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Some notes on the ‘Leninist’ strategy

Toward the end of Considerations on Western Marxism (1976) Perry Anderson makes some interesting remarks about what he sees as the core problem of Lenin’s analysis of the capitalist state and bourgeois democracy in terms of its applicability in a ‘Western’ setting. They are worth quoting in full;

Lenin started his career by acknowledging the fundamental historical distinction between Western and Eastern Europe in What is to be Done? At various later dates (especially in Left-Wing Communism), he alluded to it again. But he never seriously made it an object of Marxist political reflection as such. It is notable that perhaps his greatest work, State and Revolution, is wholly generic in its discussion of the bourgeois state – which could be anywhere in the world from the way in which he treats it. In fact, the Russian state which had just been eliminated by the February Revolution was categorically distinct from the German, French, English or American states with which the quotations from Marx and Engels on which Lenin relied had been concerned. By failing to delimit a feudal autocracy unequivocally from bourgeois democracy, Lenin involuntarily permitted a constant confusion among later Marxists, that was effectively to prevent them from ever developing a cogent revolutionary strategy in the West. This could only have been done on the basis of a direct and systematic theory of the bourgeois-representative state in the advanced capitalist countries and the specific combinations of its machinery of consent and coercion, which were foreign to Tsarism. The practical consequence of this theoretical blockage was the inability of the Third International, founded and guided by Lenin, to achieve any mass implantation in the greatest centres of modern Imperialism in the twenties…. Another type of party and another type of strategy were needed in these societies and were not invented.

These comments are all the more remarkable given that at the time Anderson wrote them he cleaved to a more or less Leninist orientation – and indeed went on to affirm a few years later in his wonderful book Arguments Within English Marxism ‘the greater cogency and realism’, in comparison with the ‘reformism’ of figures such as Nicos Poulantzas and Geoff Hodgson at least, ‘of the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky’. Even here, though, Anderson’s affirmation is less than emphatic. Specifically he admits that ‘the critical weakness’ of this tradition is,

its difficulty in demonstrating the plausibility of counter-institutions of dual power arising within consolidated parliamentary democracies: all the examples of soviets or councils so far have emerged out of disintegrating autocracies (Russia, Hungary, Austria), defeated military regimes (Germany), ascendant or overturned fascist states (Spain, Portugal).*

So, again, the core problem with this strategic approach is the way in which the historical evidence indicates that it does not resonate in societies in which the institutions and traditions of parliamentary democracy are relatively consolidated and have sunk deep roots. Anderson is, surely, absolutely right about this. To think that it’s possible to transplant the dual power model of socialist revolution from the specific circumstances of Russia in February to October 1917 (an autocratic state in conditions of virtual collapse in a society exhausted by a disastrous war) to the very different conditions of, say, Western Europe today, simply doesn’t take the hegemonic strength of bourgeois democracy seriously – whatever the limitations of the latter and even given the advanced state of its ‘hollowing out’ in conditions of neoliberalism, crisis and austerity.

This isn’t to say, of course, that this problem necessarily validates the classical ‘reformist’ alternative (to the extent that this putative alternative orientation was ever really a coherent one – see the blog post below) – it doesn’t (and of course Anderson is clear that it doesn’t).  But it does suggest – especially given, of course, that conditions of consolidated liberal democracy now hold in almost all ‘advanced capitalist’ countries – that the dual power strategy as it’s normal conceived needs to be fundamentally revised.

You only have to observe the typical trajectory of leftist insurgency in recent times to be convinced of this. Time and time again when leftist challenges emerge, if they go beyond mere protest, they cohere in terms of some sort of electorally focused (that is, ‘reformist’ or perhaps left social democratic) mobilisation. That is to say that, over and over and over again, even in conditions of relatively heightened struggle (as in Greece a few years ago), the working class fails to perform – fails to come anywhere close to performing – its allotted functions in the revolutionary sequence envisaged in Leninist mythology. It doesn’t spontaneously throw up soviets, doesn’t provide the longed-for conditions in which x or y self-proclaimed nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party can suddenly expand its membership and active support in great leaps and bounds, while outflanking the reformists and winning leadership of the class, doesn’t begin to construct a parallel proto-state apparatus and set in train the paralysis and decomposition of the bourgeois state machine. The 1917 redux  – even a rough approximation of it in embryo – simply refuses to materialise.

