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"Revolutionary" Opportunism

Jack Bernard

PATRICK BENTON’S response to Bob Pitt’s article "The Socialist Labour Party: Why Arthur Scargill is Wrong" claims that there is a need to shift the discussion onto different ground with the aim of developing "the tactics and strategy necessary to move the working class forward".1 But Benton has failed to think this formula through. At the heart of his argument, however, is the conundrum of how to be revolutionary when revolution is not on the immediate agenda. Benton fails to solve this dilemma by effectively borrowing his formula from a current that first emerged within classical Social Democracy, i.e. within the Second, or Socialist International.

The classical period of Social Democracy was that preceding the First World War. Social Democracy was not homogeneous and, for instance, Russian Social Democracy, even in its infancy prior to the 1905 revolution was, according to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, divided into revolutionary and opportunist wings: "the ‘majority’ is the revolutionary, and the ‘minority’ the opportunist wing of our Party"2, namely, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks respectively. By opportunism Lenin understood the following: "Opportunism means sacrificing fundamental interests so as to gain temporary and partial advantages."3 Enlarging on this on a later occasion he explained: "Opportunism is opportunism for the very reason that it sacrifices the fundamental interests of the movement to momentary advantages or considerations based on the most short-sighted, superficial calculations."4

Classical Social Democracy was professedly Marxist but it also contained open critics of Marxism. Notable among them was Edward Bernstein. Years later, in addressing the question of strategy, Leon Trotsky wrote: "The epoch of the Second International led to methods and views according to which, in the notorious expression of Bernstein, ‘the movement is everything, the ultimate goal nothing’. In other words, the strategical task disappeared, becoming dissolved in the day-to-day ‘movement’ with its partial tactics devoted to the problems of the day."5

In Marxist terms, "strategy" refers to strategy for the seizure of state power. Though the seizure of state power is not synonymous with "the ultimate goal" of establishing classless society, it is nevertheless an indispensible preliminary task. To talk of strategy to "move the working class forward", as Benton does, is to devalue the term and is essentially a repetition of Bernstein’s expression: "the movement is everything, the ultimate goal nothing." This argument obscures the fact that the seizure of state power remains an immediate task of the working class in Britain in the sense that today no other task takes precedence over it, and that all tactics must be subordinated to it.

It has become fashionable even within what purports to be Trotskyism, i.e. what purports to be revolutionary Marxism, to downplay the historical significance of the task of seizing state power. Here is an example. In an article entitled "Labor Party and Revolutionary Marxism in the United States",6 Paul Le Blanc writes: "From the 1840s onward, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were partisans of the working class ‘winning the battle of democracy’." The author informs us that this idea is "drawn from their [Marx and Engels’ 1847] pamphlet the Communist Manifesto", but that it also "can be found in all of the major writings of Marx and Engels".

The words "winning the battle of democracy" come from the preamble to the programme at the end of section II of The Manifesto of the Communist Party – to give the famous 1847 pamphlet its full title. This preamble starts by saying: "We have seen above that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy."

But Le Blanc seems to be unaware of the authors’ later comments on this particular section of the Manifesto. Here is what they wrote in the preface to the German edition of 1872, i.e. twenty-five years after having written the Manifesto itself: "However much the state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five years, the general principles laid down in this Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry in the last twenty five years, and of the accompanying improved and extended party organisation of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution [of 1848] and then, still more, in the Paris Commune [1871], where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two months, this programme has in some details become antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, that ’the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’."7

The quote that Marx uses at the very end of this is from his pamphlet The Civil War in France.8 The implication here is that no "winning [of] the battle of democracy" within the framework of the existing state can place state power in the hands of the working class, but rather, the bourgeois state has to be smashed and replaced with a workers’ state, i.e. a state that defends a different character of property forms and production relations.

