Political theorist and occasional columnist at the Guardian's Comment is Free and elsewhere.
Note: this is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Critique on 16th January 2018, available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03017605.2017.1412624
Published as: Rooksby, Ed (2018) ‘”Structural Reform’ and the Problem of Socialist Strategy Today”, Critique, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 27-48.
This paper begins with the observation that the left-wing movements that have enjoyed significant political advances in Europe recently share a broad strategic orientation. They seek, that is, to combine electoral and parliamentary activity on the one hand with extra-parliamentary mobilisation on the other. Crucially, these formations seek to utilise parliamentary channels to introduce radical reforms and thus a central component of their approach is to form a ‘left government’ within the institutions of the capitalist state. Despite the failure of Syriza in office I argue that the radical left has little option but to work with these ascendant left formations and attempt to radicalise them from within. I suggest that in order to do so the radical left must transcend the twin dead ends of reformism and Leninism and the historical strategic impasse bound up with the counter-position of these strategic poles. I argue that a strategic perspective elaborated by a minority current within Syriza provides useful resources for navigating a route beyond this impasse. I then show that this perspective can be further elaborated and refined by drawing on theoretical resources associated with the concept of ‘structural reform’ developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. I argue that the work of Nicos Poulantzas and André Gorz is especially useful in this regard.
Keywords: socialism; strategy; reform; state; Poulantzas; Gorz
Despite their many differences the leftist formations that have made political headway in Europe in recent years – Syriza, Podemos, the Left Bloc, the movement that has cohered around Jeremy Corbyn within and outside the Labour Party – share a key strategic perspective in common. This is an explicit orientation on winning government power by electoral means – to form, that is, a ‘left government’ – supplemented to some extent by extra-parliamentary mobilisation, in order to implement a series of left social democratic reforms that at least some currents within these formations see as, in some sense, ‘transitional’. It is groups and movements operating on the basis of this broad strategic outlook that have most effectively been able to tap into and articulate a popular anti-austerity mood and their rise has forced the radical left in Europe to confront, for the first time in many years, concrete problems of strategy in relation to the conquest and exercise of political power. Indeed Syriza’s general election victory in 2015 posed the question in very immediate terms of how, and to what extent, capitalist state power might be utilised for socialist purposes.
This turn to questions of government power and strategic orientation in relation to the capitalist state manifested, as Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin have pointed out, a marked shift of emphasis on the radical left ‘from protest to politics’ which in turn reflected a deeper shift in the fundamental coordinates of the political and economic conjuncture. The focus of struggle, that is, shifted away from the ‘anti-globalisation’ and anti-war demonstrations that had defined radical left organising for the first few years of the 21st Century under conditions of ‘globalising’ capitalist expansion to a new emphasis on the possibilities of winning power directly to resist and reverse the onslaught of capitalist retrenchment in the post-2008 era of crisis and austerity. However, while this change of emphasis brought novelty in some respects, in others of course it represented a return to one of the oldest controversies in socialist thought. Indeed the debate surrounding the strategic approach of these formations – Syriza in particular – was often framed in terms of the classic reform/revolution controversy and the opposing orientations in relation to capitalist state power marked out by the key antagonists in that confrontation – Bernstein, Luxemburg, Lenin and Kautsky.
While the rise of Syriza and its election triumph may initially have seemed to vindicate the general strategic orientation of the ascendant left formations, its ultimate capitulation to the austerian demands of ‘the Troika’ provided a fillip to revolutionary socialist critics of Syriza’s ‘reformism’ or ‘left-reformism’. Indeed Syriza’s hugely disappointing performance in office became the occasion for the reassertion of Leninist axioms in relation to the necessity of remaining strictly independent of the capitalist state rather than seeking to utilise it as a tool of socialist transformation and to the associated imperative of seeking, instead, to ‘smash’ it by means of a ‘dual power’ strategy leading to revolutionary insurrection broadly along the lines of the Bolshevik revolution.
The Leninist critique of reformism is clearly not without merit in relation to the constraints, pressures and obstacles imposed by ‘parliamentary statism’ as Paul Blackledge puts it. As revolutionary critics such as Blackledge point out, forces seeking to use the existing state for socialist purposes tend to encounter a logic in which they find themselves taking on responsibility for managing, rather than seriously challenging, capitalism, no matter how radical their original intentions may have been. Indeed this critique resonated closely with Syriza’s political trajectory as, on approaching electoral victory, it gradually moderated its policy proposals to present itself as a viable party of government in the eyes of the media and then, on achieving office, rowed back on most of its remaining pledges before eventually capitulating to ‘the Troika’s’ austerity agenda.
The trouble with the Leninist critique however is that, no matter how apposite its diagnosis of the constraints imposed by Syriza’s ‘parliamentary statism’, it remained unable to offer a credible concrete alternative and the political groups that cleaved to this strategic orientation (such as Antarsya) were largely bypassed, winning nothing remotely close to the degree of support that Syriza were able to gather as they approached office. Indeed while Syriza’s trajectory mapped on all too closely to the typical pattern of reformist politics, the marginalisation of Leninist politics in Greece, and thus the practical irrelevance of its strategic alternative, was even more predictable, given that Leninist ideas have never won anything close to mass support in any ‘advanced’ capitalist country.
Thus, after the Syriza experience, the radical left seems to be trapped in a strategic impasse. It is caught between an electoral strategy of reform, on the one hand, that, while it can clearly galvanise mass support, seems unable to break free of the structural limits of ‘parliamentary statism’ and a revolutionary strategy, on the other, that has very little resonance with workers today and probably never did have beyond the specific conditions of Russia in 1917.
The aim of this paper is to point to a way out of this impasse – to a strategic perspective that resonates with the general orientation of those left formations that have achieved momentum recently and which also navigates a route that avoids the twin dead ends of reformism and Leninism. In what follows I first set out in more detail the terms of the radical left’s current strategic impasse, before pointing to a minority current of thought within Syriza which has sketched out an alternative strategic perspective that was neither straightforwardly reformist or revolutionary and which might, if implemented, have worked with the grain of the concrete political dynamic in Greece as Syriza approached and took power in order to radicalise this dynamic from within. It is also a perspective, I suggest, that would have traction in other countries in which the radical left approached power in broadly similar circumstances. I then argue that this embryonic perspective can be enriched and developed by drawing on theoretical resources developed in the late 1960s and 1970s when radical thinkers were attempting to grapple with similar developments.
The Strategic Impasse: Two Forms of Socialist Bad Faith
Arguably, there is nothing particularly new about the strategic impasse of the radical left today – it is just that this predicament has made itself felt more keenly in the aftermath of the Syriza debacle. Indeed, in his survey of the history of the European socialist movement, One Hundred Years of Socialism, Donald Sassoon suggests that the socialist left has always been caught in a kind of double bind. Sassoon presents the dilemma in terms of an unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand the ‘end state’ of socialism and, on the other, the immediate demands of the present – as he puts it, a ‘split between “the final aim” and the “everyday struggle”’, between the short-term and the medium- to long-term, existed throughout the socialist movement’. The terms of the problem, briefly, are that there is no realistic way to move straight to the ‘final aim’, 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 for example). Theorists such as Fred Block and Adam Przeworski have described these limits in terms of ‘business confidence’. This is the major structural mechanism that tends systematically to block attempts to transform capitalism fundamentally from within. It is rooted in capitalist control over the investment function which provides the capitalist class with what is effectively power of veto over any government policy that undermines capitalist domination. In this way any government that introduces measures that seriously undermine (or threaten to seriously undermine) capital accumulation will soon be faced with a serious crisis of disinvestment, flight of capital, attacks on the currency and so on and hence come under enormous pressure to reverse those measures. Thus any government which prefers to avoid such an acute crisis and which, indeed, is not prepared to take on and attempt to expropriate big capital in a full-on and hugely risky confrontation – which, by definition, those committed to a gradual and peaceful process of transition to socialism are not – will find that there are definite limits to reform.
Developing the implications of this double bind we might say that the reformist way of attempting to resolve the problem of capitalist power of veto over reforms that tend to undermine capitalist profitability is essentially to kick the final aim into the long grass. Reformism, that is, busies itself with immediate reforms within the system that do not challenge capitalist limits while, at most, paying lip-service to the idea of eventual transition to socialism at some unspecified time in the future. A hazy connection between immediate reforms and the final aim may be invoked by reference to a path of gradual, incremental transformation of the system, but the process in which reforms to the system become transformation of the system – in which quantity is transformed into quality – is, typically, left only very vaguely described. Thus, 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. It is all too easy to identify this evasion characteristic of reformism in some of the thinking of key intellectual figures associated with Syriza. It is most obvious, perhaps, in Yanis Varoufakis’ comments in 2013 that he saw it as the left’s immediate task to ‘save European capitalism from itself’, given that ‘we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapsing European capitalism will open up with a functioning socialist system’. One can also see it – whatever the merits of the sophisticated argument he puts forward – in Costas Douzinas’ argument in relation to Syriza’s predicament in office that the left must operate on ‘three different temporalities’ once it enters government. He argues, that is, that a left government must operate in ‘the time of the present’ when it is forced to offer concessions and ‘to implement what they fought against’, while at the same time striving to activate two other temporalities – a medium-term one in which it seeks to create the space to implement a ‘“parallel” program’ comprising ‘policies with a clear left direction’ and a much longer-term temporality which is ‘the time of the radical left vision’. This reads very much like an elaborate rationalisation of capitulation in the present with reference to vaguely defined ‘parallel’ measures that somehow express fidelity to deferred long-term transformational socialist intent.
There is, however, a revolutionary mirror image to this reformist bad faith too – a ‘resolution’ of the dilemma that is not really a resolution. This is to avoid the problem of structural limits to reform and the attendant risk of becoming incorporated as a mere manager of the system by repudiating any responsibility for taking on government power within capitalism and, instead, to pin everything on a kind of deus ex machina, a semi-millenarianism, in which revolution (always vaguely sketched – necessarily so since the concept of ‘the revolution’ tends to function as a kind of magic bullet solution to all major problems of transition) emerges as if from nowhere. This mysterious revolutionary irruption, however, is also always-already never quite here. Again, this is a kind of bad faith.
This is not to say, of course, that Leninists are unable to present any vision of the general contours of a revolutionary event. It is to say, however, that this vision remains in key respects rather ethereal. Let me explain. Typically the Leninist revolutionary sequence is conceived in something like the following terms: workers’ 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 revolutionary insurrection and the ‘smashing of the bourgeois state’ become the institutions of democracy through which the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is exercised. However, there are two major problems – two areas of evasion – inherent in this typical sketch of the revolutionary process. The first of these is that the phrases ‘smashing of the bourgeois state’ and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ are, more often than not, deployed as hand-waving generalities – they are pieces of phraseology that gloss over problems while purporting to be solutions to those problems. What, exactly, does it mean to ‘smash the state’? How, exactly, does the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ function and what are the specific institutional forms that it should take? As Nicos Poulantzas points out 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 in Marxist orthodoxy into apparently definitive answers in themselves to those same problems.
The second area of evasion is that it is never entirely clear how things move from the present situation within bourgeois democracies to one in which a revolutionary scenario comes onto the immediate agenda. Of course, it is true that Leninists tend to propose that revolution emerges organically out of practical struggles by workers for reforms – but there is still something of a mysterious leap here. How concretely does a revolutionary situation of dual power emerge from the day-to-day struggles of the working class? The question weighed particularly heavily at the height of Greek workers’ struggles against austerity. After all, Greece at this time was surely the site of the most intense popular struggles seen in Europe for decades, and yet nothing like soviet institutions, let alone a situation tending toward dual power, emerged.
Panagiotis Sotiris has pointed out in this regard that the revolutionary 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’ on the other. Indeed, he further suggests that this abstract invocation of revolutionary intent tends to function more ‘in terms of identity rather than practice’ – that is, the putative revolutionary status of Leninist groups operates for the most part as a rhetorical mark of differentiation from reformist competitors (or those assigned as such) much more than it indicates the possession of any developed perspective on how, actually, to set a revolutionary process in motion. The concrete substance of revolutionary strategy remains at best only vaguely defined.
Underlying these problems of strategy, however, is in my view a deeper problem of theory in relation to the conceptualisation of state power. The traditional Leninist strategic orientation is rooted, as we have seen, in the view that the capitalist state cannot be utilised 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. 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 various tensions and lacunae in this text are well known. The fundamental problem with The State and Revolution, in my view however, is – as Erik Olin Wright has elucidated – that Lenin sets out what is overall a highly functionalist view of the capitalist state. As Wright suggests, Lenin treats the organisational characteristics of the state as conceptually subordinate to the question of its structural function. That is, Lenin is much less interested in identifying the specific institutional mechanisms through which bourgeois hegemony is reproduced within and through the state, than he is in arguing that the state necessarily performs a particular function determined by the class structure in which the state is embedded. Lenin’s argument ultimately rests on the assertion as an axiom of the view he draws from Marx that the state is ‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’. This line of reasoning, in itself though, explains very little about how, precisely, the state performs the function that has been assigned to it and on what basis it is bound necessarily in every instance and at all times to perform this task. Lenin’s reasoning also carries with it an essentialist logic in which the state is assumed to be wholly and in every respect bourgeois to its core – as Nicos Poulantzas puts it, in the Leninist view, ‘the State is not traversed by internal contradictions, but is a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind’. If, after all, the state is, merely, an organ for the repression of one specific class by another then it cannot be utilised to any extent by the class it functions to repress. It follows from this that political forces seeking to advance working class power can seek to do nothing other in relation to the state than to confront it, ‘smash’ it and replace it with a completely new apparatus.
