Archive for December, 2015

Andre Gorz, Nicos Poulantzas and the Question of ‘Structural Reform’

This is a write up of a paper I delivered as part of the ‘Alternative Strategies for the Left Today in the Light of Past Theoretical Debates’ panel at the Historical Materialism 2015 conference in London. It’s a bit rough and ready (it’s a talk) and obviously I didn’t cover everything in this (rather long) written up version in the talk itself – but this is what I got when I wrote up the notes. I aim to convert it into some sort of publication (suggestions gratefully received). It also feeds into the book I am writing.

The question of government power has returned. For the first time in many years, the radical left in Europe (the issue was posed earlier in Latin America) is being forced to confront concrete problems of strategy in relation to the conquest and exercise of political power.

Despite their many differences one of the key perspectives shared in common among the leftist formations that have made political headway recently – Syriza, Podemos, the Corbyn movement – is an explicit orientation on winning government power in order to implement a series of left social democratic reforms. It’s these groups and movements that have most effectively been able to tap into and articulate a popular anti-austerity mood.

The clear organic dynamic of contemporary radicalization across Europe then is toward the formation of ‘left governments’ of radical reform. It’s my view that, like or not, we have to work with the grain of this dynamic and identify the resources to enable us to relate to them and to seek to radicalize them from within – or more specifically to draw out the radicalism within them to the fullest extent.

While it’s clear that much of the Leninist left believes that its critique of the ‘reformism’ of Syriza, and by extension its critique of any strategy but a (vaguely sketched) ‘dual power scenario’ strategy, has been vindicated by that party’s performance in office, I do not believe that it has. I don’t think that there was anything inevitable about Syriza’s trajectory – something pre-ordained, inherent in the very decision to take government office. I certainly think that the probability of this trajectory was high. This high probability of failure was only partially determined by the internal composition of Syriza – a slightly mushy and unstable composite of social democrats, Marxists, pro-Europeanists and those who wanted a rupture with the Euro (but how could it have been otherwise – what other political formation could possibly have taken office in Greece?). More significant was the political and economic power of Syriza’s opponents. Indeed given the forces ranged against Syriza’s initial programme of reforms the chances of success were always slim. But the fact is that any movement of radical change must, without exception (whether ‘reformist’, ‘revolutionary’ or whatever), run up against major, structurally embedded obstacles. No conceivable strategy for socialist change could avoid serious problems and dilemmas along the way. It is in the very nature of the socialist project that the odds are always stacked against us.

So while it is of course true that Syriza has been comprehensively defeated (from without and within) – and it is a terrible, demoralizing defeat – it does not automatically follow that the idea of a ‘left government’ strategy has been demolished with it.

Moreover I think it’s clear that Syriza’s left critics – those to the left of Popular Unity – have been completely unable to present or even articulate a credible concrete strategic alternative.

The paralysis of the contemporary revolutionary left has two major dimensions. The first is a more or less empirical/practical problem to do with organizational culture, popular appeal and the ability to win (and retain) active recruits. After decades of effort the Leninist party building approach has never led to the creation of anything remotely approaching a mass party. As Neil Faulkner recently pointed out, no such group has ever grown beyond 5000 members and indeed all remain as politically marginal as they have always been – perhaps even more so.

The second dimension is a more theoretical one to do with strategic outlook. Panagiotis Sotiris has pointed out in this regard that the Leninist left has never managed to close the ‘distance’ between its focus on everyday tactics and struggles on the one hand and ‘an abstract defence of revolutionary strategy per se, in terms of identity rather than practice’ on the other. That is, the ‘revolutionary’ status of revolutionary leftist groups tends to function for the most part as a rhetorical mark of differentiation from putatively reformist or ‘left reformist’ competitors much more than it indicates the possession of a developed perspective on how, actually, to set a revolutionary process in motion. Revolutionary socialist parties are revolutionary in a sort of negative sense then – in that they define themselves as not reformist and as against taking capitalist state power and so on. The concrete, positive substance of revolutionary strategy remains at best only vaguely defined. To coin a phrase, we know what they’re against, but what are they for? Even the tactical slogans of revolutionary left parties seem largely reactive, defensive, negative – ‘Resist!’, ‘Rebel!’, ‘Revolt!‘, ‘Smash X!, ‘F**k Y!’. OK, but in order to do/set in place/construct… what exactly?

