LCR lets go of dicktatorship - reply to Tom

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Mon Nov 10 13:05:11 MST 2003

Hi Tom,

I cannot find any official statement on the Rouge site yet, but the question
you raise is really quite straightforward. A programme is a basic means-ends
statement which defines the political unity of a party organisation and
explains its rationale, just as, for example, the party statutes define the
basic rules of membership and responsibilities. A programme has to be
relevant, and it must accurately reflect what the party actually does, just
as what the party does must be related to advancing the goals specificied by
the programme following the basic ways of doing that as specified by the
programme. The important thing here is, that the programme should be
formulated in a relevant way, relate to the actual and foreseeable
situation, provide a real basis for political unity under the given social
conditions, and provide a clear rationale for what the party actually does
or wants to do.

That is to say, the "principled" nature of the party does not reside in
sophisticated statements of principles, formulated in such a way that few
people could go along with them or want to join anyway, but rather in a
principled connection between what the party does, and what it says that its
aims are. So a programme is basically a goal specification which provides a
clear overall rationale for political action in principled terms, which also
orients strategy and tactics, and allows an evaluation of strategy and
tactics, according to how far we have actually progressed towards advancing
or achieving the aims of the party.

If you look at Marx himself, you will find that he did not introduce the
specific term "dictatorship of the proletariat" in the agreed resolutions
and statements of the First International. Instead, Marx was himself
convinced, on the basis of historical appraisal, that ultimately the class
struggles must culminate in the dictatorship of the proletariat. But he was
well aware that this historic objective wasn't really on the immediate
agenda, and he was also aware that, even if it was, it might not be an
appropriate formula, at least not in Western Europe and America, and
actually the formulations that were used politically while he and Engels
were alive, were more along the lines that the workers must gain collective
control over the means of production, distribution and exchange. The precise
governmental formula used, really depended on where the workers were really

As regards the Second International, the governmental formulas became a bit
more precise, as social democrats gained experience in government, but at
the same time, there was a growing gap between the means and the ends of
socialism and a loss of political perspective, i.e. the statements of aims
decreasingly corresponded with the real activity of the parties, at least in
Western Europe. Various factors were involved, but I don't want to go into
that now, and anyhow you already know this. Anyway, this led to the famous
debates between Kautsky/Luxemburg/Lenin on the one hand, and people like
Eduard Bernstein on the other, where Bernstein ends up saying
opportunistically "the movement is everything, the goal is nothing", Kautsky
takes a centrist position whereby the goal could only be advanced by a
moderate position which avoided a direct bid for power, and Lenin and
Luxemburg took a more radical, revolutionary position, reflecting the
situation in Eastern Europe where you didn't have popular democracy and only
very radical action could achieve progressive change.

On the basis of the Russian revolution, the Comintern sought to restore the
revolutionary aims of Marx programmatically and unite the Marxist wing that
existed in the social democracy under a new banner, and it explicitly used
the formula "dictatorship of the proletariat" on the basis of the experience
of the Russian revolution. Thus, the aim of the Communists was to establish
the dictatorship of the proletariat, but this formula was thought to have
real actuality, and was based on a perspective that subsequent to the end of
the first world war, revolutionary overturns were on the immediate agenda.
It was also believed that the new bolshevik government represented a genuine
dictatorship of the proletariat. This perspective had to be revised within a
few years, because it wasn't based on a thorough understanding of reality,
but Lenin was willing to take that risk, believing that the split in social
democracy was historically necessary even simply to safeguard Marx's

So far, so good, but the formula "dictatorship of the proletariat" only
specifies the essence of the class content of the state that was to be
established. But for the rest, it did not specify any specific governmental
formula. All that Marx really meant by it, as demonstrated by Hal Draper,
was "a workers state", but exactly what form that would take would,
according to Marx, just depend on the specific circumstances which applied.
Therefore, stating your commitment to the achievement of the dictatorship of
the proletariat might distinguish or emphasise your revolutionary aims, but
it did not actually mean very much because it did not say what exact form
that would take, and that form could not be thought about independently of
strategy and tactics leading to its achievement, and independently from
applying to specific circumstances in a given country confronting a specific
state apparatus.

Since 1969, the LCR had that formula in its programme, but it played no role
other than indicate revolutionary intent, since there was no real prospect
of establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat, even although the
experience of May 1968 suggested to many people it could be a real prospect
in the immediate future. The debates about the formula were mainly academic
and intellectual, but had no real bearing on events. In 2003, the LCR is in
a different situation, and their strategic objective is to unite the radical
Left in France politically on an activist basis, through integrating
different social movements and far left parties as much as possible, within
one organisation. For this purpose, the formula "dictatorship of the
proletariat" is not particularly helpful, since many people regard it now as
quaint, extremist, oppressive or bizarre, particularly in the light of the
real experience with such dictatorships, which many people now reject as
being not conducive to advancing the interests of the working classes. In
fact, pop music was far more effective than political rethoric in changing
the world, and we have to think about language again.

