Why it’s time to realign the Left

First published in Socialist Review May 2013

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

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

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

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

Rise of Syriza

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

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

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

The classic strategic dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dialectic of change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transitional Programme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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