Archive for category Published elsewhere

‘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.

1 Comment

No Capitulation

First published by Jacobin, 13th March 2018

For the past few weeks staff in more than 60 British universities and colleges – lecturers, researchers, administrators, librarians and technicians – have been engaging in an escalating series of strikes.

This industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU) has been the largest ever strike in higher education in recent British history. Indeed there’s a great deal at stake. The outcome of the strike will shape the future of the university sector in the UK for years to come. It is also likely to have major ramifications for workers in other sectors too. As Michael Mair points out,

with the university pension scheme one of the smallest of the remaining large-scale guaranteed occupational pension schemes in Britain, workers in other areas have quickly realised this is a test case: if the moves against university staff are to succeed, it will be everyone else next, a precedent will have been established.

In this respect, as Steven Parfitt indicates, university workers “are actually on the front line of an ongoing battle which threatens to wipe out proper pensions for workers across a whole sector of society”. The UCU struggle is highly important, then, as a defensive action to halt the wider neoliberal erosion of the right for workers to expect a decent income in retirement.

For the entire duration of the action – up until Monday evening at least – it was very clear that the strikers possessed the initiative and had momentum on their side. The employers looked stunned and wrong-footed by the unprecedented degree of mobilization on university picket lines up and down the country. Morale among union members was high. We were winning.

And then, on Monday evening, the news broke that an agreement between union negotiators and university employers’ body, Universities UK (UUK), had been reached. As the details of this deal circulated rapidly among rank and file union members on Twitter, it became clear that in the view of many of those who had sacrificed so much and shown such determination on the picket lines over the previous ten days of industrial action this looked like a pretty terrible offer.

It certainly is. This is a shoddy and wholly unnecessary compromise on the part of the UCU leadership. But there’s still time to reject it. We can still win this fight – and reclaim our union.

The Dispute

The dispute was triggered by UUK’s drive to convert USS – the pension plan for university workers – from a “defined benefits” to a “defined contributions” scheme. In basic terms this means converting the scheme from one that guarantees a certain level of income in retirement to one in which the payout will depend on how the stock market performs, shifting the main “burden of risk” from employers to employees.

University staff could lose between 20- 40% of their pension under these proposals. A typical lecturer stands to lose an average of £10,000 a year, while some younger staff who have only recently started out on their careers could lose more than £200,000 over the course of their retirement.

But, as Parfitt has pointed out, the roots of the strike go much deeper. The pensions issue was merely the catalyst for an open outburst of long pent up anger about the direction in which UK education has been going for many years. This is a revolt against the relentless campaign of neoliberal marketization to which successive governments have subjected the university sector.

One of the most egregious feature of the neoliberal assault has been the imposition and then hiking of student tuition fees (these trebled across most of England in 2012 to £9000) which, in tandem with drastic cuts to direct government funding of the higher education sector, “incentivized” universities to compete for market share in terms of student numbers. It’s a process that was deliberately designed to erode the idea of higher education as a public good and to transform the relationship between students and their universities into an increasingly market transactional one between (heavily indebted) individualized consumers on the one hand and customer service providers on the other. With universities competing to produce the best “student experience” – a key measure of market performance that will feed into an absurd league table ranking system under the newly introduced “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF) – there has been a huge spending spree on estate development funded by large loans from the capital markets (eager to lend to projects regarded as ultimately underwritten by state guarantee) thus accelerating the financialization of higher education.

All of this has been accompanied by a steady worsening of pay and conditions for many university workers. Staff pay has fallen by 16% in real terms since 2009. Additionally, the university workforce has been relentlessly casualized with more and more teaching performed by staff (or postgraduate students) in temporary and/or hourly-paid employment. Indeed, 54% of all academic staff are on insecure contracts. Research time – the headspace to read, think and write – is a luxury increasingly confined to a smaller and smaller academic elite, supported by armies of precariously employed teaching staff moving from one short term, part time contract to another.

At the same time, in combination with the transformation of universities into institutions run on business principles, Vice Chancellors (the head managers of universities – and surely it can’t be long until they start to call themselves CEOs) have seen their salaries inflate to an average of over £270,000, with some, of course, “earning” far more than that. Recent revelations about the lavish expense account lifestyle – chauffeurs, five star hotels, business class flights – of many of these thrusting entrepreneurial talents have only served to throw into greater relief the massive gulf between them and the increasingly precarious workforces they manage.

So it’s only in this wider context that we can understand the current dispute. UUK’s attack on pensions was the final straw that broke the camel’s back for a workforce already seething with frustration about the creeping marketization of higher education and the steady deterioration in pay and conditions. It’s the way in which the pensions assault finally galvanized university workers into action in a process that drew much of its force from a much wider set of grievances that explains the scale of the strike so far and the resolve shown by striking staff.

