“Left Reformism, the State and Politics Today”

Debate with Prof Paul Blackledge, July 2014

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Building Unity, Taking Power

Speaking in London on October 2013 at “Building Unity, Taking Power: Left Histories and Contemporary Practice” organised by the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, International Socialist Network and Socialist Resistance.

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“Left Reformism” and Socialist Strategy

First published in International Socialism, 140, Autumn 2013, pp. 83-102

There[1] has been a significant revival of interest amongst the radical left in “big picture” questions of socialist strategy which, as Mark Thomas has pointed out, represents a return to “important debates of the left largely absent over the last three decades”.[2] It is not difficult to identify the major factors driving this. Several years of deep capitalist crisis together with the almost total capitulation of social democratic parties across Europe to the austerity agenda has opened up a clear space to the left of these organisations – a development which has reinvigorated the radical left, but which has also forced it to confront fundamental questions of strategic orientation. Furthermore the dramatic rise of Syriza in Greece – the political force which has most successfully moved to fill the space to the left of social democracy – has also, clearly, been a major factor informing the revival of this debate. Indeed Syriza’s electoral ascent to the point at which it is now widely seen as a possible party of government in waiting poses the question, in very immediate and pressing terms, of how, and to what extent, capitalist state power might be utilised for socialist objectives – one of the oldest and most fundamental controversies in socialist thought.

Much of this debate pivots on the concept of “left reformism”. At least this is a concept deployed with some frequency, currently, in commentaries and analyses emanating from members of the SWP. The SWP uses the term “left reformism” to describe the general strategic orientation of Syriza and other similar political formations such as the Front de Gauche in France and Die Linke in Germany. That is to say that it is used to refer to the political outlook and approach of radical left-wing organisations which typically seek to combine electoral and parliamentary activity on the one hand with extra-parliamentary mobilisation on the other. Crucially, these formations seek to utilise parliamentary channels to introduce radical reforms and thus a central component of left reformist strategy is to seek to form a “left government” within the institutions of the capitalist state.

The SWP has been particularly quick off the mark to apply the “left reformism” label to the Left Unity initiative in Britain. Certainly the SWP sees the emergence of Left Unity as part of a wider trend on the left internationally which is one in which “left reformist” ideas have acquired a certain voguish dominance. Indeed there has been a small flurry of publications emanating from SWP members in recent weeks and months in which “left reformism” is analysed and in which Left Unity is taken as a specific instance of this phenomenon.[3] The basic argument put forward is that, although the strengthening and proliferation of “left reformist” ideas should be welcomed by Marxists in the Leninist tradition (because this expresses a radicalising political dynamic), no illusions should be sown in the capacity of “left reformism” to “open the way to socialism”. Correspondingly, the SWP’s approach to organisations such as Left Unity is to seek to work with them where possible, but to remain critical of the strategic approach they espouse.

In this article I shall put forward a defence of the idea of a left government as a necessary component of a wider strategy of revolutionary change. As such my argument almost certainly qualifies as “left reformist” from the SWP’s perspective, although I dislike the term and think it is not a very useful one[4] – at least in the way that it is currently being used – for reasons I shall set out below.[5]


The argument against left reformism

Let’s examine the arguments against left reformism. The general thrust of the critique is that left reformist formations fail to break fundamentally with the logic of reformism more generally and thus do not escape the latter’s core limitations. It is, in particular, their commitment to the path of using the existing state to implement reforms (their “parliamentary statism” as Blackledge puts it)[6] which leads almost inexorably to a situation in which left reformists take on responsibility for managing, rather than seriously challenging, capitalism no matter how radical their original intentions may have been.

How does this logic of capitulation unfold? Blackledge’s key point seems to be that parliamentary statism pivots on the mistaken assumption that the capitalist state is class neutral and may just as plausibly be used for radical purposes as for any other. Blackledge points out, however, that despite the “very real degree of autonomy that modern states have from capital”,[7] their activity is constrained within certain limits – which are those presented by the imperatives of capital accumulation. In order to fill this out in more concrete terms, Blackledge draws on Chris Harman’s notion of “structural interdependence”:[8]

Capitalist firms need capitalist states to provide a “pro-business” context, and states need healthy firms as a source of tax revenue. This creates a relationship of “structural interdependence” between states and capital.[9]

Blackledge also draws on Fred Block’s fairly similar account of capitalist state power,[10] which is (in very basic terms) that the particular constraints in which state managers must operate, including, importantly, the international context of competition between states, strongly compels them to act in ways which secure the efficient reproduction of capitalism. These constraints on state autonomy, Blackledge points out, take on a particular ideological appearance in conjunction with the wider “naturalisation” of capitalist social relations that is typical of the consciousness of individuals in bourgeois society. They appear, that is, as natural limits to the realm of the politically and economically possible rather than class determined and specifically capitalist ones.

The upshot of all of this for left reformist movements is that they tend, sooner or later, to dilute their political aims and practices so that these become fully compatible with capitalist limits. The closer such groups get to power the more intense the pressure of “political realism” asserts itself on the leadership and the more they feel compelled to act as a “responsible government” in waiting. Thus part of the logic of this process of degeneration is for the leadership of left reformist parties to reign-in and subdue radicalism amongst rank and file activists and supporters.

Another problem inherent in parliamentary statism is that, as Molyneux puts it:

Strategies for the taking over of the existing state are, by their nature, ones in which the pre-eminent active role is played by parliamentary leaders, and other notables… while the role of the masses is to provide support for this process at the top.[11]

Left reformism, he suggests, involves a state-led, top-down conception of social transformation. As Thomas points out, however, “socialism can only be the outcome of workers’ own activity”.[12] In fact the drift of the SWP argument in this respect is that left reformism does not aim at a genuine form of socialism at all. So, for example, both Molyneux and Blackledge argue that, in contrast to the revolutionary socialist aim of a qualitatively new and fuller form of democracy based on workers’ councils, left reformists intend merely to take over and transform the existing state. Blackledge is clear, indeed, that left reformists and revolutionaries differ not merely in their methods but in their very goals. The clear implication, here, is that left reformists have a more or less Stalinist or Old Labour conception of socialism – a “state socialist” or “state capitalist” view – rather than one based on soviets and democratic planning.

Thomas raises a number of additional problems that a left reformist movement would encounter if it managed to win government power while still maintaining some significant degree of radicalism. He points out that a left government would face a big problem of capital flight and investment strikes – and the structural interdependence between state and capital, of course, means that this would put huge economic pressure on the government to retreat from its programme of reforms. Further, it would face serious resistance from within the state. Indeed Thomas stresses that the capitalist state machine itself would not be under the control of a left government. For his part, Molyneux remarks:

The capitalist state with its “bodies of armed men”, its armed forces and police, its secret services, judges and top bureaucrats, will not sit idly by and permit a “left” government to roll out its… reforms….[13]

Thomas suggests that only pressure from a mass workers’ movement outside parliament would offer any possible means of overcoming such resistance – but there are difficulties in this respect:

to overcome such resistance from the state as well as capital requires more than simply pressure from workers but very high levels of mass mobilisation capable of paralysing the economy and the actions of the state. To carry this through will require new and much more responsive democratic institutions to organise such mobilisations – workers’ councils.[14]

The problem here is that “such a co-existence of the capitalist state alongside an embryonic workers’ state” would be highly unstable. Here, Thomas draws on the classic Leninist vision of “dual power” in which there would exist “a fight to the death between two rival centres of power, each embodying different class interests”. The logic of the left reformist strategy would be for its leadership to clamp down on emerging forms of workers’ democracy because “having accepted that the state can be utilised to achieve a social transformation, a left government will tend to see threats to the integrity of that state machine as something to be resisted”.[15]

Blackledge, Thomas and Molyneux all, in addition, survey the historical record in relation to left governments. The common conclusion here is that “in none of these examples, nor in any other instance, did left reformism succeed in ‘opening the way to socialism’”.[16] All are clear that none of this is to say that revolutionaries would not welcome the election of a left government which would reflect and, initially at least, help to deepen working class political confidence. Nevertheless they stress that revolutionaries should maintain their political independence from such a government and try to break workers’ illusions in it in the knowledge that, sooner or later, it would seek to subordinate working class struggle to the need to manage capitalism.

The Limitations of left reformism as a concept and as a label

One of the problems with the idea of left reformism as it used by its critics is that it functions as a very broad catch-all term and as such its analytical usefulness seems to me somewhat limited. In Molyneux’s use of the term, for example, left reformism seems to encompass a diverse range of historical formations and phenomena from Attlee’s 1945 government through to left Eurocommunism and Blackledge uses the term similarly. It is true that Blackledge makes a vague distinction between left reformism on the one hand and “centrist” currents on the other, where what is characteristic about the latter is that they typically “claim to have transcended the division between reform and revolution”.[17] Nevertheless it soon becomes clear that for Blackledge left reformism and centrism incorporate similar flaws and indeed he simply runs them together, treating them as more or less synonymous, in the analysis that follows.[18] The trouble with this approach is that it lumps together a pretty wide spectrum of political positions, presenting them all as much of a muchness. From this perspective everyone from a left social democrat through to those who advocate “structural reforms” in order to help spark the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is a left reformist and may be analysed in the same terms.

One of the lines of argumentation that this process of lumping together opens up is that it allows you to focus critical attention on one strand of left reformism and then assume that the failings you identify in this regard also apply to other strands since these are all merely instances of the same thing. So in this way analysis of the more “moderate” wing of left reformism which is apparently only slightly further to the left than mainstream reformism, for example, becomes an analysis of left reformism as a whole. In my view both Molyneux and Blackledge at times tend to slip into this method of arguing. So, for example (as we have seen), Molyneux and Blackledge suggest that left reformist commitment to using the state to introduce reforms means that they are, in fact, committed to a goal of “state socialism” rather than soviet power. Further, Molyneux suggests that left reformists do not understand the difference between nationalisation and socialism. Blackledge’s argument implies that left reformists, like more mainstream kinds of reformists whose essential limitations the former do not overcome, do not grasp that the capitalist state is not class neutral. Now, all of these criticisms may well apply to some forms of what the SWP refers to as left reformism – “Bennism” for example – but they hardly apply to all. Moreover, do Blackledge and Molyneux really think that the more radical currents involved in Syriza do not understand the difference between “state socialism” and workers’ power or, for that matter, that the Fourth International (which fully supports the perspective of a left government in Greece)[19] is unaware that nationalisation and socialism are not the same thing and holds to a reformist view of the neutrality of the capitalist state?

