists (later the SWP) who argued that Russia was state capitalist, Mandel wrote:

“Ever since social-democratic opponents of the Russian October revolution hatched the theory of ‘capitalism’ continuing to exist in the Soviet Union, supporters of that theory have been faced with a difficult choice. Either they consider that Russian ‘capitalism’ has all the basic features of classic capitalism as analysed by Marx, to start with generalized commodity production, and that it also shows all the basic contradictions of capitalism, including capitalist crisis of overproduction— and then they have a hard time discovering evidence for this. Or they admit the obvious fact that most of these features are absent from the Soviet economy, and they then have to contend that these features are not ‘basic’ to capitalism anyhow, which in the last analysis only means exploitation of wage-labour by ‘accumulators’.” (The Inconsistencies of State Capitalism, p. 11).

As a matter of fact the social and economic system in Russia did exhibit the basic features of capitalism: minority control of the means of production (via nationalisation); generalised commodity production (i.e. generalised production for sale and the use of money); the accumulated of capital valued in money out of profits; and, in particular, yes, the exploitation of wage-labour by those who monopolised the means of production. Of course there were differences from what Mandel called here “classic” capitalism, due to the specific circumstances under which the system had come into being and developed which had resulted in a hugely increased economic role for the state. Hence state capitalism. In any event, even if Mandel’s narrow definition of capitalism as private enterprise is accepted, that would not make Russia into any kind of “Workers State”, only some new form of exploitative class society.


After discussing the “increasing rights for factory managers” then being granted as part of economic reforms introduced by the Russian government, Mandel declared:

“We are therefore convinced that capitalism could be restored in the Soviet Union or in any Eastern European country only after breaking the fierce resistance of the working class. ( …) Given the present constellation of social forces, both nationally and internationally, we think it very unlikely that this resistance could actually be broken under these conditions, and that capitalism could be restored either in the Soviet Union, or in Yugoslavia, or in any other bureaucratically degenerated or deformed workers’ state.” (p. 16)

When this happened (and we, neither, saw this happening within twenty years) the working class put up no resistance to the transition from state capitalism to a more “classic” type of capitalism. Clearly, they did not share the same illusion as Mandel about Russia and its satellites being some sort of workers’ regime and so worth defending. Because Mandel and his Fourth International did believe the workers would resist, they placed great hope in the outcome of events in eastern Europe in the 1980s, trying to establish Trotskyist cells there. According to Stutje, they had some rather limited success in Poland and Czechoslovakia. But the outcome – a full return to “classic” capitalism rather than a regenerated “Workers State” – must have been a great disappointment. In fact, reading between the lines of this biography, Mandel never seems to have recovered from it.

Earlier Mandel had offered his expert advice as an economists to one of the “deformed Workers States” – Cuba when Che Guevara was Minister of Industry between 1961 and 1964. He visited Cuba a number of times and supported Guevara’s view that enterprises should be financed by direct grants from the central government and not be instructed to balance the books from their own activities. In other words, he was in favour of a much more centralised form of state capitalism than existed (or was eventually adopted).

Having said this, when it came to writing about “classic” capitalism Mandel was not too bad. In his Marxist Economic Theory (1962 in French, 1968 in English translation) he set out to show, on the basis of contemporary facts (and not just on the facts from the 1850s and 1860s that Marx had used), how Marx’s analysis of capitalism was still valid. The English hardback edition was divided into two volumes, the first of which, dealing with Marx’s theories, can still be recommended (the second part, dealing with the theories of Lenin and Trotsky and the nature of Russian society relapsed into Trotskyist scholasticism). His introductions to the Penguin edition of the three volumes of Capital are also good, as is his short pamphlet An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory, even though it introduces the dubious concept of “neo-capitalism”, which he later called “late capitalism”.


Politically, Mandel was a dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyist, explaining every working class failure by a lack of the right leadership, i.e. of a Trotskyist vanguard. He also practised the dishonest Trotskyist tactic of “entryism”, joining the reformist Belgian “Socialist” Party in 1951, with a view to winning a leftwing following which he hoped to lead out of the party to form an open Trotskyist vanguard party. He achieved some success, even rising to be for a short while the editor of the BSP’s daily paper, Le Peuple. He lost this post when another paper he helped edit, La Gauche, criticised the party’s leadership. La Gauche advocated “structural reforms” of capitalism, basically the nationalisation of the holding companies which dominated the Belgian economy. This was popular amongst many workers in the coal, steel and manufacturing industries of the French-speaking part of Belgium, and Mandel managed to get the support of some of the union leaders and local politicians there.