Many readers will be familiar with the typical Leninist narrative today in terms of the various historical ‘near misses’ and ‘pre-revolutionary situations’ that obtained at various times (all of them a long time ago now) which are taken as signs of hope (or articles of faith) in relation to the continuing salience of the classic dual power scenario and the subterranean cunning of history which is, for some reason, sure to throw up such social explosions again in a lightning flash from the blue. Because…. Aha! Nobody expects the dual power scenario! Among the favourites here are post-WW1 Germany (an utter disaster) and Portugal 1974-5 (contained, eventually, within the limits of a broadly social democratic ‘transition’ from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, despite the best efforts of the PCP – perhaps the only CP in the West at that time that was really serious about revolution, much to the acute embarrassment of its Eurocommunist sister parties). Most of these examples are among the list Anderson sets out above in relation to the ‘critical weakness’ of the Leninist schema.

But there’s a ‘near miss’ that Anderson doesn’t mention – probably because it didn’t throw up soviets as such beyond a few rudimentary instances. Nevertheless, this has passed into the Leninist pantheon of thwarted near revolutions and was indeed a major catalyst for the reinvigoration of the Western European revolutionary left, allowing the Trotskyist tradition in particular to win a more secure niche in the European leftist eco-system, escaping to some extent the suffocating bunker to which it had previously been confined in the days of the Old Man himself. I refer of course to the ‘May Events’ in France 1968.

France, May 1968

There’s no doubt that May was a mould shattering social eruption that completely changed the political landscape – its various significances and effects rippling out far beyond France itself. In many ways ‘the events’ sounded the death knell of the post-war social order – May presaged the coming collapse of the class compromise that had cohered in a more or less social democratic form in the context of the long boom.  It certainly heralded a crisis for the ‘new revisionism’ of the European social democratic left, which had assumed since the 1950s that serious social antagonism and upheaval had been confined to history by the arrival of the ‘mixed economy’ and Welfare State. For many, the street battles, demonstrations, massive and unprecedented general strikes of May, seemed at last to have vindicated the insurrectionary perspective of the revolutionary left. But among the really remarkable things about May was the ease, in the end, in which this apparently existential political and social crisis of Fifth Republic was contained within constitutional and electoral limits.

On 29th May de Gaulle fled Paris. Many observers believed that he had effectively been toppled by the ongoing strikes and demonstrations and that his official resignation would surely come very quickly. But the next day he announced in a televised address to the nation that he was dissolving parliament and calling a general election. That day five hundred thousand people demonstrated in support of de Gaulle – the biggest demonstration of May, delivering a rude shock to the left in that it seemed to reveal that the actual balance of forces in the country wasn’t necessarily in their favour. Far from it in fact. It was a taste of things to come.

Thrown onto the back foot, the PCF and Socialists (and the PSU, though it also argued that the strikes should continue) agreed to participate in the elections and immediately set about urging workers to end their strikes and go back to work. Indeed the PCF is usually identified, in the left narrative, as the treacherous bad guy in this whole process – had it thrown its weight behind the uprising rather than seeking to dampen it down at every turn things may have turned out very differently. Perhaps so. But what this narrative usually downplays is precisely the relative ease with which the PCF were able to dampen down and eventually pull the plug on the events. This requires a more serious explanation than the suggestion that an otherwise insurrectionary working class was mislead by the machinations and cowardice of their reformist leaders. What this narrative misses, in other words, is the popular hegemonic pull of parliamentary democracy and its limits. When push came to shove, the working class by and large saw little alternative. The May events had taken the Fifth Republic to the brink of the precipice – but what concretely, if the process had been pushed further, would have replaced the extant order? There were no widespread workers’ councils. There was no situation of dual power or anything like it.

The results of the general elections revealed that the Gaullists had clobbered their left wing opponents at the polls – the socialists lost 61 seats, the PCF lost 39 and the Gaullists became the first party in the Republic’s history to win an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Indeed they had made serious inroads into the working class, winning more votes among them than the PCF. In his essay ‘The Lessons of May’ Ernest Mandel offers an explanation of the election result that turns on the idea that workers and young people, demoralised by the failure of the major parties of the left to offer more radical leadership, simply abstained in large numbers. People tend to side with the political forces demonstrating the most initiative, and had the major parties of the left more resolutely backed the May actions, calling for their continuation during the election campaign rather than squashing them, the election result might have been otherwise. His account is only partially convincing, however, because you can’t help the feeling that he’s simply trying to explain away the defeat in such a way that is designed to evade the rather obvious alternative explanation – which is that the election revealed that the real balance of forces in France in May 1968 turned out to be very different to the way they might have appeared to look from a barricade in the Latin Quarter.