This is a view of capitalist state power, however, that has little to offer in terms of practical political guidance in the absence of any emerging organs of soviet counter-power. It provides 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. In current circumstances – which are of course nothing like the circumstances in which Lenin wrote the State and Revolution – this is a perspective that simply reinforces the strategic paralysis and longing for an always-already not quite yet fall from the sky of a dual power situation that characterises Leninism today.
Certainly this analysis provided revolutionary groups with little political traction in the context of popular struggles as they developed and intensified in Greece. What emerged, organically, out of the day-to-day struggles of the Greek working class was not a tendency toward direct confrontation with the existing state system as such (although of course there was confrontation in the street with particular repressive apparatuses of the Greek state) but a more or less spontaneous move toward support for the idea of a left government operating within existing parliamentary institutions as the next concrete step in the process of struggle in that country. While Syriza successfully grasped this dynamic (indeed helped to galvanise it) other organisations of the left were unable to relate to it. Indeed, as Antonis Davanellos indicates, while the slogan ‘For a left-wing government!’ raised by Syriza in 2012 resonated deeply with workers (and helped to propel it on its course toward victory in 2015) Antarsya and the KKE (the Communist Party of Greece) –trapped in the logic of a more or less Leninist rejection of any strategy of seeking to take government power within existing bourgeois institutions – 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’ while offering no plausible alternative.
Syriza did, indeed, fail 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. Indeed, Syriza’s message and its approach of tapping into social movements, seeking to articulate them into a coherent political project and orienting on government resonated with the Greek population precisely because Syriza were prepared, no matter how imperfectly, to confront the question of political power rather than dodge it.
Indeed, it seems reasonable to suppose that such a perspective would resonate with workers in heightened conditions of struggle in other situations too – certainly much more than the Leninist (non) alternative. It seems likely, that is, that if further serious challenges from the left emerge in the foreseeable future, they will take a broadly similar path to that trodden initially by Syriza. Certainly, as we have seen, all other left-wing movements that have made headway recently share this general orientation. The clear organic dynamic of contemporary radicalisation across Europe where it achieves momentum is toward the formation of left governments of radical reform. Thus, it seems we have little choice, like it or not, than to seek to work with the grain of this dynamic and to identify the strategic resources that might enable us to radicalise it from within.
The key question here becomes, of course, whether it might be possible to escape Sassoon’s double bind. Is it possible, that is, to navigate between the twin pitfalls of infinite gradualism in which the end goal is endlessly kicked into the long grass on the one hand, and of longing for a hazily conceived and perpetually delayed revolutionary event to materialise on the other? I contend that such a path might have been navigated by Syriza and its base of support had a different balance of forces obtained within that party and movement and had different available choices, decisions and gambles been taken, guided by a strategic perspective present among minority elements within Syriza.
A Road not Taken: the Perspective of the Left Platform
As a relatively broad coalition of forces (even after the formal dissolution of participating groups into a unitary party in 2013) Syriza comprised a range of different currents and strategic perspectives – some of which provided a much more radical assessment of the possibilities inherent in the coming to power of a left government in Greece than the more typically reformist outlook held by Tsipras, Varoufakis and much of the core leadership. For those associated with the Left Platform, such as Stathis Kouvelakis for example, the prospect of a Syriza government raised the possibility of a dialectic between the activities of elected representatives within the state and social struggles from below. Kouvelakis hoped that Syriza in office would take initiatives to ‘open up a space for social mobilization’ and thus catalyse a renewed and radicalised wave of popular mobilisation that would both provide a base of support for the government while also pushing it on in the face of opposition from ‘the Troika’, forcing it to stick to its promises.
This dialectic, it was envisaged, would interact with a second dynamic in which the government’s programme of reforms would soon bring it into direct confrontation with the forces of domestic and international capital, thus necessitating the further radicalisation of this programme – and of popular struggles in support of them- if those initial reforms were to be carried through and defended. This dynamic of permanent revolution Kouvelakis argued:
would conform I think to a quite familiar in history pattern of processes of social and political change, where the dynamic of the situation, boosted of course by the pressure of popular mobilisation, pushes actors (or at least some of them) beyond their initial intention.
Crucially, this dialectical process of radicalisation would be rooted in – indeed, could only begin from – an initial programme of relatively ‘modest’ policies. Indeed, the defining feature of Syriza’s programme as it entered government was that it corresponded to the immediate and pressing needs and demands of ordinary Greeks – for jobs, better wages, affordable food and housing and so on. It was precisely because of this correspondence that Syriza’s programme resonated so successfully with Greek voters, bringing the party to victory in the 2015 general election and thus putting real change on the agenda in a way that ostensibly ‘radical’ but wholly abstract revolutionary demands with little political traction never could. However, it was also clear to Left Platform thinkers that for all the eminently reasonable and sober pragmatism of the party’s programme, these measures would, if implemented, soon run up against the limits of what European capital and its political representatives would accept. In this respect, Syriza’s programme successfully located what Slavoj Žižek has called a ‘point of the impossible’. This is something in the field of politics or the economy that ‘you can (in principle) do but de facto you cannot or should not do it – you are free to choose it on condition you do not actually choose it’. Pressing forward on such a ‘point of the impossible’, Žižek suggests, has a kind of demystifying effect that reveals the limits of a system and the relations of unfreedom and domination that undergird it.
The vision of militants such as Kouvelakis, then, was that by carrying through on these ‘point of the impossible’ demands, a struggle for ‘modest’ reforms within capitalism would escalate organically into a more and more consciously and openly anti-capitalist struggle. Further, this process, it was hoped, would possess an internationally ‘expansive capacity’, triggering an ‘enormous wave of support by very large sectors of public opinion in Europe’, thus potentially spreading this wave of radical struggle to other states in the EU’s southern periphery – and even into its core.
Clearly the leadership of Syriza did little to set in motion the dialectic that Kouvelakis and others had envisaged. Indeed in an insightful reflection on the experience of Syriza in government,  Kouvelakis points out that what had been tried and had failed in Greece was an entirely different strategy altogether and that, as such, the strategic vision of the Left Platform remained untested. It is impossible to know, of course, whether this perspective, if put into practice, would have been successful – but certainly Kouvelakis believes that had a different strategic outlook prevailed among the leading forces in Syriza the coming to power of a left government in Greece might have opened up a process of radical social change in that country and beyond.
What is more, this strategic outlook appears to offer the prospect of a way out of the strategic impasse identified by Sassoon – it seems to provide, that is, a possible route to bridge the gulf between immediate demands and the end goal of socialist transformation, between reform and revolution. Moreover, this strategic approach resonates with the organic dynamic of contemporary leftist upsurges toward the formation of left governments – it would provide us with a way of working with this dynamic to radicalise it from within. Nevertheless, the strategic approach formulated by Kouvelakis remains fairly sketchily drawn – clearly much more work needs to be done in terms of thinking seriously about the possibilities for, and limits to, radical reform. Indeed, this may be a matter of some urgency given the volatility of the current political conjuncture. It is not beyond the bounds of reason to believe that we may see a political formation broadly similar to Syriza approaching government in the next few years, whether in Europe or beyond. Yet there is a conspicuous lack of such thinking on the left today.
However, I suggest that it is useful in this regard to draw on resources produced in what was in some ways a very similar conjuncture when a range of political currents and thinkers were forced to confront many of the same urgent questions about the possibilities of government power in the context of a deep and long-running capitalist crisis. Specifically, we can draw on ideas that gained currency in the late 1960s and 1970s. There was an attempt in this period to think creatively beyond sterile orthodoxies, and to transcend the polarity of reformism versus 1917 redux dual power perspectives. Much of this thinking cohered around the concept of ‘structural reform’, attempting to map out the possibilities of using capitalist state power to prepare the political terrain for a radical rupture with capitalism. This kind of approach took root in a range of different political formations and there were various iterations of the broad idea of structural reform. It was probably most closely associated with the strategic thinking of groups such as the PSU (Unified Socialist Party) and CERES (Centre for Socialist Study, Research and Education) in France, and with ‘left Eurocommunist’ currents within the broader phenomenon of Eurocommunism that took hold within the PCI, PCE and PCF (respectively, the Italian Communist Party, Communist Party of Spain and French Communist Party) in particular as these groups attempted to grapple with the complex question of how to formulate a revolutionary strategy applicable and adequate for conditions encountered in ‘advanced’ capitalist societies. However, two figures in particular (one of whom is commonly associated with left Eurocommunism and the other had a significant impact on the PSU) provide especially valuable conceptual and theoretical resources in this respect: Nicos Poulantzas and Andre Gorz. Let us look at some of the key ideas of these two thinkers in order to extrapolate useful resources for a left government strategy today.
Nicos Poulantzas’ ‘Revolutionary Road to Democratic Socialism’
In the last chapter of his final, and what is widely regarded as his greatest, book State, Power, Socialism Poulantzas sets out some ideas for a ‘democratic road to socialism’ (or what he perhaps rather provocatively calls the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ in his fascinating 1977 interview/argument with one time Leninist revolutionary, Henri Weber). This strategic perspective flows from the theory of capitalist state power he formulates in the main part of the book.
Poulantzas’ basic point of departure in State, Power, Socialism (in contradistinction to his earlier theory – and also to Lenin’s approach) is that the practices, activities and institutional structures of the state cannot simply be read off in functional terms – i.e. the tautological method of reasoning in which the structural function of the state to reproduce the class hegemony of the bourgeoisie is first identified and then taken, in itself, as sufficient explanation for the successful performance of this imperative. Instead, Poulantzas argues that the state should be conceptualised in terms analogous to Marx’s conceptualisation of capital. He analyses the state, that is, as a social relation. It should be seen, he argues, as ‘the specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions’. Simplifying greatly, 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. As such it is a terrain of struggles traversed by social antagonism. The state’s structure and internal organisation (what Poulantzas terms its ‘institutional materiality’) 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 is 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. The struggles of the working class traverse the institutional materiality of the state, shaping and reconfiguring its structures and therefore working class power is always to some extent manifested and embedded within the state and their interests reflected in aspects of state policy. The state’s internal class divisions become most obvious when public sector workers strike, but it is also clear that state policy is moulded in response to competing class pressures that are brought to bear on it – including pressures that emanate from the working class. It is hard to explain the provision of ‘welfare’ measures, for example, without reference to working class interests, demands and mobilisation (even if these measures are subordinated to the imperatives of capital accumulation).
This is not to say that the state is a merely passive entity – as Alexander Gallas points out, for Poulantzas, the ‘term “material condensation” not only implies that the state reflects class relations, but also that it has effects actively shaping these relations’. There are several dimensions to this, but the overall thrust of Poulantzas’ argument is that via a process of what Bob Jessop has termed ‘structural selectivity’ the state tends to organise the overall hegemony of the capitalist class (while disorganising the working class) under the leadership of a constantly rearticulated and reorganised ‘power bloc’. Nevertheless, Poulantzas’ analysis suggests that this tendency to organise bourgeois hegemony is exactly that – a tendency and nothing more. It is always contingent, vulnerable and never a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the manifestation of working class power on the contested terrain of the state brings with it the threat that leftist forces might build up powerful ‘centres of resistance’ within state apparatuses in order to disrupt bourgeois hegemony and to repurpose state power, within definite limits and constraints, to advance socialist objectives.
Though certainly not without difficulties or unanswered questions, State, Power, Socialism sets out an extraordinarily rich and sophisticated analysis of the capitalist state as a contested site of power that is far superior to the Leninist approach which, as we have seen, pivots on the view that the state is simply an organ of class repression. It allows us to account for the evident contradictions and tensions that traverse the modern state while also – as against social democratic and liberal assumptions of the state’s essential ‘neutrality’ – situating the state as a set of ‘political’ apparatuses rooted firmly in the ‘economic’ context of capitalist relations of production.
Further Poulantzas’ theorisation of the ‘extensive, complex, uneven and ridden-with-contradictions character of state power as class power, as the material condensation of class strategies and resistances’, as Sotiris remarks, opens up and ‘makes necessary a more complex conception of revolutionary practice’. Famously, Poulantzas rejects the traditional Leninist conception of the ‘dual power scenario’ as inadequate for advanced capitalist democracies since it operates, he argues, 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. Indeed, his analysis, of the state as a material condensation of social relations of force makes it plain that no political strategy could possibly bypass it – all social struggles are by definition articulated in relation to the field of state power.