According to Stutje, it was not until 1961 that Mandel told one of the trade union leaders that he was a Trotskyist:

“Until now Mandel had always kept quiet about his membership of the Fourth International. Now it was time to break the silence. He went to Yerna’s office and confessed to his bewildered friend, ‘I need to tell you the truth. I am a member of the Fourth International.’ Yerna was disappointed that his comrade had not trusted him sooner” (pp. 80-1).

In the end, as later with Militant in Britain, the inevitable happened. In 1964 Mandel and his followers were booted out of the BSP. In a letter to Ken Coates (then a fellow Trotskyist, later a Labour MEP) that year he told him: “A left wing had been built in the Socialist Party from 1961 on, accompanied by an autonomous, clandestine Trotskyist core group” (emphasis added).

According to Stutje,

“The question of when, where and how to leave the SP was clearly on the agenda from the early 1960s. Mandel had only wanted to make sure they left with a substantial group – and by that he meant thousands” (p. 85).

In the event, the main trade union leader he had relied on went off at a tangent and embraced Walloon (i.e. French-speaker) nationalism and Mandel left with a few hundred only. But a new bandwagon soon came along – student unrest – and he was able to jump on that, influencing student leaders such as Alain Krivine in France, Tariq Ali in Britain (both of whom became Trotskyists) and, to a lesser extent, Rudi Dutschke in Germany (who didn’t but, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, eventually joined the Greens). Tariq Ali, though no longer a Trotskyist but still an admirer of Mandel, has written the foreword to Stutje’s biography.

Mandel was perfectly aware of what socialism really was as he had written in his polemic with Kidron:

“[S]ocialism means a classless society. It therefore presupposes not only the suppression of private property of the means of production, henceforth managed in a planned way by the associate producers themselves, but it also calls for a level of development of the productive forces which makes possible the withering away of commodity production, of money, and of the state.” (p. 17)

According to him, however, the productive forces had not yet reached the necessary level of development, so socialism was not an immediate possibility. Only a new society – based on nationalisation, planning and a state monopoly of foreign trade – was. He called it “transitional society” but it would only have been a form of state capitalism and state capitalism is not, as the experience of Russia in the last century showed, a step towards socialism. It turned out to be, in the joke circulating towards the end of the regime, “the longest route between capitalism and capitalism”.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 2009 Socialist Standard: Free at last . . . Twenty years beyond the Berlin Wall.

November 2009 Socialist Standard


  • Socialism was never tried
  • Regular Columns

  • Pathfinders Gullibility Travels
  • Cooking the Books 1 Out of control
  • Cooking the Books 2 Free is cheaper?
  • Material World Malawi: Children of the Tobacco Fields
  • Greasy Pole TV Debates - much ado about nothing
  • Pieces Together Warren's Wallet; Silent Tornado; Bombs Wa-Hey!
  • 50 Years Ago The Darwin Centenary
  • Main Articles

  • The fall of “communism”: Why so peaceful? Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall came down, symbolising the collapse of state capitalism in Eastern Europe.
  • The Myth of Soviet “Socialism” Vladimir Sirotin from Russia explains how that country was never socialist.
  • Workers State? Pull the other one How could anyone have seriously argued that the workers ruled in Russia?
  • Joining the killing machine The campaign to win the young to war has come a long way from the ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster with the pointing finger of Kitchener used in the ‘First Great War’.
  • Afghanistan – lying about dying The pressure to misinterpret the deaths, as the bodies come back, as nobly purifying is a cynically orchestrated propaganda exercise intended to justify the war.
  • Billion dollar bribery The duplicity, fraud and criminality that lies at the heart of world capitalism.
  • Ire of the Irate Itinerant Cartoon Strip
  • Letters, Book Reviews, & Meetings

  • Letters To The Editors: Getting from here.
  • Book Reviews: Che Guevara and the Economic Debate in Cuba. By Luiz Bernardo Pericás; Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. By David Aaronovitch; The Trouble with Capitalism. By Harry Shutt; Enough. By John Naish.
  • Socialist Party Meetings: Glasgow; Manchester, Clapham, Chiswick & Norwich:
  • Voice From The Back

  • Too much Month at the end of the Money; Famine and Feast; Up in smoke; Onward Christian Bankers
  • Monday, November 9, 2009

    Afghanistan – lying about dying

    The pressure to misinterpret the deaths, as the bodies come back, as nobly purifying is a cynically orchestrated propaganda exercise intended to justify the war.

