Return to Recent Articles menu

Debate: Reform or revolution?

Exchange on the possibility of social democratic reforms within contemporary capitalism.

Editor: The authors of “Between sectarianism and neoliberalism” have not responded to our offer of debate, but reader Joe takes up the cudgels below:

31 April 2019

Recognising the limitations of the working class

Hi John

You start your reply by saying that “I'm not sure I am in full agreement with the general point you make,”and this indeed seems to be the case because you seem to say one thing and then its opposite.

So, for example, you say that in relation to policies towards capitalism that various strategies are possible but then say that this is only in the abstract. You say in relation to the south that a wealth tax will not solve various constraints and that in relation to the housing crisis this requires a revolutionary uprising by the working class or at least a mass mobilisation, but in relation to rent control and mortgage payments that reforms enacted by parliament are not impossible.

Reconciliation of these statements may be possible by more clearly setting out the particular limits of reforms that might be achievable, but this would need to be done to determine concretely what reforms might and should be fought for in any particular case.

However the general tone of your reply is to dismiss the possibility of enactment of a reformist programme and this was the crux of my argument –that austerity is not essential at this time to capitalism in many places.  This is made clear in your reference to a Corbyn led Labour Party where you ask “How is he going to achieve his goal?”  If, as you appear to claim, he is not able to do so then his project is doomed, which would imply no step forward outside revolution is possible. I think this is rubbish.

To answer your question –Corbyn could lead a campaign to democratise the Labour Party and drive the right-wing MPs out.  This is perfectly possible and is the critical step currently required. But if he is doomed why demand it? This example shows the danger of ultraleftism, which is always abstention from the real struggle for sake of a more advanced struggle that does not exist.

In relation to reforms in general, it is simply not true that “In order to reform things you must in some sense support them.”  If you truly believed this then later remarks about supporting the fight for reforms would make no sense.  One can be in favour of reforms to capitalism, while wanting its destruction and replacement, because we are not yet in a position to carry out this transformation.  This is the position we are at the minute.

I think the core problem is around the question of revolution and the revolutionary party.  The way it is described by you, it is the revolutionary party that makes the working class revolutionary, otherwise “when workers do rise up, they will not spontaneously acquire their own political programme or methods of organisation.”  But it is obvious that they do acquire political programmes when they struggle and do develop methods of organisation, (we will leave aside the view that these are ‘spontaneous’).

It is because they have done so that Marxists have learned what programme and methods of organisation might be applicable in various circumstances. If you read Marx’s view of the lessons of the Paris Commune it was lessons derived by Marx from the Communards not the other way round.  Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not invent the Soviet, or workers’ councils, in fact they were initially less than enthusiastic about it.

Put simply, if the workers do not develop revolutionary political consciousness in vast numbers there are no grounds for a revolutionary working class party –where would it come from? Of course the development of a working class party will in turn develop the consciousness of more and more workers, but the idea of a small revolutionary organisation getting bigger numerically and then leading the mass of workers is wrong and has failed.

It is an instrumentalist notion of the working class, which on the contrary will achieve its own liberation, and it is elitist in that it divides the development of this party from the development of the class as a whole.  This means that the lack of revolutionary readiness of the working class is regularly put down to the absence of a revolutionary party when the latter is simply a symptom of the former and it is this that needs to be addressed.

The perils of such an understanding is made clear in the statement that “The call for revolutionary organisation and for a revolutionary party is not made when the workers are rising up, but in the relatively fallow period before.”

Calling for a revolutionary organisation and for a revolutionary party (i.e. a real party and not a small group) cannot be separate from the working class itself for it is this class that will make it a reality, and it will not do so simply by calling for it, that is by propaganda and agitation, from what are today’s revolutionaries.

If such calling is to be the same during “fallow”periods as well as when “workers are rising up ”then such calls are abstract and true only by some general definition unrelated to concrete reality.  It must be obvious that socialists must fight for different objectives of different scope at different times.

There are stages in working class struggle, even if these are not pre-defined, rigid and therefore proceed in irregular and turbulent ways.  Just because the working class will have to go through different stages in its political development does not mean, as do Stalinist or social-democratic programmes entail, that these are limited in advance and always to fall short of socialist revolution.  But it should be recognised that the ‘fallow’ period you refer to is the whole history of the Irish working class, which at no point has looked capable and ready to carry out a socialist revolution.

One big problem of the reduction of the problems of the political development of the class is reduction - involving substitution - of this to questions of building a revolutionary party.  It is because the working class is so far from revolutionary consciousness that it is necessary to understand the question of political struggle short of revolution, which ultimately involves a more adequate understanding of the question of revolution itself.

