Revisiting Mike Macnair’s “Revolutionary Strategy”

by Jehu

According to Macnair, revolutionary strategy is the long-term framework within which communists develop their plans to achieve their goals over a series of tactical struggles. He suggests communists begin with a review of the strategy proposed by Marx, Engels and the classical Marxists in the period leading to First World War 1914 for two reasons:

First. in some respects social conditions we live under in the 21st century are more like that of Marx’s time than they are to the period after the outbreak of World War I. The world market of the late 19th and early 20th century was both more ‘globalised’ and more dominated by finance capitals than the world market that dominated the 20th century with its cold war and imperialist blocs. Also, the workers’ movement was only just beginning to emerge as an organized force. This is much closer to our own situation than the period of massively dominant socialist and communist parties that characterized the 20th century.

Second, World War I triggered a political crisis within the workers’ movement that led to the world historical defeat of the proletarian revolution. The legacy of this world historical defeat of the proletarians remains with us today and forms the subject matter of Macnair’s book. In my view, however, Macnair’s explanation of this defeat is painfully simplistic, irrelevant, if not complete nonsense. Essentially, the world historical defeat of the working class is reduced to the alleged theoretical weaknesses of strategic ideas introduced by Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg and the isolation of the revolution in Russia in the 1920s. Per Macnair, the alleged theoretical weaknesses of these communists were transmitted to other revolutions in due time, leading the revolution into a blind alley.

Macnair then makes this bogus argument:

When you are radically lost it becomes necessary to retrace your steps. In the present case, this means retracing our steps to the strategic debates of the early workers’ movement and the Second International, which defined the strategic choices available to socialists in the early 20th century, and in this sense led to the blind alley of 1918-91.

On its face, the argument might seem logical. You’re in a place you have never been before, lost, so what do you do? You try to get back to the last place you can recognize — a place with clear landmarks. You search the horizon, looking for the landmark in the distance that you recognize as the place where you began your journey. You want to use this starting point to reorient yourself.

But there is a problem — a huge problem.

Macnair has made an argument that in some respects life in the 21st century looks more like the period from 1858-1928 than it does the period from 1929-1991. As I noted in my last post, the dates he chose are significant: in 1858, Marx was busy writing what we now recognize as the Grundrisse. In those notebooks, in his fragment on the machine, he made his famous prediction that capital was embarked on a process that would eventually eliminate the need for direct human labor in production. Labor would become superfluous. This would lead to the collapse of production based on exchange value.

The other bookend in Macnair’s time frame, 1928, is equally significant in that it is the last year before the start of the Great Depression in 1929. With the start of the depression, capitalist production began to collapse; as would be expected, commodity money is withdrawn from circulation by its owners and employment collapsed. In one country after another, governments are forced to intervene and sever their currencies from precious metals. Only after governments sever the connection between their national currencies and gold do their economies begin to stabilize. For the first time in human history, no industrial country issues a commodity-based currency. Production based on exchange value had disappeared as Marx predicted.

The problem with retracing our steps as Macnair suggests is that somewhere around 1929 the landscape was fundamentally altered to such an extent nothing that remains is recognizable. There are no landmarks. Our maps are completely obsolete. Where rivers once ran, there aren’t even dry beds. Mountains have becomes valleys.

It is said that no strategy ever survives contact with the enemy. How then was Marx and Engels strategy supposed to survive the collapse of production based on exchange value?