Lurking in Mandel’s account of the failures of the left of course is the familiar argument about ‘the absence of a well implanted revolutionary party’ that pivots on the typical Leninist counter-factual claim that, had such a thing existed in some parallel universe, it would surely have been borne forward toward power by the social forces that so desperately felt its lack in our historical time-line. But of course the absence was real and requires some sort of explanation. In fact the wider, repeated absence of such an entity over and over again in each of historical ‘near misses’ in the Leninist canon of proto-revolutionary situations needs to be accounted for too – it can’t just be a run of bad luck.

Interestingly, however, Mandel admits in this essay that the conditions for immediate insurrection did not exist. The alternative course of action he suggests is the application of a modified version of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme – or ‘structural reforms’ as he terms them in this essay. As with all such strategies of transitional demands in their Trotskyist iteration, however, the large question of who or what is to implement these structural reforms – who or what is to be demanded to deliver them – is left rather undefined. The state, yes – but specifically the Gaullists in government? Are they to be expected, even under severe pressure, to deliver a series of revolutionary reforms calculated to further unbalance and undermine French capitalism? What Mandel can’t really admit, in other words, is that he needs a ‘Left Government’ to be elected for this strategy to be vaguely feasible. The logic of the strategy necessarily pivots on a combination of extra-parliamentary mobilisation, strike action and so on on the one hand, and an electoral strategy to get a Left Government in place on the other. The strategy, in other words, demands recognition of the hegemonic weight of parliamentary democracy and the determination to work with it and to probe its limits rather than to reject it as inherently a dead end.

The sort of strategy that Mandel was groping toward here, but was unwilling to fully grasp, was worked out most fully by Andre Gorz in his essay ‘Socialism and Revolution’ written indeed in the immediate aftermath of the May events and anticipated to some extent by his book Strategy for Labor (1964). I’ve written about Gorz’s iteration of the strategy of ‘structural reform’ or ‘non reformist reforms’ elsewhere. The key point is that Gorz starts from the observation that the Leninist strategy is untenable in France and is founded on the assumption that parliamentary democratic politics can’t be neatly sidestepped or evaded. The essay is a brilliant (though at times rather opaque) attempt to think through what a left-wing government, borne forward by waves of popular mobilisation, might accomplish and how this might be steered in the direction of radical social transformation.

Chile 1972

The events that unfolded in Chile between 1970 and 1973 are normally understood as a salutary warning as to the limits of parliamentary reformism – for very good reason. Indeed (as I’ve suggested in the previous post) we might in some ways see the Allende government as perhaps the only historical example of a seriously and definitely reformist socialism in office (as opposed to governments of ‘social reform’ in Miliband’s terms), and as such its eventual fate at the hands of the military forces in whose proclaimed ‘constitutionalism’ Allende put such store, is surely very significant. In the Leninist narrative the example of Chile is usually deployed as a sort of once and for all proof, not just of the limits of reformism, but of the impossibility of any sort of strategy for socialist change that doesn’t pivot on the model of 1917. But there are alternative lessons to be drawn.

For one thing when you read up on the history of the Popular Unity administration it’s impossible not be struck by the various choices and decisions of the Allende government and its supporters that might, actually, have been made differently. It doesn’t seem to me that the Chilean experiment was somehow inexorably doomed from the beginning to the bloody end that it met. Miliband’s considerations in this respect in his brilliant, angry essay, written in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September Coup is worth reading in this respect. In particular, it’s clear that the government had a very good idea that the military was plotting something from at least June 1973 and indeed received an explicit warning in August about the imminent coup from loyalist sailors and workers stationed at the Valparaiso naval base. Criminally, Allende chose to abandon these whistleblowers to the punishment meted out to them by their superiors (they were tortured) rather than acting on their warning. But things might have been done differently. Similarly Allende didn’t need to allow the October 1972 Law for the Control of Arms (that was passed during the Bosses’ Strike of that month) to go through – he could have vetoed it. The law provided the pretext for the army to start raiding factories in order to break up occupations and so on.