Poulantzas’ sketch of the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ in the last part of the book is directly extrapolated from this analysis. It rests on the possibility that the cracks, fissures and internal contradictions within the contested terrain of the state might be amplified and exploited by socialist forces. Again, simplifying greatly, the idea of this strategic approach is to combine struggle within the state – conquering positions of strength within representative bodies and ‘centres of resistance’ (and Poulantzas is clear that a necessary part of this must be the election of a left government) – with a parallel struggle of the popular masses outside the state (that is to say, in relation to the state) ‘giving rise to a whole series of instruments, means of coordination, organs of popular power… structures of direct democracy at the base’. This strategic approach, that is, ‘comprises two articulated processes: transformation of the State and unfurling of direct, rank-and-file democracy’. There is, for Poulantzas, a complex dialectical relationship between these two processes. Struggle at a distance from the state helps to modify the relationship of class forces within its apparatuses, transform its ‘institutional materiality’ and opens 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 neutralises, disrupts and divides the core centres of bourgeois power within it.
Poulantzas is clear that the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ cannot be a smooth, gradualist one of generally tranquil transformation. On the contrary it must incorporate ‘a stage of real breaks, the climax of which – and there has to be one – is reached when the relationship of forces on the strategic terrain of the State swings over to the side of the popular masses’. Poulantzas is quite open in his interview with Weber that he does not know whether this process would involve ‘one big rupture’ or, in fact, a ‘series of ruptures’. However he is clear that ‘the moment of decisive confrontation’ would pass through the state. That is, it would be unlikely to take the form of the popular movement ‘confronting the state… en bloc’ (as in the classic dual power conception of revolution) – instead, he suggests, popular struggle would:
bring about a differentiation inside the state apparatuses, a polarization by the popular movement of a large fraction of these apparatuses. This fraction, in alliance with the movement, will confront the reactionary, counter-revolutionary sectors of the state apparatus backed up by the ruling classes.
The revolutionary process thus involves not the ‘smashing’ of the state as such but, at most the ‘smashing’ of particular apparatuses (something akin to Engels’ remark in his introduction to the 1891 edition of The Civil War in France that the proletariat would have to ‘lop off’ the ‘worst sides’ of the state) alongside the radical reconfiguration and democratisation of other apparatuses and their increasing articulation with organs of direct democracy. Indeed, it is only such an approach, Poulantzas insists, that could set in motion a transformation of the state tending toward its eventual ‘withering away’. There is much about Poulantzas’ strategy that remains rather vaguely formulated, but there is little sense, in my view, that this springs from any deliberate evasiveness. On the contrary Poulantzas is quite frank, especially in his interview with Weber, that he remains unsure about the details of how the broad transitional process he envisages would unfold. He remains unsure, however, precisely because he does not believe it is possible to know in advance. Indeed his perspective is rooted in a lucid – and, again, openly stated – grasp of the unavoidable uncertainty of the socialist endeavour itself. There are, after all, no blueprints or fool-proof 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 State, Power, Socialism ‘History has not yet given us a successful experience of the democratic road to socialism: what is has provided – and that is not insignificant – is some negative examples to avoid and some mistakes upon which to reflect’ – and nothing more than that.
He is lucid and direct, too, about the dilemmas and risks attendant on such a strategy – not least the danger that the bourgeoisie and the repressive apparatuses of the state might resort to counter-revolutionary repression and the strong possibility, too, of degeneration of the process into mere social democratic reformism. The only preventive against such dangers would be ‘continuous support of a mass movement founded on broad popular alliances’ linked to ‘sweeping transformations of the State’. In other words, the full and consistent implementation of the strategy Poulantzas outlines would in itself generate the best defence against these latent dangers. Nevertheless, there could be no guarantees. The ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ could never be considered a ‘royal road, smooth and free of risk’ – it is just that, for Poulantzas, there is no other realistic option other than, as he puts it in the remarkably candid final lines of his book, ‘to keep quiet and march ahead under the tutelage and the rod of advanced liberal democracy’.
Poulantzas’ innovative and clear-sighted approach constitutes 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’. It is clear that his thinking – which represented a dramatic shift from the more orthodox Leninist perspective on transition that he cleaved to in much of his earlier work – 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 (Socialist Party) and PCF and their joint formulation of the Common Programme for a government of the left in the 1970s. That is, the perspective that he develops in State, Power, Socialism seems to have been significantly conditioned by the real movement of things and the urgency of the moment – the pressing need to think beyond strategic orthodoxies that provided little theoretical or practical leverage and to interrogate instead the concrete possibilities of a situation in which a left government comes to office.
There are clear parallels here with the situation today and indeed Poulantzas’ thought resonates closely with the organic dynamic of contemporary radicalisation in Europe and with Kouvelakis’ sketch of the path that might have been taken by Syriza. As such Poulantzas provides us with useful resources for the current conjuncture. In particular his analysis allows us to ground a left government perspective in a sophisticated account of state power. His theory shows us how and why the state, as a contested site of power, constitutes potentially fertile terrain upon which to focus a strategy of transformation and indeed why it would be impossible in any case to refuse to engage with this terrain in any meaningful sense. Further, his analysis reveals the crucial importance of seeking to transform the state’s internal structures and indicates how mass struggles at a distance to the state, coupled with direct intervention by socialist forces within it, could have this effect.
André Gorz and Structural Reform
While Poulantzas provides an outline of the general contours of a strategy of radical reform on the part of a government of the left, 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 to add further detail to our emerging left government perspective. Gorz provides, in particular, a more fully worked out conceptualisation of the necessary dynamic of interaction between government and mass movement and of the kinds of reforms upon which such a process must pivot.
Gorz’s thought was, like Poulantzas’, formulated in a specific conjuncture where a Provisional Union of the Left government in France 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 – an event many believed at the time might have toppled de Gaulle and swept an ‘exceptional’ left-wing government to power in a sort of pre-revolutionary situation. Clearly Gorz thought that a similar situation might be repeated and tries, in this essay, to think through what a government of this kind, borne forward by waves of popular mobilisation, might accomplish and how this might be steered in the direction of radical social transformation.
Gorz’s argument begins from the observation that traditional reformism and Leninism are both strategic dead ends. On the one hand, reformism fails to recognise that ‘the bourgeoisie will never relinquish power without a struggle and without being compelled to do so by revolutionary action on the part of the masses’ while, on the other, the traditional revolutionary strategy is premised on the erroneous idea that a more or less immediate insurrectionary transition to socialism is possible. The way out of this dilemma, Gorz suggests, is to reject the prevailing assumption that reform and revolution are necessarily counter-posed alternatives and to grasp, instead, the possibility of a dialectical unity between them. Indeed, we must understand, he argues, that revolution can only emerge organically and dialectically through a process of struggle for reform. Thus socialists need a transitional strategy of reform that provides us with a bridge from the present condition to a situation in which revolution becomes actually possible.
Such a strategy must pivot on the view that socialist revolutionary consciousness can be built only through a pedagogical process of mass ‘struggle for feasible objectives corresponding to the experience, needs and aspirations of workers’. At first the ‘feasible’ will, by necessity, be limited to measures of reform within capitalism, but as the working class engages in struggle, however, the anti-capitalist implications of its needs and aspirations are gradually revealed. At the same time, through its experience of struggle, the working class learns about its capacity for ‘self-management, initiative and collective decision’ and can have ‘a foretaste of what emancipation means’. Thus struggle for reform can help prepare the working class psychologically, ideologically and materially for the revolutionary seizure of power – it can have the effect of ‘creating the conditions, both objective and subjective, in which mass revolutionary action becomes possible and in which the bourgeoisie may be engaged and defeated in a trial of strength’.
This strategy is rooted in the observation that mobilisation ‘for the conquest of power and of socialism – abstract terms which no longer in themselves serve to mobilize the masses – must pass through the “mediation” of intermediate, mobilizing objectives’ which assist:
in the training and education of the masses, making it possible for them to see socialism not as something in the transcendental beyond, in an indefinite future, but as the visible goal of a praxis already at work; not a goal which the masses are supposed to wish for abstractly, but one to aim for by means of partial objectives in which it is foreshadowed.
Gorz is clear that this process depends on the election of a left government – the working class require, after all, a political instrument to lead in carrying these reforms out. This, for Gorz, must be a government whose perspective is not limited to merely ‘reformist reform’. As Gorz puts it in Strategy for Labor 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. As he explains further in Socialism and Revolution:
What in practice distinguishes a genuinely socialist policy of reforms from reformism of the… “social democratic” type is… first, the presence or absence of organic links between the various reforms, second, the tempo and method of their implementation and, third, the resolve, or absence of resolve, to take advantage of the imbalance created by the initial reforms to promote further disruptive action.
Whereas ‘reformist reforms’ are designed to be inserted within the capitalist system without significantly disrupting it, structural reforms are deliberately intended to break the ‘equilibrium’ of the system. Each such reform brings concrete gains for the working class but also opens up the possibility of further changes. In fact, precisely because they destabilise capitalism, each structural reform necessitates the implementation of further measures to deal with the effects of this destabilisation – measures which themselves run counter to the logic of capitalism and which will thus, in turn, stimulate further reforms and so on in a radicalising dynamic of cumulative change. Structural reforms, Gorz remarks, must be seen as ‘means and not an end, as dynamic phases in a progressive struggle, not as stopping places’.
Gorz suggests that the impetus behind the dynamic of structural reform will flow in significant part from the bourgeois resistance each reform will encounter. The reaction of the capitalist class to each reform – expressed for example through capital flight – may have the effect of further radicalising the rank-and-file of the movement as it realises that the initial reforms are insufficient and must be followed by further, more far-reaching, measures of change. In this way, the inevitable reaction of the bourgeoisie to socialist encroachment of its power and privilege can be used as a weapon against it. Eventually, Gorz suggests, the mass movement must come to the conclusion that reform is not enough and that a revolutionary rupture is necessary.
Crucially, the impetus also flows, however, from the growing empowerment of the movement outside the state. Gorz suggests that the extension and consolidation of popular power and forms of direct democracy will develop the mass movement’s confidence in relation to its own capacities for self-government, thus increasing its appetite for further democratic empowerment and encouraging it to put pressure on its leaders and representatives to drive forward and deepen the process of structural reform. Indeed Gorz emphasises that it is a sine qua non of a project of structural reform that the changes it brings in to effect must be rooted in popular initiatives. They must always involve an extension of popular power, but also – and crucially – they must, wherever possible, be ‘dictated, effected and controlled by the masses themselves based on their capacity for self-management and their own initiative’. In more concrete terms, a programme of structural reform would include, then, measures to encourage, implant and empower organs of direct democracy in communities and in workplaces. It would seek to decommodify collective services and exert democratic control over the economy through forms of workers’ control, the formulation and implementation of workers’ ‘alternative plans’ for (socially useful) production, and through socialisation of the investment function for example.
Though the major driving force for the unfolding dynamic of structural reform would come ‘from below’, Gorz does not imagine, however, that this process could unfold in a wholly spontaneous manner. The raison d’être for this strategy, as we have seen, flows from the observation that socialist consciousness and revolutionary democratic capacities among the working class must be built and nurtured in struggle, but Gorz is clear that ‘the dialectical development of the struggle presupposes an already existing socialist intention’ among ‘the vanguard of the workers’ movement and among its leaders’. The task of this organised section (which would encompass, of course, those representatives in government) would be to guide the process of the movement’s radicalisation, plan the reforms to be implemented and ensure that each measure is integrated into an overall strategic whole. As Gorz puts it, their major role would be to ‘grade the objectives, to raise the struggle to a constantly higher plane and to set “intermediary” targets, paving the way for worker power, which must be necessarily surpassed as soon as they have been achieved’. Nevertheless this would be a vanguard that sought to abolish itself as the democratic capacities of the people developed and which sought to transfer power from the summits of the bourgeois state to the emerging organs of popular democracy. Having ‘unleashed or stimulated a mass movement’, Gorz remarks, this leadership must seek to ‘dissolve into it’ and, simultaneously, to liquidate existing institutions of state power, substituting for these ‘those organs of self-government and self-administration which the sovereign base has evolved for the perpetuation of its sovereignty’. Much like Poulantzas, Gorz is here attempting to think through the process of the ‘withering away of the state’ as this might be effected by a movement that sought to utilise state power in order to build the capacities to surpass and abolish it.
Another perspective that unites Gorz and Poulantzas is their shared understanding of 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 degeneration into reformism (i.e. ‘reformist reform’). Structural reform, after all, inhabits a space of tension between mere reformism on the one hand and revolutionary rupture on the other – indeed it is precisely a strategic perspective that seeks to negotiate a course of transition from one to the other – but there can be no guarantee of the direction of travel. The point is, however, that since immediate ‘[s]eizure of power by insurrection is out of the question’ there is no other option but to seek to seek move toward socialist transformation via a series of intermediate steps – the ‘risk must be run, for there is no other way’.