There’s nothing new about this characteristic vagueness and evasiveness in relation to strategy and desired ends – indeed it’s not exclusively specific to revolutionary leftist politics either. In his survey of the history of the European socialist movement, One Hundred Years of Socialism, Donald Sassoon suggests that the left has always been (and still is) caught in a kind of double bind. In fact we might say that this impasse is, in a sense, constitutive of socialist thought and practice. Sassoon presents the dilemma in terms of an unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand, the immediate demands of the present and, on the other, the goal or ‘end state’ of socialism.

The terms of the problem, briefly, are that there is no way to move straight to the end goal, but the process of attending to immediate problems – amelioration of the worst effects of capitalism by means of reform – tends to lead to incorporation within a system that has definite structural limits and embedded systemic mechanisms to enforce these (capital flight, inflationary pressure, balance of payments crises). Theorists such as Adam Przeworski have described this process in terms of ‘business confidence’ – this is the major structural mechanism that enforces the limits of capitalism and that systematically blocks attempts to transform capitalism fundamentally from within. It is rooted in capitalist control over the investment function – i.e. capitalist ownership of capital (c.f. Fred Block).

The ‘reformist’ way of attempting to resolve the dilemma is essentially to kick the end goal into the long grass. For ‘reformism’ the socialist goal is always already not just yet, just over the horizon, relegated to a perpetually postponed future. This is, of course, a kind of bad faith.

But there’s a ‘revolutionary’ mirror image to this too – a ‘resolution’ of the dilemma which is not really a resolution. This is to pin everything on a kind of deus ex machina, a semi-millenarianism, in which the revolution (always vaguely sketched – necessarily so since the concept of ‘the revolution’ functions as a kind of magic bullet solution to all major problems of transition) emerges as if from nowhere. But it’s also always already never quite here (and is always already frustrated by the machinations and betrayals of reformists, the errors of left reformists and centrists, the craven collaborationism of the trade union bureaucracy, the absence of a rooted revolutionary party founded on the correct interpretation of Lenin and so on). Again, this is a kind of avoidance.

Typically the Leninist revolutionary sequence is conceived in something like the following terms: worker’s struggle throws up soviet type institutions which, in a situation of ‘dual power’, are increasingly federated and integrated together into an embryonic workers’ state and which after a revolutionary insurrection and the ‘smashing of the bourgeois state’ become the institutions of democracy through which the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ is exercised.

There are two major problems with this typical sketch of the revolutionary process. One is that the phrases ‘smashing of the bourgeois state’ and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ are hand-waving generalities – they are pieces of phraseology that gloss over problems while purporting to be solutions to those problems. As Nicos Poulantzas points out (in the much maligned final chapter to State, Power, Socialism) these phrases were for Marx and Engels at most ‘signposts’ indicating problems (the class nature of the state, the necessity of a stage of transition toward the process of the state’s ‘withering’ – another signpost) but which have since become transformed into apparently definitive answers to those same problems in Marxist orthodoxy.

The second problem is that it is not entirely clear how things move from the current conjuncture to one in which a revolutionary scenario comes onto the immediate agenda. How concretely does a revolutionary situation emerge from the day-to-day struggles of the WC? How, in Sotiris’ terms, is it possible to close the ‘distance’ between everyday tactics and the still as yet abstractly envisaged objective of revolutionary change?

Underlying these problems of strategy, however, is in my view a deeper problem of theory in relation to the conceptualization of state power. The traditional Leninist strategic orientation is rooted in the view that the capitalist state cannot be utilized to any significant extent by socialist forces for socialist ends. The structural limits imposed by the institutional form and systemic functions of the capitalist state are so narrow that any attempt at using that apparatus will necessarily have the effect of reinforcing bourgeois hegemony. Those who seek to use the capitalist state to transform capitalism will end up taking responsibility for managing rather than challenging cap no matter how radical their original intentions might have been. Thus, in the Leninist view, the capitalist state cannot be wielded (directly) for socialist purposes (although demands may be forced upon it from the outside) – it must be confronted and destroyed.

The seminal text here, of course, is Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The tensions and lacunae in this text are well known (see e.g. Ralph Miliband’s essay on S&R). The fundamental problem with The State and Revolution in my view however is that – as Erik Olin Wright has elucidated – Lenin presents what is overall a very structural-functionalist view of the state. He is much less interested in identifying the specific institutional mechanisms through which bourgeois hegemony is concretised within and through the state (though Lenin does specify some of these) than he is in arguing that the state necessarily performs a particular function that is determined by the class structure in which the state is embedded. As Wright suggests, Lenin treats the organizational characteristics of the state as conceptually subordinate to the question of the function of the state – as if once you grasp that the state is ‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’ (is this all it is? – does this encompass and explain everything the state does?) this is all that you really need to know about the state and how it operates. The essential (stripped down, ‘in the last instance’…) function of the state is simply given by the prevailing mode of production and, furthermore, is successfully performed by the state (in whatever way) because this is the function that is given to it. The capitalist state is inherently and wholly and always in every respect bourgeois – its totality and very essence is determined by its structural function and there you have it. There is nothing more to be said except that it must be eschewed, confronted and ‘smashed’.