It might be objected here that these considerations are no less counter-factual ‘might have beens’ than the Leninist ‘if only there had been a well implanted revolutionary party’ manoeuvre criticised above. Further, wasn’t it the inherent logic of Allende’s constitutionalism arising from the parliamentary strategy to which he cleaved, that determined these choices? Well, yes. And no. It takes a little less of a leap of the imagination, it seems to me, to envisage alternative choices in Chile than it does to imagine the presence of a ‘well implanted revolutionary party’ in the various near miss situations in which this thing has always, very predictably, failed to exist.

But the most interesting thing, to me, about the events in Chile is less about the various wrong turns of the Allende administration, but the way in which it stimulated the emergence of an advanced form of popular power outside the state in (an often, but not entirely, tension-ridden) alliance with the Popular Unity government.

One of the remarkable dimensions of the Allende period was the way in which the economic crisis – a classic investment strike on the part of the bourgeoisie, supported by efforts at economic sabotage by the US in particular – that started to bite from 1971 and which was increasingly buttressed by a creeping political strategy of tension, tended overall to radicalise the movement in support of Popular Unity. The received political wisdom might suggest that a government overseeing an economy running more and more into serious problems of shortages and inflation would see its support collapse. But, in this case, not so. One of the best indicators of this is the way in which Popular Unity increased its share of the vote from 36% in 1970 (when it was first brought to power) to 43.4% in the Congressional elections of March 1973, after about a year and a half of economic crisis. Indeed it was probably this disastrous election result for the opposition that set it on the path of serious preparations for the coup – they knew by this stage that Popular Unity presented a real and serious threat to the continuation of capitalist power in Chile.

From mid 1972 a wave of mass activity swept across Chile in which workers and peasants started to build and extend articulated forms of popular power in their workplaces and communities. This process of radicalisation accelerated further from October of that year in response to the Bosses’ Strike, with the ‘expropriation from below’ under workers’ control of factories and other work places to keep the economy running in the face of concerted and acute economic sabotage. As Roxborough, O’Brien and Roddick describe these developments:

The organisations of Popular Unity’s political base which had been set up in the first year were revitalised: assemblies of workers in the factories, People’s Supply Committees in the poblaciones… Peasant’s Councils in the rural areas. Committees of action sprang up uniting these local organisations into bigger units: committees of all the factories in a given municipality, the so called industrial cordons, and joint committees of industries with neighbourhood organisations, the community commands.

This wave of ‘popular power’ was in no sense organised in conscious opposition to the government itself  – it oriented itself as form of mass mobilisation in support and in defence of Popular Unity and to some extent as a deliberate attempt to push Allende further to deliver more fully on his promises to take Chile toward socialism. Indeed, although Allende attempted to return some of the factories expropriated in October to their capitalist owners under the terms of Plan Millas, the large majority of them were nationalised or otherwise left in the hands of the workers who now ran them.

What was emerging in Chile 1972, then, was a peculiar form of dual power. But this was no ‘classic’ dual power situation of the type envisaged in the tradition of Lenin, in which either pole of the duality confronts the other as implacable enemies in a struggle in which only one of them can prevail. Here, in Chile, dual power expressed a relation of dialectical tension in which both poles constituted a source of (at least potential) strength for the other and which opened up (at least potentially) the possibility of a positive and dynamic interplay between the two. Here, a few years after Gorz had first theorised the possibility in France, was a Left Government that had (though not entirely intentionally) provided the conditions for the emergence of popular organs of power that could really challenge the capitalist order.

Had Popular Unity more consistently embraced the possibilities opened up by this form of dual power – and had it, in particular, moved more decisively against the coup plotters things might have been very different. It’s certainly hard to see how some sort of violent denouement might have been avoided, but maybe – just maybe – this might have been contained in a form that didn’t spill over into the civil war that Allende (to his great credit, in my view) dreaded more than anything else.

The key thing to grasp about this process in Chile is that these organs of radical popular democracy – the Cordons, the Peoples’ Supply Committees, the Community Commands – would not have emerged were it not for the prior election of the Popular Unity government. The situation of dual power (‘of a special type’?) that obtained in Chile by mid to late 1972 would not have emerged by any route other than via engagement with the process of parliamentary democracy in order to put a Left Government in power that could begin to probe the limits of ‘reformism’.

