FEASIBLE SOCIALISM — a concrete programme for the left (part 4)

This article is a the last from the series of texts by Harry Ratner, a British longstanding socialist activist. Part I, part II and part III have been published previously on our website. Your comments are welcome.

The Democratisation of the State

The ?state? has been mentioned several times in the sections dealing with overall economic planning. What sort of state is envisaged?

Certainly the existing state machine has inbuilt obstacles to the achievement of socialism ? for example in Bretain the fact that parliament has no real control over the cabinet, which can declare war, introduce a state of siege, etc, without parliamentary approval, the House of Lords, the royal prerogative, etc, etc.

A radical restructuring of the state machine to widen democratic control and initiative from below is obviously necessary. But this does not mean that socialists cannot or must not use existing institutions. So long as parliament is still relatively freely elected, and so long as alternative structures have not arisen naturally, as a result of social movements, it is ludicrous for socialists to talk of ?destruction of the state machine? and its miracolous replacement by non-existent ?soviets?.

As long as parliamentary democracy exists and is accepted by the mass of the society, socialists must have the perspective of winning a socialist majority in parliament. True, we must be aware of the possibility, even probability, that reactionary forces would attempt to subvert an elected socialist government by military coup d?états, etc. (as in Chile), and that in any case a socialist majority would have to undertake a radical transformation of the state machine ? democratisation of the armed forces and police, stricter control of these forces, etc. It is quite possible that the scenario might be a re-run of the English Civil War of the seventeenth century with Parliament versus the modern Royalists in the course of which a New Model Army and new popular institutions would develop. But this does not justify rejecting the ?parliamentary road? in advance, or calling for non-existent soviets as if the Russian revolutionary road of 1917 had universal application.

Instead, a realistic and feasible set of measures to transform the existing state structures in Britain and Europe, including the structures of the European Community, must be worked out side by side with the economic policies and demands outlined here.

These new structures should encompass political plurality and open government, and enable input from grassroots level in decision making, with maximum decentralisation and devolution of power downwards consistent with overall planning. More detailed proposals need to be worked out.

This document does not deal (except insofar as they are subsumed in the economic proposals) with other aspects of policy ? on education, health services, pensions, armaments, foreign policy, aid to underdeveloped countries, etc. All these should be the subject of other documents and discussion.

Some Thoughts on Compromise

Discussing the transfer of enterprises to social ownership, the possibility of compensation for existing shareholders was considered. The possibility of control of the banking system as an alternative to outright nationalisation has also been considered. Reference has also been made to the fact that something similar to the wartime control of material allocations and capital investment, might work even if private ownership of large parts of industry and banking were retained. All these would represent a compromise with capitalism. I can imagine such talk might arouse the concern of some comrades.

Let us be clear. Of course, we would prefer not to have to make these compromises. But in some circumstances compromises may be necessary in order to weaken or neutralise the opposition of big business and its supporters, to win wavering elements to our side. If the opposing forces are evenly balanced, and a drive for outright defeat of the reactionary anti-socialist forces is too costly in human and material terms, then we should be prepared to say to the owners: ?Look, if we can reach agreement, we are prepared to offer or increase compensation if you agree to social ownership; we are even prepared to leave you in ownership if you will agree to accept our directives on how the resources are to be used, and our priorities and directives on how and where your capital is to be invested. If you cooperate, well and good. If you don?t and you sabotage our measures, then we shall be forced to take over completely.?

This, in fact, was the attitude first adopted by the Bolsheviks. A very clear exposition of the Bolsheviks? thinking was given by Trotsky in an interview with the American correspondent E.A. Ross:

ROSS: Is it the intention of your party to dispossess the owners of industrial plant in Russia?

Trotsky: No, we are not ready yet to take over all industry?. For the present, we expect out of the earnings of a factory to pay the owner five or six per cent yearly on his actual investment. What we aim at now is control rather than ownership.

What do you mean by ?control??

I mean that we will see to it that the factory is run not from the point of view of private profit, but from the point of view of the social welfare democratically conceived. For example we will not allow the capitalist to shut up his factory ? because it is not yielding him a profit. If it is turning out economically a needed product, it must be kept running. If the capitalist abandons it, he will lose it altogether, for a board of directors chosen by the workmen will be put in charge?. By sticking to this principle you can keep up the existing industrial outfit. But in some branches ? say the making of motorcycles or tractors ? new factories are called for (?) Where will the money come from that will build these new factories? We can impose on the capitalist to whom we allow a dividend of five or six per cent on his capital the obligation to reinvest in some industry ? a part, say, 25 per cent ? of what he receives. 1

As we know, this attempt at neutralising the opposition of some capitalists and winning the cooperation of others was abandoned when the compromise was rejected and civil war unleashed. But there is no reason in principle why such compromises should not be offered in future.

Let us suppose that a socialist party has come to power (in Britain or any other advanced capitalist country, or even in several within the European Union) on a programme similar to the one outlined here. It has an electoral majority and the support of a mass movement encompassing a majority of the politically active working class and a fair section of the professionals and academics. It is meeting with opposition from the right, which may, if pushed, escalate into outright sabotage and military conspiracies backed by foreign powers. The cost, both material and human, of meeting and defeating this head-on would be high, and the outcome uncertain. In such a situation, a socialist government might justifiably attempt to implement the compromises mentioned above in order to defuse some opposition, win over waverers, and isolate the hard core reactionaries. This would be from a position of strength, backed by an active popular movement, and combined with measures to dismantle the undemocratic and reactionary features of the state apparatus (for example the House of Lords and the royal prerogative), and replace them with popular-based institutions. From such a position of strength the reactionary forces and big business would be given the choice: ?Either you accept the democratic will and cooperate with the measures enacted, or else we shall be forced ? with popular backing ? to expropriate you completely. We prefer the easier way as this will obviate human suffering; the choice is up to you.?

Such compromises, backed by mass support, would be very different to the retreats and ?compromises? offered by Tony Blair before the fight has even begun; compromises and retreats on which no forward-going movement can be based, and which, in fact, discourage any popular mobilisation for anything at all.

To Sum Up

What has been proposed are a publicly-owned or controlled banking system and public control of all major investment funds, and some state-owned centrally-administered utilities and industries, with the rest of the economy to consist of cooperatively-owned autonomous enterprises (with community as well as worker participation), small privately-owned firms, and the self-employed. Overall planning will operate at the macro level ensured by the public control of major investments, and within this overall framework market relations between enterprises and between producers and consumers. There will be the democratisation of the existing state structures.

Obviously, not all problems and conflicts of interest would be eliminated. But concentrations of private wealth and power would have been eliminated, and all would participate in decision-making through a combination of local democracy within each enterprise and each industry, and overall democracy at local, regional, national and eventually international level. Devine calls this ?negotiated co-ordination?. One would not claim the programme outlined here will establish a fully socialist society rather than one in transition (this raises the question of exactly what is meant by ?socialism?), but at least it would be a better society than the present one. More importantly, it can present a feasible alternative as a platform around which the left and Greens can regroup.

Harry Ratner


  1. ?A Talk with Trotsky?, The Independent (USA), 9 March 1918; reprinted in A. Richardson (ed), In Defence of the Russian Revolution, London, 1995, pp.185-7.

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