First published by New Left Project
It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but a party of the radical left is on the cusp of power in an EU country. The latest opinion polls indicate that Syriza will triumph in the Greek national elections to be held on Sunday and although it may not win an absolute majority in parliament it would (assuming it can find coalition partners) certainly be the dominant force in any coalition government that emerged.
Unsurprisingly the imminent prospect of a left government committed to breaking with the brutal reign of austerity has alarmed the powerful within and beyond Greece. In a thinly veiled attack on Syriza, for example, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently warned Greeks about electing ‘extreme forces’ into power and suggested, rather in the manner of a threat, that they ought to consider ‘what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the eurozone’.
But what’s remarkable about this is that, for all the warnings of ‘extremism’, Syriza’s demands are in fact rather modest and indeed eminently sensible. At the core of its programme are pledges to negotiate the cancellation of 50 percent of Greece’s crippling debt, lift austerity and boost growth and employment through public investment. These proposals are accompanied by a range of measures designed to address what Syriza rightly calls the ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Greece such as promises to provide free electricity and subsidised meals and housing for the poor.
Given the economic and social catastrophe that austerity has visited on Greece—over 25 percent unemployment, an economy that has contracted by a quarter, wages and pensions slashed, soaring rates of homelessness, suicide and infant mortality—these are hardly outlandish or utopian proposals. They pivot on the simple, obvious truths that the national debt is unpayable, that austerity is generating nothing but misery and, further, on the rather basic ethical demand that every citizen should have enough to eat, decent housing and access to the basic resources that will allow them to live with dignity. There is nothing extreme about this—indeed, surely the real extremists are those who insist on further austerity, further hardship and humiliation for ordinary Greeks.
It is precisely the moderation of Syriza’s stance, however, that has attracted fierce criticism from other left wing groups. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) for example denounces Syriza for ‘opportunism’ while the Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left(Antarsya), though much less sectarian than the KKE, refuses to combine forces with Syriza, arguing that the latter’s programme is insufficiently radical. Internationally too, there’s no shortage of left critics issuing dire warnings in relation to Syriza’s ‘reformism’, convinced that all it aspires to do is to manage, rather than seriously challenge, the system. Even among many of its supporters there is a general consensus that Syriza ‘is not as radical as we would want’ and that backing it in the forthcoming election represents a necessary reining in of the left’s political ambitions under current conditions.
These criticisms are mistaken, however, for three closely related reasons.
Firstly, it is not at all clear what serious alternative most of these critics propose. In fact, for many of them the underlying dispute with Syriza is not so much over the details of reform proposals as it is with the party’s very intention to form a government within the political institutions of the capitalist state. Such a strategy, they warn, leads inexorably to betrayal since any party that seeks to utilise capitalist institutions will become trapped within the logic of the system. But years of intense social struggles in Greece—including mass demonstrations, occupations of government buildings and more than 30 general strikes—have failed to stop austerity, much less usher in socialist transformation. It is clear that social mobilisation in itself is not enough and that the question of political power must be confronted. Greek workers require a political instrument to lead in actually implementing their demands.
In this regard many of Syriza’s Marxist critics invoke the need for soviet organs of workers’ power. The obvious problem here, however, is that in circumstances where such organs show little sign of emerging even after years of intense social struggle such invocation remains entirely abstract—it is, for the time being at least, wishful thinking rather than the identification of a serious, concrete alternative in the here and now. Indeed, typically, such critics cannot specify in anything but the most hand-waving and vague terms how such organs of workers’ power might possibly emerge. Syriza, however, grasps that the struggle as it currently is requires a government of the left that utilises existing political institutions and, for all the undoubted risks, problems and dilemmas that this will bring, are prepared to take on this responsibility. As such, only Syriza proposes a serious and concrete plan to confront the urgency of the situation in Greece. In comparison, many of its leftwing critics seem to me to offer little but evasive posturing which of course offers little of practical value to people currently struggling to feed their families and pay their rent—this, indeed, is one reason why the KKE and Antarsya will struggle to win more than derisory shares of the vote in the forthcoming election.