Here in the Chile of 1972 then perhaps we can glimpse the ‘another type of strategy’ – in broad outlines at least – that Anderson in the quotation above suggests is needed in conditions of bourgeois democracy. It’s one that requires taking parliamentary democracy seriously in order to expand its democratic promise and to find a way beyond its present limits.


* This isn’t quite true, at least to the extent that the Cordons that emerged in the industrial centres of Chile in 1972 represented soviet type organs – but more about this below.

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The Myth of ‘Reformism’?

A problem. Most overviews of the debates on strategy within (or in the vicinity of) Marxism draw a distinction between ‘reformism’ and ‘revolutionary socialism’ or some variant of these terms. Further, many of them (Miliband’s various accounts for example) draw a further distinction between ‘reformism’ and currents of ‘social reform’ or ‘social democracy’, where the latter two terms refer to an orientation toward amelioration of capitalism, whereas the former refers to a more or less gradualist strategy that aims to go beyond capitalism. There’s usually some sort of grey area in between (dismissed rather breezily more often than not) – ‘left reformism’, the Austro-Marxists and ‘the Second and a Half International’ and the ‘Marxist Centre’ of Kautsky’s time for example – but the basic pivot remains reformists vs revolutionaries. Most would go along with something like Perry Anderson’s definition of ‘reformism’ as ‘belief in the possibility of attaining socialism by gradual and peaceful reforms within the framework of a neutral parliamentary state’. Miliband would quibble with some of that – there’s nothing *necessarily* peaceful about it for example (it depends on the willingness of the opposition to stick to constitutional methods) and nothing necessarily ‘gradual’ in the sense of a smooth evolutionary process about it either for that matter – the key pivot for Miliband is the commitment to parliamentary constitutionalism as the primary focus of the process. But no matter.

The genesis of the emerging division between these two classic orientations is usually traced back in some way to the Revisionist Controversy of the late 19th century and to the increasingly apparent gap between the rhetorical commitment to revolutionary rupture on the one hand and the parliamentary orientation of day to day practice on the other of the SPD in particular. The double shock of 1914 and 1917, it is said, brought this hitherto more or less subterranean strategic bifurcation into full view – one that’s lasted ever since (notwithstanding further complications to do with the ‘degeneration’ of the Russian Revolution and so on and the drift of Moscow backed CPs toward Popular Front reformism – this, it’s usually said, was a simple retreat into more or less classic reformism rather than a further splintering of an essentially binary division).

So far so familiar. Most accounts also acknowledge that reformist parties underwent a slow (or not so slow) drift toward social democracy – symbolised perhaps by the Godesberg Programme, the ideas of Crosland, the abandonment of Clause IV. Even so, reformism (as at least partially distinct from social democracy), it’s said, remained (remains?) a major current. So Coates and Looker, for example, claim quite confidently, as if merely rehearsing a well known truism, that it’s the ‘reformist tradition’ that ‘has managed to secure a majority of proletarian support at most times and in most countries of industrial capitalism in the twentieth century’ – certainly ‘reformism’ has always won much greater mass support in these countries than revolutionaries have (Ernest Mandel says as much too when he comments that the proletariat is ‘naturally reformist’ in non revolutionary conditions – i.e. 99.999% of the time). But… has it consistently won more support than social democracy? Really? If we’re distinguishing reformism as a separate category from social democracy (i.e. an orientation toward social reform without any definite intention to transcend capitalism) the claimed ‘reformism’ of the 20th century western proletariat looks a little dubious.

But the problem doesn’t end there. When you actually look at what the (tacit or not so tacit) ‘reformists’ of the Second International were saying it’s not really clear that many of them were ‘reformists’ in the sense defined by Anderson or Miliband. Bernstein didn’t really think this – ‘the final goal’ for him, after all, ‘was nothing’ – and neither did Kautsky whose ‘strategy of attrition’ at least up until WW1 pivoted (rhetorically at least) on the ‘accumulation of forces’ in advance of the ‘decisive day’ that would be catalysed by the final catastrophic collapse of the system – i.e. perpetual delaying tactics. The figure from this period who perhaps comes closest to Marxist ‘reformism’ as usually understood is Jean Jaures who did at times seem to envisage some sort of smooth process of evolution toward something beyond capitalism. But aside from him… who? The Fabians – the Webbs, Shaw and Wells – fit the mould fairly well in terms of the famous conception of the ‘inevitability of gradualism’, but they weren’t Marxists, and were in fact quite explicitly hostile to Marxism (at least until the Webbs discovered an admiration for the statist bureaucracy they encountered when visiting Stalin’s Soviet Union).