Indeed there is something rather condescending about all of this – and, sadly, it is all too familiar. There is a tendency among sections of the revolutionary left to talk down to their opponents as if the latter are by definition political naïfs blundering around in unenlightened darkness. This attitude often seems to be buttressed by the assumption that Leninism (or the favoured interpretation of it) comprises a series of complete and final truths and that, certainly, nothing can be learned from those who are, at best, groping their way toward the light. I found it significant in this regard that although I was clear in my Socialist Review article that a strategy for socialism involving a left government would, unavoidably, encounter severe problems, not one of the articles written (in part) in response indicated a single difficulty inherent in the Leninist approach they sought to affirm. It is much too facile, however, to point to the concrete problems left reformism may encounter in practice, and then simply assert the correctness of Leninist strategy as if this, in comparison, would be a matter of plain sailing. Given the magnitude of the kinds of changes socialists want to see and the power and resources of those who would resist them, no conceivable strategy for socialism could avoid serious problems and dilemmas along the way.

Blackledge states that “to say that a formation is left reformist does not imply that we dismiss them”[20] and indeed he is at pains to emphasise that revolutionaries should seek to work closely with organisations such as Left Unity – but it is difficult for those of us who are given this label not to feel that there is something dismissive about the way in which it is used. The indiscriminating catch-all nature of the concept together with what can appear to be condescension is more likely to irritate those who find themselves labelled in this way than it is to convince them of their errors. This seems counter-productive if the aim is to work closely with the formations categorised in these terms.

A Strategy of Revolutionary Reforms

What the SWP refers to as left reformism – any strategic perspective which, while not the same thing as mainstream reformism, seeks directly to utilise the capitalist state machine for socialist purposes – is actually, then, a very broad field containing several different approaches. I have suggested that some of the criticisms that figures such as Blackledge and Molyneux direct at left reformism (which imply that the socialism of all of those corralled into this conceptual camp is pretty rudimentary) simply do not map on to some left government perspectives. Let us look in a little more detail at one such approach.

In his Strategy for Labor and Socialism and Revolution[21] André Gorz sketches out a strategy in which a left government implements a series of what he calls “structural reforms” or “revolutionary reforms” which, if successful, would culminate in a decisive, revolutionary seizure of power on the part of the working class. He is clear that for socialism to come into being, the capitalist state would have to be destroyed and replaced with a new state based on workers’ councils.

The key point for Gorz is that revolution can only emerge organically and dialectically through a process of struggle for reform. Socialist revolutionary consciousness must be built through a pedagogical process of “struggle for feasible objectives corresponding to the experience, needs and aspirations of the workers”.[22] At first these “feasible objectives” will be limited to reforms within capitalism – or at least to measures which, from the stand-point of a more or less reformist working class consciousness, appear to be legitimate and achievable within the system, but which may actually run counter to the logic of capitalism and start to push up against its limits. As the working class engages in struggle, however, the anti-capitalist implications of its needs and aspirations are gradually revealed. At the same time, through its experience of struggle for reform, the working class learns about its capacity for “self-management, initiative and collective decision” and can have a “foretaste of what emancipation means”.[23] In this way struggle for reform helps prepare the class psychologically, ideologically and materially for revolution.

For Gorz this radicalising process of struggle for reforms would depend for its success on the coming to power of a left government. The working class, after all, would require some sort of political instrument to lead in carrying them out. This would be a government whose reforming perspective was not limited to what Gorz calls, merely “reformist reform”. A “reformist reform is one which subordinates its objectives to the criteria of rationality and practicability of a given system”.[24] In contrast “revolutionary reforms” are designed to break out of this logic and to destabilise the system. Each such reform brings concrete gains for the working class but also open up the possibility of further changes.

The strategy, then, depends on dialectical interaction between a mass workers’ movement and a left government where the latter pushes its representatives within the state to implement its (escalating series of) demands and where these representatives are committed to a perspective of empowering the mass movement. Further the fundamental aim of the programme of reform must be, as we have seen, to create the conditions in which the working class can take power – and this requires the emergence of institutions of workers’ democracy. A crucial objective for a programme of revolutionary reform must be to encourage the formation and strengthening of such institutions.

The great strength of this sort of strategy is that although it is not reformist it is able to engage with the typically reformist perspective of the working class. It seeks to harness working class reformism as the initial driving force for a process of change which, as it unfolds, goes beyond reformist limits. Indeed, as Alberto Toscano indicates, a project of structural reform may begin rather modestly with defensive struggles to resist attacks on the welfare state[25] – and indeed this today has to be the starting point for a strategy which aims to take up immediate demands corresponding to the general consciousness of the working class in the here and now and articulate these with longer-term anti-capitalist objectives.

It is another advantage of this sort of strategy that it seems to correspond, relatively closely at least (in comparison with the dual power perspective), with developments in the weak link of European capitalism where social struggles are at their most intense – Greece. That is to say that in the European country in which socialist forces have made the biggest advance, radicalised sections of the working class are looking, overwhelmingly, to Syriza to form a left government in order to implement a series of measures which, however moderate they may seem in themselves, are likely to run up against the limits of what capital will allow. In fact it is worth pointing out that it was Alex Tsipras’ call for a “government of the left” which constituted a turning point in the party’s electoral fortunes[26] – this call strongly resonated with Greek workers and, as Richard Seymour points out, the “same call is likely to reverberate in other situations, where austerity combines with the breakdown of social democracy”.[27]

This is not, of course, to argue that Syriza’s leadership is consciously committed to a strategy of revolutionary reform. It is to say, however, that the anti-austerity measures Syriza is committed to implement if it comes to power are likely to bring it into direct confrontation with the forces of domestic and international capital. As Stathis Kouvelakis has argued a Syriza government would face an immediate, stark choice: either to surrender and renege on its commitments, or to press ahead “engaging in a protracted battle which would almost certainly lead to results that go beyond the current objectives put forward by Syriza”. This second possibility, he continues,

would conform I think to a quite familiar in history pattern of processes of social and political change, where the dynamic of the situation, boosted of course by the pressure of popular mobilization, pushes actors (or at least some of them) beyond their initial intentions.[28]

This would be a situation in which a programme of structural reforms comes squarely onto the agenda – in fact Syriza would already have set off, de facto, in this direction of travel.

So how would this type of strategy measure up in relation to the various criticisms levelled against left reformism? Clearly, this is not an approach which confuses “state socialism” with genuine socialism or nationalisation with workers’ power. It is not an elitist strategy either in which reforms are handed down from above to an essentially passive mass. It recognises, however, that the emergence of a revolutionary subject confident in its own abilities of self-government must be seen as a process rather than something that can arrive out of nowhere. Neither is it premised on the idea of the class neutrality of the state machine and the associated idea that the capitalist state can be transformed into a socialist one. It is a strategy which seeks to utilise the capitalist state within the constraints that its structural interdependence with capital present in order to construct the conditions in which the working class can take power and wield this directly through their own institutions of democracy.

Why should we believe that the degree of state autonomy within the constraints presented by structural interdependence might be extensive enough to allow for the implementation of radical reforms? It is important to grasp that for Block (on whose theory Blackledge draws as we have seen) there is nothing automatic or guaranteed, over the short-term at least, about the state’s tendency to function in ways which secure bourgeois interests – it is, precisely, a tendency. This tendency emerges from the particular converging pressures that state managers come under. The major pressure here, as Blackledge indicates, is to ensure that state policy encourages capitalist investment since the state’s ability to finance itself depends on the condition of the capitalist economy. However, Blackledge does not mention that for Block the state also faces pressures from other sources too and that key amongst these is working class struggle. In normal circumstances state managers will ensure, given their interest in capitalist growth, that the reforms they grant in response to working class demands are compatible with capital accumulation or, better, that they improve conditions for accumulation. Nevertheless he is clear that this does not occur smoothly or without the possibility of implementing reforms which cannot be integrated easily into the capital accumulation process. Indeed Block argues that a strong working class can force state managers to reform capitalism in ways which are not compatible with its efficient reproduction. [29]

Block’s account of the way in which the state functions assumes, naturally, that state managers are not normally radical socialists. However, if the political executive amongst those state managers was made up of socialists with a transitional perspective they would, of course, be much more likely to respond positively to demands which run counter to the interests of capital than those who are only likely to do so if absolutely forced. This is certainly not to say that a left government could somehow evade altogether the constraints on state action presented by capital. Clearly the structural dependence of the state on capital means that there are limits to how far a process of radical reform could go – a point would come at which a socialist movement would face a choice between pressing forward to revolution or retreat and capitulation. What Block’s theory does suggest, however, is that the degree of autonomy the state possesses provides space for a project of radical reform within capitalism.

How could such a strategy stand up to the intense hostility of capital and reactionary forces within the state? We have seen that Leninist critics insist that a left government would not be able to withstand such pressure. Yet, when their arguments are investigated closely it is often possible to discern a certain ambiguity in this regard. In an article critical of left reformism, for example, Alex Callinicos comments:

to the extent that Syriza in government were to implement measures against austerity this would need very powerful pressure from below both to keep it on track and to defend it from the furious reaction these measures would provoke.

Further, he argues that “revolutionaries must organise to help counter the immense power that capital can bring to bear on [left] reformist parties and governments”.[30] This rather suggests that, if buttressed and forced on by extra-parliamentary forces, left reformist governments could actually resist bourgeois hostility to some significant degree.

Of course much, here, rides on the fact that Leninists such as Callinicos and Blackledge insist that, in order to be able to impose this pressure, revolutionary socialists must maintain their political independence of that government. Maybe this is so, but I cannot see any reason why, in the sort of strategy outlined by Gorz, the extra-parliamentary movement should not act significantly independently of government representatives. Indeed, Gorz’s vision is precisely of a mass movement driving the government on to introduce more and more far-reaching measures – which implies a substantial degree of autonomy. There is surely ample scope within this strategy, furthermore, for revolutionary socialist groups to join such an extra-parliamentary movement while also maintaining their political independence.

Thomas is clear that, in principle, mass mobilisation could provide the means to overcome capitalist resistance but insists that the institutions this movement would have to create in order to achieve this would come into conflict with the state. Clearly this possibility cannot be discounted but it is worth pointing out that Thomas’ analysis seems to rest on the assumption that in any left reformist strategy the capitalist state must be regarded as the primary and more or less exclusive instrument of socialist transformation and that, indeed, it does not disappear in the process but is, rather, transformed somehow into a socialist state from within. The revolutionary reformist strategy, however, does aim to do away with the capitalist state and replace it with a socialist system of workers’ councils, but also pivots on the judgement that such a system could not develop without struggle for a series of reforms that help bring it into being.

Would this not bring the risk that the demands and activities of the movement are constantly subordinated to an over-riding objective of not “embarrassing” or hindering the left government? Again, yes, this does seem to be an inherent risk. Nevertheless, there is something unsatisfactory about the way Leninist arguments about tensions between left reformist groups and mass movements seem to rest on an implicit assumption that this can be contrasted with an alternative which is free of such dangers. Would a workers’ movement under Leninist leadership not contain its own inherent tensions and contradictions? Is not the relationship between party and class in the Leninist schema precisely one of dialectical interaction – which, by definition, encompasses specific differences – rather than a relationship of harmonious uniformity?