Gorz’s thought manifests a radical uncertainty of another sort too. Although, as we have seen, he specifies the crucial and indispensable features of structural reform and provides some examples he is also clear, like Poulantzas, that it is impossible to know in advance in anything more than broad outline what an escalating series of reforms would comprise, at what point this process would morph into revolution or, indeed, in any detail, what a revolution would look like. This is precisely because a strategy of structural reform would be a process of experimentation, contestation and learning by doing that would pivot on the stimulation of mass participation and debate in developing organs of grass-roots democracy and the development of popular capacities for self-management, initiative and collective decision. Gorz is clear that the strategy would rely in great part on workers themselves formulating their own demands and these would, of course, be conditioned by the specific circumstances in which they were elaborated. Further it is impossible to predict exactly the limits to reform – we can know them only 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 that a strategy of structural reform pivots on is, in Wright’s words ‘less “how to make a revolution”, but rather “how to create the social conditions within which we can know how to make a revolution.”’
So, like Poulantzas’ ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ Gorz’s strategic vision involves dynamic interplay between a mobilised mass movement rooted in emerging organs of popular democracy and a left government operating within the structures of the capitalist state. As for Poulantzas, this process would begin with reforms within capitalism but would build toward revolutionary rupture and although Gorz seems to envisage a much more dramatic liquidation of existing state institutions than Poulantzas, both see this process as tending toward the state’s ‘withering’. Both theorists too, emphasise the unavoidable risk and uncertainty of such a project. What Gorz adds, however, is a much richer theorisation of the dynamic of structural reform, of the essential and necessary characteristics of such transitional measures and of the process by which revolutionary rupture could emerge dialectically from a pedagogical process of mass struggle for ‘intermediate objectives’ in an escalating dynamic of permanent revolution.
Moreover, it is clear that Gorz’s perspective maps on closely to the prevailing dynamic of radicalisation today. Indeed, Gorz’s account of structural reform resonates very closely indeed with Kouvelakis’ sketch of the (squandered) possibilities inherent in Syriza’s election victory. As such Gorz’s thought on structural reform, like Poulantzas’ vision, provides hugely valuable conceptual resources for us today in seeking to elaborate a strategy for socialism that coheres with the concrete tendency for radical struggle, wherever it makes significant advances, to develop toward the formation of a left government supported by a substantial degree of popular mobilisation.
This paper began by noting that the radical left formations that have made political headway in Europe recently have all shared a strategic orientation that seeks to combine electoral and parliamentary activity on the one hand with extra-parliamentary mobilisation on the other and that, crucially, a central component of this approach is to seek to form a left government within the institutions of the capitalist state. It was argued that, for the most part, however, the wider radical left – trapped in a false dichotomy of ‘reform versus revolution’ in which two forms of bad faith are pitted against each other – has been unable to grasp the opportunities opened up by the advance of these formations. I suggested that the perspective elaborated by the Left Platform in Syriza most fully grasped the anti-capitalist potential inherent within these ascendant formations and offered a way of radicalising their development from within.
It was then argued that this strategic perspective could be developed and enriched by drawing on theoretical resources developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was argued that Poulantzas and Gorz, in particular, provided especially valuable resources in this regard that resonate strongly with current circumstances. Poulantzas’ thought in State, Power, Socialism enables us to situate a left government perspective in a rich analysis of capitalist state power that would provide us with a sophisticated understanding of the possibilities for engagement on the contested terrain of the state and of the possibilities, too, for its (at least partial) reconfiguration in line with socialist objectives. Gorz’s thought in Strategy for Labor and Socialism and Revolution, furthermore, presents us with useful resources in relation to the concept of transitional ‘non-reformist reforms’ and in relation to the dialectical process in which revolutionary rupture might emerge from their implementation. Both theorists present us with a strategic perspective that pivots on an experimental process of probing the limits of reform that, by its very nature, can offer no guarantees of success and for which there can be no detailed route map in advance. It is a perspective, however, that could provide the radical left with a strategy for socialism that sidesteps the twin pitfalls of reformist and Leninist bad faith in which the socialist horizon is infinitely postponed to some indefinite future and provide us with traction in relation to concrete processes of political radicalisation as they are actually developing in Europe.
 Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, ‘Class, Party and the Challenge of State Transformation’, The Socialist Register, 2017, p. 36.
 That is, the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.
 On the utility of the latter term see Paul Blackledge, ‘Left Reformism, the State and the Problem of Socialist Politics Today’, International Socialism, 139 (Summer 2013) and my response: Ed Rooksby, ‘”Left Reformism” and Socialist Strategy’, International Socialism, 140 (Autumn 2013).
 I use the term ‘Leninism’ to refer to revolutionary socialist organisations that model themselves on Lenin’s Bolsheviks. There are different variants of Leninism, but it is fair to say that most share a broad strategic orientation in common.
 Blackledge, op. cit.
 Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: the West European Left in the Twentieth Century (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010).
 Ibid., p. 23.
 See Fred Block, ‘The Ruling Class Does not Rule: Notes on the Marxist Theory of the State’ in Fred Block (ed) Revising State Theory: Essays in Politics and Postindustrialism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987) and Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
 This was the pattern of events that accompanied, for example, the election of the government headed by Francois Mitterrand in 1981. See Sassoon, op. cit., pp. 534-571.
 See Yanis Varoufakis, ‘Confessions of an Erratic Marxist in the Midst of a Repugnant European Crisis’, Znet, February 2015, https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/confessions-of-an-erratic-marxist-in-the-midst-of-a-repugnant-european-crisis. This is the full text of a speech first delivered in 2013. Varoufakis served as the Minister for Finance in the Syriza government from January to July 2015.
 Costas Douzinas, ‘The Left in Power? Notes on Syriza’s Rise, Fall, and (Possible) Second Rise’, Near Futures Online, March 2016, http://nearfuturesonline.org/the-left-in-power-notes-on-syrizas-rise-fall-and-possible-second-rise. Douzinas is a member of the Greek parliament for Syriza.
 Sassoon gives remarkably short shrift to Western European revolutionary socialist groups: ‘If there is one single thread in the evolution of Western Europe it is the marked absence of any possibility of a working class revolutionary insurrection on the Bolshevik pattern’. ‘Those’, he continues, ‘who failed to appreciate this fundamental fact were condemned to the most complete political insignificance’. See Sassoon, op. cit., p. 56.
 See for example, Ernest Mandel, Revolutionary Marxism Today (London: New Left Books, 1979), pp. 1-66.
 Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London: Verso, 2000), p. 256.
 Panagiotis Sotiris, ‘How Can We Change the World if We Can’t Change Ourselves’, RS21, November 2014, https://rs21.org.uk/2014/11/13/how-can-we-change-the-world-if-we-cant-change-ourselves.
 For a penetrating critique see Ralph Miliband, ‘Lenin’s The State and Revolution’, The Socialist Register, 1970.
 See Erik Olin Wright, Class, Crisis and the State (London: Verso, 1983), pp. 181-225.
 V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, in V.I. Lenin: Selected Works, Vol. 7 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1937), p. 9.
 Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 254.
 Antonis Davanellos, ‘The Fourth Comintern Congress: “a Way to Claim Victory”’, International Socialist Review, Issue 95, https://isreview.org/issue/95/fourth-comintern-congress.
 Sotiris, op. cit.
 Slavoj Žižek ‘Addressing the Impossible’, The Socialist Register, 2017.
 Ibid., p. 349.
 Budgen and Kouvelakis, op. cit.
 Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘Greece: Turning “No” into a Political Front’, in Catarina Príncipe and Bhaskar Sunkara (eds) Europe in Revolt (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), pp. 18-19.
 He restates his commitment to such a strategy in the aforementioned essay.
 See Nicos Poulantzas and Henri Weber, ‘The State and the Transition to Socialism’ in James Martin (ed) The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State (London: Verso, 2008), pp. 334-360.
 Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 129.
 See, for example, Ian Gough, The Political Economy of the Welfare State (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1979).
 Alexander Gallas, The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015), p. 40.
 See Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 125-128.
 Panagiotis Sotiris, ‘Neither an Instrument nor a Fortress: Poulantzas’s Theory of the State and his Dialogue with Gramsci’, Historical Materialism, 22.2 (2014), pp. 154-155.
 See, Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 253-255.
 Poulantzas and Weber, op. cit., p. 338.
 Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 263.
 Ibid, pp. 258-9.
 Poulantzas and Weber, op. cit., p. 343.
 Ibid, p. 341.
 Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 262.
 Ibid, p. 265.
 Ibid, p. 263.
 Ibid, p. 265.
 Sotiris, ‘Neither…’, op. cit., p. 155.
 See Poulantzas and Weber, op. cit., p. 351.
 See Sassoon, op. cit., pp. 536-538.
 André Gorz, Strategy for Labor: a Radical Proposal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).
 André Gorz, Socialism and Revolution (New York: Anchor Press, 1973).
 The work from which the following account of Gorz’s thought draws most heavily.
 See, Sassoon, op. cit., pp. 397-400.
 Gorz does not use this term. He writes, instead, of the ‘maximalist position’ and ‘maximalist tendencies’ (see Gorz, Socialism and Revolution, op. cit., p. 153 and p. 154 for example), but it is clear that he uses these terms to designate the same strategic approach that I have called Leninism in this paper.
 Ibid, p. 135.
 Ibid, p. 154.
 Ibid, p. 159.
 Ibid, p. 135.
 Gorz, Strategy for Labor, op. cit., p. 11.
 Ibid, p. 10.
 Ibid, p. 7.
 Gorz, Socialism and Revolution, op. cit., p. 141.
 Ibid, p. 148.
 Ibid, p. 158.
 Ibid, p. 154.
 Ibid, p. 154.
 Ibid, pp. 176-177.
 Gorz, Strategy for Labor, op. cit., p 8.
 Erik Olin Wright, op. cit., p. 233, n. 11. Wright is not referring to Gorz here specifically. Nevertheless Wright takes a broadly similar strategic perspective and his words seem applicable.
Posted in Political comment on March 14, 2018
It’s been a remarkable few weeks – and an especially remarkable 48 hrs or so – for trade unionists in the university sector.
UCU’s escalating series of strikes have mobilised an unprecedented number of university workers on picket lines up and down the country. What’s more the industrial action has been able to draw on a magnificent degree of support from students, joining staff, day after day, on the picket line, helping to organise ‘teach out’ and ‘teach in’ sessions and in some cases even staging occupations of university buildings.
I’ve certainly never seen anything like this. There’s a real sense of energy and determination on the picket lines – morale is high and it’s abundantly clear that university workers and students alike really are in a mood to fight and to keep fighting. Unlike previous strikes I’ve taken part in, this one feels like a serious rather than symbolic or tokenistic action. We mean business.
It’s also clear, as many have pointed out, that this strike isn’t really just about pensions. It feels like something that had been building for a long time finally burst into the open in a process merely catalysed by the pensions issue. As I suggested in my Jacobin article, the energy and anger among strikers draws on a much wider set of grievances in relation to declining pay and conditions, the proliferation of precarious and casualised forms of employment in the sector, TEF, the inflation of VCs’ salaries and the increasing marketisation and commodification of higher education. This is a revolt against the neoliberalisation of the university. We’re simply tired of it – we’ve had enough. Something snapped.
And yet there’s been something joyous about this whole process. Turning up at the picket line (I get to these much earlier than I would normally get to work on a normal day by the way) hasn’t felt much like a grind or a chore – even in freezing temperatures. Many of the people I work with have remarked that the strike has actually allowed them to really talk to colleagues and students for the first time (on the picket lines and in discussion in ‘teach in’ sessions) – to get to know them on a really human level. As someone commented, ‘we’ve really found each other for the first time on the picket line’.
I’ve certainly noticed that my stress levels have declined during this strike. Overwork and administrative overload is a real problem in academia. What’s more, for the duration of the strike, I’ve actually been able leave work at a relatively decent hour in the early afternoons after the ‘teach in’ sessions end – and I don’t take work home with me in the evenings or at weekends. This doesn’t normally happen. This in itself has been enormously liberating, but also throws into sharp relief the ways in which normal working conditions – what we take for granted on a day to day basis as ‘just the way things are’ – in this sector (and in many others too of course) have become quite inhuman in the neoliberal workplace.
It’s an age old socialist insight of course that the experience of collective struggle and solidarity can alter consciousness and shift the horizons of the possible – but even so, perhaps it’s an insight that you don’t normally fully appreciate until you live it. You can ‘know’ it abstractly and theoretically, but you don’t really know it until you experience it – in no matter how attenuated a form (I’m not, of course, saying that the UCU struggle has been anything like as intense as many other trade union struggles). Perhaps this instructive, educative dimension of struggle always takes its active subjects by surprise.
It’s also been quite an exciting and at times intense experience – not least in the last 48 hours, in which I think something really quite remarkable has happened.
As is well known, the UCU leadership dropped a bombshell on its members in the late evening of Monday 12th March – announcing that it had reached agreement with UUK under the auspices of ACAS. The terms of this agreement represented a really shoddy and wholly unnecessary compromise that, in the circumstances, could only really work in the employers’ favour. The key thing here was that these terms let the employers off the hook at a time when they were clearly in disarray – taken by surprise by the militancy and determination of the strikers – and implied of course the immediate demobilisation of university workers at a time when the dynamic and momentum of the struggle was clearly moving to our great advantage. There was no need to compromise on these terms. It was, quite simply, tactically and strategically inept from the standpoint of those who wanted not simply to ameliorate the employers’ assault on our pensions (and by extension the wider project of marketisation in HE) but to halt it in its tracks and push it back.