So who were the reformists of the Second International and beyond? Where were the figures and currents that cleaved to this classic strategic orientation? Did it ever actually exist as anything more that a phantom category – a retrospective myth?

As Miliband argues in Parliamentary Socialism the British Labour Party never really developed a strategy of reform as such, until it discovered Keynes and experienced the possibilities of state direction of the economy during World War 2. Prior to this they seemed to inhabit (or their leading figures at least seemed to inhabit) something like a ‘Kautskyan’ space in which nothing could yet be done to reform an essentially unreformable capitalism – leaving little alternative than the ‘responsible’ implementation of orthodox British Treasury policies as a sort of ‘holding tactic’ while their parliamentary forces slowly accumulated. Something similar to this orientation seemed to prevail among most other parties of the Socialist International too – with the exception of the Swedish SAP which discovered a proto-Keynesian approach relatively early, allowing it to set off on the path of ‘social reform’ (rather than ‘reformism’) a decade or so in advance of most of its sister parties.

So it wasn’t really until the 1940s that anything like ‘reformism’ as a clear, practical strategic orientation really took off – and even then the leaders, if not the rank and file, of parties like the Labour Party were clearly dominated by the perspective of ‘social reform’ by that stage. With not a little irony, then, it’s perhaps the parties of the Third International in the post war West that became the first really mass reformist formations in Marxist history. The Popular Front approach of the 30s had served as a sort of dress rehearsal for this new orientation – but it wasn’t really ‘reformism’ as such at that stage. The Popular Front was conceived quite explicitly as a purely defensive anti-fascist tactic, and the CPs were always quite convinced at this stage that meaningful reforms within what they claimed was a system in terminal decline were impossible. They supported Blum and Cabellero for example on the understanding that they were quite moderate figures who didn’t believe that a transition to socialism was anything more than a hazy, long-term prospect. The reformism proper of the Western CPs really took off in the post-war period – pioneered by the PCI in particular in the guise of Togliatti’s via italiana al socialismo. By the 1950s various ‘national roads’ to socialism (among them the CPGB’s British Road) had proliferated – all of them, very definitely, reformist. Of course, the term was never openly embraced as such by the various CPs for obvious reasons – absurdly the CPs started to redefine ‘reformism’ from this point as a position that pivoted on the support or repudiation of the ‘Imperialist foreign policy’ of the capitalist powers.

This sort of CP ‘reformism’ reached its zenith perhaps in the period of Eurocommunism – and the term describes quite accurately the strategic orientation of Berlinguer, Carrillo and Marchais (though not necessarily the left flank of Eurocommunism – Poulantzas, Claudin, Magri… but that’s another story). To the extent that this sort of strategy underpinned Berlinguer’s ‘Historic Compromise’, ‘reformism’ shaped the contours of mainstream Italian politics – at least indirectly – for a few years.

We might say, then, that ‘reformism’ dominated the workers’ movement in Italy and to some extent in France (the PCF never hegemonised the left in France the way the PCI did in Italy) from the second half of the twentieth century. But did it ever dominate the reformist ‘reformist’ parties – the formations commonly assigned as such?

Allende’s Popular Unity government probably comes the closest to a concrete example of an actually ‘reformist’ formation seeking seriously to implement an actually ‘reformist’ programme – although, again, beside Allende, the driving force behind UP’s strategy (the most scrupulously ‘reformist’ section of the coalition) was actually the Chilean CP. Much of  Allende’s Socialist Party – and indeed sections of the Christian Left that broke away from the conservative Christian Democracy – was well to the left of Allende and the CP with many misgivings about Allende’s (suicidal as it turned out) unwavering and absolute commitment (at least until the eve of the 11 September coup) to gradualism and constitutionalism.

