Is there a new left reformist strategy today?

by Simon Hardy on January 13, 2014

The North Star website has carried a two-part article by Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien that sets out the case for a left reformist politics today. With the debates currently going on in Left Unity, and the phrase “We are all reformists today” (meaning even revolutionaries only raise reformist slogans) being often repeated, a critical examination of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien’s argument seems timely.

They make the case in two parts. The first part is a critical examination of the problems with focusing on “insurrection” as a strategy to overthrow capitalism, with the conclusion that an approach of capturing the state and subordinating it — not smashing it — is more relevant for us today. They then make the case for a strategy of attrition by which they mean slowly and patiently building up organisations under capitalism that can strengthen the struggle of the working class, using as their model the German Social Democratic Party prior to 1914, that is, a mass socialist party with a vast array of auxiliary organisations attached to it which taken together create a “socialist ecosystem of organisations”.

At least there is some genuine left reformist thinking emerging that can be engaged with and debated — rather than just the revolutionary left’s lazy and increasingly default “reformist in practice” approach to politics today, or the other standard approach that since most people are reformist we should only put forward reformist politics as well. As such this article is a very worthwhile contribution to the debate around a genuine left reformism and — whether you agree with the thrust of their argument or not — the authors make very useful points about how we can popularise left politics today which are useful for anyone interested in left politics, whether you are “insurrectionary” or not.

In particular, the second part of the article, on the strategy of attrition, is worth consideration, since this is certainly the phase that we find ourselves in today, waging a war of attrition against the power structures of capitalism — usually along defensively lines — and trying to reverse retreats and decline in key areas of the movement. We will return to some of these points later.

However, the overall intention of the article to found anew or re-elaborate a left reformist strategy simply runs up against some of the old problems that have dogged this perspective for over a hundred years. An examination of the issues that the authors raise may help to clarify what a revolutionary politics looks like and how it remains different from and preferable to left reformist strategy.

Some points of clarity

Some of their arguments against the insurrectionary left start from flawed assumptions which lead to cheap point scoring but don’t really ring true as a criticism of revolutionary politics. For instance, they write, “Thus, destruction of the state is the order of the day, with the point of note being the sequence: first, the state, as the godfather of capital, must be taken out of the equation; only then can the working class organise, through new forms such as workers’ councils, the mass participation in public life necessary to the complete the journey to socialism.”

No one on the revolutionary left to my knowledge says that the state must be smashed before new forms of working class organisation emerge. In fact the basic sequence of events in any healthy revolutionary struggle is precisely that these forms of self-organisation emerge during the revolution, prior to the assault on state power. Revolutions have had problems when the state was smashed (for instance during a civil war) and then organs of working class and popular representation set up afterwards, for instance Cuba.

They go on to caricature the insurrectionary left as waiting for the “great day” because, “Until a revolutionary situation arises in which the state can be smashed there are limits to what can be achieved on a mass scale since it is the process of revolution itself that draws the masses into public life.” But even recent history shows this to be untrue: many political and social struggles draw people into public life; these can fall well short of a revolutionary situation but can still mobilise serious numbers — the stop the war movement in 2003–4 is a good example of this.

In the second part of the article the authors write, “For the supporters of council (soviet) democracy and the vanguard insurrectionary party…the creation of permanent mass institutions becomes a fetter which prevents a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the treacherous actions of its bureaucratised leadership when the hour strikes.” The mass institutions they refer to include “a continuous strengthening of the movement institutions; more recruitment into the labour unions and strengthening their capacity for struggle; more and larger co-ops; increasing the membership and popularity of the party and its related cultural clubs; deepening the socialist intellectuals’ understanding of economics, the materialist conception of history, and expanding the reach of the socialist publications, etc.”