Secondly, Syriza’s proposed reforms correspond to the immediate needs and demands of ordinary Greeks—for jobs, better wages, affordable food and housing and so on. Indeed it’s precisely because of this correspondence that Syriza’s programme has resonated so successfully with Greek voters, bringing the party to the brink of office and thus putting imminent, real change on the agenda in a way that ostensibly ‘radical’ but wholly abstract revolutionary demands with little political traction never could.
Thirdly, it’s clear that, for all its sober pragmatism, Syriza’s manifesto is likely to bring it into direct confrontation with the forces of domestic and international capital. It’s certainly not a programme for the management of capitalism on capital’s terms. A Syriza government is likely to face intense hostility in the form, for example, of serious capital flight, bank runs, an ‘investment strike’ and threats of withdrawal on the part of multinationals together with various methods of blackmail and obstruction on the part of the EU. It will also face a dangerous struggle within the Greek state itself—not least in relation to an unreliable and hostile police force in which more than half of all officers voted for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in the 2012 national elections.
It’s likely, then, that on taking office Syriza will, very quickly, be faced with a stark choice: either to renege on its commitments in the face of powerful opposition or to press ahead, which will mean being prepared to take counter-measures to defend its initial reforms: cancellation of the debt, nationalising banks, expropriating closed factories. Of course there’s nothing inevitable about which of these two options Syriza will choose, but given the popular hopes generated by its promises, to retreat on its core commitments would certainly be to consign itself to future electoral oblivion. Much here would depend on mobilised mass support seeking to push the government on and to force it to stick to its promises—indeed a Syriza victory on Sunday will probably unleash a new wave of popular struggles.
The key point here is that determined, consistent implementation and defence of Syriza’s pragmatic election promises is likely to lead to measures that go far beyond the party’s current objectives. We could say that Syriza’s apparently modest programme conceals an inner dynamic of radicalisation.
The very possibility of this dynamic however is rooted in the moderation of the initial demands—in the way in which these articulate the everyday concerns of the mass of the Greek population. What anti-capitalist forces operating within Syriza grasp is that revolutionary social change must emerge from ordinary people’s collective experience of the way in which modest, common sense measures to improve their lives and defend their dignity run up against the limits of what the current order will allow. This experience thus reveals the system’s essential inhumanity—in a sense we might say its extremism—and demonstrates concretely, in a way that abstract declarations of ‘the need for socialism’ simply do not, the imperative to push beyond capitalist limits in order to secure the very basic conditions for a decent and humane society.
Ed Rooksby teaches politics at Ruskin College in Oxford and is a member of Left Unity.
Trying some more to get through writing block.
This article – ‘The End of TINA‘ – by Peter Bratsis in Jacobin is well worth reading. It provides strong reasons to support Syriza and a pretty powerful critique of Syriza’s (ultra) left critics. Neverthless, I don’t (or don’t think I) agree with the underpinning idea that Syriza ‘is not as radical as we would want’ and that supporting it is a necessary sort of trimming of our political sails under current conditions.
In his fantastic book, Socialist Reasoning, the late Andrew Collier argues (drawing on the radically anti-utopian elements of Marx’s thought) that the purpose of socialists should not be conceived as the ‘establishment of socialism’ – that is a utopian mode of thinking that focuses on the inadequacy of existing society when measured against a transcendent and external standard. Rather the purpose should be to implement practical measures designed to improve conditions, concretely in the here and now, for the oppressed. Thus the primary focus of a “workers’ government” should be on the provision of jobs, decent housing and so on not the ‘realisation of socialism’ or the establishment of ‘another world’. In this sense Eduard Bernstein was right that ‘the goal is nothing [and it is literally nothing – a vision is nothing], the movement is everything’ – it is just that (what Bernstein didn’t see) any major and determined attempt to achieve these short-term improvements will tend to run up against the logic of capitalism and must push beyond it.
For me it’s precisely the ‘modesty’ of Syriza’s demands – the fact that they correspond to immediate needs of Greeks (an end to austerity, provision of free electricity, subsidised food and rents) – that makes Syriza’s programme radical in a real sense. I’ve no time for (abstract, hand-waving, never spelt out) demands (on whom?) for SOCIALISM NOW! It’s clear that the determined and consistent implementation of these ‘common sense’ policies (which are eminently sensible, modest demands for basic human dignity) will bring the reform process into progressively sharper conflict with the economic order in a way that the most abstractly ‘radical’ of programmes never could – because these latter programmes are mostly hot air – castles in the sky – with no significant political purchase.
