Communists and the seizure of power: a contribution to the debate with the Socialist Movement

This second instalment of the discussion between comrades of the IMT in the Spanish state and comrades of the Socialist Movement focuses on the class character of the state and how the Socialist Movement proposes to reach socialism.

[Originally published in Spanish at]

The bourgeois state and the workers' state

We return to the question of the state in order to understand its role in the struggle for socialism. In the Socialist Movement’s theoretical article quoted in part one of this discussion, On Means and Ends. Reflections for the political moment, the comrades state:

“We understand socialism as a historical project for the construction of a classless society and a way to overcome capitalism and all forms of exploitation and oppression. We have moved away from interpretations of socialism that rely on the seizure of the state through a revolutionary leap (whether by insurrectional or electoral means), as the hypothetical path to the abolition of the classes.”

The writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin on the proletarian revolution and the state explain that Marxism has never advocated ‘seizing’ the bourgeois state. Rather, as we explained in the previous article in this series, Marxism aims to destroy the bourgeois state. This was the main conclusion Marx and Engels drew from the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871. In a famous letter to Ludwig Kugelman in April 1871, Marx writes:

“If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people's revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting” (emphasis in the original).

We are not anarchists who think that communism and the abolition of classes can be achieved the day after the revolution. The material and cultural basis for securing such a state of affairs will not yet be in place at this time. Socialism (or communism) is historically justified because it offers humanity a level of development of the productive forces, of the productivity of labour, of cultural, moral, technological and human development, far superior to that which can exist in even the most developed capitalist countries. 

This, in turn, also makes the existence of social classes and the state superfluous. But for a period of time – the length of which cannot be known in advance – a transitional society between capitalism and communism will be necessary, to lay the foundations for a world communist society of superabundance and solidarity. In such a transitional period it will still be necessary to have a ‘semi-state’ – we would organise special bodies for control, planning and the division of tasks and planning, through which the working class will be able to regulate the transition to a society of superabundance and eliminate the material roots of inequality. This state would be based on the councils of workers' power (soviets) established during the proletarian revolution. On this topic, we strongly recommend every communist read and study Lenin's classic work, The State and Revolution, which offers an explanation of the Marxist theory of the state.

The strategy of the Socialist Movement

We must now consider the strategy proposed by the comrades of the Socialist Movement. This is best articulated in two articles by comrades of Horitzó Socialista: Sobre un nou model d'acumulació de forces articulat dins l'estratègia socialista (On a new model of the accumulation of forces in socialist strategy) by Lluc Renyé; and Subjecte i estratègia socialista. Una primera aproximació (Subject and socialist strategy. A first approximation) by Sergi Claramunt.

It is worth quoting the comrades' position at length, so that there is no room for doubt about what they are proposing.

Comrade Lluc Renyé, states:

"Therefore, as an antagonistic class, the growth and accumulation of power by the proletariat will always be at the expense of the power wielded by the bourgeoisie. This power, which we consider to go beyond institutionality and bourgeois forms of parliamentary democracy, lies in the conscious control of more and more areas of the social sphere, such as control over space and production, as well as in the ability to establish hegemonic broad symbolic frameworks that produce shared interpretations of social phenomena. Our model of accumulation of forces must have these goals as its primary objectives.

"On the other hand, an erroneous model of the accumulation of forces is that which is presented as a linear process which will progressively advance to a spontaneous-insurrectionary explosion. This model imagines the revolutionary process as a determined moment of subversion of the established order, which is reached by the more or less spontaneous outburst of the masses and unleashes the final result of the same process. In the face of this conception, we firmly believe that socialism and self-power are built from that moment onwards, and this is the present task of the communists. This conviction is the result of considering proletarian policy from the present state of the revolution, being aware of the embryonic phase in which we find ourselves but working for an ascending process from today…

"If we go deeper into this conception of socialist power, we will see how its deployment takes the form of a gradually ascending control of the territory and the productive process which breaks with the established capitalist order. This political articulation must make it possible to spread the established forms of proletarian democracy throughout the territory, responding to the needs of the proletariat on a daily basis. It must be achieved through the establishment of a progressive control of the sphere of production, since this is the basis of the bourgeoisie's control over the proletariat. This control of the proletariat over the structure of society permits precisely the progressive economic construction of socialism, and the establishment of new social relations antagonistic to those of the exploitation and domination of the capitalist system, a construction which will not take place through the creation of islands of socialism but in progressive imposition on the rule of capital." (The italics are ours).

