Workers Vanguard No. 940
31 July 2009
On Executive Offices and the Capitalist State: An Exchange
To the editor:
You take the position in Workers Vanguard (No. 918 [1 August 2008]) that Socialists should not run for executive office. You argue “To run for executive office means to aspire to be the next Commander-in-Chief who decides who gets tortured, who gets bombed, who gets invaded.”
On the contrary, a Socialist President would have the torturers arrested and prosecuted, starting with those who authorized the torture, to wit, Bush and Cheney et al.
He would immediately end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring all the troops home. And he would do everything in his power to advance the struggle for Socialism and oppose Capitalism and U.S. Imperialism.
U.S. military bases around the world would be shut down and all U.S. forces returned home and demobilized. Guantánamo would be returned to Cuba and the embargo ended. U.S. support for right wing regimes and Israel would end. The Pentagon and CIA budgets would be reduced to close to zero and the money saved would be used to better the lives of the American people.
All Federal political prisoners would be pardoned and so called “enemy combatants” would be freed or tried in Federal courts. Military commissions would be abolished. Spying on Americans would be immediately stopped. The crimes and lies of the Bush administration and its predecessors would be brought to the attention of the public. The practice of rendition would be ended. Left wing attorneys would be nominated to the Federal Judiciary.
Obviously if a Socialist were elected to the Presidency it would mean a tremendous leftward shift in U.S. politics, brought on no doubt by an economic crisis of severe proportions. The workers would be looking to Socialism as the answer to their problems.
A Socialist President by himself could not bring about Socialism, but he would explain what Socialism is and what would be needed to bring it about.
He would propose nationalizing the key industries, services and banks and operating them under workers control. If these proposals were blocked by Congress, the executive powers of Eminent Domain could be used to take over key industries etc. without Congressional approval.
He would fight for and mobilize the workers to achieve: Single Payer National Health insurance, a 30 hour week at 40 hour pay, repeal of all anti-labor laws, an indefinite moratorium on home mortgage foreclosures, a ban on companies relocating outside the country, shifting the tax burden off the workers onto the wealthy and the corporations, free college education, a guaranteed job for all, etc.
Incidentally, you might recall that both Marx and Engels believed that at least in the case of the United States and England, because of their long democratic traditions, Socialism could be achieved electorally and peacefully.
However, should a workers revolution develop in the United States, wouldn’t its chances of success be far greater if the President, who is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, were a Socialist? Think about this.
Running for the Presidency gives Socialists a wonderful opportunity to educate the American people about Socialism.
And if a Socialist were elected President it would represent a giant step toward a Socialist America.
The starting point of the above letter, using the example of the American imperial presidency, is that the working class can utilize the existing state apparatus to implement beneficial policies and gain political supremacy. In fact, the tasks that the author proposes for a “socialist” president are hardly revolutionary. Such proposals on torture, spying, the economy and health care read like a liberal or social-democratic wish list, while the call for a ban on companies relocating abroad echoes the “Buy American” chauvinism of the Democrats and the trade-union bureaucracy. More fundamentally, the differences we have with the letter are not only over the question of running for executive offices but the very basis of our opposition to running for such offices: the nature of the capitalist state. As we wrote in our extensive article (to which we refer readers), “Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 61, Spring 2009):
“Behind the question of running for executive office stands the fundamental counterposition between reformism and Marxism: Can the proletariat use bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois state to achieve a peaceful transition to socialism? Or, rather, must the proletariat smash the old state machinery, and in its place create a new state to impose its own class rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat—to suppress and expropriate the capitalist exploiters?”
Bourgeois politicians, sociologists and academics have utterly distorted what the state is, presenting it as a body that stands above society with the purpose of organizing it and arbitrating its class antagonisms. In reality, as Marxist leader V.I. Lenin outlined in his 1917 work, The State and Revolution, “the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order,’ which legalises and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between the classes.” In modern capitalist society, the state exists to defend the rule and profits of the bourgeoisie against the working class and oppressed. At its core, the state is made up of armed bodies of men and their adjuncts dedicated to that task: the cops, the military, the prisons, the courts.
The letter writer betrays huge illusions in bourgeois democracy. Such democracy is, in fact, for the bourgeoisie against the proletariat and oppressed. Lenin observed, “A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.”