    Among the rituals so consoling to our Servants of the People in Westminster is the solemn roll call of the names of recently fatal casualties of the Afghanistan war proceeding to formulaic assurances of grief, of sympathy for family and friends and an assertion, defiant of a mass of disruptive facts, that from the dead will blossom a victory to bring a happier, freer Afghanistan and a safer Britain. All of this will happen, argue the MPs, through some process so far undefined. Meanwhile it is notable that the casualties’ names are exclusively those of members of the British armed forces; the fighters on the other side and the hapless Afghan people who die terrified in their homes from the blast of the missiles do not get a mention. It is all very satisfactory for the Honourable Members on the green benches, dreaming of their expense claims while scheming of how most effectively to avoid any too probing questions from their constituents about the policy of satisfying the appetite of that voracious war.

    This is reflected in the style of the heavily publicised repatriation of the dead soldiers, brought in flag-draped coffins to a military airfield and, after a ceremonial unloading, paraded through the streets of the nearby town – all carefully orchestrated and recorded by the TV news cameras. It would be a very brave person who defied this official smothering of doubts about the reasons for the troops being in Afghanistan. Part of this disreputable process is the eulogising of the dead who, one after another, are remembered, each in their own way, as a rare combination of courage, good humour, compassion, intellectual power…An example of this receptive attitude was a full page article by Audrey Gillan – who has some direct experience of Afghanistan – in the Guardian of 23 September about the late Corporal Michael Lockett: “…one of the most affable and funniest…one of the most courageous…handsome face and bright blue eyes flickering…Each time I met him I admired (him) more…” In another case – which did not have the advantage of being written up by a doting journalist – a dead soldier was praised because he had “loved” being a sniper – loved, in other words, practising his craft of abruptly and clinically killing people as if there can be no higher human talent.

    Two Friends

    But among the hysteria a more sombre and realistic event intruded – a young man by the name of Barry Delaney in a woman’s dress weeping for his best friend Kevin Elliott who was killed in an ambush in August. Three years ago the two agreed that if Elliott was killed Delaney would attend his funeral dressed like a woman. On his last leave Elliott told Delaney that he was terrified to go back to Afghanistan and could see no proper reason for the British army being there. Delaney is chronically unemployed, living in Dundee where there is a persistent problem – which Elliott avoided by joining the army when he left school at 16. In this context it is particularly pertinent that the Ministry of Defence report a 25 per cent rise in army recruits in this year of the recession – more than at any other time since 2005.

    Delaney and Elliott do not conform to the stereotype so lovingly fostered onto us by media hacks. Elliott told of many ingloriously gruesome episodes, such as while trying to leave the battle under fire having to scoop up from the dust the body parts and internal organs of another soldier. Experiences like that are likely, in every case except the most hardened or resistant, to devastate a person’s morale so as to insert unforeseen, unwelcome and unmanageable aspects into their personality so damaging as to make the effect endure for a long time after the immediate experience has expired. The Guardian quotes Professor Tim Robbins, former head of trauma and stress services at St. George’s Hospital: “If we are asking people to do appalling things, to take part in regular firefights and hand-to-hand combat, you get to the stage where it de-sensitises them to violence”.


    The durability of these effects was illustrated by a recent survey by NAPO, the Probation Officers’ trade union, which estimated that there are over 20,000 ex-service personnel – over twice as many as are in Afghanistan – being processed by the criminal justice system such as police, courts, prisons and the like. Of these 8,500 have committed offences serious enough to get them sent to prison, making a tenth of the total prison population and the largest singe identifiable occupational group there. In many cases their offences were the immediate result of excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs, or both. The most common offence was for domestic violence, usually by men on their wives as an anarchic response to the stress of the discipline required by a close living relationship. Typical examples are, firstly, by a man who went through two spells in active war zones: “Hard to reconcile the devastation, horror and distress of the war with the comfortable life” and, secondly, a man who in his first few days in the Iraq war saw a friend blown up; he now has nine previous convictions beginning in 2005, of which two were for domestic violence and he is known by his ex-partners as a “Jekyll and Hyde” character. Facts like these throw serious doubt on the official propaganda, abetted by the media weasels, that the British forces in Afghanistan are unique in being impeccably mannered and humane. In addition they raise the question of whether Kevin Elliott was driven to join up when he left school because the army offered him better prospects than a life on the bread-line.