So then the question arises, in terms of what you want to do, whether that
slogan is helpful or not, considering language, historical experience, and
the real objectives of the party, bearing in mind what the function of a
programme is (see above). Should we keep using this much maligned formula
used by Marx about 140 years ago as a programmatic statement now ? And the
LCR voted no, because it does not actual help along the goals and practice
of the LCR in the foreseeable future, and doesn't event orient strategy and
tactics very much. In the event of a genuine intensification of class
conflict and the eventuation of a class-against-class confrontation, then
that formula might be relevant, but even so, the formula itself only
describes "who must have power", but it does not describe how they must have
power, and therefore it is not even very useful. It is a bit like how the
International Socialists used to say that socialism = nationalisation +
workers power. These sorts of slogans are really not very meaningful,
because they do not indicate precisely how governmental power would be
organised and what specific form it would take, and before you know it we
are talking state capitalism.

Normally, acceptance of the party programme is a condition of membership of
a party, and the party programme must be formulated in such a way, that it
is both principled and yet also that it is formulated in such a way that
masses of people can agree with it, so that they join. One of the main
reason why in the 1970s and 1980s Marxist parties in the developed countries
failed to attract a lot of people, was because they demanded agreement from
workers with a programme that very few workers of sound mind could agree to
any way, in other words, they defined their principles in such a way that
mass politics became impossible or difficult. This is the situation that the
LCR seeks to change.

In addition, the Trotskyist movement had traditionally a rather warped and
idealist understanding of political programme, because for decades they
frequently confused the "programme" of the mass parties they did not have,
with the historic heritage of revolutionary Marxism. The task was to
conserve the true programme and promulgate it. This leads naturally to the
idea, that "we had the programme already" and all we needed to do is, win
people to that programme. This is not only a poor political method, it was
also contrary to Marx's idea, because Marx knew very well that the programme
can only reflect at best the real, living radical aspirations of militant
workers, and there is also a sense in which the programme must spring from
the working classes themselves, i.e. it must articulate the real aspirations
of workingclass militancy, and not be a prefabricated construct imposed on
the members or would-be members. This explains his rather cautious approach
in providing leadership for the First International.

In addition, there is the new fact of the growth of the new middle classes,
some fraction of which supports the socialists, and the growth of the
skilled working class, and many of these people aren't particularly
attracted to the formula of the dictatorship of the proletariat, because
they see it as a 19th century idea or a Leninist or Stalinist idea which
they reject, in the light of historical experience. They would go along
maybe with the idea of a workers government, but even so, it is the precise
form that would take, that matters, not an abstract formula. The break with
bourgeois-capitalist norms cannot be legislated into existence with a
resolution, in must be the result of an actual intensification of class
conflict and an actual increase in independent organisation by the working
class. But if the LCR has a main rationale, it is precisely to assist the
independent organisation of the working class with specifically socialist
aspirations, and the LCR must therefore be organised such that the style of
work does indeed promote this, and not confuse the real problems with
abstract formulas which specific only an intention, but do not specifically
shape up how that will be realised. And these kinds of considerations really
summarise why they decided to drop that formula of dictatorship of the

But it does not mean that Marx's prognosis of the historic objective and
necessary outcome of working class struggles is actually forgotten in the
party, it just means that people have realised that if you want to be
politically successful then you have to do practically what it takes to do
that, and not nostalgically bandy about slogans and formulas, which are not
relevant now and in the immediate future. The party has to communicate
itself in ways that enable it to grow, not insist on how orthodox it is.
Nobody denies the need for principles, and everybody agrees that resolutions
cannot be just opportunistic adaptations to what the party is actually
doing, because in that case, a rational means-ends relationship disappears,
and people cannot learn systematically from experience. Nevertheless, it is
necessary to get rid of excessive orthodoxy and dogmatism and clearly base
the development of political ideas through experience, rather than
promulgate principles which play no role or cannot be acted on anyway. There
are no dead authorities, only living authorities, who maybe refer to dead
authorities, and that means that living creativity is necessary, not the
repetition of stock phrases inherited from the past.

But really this whole issue just doesn't have a whole lot of significance
except for sectarians. A much more important issue is the problems of
conflicts between different tendencies and factions within the LCR itself,
because traditionally they had quite a few. Of course you need that debate,
to have a lively and alive party, rather than a bunch of passive
endorsements, but the debate ought to be non-arbitrary and related to actual
experience. The worst thing is, if you have a continual dispute about the
finer points of programme and theory, in the manner of the Marxist
sectarians, which is really unrelated to the real experience of politics or
reflects it only in useless abstractions, because this debilitates the
active radius of the party. So I think that really what the LCR is doing is
that it seeks to arrive at programmatic formulations which both enable it to
transcend petty disputes within the ranks plus attract more people to the

This leads to your worries about the loss of crucial principles in terms of
objectives, a retreat to opportunism and reformism or centrism. Well, the
only answer you can really give is that, if you think these problems are
resolved via a correct programmatic statement, then you are an idealist. In
this sense, we used to talk in New Zealand about the "resolutionary
socialism" of the social democrats and so on, they would make a lofty
political resolution and then go an do something else. In reality, these
problems are resolved only through good leadership and good activity by
members, and careful attention to political style, organisational norms and
positions taken so that the party communicates itself well to members and to
its broader constituency. And there are no guarantees of success here beyond
what you can learn from historical experience, but this requires historical
thinking and not some arbitrary analogy drawn between a previous experience
and the present, or a dogmatic orthodoxy.