This is an unfinished draft of a rejoinder to Paul Blackledge’s reply to my article in ISJ. I tried to write this over Easter last year and was unable to finish it off satisfactorily – I wanted, in particular, to address some of the arguments raised in Harman and Potter’s 1977 essay on “the Workers’ Government” to which Paul appeals in his reply. I planned, in particular, to criticise the strikingly instrumentalist conception of the state that Harman and Potter seem to work with and also to argue that to the extent that the strategy of ‘left opposition’ to a ‘left government’ Paul draws from this essay represents any sort of concrete elaboration of a revolutionary strategy it relies on the capacity and willingness of other socialists actually to take office so that the business of opposing them from the left can begin. There’s an odd sort of refusal or disavowal of responsibility here – which is also present I think in the SWP and Antarsya approach toward the imminent possibility of a Syriza government in Greece.
I found, however, that I was unable to complete this final part of the essay and, indeed in conjunction probably with other anxieties which hit me at the time, ran into severe problems of writer’s block. In fact, I’ve found it extremely hard to write anything – certainly nothing for publication – since. It’s partly in order to help me finally overcome this block that I’ve decided to publish this on my blog. I’m not going to finish it now, but I felt that tidying up the draft I’d written in March/April last year so that I could publish it on this site would be a step in the right direction.
One of the things which possibly contributed to my writing paralysis was that I was never quite sure if the tone of the piece was right. I should point out that Paul is a good friend of mine who has actually gone out of his way to help me with academic advice, assistance and so on several times and that if the rejoinder comes over, at times, as aggressive, emotionally piqued or finger jabbing this was not my intention.
A Rejoinder to Paul Blackledge on “Left Reformism”
I thank Paul Blackledge for his response to my criticisms of the Socialist Workers’ Party’s perspective on “left reformism” and for the comradely tone in which his reply is written. I’d like to take the opportunity to explain, here, why I don’t find Paul’s reply persuasive and to respond to some of the points that he makes about my argument.
One of the main points that I made in my previous article was that “left reformism” is used as such a broad catch-all term for, essentially, everyone and everything on the left that the SWP regards as to its own right politically except mainstream social democrats, that its analytical usefulness is highly limited. Moreover, this process of lumping together myriad diverse groups and perspectives allows for a line of argumentation in which critical focus on a “moderate” strand of “left reformism” – left social democracy – is passed off as an analysis of all strands of it, since they are all merely instances of the same thing. I argued that this approach obscured real differences between left social democrats on the one hand, and those on the left of “left reformist” organisations who want to implement transitional reforms to trigger the overthrow of capitalism. Now while Paul does make a nod or two to the “concrete differences” between perspectives he insists on corralling together under the rubric of “left reformism” his argument in his most recent piece, otherwise, remains unchanged. He simply reaffirms, that is, his earlier suggestion that there are no relevant differences of any significance between those slightly to the left of social democracy and those with a revolutionary perspective who can see a (limited) role in this process for a left government. All fail to extricate themselves from the core limitation of social democracy which, as Paul explains in detail in his previous article, is that this tradition assumes that the state is class neutral. So while I pointed out that, actually, there are strands of thought within what Paul calls “left reformism” that do, in fact, rest on an understanding of the capitalist state as, precisely, a capitalist state (and that there are people within this camp who actually agree with Paul that the capitalist nature of the capitalist state is determined in large part by the structural interdependence between state and capital) Paul’s response, essentially, is to ignore this and simply to reassert his claim that “left reformists” by definition operate on the basis of a more or less social democratic understanding of state power.
The disagreement between Paul and me, however, isn’t about whether or not there are serious constraints on state autonomy emanating from the structurally embedded power of capital. It’s a dispute about the limits of this autonomy – the extent to which it might provide a certain space for manoeuvre on the part of a left government. To the extent that Paul appears to concede that I may have grasped some inkling of the structural constraints on state power his response is merely that my analysis “profoundly underestimates the barriers to socialist advance through the existing state”. That’s it – an assertion that I am wrong.