In this respect, perhaps, UCU members and their allies have just experienced a crash course in the limitations of the trade union bureaucracy. We’ve learned, that is, that vigorous mobilisation is key not just because it concentrates pressure on our adversaries, but just as much because it keeps our own representatives under pressure to deliver for their members when the ever present danger is that these reps will seek to throw a wet towel over struggle whenever they think they can cut a deal. With vigilance and sustained mobilisation we can push our representatives further than they originally intended to go.
The response to the announcement of this deal was immediate and forceful. There’s a story to be told here about the real time organising potential of social media. In my view the push back against the deal (we had less than 24 hours to do it before the HEC voted the next day – and if the vote had been railroaded through the leadership could simply have suspended the industrial action there and then) would not have gathered momentum or organised form in time without mass activist use of Twitter that night and the following morning. Twitter allowed members first to circulate the terms of the proposed deal and second, (with the hashtag #NoCapitulation) to generalise and strengthen a sense of collective outrage and the belief that this should and could be resisted. It was also key in organising and building the mass protest outside HEC the next day.
The day of the HEC meeting, and the branch reps consultation that preceded it (in which the leadership’s resolve to implement the deal was broken), was an absolutely electrifying experience. Like many other members who could not make it to London on Tuesday I spent the day glued to my Twitter feed on my mobile. Again like many others my mood shifted through the day – from something like dejection and fatalism in the morning, to something like euphoria by mid afternoon as it became clear that the groundswell of opposition would overwhelm the compromise deal.
I received a series of texts throughout the morning and early afternoon from our UCU branch chair – first from the protest and later from inside the meeting room in which branch delegates lobbied the national leadership. These texts expressed increasing confidence as the meeting progressed, that the leadership were going to back down – with me passing them to colleagues (and also tweeting some of them as I received them). By about 1pm it became clear that victory was almost certain when our rep texted to say that the leadership “is being slaughtered in the debate. No one supports the proposal. UCU will reject the offer today”. Soon after that, the reversal was confirmed.
It’s worth emphasising the significance of what happened here. What we have just experienced is the power of democratic mass mobilisation from below. Indeed what we’ve seen is a form of sustained and determined mobilisation over the past few weeks that has generated its own internal dynamic of radicalisation – one that took even the union leadership by surprise and left them running to catch up with it as it has unfolded. What has become clear with the defeat of the 12th March deal is that this strike is driven from below by university workers and students. We are now in control of it. Not the union leadership. They are our representatives. We now know all this – and with this knowledge the strike is likely to radicalise further. We won’t accept anything less than defence of existing pensions. But we also want more than this too and we have the confidence to start demanding more and to make this action a coordinated and conscious push back against the marketisation of HE
There’s another important dimension to this radicalising struggle too. As several commentators have pointed out, the ramifications of this industrial action are likely to go beyond the education sector. As for example Steven Parfitt indicates, university workers “are actually on the front line of an ongoing battle which threatens to wipe out proper pensions for workers across a whole sector of society”. The UCU struggle is highly important, then, as a defensive action to halt the wider neoliberal erosion of the right for workers to expect a decent income in retirement.
But there’s something more than merely defensive about this. There’s a decent chance, it seems to me, that is, that victory for university workers in this dispute would provide a major boost for organized labour generally. As Neil Davidson has suggested while “lecturers are obviously an unlikely vanguard of the working class” a victory in this strike might well “encourage other people in different industries and different sectors to feel like they can take action as well.” There’s a good chance, that is, that if this strike is successful, then (maybe, just maybe…) it could mark a significant turning point in class struggle.
And here’s where this industrial dispute connects with recent shifts in the political balance of forces in Britain. It’s been strangely little remarked upon how the rising fortunes of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have fed into this struggle. It’s by no means the case, of course, that university lecturers are unanimous in their support for Corbyn, but it’s hard to imagine that the UCU strike would have generated so much enthusiasm (among staff or among students) if it hadn’t been for the stunning showing for Labour in the 2017 General Election which electrified the political landscape in Britain. Almost certainly the excitement among young people generated by Corbyn’s leadership of Labour has fed into the enthusiastic response among students to the UCU strike. Organised labour, too, has received a boost from the “Corbyn effect” and it’s probably fair to say that a new mood of relative confidence generally prevails among trade unionists.
In these circumstances the potential for a general upsurge in leftist struggle that would combine advance at the level of parliamentary, electoral politics with mobilisation from below on the part of a resurgent organised labour movement looks promising. Certainly, a key task for socialists within and beyond the university sector must now be to turn this promise into a reality by working to strengthen and radicalise the university strikes, by seeking to generalise the confidence and enthusiasm on the university picket lines to other sections of organised labour and by helping to develop deeper links with the movement in support of the current Labour Party leadership. But in doing this, of course, we should remember the lessons of the last 48 hrs – that it will be necessary to exert constant pressure on our political representatives as much as our union ones, via sustained forms of mobilisation, in order to force them to stick closely to the (dynamic and evolving) terms of our demands.
First published by Jacobin, 13th March 2018
For the past few weeks staff in more than 60 British universities and colleges – lecturers, researchers, administrators, librarians and technicians – have been engaging in an escalating series of strikes.
This industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU) has been the largest ever strike in higher education in recent British history. Indeed there’s a great deal at stake. The outcome of the strike will shape the future of the university sector in the UK for years to come. It is also likely to have major ramifications for workers in other sectors too. As Michael Mair points out,
with the university pension scheme one of the smallest of the remaining large-scale guaranteed occupational pension schemes in Britain, workers in other areas have quickly realised this is a test case: if the moves against university staff are to succeed, it will be everyone else next, a precedent will have been established.
In this respect, as Steven Parfitt indicates, university workers “are actually on the front line of an ongoing battle which threatens to wipe out proper pensions for workers across a whole sector of society”. The UCU struggle is highly important, then, as a defensive action to halt the wider neoliberal erosion of the right for workers to expect a decent income in retirement.
For the entire duration of the action – up until Monday evening at least – it was very clear that the strikers possessed the initiative and had momentum on their side. The employers looked stunned and wrong-footed by the unprecedented degree of mobilization on university picket lines up and down the country. Morale among union members was high. We were winning.
And then, on Monday evening, the news broke that an agreement between union negotiators and university employers’ body, Universities UK (UUK), had been reached. As the details of this deal circulated rapidly among rank and file union members on Twitter, it became clear that in the view of many of those who had sacrificed so much and shown such determination on the picket lines over the previous ten days of industrial action this looked like a pretty terrible offer.
It certainly is. This is a shoddy and wholly unnecessary compromise on the part of the UCU leadership. But there’s still time to reject it. We can still win this fight – and reclaim our union.
The dispute was triggered by UUK’s drive to convert USS – the pension plan for university workers – from a “defined benefits” to a “defined contributions” scheme. In basic terms this means converting the scheme from one that guarantees a certain level of income in retirement to one in which the payout will depend on how the stock market performs, shifting the main “burden of risk” from employers to employees.
University staff could lose between 20- 40% of their pension under these proposals. A typical lecturer stands to lose an average of £10,000 a year, while some younger staff who have only recently started out on their careers could lose more than £200,000 over the course of their retirement.
But, as Parfitt has pointed out, the roots of the strike go much deeper. The pensions issue was merely the catalyst for an open outburst of long pent up anger about the direction in which UK education has been going for many years. This is a revolt against the relentless campaign of neoliberal marketization to which successive governments have subjected the university sector.
One of the most egregious feature of the neoliberal assault has been the imposition and then hiking of student tuition fees (these trebled across most of England in 2012 to £9000) which, in tandem with drastic cuts to direct government funding of the higher education sector, “incentivized” universities to compete for market share in terms of student numbers. It’s a process that was deliberately designed to erode the idea of higher education as a public good and to transform the relationship between students and their universities into an increasingly market transactional one between (heavily indebted) individualized consumers on the one hand and customer service providers on the other. With universities competing to produce the best “student experience” – a key measure of market performance that will feed into an absurd league table ranking system under the newly introduced “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF) – there has been a huge spending spree on estate development funded by large loans from the capital markets (eager to lend to projects regarded as ultimately underwritten by state guarantee) thus accelerating the financialization of higher education.
All of this has been accompanied by a steady worsening of pay and conditions for many university workers. Staff pay has fallen by 16% in real terms since 2009. Additionally, the university workforce has been relentlessly casualized with more and more teaching performed by staff (or postgraduate students) in temporary and/or hourly-paid employment. Indeed, 54% of all academic staff are on insecure contracts. Research time – the headspace to read, think and write – is a luxury increasingly confined to a smaller and smaller academic elite, supported by armies of precariously employed teaching staff moving from one short term, part time contract to another.
At the same time, in combination with the transformation of universities into institutions run on business principles, Vice Chancellors (the head managers of universities – and surely it can’t be long until they start to call themselves CEOs) have seen their salaries inflate to an average of over £270,000, with some, of course, “earning” far more than that. Recent revelations about the lavish expense account lifestyle – chauffeurs, five star hotels, business class flights – of many of these thrusting entrepreneurial talents have only served to throw into greater relief the massive gulf between them and the increasingly precarious workforces they manage.
So it’s only in this wider context that we can understand the current dispute. UUK’s attack on pensions was the final straw that broke the camel’s back for a workforce already seething with frustration about the creeping marketization of higher education and the steady deterioration in pay and conditions. It’s the way in which the pensions assault finally galvanized university workers into action in a process that drew much of its force from a much wider set of grievances that explains the scale of the strike so far and the resolve shown by striking staff.
Response and Mobilization
The response to the UCU ballot on industrial action was overwhelming. The 2016 Trade Union Act designed to weaken trade unions by making strike action in public services much harder stipulates, among other measures, a minimum turnout threshold of 50% and an additional threshold of 40% support for industrial action among all eligible members for action to be legal. These barriers were convincingly overcome in the industrial action ballot that closed in January. Of 68 institutions balloted, “61 voted overwhelmingly in favour of action, with 88% in favour of strikes and 93% in favour of action short of a strike, with an overall turnout of 58%”. Several of the remaining UCU branches (such as mine) that failed to meet the 50% threshold in the first ballot, later voted for strike action after being reballoted in February. If nothing else, UCU has demonstrated that recent Tory anti-trade union legislation can be beaten.
The resounding vote for serious and sustained industrial action generated further resolve among university staff with a reported 5000 new members joining the union in the run up to the strike. Moreover the momentum was carried over into the strike itself – with branches up and down the country reporting rock-solid action on the part of members and large numbers turning out for picket lines (in defiance, it should be noted of the government’s “Code of Practice on Picketing” – part of the panoply of anti-trade union legislation – which indicates that no more than 6 people should picket an entrance or exit to a workplace). By many accounts, furthermore, the number of those who took to picket lines increased day by day as the strikes continued – braving blizzards and sub-zero temperatures in some cases.
One of the most significant aspects of the strike as it has unfolded, however, has been the magnificent support that UCU members have received from students. As Parfitt rightly noted in February, students’ attitude toward the dispute – the question of whether or not they generally supported the strike – was always going to be a pivotal factor in whether it succeeds or fails. So far, students have been, in the main, solidly behind their lecturers. Indeed, many have taken the initiative in organizing solidarity actions – as they have at my institution, for example, in putting together an imaginative daily program of “teach in” sessions, sending student reps to attend strike committee meetings and drumming up daily student attendance on the picket line. Similar acts of solidarity have taken place at universities up and down the country.
The strike action has quite clearly had a radicalizing effect on many in the union rank and file. It’s an old socialist insight, of course, that the experience of collective action can transform consciousness and open up new horizons of social and political possibility. As Michael Mair puts it, strikes “establish new lines of solidarity, they are instructive and they are educative” and, further, we “come to know the worlds we live and work in differently as a result of participating in them.” This strike is certainly no different in this respect. One dimension here is the way in which the action has, consciously, for many strikers become about much more than pensions in themselves – it’s not been uncommon to hear discussion on picket lines about broadening our strike demands to encompass calls for the dismantling of TEF for example or for the abolition of student tuition fees.
Another dimension of this is the way in which we can glimpse via the relations of solidarity and forms of collective cooperation on the picket line and in the “teach in” and “teach out” sessions a different, more democratic and egalitarian vision of the university and of education more broadly – a vision beyond the current limits established by neoliberal structures and the individualized, marketized and commodified social relations they impose.
We Were Winning
From day one of the industrial action it was very obviously the strikers who were winning this battle. On the other side of the dispute, the employers looked rattled and very much on the back foot. They clearly thought they could divide and conquer by playing students against staff, but instead the scale and solidity of the strike and the support it has won from students opened up serious divisions among the employers.