Lenin pointed out in his book The State and Revolution in reference to the above words from The Civil War in France: "This statement ‘pleased’ Bernstein so much that he used it no less than three times in his book [Premises of Socialism], interpreting it in the most distorted, opportunist way.... Marx meant that the working class must smash, break, shatter (Sprengung, explosion – the expression used by Engels) the whole state machine. But according to Bernstein it would appear as though Marx in these words warned the working class against excessive revolutionary zeal when seizing power. A cruder and more hideous distortion of Marx’s idea cannot be imagined."9

In his preface to the first edition of The State and Revolution, Lenin explained that it was not actually Bernstein who had been chiefly responsible for ignoring and distorting Marx and Engels’ theory of the state. Explaining the contents of The State and Revolution in this preface, Lenin wrote: "First of all we examine the theory of Marx and Engels of the state, and dwell in particular detail on those aspects of this theory which are ignored or have been distorted by the opportunists. Then we deal specially with the one who is chiefly responsible for these distortions, Karl Kautsky, the best-known leader of the Second International (1889-1914), which has met with such miserable bankruptcy in the present war."10

Continuing from the first quote above from The State and Revolution, Lenin explained exactly how Kautsky had distorted Marx’s and Engels’ theory of the state:

"How, then, did Kautsky proceed in his most detailed refutation of Bernsteinism? He refrained from analysing the utter distortion of Marxism by opportunism on this point. He cited the . . . passage from Engels’s preface to Marx’s Civil War and said that according to Marx the working class cannot simply take over the ready-made state machinery, but that, generally speaking, it can take it over – and that was all. Kautsky did not say a word about the fact that Bernstein attributed to Marx the very opposite of Marx’s real idea, that since 185211 Marx had formulated the task of the proletarian revolution as being to "smash" the state machine. The result was that the most essential distinction between Marxism and opportunism on the subject of the tasks of the proletarian revolution was slurred over by Kautsky!

"‘We can quite safely leave the solution of the problem of the proletarian dictatorship to the future,’ said Kautsky, writing ‘against’ Bernstein. (p.172, German edition [of Kautsky’s Bernstein and the Social-Democratic Programme].) This is not a polemic against Bernstein, but, in essence, a concession to him, a surrender to opportunism; for at present the opportunists ask nothing better than to ‘quite safely leave to the future’ all fundamental questions of the tasks of the proletarian revolution."

The problem with Le Blanc’s strategy of "winning the battle of democracy" is that it treats democracy as a super-historical abstraction whereas it needs to be approached in its concrete manifestation: as a form of state power. Here it always has a specific class character. The parliamentary democracy peculiar to the richest capitalist states defends property and production relations of a different overall character to that, for instance, which was defended by the soviet democracy of the pre-civil-war Russian workers’ state.

"Winning the battle for democracy" also misleadingly implies that there can be a peaceful transition from bourgeois democracy to soviet democracy or even to socialist democracy, i.e. to the highest expression of democracy as a form of state power – a form of state that can be achieved only immediately prior to its withering away with the transition from the dictatorship of the proletariat to classless society. Doubtless with the best of intentions, Le Blanc is as guilty of opportunism as Bernstein and Kautsky in posing the task of "winning the battle of democracy" as a strategy for achieving proletarian state power. Often today, what innocently passes as Trotskyism is in fact rank opportunism – a, so to speak, "revolutionary" opportunism. Let us look at another example of this.

Harry Ratner in an article entitled "A Programme for the Left",12 formally acknowledges the need for the "‘destruction of the state machine’" in Britain, but then relegates it to the indefinite future: "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 replacement by non-existent ‘soviets’."

This statement is confusion from start to finish. Firstly, scientific socialists, i.e. Marxists, must "talk of", that is, propagandise about, the "destruction of the state machine" in order to build a revolutionary party on a principled basis, i.e. on a basis of common ideas and methods. Clearly, "Smash the State" is not an agitational slogan, and indeed, in direct form, never will be, but this is hardly a reason for avoiding making propaganda on what is an ABC question of Marxism, i.e. on the need to smash the power that is the essence of the bourgeois state.

Secondly, the criterion for Marxists’ participation in bourgeois parliamentary-type structures is not conditioned by whether or not these structures are "relatively freely elected" but by the feasibility of counterposing an alternative. When the 1905 revolution in Russia was in its ascendancy, Lenin argued for an "active boycott" of the Bulygin Duma. But after the revolution had suffered defeat with the coup d’état of 3 June 1907, he argued for participation in the elections to the Third Duma even though this wretched institution was hardly "relatively freely elected". Throughout this period Lenin continued to "talk of" the need to smash the tsarist state, and to replace it with a democratic one, but he did not confuse this with tactics towards the tsarist dumas.