In the end this doesn’t seem to me to advance much beyond the classic aphorism/assertion in the Communist Manifesto that ‘The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. I don’t think this gets us very far – in fact (in present circumstances at least) – it gets us only as far as the avoidance and the holding out for a deus ex machina (the fall from the sky of a pristine dual power situation) that characterizes Leninism today. It has little to say about how we engage with political power in the here and now and offers few resources in terms of thinking about how to engage with actually existing established and rooted forms, institutions and traditions of political activity and democratic expression in advanced liberal democracies.

Indeed this analysis had little to offer in the context of the political struggles as they developed in Greece over the past two or three years. Surely the site of the most intense popular struggles we’ve seen in Europe for decades, nothing like soviet institutions, let alone a situation tending toward dual power, emerged in Greece. What did emerge, organically, out of the day-to-day struggles of the Greek working class however was an electoral challenge – a more or less spontaneous move toward support for the idea of a left government as the next concrete step in the process of struggles in that country. While Syriza successfully grasped this dynamic (indeed helped to galvanize it) other organisations of the left were unable to relate to it and as such were more or less bypassed.

Indeed, as Antonis Davanellos indicates, while the slogan ‘for a left-wing government’ raised by Syriza resonated deeply with workers, Antarsya (and the KKE) –trapped in the logic of a more or less Leninist rejection of ‘reformism’ – could only reply ‘by propagandizing various programs, which included positions on all issues except the crucial one: How were we to confront the current urgent situation?’ Or as Sotiris put it

In a period when weak links of the chain opened the possibility of combining a radical left government with forms of popular power from below, and actually initiating a highly original revolutionary sequence, the position of important segments of the anti-capitalist left in Europe was practically that nothing can be done.

In effect these segments simply waited for Syriza to fail so they could say ‘told you so’.

For all the party’s weaknesses, silences, fudges and so on Syriza’s message resonated with the Greek population, precisely because they were prepared to confront the question of political power rather than dodge it.

Syriza failed in office. But at least their failure was a failure of some significance, rather than the pre-emptive failure of effectively rejecting in the first place the very possibility of taking power and really starting to confront concrete problems of social transformation. More than this, the path taken by Syriza promised at least some possibility (however remote given the odds stacked against it) of success. This path was not for all Syriza’s activists and supporters (though it was for some) the classical ‘reformist’ one of infinite gradualism, in which the end goal is kicked into the long grass. But neither did it pivot on the longing for an infinitely delayed revolutionary event to materialise – mysterious and indescribable in advance – in which everything is transformed. The most forward thinking of Syriza’s partisans realized that a radical rupture with austerity and, beyond that, with capitalism could only emerge through engagement with power – taking office and acting on the immediate needs and demands of the unfolding situation – in a necessarily experimental process. As Aristides Baltas indicated, quoting the poet Machado, the only possibility in relation to social transformation is to seek to ‘make the road while you walk it’.

If other challenges from the left emerge in the foreseeable future they will take a broadly similar path to that made and trodden initially by Syriza. Indeed, as we have seen, all other leftwing movements that have made headway recently share a roughly similar orientation. We have no real choice then, but to work with the grain of this contemporary political dynamic – not seek to evade it, or polemicise against it, or provide unconvincing, hand-waving alternatives that quite clearly don’t have any significant political resonance.

So it is a matter of some urgency that the radical left readdresses the question of government power and confronts afresh and with genuine openness the issue of the possibilities for, and limits to, radical reform. This means thinking seriously about the possibilities and limits of radical ‘transitional programs’ and ‘structural reforms’ and about how a government of the left in dialectical interaction with an extra-parliamentary mass movement might be able to enact such measures in such a way that the movement from below is progressively empowered.

There’s a conspicuous lack of such thinking today – but it’s useful I suggest to draw on some of the resources produced in what was in some ways a similar conjuncture when people were confronting similar urgent questions in the context of capitalist crisis and disorientation on the left. We can draw on ideas which gained currency in the 1970s in particular. There was an attempt in this period to think creatively, beyond sterile orthodoxies, in relation to the possibilities of ‘structural reform’ – an attempt to map out the possibilities of using state power to prepare the political terrain for a radical rupture with capitalism; to create the conditions by means of radical reforms in which revolutionary change might actually come onto the agenda.