One key manifestation of this is the way in which university bosses increasingly broke ranks with UUK – the BBC reports that since the strike began about 30 universities have called for a “rethink” on the original pension proposals. Indeed the hardliners looked more and more isolated and beleaguered over the past few days as even key drivers of the UUK pension reform proposals began to reverse their position in the face of mass industrial action and student protest.
Another measure of who has been winning in this struggle is that UUK were forced to concede to negotiations with UCU under the auspices of the industrial conciliation service, ACAS. For their part, the national UCU negotiators looked to be demonstrating an admirably wily approach in relation to their adversaries – refusing to call a temporary halt to the strikes while the ACAS negotiations are ongoing, for example, and in so doing avoiding the trap that BMA union officials were lured into during the junior doctors’ strike in 2016. The recently announced threat of further strike action after Easter looked like another shrewd tactic on the part of UCU negotiators designed to ramp up the pressure on UUK while they were on the back foot.
But then, incredibly, the news came through that the union leadership – from a position of strength, backed by a fired up and determined rank and file, supported by student militancy – had somehow managed to negotiate a terrible deal that completely threw away this hard fought and won advantage.
The Proposed Agreement
The basic terms of the proposed deal between UUK and UCU are that both parties agree to a “transitional arrangement” in which a modified “defined benefits” scheme remains in place for a three year period, during which time both employers and employees will be required to pay higher contributions and in which “alternative scheme options” are considered for implementation after the transitional period is over. So, in other words, union members are being asked to pay more toward their pensions in a period of temporary reprieve, after which they might still have the original UUK reforms foisted on them anyway.
The agreement also indicates that while the union accepts loss of pay for strike days for its members, it will undertake “to encourage its members to prioritise the rescheduling of teaching in order to minimise the disruption to students”. Essentially, then, union members are being asked to perform unpaid labour – a kind of retrospective scabbing on themselves.
The strike is to be called off from the 14th March.
As the news of the proposed deal sank in, the shock and anger among members became palpable. Within a few hours a hastily written open letter rejecting the deal had gathered many thousands of signatures.
Indeed it was immediately obvious to many that the leadership had been – to say the least – strategically inept in signing up to this proposed deal. After all, the strike had the employers divided, demoralized and on the defensive. We had them on the ropes – we could and should have pushed on to press home our advantage and force a decisive victory. Instead this deal lets them almost completely off the hook and hands them a three year breather during which time of course, they will regroup, wait for the energy, determination and solidarity demonstrated by union members during this dispute to dissipate and then, almost certainly, seek to force through their original reform proposals at a more opportune moment.
We can still win
There’s still a chance that this disastrous deal can be scuppered. The union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) meet on Tuesday to vote on the proposals and will no doubt take a steer in their deliberations from a consultation meeting with branch reps which is also convening that day. Militant pressure on the HEC via our branch reps from the thousands of UCU members enthused and radicalised by the extraordinary mobilizations of the past few weeks can still head off the leadership’s imminent capitulation.
The strikes have unleashed a radical energy, optimism and fighting spirit among university workers and their student comrades. Calling this strike off now, under these conditions, will undo and destroy all that. But for now all that energy and combativity is still pulsing through us. We can still reject this deal. We can still tell our union’s leadership that we will not accept this climbdown. We can still show our employers that we will not roll over – that we’ve found our collective voice and our resolve to fight back against the neoliberalization of the university.
So much depends on this.
Posted in Uncategorized on February 3, 2018
50 free online copies of my article in Critique are available here:
Rooksby, Ed (2018) ‘”Structural Reform” and the Problem of Socialist Strategy Today’, Critique, 46:1, 27-48
This paper begins with the observation that the left-wing movements that have enjoyed significant political advances in Europe recently share a broad strategic orientation. They seek, that is, to combine electoral and parliamentary activity on the one hand with extra-parliamentary mobilisation on the other. Crucially, these formations seek to utilise parliamentary channels to introduce radical reforms and thus a central component of their approach is to form a ‘left government’ within the institutions of the capitalist state. Despite the failure of Syriza in office I argue that the radical left has little option but to work with these ascendant left formations and attempt to radicalise them from within. I suggest that in order to do so the radical left must transcend the twin dead ends of reformism and Leninism and the historical strategic impasse bound up with the counter-position of these strategic poles. I argue that a strategic perspective elaborated by a minority current within Syriza provides useful resources for navigating a route beyond this impasse. I then show that this perspective can be further elaborated and refined by drawing on theoretical resources associated with the concept of ‘structural reform’ developed in the late 1960s and 1970s. I argue that the work of Nicos Poulantzas and André Gorz is especially useful in this regard.
I bought a lovely second hand hardback copy of Ralph Miliband’s Class Power & State Power (1983) a couple of weeks ago and have been dipping in and out of it for the past two or three days. It’s a fairly eclectic collection of some of Miliband’s essays, although organised into three thematic sections – ‘The Capitalist State’, ‘Marxism and the Problem of Power’ and ‘Britain’ (the second being the most wide ranging and the third feeling a little tacked on). The book contains a fair few of what it’s probably now fair to consider ‘classic Miliband’ pieces – his powerfully angry essay on ‘The Coup in Chile’ written shortly after the overthrow of Allende, his critique of ‘Lenin’s The State and Revolution‘ (not quite as devastating as I remembered it, but still pretty sharp on some key gaps, lacunae and instances of wishful thinking in Lenin’s – in my view highly over-rated – text) and excerpts from his halves of the famous New Left Review exchanges with Nicos Poulantzas (though these feel a bit odd reproduced as an ‘essay’ in itself).
Two essays I’ve never read before and which I found surprisingly fascinating were his critical review of Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity and Lineages of the Absolutist State (in ‘Political Forms and Historical Materialism’) in which Miliband takes Anderson to task for understating the autonomy of the Absolutist state from the aristocracy, and his essay ‘Political Forms and Historical Materialism’ in which Miliband attempts to account for the role of chance, accident and individual decision within the historical process and to integrate this with the focus on grander social and structural historical forces in Marxist historiography.
Re-reading Miliband directly (rather than about him) for the first time in several (probably 10 ) years, I’m struck by what a lucid and eminently readable writer he was. A writing style is, for me anyway, a kind of persona – a writer’s voice expresses itself in and carries with it a sort of character. Some are austere and unfriendly, some are buttoned up and excessively formal and others feel like they aren’t really very interested in being read by the likes of you and are doing their best to shake you off. Miliband’s writing however has a distinctly affable – almost conversational – quality to it. I want to say, in fact, that there’s something almost genteel about Miliband’s writing style in the best sense of that term – charming, relaxed and good-humoured if perhaps also slightly tweedy and old-school in its choices of diction and turns of phrase. But while he writes in what comes across as a fairly relaxed and genial manner it’s never sprawling or meandering. In fact Miliband’s key points are almost always expressed in an impressively sharp and clear way. Indeed most of the essays in this book are pretty short and to the point. How he managed to write with such precision and lucidity while also maintaining such a conversational tone, I don’t know – but what an impressive writer he was.
These qualities are much in evidence in what is for me the stand-out essay in the collection (and the reason I bought the book) – ‘State Power and Class Interests’. I really think that this is a very fine essay on the vexed question of the ‘relative autonomy of the state’ in Marxist state theory. In his characteristically lucid and accessible style, Miliband pin-points the key problems with both ‘class reductionist’ (Poulantzas and Therborn) and ‘state reductionist’ (Skocpol) accounts of state autonomy and sets out an admirably simple (though certainly not simplistic) model of ‘partnership’ between the state (or key figures within the state executive) and the capitalist class.
The problem with theorists such as Poulantzas is that they dissolve state power entirely into class power – for Poulantzas the state is fundamentally a condensate of all the contradictions between classes and class fractions. Its autonomy is thus a sort of epiphenomenal expression at the political level of conflicts and tensions between class forces. The state thus has no independent interests or sources of power of its own. As Miliband very elegantly points out however, this really won’t do. The main problem with such class reductionist perspectives is that they cannot account for ‘two powerful impulses to state action generated from within the state by the people who are in charge of the decision-making power… and [that] cannot be taken to be synonymous with the purposes of the dominant class’.
The first of these is that state actors can, clearly, be motivated by self-interest – this Miliband calls the ‘Machiavellian dimension of state action’. The ability to exercise decision-making power within the state is quite clearly very attractive in itself for some people (Miliband here cites as evidence the personality and behaviour of Lyndon B Johnson) – some people desire it and if they get it they wish to hold on to it. The actions and decisions of such people may have very little to do with the purposes of any class fraction – the Machiavellian actor here acts with a certain degree of autonomy (acts on his/her self-interest) and is certainly not simply some sort of conduit for capitalist class imperatives. Further, the upper echelons of the state are also sources of status, privilege, connections, high salaries and access to desirable positions outside the state and the state also provides, indeed, the terrain upon which the Machiavellian actor can manoeuvre to further his/her self interest. Thus the state (and the wider sphere of politics) constitutes a separate and, under normal circumstances, more or less free standing site of power in itself – one that must be, to some extent, independent of class forces.
The second impulse to state action is the idea of ‘the national interest’ – however overdetermined by ideological mystification and/or euphemism etc this concept might be , people in power are clearly motivated in good faith by this concept at least some of the time. They really are moved by what they conceive to be in ‘the national interest’. Their conception of ‘the national interest’ tends to coincide with the core interests of core sections of capital, though Miliband’s explanation of this seems to me to be a little weak. Miliband suggests that the connection here is embedded in the ‘belief’ among state actors that the national interest is bound up with the ‘well being of capitalist enterprise’ or the belief that ‘no conceivable alternative arrangement, least of all socialism, could possibly be more advantageous to the ‘national interest”. While this is true, it doesn’t quite get to the nub of the matter. Fred Block it seems to me is on stronger ground when he suggests (in what is quite a similar approach overall that stresses the independent agency of state managers) that the decisions of state actors tend to coincide with the interests of core sections of capital simply because the state is dependent on profits for its own revenue via taxation and thus has an interest in boosting (or at least not depressing) capital accumulation. Nevertheless Miliband’s approach here is similar enough. Indeed, as for Block, Miliband also suggests that it’s this ideology of the ‘national interest’ that enables state managers to rationalise capitalism – that is to go against the immediate interests of specific sections of capital (or even large swathes of it) with the intention of boosting accumulation overall and/or over the longer term. The key point here for Miliband (as for Block) is that state actors would not be able to act ‘in the long term interests of capitalism’ unless they acted on impulses that are not wholly reducible to class forces.
As against ‘state reductionists’, however, Miliband wants to insist that the state does not and cannot float entirely free of class forces. Skocpol’s model of ‘the state for itself’ tends to abstract from the ‘hard reality’ of the capitalist context in which it is situated – but as Miliband insists, no government can be indifferent to this context if it wishes to survive.
So, overall, as Miliband puts it, ‘an accurate and realistic ‘model’ of the relationship between the dominant class in advanced capitalist societies and the state is one of partnership between two different, separate forces, linked to each other by many threads, yet each having its own separate sphere of concerns’. There’s a complementarity here between Miliband’s model of the state and Harvey’s and Callinicos’s theorisation of imperialism in which the latter speak of a dialectical interplay between the ‘territorial’ and capitalist ‘logics of power’ – neither of which are reducible to the other, but which are also deeply interwoven in the complex of forces and imperatives that drives imperial expansion. Nevertheless I’m not sure that any other recent major theorist of the state (other than Block mentioned above) has given due consideration to the autonomy of state actors as a core constituent factor (indeed as the pivot) of the ‘relative autonomy of the state’.
Posted in Political comment on June 26, 2017
I wrote this in March/April and it was originally going to be published in Salvage Journal alongside a pro-Lexit piece by Neil Davidson as a sort of debate. Unfortunately after a delay of a few months Neil decided not to finish his piece and so mine was pulled from the journal too. Soon after I wrote this article May called the General Election and a whole lot of game-changing stuff happened. Presumably this is why Neil didn’t in the end submit his piece. The following then is quite dated in some respects. In particular there’s a line or two in here about Corbyn’s and May’s prospects as I saw them in April that in retrospect were a little off the mark. There might still be some useful stuff in here – I don’t know.
There is no doubt that Brexit, closely followed in its wake by the election of Trump, delivered a heavy double blow to the hitherto prevailing liberal order. Though there had, of course, been prior indications (such as the election victory of Syriza in 2015 and Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour Party in 2016) which established that former political certainties no longer held, Brexit and Trump came as powerful confirmation that something fundamental had changed – that political ‘business as usual’ in the form that it has taken for the past 30-40 years is over. The grief among the liberal commentariat is palpable.
But the trauma in process here isn’t just the shock and grief of defeat in itself – it’s also a symptom of a sudden sense of profound disorientation. Brexit, like Trump’s victory, defied all predictions. Literally overnight, as the referendum vote was counted, the liberal centre’s taken-for-granted assumptions about the fundamental solidity of the prevailing order fell apart, producing a sort of existential crisis on the part of a mainstream for whom the coordinates of political normality had been abruptly and vertiginously scrambled.