What about Molyneux’s point that reactionary forces in the state “will not sit idly by and permit a ‘left’ government to roll out its revolutionary reforms”? At the risk of seeming trite, however, the obvious retort here is that it is also quite hard to see why these forces would “sit idly by” and watch revolutionary forces construct an embryonic workers’ state in a situation moving toward dual power. As pointed out above there is no conceivable route to socialism which could somehow sidestep the problem that very powerful forces will be ranged against it or the fact, indeed, that any attempt at the socialist transformation of society will necessarily involve great risks.

A similar table-turning argument can be utilised in regard to the list of historical failures Leninists set out in relation to left reformism. It is true that left reformism has never “opened the way to socialism”, but, again at the risk of triteness, the historical record of revolutionary socialism is not exactly wonderful either. Moreover while Leninists produce a relatively long list of failed left reformist projects and compare this unfavourably with the one “successful”[31] genuine socialist revolution, the balance sheet here can be interpreted, equally plausibly, in a very different way. The major lesson it seems to offer from my perspective is that while there has never been a socialist revolution in an “advanced” capitalist country, and while Leninist ideas have never won mass support in any of them, the left reformist perspective of taking power within the capitalist state has had a great deal more success. If we are to develop a strategy for socialism today which might plausibly win popular support we have to produce one which pivots on this perspective.

The Leninist bind: the problem of transitional demands and government power

Let’s consider the Leninist alternative. The key problem here is that it is not entirely clear how things move from the current political situation to one in which a network of soviets emerge and a revolutionary scenario comes onto the immediate agenda. Of course, it is true that Leninists are clear that revolution emerges from practical struggles for reforms – but there is still something of a leap here. How, concretely, does a revolutionary situation emerge from the day-to-day struggles of the working class? The question is surely all the more pressing given that in Greece – where capitalist crisis is at its most acute and where popular resistance to austerity at its most advanced – soviet power shows no sign of emerging.

This is exactly the problem, of course, that Trotsky attempted to address with his programme of “transitional demands” which was designed to “bridge” the divide between the “minimum programme” of reform and the “maximum programme” of revolution. Transitional demands “start from the immediate needs of the struggle, but the logic of pursuing them implies a conflict with capital”.[32] There has been something of a return to the idea of transitional demands within the SWP in the last few years – impelled, perhaps, by a sense that the party’s strategic perspective requires more concrete elaboration. Callinicos set out a series of measures conceived in this way in his An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto, for example.[33] More recently, in an article for this journal, he has argued for the development of transitional demands geared toward current struggles against austerity.[34] He draws here on radical reform proposals drawn up by Costas Lapavitsas amongst others in the Research on Money and Finance (RMF) group, designed for implementation in Greece. These include, for example, “a broad programme of public ownership and control over the economy”.[35]

What is striking about Callinicos’ transitional proposals is that they seem remarkably close to what the SWP terms left reformism – they would certainly qualify as such if Callinicos could bring himself to call for a government of the left to carry them out. It is here, however, that his argument becomes rather mysterious. Who or what, precisely, is to carry out these transitional demands? Callinicos’ ISJ article is, in my view, particularly circumspect in relation to this question. Callinicos seems to be in an odd position where his argument appears to imply the necessity of a “left government” despite the fact that this is a perspective he criticises elsewhere. Furthermore, though the article was published before the dramatic rise in Syriza’s electoral fortunes, it is presumably the case that he still holds today to the positions he puts forward in it – and this seems to raise questions about his stance specifically in relation to the question of Syriza. Surely the only entity remotely likely to implement the sort of demands the RMF group propose would be a Syriza, or Syriza-led, government. Yet Callinicos refuses to back Syriza’s left government perspective. Of course, a major sticking point here is that Syriza refuses to commit to withdrawal from the euro – which is one of the key components of the RMF group’s proposals. Nevertheless, Kouvelakis has argued powerfully, as we have seen, that confrontation with capital is likely to drive Syriza beyond their initial intentions and indeed he is clear that they are likely to be driven to exit the euro.[36] In any case the question remains: who or what else might reasonably be expected to implement the sorts of demands for which Callinicos calls?

Things are slightly clearer in An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto. Here Callinicos remarks that the sort of transitional reforms he proposes “can only be won by a movement that maintains its political independence”[37] from the state – so a strategy involving taking government power within capitalism appears to be off limits. However, this is hardly satisfactory either. Callinicos appears to be suggesting that a government which is not committed to a socialist perspective can be induced to enact a series of radical reforms which seriously undermine capitalism and galvanise a revolutionary challenge against it. It is hard to believe that a pro-capitalist government is likely to do this. Callinicos’ programme in this book surely implies the need for some sort of left government as does his ISJ article.

So the Leninist strategic perspective today seems caught in a bind. In its most concrete accounts of how struggles for reform are to be transformed into revolutionary struggles, government implemented reforms seem to play a key role and yet it is insisted that revolutionary movements must remain independent of the capitalist state. The problem here is that this provides no clear explanation of how a government likely to enact a series of transitional measures is to come into being. The logic of approaches such as Callinicos’ seems to demand a left government – but this logic is ignored because to grasp it would mean abandoning a fundamental tenet of the SWP’s thinking. As John Riddell remarks in relation to the idea of a transitional programme, however, demands “for social reforms ring hollow unless capped by the perspective of a workers’ political instrument to lead in carrying them out”.[38] Indeed, Riddell – a noted scholar whose work focuses on the Communist movement in the era of the Russian Revolution – argues that Lenin’s Communist International came to just this realisation in the early 1920s. This was expressed in the Comintern’s decision on what it called the “workers’ government” – a left government of the working class which would come to power within the institutions of the capitalist state. It is worth examining this a little further.

The workers’ government perspective of the early Comintern

When the Comintern was formed in March 1919,” Riddell comments,

it set as its goal the transfer of power to the revolutionary workers’ councils that then existed, or seemed likely to be formed, in several countries of Europe. A later later, such councils no longer existed to any significant degree outside the Soviet republics.[39]

By the early 1920s it had become clear that revolution was no longer on the immediate agenda. The Comintern realised that its approach had to adapt to these new conditions; a strategy for revolutionaries in non-revolutionary circumstances was needed. It was in this context that it,

launched efforts to build a united front of workers’ struggle, challenging the organisations led by pro-capitalist officials to join in efforts to win immediate demands such as opening the capitalists’ financial records, workers’ control of distribution of food, shifting the tax burden to the rich, and arming workers for self-defence against reactionary gangs.[40]

These were early examples of transitional demands rooted in immediate needs but pointing toward workers’ power. This raised the question, however, of how such a programme could be implemented. The answer the Comintern settled on was that it could be put into effect by a “workers’ government”.

The notion of the workers’ government was controversial within the Comintern and furthermore there were different interpretations of the concept. Nevertheless its most vigorous proponents were clear that it would be a “transitional government, striking blows at capitalist power and seeking to open the road to a socialist transformation”.[41] It was crucial, furthermore that it emerged out of, and was driven forward by, mass workers’ struggles. Clara Zetkin emphasised that such a government must be,

born out of a forward movement and the struggle of large masses of the proletariat and must live and act in a close alliance with the forward movement and struggle of these masses.[42]

This was the conception of the workers’ government that was finally affirmed at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922. The core objective of such a government would be to prepare the conditions for the revolutionary seizure of power. For Zetkin the workers’ government was “the attempt to force the bourgeois state within its essential historic limitations to serve the historic interests of the proletariat”.[43]

Those in favour of the concept of a transitional workers’ government were aware that such a strategy would entail certain risks. Zetkin was clear that it would bring the danger of becoming prisoners of “opportunism” but there was, for her, no choice but to accept and seek to negotiate these dangers.[44] In circumstances in which there was no immediate prospect of revolution, the workers’ government presented the only obvious means by which workers’ power might be brought closer. Indeed, for Karl Radek, commenting on the situation in Germany (on which much of the debate focused), the workers’ government was “the only practical and real means of winning the majority of the working class to the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat”.[45]

Only two years after the perspective of the workers’ government was affirmed by the Fourth Congress, the Comintern began to retreat from this position as it entered a process of Stalinist degeneration. Nevertheless, what the decision of the Fourth Congress shows is that the Leninist tradition is not at all implacably opposed to the notion that a left government could be a significant transitional step toward socialism. Indeed in the thinking of Lenin’s Comintern struggle for a workers’ government flows logically from circumstances such as the ones we are in now in which soviets do not exist to any significant extent. Given this, then, it is quite hard to see why the SWP reject on principle – invoking the Leninist tradition as they do so – the idea that a left government might open the way to socialism.


After several years of deep capitalist crisis socialism still seems as far from the immediate political agenda as it has ever been. The radical left formations currently making the greatest political headway in Europe, however, are committed to the perspective of seeking to take power within capitalist institutions in order to implement radical reforms which many in those organisations hope will help to generate a transitional dynamic of change. Unfortunately the SWP is unable to relate in a wholly positive way to what it calls the left reformism of these formations. The SWP insists that there is nothing dismissive or disparaging about its attitude toward these groups, but it is hard to agree. There is something dismissive about an approach which focuses on lecturing these formations on their errors from an apparent position of absolute political certainty. Given that, on current evidence, it is left reformism rather than the Leninism of groups such as the SWP, which seems to have the greatest capacity by far to win mass support anyone might be forgiven for supposing that maybe it is not the SWP which should be giving the lectures. This, however, would be to put it rather harshly. Certainly left reformist formations have much to learn from the revolutionary tradition in which the SWP stands – but, equally, is it not the case that maybe the SWP also has something to learn from them?

This is not to say that any strategy which rests on reformist assumptions can be successful. We have seen, however, that the SWP’s analysis of left reformism corrals a wide spectrum of positions into the same camp and then insists, unconvincingly, that the camp and thus everyone in it is essentially reformist. It is possible however to hold the view that a left government must form part of a strategy for socialism (this, for the SWP, is the commitment characteristic of left reformism) while also holding to a revolutionary perspective. Indeed, I have argued that once the necessity of transitional demands is admitted – and it is hard to think of any other method of bridging the gap between day-to-day struggles and revolution – the strategic perspective that emerges also implies the necessity of some sort of left government. This need not be a problem, however, for those operating within the Leninist tradition because, as we saw, the workers’ government perspective of the early Comintern seems to provide the justification of historical precedent in this regard.

Many of those operating in groups labelled left reformist by the SWP would welcome a much more constructive relationship. Surely this would be assisted by a much more open approach in which it is admitted that, while of course there are lessons and guidelines to be drawn from the past, nobody really knows – nobody can know until it happens, if it ever does – how to make a socialist revolution today. There are no blueprints. Nobody has all the answers and we all have much to learn – from each other and most of all, of course, from the struggles ahead.


Baltas, Aristides, 2012, “The Rise of Syriza: an Interview with Aristides Baltas”, Socialist Register 2013 (Merlin).