Paul criticises me for recounting what he leaves out of his gloss on Fred Block’s approach to the state – which is that working class struggle can force state managers to introduce reforms which run counter to the interests of capital at least in the short term. This, Paul says, is “beside the point” since he (Paul) has been clear that “significant reforms” are possible. It quite obviously isn’t beside the point in this debate, however, to be clear about how Block’s account of the structural interdependence between state and capital (upon which Paul draws) allows for the possibility of the implementation not just of “significant reforms” but of definitely anti-capitalist reforms. Further, the point I make in connection with this – which Paul dismisses – that a left government made up of those with a transitional perspective would be much more likely than a pro-capitalist government to respond positively to demands for radical reforms which push against capitalist interests, follows on absolutely logically from what Block argues. In other words, I think it is pretty plain that Block’s schema is much more compatible with my defence of a left government strategy than it is with Paul’s insistence that the structural constraints on state activity mean that such a strategy is “utopian”.
What Paul needs to show in order to demonstrate his claim that the degree of state autonomy within the constraints of its structural interdependency with capital is not so expansive as to allow for the sort of approach I advocate is why if as he seems to accept state managers can, under pressure from a mass movement, implement reforms which disrupt the smooth functioning of capitalism and strengthen the working class, these reforms must always, necessarily, be limited to reforms within safe limits for the system. What is it, exactly, that prevents the introduction of reforms that break out of the bounds of the merely “significant”? Unfortunately Paul’s analysis does not confront this question.
None of what I have argued is to say that capitalism can be abolished in some unbroken series of cunning transitional reforms. There is no gradualist, reformist road to socialism. The left government strategy of revolutionary reform I draw from Andre Gorz is premised on the idea that revolution can only emerge organically from a process of struggle for reform and that a left government, in dialectical interaction with a mass movement, could be driven on to enact a series of radical anti-capitalist reforms within the constraints on state autonomy presented by the structural interdependence between state and capital – reforms which empower the mass movement and which help to create the conditions in which a revolutionary rupture really comes onto the immediate political agenda. I thought I was pretty clear about this in my article and I think Gorz is pretty clear about it too in the writings from which I draw this approach. Nevertheless Paul manages to find a way of presenting the Gorz of Socialism and Revolution – beneath all his theoretical and rhetorical sophisms presumably (this is what Paul implies his 1970s and 80s followers “who were looking to give some leftist theoretical weight to what was in effect their reformist practice” found of value in his work) – as the purveyor of a classically reformist idea. That is, according to Paul, Gorz promoted the view that the state could implement a series of “irreversible” reforms. Gorz, then seems to become the champion of a sort of updated Fabian inevitability of gradualism with added rhetorical bells and whistles in which socialism is approached in a relentless, irresistible, forward march. But this just isn’t my reading of Gorz at all. In fact Gorz is perfectly clear in the work from which I draw that there is no such thing as an irreversible reform. He writes, for example:
There are no anti-capitalist institutions or gains which, in the long term, are not nibbled away, distorted, reabsorbed into the system, completely or partially emptied of their substance, if the imbalance which they originally created is not promptly exploited by further advances.
Thus he is clear that:
a socialist strategy of reforms must aim at disrupting the system and taking advantage of its disruption to embark on the revolutionary process of transition to socialism, which… can only be carried out by striking while the iron is hot. This kind of strategy can be effective only in periods of flux and open conflict and far-reaching social and political upheaval.
Gorz’s approach, then quite simply isn’t a gradualist strategy of long, drawn-out change by means of “irreversible” reforms.
Paul’s odd reading of Gorz, however, doesn’t stop here. According to Paul he was also it seems, in effect, a proponent of the 1970s social contract. At least this appears to be what Paul is saying when he writes that Gorz’s approach, if it had worked, “would have seen the local variations on the social contract implemented across Europe in the 1970s act as stepping stones to socialism”. Now the above quotation, of course, rather suggests that Gorz’s strategy entails nothing of the kind – he envisages a process of sharpening class conflict and disruption of the system rather than any sort of pact between capital and labour.