This sort of thinking was expressed in various ways and took root in different parties, movements etc., and there were various iterations of the broad idea of ‘structural reform’. You can see it in the thinking of groups and formations such as the PSU and CERES in France, in left Eurocommunism and in the work of individuals such as Erik Olin Wright. All attempted to grapple with the complex question of how to formulate a revolutionary strategy applicable and adequate for conditions encountered in advanced capitalist formations

Two figures in particular I think provide especially valuable conceptual and theoretical resources: Nicos Poulantzas and Andre Gorz.

Nicos Poulantzas’ ‘Revolutionary Road to Democratic Socialism’

In State, Power, Socialism Poulantzas’ basic point of departure is that (in contradistinction to his earlier theory – but also to Lenin’s approach) the nature, practices, activities, institutional structures of the state cannot simply be read off in functional terms – i.e. that it simply reproduces the class hegemony of the bourgeoisie.

Instead, famously, Poulatnzas argues that the state should be conceptualised in terms analogous to Marx’s conceptualization of capital. He analyses the state, that is, as a social relation – a material condensation of social relations of force, a terrain of struggles traversed by social antagonism.

Simplifying, the state is, in effect, an ever-changing material reflection or expression of the class balance of forces – the institutional accretion of the cumulative effects of past class struggles. The state’s structure and internal organisation, and indeed its activities and specific functions, are constantly battled over, modified and reshaped by struggles between classes and class fractions.

So it follows from this, of course, that the state is not a monolithic unified apparatus – it’s a fractured ensemble of apparatuses, riven with contradictions and fissures. Neither is it an apparatus which is entirely controlled by, or which exclusively represents the interests of, the bourgeoisie nor the merely functional political thing-instrument of capital – though it does tend to organize the overall hegemony of the capitalist class (while disorganizing the working class) under the leadership of a constantly rearticulated and reorganized power bloc.

Though certainly not without its difficulties, lacunae or unanswered questions, Poulantzas’ extraordinarily rich analysis of the ‘extensive, complex, uneven and ridden-with-contradictions character of state power as class power, as the material condensation of class struggles and resistances’ opens up and ‘makes necessary a more complex conception of revolutionary practice’. (Sotiris, 2014: 154-5).

Famously, Poulantzas rejects the traditional Leninist conception of the ‘dual power scenario’ as inadequate for advanced capitalist democracies since it operates on the basic assumption that the capitalist state is a sort of impenetrable fortress – the thing-instrument of the bourgeoisie which must (and can) be surrounded and besieged by forces wholly external to it before finally being stormed and razed to the ground by these forces, before it is replaced with a second thing-instrument (this time of the working class).

Poulantzas extrapolates from his theory of the state his famous ‘democratic road to socialism’ (or what he perhaps rather provocatively calls the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ in his very interesting 1977 interview/argument with one time LCR revolutionary, Henri Weber – who has since, of course, travelled some distance from his former political position) (See Martin (ed.), 2008: 334-60 The Poulantzas Reader).

Simplifying greatly, the idea of this ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ is to combine struggle within the state – conquering positions of strength within representative bodies and ‘centres of resistance’ ( and he is clear that a necessary part of this must be the election of a left government) – with a parallel struggle outside the state (or in relation to the state) ‘giving rise to a whole series of instruments, means of coordination, organs of popular power at the base, structures of direct democracy at the base’ (Poulantzas Reader).

As he puts it in State, Power, Socialism this ‘comprises two articulated processes: transformation of the state and unfurling of direct, rank and file democracy’ and ‘the flowering of self-management networks and centres’ (Poulantzas, 2000, 263 & 261-2).

There’s a complex dialectical relationship between the two – struggle at a distance from the state helps to transform it and open up space for further experimentation with forms of self-management while conquering positions of strength within the state provides a sort of protective shield for that experimentation, in part because it neutralizes, isolates, disrupts and divides the core institutions of bourgeois power within it.

And this is an absolute necessity he emphasizes in his debate with Weber. In opposition to Weber’s insistence on the necessity and inevitability of something like the classic dual power strategy, Poulantzas asks why (even it were possible to struggle somehow in a relationship of total exteriority to the state – as if working class struggles don’t traverse the strategic terrain of the state) the capitalist state would let socialist forces centralize a counter-power [an embryonic workers’ state] aiming at parallel power. He rightly insists that such a counter-power would be crushed long before it reached the stage that it could provide a serious challenge to the bourgeois state unless its development was articulated with a parallel transformation and disruption of the existing state from within.