Blackledge, Paul, 2013, “Left Reformism, the State and the Problem of Socialist Politics Today”, International   Socialism 139 (summer), http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=903&issue=139

Block, Fred, 1987, Revising State Theory: Essays in Politics and Postindustrialism (Temple University Press).

Callinicos, Alex, 2003, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Polity).

Callinicos, Alex, 2010, “Austerity Politics”, International Socialism 128 (autumn),     http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=678#128callinicos_16

Callinicos, Alex, 2012, “The Second Coming of the Radical Left”, International Socialism 135 (summer),               http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=819&issue=135

Executive Bureau of the Fourth International, 2012, “The Future of the Workers of Europe is Being Decided in   Greece: Statement of the Fourth International”, International Viewpoint,                   http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2626

Gorz, André, 1964, Strategy for Labor: a Radical Proposal (Beacon Press).

Gorz, André, 1975, Socialism and Revolution (Allen Lane).

Harman, Chris, 1991, “The State and Capitalism Today”, International Socialism 51 (summer),             http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=234

Kouvelakis, Stathis, 2012, “An Open Letter Regarding the Greek Left”,      http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=28641

Lapavitsas, Costas, and others, 2010, “The Eurozone between Austerity and Default”, Research on Money and                Finance (September),


Molyneux, John, 2013a, “Understanding Left Reformism”, Irish Marxist Review, volume 2, number 6,                 http://www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/68/70

Molyneux, John 2013b, “Revolutionary Road”, Socialist Review (June),      http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12322

Riddell, John, 2011, “Editorial Introduction”, in John Riddell (ed), Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the   Fourth Congress of the Communist    International 1922 (Haymarket Books).

Riddell, John, 2012a, “Workers’ Governments and Socialist Strategy – a Reply”, (in “Workers’ Governments and               Socialist Strategy – a Discussion”), Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal,                   http://links.org.au/node/2700

Riddell, 2012b, “A ‘Workers’ government’ as a Step Toward Socialism”, Links: International Journal of Socialist                 Renewal, http://links.org.au/node/2683

Riddell, John, 2012c, “What Would Lenin’s Comintern Have Made of Syriza? The Comintern as a School of        Socialist Strategy”, Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, http://links.org.au/node/3012

Rooksby, Ed, 2011, “Towards a Better Understanding of the Capitalist State: Combining Block’s and Poulantzas’               Approaches”, Studies in Marxism, volume 12.

Rooksby, Ed, 2013, “Why it’s Time to Realign the Left”, Socialist Review (May),      http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12302

Seymour, Richard, 2012, “A Comment on Greece and Syriza”, International Socialism 136 (autumn),                   http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=854

Thomas, Mark L., 2013, “Which Strategy for the Left?”, Socialist Review (June),      http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12326

Toscano, Alberto, 2012, “Reforming the Unreformable”, in Frederico Campagna and Emanuele Campiglio (eds),               What We Are Fighting For: a Radical Collective Manifesto (Pluto Press).

Zetkin, Clara, 1922, “The Workers’ Government”, http://www.workersliberty.org/system/files/zetkin-wg-text-eng.pdf

[1] Thanks to Peter Dwyer for his comments on an early draft of this article.

[2] Thomas, 2013.

[3] See, for example, Blackledge 2013, Molyneux, 2013a, and Thomas, 2013. Thomas does not actually use the term “left reformism” but his analysis of “left governments” is clearly in the same vein as Blackledge’s and Molyneux’s analyses.

[4] I have signalled that I think this term is unhelpful and problematic. To continue to put the term in inverted commas throughout the sections that follow would be cumbersome, however, and so I stop doing this from this point.

[5] This is a chance for me to expand on the argument that I set out in a recent article in Socialist Review (Rooksby, 2013).

[6] Blackledge, 2013.

[7] Blackledge, 2013.

[8] See Harman, 1991.

[9] Blackledge, 2013.

[10] See Block, 1987.

[11] Molyneux, 2013a, p26.

[12] Thomas, 2013.

[13] Molyneux, 2013b.

[14] Thomas, 2013.

[15] Thomas, 2013.

[16] Molyneux, 2013a, 33.

[17] Blackledge, 2013.

[18] Molyneux (2013a) has a footnote (p25) on the “centrism” of “Kautskyites” among parties of the Second International. He treats the “centre led and epitomised by Kautsky” as the main historical current of left reformism in his analysis.

[19] See, for example, Executive Bureau of the Fourth International, 2012.

[20] Blackledge, 2013.

[21] Gorz, 1964 and 1975.

[22] Gorz, 1975, p154.

[23] Gorz, 1975, p159.

[24] Gorz, 1964, p7.

[25] See Toscano, 2012.

[26] See Baltas, 2012, p125.

[27] Seymour, 2012.

[28] Kouvelakis, 2012.

[29] See Block, 1987, pp64-65. See Rooksby, 2011 for a fuller examination of Block’s state theory.

[30] Callinicos, 2012.

[31] How successful? Soviet power was not established on any durable basis.

[32] Callinicos, 2010.

[33] Callinicos, 2003.

[34] Callinicos, 2010.

[35] See Lapavitsas and others, 2010.

[36] See Kouvelakis, 2012.

[37] Callinicos, 2003, pp139-140

[38] Riddell, 2012a.

[39] Riddell, 2011, p21.

[40] Riddell, 2012b.

[41] Riddell, 2012c.

[42] Zetkin, 1922.

[43] Zetkin, 1922.

[44] Zetkin, 1922.

[45] Riddell, 2011, 22.


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A note on the ‘platform debate’ in Left Unity and on the issue of ‘left reformism’

A debate has opened up among Left Unity (LU) supporters in relation to the political and strategic orientation and organisational form of the ‘Left Party’ (?) those involved in the LU project aim to launch this November. Three competing ‘platforms’ have emerged, each proposing a distinct set of founding principles for the new party. The matter will be settled in a vote at LU’s November conference – which all of those who sign up to be ‘founding members’ of the new party can attend. As one of the signatories of the Left Party Platform (LPP),* I thought I would explain why I support this platform and why I’m not convinced by the others. I thought I’d also make a few remarks in relation to the ‘left reformism’ controversy that has arisen in relation to Left Unity – and, specifically, the SWP’s concerns about (what it sees as) the general orientation of Left Unity.

The first thing to say, here, is that the platform debate is very welcome. To some, no doubt, the emergence of competing factions in Left Unity looks worryingly – perhaps tediously – familiar. We’re all painfully aware, after all, of the left’s tendency to rip itself apart and self-destruct in fractious squabbling given half a chance. But while I wouldn’t say that there is absolutely no danger of this debate spiralling into yet another left group implosion (this time before the organisation has even officially established itself), the debate so far (!) has been relatively restrained and has been conducted (at least it looks this way to me) with patience and evident good will on all sides. Of course, a crunch point in this process will come when one of the platforms wins out over the others in the November vote. Conceivably, people in the unsuccessful platforms may walk out of the organisation. I hope this doesn’t happen – and one of the key responsibilities of those clustered around the victorious platform (whichever it is) will be to be as conciliatory as possible toward the defeated platforms and to stress that there is still a place for them. I have to say, here, however (and I’ll go on to spell this out a bit more below) that it’s much easier to see how those with the SP perspective could continue to organise as a distinct current within a broader party organised along the lines of the LPP vision than it would be if it were the other way round – precisely because the SP vision is not of a broad party capable of encompassing diverse currents.

Nevertheless, despite these real dangers, my overall feeling is that the current debate is a healthy one and, moreover, a necessary one. We do need to set down some fundamental principles and general programmatic and strategic parameters for the group before we start to build it as a party  – we need to know, roughly at least, what kind of thing it is we are trying to build and what kind of things we are trying to do. Further, the current debate in LU (together with the policy commissions process in which any supporter can get involved in discussing future policy for the party) demonstrates in practice our commitment, right from the beginning, to building a thoroughly democratic organisation. This certainly isn’t an organisation in which everything has been stitched up from the start and it won’t be one in which decisions passed down from an elite at the top are rubber stamped by the membership.

As healthy, welcome and necessary as this process of debate may be, however, I’m not, of course, indifferent as to which platform wins out. Indeed, I think it’s absolutely essential for the success of the Left Unity project that the principles and statements set out in the LPP documents are adopted as the basis for the new party. Let me explain why.

Our key task, it seems to me, is to provide a political organisation which could draw together and articulate a wide range of forces on the left. Labour’s almost total abandonment of what we might call traditional social democracy has opened up a political space in which a broad left party could flourish. We need to build an organisation which could appeal to the many many thousands of people who have been left feeling disenfranchised by Labour’s march to the right and which could bring this very large constituency together with various others, including forces further to the left. We need, in other words, a British version of the Front de Gauche, Die Linke and Syriza – all of them multi-tendency organisations in which a broad range of left forces cohere and which, crucially, are able to offer an attractive political home for refugees from established (ex-) social democratic parties. These are the sorts of parties making the running on the left at the moment. Unlike the other two platforms, the LPP is squarely in this sort of mould. It’s a platform which says quite clearly that we want Left Unity to be broad and inclusive and we want it to be these things because, above all, we want it to be big and thus a serious political force!

None of this is to say that I (or, as far as I know, any of the other LPP signatories) intend to build a straightforwardly social democratic party or some sort of Labour Party Mk 2 as is sometimes suggested or implied by our opponents. I certainly don’t. My view is that  the ‘space’ for substantial social democratic reforms within capitalism is much more constrained than it was a few decades ago (and of course that space has only narrowed further in current conditions of serious global crisis). The rightward drift of social democratic parties internationally (in fact, the decomposition and hollowing out of social democracy) should be interpreted with this context in mind – it’s not credible to suppose that this can be explained simply in terms of ideological defeat on the part of the left-wing of social democratic reformism. It’s structural. The point is, however, that not everyone who identifies with the left broadly and who is looking for a serious alternative to Labour is, consciously at least, anti-capitalist. The vast majority of people on the left are generally social democratic and reformist. This sort of political position (in my view) is often held in a rather inchoate, general, instinctive way – the expression of a sort of vague social democratic ‘common sense’ on things like welfare and social equality. We have to attract the large numbers of people like this and provide them with a political home, uniting them with forces further to the left. This means that we need a broad and relatively non-prescriptive set of principles and a general orientation which is equally acceptable as something to sign up to for Old Labour social democrats as it is for revolutionary socialists.

In calling for this sort of party, socialists in the LPP certainly aren’t diluting their own politics – or in the SP’s bizarre argument ‘hiding’ their views and pretending to be social democrats – we’re simply saying that in order to build something serious and worthwhile, rather than yet another pious but small and ineffective sect of the righteous, we have to put forward a broad platform in which several different political currents can co-exist, work together and combine their forces. Socialists in the LPP don’t have to disguise or keep quiet about their socialism. Why should we? It’s just that we feel that it’s perfectly possible to work together in the same organisation with people holding different views rather than demanding that all prospective members sign up to a highly prescriptive list of ‘correct positions’ which will effectively exclude huge numbers of people we could otherwise draw into an organisation providing a leftwing opposition and alternative to austerity.