But for us now, it primarily involves understanding the role of socialists in developing interventions into the working class that recognises its current limitations and does not fall either into acceptance of capitalism or calls for socialist revolution that you must be aware have no traction and pass over the heads of the working class.


Reform or revolution? A reply

Hi Joe

Just to clarify  things - yes I am in favour of reform. I am willing to work with anyone to try to achieve reform but yes I do doubt it's enactment.

We have been through a long period since the fall of the USSR. In that period social democratic parties have destroyed themselves by applying programmes of austerity which have in turn been agreed to by their counterparts in mass trade union organisations. Socialists have fallen back towards a new reformism around groups like Syriza only to have them rot and collapse in turn. I think that there is room for some skepticism about projects for broad left parties and governments. In addition trade union bureaucrats constantly tell us that austerity provisions are ideological - that they are just the flavour of the month with a given government that a determined movement can reverse - but the austerity grinds on and on and the unions end up accepting it.

The Corbyn project is simply the latest of these, unusual in that it is arising within the decaying entrails of British labourism.

You say that Corbyn can act to set all this aside. He can lead a fight to democratise Labour and force out the right. You ask rhetorically: if he will fail why demand this?

But of course there are militants who do demand this and it is absolutely correct for British socialists to stand alongside them, to urge Corbyn to respond but also to prepare them to fight on if Corbyn does not respond.

One task would be to explain the constraints on Corbyn. He does not act alone, but is part of a team involving momentum and Len McCuskey of UNITE and they have set their face against confrontation with the right.

In any case Corbyn believes he already has a road to reform. The Labour programme is a mildly left document that Watson and company have endorsed. If he can preserve unity and win the election his goal is in sight. A fight would disrupt the party and probably rule out government.

The Labour right are not serious. Their support for the programme is conditional on it being costed - that is, agreed by the banks. In the meantime they launch witch hunt after witch hunt. Corbyn buys them off by throwing his supporters and defenders of Palestine under the bus, weakening his authority and raising questions as to how he would fare in the face of the IMF - questions strengthened by his poor performance over Brexit.

In the Irish state the constraints on housing reform are evident. Europe tightly limits spending on public projects and sovereign  debt involves mass self-off of property to vulture capital and a guarantee on capital return. All too often the left simply ignore this to make moral appeals, partly because the ICTU programme does not involve any challenge to government policy.

One of the problems of your approach is that you appear to see it as a crisis of our tradition when it clearly is not limited to the socialist movement. It not we alone who are in retreat but all of the left, social democracy, revolutionary nationalism and trade unionism - indeed the whole idea of rationality is under sharp attack, especially in the attacks by the right on climate science.

The fact is that neither you nor ourselves have any significant working class audience. I know that my group has a level of mild interest among seasoned militants and some youth because I speak to these people. We try to influence them not simply by calling for revolution but by providing a critique of existing campaigns and proposals for democratic action.

One way to avoid the rather abstract nature of this discussion would be to examine actual campaigns and our positions.

Is there any advantage to membership of our tiny group? There are elements of dogmatism in other left groups that I think we avoid. We have an explanation of what is going on in drawing on Lenin's military analogies. Capitalism is on a savage offensive. The workers movement is in many areas in rout and as a consequence workers consciousness is at rock bottom. A Leninist approach allows a class analysis of struggles such as the water charges campaign and a memory of strengths and weaknesses. Much of the left simply practice amnesia in order to feed opportunism.

Much of what you say about the revolutionary party and the working class bears no relationship to my views. I tend to agree with Paul Le Blanc when he says that the party of the vanguard is partly a sociological group - a representation of the most advanced layers of workers. Clearly any such representation is scattered and episodic at the moment. It is likely that 40 years ago i believed that you could recruit individual members to build a party. I certainly do not today.

Yes the Paris communards showed Marx the elements of workers government but Marx and Marxism were a necessary component in codifying the lessons for future action and brought to the process a body of knowledge in the form of an understanding of capitalist society and a method of class analysis.

It is not the case that the arena is empty. New struggles arise. New layers of youth arrive on the scene. Existing organisations arrive at crisis and new structures arise. If we can draw together a revolutionary current that will a far healthier situation than one in which revolution has been parked on some remote attic shelf.

In the past revolutionaries co-existed with mass reformist organisations. These organisations have left the field and  some revolutionaries feel compelled to take their place. I disagree.

I hold with Lukacs that the revolution is not some distant point in space time. Rather it is a series of hurdles that the working  class has to overcome to act in its own interests.

Essentially you argue a change of tone by the left would bring us closer to the workers. We don't see examples of that working. Rather it appears to lead to demoralisation and crisis. We remain confident that the working class will move forward and that a platform of revolution is what we should defend.


Return to top of page