In fact it’s interesting that Weber is forced to concede during the interview that in fact revolutionary forces would have to operate within the capitalist state and that they must seek to democratize and transform it at least to a certain extent when he’s made to consider the probable concrete circumstances of a dual power situation once he comes down from his initial counterposition of an abstract and vaguely stated ‘revolutionary seizure of power’ to the openly stated dilemmas of reform that Poulantzas is seeking to think through.

None of this is to say that Poulantzas’ thought is without problems, difficulties, unanswered questions, evasions…. One often remarked on difficulty is that although Poulantzas is clear that his ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ cannot be a smooth, gradualist one of piecemeal and generally tranquil transformation – and that it must culminate, as he insists in his interview with Weber, in some sort of ‘trial of strength’ – he tends to shift from the suggestion sometimes that this must be a single moment of revolutionary confrontation and overthrow to the suggestion that this trial of strength will in fact be a series of ‘trials of strength’ – parceled out into a spaced out series of ‘ruptures’ in which the power of the bourgeoisie is undermined in a gradual series of stages.

(Paradoxically, perhaps) I think there’s a real strength in this weakness however. It’s not that Poulantzas is being evasive – in fact he is quite clear in the interview with Weber that there are all sorts of dangers, risks and pitfalls in the sort of strategy he presents and he’s very open and lucid about the fact that this idea of ‘a series of ruptures’ risks falling into the trap of reformist gradualism (it’s ‘an ever latent danger’ he admits). The strength here is Poulantzas’ clarity and honesty about the unavoidable uncertainty of the endeavour. He’s absolutely clear that he is unsure whether there will be a single moment of revolutionary rupture or a series of them – that we cannot possible know in advance.

It is a strength of Poulantzas’ later thought, that is, that he openly admits and in fact insists on the fact we need to face up to the reality that we cannot know in advance what any revolutionary sequence is going to look like – as against the very odd apparent certainty of so many Leninists, which I just don’t trust.

Poulantzas is absolutely right to insist that there is a radical uncertainty at the heart of the socialist project. There has never been a socialist revolution in any advanced capitalist country and, more than this, there have been no examples anywhere of successful transition to socialism – all attempts have failed and given this the only honest conclusion must be that nobody really knows (though plenty seem to think that they do) how to get to socialism or even, for that matter, whether it is even possible. There are no blueprints or foolproof strategies – there is only, as Poulantzas repeatedly insists, knowledge of a series of ‘signposts’ and lessons from the past pointing out the various traps along the way that we must seek to negotiate. As he puts it in SPS ‘History has given us some negative examples to avoid and some mistakes on which to reflect’ – and nothing more than that.

What Poulantzas provides, though not without problems, is extremely useful. It’s in Sotiris’ words ‘the most advanced attempt to rethink revolutionary politics not in terms of “articles of faith” but of actual apprehension of the complex materiality of political power in advanced capitalist formations’ (Sotiris, 2014: 155).

It gels with the organic dynamic identified earlier – providing resources for thinking through the possibilities of a situation in which a ‘left government’ comes to office.

Indeed it’s interesting that Poulantzas’ thought on the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ was at least partially prompted and shaped (as brought out in interview with Weber) by concrete political developments in France – the growing rapprochement between the PS and PCF and their joint formulation of the Common Programme for a government of the left in the late 1970s.

Poulantzas isn’t the only state theorist who provides such resources – fertile resources can also be drawn from Fred Block and Erik Olin Wright’s work on what he calls the ‘two relations of determination’ at work in capitalist state power – the fact that there is no necessary correspondence between what is structurally possible in terms of state intervention/policy on the one hand and what is functionally compatible with the requirements of reproducing capitalism on the other.

Nevertheless Poulantzas produced what is surely the most rich and ground-breaking account.

André Gorz and ‘Structural Reform’

While Poulantzas provides an outline of the general contours of a policy of radical reform on the part of a government of the left and which is rooted in a rich analysis of capitalist state power, we should turn to André Gorz’s slightly earlier thought on ‘structural reform’ or ‘non-reformist reform’ (which he sketches out in Strategy for Labour and Socialism and Revolution) for a more fully worked out account of the kinds of reforms and practices on the part of a left government that would be necessary.

