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Gareth Jenkins & Colin Sparks

‘Democracy’ and the state

(May 1984)

From Socialist Review, No. 65, May 1984, pp. 11–12.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The use of massive numbers of police to stop miners picketing has made the role of the state machine a live issue in the labour movement. Gareth Jenkins and Colin Sparks look at the arguments.

There is no doubt that the huge police operation against the NUM has been orchestrated by the government. It is clearly part of a strategy designed to smash the power of the NUM and weaken the working class overall.

Nor does it stand on its own as an example of increasingly authoritarian state powers. On the trade union question alone there have been more than 15 years of legal attacks which have attempted to make it more difficult for workers to win their demands. The most recent laws, the responsibility of Prior and Tebbit, have recently been tested by the NGA and by Eddie Shah as part of their attempts to win strikes. The courts have ruled in the employers’ favour, just the result the laws were framed to achieve.

But trade union legislation is not the only aspect of the strengthening of law and order. A minor civil servant, Sarah Tisdall, who passed on very low grade secrets to The Guardian newspaper, is locked up for six months. A new Police Bill is currently being forced through which will legalise many existing police practices like the arbitrary stopping and searching of ‘suspects’. Even the arts are threatened, with the ‘video nasties’ bill threatening to re-introduce wide powers of censorship.

Hard-won rights

An attack there certainly is, and it is an attack on the hard-won rights of working people. Any miner with lingering illusions about the neutrality of the forces of law and order will by now have had them quite literally knocked out of his head on the picket line. Experience will have taught him that in disputes between the boss and worker, the government, the police and the media (the army hasn’t yet come onto the scene) do not aim to keep the peace between the contending forces. They are unequivocally on the side of the boss.

But you can draw two distinct conclusions from this experience. One is that while the police do not behave neutrally they ought to, and would do if a democratic government, pledged to observe strict legality, were in control instead of the present viciously undemocratic Tory government. This is very much the current line of the Labour leadership.

Now, there is considerable truth in the assertion that the present Tory government is more vicious and anti-working class than any of its post-war predecessors. But it is not true that the Tories are departing from a tradition of democratic procedure which the Labour Party is committed to and abides by.

Take the use of the police to break strikes. The problem is not a new one. Just go back to 1977 and the Grunwick picket line. Large numbers of police were used to force the passage of scabs through a determined mass picket. But there was a Labour government in office at the time.

That, however, was small beer. The greatest example this century of the use of the police and the army for strike-breaking was during the General Strike of 1926. A whole apparatus called the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, involving the civil service, the police, the armed forces and civilian scabs, many of them fascists, was set up in the early 1920s and honed into an instrument of strike-breaking over a period of years.

The OMS was set up by a Tory-Liberal government, but it was very much in existence during the period 1923–1924; indeed, plans for its strike-breaking role continued to be developed during this period. This was also the time of the first Labour government. Very far from using their control of the government to break up this scab organisation the ministers of the first Labour government quietly went about perfecting it.

In case it should be thought that this was simply due to the inherently treacherous nature of Ramsey MacDonald, then Labour leader, it should be remembered that even the allegedly ‘left wing’ Labour government of 1945–51 regularly used the police and army to break strikes. For example it used troops to break dock strikes in 1945, 1946, 1948, 1949 and 1950.

If we take the more general issue of anti-union laws, we have to recall that the ancestor of the Prior and Tebbit legislation was a plan called In Place of Strife dreamt up in the late 1960s by Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson, when the latter was prime minister of a Labour government.

To give these examples is not simply to prove that the Labour Party is as guilty as the Tories. It is to say something about the consequences of believing in the same state machine as your opponents. If you respect the constitution, you have no option but to employ its repressive powers if struggle from below threatens to undermine it.

That is the real meaning behind what people like Gerald Kaufman, the shadow home secretary say when they condemn police behaviour. He concentrates on the illegality of their action. The implication is that if only the state machine were reformed and the forces the state made properly accountable to the democratic control of parliament, then disputes between bosses and workers could be resolved and our liberties, freedoms and way of life preserved.