And comrade Sergi Claramunt, writes in his article:

"Once the organisations have grown sufficiently and communist ideas have achieved a certain hegemony, the next step can be taken, which is the articulation of the Communist Party of the masses. In this new phase, the revolutionary subject already has sufficient forces at its disposal to go on the offensive in the class war. Every conflict that is initiated by the Party has as its immediate aim the overthrow of the bourgeois power, because the socialist power has reached such a degree of growth and complexity that it sees itself with sufficient capacities to question in a definitive way the existing social order. The existence of the party implies a series of political, social, cultural, ideological, etc. presuppositions built in the previous phase, in a constant process of construction of new organisations which are not based on partial conflicts but which express the antagonism of the proletarian subject to the capitalist totality. In other words, the Party is not a mere coordination of fronts, but a global articulation of the proletariat under the same strategy and determined political direction".

Lacking a materialist assessment of the failure of the USSR to draw lessons from, and wrongly attributing to Marxism the defence of the takeover of the bourgeois state, the comrades consider it necessary to put forward a completely new strategy for reaching socialism. This new theory, they believe, will ensure the success of the socialist transformation of society in the coming period.

Lenin Image public domainIt is not possible to wrest “control of the sphere of production” from the bourgeoisie while the capitalist system continues to exist / Image: public domain

What, then, is on offer? Having ruled out the insurrectionary road to the seizure of power, what remains is to “accumulate forces”, to create liberated “socialist spaces” within the capitalist system, in a “progressive” (gradual) way. Then, once “hegemony” in society has been achieved, the mass communist party would launch an “offensive in the class war” to get rid of capitalism and its defenders.

We must suppose that the final stage of “offensive in the class war”, which comrade Sergi Claramunt proposes, also precludes an insurrection by the masses, since the comrades are very insistent in rejecting this. And since “every conflict that is initiated by the Party has as its immediate aim the overthrow of the bourgeois power”, it would seem that this would be achieved relatively easily due to the accumulation of liberated “socialist spaces”. These spaces, created in the previous stage of the struggle, would render the resistance of the bourgeoisie futile.

The comrades seem to suggest that the defeats of preceding revolutionary or insurrectionary movements have been due to the fact that the proletariat has been pushed into power without having sufficient socialist consciousness, and without having created “socialist spaces” “in the territory and in production”, over a prolonged period prior to the revolution, in which they applied a communist theory and practice.

The problem with such an approach is that it turns its back on reality, including the historical development of the class struggle.

First of all, it is not possible to wrest “control of the sphere of production” from the bourgeoisie while the capitalist system continues to exist. Production takes place in the factories, which brings together thousands of workers and confronts them with one boss who extracts surplus value from them. 

This is precisely the essence of the capitalist system. Only by expropriating the bourgeoisie can we take control of production. And that cannot be done individually, factory by factory, but only by expropriating the capitalist class as a whole, through a revolution.

The organisations of the proletariat – trade unions, political parties, cooperatives, neighbourhood associations, youth associations, etc. – represent the embryo of the new society within the old one. The potential for “socialist power” is already present within the class: common working conditions, assemblies, strikes, demonstrations, occupations, class solidarity etc.

Under capitalism, however, this embryo of the new society cannot develop to its fullest. Moreover, this latent potential in the consciousness of the class is not impervious to the pressures of other classes and the dominant ideology in society. It is also undermined by the suffocating need to earn a living, as well as the direct corruption of the official leadership of the labour movement. The clearest example of this is the bureaucratisation of the leaderships of trade unions, workers’ parties and cooperatives, which have adapted themselves to the capitalist system. 

To create autonomous spaces “free of capitalist relations” without overthrowing the system as a whole is impossible.

The capitalist class is not an abstract entity, they are flesh-and-blood people who have very powerful interests in the profits and privileges they derive from workers' exploitation and the extraction of surplus value. If necessary, these capitalists have at their disposal the repressive organs of the state – police, judges, the army, the law – which they do not hesitate to use if they see their interests threatened. 

Can anyone believe that the bourgeoisie will stand idly by while they see their means of production being “progressively” threatened and taken away from them? 

There is a saying that: "You can peel an onion layer by layer, but you cannot skin a tiger claw by claw". Indeed, the moment you take hold of one of the tiger’s clawed paws, it will tear you apart with the other three. This is not a bad piece of advice for the workers’ movement. 

The coup against Allende in Chile and the lessons of Spain in 1936 are eloquent proof of this. That the counter-revolution succeeded in these examples was not due to a lack of militancy or socialist consciousness on the part of the proletariat. On the contrary, at the moment of truth, the workers’ aspirations for social emancipation were blocked and frustrated by their leadership.

