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.

  1. #1 by Phil on December 18, 2015 - 5:41 pm

    When I was much younger I used to call myself a Labour-voting anarchist – I knew where we ought to end up (it involved workers’ councils, the abolition of money etc) but I didn’t have the first idea how we were going to get there, and in the mean time I thought it was worth pushing for things to get a bit better rather than keep on getting worse.

    On reflection, that’s still pretty much what I think.

  2. #2 by jschulman on December 21, 2015 - 7:51 pm

    I recommend reading Mike Macnair’s writings on revolutionary strategy, which are an attempt to provide an answer to the very dilemmas you discuss:


    I agree with most of what he says.

    As to what a socialist polity and economy might look like, I don’t think that’s so hard to figure out. At least initially I suspect it would be like this:


    There will be a “core” public sector run via democratic planning outside the market, including what today are natural monopolies (utilities) and giant monopolistic corporations (heavy/high-tech firms), alongside a subordinate market sector of producer co-ops in such areas as agriculture, personal services, small retail, nonprofit media. Co-ops would be subject to regulation, oversight, and intervention by democratically elected authorities. In the core sector, fully socialized firms would be run by boards consisting of representatives of all groups affected by their activities: not just a firm’s workers, but also customers and suppliers, other enterprises, the community in which a firm is located, and groups concerned with equal opportunities and environmental issues. The internal operation of each firm, within the guidelines set by the governing board, would be based on worker self-management. Corporations today already use intranets and planning software to manage their operations, but they do so undemocratically and for profit.


    • The highest political power will be a single popular assembly composed of delegates who are elected and recallable at any time. Pay of delegates will be no greater than the average skilled worker. Elections will be frequent. Judges will also be electable and recallable.
    • All political parties which operate peacefully will be legal. One party or coalition of parties may replace another peacefully. Political minorities will have the right and be given the opportunity to become majorities. A version of the Single Transferable Vote system, as currently used in Australia, will enable more proportional representation of different political parties.
    • Elections will be publicly financed.
    • Local organs of government will have a wide degree of autonomy.
    • The principle of openness in political affairs will be guaranteed (no state secrets).
    • No censorship of media. There will be the right to publicly communicate on all topics.
    • As long as the armed forces exist, their rank-and-file members should have freedom of political speech and the right to organize in political parties and trade unions.

    • #3 by edrooksby on January 2, 2016 - 10:54 pm


      • #4 by jschulman on January 3, 2016 - 8:30 am

        Very welcome. Would like to know what you think of what Macnair has to say.

  3. #5 by dmf on December 21, 2015 - 9:51 pm

  1. ‘Business confidence’, counteracting influences and Marxism’s dead end strategy | The Real Movement
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