Other candidates for the designation might include the Mitterrand administration of the early 1980s (again with the CP as a driving force in the coalition) and the SAP at the time of the Meidner Plan to gradually socialise investment capital. But I’m not sure about that – although there was some sloganeering about a ‘break with capitalism’ from figures such as Michel Rocard (!) within the French coalition it’s not clear that this signalled a real intention to move beyond a radicalised form of technocratic social democratic dirigisme. It seems to me that it’s also quite hard to argue that the Swedish wage-earner funds plan was a strategy for socialism as such rather than for a more egalitarian and democratic capitalism. Perhaps the ‘Bennite’ current within the British Labour Party in the 1970s and early 80s comes the closest in recent times to an unambiguously ‘reformist’ current within a party normally referred to in the literature as, at some time and to some extent, ‘reformist’, although, again, the appellation isn’t necessarily a perfect fit given the uncertain space that the Bennite iterations of the Alternative Economic Strategy inhabited between a vision of muscular dirigisme on the one hand and a political economy beyond capitalism on the other.

So it’s not at all clear, then, that with one or two exceptions ‘reformism’ – in the sense of the term that is usually understood – has ever been more than a minority current or an occasionally significant orientation within the Western workers’ movement. Certainly there’s an argument to be made that the usual differentiation that’s made in the literature on socialist strategy in terms of the reformism/revolutionary axis is based, in relation to the first term in this opposition at least, on a myth.

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‘Structural Reform’ & the Problem of Socialist Strategy Today

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’[1] 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’[2] provided a fillip to revolutionary socialist critics of Syriza’s ‘reformism’ or ‘left-reformism’.[3] Indeed Syriza’s hugely disappointing performance in office became the occasion for the reassertion of Leninist[4] 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.[5] 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,[6] 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’.[7] 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[8] 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.[9] 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’.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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:[13] 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)[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] The fundamental problem with The State and Revolution, in my view however, is – as Erik Olin Wright has elucidated[17] – 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’.[18] 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’.[19] 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?’[20] 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.[21]

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’[22] 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.[23]

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’.[24] 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’.[25] 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’,[26] 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, [27] 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.[28]

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).[29] 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’.[30] 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[31] (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’.[32] 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’[33] 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’.[34] 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.[35] 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’.[36] This strategic approach, that is, ‘comprises two articulated processes: transformation of the State and unfurling of direct, rank-and-file democracy’.[37] 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’.[38] 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’.[39] 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.[40]

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’.[41]      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’[42] – 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’.[43] 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’.[44]

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’.[45] 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)[46] 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.[47] 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[48] and Socialism and Revolution[49] 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’,[50] 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.[51] 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[52] 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’[53] 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’.[54] 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’.[55] 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’.[56]

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’[57] 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.[58]

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’.[59] 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.[60]

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’.[61]

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’.[62] 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’.[63] 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’.[64] 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’.[65] 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’.[66]

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.”’[67]

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.

Conclusion

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.

[1] Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, ‘Class, Party and the Challenge of State Transformation’, The Socialist Register, 2017, p. 36.

[2] That is, the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

[5] Blackledge, op. cit.

[6] Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: the West European Left in the Twentieth Century (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010).

[7] Ibid., p. 23.

[8] 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).

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] See for example, Ernest Mandel, Revolutionary Marxism Today (London: New Left Books, 1979), pp. 1-66.

[14] Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London: Verso, 2000), p. 256.

[15] 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.

[16] For a penetrating critique see Ralph Miliband, ‘Lenin’s The State and Revolution’, The Socialist Register, 1970.

[17] See Erik Olin Wright, Class, Crisis and the State (London: Verso, 1983), pp. 181-225.

[18] V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, in V.I. Lenin: Selected Works, Vol. 7 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1937), p. 9.

[19] Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 254.

[20] Antonis Davanellos, ‘The Fourth Comintern Congress: “a Way to Claim Victory”’, International Socialist Review, Issue 95, https://isreview.org/issue/95/fourth-comintern-congress.

[21] Sotiris, op. cit.

[22] See Sebastian Budgen and Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘Greece: Phase One’, Jacobin, January 2015, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/01/phase-one/.

[23] Stathis Kouvelakis, ‘An Open Letter Regarding the Greek Left’, Socialist Worker, 29 May 2012, http://socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=28641.