While Paul is eager to dismiss the notion of a left government strategy of structural reform as so much “rhetoric”, there is very little, if anything, in his article – or for that matter in any of the various pieces that have emerged from the SWP as part of this debate – in the way of critical reflection in relation to his own tradition. As I pointed out in my first article for this journal I have been clear, from the start, that a left government strategy would involve serious risks and encounter major problems and dilemmas along the way. SWP critics, indeed, have identified many of these inherent risks, problems and dilemmas. I quite openly admit not just that there can, of course, be no guarantee of success, but that the likelihood of success for any given attempt is probably quite low. Further, I am not even certain that a left government strategy could succeed. It is quite beyond me, however, how anyone can be absolutely certain that any given strategy for socialism would or could be successful, though Paul and his co-thinkers often give the impression that, somehow, they are. At least (as again I indicate in my previous article) they never seem to indicate a single difficulty inherent in the Leninist approach they seek to affirm. Paul is, again, completely silent on this matter in his response to me. Surely, however, there must be some risks, gambles and unavoidable dilemmas intrinsic to the SWP’s conception of revolutionary strategy.
It’s worth emphasising how odd this almost total absence of critical reflection in relation to the Leninist dual power strategy looks. As pointed out before, Leninist ideas have never won anything like mass support in an “advanced” capitalist country and Leninist groups today are no less socially and politically marginal than most other radical left formations – yet, typically, this does not seem to have fed through into any sense of humility. It doesn’t seem to stop Paul and others dispensing advice to everyone else with an air of incredible confidence and certainty.
However, it’s not just that Paul and his comrades are completely silent in relation to the potential weaknesses of their own strategic approach, it’s that they never really spell out what it is. The SWP’s conception of the transition to socialism remains remarkably mysterious throughout this debate. Of course we know a little about the dual power strategy they envisage – but not that much. This lends itself to a rather facile style of argument in which a relatively concrete strategy is found wanting in relation to a shadowy superior alternative. But, of course, given that this alternative is never filled-out with much substance, this apparent superiority is never satisfactorily demonstrated – it’s simply assumed. Further, you can’t help suspecting that this assumption of superiority is dependent on the very vagueness of the proposals – if Paul was to fill out his strategy as concretely as the one he criticises he might well find that his favoured approach is likely to run into similar difficulties or problems of comparable weight.
As I pointed out in my previous article one of the weaknesses of the Leninist strategy – and this is where its vagueness is most apparent – is that it seems incapable of providing any concrete account of how a revolutionary situation emerges from day to day working struggles in the here and now. It is true that Paul makes a few hand-waving comments here and there such as his remark that “the experience of collective struggles for reforms creates a space within which participants can begin to recognise their own power to fight for more radical, indeed revolutionary change” – but this amounts to little more than a leftist truism. I would be extremely surprised if any of the “left reformists” Paul thinks he is taking on here disagreed with it in the slightest. The point of difference with Paul is that “left reformists”, on the whole, are willing and able to offer a relatively clear account of how this process might unfold. Paul, by contrast, does not provide the slightest indication of how a situation of dual power comes about. Indeed, it is worth pointing out, in this regard, that three years of struggle in Greece involving numerous mass general strikes has not thrown up soviet organs – let alone a situation of dual power. What it has thrown up is a situation in which a “left reformist” party is on the verge of forming a left government. Sadly Paul and his comrades are unable to grasp the possibilities inherent in the struggles in Greece as they are concretely unfolding and prefer to hold out for some mysterious deus-ex-machina in which soviet power suddenly springs from nowhere.