Though still working its way through shock and disbelief, the liberal mainstream has more or less settled on a general explanation for Brexit that pivots on a classically liberal elitist disdain for a supposedly ignorant mass of ‘left behind’, ‘provincial’ voters. What this prevailing analysis of the Brexit vote obfuscates, however, is the part in shaping this outcome played by the accumulated pathologies, inequalities and tensions generated by decades of neoliberal policy and sharpened by the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent regime of austerity. This is a crisis of the liberal order generated in no small measure – and in good dialectical fashion – by the functioning of that order itself.
Any decent explanation of the referendum must take into account the ways in which contingent political decisions and miscalculations (Cameron’s gamble in calling a referendum in order to shoot Ukip’s fox, Official Remain’s stupidity in seeming to present a united front of elites in a climate of ‘anti-Establishment’ feeling) interacted with deepening social, political and economic polarisations in Britain and across Europe. It would need to factor in Britain’s peculiar relationship with the process of European integration as an unenthusiastic latecomer to the union, its political and economic outlook significantly shaped by imperial legacies – most notably the highly internationalised strategic location of British capital and the way in which this has interacted with a geopolitical balancing act between ‘Atlanticism’ and ‘Europeanism’. It would need to trace the ways in which racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, long ingrained within political and media discourse, but suddenly amplified by the ‘migrant crisis’ was cynically articulated with the issue of EU membership during the referendum campaign.
This is by and large what the best radical left analysis of the referendum result has done. It is probably fair to say that the British left is agreed that Brexit condenses a series of long-building tensions and dysfunctions and is as such the overdetermined form in which these combined pressures – many of them deeply structural – have been brought to a head, throwing up an acute crisis for the British ruling class.
This is a serious crisis of hegemony that fuses two core components – a legitimation crisis at the level of political representation and a crisis at the level of political economy that has probably rendered the current configuration of British neoliberalism obsolete as a workable accumulation strategy. In relation to the latter, it is not simply that British capital will have to undergo the painful and potentially disastrous process of substantially unmeshing itself from regional neoliberal matrices of production trade and investment across Europe. It’s also that the Brexit vote (together with Trump’s win) delivered a verdict on the future viability of neoliberalism as we know it.
But while the radical left can largely agree on the broad dimensions and on the seriousness of the current crisis for the British ruling class, it remains deeply divided in relation to whether this crisis amounts to an exciting opportunity or a probable catastrophe for the working class and for the left itself.
The basic coordinates of this divided outlook were set during the referendum campaign itself. Unsurprisingly, those currents that campaigned for exit see in the referendum result and its aftermath reasons for optimism, while those currents that argued for Remain interpret the result as triumph for reactionary forces. Unsurprisingly, too, both sides in this dispute seem to feel that their arguments during the referendum campaign have been vindicated by demographic analysis of the referendum vote and subsequent political developments.
The Left Exit (Lexit) campaign — an alliance between the Socialist Workers Party and other small revolutionary groups — pivoted on the argument that the EU is fundamentally an instrument of class domination and one of the main vectors for the spreading and national embedding of neoliberalism and austerity across the continent and that withdrawal would represent a massive blow to the interests of dominant sections of British capital and to European elites. Withdrawal would also weaken the Cameron Government, perhaps precipitating its collapse, thus opening up opportunities for the British left – even propelling Corbyn to power.
Lexit proponents were quick to interpret the Leave victory as a ‘revolt against the rich and powerful’ that ‘hurled the Tory party, and the British and European establishments, into a profound crisis’ – crowing in particular about Cameron’s resignation as an indication of the serious, perhaps fatal, weakening of the Conservative Government and of a party about to plunge itself into civil war. The Lexit left also made much of the demographic analysis of the vote published in the Ashcroft poll that indicated that a majority of AB voters (those in the top tier of occupations) voted Remain while a majority of voters from the lowest categories (C2 and DE) voted Leave in order to insist that the referendum revolt represented a class revolt – a “rebellion by working-class people” against neoliberalism and austerity.
Arguments for a pro-Remain position tended to fall into two major categories – one of these distinctly more pro-EU than the other. The first largely emanated from groups and individuals affiliated with the Another Europe is Possible (AEiP) campaign and promoted an internationalist vision of a coordinated Europe-wide radical movement to transform EU structures from within. This current in my view tended to present an idealised and unconvincing vision of the EU as a basically neutral institutional terrain – or even as an essentially progressive structure – that neoliberalism has come recently to dominate on a merely contingent basis.
The other Left Remain sub-camp pivoted on a ‘lesser-evil’ position that stressed that while the Lexit analysis of the EU as a thoroughly neoliberal structure was essentially correct, it did not follow that withdrawal would strengthen progressive forces. On the contrary, the forces dominating Leave were hard right ones that had successfully cohered the campaign around immigration as the core, defining issue and, given this, the likely consequences of Brexit would be a decisive shift to the right in British politics – and indeed beyond, in that Brexit would put wind in the sails of right wing movements elsewhere too – and the further political mainstreaming of racism and xenophobic national chauvinism. As such it would be a disaster for workers — particularly immigrant workers — and the left.
It seems pretty clear now nearly a year after the referendum, in my view at least, that the key warnings of the ‘lesser evil’ left Remain camp have been largely vindicated. Despite Lexit’s protestations that Leave’s momentum was not propelled by anti-immigration sentiment, the aftermath of the referendum brought a spike in racist incidents and other hate crime – clearly bigots felt emboldened by the result and the subsequent political atmosphere. Meanwhile a grotesque parade of the European far right, feeling that their time had come at last, lined up to celebrate Leave’s victory. Soon after, Trump, claiming the mantle ‘Mr Brexit’ and clearly feeling the wind of international political fortune blowing his way sailed into the Whitehouse.
The party political fall-out from the referendum in Britain revealed the Lexit left’s predictions in relation to which UK political forces would benefit and which would lose out to be absurdly wrong. The crowing about Cameron’s resignation heralding a coming collapse of the Tory government looks embarrassing in retrospect. While it’s true that there was some bloodletting between Gove and Johnson, things never looked like spilling over into open civil war within the Tory party, much less precipitating the collapse of the Government.
In fact, the transfer of power from Cameron to May was conducted remarkably fluidly, facilitated by May’s ability as a Remainer during the referendum campaign now decisively committed to ‘hard Brexit’, to draw together the Remain and Leave factions within the Conservatives. While May is certainly a late convert to the Leave cause, there can be little doubt that she intends to conduct Brexit on the hard right’s terms – no ‘half-in, half-out’ balancing act for her as she has clearly signalled. Indeed May has made it plain that she intends Britain to leave the Single Market, Customs Union and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – objectives that go far beyond the stated aims of official Leave during the referendum campaign. This is driven by the desire to throw nationalist red meat to hard-core Brexiteers in terms of the reassertion of ‘national sovereignty’ – but, more than anything else, it’s about signalling a clear intention to withdraw from the ambit of EU rules on ‘free of movement’ of EU citizens in order clamp down on immigration. The hard right trajectory of the Tory government under the May premiership, then, is abundantly clear. We are, as left Remainers warned, witnessing a decisive shift to the right in British politics.
While the Tories’ grip on power never looked seriously weakened by the referendum result, still less did the post-referendum shake-out look remotely likely to propel Corbyn any nearer to Downing Street. Few now but his most die-hard cheerleaders expect Corbyn, bunkered down and besieged within his own party, to do anything more than hang-on and endure for as long as he can the attempt by the PLP to wear him down – still less win the upcoming general election. It is, of course, true that the vicissitudes of political fortune seem particularly unpredictable at the moment and certainly May’s strategy is beset by inner tensions – not least that ‘hard Brexit’ seems to run substantially counter to the interests of much British capital. She also faces the problem of the intensification of secessionary pressures within the British union itself. ‘Hard Brexit’ does not entail plain sailing for the Tories. Yet, it looks close to certain that, within the UK, it will be the Tories alone who will shape the institutional and legal structural framework of the new post-Brexit Britain and that they will do this according to a hard right vision.
The Lexit Left were almost certainly correct that Brexit will entail serious crisis for British capital in an already spluttering economy weighed down by sluggish growth, low investment, low productivity, a large gap in the current account and hugely reliant on a bloated financial sector and debt-fuelled household consumption. True, things have stabilized after the initial post-referendum turbulence. But Britain, of course, has not as yet left the Single Market and will not do so for at least two years. Moreover, the consensus among analysts is, if not catastrophe, that serious recession will accompany withdrawal from the EU. Things look particularly shaky for the City which stands to lose its entrée as a stepping stone for investment and commercial banking in Europe. Things got much worse for it recently when Jean Claude Juncker confirmed that Brexit means that the City will lose its right to carry out euro-denominated clearing which the director of the London Stock Exchange warned would entail the loss of at least 100,000 jobs (with the knock-on effect of over 200,000 jobs lost beyond the City). Small wonder that many major banks are planning to move some London based jobs and operations to new hubs inside the EU.
For the wider economy much depends on whether May is able to conclude a deal with the EU in the next two years (the chances of which according to one analyst are 50/50) that would maintain access to European markets on good terms. Whatever the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ bluster, failure to arrange a trade deal by 2019 would be disastrous for manufacturing according to industry leaders. For their part, EU elites have repeatedly made it plain that May cannot expect a deal with the EU that would allow Britain to withdraw from the Single Market while somehow preserving the benefits of membership. Indeed, why would the EU allow this? Facing further centrifugal pressures within the union EU negotiators have a clear incentive to play hardball with Britain pour encourager les autres.
It’s unclear if the more sensible heads in the Tory party really believe that ‘Global Britain’ can make up for any lost European trade and investment with new trade deals with ‘Commonwealth’ countries and beyond. There is certainly more than a whiff of post-Imperial delusion about these initiatives. Hard-core Brexiteers seem genuinely to envisage post-Brexit Britain as a nimble free-trading ‘buccaneering galleon’ with a global reach, but to what extent the nods in this direction from May and Brexit Secretary, David Davies, are merely playing to the hard right gallery remains to be seen. Either way all of this gives us a taste of the quasi-imperial political discourse to come and either way these plans are unlikely to work given that the EU takes 44% of British exports and given many ‘Commonwealth’ countries simply don’t need Britain.
So the outlook for British capital looks bad indeed. This has been a source of jubilation for the Lexit Left. The trouble with this, though, is that they have never made it clear why this should benefit workers. Two facile assumptions seem to underpin their outlook. The first is that whatever undermines profits must necessarily strengthen labour. The second is that a serious crisis for capital in economic terms must automatically entail a serious weakening of ruling class leadership and domination at the political level.
In regard to the first assumption it is of course the case that the interests of labour and capital are antagonistic – but they are not counterposed in some simple zero-sum relationship. The structural power of capital after all pivots on the fact that under capitalism wage-labour is dependent on the social class that exploits it for jobs, investment, availability of consumer goods in the shops and so on. A recession for capital is also a recession for workers – more so, in fact, given that workers always bear the brunt of restructuring and readjustment for the recovery of profits. Of course any challenge to capitalist power must encounter economic turbulence and risk severe hardship for workers, but to cheer on economic crisis in the absence of a challenge to capital from workers’ struggle is irresponsible ultra-leftism.
This point brings us to the second facile assumption above. What this forgets is the relative autonomy of politics. In this regard the Tory leadership – as the favoured political representatives of capital – have shown themselves to be quite capable of adapting to adverse circumstances and committing unambiguously and opportunistically to withdrawal, thus putting themselves at the head of the social forces mobilised by Leave in order to instrumentalise Brexit in the interests of core capitalist class interests. Certainly, Brexit hasn’t provided any discernible boost to left forces either within or outside Parliament.
This hasn’t stopped the Lexit Left from seeking to conjure up an imaginary working class rebellion at the ballot box on the basis of a tenuous reading of referendum polling data. For one thing the polling data they draw on distributes voters into a class hierarchy measured in terms of occupational category – which, needless to say, is an approach that doesn’t operate on a Marxist understanding of class and which obfuscates the class position of, for example, key groups of public sector workers. For another, the ‘working class rebellion’ thesis seems to exclude the majority of Black and Ethnic Minority, and young voters (categories that voted heavily for Remain) from the ambit of the implied definition of working class.
In fact the Lexit campaign was characterized by a kind of fantasy politics throughout – an expression in microcosm of the wider fantasies of the Leninist sect outlook. The revolutionary strategy of the sect pivots on the notion that, as long as it cleaves to the right line, it can, by some mysterious process unknowable in advance, hope to be transformed from an isolated groupuscule into a mass party at the head of an insurgent movement challenging the state for power. Lexit pivoted on the similar idea that a handful of revolutionaries could catalyse some sort of magical-dialectical transformation of actually existing Brexit into its political opposite. The view throughout seems to have been that, despite all appearances to the contrary, Brexit conceals a hidden anti-capitalist essence that, through cunning Leninist manoeuvres, can be induced to reveal itself.