Gorz’s thought was, like Poulantzas’, formulated in a specific conjuncture where a Provisional Union of the Left government was a distinct possibility – he wrote his key essay on ‘Reform and Revolution’, later published in Socialism and Revolution, in the immediate aftermath of May 1968 – which could have toppled de Gaulle and swept an ‘exceptional’ left wing government to power in a sort of pre-revolutionary situation (for details see, Sassoon, 2010: 397-400). Clearly Gorz thought that such a situation might be repeated and tries in this essay to think through what such a government, borne forward by waves of protests and strikes, should/could do. His ideas became quite influential in the 1970s (in groups such as the PSU) which is why we can think of him as a 70s resource.

Gorz’s argument goes something like this:

Revolution can only emerge organically and dialectically through a process of struggle for reform. Thus we need a transitional strategy of reform that takes us from the present to a situation in which revolution becomes actually possible.

Socialist revolutionary consciousness must be built through a pedagogical process of ‘struggle for feasible objectives corresponding to the experience, needs and aspirations of workers’. At first the ‘feasible’ will be limited to measures of reform within capitalism – or at least measures which from standpoint of reformist consciousness appear ‘legitimate’ but which may actually run counter to logic of capitalism and push against limits

As the working class engages in struggle, the anti-capitalist implications of its needs and aspirations are grad revealed. At same time, through its experience of struggle, the working class educates itself and learns about capacity for self-government. So struggle for reform helps prepare the class psychologically, ideologically, organisationally, materially for revolutionary social change.

Gorz is quite clear that this process depends on the election of a left government – the working class require, after all, a political instrument to implement these reforms (to act on their demands).

This, for Gorz, must be a government whose perspective is not limited to 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 ‘non reformist reforms’ or ‘structural 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. In fact, precisely because they destabilise capitalism, each revolutionary reform necessitates the implementation of further measures to deal with the effects of this destabilisation – measures which will, in turn, necessitate further reforms and so on in a radicalising dynamic of cumulative change.

Revolutionary reforms, Gorz remarks, must be seen as ‘means and not an end, as dynamic phases in a progressive struggle, not as stopping places’.

A key characteristic of a structural reform is that they have to be rooted in popular initiatives – in the sense that, as Gorz puts it ,they are controlled by those who demand them and also in the sense that they always involve an extension of popular power and thus nurture the growing democratic and collective capacity for self-organisation among the working class.

Importantly a programme of structural reform would include extension of organs of direct democracy in communities and in workplaces. They would begin to extend democratic, social control over collective services and public transport, over the economy in terms of forms of democratic planning, socialisation and public direction of investment and so on.

So this process would involve a dialectical interaction between a left government implementing reforms to empower a mass movement which in turn pushes the government on to implement further reforms and to defend these from counter-attack. The resistance and limitations that each round of reforms bring to light – the unbalancing of the system – prompts further more radical measures in an escalating dynamic of permanent revolution.

While the government and the mobilized movement interact, there must always remain a tension between them and the latter must always retain its autonomy in relation to the former.

The whole thing, Gorz is clear, must culminate in a revolutionary ‘trial of strength’ but the point is that the possibility of such a rupture – and the possibility of working class victory in such a rupture – can only emerge dialectically and organically through a process of preparatory structural reform.

One of the things that unites Poulantzas and Gorz is their shared understanding in relation to the radical uncertainty of any such undertaking. Gorz is clear that there can be no guarantees of success and that the strategy runs a very real risk of a slide into reformism. Structural reform inhabits a sort of space of tension between mere reformism on the one hand and revolutionary rupture on the other – indeed it is an attempt to negotiate a course of transition from one to the other. But there’s no guarantee of the direction of travel. It’s just that, unless we think that revolution is always already immanent and imminent – just waiting to burst out at any moment – there’s no other option but to seek move toward it via a series of intermediate steps.

There’s a radical uncertainty of another sort too. Gorz, like Poulantzas is clear that we can’t know in advance in anything more than broad outline what an escalating series of reforms would include as it progresses, how far these reforms could go, at what exact point they would encounter definite limits, at what point it would morph into revolution or indeed precisely what a revolution would look like. The point is that a strategy of structural reform would be a process of experimentation, discovery and making the road as we travel it. We can only know the limits to reform by pushing against them and we can only develop the means to go beyond these limits by building popular capacities for socialism in and through a process of struggle for transitional measures.

Indeed the question a left government strategy of structural reform pivots on is, in E O Wright’s words “not so much how to make a revolution, but how to create the social conditions in which we can know how to make a revolution.”