The construction of “socialist spaces”

The strategy proposed by the Socialist Movement has a striking parallel with the theories of “horizontalism” and “autonomy” propagated by Toni Negri and John Holloway in the late 1990s in their book Change the World Without Taking Power. They advocated the semi-anarchist tactic of undermining the system from within, through almost unnoticeable changes. 

Negri and Holloway propose the creation of autonomous spaces free from capitalist relations, emphasising the importance of cooperatives, avoiding conventional commerce, etc. Eventually, they claim, this would bring about the collapse of the system, without the need for insurrection or revolution, without the need to “seize power”, without the need to overthrow the state.

Why is it impossible for the working class to become meaningfully involved in the construction of “socialist spaces” on a mass scale, in advance of a revolutionary situation? Are the workers unable to understand socialist ideas? Have they become bourgeois? Not in the slightest.

Ultimately, the working class is not homogeneous, there are advanced layers and there are backward layers. The heterogeneity of the class manifests itself in different levels of culture, different roles in the productive process and in society, different traditions of struggle and different degrees of ideological influence by the ruling class. We also have to take into account the degree of influence of religion, the brutalisation brought about by capitalist exploitation, the fear of falling into poverty, the pressures of the family, and so on. 

In a ‘normal’ epoch it is inevitable that only a small layer of workers will be willing to embrace revolutionary or communist ideas. But in conditions of social turmoil and dramatic change, the illusions of a larger layer can be broken.

If we do not understand this, we will inevitably fall into frustration. We have to be patient with the workers, who usually do not learn the class struggle from books, but from the hard experiences of life under capitalism.

It is also important to note that the construction of these so-called socialist spaces, in advance of the revolution, is not a precondition for the existence of a mass communist party. History has known successful mass communist parties without having created a single “socialist space” before a revolution. This is because it is precisely a revolution that creates an impetus for this, fosters the collective strength of the proletariat, clarifies its historic tasks, and establishes its readiness to fight for a new society.

Meanwhile, the strength and influence of the party in the pre-revolutionary situation is expressed in its growth, in its successful intervention in the struggles of the labour and youth movements, even if they do not “touch” the social basis of capitalism.

Let us be concrete. We are in favour of a company threatened with closure being taken over by its workers and put under workers' control. This is a way of combining the defence of workers' livelihoods with a measure that brings out the need for socialism. Leaving aside the possibility of a police eviction, we know that the next day these workers will be faced with a boycott by the entire capitalist class: they will try to deny them raw materials, cut off their electricity supply, seize the company's accounts, prevent them from accessing their suppliers and markets, and so on. 

As a matter of survival, it would be necessary to appeal for class solidarity and the support of the local population. Of course, we would want this movement to spread and have its example followed by workers in a similar situation. But we are aware that, in the long term, if this experience were to become isolated, the chances of defeat would be very high. Even if it were to remain viable, the pressures of the capitalist system in a small or medium-sized enterprise would introduce distortions of all kinds: self-exploitation, indebtedness, bureaucratic tendencies, and so on.

This example can be extended to any similar situation, be it a housing occupation, a land occupation etc.

Having said that, we are not at all suggesting that the Socialist Movement or the IMT should stand idly by and wait for a communist party to magically appear and organise the revolution. That would be a caricature of our position. As the comrades of the Socialist Movement are showing, we must be actively involved in the day-to-day struggles of the working class in order to develop the socialist consciousness of youth and workers. 

We need to win support in the workplaces, neighbourhoods, schools and universities. In short, the task is to build a strong organisation of communist cadres, as a prelude to greater tasks and challenges to come.

The dialectics of revolution

Of course, a layer of workers could arrive at the conclusion that they ought to occupy their factory and continue production in the face of attacks from the capitalist class, the state, etc. This could signify that socialist consciousness has already developed in much wider layers, which would signal the existence of a general revolutionary mood among the masses. 

Such an example could act as a spark that would ignite the rest of the class, precipitating a revolutionary process, not gradually and progressively, but suddenly and explosively. This happened in the factory occupations in Italy in 1919-1920 and in France in June 1936 and May 1968. The revolution that took place in Spain in July 1936 – beginning with the occupation of factories and the land – happened suddenly after Franco's fascist coup had been defeated in half of the country.

May 68 Image Fonds André Cros Wikimedia CommonsThe growing anger, frustration, exploitation and suffering of the masses – can eventually lead to a social explosion / Image: Fonds André Cros, Wikimedia Commons

The comrades of the Socialist Movement claim that they do not believe in mass insurrection as the path to revolution. But has this not been the experience of the class struggle throughout history, not just of the proletariat but of all oppressed classes?