Now, the fact that the police depart from previously understood and agreed norms of behaviour is not to be underestimated. It has excellent propaganda value for revolutionary socialists, since it demonstrates vividly to millions of workers just how hypo-critical the ruling class are. They preach the need to abide by the law, to observe the democratic will of parliament, etc., etc., but are quite prepared to resort to measures of dubious legality in order to protect their interests.

However, at the end of the day, it is not the departure from legality that concerns us, but the forces of the state themselves (legal or not). For the other side of the Labour Party argument is the notion it should not just be the police that observe legality, but everyone else – including, of course, striking miners.

In other words, respect for legality, if carried through consistently, would disarm workers and deprive them of their power to make their will prevail over the employing class.

Essential to Labour Party thinking is the idea that the state is or ought to be neutral, and that it ought to stand above conflicting private interests in order to serve the good of all. This perspective is shared just as much by the left as by the right.

Workers’ state

Why should any of this be important! Isn’t this just the standard line about revolution: the state cannot be reformed but only smashed and replaced by a workers’ state? The point is that failure to understand this is to fail to understand the relevance of revolutionary politics now.

Because we denounce the fraud of bourgeois democracy our opponents accuse us of being anti-democratic. That is why, of course, the Tories, are currently presenting themselves as the democratic champions of a miner’s right to work.

As revolutionary socialists, we are for real democracy – ie for the mass of workers to have a direct control over the conditions of their lives that parliamentary democracy doesn’t even begin to touch. That is, we are for a democracy based on workers’ rank and file self-activity.

It is the only kind of democracy on which socialism can be built and can only come about as a result of struggle against the ‘democracy’ of capital, a struggle in which the rights of capitalists to their freedom has to be repressed (violently, if necessary). There is no other way in which workers’ democracy can be established.

That in turn means not just dispossessing the capitalists. If, after all, their power was simply themselves, we would have got rid of the tiny handful who economically control the system long ago. The power of the capitalists depends on their state (whether or not it has been given democratic parliamentary blessing). And their state depends not only on its physical power (the police, the army, as weapons of last resort) but on its ideological hold over backward workers, i.e. on workers who for one reason or another fail to identify with the interests of their own class.

Hence, in any struggle, the first problem is to win over these backward workers. Sometimes that is fairly simple. In other cases, at present with the miners, it is more difficult. But those claiming to be socialists who tut-tut at the ‘violence’ of mass pickets are in reality blocking the path to success.

In order to exercise real democracy, workers have to struggle, and struggle means something very authoritarian: workers imposing their will on the capitalist class to the extent of having unfortunately to impose their will on more backward workers.

This debate is not new. Lenin had to face it at the time of the Russian Revolution. His chief opponent was the formidable ‘Marxist’ theoretician and leader of the German Social-Democratic Party, Karl Kautsky – a man much more to the left than anyone on the left of the Labour Party today.

What Kautsky deplored was that workers set up their own soviet organisations which the Bolsheviks refused to subordinate to parliamentary institutions, that through the soviets workers decided things for themselves (they took the law into their own hands), and that they refused to let the capitalists and their agents have access to political power (they denied them their freedom and their civil rights). Kautsky found all this very undemocratic – and so it was in a sense.

But, as Lenin pointed out, democracy is not something abstract, existing in a vacuum. There is the democracy of a capitalist state (which is the democracy of a tiny handful to exploit the vast majority) and the democracy of a workers’ state (in which the vast majority through their own rank and file organisations force the owners of capital to give up their power and wealth).

Vital interests

Both depend on violence, but only a dishonest fool would pretend that the violence of the latter is as bad as, or worse, than the former. And certainly it is treacherous to talk about abiding by the rules of ‘democracy’, when it is this same ‘democracy’ which uses the most gigantic violence and swindles in order to preserve the vital interests of the ruling class.