It is hard to see how anyone could be opposed to the ideas that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien suggest. Having socialist intellectuals with more understanding of economics would be excellent, as would more cultural clubs (film showings, parties, poetry/literature reading, sports clubs and so on). Of course we are critical of and organise against bureaucratised leadership, but simply because we are opposed to trade union bureaucracies this doesn’t mean we are opposed to trade unions. The questions of democracy and social function are central to all these debates, namely, who controls it and what is it for?

The authors create a false counterposition which doesn’t really exist in the revolutionary movement. They claim that a strategic orientation on insurrection means that socialists denigrate the necessary long-term work that goes into building more powerful working class social movement institutions. This is simply not the case — though it is true that recently many people on the revolutionary left are very guilty of bandwagon jumping and not putting in the time in to build serious campaigns and organisations that can strengthen the struggles of working people. I would argue that this is not caused by a commitment to insurrection against capitalism (since this invokes the lazy stereotype that all revolutionaries merely wait for the “great day” and do little else), but by a lack of strategic thinking and a laziness which seeks short-term growth and gains over the longer-term perspective — otherwise known as opportunism. But there is nothing inherent in the revolutionary method that means that socialists absent themselves from the kind of work that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say is important.

The authors cite the coup in Chile in 1973 as the classic example of why revolutionary socialists believe that the state must be smashed, but we could add another, more recent example — not from a radical left perspective, it is true — but an example of an entrenched bureaucracy and military that will happily undermine a democratically elected government if it is seen to conflict with its interests, namely the ongoing events in Egypt with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government and the systematic persecution meted out against its activists. If this is what can happen to a pro-neoliberal party such as the Muslim Brotherhood, imagine what would have happened to a radical left coalition that actually tried to remove some of the power from the army generals.

The article also fails to grapple with the crucial Marxist distinction that the state is made up of legislative and executive functions. Of course it is not theoretically out of the question that a radical left party could capture the legislature through elections, but is the executive (police, civil service, army) willing to simply follow orders from the politicians if those orders contradict the entire logic of the social structure upon which these institutions are founded? This crucial distinction is the linchpin of much Marxist thinking on the state, and while we don’t want to be too schematic or vulgar about it, since in politics there can be all types of complex social arrangements in something as multifaceted as the modern British state, nevertheless the question of where the real power lies in society is something that the articles do not deal with in any serious way.

Where is power in society?

Put simply, does power reside in parliament or in the executive of the state and its ideological and social overlap with the “captains of industry”, the 1%, the media conglomerates and so on? Parliament can exercise a degree of control over those with real power — for a time — but they cannot hope to abolish them. That is why concentrating everything on seizing the legislature is at best a distraction, at worst a trap which will allow those with real power to organise to smash any threat as a result of the movement placing its hopes in a place dislocated from actual power relations.

Having said this, the authors are right to criticise certain “ultra-left” thinking that “all democracy is bourgeois” and therefore too contaminated or corrupt to be engaged with. Today the lines of fight and contours of cutting-edge political struggle are happening around the contested position of democracy. That there is hostility to the elite minority that runs society and to out of control institutions such as the right wing press, the police and politicians is clear, though sadly it is cut through with a general feeling of apathy. Nevertheless revolutionaries would do well to seek to extend and strengthen democracy as much as possible today, using it to raise questions at the limits of bourgeois democracy, especially around ownership (Why are bankers so rich? Why do they have to much power? Why did we just hand over billions to the banks? and so on). We could do much worse than point out that we want democracy; in fact, we are the most consistent democrats because we want to extend democracy across society, including to the economy through institutions of popular power and control.

The left reformist argument dismisses the “insurrectionary path” of popular assemblies in favour of a struggle for control of the already existing state — but in doing so they reveal themselves to be in favour of a far less democratic path than we are. We want popular democratic control which goes beyond the narrow confines of parliament and the state, even one run by a left government with mass support. The revolutionary approach wants to create the conditions in which people emancipate themselves through forging as much direct control of their own lives as possible. The electoralist approach ultimately reduces all questions of power down to the question of the vote for a government (every five years? every year? We are not told). Which is a superior method in terms of overcoming our self-alienation?

