The Labour Representation Committee conference on 15 November passed a motion on “social ownership and workers’ self-management” from the “Group of International Communists”, the organisation run by ex-AWL members Chris Ford and David Broder and (slightly) better known as the Commune. The text suggests that Chris and David are on a trajectory towards anarchism.
Most of the motion, which can be read here, was unobjectionable waffle. Several lines, however, revealed the anarchoid current of thinking that inspired it.
“State ownership, no matter what pseudonym it goes under, is not social ownership. They are in fact two counterposed things. One cannot equate the state with society.... The state is not a neutral force concerned only with the welfare of society... The state is not a vehicle to achieve ‘socialism’ and cannot be relied upon to act as a protective shield against capital.”
What a mess!
1. Large-scale social ownership, when we achieve it, will also be state ownership initially. This is one of the ABCs of Marxism (not to mention common sense). As long ago as 1864, in the Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, Marx wrote (commenting on individual workers’ cooperative enterprises under capitalism):
“...co-operative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means. Yet the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies... To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes.”
For the big concentrations of industrial, financial and service capital, the establishment of social ownership will necessarily involve nationalisation by a workers’ state – not to negate, but to extend, formalise and integrate workers’ control at every level of society. What does the Commune propose as an alternative?
2. In the motion, “state” is used as virtually a classless concept; no distinction is drawn between a capitalist state and a workers’ state. Even more strangely, and in a sure sign of development towards anarchism, “the state” is counterposed to “society”, instead of being seen as a condensation of society’s class contradictions serving the interests of the dominant (here capitalist) class. This is not to claim that the Commune would deny that the state is a weapon in the hands of the capitalists; of course they don’t. The point is that their position is utterly incoherent, much like that of open anarchists.
Marxists want, in place of the capitalist state, a workers’ state – a genuinely democratic state resting on the self-organised power of the working class and its allies – as the beginning of the transition to a fully classless, and therefore stateless, communist society. Communism will mean a society without a state; but in the here and now, we do not champion “society” against “the state” (except in terms of defending democratic rights against state encroachment). We want to overthrow existing class relations at every level, from the workplace up to the state, to establish workers’ power and democracy throughout society. While the existing, capitalist state is certainly not “a vehicle to achieve socialism”, a workers' state, or international federation of workers' states, will be, in that sense.
3. The motion implies indifference to gradations of ownership and control short of socialist self-administration by the working class. If the proposers take their own words seriously, why are they opposed to privatisation? Does it not matter if the NHS, Post Office, council housing etc are privatised, since they are already – no dispute here – state-capitalist enterprises? Would it not be a (small) victory if the railways were renationalised, even without workers’ and passengers’ control?
Even the blatantly bureaucratic and capitalist form of state intervention represented by the Brown government's partial bank nationalisations has had real consequences: for instance, allowing the Government to force the banks to pass on a cut in interest rates, ie establishing a (very small) degree of (very limited) democratic control over otherwise unaccountable institutions. Socialists should not idealise or talk up such changes, but nor should we deny their existence.
For sure, the capitalist state “cannot be relied upon to act as a protective shield against capital”. But the implication here seems to be that we should be indifferent to struggles against the dismantling of the welfare state and public services, since these are no real protection against the force of exploitation and the ravages of the market anyway. If that is not what the comrades mean, they should be more careful with their phrase-mongering.
It is certainly necessary to expose the limits and nature of capitalist state ownership and to counterpose, firstly, democratic control of each industry and service by its workers and users and, beyond that and as an extension of it, genuine socialist planning by a workers’ state. The Commune has nothing to teach the AWL on that score. (For instance, we were central to organising the very successful speaker tour with a worker from the worker-occupied and controlled Zanon ceramics factory in Argentina in 2006.) That no more implies abstention from struggles over privatisation than opposition to the wages system implies abstention from wage battles.
4. The motion calls for the LRC to campaign for “genuine social ownership organised on the basis of workers’ self-management, a system of participatory democracy based on the sovereignty of those who produce the goods and services in society”. But Marxists are not just for workers’ self-management (ie presumably in a given workplace or enterprise) – we are for workers’ power throughout the economy and society. The Commune evidently think that “workers' self-management” is a particularly revolutionary demand, far more radical than “workers' control”; they fail to see that it can have a reformist significance if not linked to the fight for overall working-class power.
Moreover, simply demanding the “sovereignty of those who produce the goods and services in society” is not a communist, but a syndicalist position. We are not simply in favour of workers at the workplace level deciding everything: workers’ democracy has to be broader and more complex than that, involving both input from service-users, local communities and so on and planning to coordinate different sections of the economy. To be fully realised, workers’ control has to be established beyond the workplace; moreover, while it is a necessary element of socialist democracy, it is not the only element of it.
Why did the LRC pass this nonsense? Unfortunately, the motions were taken in baskets, meaning that there was no opportunity to speak against the Commune text. Without a contribution from the AWL to stick a spur in the wheels, the delegates were happy enough to pass something that sounded left-wing, no matter how much it contradicted other motions passed (eg the statist demands of Socialist Appeal). Any amount of windy rhetoric is fine; it was only when something concrete, namely the AWL’s call for independent working-class electoral candidates and a fight for a workers' government, came up that the Labour loyalists roused themselves from their hand-raising slumber to denounce it.
Hal Draper once noted that anarchists cover up their incoherence with a lot of meaningless rhetoric about Freedom with a capital F. “Workers’ self-management” seems to play the same role for the “Group of International Communists”.
For more on the debates at the LRC conference, see here.