Here we come to the main theoretical weakness of the comrades' argument, which permeates their whole analysis: the absence of a dialectical view of revolution and the class struggle. They seem to view the struggle for socialism as a gradual, evolutionary process that progresses without leaps and bounds, without explosions or popular insurrections. Likewise, they apply this to the process of raising the consciousness of the proletariat, which they regard as something that develops slowly and steadily.

But in reality, consciousness and class struggle do not change in this way.

Let us pose the question concretely: What is a revolution, if not the fact that the consciousness of millions of people abruptly catches up with the tasks demanded by history? What are the mechanics that bring this about? 

The accumulation of quantitative changes over a long period – the growing anger, frustration, exploitation and suffering of the masses – can eventually lead to a social explosion. This may be triggered by a seemingly accidental occurrence: brutal police repression, the assassination of a workers' leader, the passing of a law felt to be unjust, a scandalous government decree, the occupation of a factory, etc. 

Such events can act as a focal point through which the general crisis is expressed, energising the working class and other oppressed layers of society. Suddenly the masses are brought to their feet, mobilised in huge numbers in the streets, readily looking for the most radical solutions to the problems they face.

Recent events have proved this to be possible, even if they have not reached the same revolutionary intensity everywhere. For example, during the revolutionary uprising in Sri Lanka in 2022, the masses stormed the presidential palace in response to months of price hikes and fuel shortages. 

In Chile in 2019 there was a mass movement that threatened to bring down the government and the whole status quo. This movement was sparked by a seemingly innocuous issue, the rise of the Santiago metro fare. In the USA in the summer of 2020, we saw the largest wave of demonstrations in the country’s history. These erupted following the death of George Floyd, who on the surface was just one more Black victim in a very long list of racist police murders. Likewise in Iran, the murder of the young student Mahsa Amini by the brutal morality police provoked a movement with revolutionary characteristics unparalleled since the 1979 revolution.

In reality, a revolution is not a single act, but a process that begins with the instinctive rejection of an unbearable situation. The masses, previously apathetic and detached from political life, know what they do not want, but still lack a clear vision of what they do want. 

The function of a communist party, which necessarily and inevitably enters the process by grouping together only the advanced minority of the class, is to raise the level of political consciousness among the masses. This can only be achieved if it has built a solid and sufficient base of revolutionary cadres in the previous period. This allows it to win the confidence of a growing layer of the working class in the shortest possible period. 

We are in full agreement with the comrades of the Socialist Movement that such a communist party, in order to succeed, must become a mass party of sufficient size and influence to lead the whole class to the seizure of power.

The development of revolutionary consciousness among the masses will not be achieved in the preceding period, as part of the growth of “socialist spaces”, which are impossible to build and sustain in a “normal” epoch of class struggle. Rather, this consciousness will develop during the revolutionary process itself, which can last weeks, months or even a few years. 

That will be the moment when bodies of workers' power – soviets, councils, committees – will emerge, either spontaneously or under the leadership of the communist party itself. These bodies will act as embryos of the future workers' state, where the masses will make use of workers' democracy, and directly challenge bourgeois rule. 

The function of the communist party, besides being at the head of all the struggles of the oppressed, as Marx explained in the Communist Manifesto, will be to advance a socialist programme that connects with the needs of the working class and the oppressed. This programme must instil the masses with confidence in their own strength and the clear tasks of the moment. These tasks inevitably include the expropriation of the big capitalists, the establishing of workers' control of industry, the disarmament or dissolution of the repressive bodies, the empowering of the working class and the struggle for international socialism. 

In such conditions, the repressive apparatus will not be immune to the revolutionary storm that shakes society. It will split along class lines, with its lower echelons linking up with the working class, and joining the fight to fundamentally change society.

In a situation where repression will only fuel the indignation of the working class, the breakdown of the repressive apparatus will be the surest sign of the maturing of the consciousness of the masses. This represents the real moment of the seizure of power: not with the “seizure of the state”, but with the dissolution of the old state and the formation of a new one, made up of workers' committees and assemblies. This can only be achieved by the active mobilisation of the working class in the streets, occupying workplaces, public buildings and police and army barracks – in other words, through an organised mass insurrection.

That said, unlike the sectarians and ultra-leftists, we regard the socialist transformation of society as a process that can be achieved relatively peacefully, due to the overwhelming social and numerical weight of the working class. The unlimited potential of the working class, unleashed at the decisive moment, would paralyse and break down the repressive apparatus of the state. 

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