A Rejoinder to Paul Blackledge on “Left Reformism”

Note

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”

Ed Rooksby

I thank Paul Blackledge for his response[1] to my criticisms[2] of the Socialist Workers’ Party’s perspective on “left reformism”[3] 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”.[4] 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[5] – 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”[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

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”.[9] 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”[10] – 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.

References

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

[1] Blackledge, 2014

[2] Rooksby, 2013

[3] See Blackledge, 2013, Molyneux, 2013, and Thomas, 2013

[4] Blackledge, 2014

[5] Block, 1987

[6] Blackledge 2014

[7] Gorz, 1975: 150

[8] Gorz, 1975: 149

[9] Blackledge, 2014

[10] Blackledge, 2014

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