Working in the same organisation as those with broadly social democratic reformist views, furthermore, provides socialists with the best opportunity to get our ideas across and to win people to our politics. Many of those in the LPP, indeed (far from diluting or ‘hiding’ their views) aim to organise a far left pole of attraction within the broader party with this sort of approach in mind. We believe that people are best won to socialist politics, not by confronting them with a schematic list of revealed truths which they have to sign up for before we’ll work with them, but by working and campaigning with them in political activity in an organic, pedagogical process built on trust and mutual respect.  It’s important to point out, also, that socialists have to remember that they have just as much to learn in this process too – we have to avoid the all too common arrogance among the far left which tends to assume that we socialists are the bearers of enlightened, timeless and final truths and that those who don’t share our views are simply benighted naifs groping around in political darkness.

I’m sure I’m not alone among LPP signatories in that I probably agree with some 80 – 90% of what the SP statements say. It’s just – as indicated above – that I think that the SP approach will narrow the potential reach of Left Unity pretty drastically. It’s almost as if the SP has been designed deliberately to exclude large numbers of people and to restrict the new party to a small group of people who agree with each other on everything. There are plenty of those sorts of parties already in existence. If people wanted to join an explicitly and unambiguously Marxist party they would already have joined one of the existing 57 varieties. It would be a great shame (and in fact thoroughly irresponsible given the political opportunities that have opened up) to produce yet another small socialist sect that no one wants to join. We have to ask ourselves if we’re serious about building a powerful anti-austerity movement of the left or if we’re just posturing. If we’re interested in the former we need to take a leaf out of the European Left’s book and build a broad party of the Front de Gauche/ Syriza type.

I have to say that when I look at the documents and articles emanating from the SP (whatever the undoubted merits of the individuals involved) a lot of it does strike me as self-regarding political posturing. The emphasis in SP arguments is often on ‘being true’ to one’s own beliefs, saying what one ‘really believes’, openly declaring one’s socialist politics, being unwilling to ‘dilute’ one’s socialist or communist principles for grubby reasons of political manoeuvring, opportunism and so on.  Now, as I’ve already pointed out, no one in LPP is asking anyone to hide or dilute their views – we’re just suggesting that it should be possible to work alongside people who don’t agree with you on absolutely everything and that this would be a good idea if we want to build something serious. But the main thing that grabs me about the SP’s arguments in this respect is that it’s all remarkably lifestylist – it’s about presenting and attending to a particular image of yourself and feeling good about it. It’s about staring at your reflection in the mirror and congratulating yourself on your ‘correct positions’. It’s purism, not politics.

In one of the articles in support of the SP a contributor argues (and I certainly don’t mean to pick on the specific individual who I’m sure is a fantastic comrade – it’s just that this argument seems to me to epitomise the SP) that ‘the worst that can happen’ if a narrow platform wins out is that people ‘refuse to stand with us this time’. This, for me, is incredible logic. What is the point of organising a new party of the left if people refuse to join it? I’m interested in building a successful counterpart to the European Left parties overseas, not in pious failure – ‘oh well, no one joined, but at least we had the correct positions’.

In my view the SP would be much better off as an organised leftwing current (one among several others by the way) within a broader party organised along LPP lines. In fact (as Tom Walker has rightly suggested) it seems likely that some of those expressing support for the SP mistakenly assume that the platform debate is all about the setting up of permanent currents/factions within LU – but it’s not, it’s about setting the parameters for the new party as whole. The debate is about whether we have a broad party capable of encompassing several different currents and poles of attraction within it, or whether we have a narrow party without scope for significant differences of opinion. It’s worth making it plain that if the LPP win the vote in November, the SP can continue to exist and organise for their own politics within the new Left Party. If the SP win, however, LPP supporters will not be able to continue to organise as a current within a narrow party. Not because we’ll be forced out or deliberately excluded but because you can’t have a broad left current within a narrow party from which everyone who is not a Marxist is effectively barred.

I have to say that it is not quite clear to me what, precisely, the Class Struggle Platform (CSP) is arguing. They say that the LPP is insufficiently concrete (it’s broad and general for the reasons I’ve explained above) while the SP is too rigid and dogmatic (we agree about that). They seem to be saying that, instead, the new party’s focus should be on putting forward concrete plans for political engagement and struggle on specific issues which they then go on to list. Some of these proposals seem eminently sensible (I’m not sure about the proposal for a mass strike to bring down the government – don’t get me wrong I’m all for a general strike to bring down the government, I just don’t think it’s an immediately implementable demand in the way CSP seem to assume – which just seems like the same old rather abstract far left sloganeering to me), but I’m just not convinced this is an appropriate foundational basis for a new party. I don’t think that necessarily preliminary matters of organisational form and political orientation are settled by saying ‘here’s a list of campaigns, let’s do them’. It doesn’t adequately address the question driving the dispute between the LPP and SP – i.e. should we organise the new party as a broad left political formation or not.

A Note on the SWP and ‘Left Reformism’

In recent weeks there has been a small flurry of articles (and the matter has also come up in talks and event presentations) on the issue of ‘left reformism’ emanating from the SWP. The flurry is, in part, in response to the rise and rise of Syriza – but it also typically addresses the Left Unity initiative. My view is that this is all part of a necessary debate and I welcome it (not least because the SWP have generously given me space to put forward my views in their publications). Nevertheless the SWP’s attitude toward Left Unity does sometimes strike me as unnecessarily suspicious (sometimes veering toward hostility) and I’d like to say something about this briefly. I don’t want to go into the details here about the wider, more theoretical, political debate over the question of state power, ‘Left governments’, ‘centrism’/(left) reform vs revolution and so on. I’m currently preparing a piece on these questions for publication in the near future and there’s no way I can begin to cover all of this in a short note on a website. What I want to address is the way that the SWP seems to be relating to Left Unity – which is one which seems to oscillate (often in the same speech/article) between the suggestion that they’d like to be involved and mild denunciation.

[It's worth pointing out in passing here that I (and I'm sure others in LU feel similarly) find the label 'left reformism' slightly irritating. It's not just that it's often used as a more less pejorative and slightly condescending term to categorise people within a left typology of various kinds of socialists who haven't yet grasped Leninist principles, it's  that it's a very blunt instrument. As suggested above, there are actually many different positions within Left Unity which I'm not sure are all adequately understood if grouped together within a catch-all term like 'left reformism'.]

Simplifying slightly, the SWP postition on ‘left reformism’ (which is the label they apply to Syriza, Die Linke, Front de Gauche, the Left Bloc as well as Left Unity) is that it is, in general, to be welcomed by revolutionary socialists in the Leninist tradition but should be supported critically without any illusions in the capacity for such a strategy to ‘open the way for socialism’. Correspondingly, the SWP approach to specific ‘left reformist’ organisations is to seek to work with them where possible, but to remain critical of the strategy these parties espouse and, above all, to maintain organisational independence rather than seek to dissolve themselves into these formations.

This is all fine as far as I’m concerned. The mystifying thing, however, is that alongside the suggestions that the SWP would like to be involved in LU you also encounter comments about the ‘dangers of left reformism’. There’s nothing unreasonable about the SWP being critical of what it calls ‘left reformism’ – it’s just that these criticisms of Left Unity often seem remarkably and disproportionately vigorous. There’s an awkward duality to the muted polemicising on the one hand and the extended olive branches on the other. It’s also odd to hear, repeatedly, that the SWP refuses to compromise its political independence by dissolving itself into a broad left formation – it’s odd because, as far as I know, no one is asking the SWP to dissolve itself into anything.

I realise that there’s a lot of bad blood between the ISN and SWP and this may be where a lot of the hostility and suspicion comes from. But as far as I’m concerned there’s absolutely no reason why the SWP and LU shouldn’t cooperate in campaigns and struggles (pretty sure we already do). Furthermore, for me (I can’t speak for the organisation as a whole – and I imagine we’ll need to wait until the founding conference when we decide what sort of organisation we’ll be), there’s no reason why the SWP shouldn’t be more directly involved in the party that emerges from LU. Indeed, individual SWP members already are involved in certain LU branches. The only caveat here is that the party that emerges from LU will be an individual member-based party rather than one to which other parties and groups can affiliate as organisations. Our politics are likely to be substantially different from those of the SWP of course, and we (like them) will not want to jeopardise our organisational independence. Furthermore we will reserve the right to be critical of the SWP (just as they refuse to abandon their criticisms of ‘left reformism’) even if we work closely together as I suspect we will.

* God, I’m sorry about all the acronyms.

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Why it’s time to realign the Left

First published in Socialist Review May 2013

Radical left parties such as Syriza in Greece and the Front De Gauche in France have made significant gains recently. But what about Britain? Socialist film maker Ken Loach has recent issued a call for a new left party to be formed here too. Ed Rooksby, one of the supporters of the call, explains why he thinks the time is right to launch such a party and what its aims should be. Socialist Review will respond in our next issue.

Radical left parties committed to fighting austerity and able to attract considerable popular support have emerged across Europe – most spectacularly in Greece. We are in desperate need of a similar party in Britain – one which is willing to take the risk of seeking to break the stranglehold of a social democracy that has long since capitulated to neoliberalism and present an unashamedly socialist alternative. Thankfully, for the first time in a long period, the conditions for the emergence of a broad left coalition of forces in the UK capable of attracting large-scale support seem ripe. These conditions have been generated and shaped by four major interconnected political and economic developments.

The first and most obvious of these is economic crisis and austerity. This has posed, in very immediate terms, the question of how best to defend jobs, living conditions and the healthcare, education and welfare reforms won in struggle decades ago, and which are now being stripped back in a determined assault. But it has also posed the question, again in immediate terms, of whether or not capitalism is in fact compatible, over any prolonged and sustained period, with decent welfare provision and conditions of life and work for the majority. For those who conclude that it is not, the further problem of how to build a more democratic and humane alternative is raised. The crisis and austerity confront us with fundamental and pressing questions in relation to organisation and strategy. It is in this context that the idea of the construction of a new organisation of the left has been put firmly on the political agenda.

The second development – one closely meshed with the first – is that it has become painfully apparent to many of the Labour Party’s erstwhile supporters and activists that Labour is not an effective political vehicle for the organisation of resistance to austerity (let alone for the implementation of a counter-offensive against capital). There has, over the past few weeks and months, been a pronounced acceleration of a longer-term process of disillusionment on the part of Labour’s core supporters and activist base and, correspondingly, a growing willingness among many of them to countenance the prospect of leaving Labour to join a new organisation – in particular, the Left Unity initiative associated with Ken Loach’s recent appeal.