The radical left formations currently making the greatest political headway in Europe 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. We need to work with this organic dynamic. We must find a way to connect with it, take it seriously and draw out its radical potential by working with the grain of it, while also seeking to radicalise it from within. Theoretical resources developed and popularized in the 1970s are immensely useful in this regard – this was, in many ways, a similar political conjuncture in which theorists such as Poulantzas were asking similar questions. In particular we need to return to and learn from the resources left to us by Nicos Poulantzas and André Gorz.



RS21 summary of the ‘Alternative Strategies for the Left’ panel at HM

RS21 have a summary of three sessions focusing on the political situation in Britain at the recent Historical Materialism conference in London. It includes a report on the panel I was part of: ‘Alternative Strategies for the Left’. Seems a fair summary. I hope, in the near future, to write up the paper I delivered and publish it here (marking, teaching preparation and torrents of admin permitting).

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A depressing line of thought on socialism and disbelief

I’ve been reading up on the history of European socialism (Donald Sassoon’s One Hundred Years of Socialism among others). One of the conclusions that seems to emerge is that the socialist left has always been (and still is) caught in a kind of double bind. In fact we might say that this impasse is, in a sense, constitutive of socialist thought and practice. Sassoon presents the dilemma in terms of an unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand, the immediate demands of the present and, on the other, the goal or ‘end state’ of socialism.

The terms of the problem, briefly, are that there is no way to move straight to the end goal, but the process of attending to immediate problems (i.e. amelioration of the worst effects of capitalism by means of reform) puts you in the position of attempting to transform from within a system that has definite structural limits and embedded systemic mechanisms to enforce these (capital flight, inflationary pressure, balance of payments crises) – inevitably you end up managing that system within the boundaries it presents. Adam Przeworski sums this all up in terms of ‘business confidence’ – this is the major structural mechanism that enforces the limits of capitalism and that systematically blocks attempts to transform capitalism fundamentally from within. It is rooted in capitalist control over the investment function – i.e. capitalist ownership of capital.

The ‘reformist’ way of attempting to resolve the dilemma (Bernstein’s the emblematic representative of this path – though I think a very lucid one and quite honest about what he was doing) is essentially to kick the end goal into the long grass. For ‘reformism’ the socialist goal is always already not just yet, just over the horizon, relegated to a perpetually postponed future. This is, of course, a kind of bad faith on the part of those apparently committed to the attainment this end goal (though not necessarily on the part of Bernstein for who, famously, the ‘ultimate goal’ of socialism was nothing, the ‘movement’ everything).

But the ‘revolutionary’ resolution of the dilemma has always seemed to me not to be a resolution either. Indeed it’s the mirror image of the ‘reformist’ side-stepping of the terms of the problem. Crudely, it pivots on a kind of in-a-flash-everything-is-transformed semi-millenarianism. Few ‘revolutionaries’, of course, argue that we can move straight to socialism (first comes the transitional period of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ after the ‘seizure of political power’) – but the point is that the idea of ‘the revolutionary seizure of power’ serves as a kind of magic-bullet solution to all problems and as such it is not really a solution at all but a rhetorical dodge.

When you start to think beyond the (I suspect deliberately) hand-waving terms in which this ‘seizure of power’ is presented and think through what this would look like concretely, you start to encounter the inherent problems. Many of these are economic – and indeed I don’t think the revolutionary approach finally escapes the problem of ‘business confidence’ either. For one thing it is utopianism to think that *all* major capitals could be expropriated in one fell swoop. Most revolutionary accounts of the transition indicate that the economy in transition would still, for a long while, remain substantially capitalist – it’s just that political power has been transferred to the possession of the proletariat collectively. But as we have seen the structural limits of capitalism are policed economically as much as, if not more than, they are politically. The problem of ‘business confidence’ has not been side-stepped. Even if the revolutionary regime controls the ‘commanding heights’, why would the (substantial) remaining private sector continue to invest any more than it would under a radically reforming government? Why is capitalism vanquished – as the revolutionary narrative suggests it will be – with the destruction of the state, with the transfer of political power? It’s not. Business confidence will exert pressure on a regime of workers’ councils just as they do on the bourgeois state – the transformation of the political institutions in this sense just doesn’t matter.