Concede the point

But at the end of the article, the authors themselves concede so much ground to the revolutionary argument about the dangers of a counter-revolution that they talk about the near-inevitability of a street revolution “if the democratic process” is disrupted by some force or other. They write, “At some point the reactionaries will try to move onto more aggressive measures, including investment strikes and ultimately a coup d’état.” Well, quite. The point that revolutionaries make is that no ruling class in history (especially not one as powerful as the present-day ruling class) has ever disappeared quietly. We aren’t talking about a few left reforms; we are talking about a radical overhaul of our entire social relations, and resistance to that from many quarters is inevitable. The intensity and ferocity of that resistance will only be decided by the context of the social struggle itself. But one thing we cannot do is lull people into a false sense of security that everything can be achieved peacefully. We have to prepare people politically and then materially for such a struggle, otherwise slaughter of the progressive forces is a far more likely outcome.

Having read through the argument of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, I think it fails to really make a new case for a reinvigorated left reformism, no doubt because left reformism is really quite exhausted in Britain at the moment. This is not to say it is dead or finished, but it lacks the energy and inspiration for new ideas and new thinking. It can’t even get a serious foothold in the Labour Party any more. The authors are aiming for mass socialist parties similar for instance to those in countries such as France and Germany, where new left reformist parties have emerged onto the national terrain. But once again the approach of these reformist parties is leading them to succumb to the ideological grip of the states they are trying to reform. There is also the experience of the Green Party in control of Brighton council, which for all its anti-austerity talk ended up with a bin workers’ strike with leading Green Party members calling for people to scab, and a botched attempt to stop cuts locally by raising the council tax. Not an impressive record.

The revolutionary position of seeing electoral work as one tactic among many, where your candidates are champions and representatives of the struggle, not career politicians, and where your vote isn’t based on electoralism but is a reflection of the serious work you are doing outside of parliament — in the real world, is still a superior model. Having said this, having representatives of the movement with consistent left wing positions in parliament or local councils is an important cause to fight for. Without political representation of some kind we are always fighting with one hand behind our back, relying exclusively on social movements when we lack any voice in the mainstream political arena. The important difference between revolutionaries and Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien is that we don’t rely on our representatives in parliament to create the transition to socialism, but they do.

The revolutionary party

In the far more useful second part of the article, the authors make a valid and insightful criticism of the insurrectionary approach to the revolutionary party: “But in the vanguard model the most long-lasting organisation is the revolutionary party which is precisely the one that is least able to grow to a considerable size. It is only the ephemeral single-issue campaigns and ideologically fluffy alliances which are able to achieve major proportions and they, because of what they are, are structurally incapable of persisting through time, thereby preventing any possibility of cumulative growth.” In essence, we need to build lasting organisations that can strengthen the class, but communists only build a party and short-lived united fronts. As such they can never get into a position of positive accumulation of power and influence across society. It is true that too many revolutionary sects see the growth of their own sect as the sine qua non of the working class struggle, but that isn’t the whole picture. It is a vulgar conception of the party that leads to this approach; any serious and healthy revolutionary organisation today would precisely be doing the kind of work of “attrition” that the authors talk about, creating social clubs and cultural events, women’s, youth, LGBTQ and black organisations, and so on.