Rise of Syriza

The third factor shaping this new conjuncture in the UK is an external one – the international influence and prestige of Syriza. The Syriza phenomenon has demonstrated that it is possible for a coalition of fairly disparate left forces to win mass support with a clear anti-austerity agenda and win such support very rapidly. More than this, Syriza has shown that it is possible for the radical left to challenge seriously for power. The morale-raising psychological impact of this on socialists across Europe should not be underestimated. This Syriza effect interacts with the loosening of Labour’s political hegemony – further contributing to the sense that it is possible to build an effective political force to the left of Labour. It has also created a renewed sense of possibility among more radical left groupings.

There is a fourth development which closely interacts with the third. This is the recent bust-up in the SWP. Whatever you think of it, this has clearly shaken up the political landscape on the left and opened up a new space for realignment. In interaction with the Syriza effect, this has created a very promising situation for building a new, broad coalition.

These are the main developments that together constitute a new conjuncture on the UK left in which a significant realignment of forces has become a definite and realistic possibility. The most exciting and promising development in this respect is the emergence of the Left Unity organisation which sees itself as the embryonic form of a new broad-church party of the left and which models itself in relation to Syriza and other successful groupings such as the Front de Gauche.

The classic strategic dilemma

One of the biggest questions that the conjuncture poses for us is the question of strategic orientation and the associated issue of the organisational form that a new coordination of forces should take.

Of course, here we start to encroach on one of the oldest controversies in socialist thought – the classic reform/revolution debate. Let me draw out (in what cannot be anything other than a very simplified way given constraints of space) the core problems with each of these approaches as they are usually conceived in order to provide the foundations for a different way of approaching the question of socialist strategy.

At the heart of the reformist approach is the idea that the process of transition to socialism can be a wholly evolutionary one of smooth, piecemeal change. The core problem (among many) with this strategy is that, when reformists find themselves in power, they also find themselves responsible for the management of a capitalist economy. Since radical measures aimed at the introduction of socialism must, by definition, endanger capitalist profit, reformist governments find themselves caught on the horns of an impossible dilemma; they require capitalist cooperation for a process of gradual transition to socialism, and yet the introduction of any measure which might lead very far in the direction of socialism would necessarily lose them the cooperation (and earn them the intense hostility) of capital. So, in opposition to reformism, it must be insisted that the transition to socialism cannot be a wholly gradual process but must involve some kind of revolutionary break.

The revolutionary socialist approach avoids the core problem of reformism but, as it is traditionally conceived, has its own particular deficiencies. Again, I cannot outline all of these here, so will focus on the main difficulty.

In one important sense at least there is no absolute dividing line between a strategy of reform and traditional revolutionary socialism. Most revolutionaries believe that the struggle for and winning of reforms increases the democratic capacities of the working class, raises its confidence and educates it politically. Furthermore, many revolutionaries (see, for example, Alex Callinicos’s An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto) appear to believe that revolution is most likely to emerge out of a (frustrated) movement for reform which probes the limits of what the capitalist state is willing to concede and which spills over into something more far-reaching – and so, to this end, the strategy is to seek to place demands on the state which can tip the balance of power in favour of the working class and popular forces.

The defining feature of revolutionary socialism as it is usually conceived, however, is the view that socialists must remain strictly independent of the capitalist state rather than seek to work within it. This, however, is where the strategy runs into a major problem. The first part of this problem is that, in countries such as Britain, with a long established tradition of liberal democracy and, indeed, a long established tradition of reformism, it is difficult to imagine a process of mass radicalisation in anything other than the electoral rise of a party seeking to form a radical government. That is, it is hard to see this process throwing up anything other than a movement committed to the formation of a “workers’ government”. This, indeed, is the way things appear to be working out in Greece.

The second part of this problem is that it is also hard to see how the sort of transitional reforms revolutionaries want to pressure the state to enact would be implemented by government representatives reluctant to do so, let alone deeply opposed to them politically and ideologically. Some concessions could be wrested from a pro-capitalist government, yes – but a whole series of radical reforms that seriously undermine the power of capital? It seems unlikely. The major difficulty in the traditional revolutionary approach, then, is in its rejection of the very idea of taking power within the political structures of capitalism.

The dialectic of change

So neither the traditional reformist approach nor the traditional revolutionary strategy seems adequate. We need, instead, a strategy that seeks to combine elements of both. In his book The Dialectic of Change the Russian theorist Boris Kagarlitsky seeks to elaborate just such an approach. Revolutionary transformation, he argues, can only emerge organically and dialectically from a process of radical reform set in motion by a socialist government. He calls this approach “revolutionary reformism”.

In Kagarlitsky’s view it is only when you grasp the idea that reform and revolution augment and condition each other that you can start to formulate a realistic strategy of socialist change. Kagarlitsky suggests that revolution should be “conceived as a definite and necessary stage, a qualitative leap, in the process of reform” – “revolution is a ‘break in gradualness’, a leap in development”. It is a stage of development which is necessary for the consolidation of the changes – new socialist social relations – which can be brought into being (in some embryonic sense at least) within capitalist society through reform.

Clearly, not all reforms intertwine organically with revolutionary change. Kagarlitsky’s favoured strategy of reform is based on a passage from The Communist Manifesto where Marx and Engels write of the implementation of a series of reforms which may “appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production”.

Marx and Engels indicate that the introduction of reforms which run counter to the logic of capitalism (and which therefore appear in themselves “economically insufficient and untenable”) may set in motion a dynamic of cumulative change – a kind of chain reaction. That is, these initial reforms destabilise capitalism and therefore necessitate the implementation of further reforms which themselves run counter to capitalist logic and, in turn, stimulate further changes and so on. It is in this sense that these reforms “outstrip themselves” – they unleash a process of change which goes much further than the initial effects of the primary reforms themselves. Kagarlitsky believes that the dynamic of cumulative change Marx and Engels sketch out here provides the basis for a strategy of radical reform today.

How could such a process be set in motion? It is the manner in which reforms are implemented that is the crucial factor. Firstly, Kagarlitsky suggests that each reform must be designed to stimulate further reforms which flow from it organically. This demands that each reform is integrated into a well-planned strategic programme. Secondly, he stresses that these reforms must be driven forward by a movement which unites mass mobilisation “from below” with pressure “from above” as revolutionary reformist politicians work within state institutions. Revolutionary reformists within state institutions must be subjected to constant pressure from below. There must be a mass movement outside these institutions, capable of controlling their representatives and forcing them on to implement the reforms they have promised.

Furthermore, “revolutionary reforms” must be designed to strengthen and empower this movement. The growth of popular power would develop the organisational capacity of the mass movement and this would open up opportunities for the further flowering of popular democracy. In this way it can be seen that the dialectic between mass movement and socialist representatives in office would contribute to the momentum of the revolutionary reformist dynamic of cumulative change. Socialist representatives are driven on to introduce reforms which deepen mass democracy which, in turn, encourages the mass movement to pressure leaders for still further changes and so on.

Transitional Programme

What reforms, more concretely, might such a transitional programme include? A few ideas can be suggested. It might begin in its initial stage with an ambitious programme of directed investment. Spending should be strategically targeted and designed to kickstart more sustainable growth, create jobs and reorient the economy away from its reliance on the financial sector. Priority areas for investment could include investment in green, low-carbon infrastructure – particularly in transport and energy.

Radicalisation of the process of reform might throw up further measures including nationalisation of major financial institutions under democratic control and the bringing into public ownership, of a string of industrial firms. Taking a large proportion of the financial sector into public ownership would enable financial resources to be allocated according to social and environmental criteria. Similarly, the nationalisation of industrial firms would allow their activities to be oriented increasingly towards socially useful and environmentally sustainable production. Radical forms of democratic planning could be explored within nationalised firms. Of course, democratic planning and control should not be confined to the narrowly “economic” sector. The entirety of the public sector – the education system, welfare system, NHS and so on – should be opened up to collective, democratic and participatory forms of management.

Of course, it is worth pointing out that such a strategy would depend for its success on the existence of allies implementing similar processes of transformation abroad. Certainly any country attempting to go it alone would- at least beyond a certain point – find itself hopelessly isolated in the face of hugely powerful international economic and political forces. But as we’ve seen with the “Syriza effect” – the process in which the rise of the radical left in Greece has kickstarted moves towards political realignment elsewhere – the emergence of a radical left government in one part of the world is likely to provide a boost to similar movements elsewhere.

Of course, this sort of strategy raises its own problems. Such a left government would certainly arouse the intense hostility of capital and would come under huge pressure to reverse its programme from day one. This pressure would only increase as the dynamic of any transitional programme gathered momentum – if, indeed, it did. But the argument I have developed above suggests that there does not seem to be any plausible alternative strategic approach. It is hard to see how the left in Europe can avoid the problem of taking power in a left government if it is serious about changing society.

Mark L Thomas’ response in the June issue of Socialist Review can be read here.

Paul Blackledge’s and Alex Callinicos’ recent articles in International Socialism Journal also responded, in part, to issues raised in the above piece.

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The European Crisis

First published in Oxford Left Review Issue 10 (June 2013)

In order to think realistically and creatively about matters of socialist strategy – how to resist austerity, how to defeat austerity and even more than this how to set about winning power in order to bring about fundamental change toward a more democratic, humane, equal and sustainable society – we need to be clear about the economic and political context in which we are seeking to operate. In the following I shall put forward some broad-brush observations in relation to the origins, development and trajectory of the current crisis of capitalism focusing in particular on Europe before drawing out tentatively, and giving brief consideration to, a series of possible ‘exit routes’ – two which might be imposed by capital and one which might be implemented by anti-capitalist forces.

Some General Points about the Crisis

It must be emphasised that the current global capitalist crisis is, precisely, a crisis of capitalism. That is, it is a systemic crisis. It is not simply a debt crisis. It is not about ‘profligate government spending’ as the neoliberal right have sought to present it – very successfully so, incidentally, given the way in which this narrative frames much of the debate in the political and media mainstream. It’s not even really about ‘greedy bankers’ or a ‘failure of regulation’ as the dominant narrative on the centre-left tends to suggest. The first of these two (complementary) elements of the centre-left story moralises the crisis in a crudely simplistic way and the second presents it merely as a failing of administrative/ managerial competence. Deeper, underlying structural and systemic determinants – the economic pressures driving risk-taking, profit-maximising behaviour (i.e. the driving logic of capitalism) and militating against the imposition of regulatory constraints on those behaviours (and thus on maximised rapid financial returns) – are ignored and entirely excluded from the picture. It must be insisted, against all this, that the crisis is rooted in the dysfunctional logic of capitalism and that, indeed, this is an extremely serious crisis from which it is very hard to see how capitalism has any immediate prospect of recovery. It is likely to drag on for years.