    An example of how soldiers, of whatever nationality, are liable to respond to the everyday stress of militarism was the case of Baha Mousa, who was working as a receptionist in a Basra hotel until the day in September 2003 when 120 British soldiers (from a group known as “The Grim Reapers”) raided the hotel and took him, with nine others, into detention at the Battle Group Main camp. It was there that Baha Mousa – called “fat boy” or “fat bastard” by the soldiers – was subjected to a process of “conditioning” – or more accurately torture – until he died with 93 separate injuries to his body including a broken nose and fractured ribs. A video recording shows Baha Mousa, with other detainees, hooded and forced into stress positions, being screamed at, abused and threatened. At the subsequent enquiry there was evidence suggesting that Baha Mousa was arrested and tortured because he had complained after seeing some of the soldiers breaking open a safe in the hotel and stealing money. One of the soldiers admitted to this but probably did not help his case by saying he wanted the money “to make a collage”. There was a court martial but, in what looked suspiciously like a closing of ranks, the blame was focussed on only one of the soldiers, who then had to plead guilty to inhumane treatment while the others were acquitted. Counsel for the Ministry of Defence did his best for his majestic client by apologising for the “brutal violence” and “appalling behaviour” of the soldiers. Which left just the government and the media to do their best to plaster over such an embarrassing episode and insist that things are different now, as the soldiers go about the business of killing and of being killed in Afghanistan.


    The pressure on us to misinterpret the deaths, as the bodies come back, as nobly purifying is a cynically orchestrated propaganda exercise intended to justify the war, to obscure the fact that the great powers’ interest in Afghanistan does not arise from any concern for the people of that country but from its position in an area vital to the interests of those powers, rather like the situation when it was an unwilling participant in the “Great Game” of Victorian imperialism. It is almost as a grisly tradition, that those same powers should readily support any Afghan tribal ruler no matter how corrupt and repressive – and that so many of the attempts to control the place through conquest have failed. It is hardly surprising that some of the soldiers should begin to ask why they are there and what the end will be for it all. The official response is to promote a massive lie with insidious propaganda fashioned to strait-jacket any tendency to dissent from the popular delusions. The killing goes on as the government gambles that their lies will be more acceptable than the distress of facing reality.


    Sunday, November 1, 2009

    Socialism was never tried

    Editorial from the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Twenty years ago this month the Berlin Wall came down, symbolising the end of the division of Europe into Western and Russian spheres of influence. Russia had lost the Cold War and its rulers under Gorbachev had decided they would no longer prop up the puppet regimes Russia had set up in Eastern Europe in accordance with the carve-up that Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had agreed when they had met in Yalta in February 1945.

    From this point of view, it symbolised a shift in imperialist power politics. Worse was to come for Russia when, two years later, the so-called “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” broke up into its constituent republics, reducing the size of Russia to the smallest it had been for centuries.

    There was some benefit for the people of the countries concerned. The limited political democracy which had existed in Western Europe was extended to them, allowing workers to organise in trade unions that were not part of the state machine as they had been and people to get together to express and disseminate differing political views, including socialist ones. The ending of the one-party dictatorships there was clearly a welcome development.

    We had hoped for more. After all, we had long denounced the claim that these countries were “the socialist countries” in which the working class ruled, and we had been proved right. With them out of the way it should have been easier to propagate socialist ideas. Unfortunately, the opposite conclusion prevailed: that they had in fact been socialist countries and that their collapse represented the failure of socialism.

    Socialism, it was said, had been tried and failed and was now out-dated and irrelevant. Pro-capitalist intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama even triumphantly proclaimed the “end of history” – that human evolution had come to a peaceful and harmonious end with the universal establishment of a market economy and governments deriving their legitimacy from elections.

    A hard time followed for socialists, and for anyone calling themselves socialist. In fact many of these dropped the pretence and argued that now the only choice was between different “models” of capitalism. We denied this and asserted that socialism was still relevant. What had failed in Russia and Eastern Europe was not socialism, but a form of capitalism where it was the state that had presided over the exploitation of the wage-working class and the accumulation of capital out of profits. It was this state-capitalist system that had failed, not socialism.

    The fall of the Wall did not bring peace and harmony. Capitalism has continued to produce wars and economic crises, compounded by the threat of global warming. The general deprivation and alienation it creates has continued. The common ownership and democratic control of productive forces, with production directly for use and distribution on the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, remains the only framework within which can be solved the problems facing the working class in particular and humanity in general.