History has repeatedly demonstrated that the bourgeois state cannot be made to serve the interests of the proletariat and the oppressed. This was shown by the 1871 Paris Commune—when the Parisian proletariat held power for nearly three months before being crushed at a cost of over 20,000 lives. Lenin pointed out that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels found only one point from the 1848 Communist Manifesto that they considered “out-of-date.” Based on the experience of the Commune, Marx wrote in The Civil War in France (1871) that it had become clear that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” Lenin underlined in The State and Revolution, “The working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery,’ and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.” The capitalist state must be smashed through a socialist revolution that erects in its place a workers state—i.e., the dictatorship of the proletariat, based on democratically-elected workers councils (soviets). It will take the victory of proletarian revolution on an international scale to lay the basis for the creation of a classless communist society and the withering away of the state.
To bolster its argument, the above letter states that “Marx and Engels believed that at least in the case of the United States and England, because of their long democratic traditions, Socialism could be achieved electorally and peacefully.” In fact, in those instances where Marx asserted that in the U.S. and England “workers may achieve their aims by peaceful means” (“On the Hague Congress,” 8 September 1872), he did not base himself on these countries’ “long democratic traditions” but rather on his belief that these countries lacked militarist cliques or significant bureaucratic apparatuses.
However, Marx’s speculation was in error. Britain had a vast colonial empire requiring large bureaucracies and military forces. In the U.S., the post-Civil War period produced an enormous boost to Northern capital, so that by the time of the Ulysses S. Grant administration all the pieces were in place for the development of full-blown U.S. imperialism in the coming decades (see “The Grant Administration (1869-1877) and the Rise of U.S. Imperialism,” WV Nos. 938 and 939, 5 June and 3 July). At any rate, whatever Marx may have speculated, we are now in the imperialist epoch. Today, the idea of a peaceful, parliamentary transition to socialism is worse than a pipe dream; it is a noose placed on the proletariat by the reformists and other enemies of workers revolution.
Writing in 1899, after French Socialist Alexandre Millerand took a ministerial post in the government, revolutionary Marxist Rosa Luxemburg underscored: “The government of the modern state is essentially an organization of class domination, the regular functioning of which is one of the conditions of existence of the class state. With the entry of a socialist into the government, and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister.”
This point has been repeatedly confirmed, with tragic results for workers and the oppressed. In 1970 in Chile, the Socialist Party’s Salvador Allende and his Unidad Popular—a coalition government that subordinated the workers to their deadly class enemies through a bloc of workers parties with a mythical “progressive” section of the bourgeoisie and the “democratic” officer corps—won a major electoral victory. When Allende became president, reformists across the globe hailed this as a great victory in the advance to socialism. But as we warned in “The Chilean Popular Front” (Spartacist No. 19, November-December 1970): “It is the most elementary duty for revolutionary Marxists to irreconcilably oppose the Popular Front in the election and to place absolutely no confidence in it in power. Any ‘critical support’ to the Allende coalition is class treason, paving the way for a bloody defeat for the Chilean working people when domestic reaction, abetted by international imperialism, is ready.”
It was the Chilean masses that paid for the reformists’ betrayals. Backed by the U.S., General Augusto Pinochet, whom Allende had appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, led a military coup on 11 September 1973 that overthrew the government, assassinated Allende and slaughtered tens of thousands of workers and other militants. Allende was not simply a martyred victim of the CIA and Chilean generals; he and his reformist supporters, with their promotion of a “peaceful” (i.e., parliamentary) road to socialism, led the Chilean working masses directly into this defeat.
Our position is that communist deputies can, as oppositionists, serve in bourgeois legislative bodies as tribunes of the proletariat. But assuming executive office means taking responsibility for the administration of the machinery of the capitalist state. And to stand for executive office carries the implication that one is ready to accept such responsibility (no matter what disclaimer one makes in advance). This can only lend legitimacy to prevailing and reformist conceptions of the state.
The 1917 Russian Revolution led by the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky proved the validity of the Marxist theory on the state and made it a reality. In reaching our position on not running for executive offices, we are fulfilling and extending the work of the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky’s time. As Lenin put it in The State and Revolution, “A Marxist is solely someone who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”