The fundamental mistake perhaps was to confuse the politics of the EU with the politics of the referendum. The basic error, that is, was to have assumed that because the EU is a thoroughly neoliberal structure that embeds the domination of leading sections of the bourgeoisie in Europe and that has spearheaded austerity across much of the continent, the referendum on withdrawal must ipso facto have been a referendum on neoliberalism, austerity and class power. Of course the effects of neoliberalism, class power and austerity shaped the context of this ballot and fed indirectly into the result – but the referendum for most voters was never directly or even to any substantial degree about these matters. The Brexit referendum was not the Greek Oxi referendum. The political terms of these two plebiscites were quite different and the political forces they mobilized were poles apart.
Indeed what the Lexit campaign ignored was the specific political character of the forces leading the Leave campaign and the way in which they had framed the terms of the referendum itself. The basic coordinates of the referendum were never in much doubt – from the start it was always, in effect, a debate structured as an internecine contest within and among the right over issues identified and framed in largely right-of-centre terms. Left groups were never likely to play anything other than a marginal role in this contest. They were certainly never likely to have much impact in terms of transforming the nature of Brexit. Leave was dominated, in particular, by hard right forces and reactionary ideas and arguments. These forces, moreover, were highly successful in shaping the meaning of the vote. The Leave side focused relentlessly on immigration, conducting one of the most racist and xenophobic electoral campaigns ever seen in Britain and in doing so they effectively transformed the referendum into a plebiscite on immigration. To vote Leave, then, was to vote for exit on these terms. However much the Lexit left insisted that there was some sort of hermetic seal between official Leave and Lexit, there was, in the end, no Lexit option on the ballot paper.
Lexit met with widespread derision among most quarters of the Left. Certainly Lexit hasn’t earned the SWP very much in the way of renewed popularity. Undeterred, however, and with arrogance typical of the organization, one of its first acts after the referendum was to call for unity among the Left… on its own terms. Left Remainers, that is, were invited to perform a 180 degree flip and discover a sudden enthusiasm for Lexit. But it’s surely the case that for any measure of unity on the radical Left, delusions in Lexit – and they are clearly delusions – have to be abandoned. For their part, left Remainers must resist any temptation to join in with any attempted rearguard action to scupper Brexit on the part of liberal forces making plaintiff noises about second referendums. Such a course of action could only be counter-productive and would look like the worst form of anti-democratic manoeuvring.
But perhaps the most necessary – and most realistically achievable – task for us now beyond doing what we can to defend migrants is simply to study the emerging political economy of post-Brexit Britain. We had little impact on the referendum itself and are likely to have little impact for the foreseeable future on the political, economic and social changes currently underway. If Brexit is catalyzing a shift in the fundamental coordinates of British capitalism and if the ruling class is seeking to instrumentalise Brexit to reorganize the terms of its hegemony we need to try to understand these dynamics and begin to trace the outlines of the emerging structural configurations with a view to adapting our strategic outlook as we seek to embark on the arduous process of building our forces under new conditions.
An interesting start has been made in this regard by William Davies who discerns a possible movement in Tory strategy toward a ‘protective state’ model. Such a strategy would represent a decisive step away from neoliberalism toward a more socially conservative and economic protectionist model in which state intervention is combined with an ethic of ‘faith, family and flag’ that would resonate with Red Tory and Blue Labour type communitarianism. Such a shift might entail, in Poulantzasian terms, a shift in the configuration of the power bloc in favour of industrial sections of capital at the expense of finance capital and a corresponding shift in the locus of the key sites of power within the state away from the Treasury and the Bank of England toward the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Building on Davies’ observations, Adam Tooze has suggested that the Tories hold a Plan B strategy in reserve should the ‘protective state’ model falter (and should perhaps Britain ‘crash out’ of the EU without a favourable trade deal in place) – this would be a ‘disaster capitalism’ scenario in which Britain sought to become a low tax, ultra-deregulated Singapore of northern Europe.
Whatever happens it is almost certain that the British economy as we currently know it is to undergo a fundamental transformation as Brexit unfolds. The prevailing political practices of the British radical left have, arguably, been absurdly dated for the past few decades. They are likely to become even more archaic over the coming years without a fundamental re-think of socialist strategy.
Here’s something I wrote for the work blog. It’s a bit derivative – but not much to say as yet that’s not already been said.
We have just, as the veteran broadcaster Jon Snow remarked on Friday, witnessed ‘one of the most remarkable election results in modern British history’ – and it is a result, moreover that has fundamentally shifted the basic coordinates of politics in Britain. Political ‘business as usual’ as we have known it for the past few decades is, quite simply, over.
Though the Tories won the greatest share of the vote and the most seats – and thus ‘won’ the election in the sense that they have been (only just…) returned to government – it is apparent to everyone that this election result was, for them, an utter catastrophe. The gamble on which May staked everything was to call a snap election in order to capitalise on an apparent post-referendum swing to the right in UK politics and thus solidify her leadership going into the Brexit negotiations with a large parliamentary majority. To say that May’s wager didn’t pay off would be an understatement – May miscalculated disastrously, leaving her authority severely and perhaps fatally weakened. Indeed the process that has seen her rapidly transformed from the ‘strong and stable’ darling of much of the media punditocracy to the pathetically diminished figure we see now scrabbling for a parliamentary alliance with the sectarian, homophobic reactionaries of the DUP in order to shore up her crumbling position has to be one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in post-war British political history.
May is now, as George Osborne remarked with brutal accuracy in a TV interview, a ‘dead woman walking’, deeply despised and increasingly isolated within her own party. However it’s probably unlikely that there’ll be a leadership challenge any time soon if only because most Tories fear triggering another general election which would almost certainly put Corbyn in 10 Downing Street.
That Labour should now be within striking distance of government power is surely the most remarkable dimension of the political earthquake we have just experienced. Just a few short weeks ago Labour was 20 points behind in the polls, and Corbyn’s personal ratings were recorded at a dismal minus 23 points (in comparison with May’s plus 28). The conventional wisdom across almost the entirety of the media and political class was that Labour was heading toward humiliating defeat and possible oblivion. Indeed, right up until the exit poll was released on Thursday night few even among Corbyn’s supporters really believed that the party could hope realistically for much more than survival as a major political force.
Given this, the party’s electoral performance was astonishing. Labour enjoyed its biggest surge in vote share since 1945, – up by almost 10% compared with 2015 to 40% of the total vote, winning nearly 13 million votes and increasing its number of seats by 30. This result is all the more incredible when you consider that over the past two years Corbyn has faced a relentless campaign of open hostility and sabotage from within the Parliamentary Labour Party and several attempts to oust him from the leadership. What is more he was subjected to a barrage of daily vilification from large swathes of the media over the same period – and not just from the traditionally Tory press. Most columnists for the generally Labour supporting Guardian, for example, have displayed little but contempt – or at best condescension – toward Corbyn and his supporters since he first won the leadership.
So how did Corbyn’s Labour do it?
Part of the explanation lies in the complete ineptitude of the Tory election campaign. There was of course, the debacle of the so called ‘dementia tax’, and the revelation, on the campaign trail, of May’s robotic awkwardness and inability to connect emotionally with ordinary people. Her failure to attend the BBC leaders’ debate – looking for all the world like someone scared of debating directly with her political opponents – might well have been a turning point in terms of her personal rating with the electorate. However, the atrocious Tory campaign cannot, in itself, explain Corbyn’s success. For that we need to look at the Corbyn team’s strategy and the way his campaign resonated with large numbers of people.
Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party rested from the start on the idea that the party’s fortunes could be revived by attracting lost voters and those who felt alienated by the prevailing political landscape. That is, he argued that the party should reject the Blairite machine-politics of ‘triangulation’ that focused on competition for a relatively small number of ‘centre-ground’ ‘floating voters’, and concentrate, instead on tapping a deep well of relatively disenfranchised voters including, crucially, the young (who tend not to turnout in large numbers during elections). This was to be done, in large part, by campaigning on distinctive left social democratic policies – putting clear red water between Labour and the other parties – and, just as importantly, by transforming the party into something like a party/social movement hybrid that sought to mobilise its members into a grassroots mass campaigning force. This leadership pitch was extraordinarily successful in catapulting Corbyn to the leadership and in galvanizing an active and mobilised base of support among the party membership to defend him from the various ‘coup’ attempts set in motion by the party’s right wing establishment. But while this had worked well within the party among a relatively small number of people, it was not clear that the same approach could be successful beyond the party itself among the electorate as a whole at the level of a general election.
Confounding all of his critics, Corbyn and his team proved beyond doubt on June 8th that this approach could indeed work at a national level. The turning point in Labour’s election campaign was clearly the release of the party’s manifesto – a bold document full of public spending, redistributionist and growth-centred social democratic policies that broke with the politics and economics of austerity. The manifesto seems to have resonated deeply with wide sections of the electorate sick of many years of cuts to public services, stagnating wages and rising inequality. The Corbyn team’s gamble was that a relatively left-wing manifesto (by recent standards) would tap hidden but deep reserves of support among swathes of voters for the sort of policies that previous Labour leaderships had abandoned in their efforts to ‘triangulate’ and chase the ‘centre ground’. It paid off.
The early leak of the manifesto – whether this was deliberate or not (there is some suggestion that a pro-Corbyn source ‘leaked’ it to ensure that the manifesto pledges couldn’t be watered down by the Labour right) – also ensured that Labour was able to shape the agenda for the election campaign. Labour refused to concentrate their fight on the terrain preferred by the Tories – the issue of Brexit – steering the debate toward issues of inequality, public spending, healthcare and education. Though Corbyn was taxed initially by pro-Remain forces within Labour for his apparent fudging on Brexit, this manoeuvre appears, in retrospect, to have allowed Corbyn to side-step and close down an issue that threated to divide the Labour camp. Indeed psephological analysis of the vote indicates that Labour managed to hold on to (usually older) Leave voters in sufficient numbers while cohering the lion’s share of votes from those who supported Remain.
The turning point in Labour’s fortunes – the release of the manifesto – coincided with the period when broadcast media election rules kicked in. As Corbyn’s close ally John McDonnell has pointed out the more balanced broadcast coverage that this ensured enabled many people to see, for the first time, Corbyn for the ‘honest, decent, principled and indeed strong leader he was’. Seeing Corbyn speak directly and relatively unfiltered by media hostility and bias, people generally liked what they saw – especially in comparison with May’s wooden and uncharismatic performances. The Ashcroft poll indicates that it was indeed in this period in the final weeks before the ballot that Labour won people over in large numbers – 57% of those who voted Labour made their decision in the last month before the election.
The most striking thing about the voting figures, however, is the way in which young voters turned out for Labour – 67% of 18-24 year old voters (and well over half of 25-34 year olds) chose Labour. Various reports have suggested, moreover, that turnout amongst the youth vote surged to an impressive 72% – vindicating Corbyn’s decision to orient his campaign toward the young and those who do not normally choose to vote. This high turnout for Labour was almost certainly driven, to a significant extent, by the way in which the Corbyn campaign managed to mobilise active support among young people. It was for the most part, young people who joined the Momentum canvassing teams that flocked to Labour marginals and populated Momentum’s phone banking efforts. Further, it seems clear that a largely spontaneous pro-Corbyn campaign of video, meme and joke sharing (replete with its own tongue-in-cheek idiom – ‘Arm John McDonnell!’, ‘Corbyn is the absolute boy!’) emerged among the young on social media – Twitter especially – largely under the radar of established media commentators. Thus the youth turnout for Labour may well have been driven in significant part by an organic peer-to-peer social media effort that simply bypassed traditional forms of media that were largely hostile to Corbyn.
These factors cohered to produce what is surely one of the biggest political upsets in Britain in living memory. Corbyn has been transformed in a matter of days, from an utter outsider – largely derided in mainstream political discourse – to a Prime Minister in waiting. It’s worth pointing out, furthermore, that it is not just the Tories who look now like a spent and largely defeated force. Corbyn’s success was also a defeat for the Murdoch press and tabloid media who threw everything at Corbyn during the campaign with little apparent effect. The days when Labour politicians used to feel they had to bow and scrape before the right wing press are now over. It was also a humiliating defeat for the ‘centrist’ punditocracy that dominate the broadsheet and broadcast media in whose conventional wisdom – right up until the exit poll – Corbyn was leading the Labour party into oblivion. They look rather silly now. Most of all, perhaps, Corbyn’s electoral success was a devastating blow to his enemies within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Indeed, one thing is for sure – New Labour and the Blairite faction in the party are now truly dead and buried as a serious political force.
What all of these defeated groups shared in common were what we might call neoliberal assumptions – or assumptions characteristic of the neoliberal era in British politics. They simply took it for granted, that is, that you cannot succeed electorally on a left-wing manifesto, that voters are motivated more by fear and self-interest than they are by appeals to community and the public good, that they prefer ‘belt-tightening’ and privatisation to expanded investment in public services and above all that people have fully and irreversibly internalised the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to the ‘free market’-driven order. With Corbyn’s near victory confounding these assumptions, British social democracy has roared back into life after many years of dormancy and with it an ideological space has opened up, shifting the horizons of the possible, allowing us once again to envisage and work confidently toward a kinder, more equal and more humane social order.