Furthermore, doesn’t the new regime need imports and exports? Doesn’t the regime therefore require foreign exchange? Won’t it therefore have a balance of payments problem to attend to? Doesn’t it need to ensure that its export goods are ‘competitive’ in terms of quality and price? Doesn’t it need to ensure that wages don’t outstrip productivity (and doesn’t this suggest also that the relationship between a revolutionary regime and unions can’t be harmonious – and that indeed the regime and the working class can’t actually be wholly synonymous?). You could answer this with appeals to a world revolution – but this is going to take a while. There is going to be, for a considerable amount of time, a defensive holding operation to conduct – that is, revolutionaries are going to have to manage, for what is probably long while, a more or less capitalist economy and are therefore going to find themselves subject to the constraints of ‘business confidence’.

There are other ‘political’ problems too. Why do we have any reason to believe in the likely simultaneity (given the necessarily uneven development of workers’ struggles) of revolutionary opportunity on the one hand and the existence in embryo or otherwise of a parallel state system of workers’ councils able to take on the complex functions of running a society in one fell revolutionary sweep – a coherent, integrated, experienced, well designed system of government in which the majority of people have confidence? This is asking quite a lot. Why indeed – given the traditional Leninist focus on the repressive functions of the bourgeois state – would the capitalist state allow such a thing to develop ‘under its nose’ and isn’t it asking a bit much that a rudimentary, uneven, patchy proto-worker’s state, able to evade repressive forays on the part of the state, could suddenly leap into action in a revolutionary flash?

And this is before we start to confront the problem of violence – civil war, Cheka type repression and so on. All of this might indeed flow logically and necessarily from the probable realities of revolution of the state smashing type. But that’s precisely a rather good argument in itself against the state smashing type of strategy. Have a look at Syria today and ask yourself if you want to live through something like that – if you want your kids or parents to experience that horror. It must have occurred to most socialists that this is the probable brutal accompaniment to the romantic sturm und drang  of revolution and I suggest that it’s not in the end something that’s easy to live with.

But typically accounts of the likely revolutionary process are left rather vague by the proponents of such politics. There’s no shortage of revolutionary analyses of the concrete obstacles, pitfalls and dilemmas inherent in reformist politics – but very little in the way of revolutionary analyses of the concrete obstacles, pitfalls and dilemmas that a revolutionary strategy would necessarily encounter. And there’s little of this because the strategy itself is seldom, if ever, much spelt out beyond the invocation of slogans or rhetorical placeholders such as ‘the seizure of power’.

One conclusion to be drawn from this might be that, in the end, revolutionaries simply don’t have an answer to the problem of the gap between the demands of the present and the end goal. What are the steps to take to get there? How do we move from the day to day struggle to the revolution? And then (because of course the problems do not end with ‘the seizure of power’ whatever that might look like) how do we move from the revolution to the end goal? All of this is left largely unaddressed.

Perhaps there’s a deeper dimension to the problem. One that, in a sense, defines the coordinates of the impasse. It’s simply that no one knows what socialism looks like. Indeed it’s extraordinary that socialist theorists as a whole spend so little time trying to imagine what a well functioning polity and economy beyond capitalism might actually look like (and so much more time, for example, on questions of aesthetics – might this be a form of displacement?). For a while the dilemma could be avoided via a form of historical determinism of the Second International type – no need to worry about questions of transition, or in relation to the feasibility of democratic post-capitalist structures and institutions, if History would solve all these problems for us. But we don’t have the luxury of inevitablism any more.

Perhaps, indeed, no one really believes in any of this. Perhaps this general disbelief underpins and explains the evasions of reformism and revolutionism. One reason to kick the question of how to move to the end goal into the long grass is to evade having to face the problem of actually having to explain what this end goal actually is. If you keep it as a vague goal always already just out of sight over the horizon you are never forced to confront awkward questions about it. This might also explain the characteristic drawing back – not necessarily betrayal or cowardice – that governments of radical reform almost always perform once they approach a point of no return. In a sense it’s actually rather sensible, given that the alternative is a leap into the unknown in pursuit of an unknown goal that perhaps deep down no one really believes in. On the revolutionary side the disbelief is expressed in a kind of semi-millenarianism – a vision of a sudden in a flash change which is always already never quite here and which is thus always already never quite explicable.

So maybe as socialists we choose between (or are pulled between) two forms of bad faith. Maybe the whole thing is bad faith.

This raises an unpleasant possibility. Perhaps the only really honest position to take is that of a sort of disenchanted social democracy. One that is lucid and clear sighted about systemic constraints. Most social democrats, of course, are not like this at all. But might this be the only really honest position – the only one that looks the cold reality in the face and draws the necessary, unsentimental, unflinching conclusions?

Of course I don’t really think this.