Finally, though the soviets of the 1917 revolution might be argued to have "arisen naturally", this can hardly be said of the leading "alternative structures" of the new state founded in October of that year. These were consciously constructed by the Bolshevik Party. Though the new power arose in early October with the refusal of the Petrograd garrison to be reorganised in preparation for a new war offensive against Germany, the Military Organisation of the Bolsheviks, seeing the need for a body that reconciled "an instrument of insurrection with an elective and openly functioning soviet",13 seized on the Menshevik proposal for a "Committee of Revolutionary Defence" and turned this into the Military Revolutionary Committee which co-ordinated the October insurrection. Following the insurrection, the government itself, the Council of People’s Commissars, became the new, consciously-constructed executive committee of the soviet state, i.e. of the new power that had arisen in early October.

But for Ratner, such "unnatural" "alternative structures" of a new state will be unnecessary in Britain because, according to him, there exists a viable perspective of "The Democratisation of the State" – as an entire section of his article is entitled. Here he argues that "socialists must have the perspective of winning a socialist majority in parliament" because "the possibility, even probability, that reactionary forces would attempt to subvert an elected socialist government by military coups d’état, etc, (as in Chile) ... does not justify rejecting the ‘parliamentary road’ in advance".

Of course revolutionary Marxists support campaigns for democratisation of the British state – for instance, for the abolition of both the monarchy and the House of Lords, and they should attempt to use even the most reactionary parliament as a tribune – but such tactics do not mean accepting the strategy of a "parliamentary road" as Ratner does. Chile of the Popular Unity government of the early 1970s did not hold out the "possibility, even probability" of military intervention but the inevitability of such intervention, and Trotskyists of the time clearly identified this before Pinochet’s coup d’état took place. Chile confirmed the correctness of genuine Marxism in "rejecting the ‘parliamentary road’ in advance", i.e. rejecting a parliamentary strategy for the establishment of a workers’ state. There is nothing revolutionary in Ratner’s position. It is grossly opportunist. On the theoretical plane he fails to distinguish between propaganda and agitation for the smashing of the state, and he fails to distinguish between strategy and tactics in relation to bourgeois parliamentary democracy.

Those who today claim the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but in practice ignore the theory of the state developed by them14 – by suggesting that the bourgeois state can be reformed into a socialist state – are guilty of opportunism, i.e., of "sacrificing fundamental interests so as to gain temporary and partial advantages". This particular brand of opportunism is termed reformism, more precisely: socialist reformism. Reformism has always been a current within Social Democracy, and within British Social Democracy, i.e. the Labour Party, it has always been a minority current typified in recent years by Tony Benn.

But those who acknowledge that the bourgeois state definitely will have to be smashed, and, relegating this task to the indefinite future, consider that it has little or no bearing on today’s problems, though they remain formally revolutionaries, are opportunists. Whereas reformism views the achievement of political and economic reforms, i.e. partial gains, as part of a gradual achievement of socialism, formal revolutionism merely adds to this the vague idea of a revolutionary stage of struggle in the indefinite future.

By giving no other explanation of his formula, Patrick Benton merely suggests that the achievement of reforms can "move the working class forward". He suggests that the Labour Party used to "move the working class forward", and he bemoans the fact that now "Social Democracy has become little more than their [the multinational corporations’ and the central banks’] tool" – which he also suggests is a relatively recent development. But this development is not at all recent and it actually took place in 1914 when the effective victory of its right, most opportunist, wing ended the epoch of classical Social Democracy, i.e. its progressive period.

Benton, however, argues: "In the aftermath of the Second World War, Social Democracy could deliver many of the necessary reforms. Even in the 1960s it could still meet some of the needs of the working class." It is by juxtaposing the "necessary reforms" of previous Labour governments to the need to develop "tactics and strategy necessary to move the working class forward", that Benton suggests that the working class will "move ... forward" by winning reforms – after first getting rid of Blairism since Blairism (New Labourism) is an obstacle to the winning of reforms.

But the historical analysis is in error. The British state granted the immediate post-war reforms in order to stop the working class taking the road of revolution. Of course it is necessary to defend the social gains that resulted from the post-war reforms enacted by the 1945-51 Labour government, but it is necessary to do this whilst simultaneously recognising that these gains did not "move the working class forward", i.e. move it closer to seizing state power. The gains were in fact a substitute for the working class’s fundamental interests and real needs: a genuine workers’ government heading up a workers’ state. In other words the most essential need of the working class – to overthrow the bourgeois state and replace it with a workers state – the Labour Party clearly failed to deliver.