Just as for capitalist growth and expansion, capitalist crisis unfolds in processes of combined and uneven development. The close international integration of national economies means that a crisis emerging within one of them can be transmitted widely very rapidly. However, while this entails generalisation of the crisis internationally in some respects (and indeed the crisis takes on some specifically and irreducibly international/global features) the effects of the crisis are not evenly distributed and its intensity varies from state to state and from region to region. This unevenness is shaped by national (and in Europe to a certain extent by regional) specificities and ‘path dependencies’ – the relative weight and health of particular economic sectors, the particular configuration of political-economic institutions and the particular constraints and capacities that arise from them, and the specific policy responses to the crisis chosen by governments for example.

One important feature of this international unevenness is that the crisis tends to become concentrated at any given time in one or two particular locations. It is not just, then, that the uneven development of the crisis is expressed in differing levels of intensity from place to place, but that the crisis becomes focused and condensed within a particular economy or economies. Developments in those particular locations take on a general significance – the unfolding of the crisis in these places manifests a sort of concentrated expression of the international crisis in general. Certainly the development of the crisis internationally can turn very rapidly on developments in these locations. These sites in which the crisis is concentrated and condensed need not include the location in which the crisis first emerges – indeed the geographical epicentre(s) of the crisis can shift. In the current crisis the epicentre of global economic instability has moved from the US to Europe. It began as a crisis in the US mortgage market and has been transformed into a European sovereign debt crisis and a crisis of the institutions of the EU and Eurozone. Furthermore, this European crisis, which condenses the global crisis, has a particular focal point of its own – Greece. It is in Greece, then, that the global crisis is manifested in its most concentrated form and it is for this reason that whatever happens in Greece over the next few months – economically but also politically – is likely to have hugely significant international ramifications.

Dimensions of the Crisis in Europe

We’ve been told regularly over the past few months that the European crisis has ‘turned the corner’. Each time the proclamation has been proven wrong by subsequent events, only for the proclamation to be repeated a few weeks later which, in turn, proves to be mistaken – and so on. Recent economic figures show the seriousness of the situation. Eurozone GDP contracted for three consecutive quarters in 2012, following 0% growth in the first quarter of that year. The fourth quarter saw growth fall by 0.6%, following a drop of 0.1% in the previous quarter. Clearly things are not improving. The last quarter of 2012 also saw some of the worst GDP figures for major states in the EU: Italy minus 0.9%, France minus 0.3%, and even Germany saw its GDP decline by 0.6%. ‘Peripheral’ southern European economies such as Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and particularly Greece are, of course, suffering the worst effects of this crisis. In Spain, for example, unemployment currently stands at about 26% – youth unemployment at 52%. In Greece, which has seen a cumulative reduction in GDP by about 20% over the past four years and which is expected to have contracted by 25% by the end of 2014, the unemployment rate stands at about 27% – with youth unemployment at 61.7%. About a third of Greece’s population (that’s about 3.9 million people) are now thought to live in poverty.

The fact is that Europe is in a deep, intractable crisis and nobody really knows how it can be overcome. As we’ve seen, the crisis in Europe (the most acute, focal point of which is Greece) condenses the global crisis and so stagnation in Europe both manifests in sharp form, and also itself drives and reproduces, the great world recession.

How did we get here?

The current crisis represents the breaking down of a series of temporary solutions to a major crisis of capitalism that emerged in the 1970s. In effect, the international economy has gone full circle and returned, after a few decades of (largely debt-fuelled) growth based on various temporary fixes, to the relative stagnation in which it languished around forty years ago. In order to understand the crisis today, then, we need to examine the development of the global economy over the past few decades.

Robert Brenner1 has argued that the advanced capitalist economies entered a crisis of profitability at the end of the 1960s. Indeed, according to Brenner, these economies have suffered from relatively low rates of profit ever since. One major reason behind the crisis of profits that emerged in the late 1960s was that firms encountered increasing constraints on opportunities for profitable investment as the post-war boom petered out. The effects of this can be seen in the marked slow-down in rates of growth from the 1970s onwards compared to previous decades (the average rate of annual GDP growth in Western Europe from 1950-73 was 4.79%, while from 1973-03 it averaged 2.19%).

Capitalism responded to this crisis in several ways. It sought to ‘go global’ in order to seek out cheaper pools of labour and to open up new investment opportunities abroad. Under Thatcher and Reagan especially, it launched an assault on trade unions and pushed up unemployment in order to weaken organised labour and drive down wage costs at home. Finance was also, increasingly, deregulated in order to soak up excess capital looking for profitable outlets. Some of the initial solutions, however, soon created further problems for capital. Repression of wages, of course, drove down workers’ spending power and thus reduced the rate of effective demand. Capital’s solution to this problem was to extend the credit system and to ramp up debt-fuelled consumer spending. This strategy intertwined with wider moves to deregulate finance and with the rapid acceleration of ‘financialisation’. Credit-fuelled consumption, together with asset price inflation drove growth for a while. However, this solution, in turn, eventually became the source of serious problems for capitalism because it ‘ultimately led to working-class over-indebtedness relative to income that in turn led to a crisis of confidence in the quality of debt instruments’.2 The crisis that emerged in the US ‘sub-prime’ market brought into full view the extent to which major financial institutions had become perilously overextended and, indeed, the extent to which growth had been reliant on ballooning of debt.

What we saw, then, from the 1970s onwards was a series of temporary fixes to a deeper structural problem in which each fix raised further problems that had, in turn, to be temporarily solved with further fixes. Indeed Capitalism, as David Harvey points out,3 never really resolves its crisis tendencies – they are merely shifted around, postponed and held off. Capitalism finds a way of overcoming one crisis only to discover, sooner or later, that the terms of this solution, in turn, throw up new problems which develop into a new crisis.

It is worth noting that ‘financialisation’ represented a response to very real pressures on profitable accumulation – it was a way of soaking up excess capital given the weakness of profitability in the productive sector. The deregulation of the financial markets and the concomitant extension of credit and debt did not simply represent, as social democratic and Keynesian theorists tend to suggest, an ideologically driven, bad policy choice on the part of neoliberals. A solution to the problems we face then, cannot be as simple, as some sort of return to the post-war ‘Keynesian consensus’ in which financial regulation is tightened up and the financial markets put back in the box from which they escaped after the 1970s. The real structural pressures to which ‘financialisation’ was a response are still there and remain unsolved.

The Eurozone Dimension

The crisis in the Eurozone intersects with this deeper, wider crisis of capitalism more generally. The Eurozone crisis, however, has a number of specific features and emerged in a relatively distinct historical process closely bound up with particular effects emerging from the institutional architecture of the Euro. European Monetary Union (EMU) flowed logically from closer and closer economic integration among European economies and from the institutional/legal structures (such as the Single European Market) which reflected and accelerated this process. One of the key factors driving economic integration in Europe – from the mid-1980s especially, after a period of so-called ‘Eurosclerosis’ in the 1970s – was the intensifying global competition which set in after the petering out of the post-war boom as outlined above. Monetary Union, as the most advanced and ambitious form of economic integration in Europe, functioned as a joint strategy among European elites for defending and improving the global competitiveness of the region in the context of a general and sustained crisis of profitability. EMU was rooted in world crisis from the start then – it has always been, in a sense, an expression of this underlying crisis of profits. As the most recent in a series of successive fixes to this underlying global crisis (financialisation) broke down, however, EMU itself became a key source and driver of the global recession we are now experiencing.

The key weakness of EMU from the start was the ‘one size fits all’ approach embodied in its ‘discipline and convergence criteria’ for membership and perpetuated in its ‘stability and growth pact’. This yoked together economies as diverse as Germany, Greece, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Cyprus in a deeply inflexible system. One of the key problems was that some of these economies are strong exporters and others are not. Inevitably major trade imbalances between national economies within the Eurozone emerged. Germany in particular ran huge trade surpluses (driven in part by sustained wage repression) while countries like Spain and Greece ran corresponding deficits. Further, the surplus from exporter economies (particularly Germany) was increasingly recycled into the property market in Spain, driving the speculative property boom there, and also into financing Greek borrowing to cover its trade deficit. For countries like Greece, then, a vicious cycle of debt emerged in which – unable to deploy the traditional instruments for rectifying trade imbalances (devaluation, allowing inflation to rise) because of the constraints imposed by EMU membership – it had to borrow more and more to cover its growing trade deficit and the more it borrowed to finance imports the larger this deficit grew.

It is worth making plain that for a several years this dysfunctional arrangement suited countries like Germany very well – after all it bound stronger and weaker economies together in an intra-European core and periphery relationship which helped to underpin export driven growth in Germany in particular. It was only after the eruption of the Euro crisis that, suddenly, Greek ‘profligacy’ was discovered and loudly denounced by German politicians and EU elites.

The ‘credit crunch’ of 2008 eventually brought these structural imbalances to the surface. As the effects of the sub-prime crisis in the US rippled outwards and deepened into global financial crisis the money loaned to southern Europe by northern banks suddenly looked very vulnerable. The crisis in Greece was finally precipitated in 2009-10 when, on coming to power, the new Papandreou government announced that the country’s debts had reached 300bn Euros and, shortly afterwards, announced that its 2009 budget deficit was four times the limit imposed by EU rules. The emergence of an acute sovereign debt crisis in Greece heightened fears about heavy indebtedness elsewhere in the Eurozone – particularly in Spain, Ireland and Portugal. The EU’s and IMF’s response was to insist on severe austerity measures in return for emergency loans and bailouts to stricken economies. It soon became clear that EMU (and perhaps even the EU itself) was in no small danger of disintegration and possible collapse.

Of course, the current crisis in Europe is not confined merely to members of the Eurozone – the current situation in the UK, for example, cannot be attributed directly to effects arising within the structures of EMU. Nevertheless the various sovereign debt crises that have emerged within the Eurozone are key drivers of the crisis in the EU more widely which is, in turn (since the economy of the EU as a whole is the largest in the world), at the core of the continuing global turbulence.

Austerity in Europe

Austerity has been implemented unevenly across Europe – but it is the favoured response of European political and economic elites to the crisis. It is quite clear, however, that as a strategy for economic recovery austerity is failing miserably and is, in fact, making the economic situation much worse. As Meadway explains, there is a simple mechanism at work here:

Cuts in government spending shrink demand in the economy. As demand shrinks, firms sell less. Firms that sell less cut wages and make redundancies. Demand falls still further, and a vicious circle of decline is established. Cutting spending to reduce a deficit leads to bigger deficits as unemployment rises and taxes fall. Austerity is self-defeating.4

The self-defeating logic of austerity is, of course, most plain to see in Greece where it has been implemented in its most vicious forms and where the economy contracted severely.

Why, given its clear failure, do states remain committed to austerity? The basic intention behind the austerity drive is to ensure that the costs of the crisis are shifted away from capital as much as possible and born, instead, by ordinary people. In the Eurozone this has, in addition, a key international dimension in that it is the loans of over-extended northern banks that ‘the troika’ is, in particular, seeking to protect and it is the ordinary population of the southern states who are being forced to pay the price. The determination to stick to austerity despite its dire effects reflects the determination of European elites to defend the banks come what may.