To the extent that the SWP has attempted to provide its conception of strategy with some degree of concrete elaboration it has tended, as I pointed out in my previous piece, to draw on the idea of transitional demands. But as I also pointed out this raises an important question of agency. We know that a mass movement makes these demands – but upon whom are these demands to be made? The whole transitional demands approach seems, tacitly, to rely on the coming to power of a left government. Paul’s response that my “argument confuses an approach which involves making demands on the state with one that reduces socialism to a statist political project” doesn’t address my point. Quite aside from the fact that it is not entirely clear why the implementation of transitional demands by a left government should imply a more “statist” approach than the implementation of those same demands by a pro-capitalist government, Paul’s response simply evades the key issue – why on earth should we expect a pro-capitalist government to implement a programme of radical reforms that seriously undermine the interests of capital? Wouldn’t a left government – under pressure from a mass movement, driving it on – be much, much more likely to engage in such a process? Paul appears to be in the odd position of arguing that while a pro-capitalist government can be pressured to enact far-reaching reforms that galvanise a revolutionary challenge to capitalism, a left government can offer nothing but obstruction and betrayal.
Blackledge, Paul, 2013, “Left Reformism, the State and the Problem of Socialist Politics Today”, International Socialism 139 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=903&issue=139
Blackledge, Paul, 2014, “Once More on Left Reformism: a Reply to Ed Rooksby”, International Socialism 141 (winter) http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=953&issue=141
Block, Fred, 1987, Revising State Theory: Essays in Politics and Postindustrialism (Temple University Press).
Gorz, André, 1975, Socialism and Revolution (Allen Lane).
Molyneux, John, 2013a, “Understanding Left Reformism”, Irish Marxist Review, volume 2, number 6, www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/68/70
Rooksby, Ed, 2013 “’Left Reformism’ and Socialist Strategy”, International Socialism 140 (autumn) http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=913
Thomas, Mark L., 2013, “Which Strategy for the Left?”, Socialist Review (June), www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=12326
 Blackledge, 2014
 Rooksby, 2013
 See Blackledge, 2013, Molyneux, 2013, and Thomas, 2013
 Blackledge, 2014
 Block, 1987
 Blackledge 2014
 Gorz, 1975: 150
 Gorz, 1975: 149
 Blackledge, 2014
 Blackledge, 2014
Debate with Prof Paul Blackledge, July 2014
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.
First published in International Socialism, 140, Autumn 2013, pp. 83-102
There 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”. 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. 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 – at least in the way that it is currently being used – for reasons I shall set out below.
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) 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”, 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”:
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.
Blackledge also draws on Fred Block’s fairly similar account of capitalist state power, 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.
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”. 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….
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.
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”.
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’”. 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”. 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. 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) 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” 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 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”. 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”. 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”. 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 – 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 – 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”.
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.
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. 
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”. 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” 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”. 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. More recently, in an article for this journal, he has argued for the development of transitional demands geared toward current struggles against austerity. 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”.
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. 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” 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”. 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.
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.
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”. 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.
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”.
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. 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”.
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
 Thanks to Peter Dwyer for his comments on an early draft of this article.
 Thomas, 2013.
 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.
 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.
 This is a chance for me to expand on the argument that I set out in a recent article in Socialist Review (Rooksby, 2013).
 Blackledge, 2013.
 Blackledge, 2013.
 See Harman, 1991.
 Blackledge, 2013.
 See Block, 1987.
 Molyneux, 2013a, p26.
 Thomas, 2013.
 Molyneux, 2013b.
 Thomas, 2013.
 Thomas, 2013.
 Molyneux, 2013a, 33.
 Blackledge, 2013.
 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.
 See, for example, Executive Bureau of the Fourth International, 2012.
 Blackledge, 2013.
 Gorz, 1964 and 1975.
 Gorz, 1975, p154.
 Gorz, 1975, p159.
 Gorz, 1964, p7.
 See Toscano, 2012.
 See Baltas, 2012, p125.
 Seymour, 2012.
 Kouvelakis, 2012.
 See Block, 1987, pp64-65. See Rooksby, 2011 for a fuller examination of Block’s state theory.
 Callinicos, 2012.
 How successful? Soviet power was not established on any durable basis.
 Callinicos, 2010.
 Callinicos, 2003.
 Callinicos, 2010.
 See Lapavitsas and others, 2010.
 See Kouvelakis, 2012.
 Callinicos, 2003, pp139-140
 Riddell, 2012a.
 Riddell, 2011, p21.
 Riddell, 2012b.
 Riddell, 2012c.
 Zetkin, 1922.
 Zetkin, 1922.
 Zetkin, 1922.
 Riddell, 2011, 22.
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.