It is also not true that "Social-Democratic parties", as Benton argues, "are undergoing a parallel degeneration throughout the world." This is because these parties, whether workers’ parties or not, have long-ceased to be progressive, i.e. they are already thoroughly degenerate. What is true is simply that the post-war gains that were apparently won for the working class by these parties, have been, and continue to be, clawed back. A basic lesson here is that until socialism is actually established, all past gains, i.e. all reforms, remain liable to reversal, and therefore these past gains are not expressions of some cherished "moving forward" by the working class.

Benton poses the need for "tactics and strategy necessary to move the working class forward" without explaining the nature of the "move ... forward" that he envisages. His formula is ambiguous; it blurs the distinction between reform and revolution. It comfortably suggests that "moving forward" means acquisition of greater material well-being but this was, for example, hardly the factor that drove the proletariat of Russia to overthrow the Tsarist state in February 1917.

The working class does not "move forward" by winning political or economic reforms. It moves forward only by developing its class consciousness and its organisation. Supporting the struggle for reforms is of crucial importance for revolutionary Marxists – not as an end in itself as the reformists view matters, but as the principle means for developing class consciousness and organisation outside of a revolutionary period.

The task of developing class consciousness and organisation requires distinguishing revolutionary consciousness from mass consciousness, and distinguishing the organisation of revolutionary Marxists from mass organisation. It is, for instance, a law of history that a mass revolutionary party cannot be established outside of a revolutionary situation. Under non-revolutionary conditions revolutionary Marxists face the quite separate tasks of constructing or reinforcing, on the one hand, a revolutionary party and, on the other hand, mass working-class organisations: trade unions and a mass workers’ party. Addressing the question of a mass workers’ party for the USA today, Paul Le Blanc makes the mistake of conflating the revolutionary Marxist party, i.e., propaganda group, with the mass workers’ party. Instead of clearly distinguishing the two quite distinct organisational tasks involved, he poses the need for a party that is both the organisation of revolutionaries and a mass workers’ party in one. He proposes a compromise party that is, in his words, neither "too ‘Marxist’" nor "not being Marxist enough". Of course the revolutionary Marxist party can operate an entry tactic in relation to the mass workers’ party but this does not mean liquidating the revolutionary Marxist party as Le Blanc effectively proposes.

Since the working class in Britain has already acquired a mass party, a task for revolutionary Marxists is the defence of this acquisition despite the fact that this party, the Labour Party, has a bourgeois programme: it fights for capitalism, not socialism. New Labourism threatens the Labour Party’s character as a workers’ party. Fighting against New Labourism means fighting to retain the Labour Party as a united mass workers’ party. It also means fighting to retain the trade unions as effective organisations. In terms of developing these mass organisations of the working-class movement in Britain in this period, it is clear that the organisational tasks are essentially defensive in character, i.e. a case of holding ground rather than of elusively "moving forward".

The importance of this defensive struggle to retain a mass workers’ party in Britain should not be underestimated. Unfortunately the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) has effectively given up on this by deserting the most proletarian sections of the working class in their struggle to retain the Labour Party as their party. The SLP seeks to construct a mass, reformist workers’ party as an effective future replacement for the Labour Party. Among the membership of the SLP are many who consider themselves revolutionaries but whose action in counterposing the SLP to the existing mass workers’ party is opportunist because "it sacrifices the fundamental interests of the movement to momentary advantages or considerations based on the most short-sighted, superficial calculations".

Acquisition of the Labour Party constituted an important gain for the working class in Britain and in the past some revolutionaries have made the mistake of counterposing their own revolutionary organisations to this actually-existing mass workers’ party. It is a novel twist in seemingly "revolutionary" tactics to now counterpose the SLP, as both a reformist and a non-mass party, to the only mass workers’ party that has ever existed in Britain!

Though revolutionary Marxists must use every opportunity for work among the masses, they cannot restrict their activity to simply this. Today, given the defeat of the loss of the workers’ states, the task of developing working-class consciousness and organisation at its highest level, i.e., the consciousness and organisation of revolutionary Marxists, is at a premium. Here the first task is to rescue Marxism from forms of opportunism that adopt the label of revolutionary Marxism but that in reality reject its ABC teachings. The opportunism of Le Blanc and Ratner is relatively open opportunism even though it fools many professed Trotskyists. The opportunism of "revolutionaries" within the SLP is less obvious, that of Benton is quite well-obscured and takes a particular form.