Nevertheless the fact remains that, plainly, austerity is not succeeding as a means of overcoming the crisis. This must be just as clear, now, to the political elites driving austerity as it is to those being forced to endure the suffering it inflicts. The determination to stick with this approach does not at all imply that European elites have any confidence any longer that it will work. Indeed, the current situation seems to be characterised by a certain ideological bewilderment on the part of those elites. They do not know how to end the crisis. They continue with austerity only because they have no idea what else they can do – they can see no other acceptable alternative. The strategy, such as it is now, is simply to keep going in the desperate hope that something turns up.

The Future

How might the crisis in Europe unfold over the next few years and what ‘exit routes’ might emerge? Of course no firm predictions can be made but it is possible to discern three distinct possible paths. The first of these – which is also, in my view, the most likely – is that the crisis simply drags on for several years. That is, Europe remains mired in a condition of relative stagnation as political leaders attempt to ‘muddle through’ the crisis in the hope that generalised austerity can squeeze wages and the ‘burden’ on capital presented by public spending enough to restore profitability to the point at which ‘normal’ rates of capitalist growth can return. Nevertheless it is quite hard to see how profitability can recover without massive destruction of overaccumulated capital – the underlying basis of the current crisis. In other words, capitalism probably needs a major slump in order purge itself of the dead weight which currently weighs it down – but, of course, the political and social costs of a severe depression would be so high that most governments are unlikely to let this happen. All of this raises the interesting prospect of the possible political ‘normalisation’ of capitalist crisis and stagnation.

A second path of development – something that has been mooted among EU elites – is some form of managed breaking up of the Eurozone as it is currently constituted and its radical reconstruction. This would involve the ejection of southern European economies from the Euro and the formation of a smaller and more tightly integrated Eurozone made up of core northern European economies. Full fiscal and banking union among these core economies would occur – responsibility for the banking system and for taxation and public spending would be taken away from constituent states and given to supranational institutions. This might be a way of abolishing the structural problems and imbalances within the Eurozone and ensuring that they do not re-emerge. This process might be accompanied by the break-up of the EU as it currently exists, too, or perhaps the emergence of a ‘twin-track’ EU in which the tightly integrated Eurozone states co-exist with a more loosely integrated ‘outer Europe’.

However, this would be a difficult path for the Eurozone to take for several reasons. First, it would put northern banks’ loans at great risk and the process of disentanglement as southern European economies left the Euro would be a pretty perilous process for all concerned. Secondly there are considerable political obstacles in the way of fiscal and banking union among core EU states – not least that many citizens in the states involved are likely to be hostile to the idea. A third problem is that this root and branch reconstruction of the Eurozone would take several years to organise – therefore, it could not provide a quick route out of the Eurozone crisis. The final problem is that this process of reconstruction would not necessarily provide any means of addressing the underlying crisis of profitability.

There is a third path, however. This is probably the least likely of all to happen – but it is the one that socialists must fight for. The point of departure for this route would be the breaking of austerity by mass resistance and the implementation of a series of reforms which would alter the balance of class power in favour of the working class and other popular forces and which would set in motion a process of transition beyond capitalism. What happens in Greece over the next few months is key to this process. We have seen that it is in Greece that the crisis of capitalism is condensed in its most acute form. This makes Greece the weak link in the contemporary imperialist chain – and a socialist breakthrough at this point would send shockwaves through the entire system. In the general election of June 2012 Syriza – the coalition of the radical left in Greece – narrowly missed (by 2.8% of the vote) becoming the largest party in the Greek parliament. A situation which would have been unthinkable a few years ago – a radical anti-capitalist party in Europe on the verge of winning power (in a country where the present governing coalition might fall apart at any minute) – has become a reality. If Syriza can take power and bring austerity to a halt in Greece it would provide an inspiring example to people elsewhere in Europe and help to deepen and radicalise anti-austerity struggles across the continent.

Of course, a party seeking to utilise the capitalist state apparatus to implement a radical left-wing programme of reforms would face many great difficulties and dilemmas. Here we start to encroach on one of the oldest controversies in socialist thought – the classic reform/revolution debate. It seems unlikely to me that there is any strictly reformist road to socialism, but it is also my view that there is no reason why revolutionary transformation should not emerge organically and dialectically from a programme of transitional reforms. In any case it is hard to see how a process of socialist transformation in countries with established parliamentary democratic institutions could entirely bypass these structures. One of the interesting things about the unfolding crisis in Greece is the way in which it maps closely onto the classical Marxist conception of a pre-revolutionary situation in all but one key respect. We can observe a certain level of decomposition of certain state apparatuses in Greece (demoralisation of the police for example and its increasing penetration by, and collusion with, far right forces), the collapse of the political centre and the increasing polarisation of social forces for example. However, there is little sign as yet of any proliferation of workers’ councils/soviets and nothing corresponding to the emergence of a ‘dual power situation’. The resistance of ordinary Greek people is finding political expression in the rise of a party committed to forming a united government of the left within (and against) capitalism. One of the most urgent tasks for the international radical left today is to return to, and rethink, the idea of the ‘workers’ government’, because it is in this direction that Syriza – at the vanguard of socialist struggle today – is heading.

1 Brenner, Robert (2005) The Economics of Global Turbulence (London, Verso)

2 Harvey, David (2010) The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism (London, Profile Books), p. 117

3 Ibid. p. 117

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So what’s the problem with champagne socialism?

First published in the Guardian 16 April 2013 (an edited version also published in the paper edition on 17th April)

A political scandal has blown up in the past few days in France over revelations about the apparent wealth of ministers in François Hollande’s government. In le grand déballage – the great unpacking – the Socialist government was revealed to contain several multimillionaires. Hollande and his ministers face embarrassing accusations that they belong to a group (highly unpopular in France) known as the gauche caviar – or what British people call champagne socialists.

Hollande’s concern about the application of this epithet to his government is understandable. It’s bound up with certain tropes about the left with significant populist appeal that the right are fairly skilled in using for political advantage. While in Britain the cork-popping in public squares recently may have brought a new meaning to the term champagne socialist, it’s usually associated with condescending derision of the left in relation to purported hypocrisy and self-deception.

The right often focuses on the comfortable lifestyle of particular figures from the left and extrapolate from this a couple of apparent conclusions. The first of these is a wild generalisation – that wealthy leftists are somehow representative of all. Leftwing views, that is, are really only held among privileged (and, it has to be said, largely fictional) layers in society – “ivory tower academics”, “Hampstead liberals”, “the metropolitan liberal elite” and the “chattering classes” for example. The second is that the very existence of wealthy socialists is indicative not just of the hypocrisy of certain individuals but also of a fundamental and fatal problem for egalitarian politics. If rich socialists who profess to believe that inequality is unjust won’t actually give their wealth to the poor then what are we to make of that apparent belief? It could be argued that you should look first to what these socialists practise rather than to what they preach – and what they practise could be said to be quite in keeping with the conservative view that humans are naturally acquisitive and self-seeking.

The first line of argument is easy to deal with. Of course it’s true that many of the best known leftwing figures historically came from fairly privileged backgrounds. Indeed there’s a good case for regarding one of the fathers of modern socialism – the factory-owning, high-living,Friedrich Engels – as, in some ways, the archetypal champagne socialist. It’s clearly ridiculous, though, to argue that leftwing political convictions are to be found only among the well-off. To the extent that a disproportionate number of influential figures on the left have come from better-off backgrounds, this state of affairs is easily explicable in terms of structural social inequalities. Those with educational advantages and other privileges in terms of “cultural capital” for example are more likely to flourish than those without – in whatever particular pursuit they seek to succeed.

What about the second line of argument? This is more difficult to deal with – but by no means impossible. You might respond that there’s no contradiction in, say, calling for higher taxes on the rich and being wealthy yourself. You might argue that social inequality is a political matter which, therefore, can only be addressed politically through, say, state redistribution rather than through individual philanthropy. You might also argue that, in fact, well-off people with leftwing convictions are, by definition, particularly principled people. After all, wouldn’t it be easier for them to vote and campaign for policies in their own economic interests rather than against them? You could say that the existence of wealthy leftists provides evidence precisely against, rather than for, the conservative assumption that humans are inherently selfish. Here’s a group of people with significant material advantages – and yet they call for the reduction or elimination of these advantages in society as a whole. Perhaps this is why those on the right despise champagne socialists so much.

Nevertheless, the question “if you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich”, is a pretty hard one to answer convincingly – as indeed the egalitarian philosopher GA Cohen shows in his celebrated article (later abook) which uses that question as its title. Cohen provides several ways in which a relatively well-off egalitarian might respond to the question, but isn’t fully persuaded by any of them.

One way of dealing with this problem, however, is to argue that the left isn’t really concerned centrally with equalities per se but with human wellbeing. What socialists want to see is a world in which everyone has equal access to the resources they require in order to flourish. This would involve social equality in a broad sense – a society in which everyone was equally free to thrive – not absolute equality of everything. You might then look at your own condition and ask yourself if you have more than you really need in order to live a fulfilling life and more than you could reasonably expect to get in a society in which resources were distributed fairly. Thinking in this way would probably suggest that holding great wealth as a socialist is very difficult to justify, but it certainly wouldn’t suggest that all those who aren’t poor are in an ethically indefensible position.

Of course it’s not just the right who criticise champagne socialism. Indeed, another useful way of thinking about the issue is best brought out by examining a common objection to champagne socialism from the left. Perhaps counter-intuitively Marxists are not the most vociferous critics of the phenomenon. Those most hostile are usually those associated with labourism. Indeed one of the deepest rooted myths in British labourism in relation to a great historical betrayal pivots on the idea of champagne socialism. Ramsay MacDonald has long been reviled in the British labour movement as a traitor who sold out his party to form a National Government in 1931 . This betrayal is often explained in terms of MacDonald’s lifestyle – it’s claimed that he was corrupted by the high-society company he is supposed to have kept. This narrative is in keeping with the Labour left’s tendency to focus on the personal integrity of political leaders rather than on the broader structural conditions in which they operate. The disappointments of the past and present can be blamed on the purported failings of leading figures within the party. From this perspective, champagne socialism has always been a kind of corruption which has repeatedly derailed the parliamentary socialist project.

While personal integrity is important, Marxists would argue that this concern with champagne socialism and its apparently deleterious consequences for the labour movement is a kind of moralism that misses the structural determinants of Labour’s failure to transform society radically. The problem here is that labourism seeks to manage capitalism in such a way that unjust social inequalities are abolished – but capitalism does not work that way. Similarly, Marxists would argue that a moralistic focus on the relative wealth of specific individuals is a distraction from the real issue – which is not whether this or that “rich egalitarian” should donate more to charity, but how people can change the system that gives rise to structured social inequalities of power and wealth and that constantly reproduces them.

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