[24] Slavoj Žižek ‘Addressing the Impossible’, The Socialist Register, 2017.

[25] Ibid., p. 349.

[26] Budgen and Kouvelakis, op. cit.

[27] 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.

[28] He restates his commitment to such a strategy in the aforementioned essay.

[29] 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.

[30] Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 129.

[31] See, for example, Ian Gough, The Political Economy of the Welfare State (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1979).

[32] Alexander Gallas, The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015), p. 40.

[33] See Bob Jessop, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 125-128.

[34] 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.

[35] See, Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 253-255.

[36] Poulantzas and Weber, op. cit., p. 338.

[37] Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 263.

[38] Ibid, pp. 258-9.

[39] Poulantzas and Weber, op. cit., p. 343.

[40] Ibid, p. 341.

[41] Poulantzas, op. cit., p. 262.

[42] Ibid, p. 265.

[43] Ibid, p. 263.

[44] Ibid, p. 265.

[45] Sotiris, ‘Neither…’, op. cit., p. 155.

[46] See Poulantzas and Weber, op. cit., p. 351.

[47] See Sassoon, op. cit., pp. 536-538.

[48] André Gorz, Strategy for Labor: a Radical Proposal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

[49] André Gorz, Socialism and Revolution (New York: Anchor Press, 1973).

[50] The work from which the following account of Gorz’s thought draws most heavily.

[51] See, Sassoon, op. cit., pp. 397-400.

[52] 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.

[53] Ibid, p. 135.

[54] Ibid, p. 154.

[55] Ibid, p. 159.

[56] Ibid, p. 135.

[57] Gorz, Strategy for Labor, op. cit., p. 11.

[58] Ibid, p. 10.

[59] Ibid, p. 7.

[60] Gorz, Socialism and Revolution, op. cit., p. 141.

[61] Ibid, p. 148.

[62] Ibid, p. 158.

[63] Ibid, p. 154.

[64] Ibid, p. 154.

[65] Ibid, pp. 176-177.

[66] Gorz, Strategy for Labor, op. cit., p 8.

[67] 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.

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Re-reading Ralph Miliband

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’.

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

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

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A depressing line of thought on socialism and disbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course I don’t really think this.

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A note on the question of government power

I’m putting some notes together for a talk at the forthcoming Historical Materialism conference London. I’ll be speaking about Andre Gorz, Nicos Poulantzas and the question of structural reform. I plan to use this blog to post work in progress notes and drafts as I prepare the talk. I came across the following paras which were cut from a recent article about Corbyn which pretty much sum up the argument I intend to make.

It’s important to pick up on some of the wider political and strategic lessons of the current conjuncture. As we have seen, the Corbyn phenomenon is part of a broader political shift across Europe. Despite their many differences one of the key perspectives shared in common among the leftist formations that have made political headway recently – Syriza, Podemos, the Corbyn movement – is an explicit orientation on winning government power in order to implement a series of left social democratic reforms. Political formations cleaving to classical revolutionary Marxist perspectives have nowhere made any comparable advances. The clear organic dynamic of contemporary radicalization across Europe then is toward the formation of ‘left governments’ of radical reform. Like it or not we have to work with the grain of this dynamic. We’ve seen some of the inherent pitfalls and problems of this approach of course in the case of the Syriza government and the brick wall it ran into from day one. Of course we need to learn lessons from this but these can’t be to fall back on facile invocations of revolutionary slogans such as to call for the ‘smashing of the state’ (whatever that means concretely) – concepts which offer resolutions to real problems at the level of phraseology only and which, in any case, are plainly unsuccessful in winning very many people over.

Working with the grain of this contemporary political dynamic means thinking seriously about the possibilities and limits of radical ‘transitional programs’ and ‘structural reforms’ and about how a government of the left in dialectical interaction with an extra-parliamentary mass movement might be able to enact such measures in such a way that the movement from below is progressively empowered. Erik Olin Wright’s recent attempt to think through a way of combining what he calls the ‘three strategic logics of transformation’ – ‘symbiotic’, ‘interstitial’ and ‘ruptural’ – provides useful ideas in this regard. But we also need to re-examine André Gorz’s thought on ‘non reformist reforms’ and to return to some of the resources of (left) Eurocommunism which seem, to me, to have acquired a renewed relevance.

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