Why can’t revolutionaries do this kind of work? The authors make quite vulgar criticisms which wouldn’t be out of place in a tabloid exposé: “Promulgating revolutionary insurrection, smashing the state, etc., does not at all mix with chatting to Mary about the cut to child benefit.” This assumes that revolutionaries only talk about revolution, which is simply not true. It also assumes that Mary can’t or won’t make links between social injustices under capitalism and the idea of a completely new system — which is unfair on Mary, to say the least. But their point that “without being able to relate the day-to-day with the long-term project, the proponents of socialism will remain very isolated intellectuals” is always worth bearing in mind. The danger is that we fall into the same trap as befell socialists many decades ago, that the fight for reforms becomes the only thing you do, and the end goal is lost. In fact worse — as the two authors demonstrate — since they believe that having revolution as your end goal is actually a barrier to relating to people so it is better to drop it entirely. This is how large sections of the Second International began to go over to reformism, which led to a compromise with the existing state structures and ended up with alliances with their individual national ruling classes in the First World War. We do not wish to repeat this path.

The other historical reason why the socialist left hasn’t done what the German Social Democrats or Italian Communist Party did is that after the Second World War European capital developed the welfare state and expanded education, and we all got cheap radios and TVs. In other words working class people no longer had to rely on a party to provide them with education, social activity or entertainment. This might come unravelled, however, with the running down and dismantling of the welfare state. With the growth of serious poverty across many countries there is a space opening up for socialists to engage in the kind of cultural and social activities that people previously didn’t need so much — including organising food banks and free film showings with cheap food and drink.

To be fair to the authors they also discuss at length the dangers of being co-opted into the system, and they honestly explain the dangers of a strategy of attrition. Their point, however, is an interesting one — building mass parties and getting your hands dirty in reformism is a game you might lose, but building a revolutionary sect and nothing else is a game you can’t lose but in which you will never win. What this points to is the importance of revolutionaries getting stuck in to the struggles that emerge today, not to see them as an opportunity to sell papers and recruit the “ones and twos” but to contribute ideas around how these campaigns can be strengthened to win. This isn’t the preserve of left reformists: the revolutionary left can and does have good ideas as well, we just need to get organised to make them happen. This means a revolutionary organisation, not a sect, that can build these struggles and types of institutions in a way that actually empowers people and improves their lives.

Which strategy?

The authors are honest enough to point to the pitfalls of their strategy and its problems historically, but actually what they are pointing out is that neither strategy on the left can be shown to be superior simply through the historical examples. It is true the Russian Revolution of 1917 overthrew a capitalist government and created — for a short time — a workers’ state. But it degenerated very rapidly and then became one of the chief instruments of spreading counter-revolutionary practices internationally, perverting the cause of communism to create monstrous dictatorships over one third of the planet. However, the left reformist strategy also suffered its own terrible fate, becoming an appendage of the right reformists who became loyal allies of the capitalist class and eventually sold out the movement — in Germany actually leading the counter-revolutionary slaughter of a workers’ uprising. History gives us little comfort today.

However, once you get past their sometimes silly dismissal of the revolutionary left, some of the ideas that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien put forward can certainly strengthen our struggles, and there is much for a revolutionary organisation to engage with. But as long as the existence of the ruling class continues, and as it remains the case that a system founded and sustained by violence led by a violent ruling elite will not be overthrown peacefully, then a revolutionary perspective remains essential. As a consequence, building a revolutionary organisation remains essential. Today, building organisations that can strengthen the socialist left and aid us in the fight for reforms also remains essential. But we should never confuse the immediate tasks with the final goal — that way leads a complete collapse of strategy or any attempt to develop an anti-systemic politics.

The most disastrous course would be for revolutionaries to survey the terrain of the class struggle, conclude that it is not revolutionary and then abandon their organisations and politics for a purely reformist approach, whether it be “pure and simple” trade unionism or single-issue campaigning or only building a reformist party since “that is where the workers are at”. It is essential that we continue to organise, recruit and train revolutionary socialist activists to prepare for coming struggle and a growth of resistance. This also means engaging with the existing struggles and being the best fighters for reforms, as well as making the connections between the current issues facing people and the general exploitation and oppression of the system under which we all live. This might sounds like socialist ABC, but in the current period when everything seems so jumbled and “fluid” it is absolutely worth remembering and fighting for the basics.

(Originally posted on International Socialist Network)

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