Basically, every party has a history and selects out certain types of
people, this is true, and in that sense the LCR has its strengths and
weaknesses, just as LO does, or any other Left party. But there is a lot of
things you can do, to improve strengths and minimise the deleterious effects
weaknesses can play. For the rest, history shows quite simply that the
working class like to join a party which is sufficiently large to have a
real effect, and which can propose/implement real solutions to real
problems. At stake is really political credibility, and a propaganda group
just does  not have that credibility. Once a party shows that it can have
effect, can relate to the culture of its constituency, and can solve
problems, then a cumulative effect sets in, such that, other things being
equal, the larger the party gets, the more it will grow.

Personally I think the deeper problem is really how you go about building a
political party, I have my ideas about it, but like I said, it is not
something I would discuss on the list. Furthermore, in this problem, just
about everything is specifics related to a specific situation, which you can
hardly understand, if you aren't actually in that situation and do not
participate in it, it is difficult to generalise about. In addition, there
is the problem of revolutionism versus reformism, and how you go about
understanding that (here, I could personally not agree with the caricatures
and stereotypes of the sectarian far left, who base their categorisations on
the 1930s and not on 2003).

Broadly speaking, the sectarian mentality typically means, that it is
reasoned that from a particular adoption of a theoretical point or
programmatic point, or from a mistake made in political practice, the
degeneration or misadventure of a party must necessarily follow, or else
that the party will be unable to achieve what it aims to achieve because of
this. In this way, the sectarian aims to prove he is more radical, rather
than radicalising the progressive movement. But this is essentially another
idealist notion, which is based on a warped understanding between theory and
practice, of the role of ideas in political practice, which is exaggerated
at the expense of many other factors which assert themselves -
personalities, cultures, ways of working, the nature of political
controversies, the sociology of the milieus being operated in, the way
economic life or political power relationships and culture is evolving, and
many other things including how much energy people actually have, relations
between men and women, and so on.

In the end, as they say, not only is it true that "a week is a long time in
politics", but also, that it is not realistically possible to foresee
political or economic conditions for more than 5-7 years with sufficient
accuracy, that enables us to orient to that future reality now in a way that
motivates people in certain ways. We can crystal-ball gaze all we like, but
what for ? Even if you can accurately establish an event ten years in the
future, it is very difficult to orient towards that event politically today.
As regards some trends, of course you can establish them with more accuracy
for a longer time into the future, but even so, it is rarely possible to
specify just exactly what the precise social impact will be, because the
trends which you could possibly predict, interact with other trends which
you cannot predict, or which can be affected by what we do now, and thus it
is very difficult to know just what the overall effect of predictable
longterm trends will be. People will say, there will be overpopulation, or
the oil will run out, or pollution will ruin everything, but such statements
are ceteris paribus statements to the effect that ""if present trends
continue" this will be the result. But conscious human action can affect
those outcomes, and if we simply adapt to a particular diagnosis of
objective trends, then we engage in a form of objectivism and fatalism,
which does not actually stimulate people to act in such a way that the
historical outcomes are different.

And thus the only real task of social scientists in this area is, I think,
to define more closely the real, specific characteristics of the nature of
the epoch that we live in, if you like, the real-world environment within
which we must operate in an objective sense, without illusions. Then, we
have a frame of reference for evaluating lived experience in a broader
context, we understand its broader significance better. This is among other
things what Marx aimed for in writing his big book, but with caveats such as
that it was only a simple sketch of the development of industrial capitalism
in Western Europe, and should not be uncritically transposed to all sorts of
other places where it might not immediately apply, or apply only with more
mediations or qualifications, that further analysis needed to be done,
"scientific criticism was welcome" and so forth. But if Marx's own idea is
itself transformed into a "faith", very little scientific work gets done,
this is not a socialist science or scientific socialism. And if scientific
work is related in an unmediated way directly to political practice, then it
may in fact erode the autonomy which scientific research requires, to attain
empirically-based objectivity about the character of the epoch.

The typical problem of Marxist sectarianism is in fact that people seek to
apply ideas from scientific research directly to political activity in a way
which is not warranted, and impute a political significance to scientific
findings which they do not really have, and this is the result of the fact
that in the transition from academic research to political activism, a good
part of the real world was simply ignored, so that ideas attain a status of
effectiveness which they do not really have, outside of a specific practice
which give real effect to those ideas. The young Marx reached the conclusion
that ideas became a material force when they gripped the masses. Yes indeed,
that's quite an exciting formulation, but how now do ideas "grip" the wider
population ? This is the real question which political activity must solve,
but it is not solved simply by asserting ideas obviously or bandying about a



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