Benton notes the "increasing power of the multinational corporations and the central banks". In fact the only real solution to this power is the overthrow of the bourgeois states, and the economic expropriation of the bourgeoisie on at least a continental scale. Benton, however, believes that he has discovered a less-drastic fix. "The solution to the power of the multinationals", he claims, "is socialist internationalism and international trade unionism." But international trade unionism is still only trade unionism, and as Trotsky put it: "Trade unions do not offer, and in line with their task, composition, and manner of recruiting membership, cannot offer a finished revolutionary programme...."15 And, to repeat, only a revolutionary programme, i.e., the wholesale political and economic expropriation of the bourgeoisie on at least a continental scale, offers a real solution to the power of the multinationals.

The other part of Benton’s ‘solution’, his mysterious "socialist internationalism", as with his "tactics and strategy necessary to move the working class forward", remains unexplained. Though doubtless well-intended, the objective role of such pretentious formulae is to mean different things to different people, and thus so to speak, ‘unite’ revolutionaries with opportunists on the basis of shared formulae to which each can attribute their own meanings. Benton’s two formulae express no revolutionary programme but merely opportunism in a particular form: a combination of reformism ("move the working class forward"), and revolutionary phrase-mongering ("socialist internationalism"). But like all forms of opportunism, even revolutionary phrase-mongering is not at all revolutionary.

‘Revolutionary’ opportunism has classically been termed centrism and the above examples are all expressions of rightward-moving centrism. Though centrism always vacillates between revolutionary Marxism and reformism, its overall character is also never static. The most common type of centrism drifts towards reformism whilst simultaneously vacillating between revolutionary Marxism and reformism.

The movement of the SLP away from the Labour Party is, however, not movement away from reformism in a leftwards direction because the Labour Party never ever adopted reformism, i.e., the achievement of genuine socialism by means of reforms. True, the old Clause IV never entirely shut the door on reformism but neither did it unambiguously embrace it.

The SLP is therefore not a centrist but a reformist split from the Labour Party and understandably constitutes a pole of attraction to many ‘revolutionary’ opportunists, i.e., rightward-moving centrists. In the current situation of organisational and ideological despair following the massive defeat for the proletariat constituted by the demise of the workers’ states, the most crucial and burning task for revolutionary Marxists, whether inside or outside of either the Labour Party or the SLP, is a long-overdue theoretical rearming.


1. P. Benton, "The Socialist Labour Party and the Crisis of Social Democracy", What Next? No.2

2. Preface to One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, February-May 1904, Collected Works, Vol.7, p.203.

3. "Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Activists of the Moscow Organization of the RCP(B)", 6 December 1920, Collected Works, Vol.31, p.440.

4. "Two Worlds", 16 November 1910, Collected Works, Vol.16, p.309. He also formulated the following: "... opportunism, i.e. towards forgetting the permanent, important and fundamental interests, for the sake of seeming possibilities of ‘adjusting’ oneself to momentary moods, situations and relations." ("How Plekhanov argues about Social-Democratic Tactics", 26 May 1906, Collected Works, Vol.10, p.466.)

5. "The Draft Program of the Communist International – A Criticism of Fundamentals, Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch", June 1928, The Third International after Lenin, p.76. Pathfinder 1970.

6. Paul Le Blanc, "Labor Party and Revolutionary Marxism in the United States", Bulletin In Defense of Marxism, No.123, March 1995, Chicago.

7. "Preface to the German Edition of 1872 of the Manifesto of the Communist Party", 24 June 1872, Marx and Engels, Selected Works Vol.1, pp.98-9.

8. The Civil War in France, 30 May 1871, Marx and Engels, Selected Works Vol.2, p.217.

9. State and Revolution, August-September 1917, Collected Works, Vol.25, p.483.

10. Ibid, p.388.

11. See The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.1, Moscow, 1977, p.477. This is cited by Lenin in The State and Revolution, Collected Works, Vol.25, p.411.

12. New Interventions, Vol.7, No.3, Autumn 1996.

13. History of the Russian Revolution, Vol.3, p.90, Sphere Books, 1967.

14. Trotsky, in the chapter of his The Revolution Betrayed entitled "Socialism and the State", corrects and develops the Marxist theory of the state as elaborated in Lenin’s book The State and Revolution.

15. The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, May 1938, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p.78, Pathfinder, 1973.