In a passage that is relevant to the miners’ strike Lenin inveighed against Kautsky’s defence of law and democracy:

‘Mr Kautsky quotes from my speech of 28 April, 1918, the words: “The masses themselves determine the procedure and the time of elections.” And Kautsky, the “pure democrat”, infers from this:

‘“Hence, it would mean that every assembly of electors may determine the procedure of elections at their own discretion. Arbitrariness and the opportunity of getting rid of undesirable opposition elements in the ranks of the proletariat itself would thus be carried to extreme.”

‘Well, how does this differ from the talk of a hired capitalist hack who howls about the masses oppressing industrious workers who are “willing to work” during a strike? Why is the bourgeois method of determining electoral procedure under “pure” bourgeois democracy not arbitrariness? Why should the sense of justice among the masses who have risen to fight their age long exploiters and who are being educated and steeled in the desperate struggle be less than that of a handful of bureaucrats, intellectuals and lawyers brought up in bourgeois prejudices?

‘Kautsky is a true Socialist. Don’t dare suspect the sincerity of this very respectable father of a family, of this very honest citizen. He is an ardent and convinced supporter of the victory of the workers, of the proletarian revolution. All he wants is that the honey-mouthed petty-bourgeois intellectuals and philistines in nightcaps should first before the masses begin to move, before they enter into furious battle with the exploiters, and certainly without civil war – draw up a moderate and precise set of rules for the development of the revolution ...’

We are not, of course, living in a revolutionary period. But those words about workers ‘willing to work’ during a strike have a familiar ring. And there is a connection between a large-scale strike and revolution. A revolution represents the power of ‘a strike raised to the utmost degree in which workers can only win their demands if they take on and smash, via a mass revolutionary party, the state of their oppressors.

Since nowadays the state interferes in most strikes that is a vital lesson for workers to learn. They should not be bamboozled by the Labour Party, which is simply the alternative party in running the ‘democratic’ bit of the capitalist state machine, into believing that reform rather than revolution is all that is required.

What these believers in pure democracy forget is that getting rid of Tory MPs and replacing them by Labour MPs will not transform the state machine into an obedient servant of the popular will. It is not the case that the Tory government ‘interferes’ with the impartial workings of the police or the judiciary.

No doubt, the brutal and stupid Leon Brittan is very much behind the major police operation, but it is also true that, night after night, there have been senior police officers answering questions on TV who have expressed the same sentiments as him. The various court judgements that have attacked everything from civil liberties to trade union rights have been handed down by a variety of different judges. No doubt foul reactionaries inhabiting a Dickensian world. But they have not been briefed by Thatcher and Brittan. They did not need to be. They think the same anyway.

As soon as you study the question at all seriously a clear pattern starts to emerge. There is a layer of people who all act together to attack workers and any other group in society that presumes to defy order and start thinking for themselves. This layer is made up of judges, senior civil servants, police chiefs, army officers and the like: the people, in short, who run the state machine.

It is this state machine that is attacking us. The government is only part of that attack. It happens, in this instance, that the state and the government think alike, but the root of the attack lies in the state, rather than the government.


It follows then, that the only way to stop these attacks once and for all is to change the state that organises them. That sounds like a tall order, and indeed it is, but it is a necessity if we want to change the world.

For what the believers in the effectiveness of pure democracy also forget is the nature of the economic system in which we live. A moment’s thought shows that, whatever the political pretence, the nature of capitalism deprives all but a few of any democratic control whatsoever over their lives. It is not just that civil liberties are limited, it is that the vast majority of us are compelled on pain of starvation to work in dull, grinding jobs.

It goes back to an old truth formulated by Marx and Engels and later developed by Lenin in opposition to those socialists who believed that a fight for real parliamentary, democratic control over the state could usher in socialism: that in even the most democratic of bourgeois countries there is still a dictatorship of capital over labour – with this difference: that the strength of working class organisation has forced capital to concede political rights. These are of course, welcome, but they are used the better to contain labour within the system.

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