Response and Mobilization

The response to the UCU ballot on industrial action was overwhelming. The 2016 Trade Union Act designed to weaken trade unions by making strike action in public services much harder stipulates, among other measures, a minimum turnout threshold of 50% and an additional threshold of 40% support for industrial action among all eligible members for action to be legal. These barriers were convincingly overcome in the industrial action ballot that closed in January. Of 68 institutions balloted, “61 voted overwhelmingly in favour of action, with 88% in favour of strikes and 93% in favour of action short of a strike, with an overall turnout of 58%”. Several of the remaining UCU branches (such as mine) that failed to meet the 50% threshold in the first ballot, later voted for strike action after being reballoted in February. If nothing else, UCU has demonstrated that recent Tory anti-trade union legislation can be beaten.

The resounding vote for serious and sustained industrial action generated further resolve among university staff with a reported 5000 new members joining the union in the run up to the strike. Moreover the momentum was carried over into the strike itself – with branches up and down the country reporting rock-solid action on the part of members and large numbers turning out for picket lines (in defiance, it should be noted of the government’s “Code of Practice on Picketing” – part of the panoply of anti-trade union legislation – which indicates that no more than 6 people should picket an entrance or exit to a workplace). By many accounts, furthermore, the number of those who took to picket lines increased day by day as the strikes continued – braving blizzards and sub-zero temperatures in some cases.

One of the most significant aspects of the strike as it has unfolded, however, has been the magnificent support that UCU members have received from students. As Parfitt rightly noted in February, students’ attitude toward the dispute – the question of whether or not they generally supported the strike – was always going to be a pivotal factor in whether it succeeds or fails. So far, students have been, in the main, solidly behind their lecturers. Indeed, many have taken the initiative in organizing solidarity actions – as they have at my institution, for example, in putting together an imaginative daily program of “teach in” sessions, sending student reps to attend strike committee meetings and drumming up daily student attendance on the picket line. Similar acts of solidarity have taken place at universities up and down the country.

The strike action has quite clearly had a radicalizing effect on many in the union rank and file. It’s an old socialist insight, of course, that the experience of collective action can transform consciousness and open up new horizons of social and political possibility. As Michael Mair puts it, strikes “establish new lines of solidarity, they are instructive and they are educative” and, further, we “come to know the worlds we live and work in differently as a result of participating in them.” This strike is certainly no different in this respect. One dimension here is the way in which the action has, consciously, for many strikers become about much more than pensions in themselves – it’s not been uncommon to hear discussion on picket lines about broadening our strike demands to encompass calls for the dismantling of TEF for example or for the abolition of student tuition fees.

Another dimension of this is the way in which we can glimpse via the relations of solidarity and forms of collective cooperation on the picket line and in the “teach in” and “teach out” sessions a different, more democratic and egalitarian vision of the university and of education more broadly – a vision beyond the current limits established by neoliberal structures and the individualized, marketized and commodified social relations they impose.

We Were Winning

From day one of the industrial action it was very obviously the strikers who were winning this battle. On the other side of the dispute, the employers looked rattled and very much on the back foot. They clearly thought they could divide and conquer by playing students against staff, but instead the scale and solidity of the strike and the support it has won from students opened up serious divisions among the employers.

One key manifestation of this is the way in which university bosses increasingly broke ranks with UUK – the BBC reports that since the strike began about 30 universities have called for a “rethink” on the original pension proposals. Indeed the hardliners looked more and more isolated and beleaguered over the past few days as even key drivers of the UUK pension reform proposals began to reverse their position in the face of mass industrial action and student protest.

Another measure of who has been winning in this struggle is that UUK were forced to concede to negotiations with UCU under the auspices of the industrial conciliation service, ACAS. For their part, the national UCU negotiators looked to be demonstrating an admirably wily approach in relation to their adversaries – refusing to call a temporary halt to the strikes while the ACAS negotiations are ongoing, for example, and in so doing avoiding the trap that BMA union officials were lured into during the junior doctors’ strike in 2016. The recently announced threat of further strike action after Easter looked like another shrewd tactic on the part of UCU negotiators designed to ramp up the pressure on UUK while they were on the back foot.

But then, incredibly, the news came through that the union leadership – from a position of strength, backed by a fired up and determined rank and file, supported by student militancy – had somehow managed to negotiate a terrible deal that completely threw away this hard fought and won advantage.

The Proposed Agreement

The basic terms of the proposed deal between UUK and UCU are that both parties agree to a “transitional arrangement” in which a modified “defined benefits” scheme remains in place for a three year period, during which time both employers and employees will be required to pay higher contributions and in which “alternative scheme options” are considered for implementation after the transitional period is over. So, in other words, union members are being asked to pay more toward their pensions in a period of temporary reprieve, after which they might still have the original UUK reforms foisted on them anyway.

The agreement also indicates that while the union accepts loss of pay for strike days for its members, it will undertake “to encourage its members to prioritise the rescheduling of teaching in order to minimise the disruption to students”. Essentially, then, union members are being asked to perform unpaid labour – a kind of retrospective scabbing on themselves.

The strike is to be called off from the 14th March.

As the news of the proposed deal sank in, the shock and anger among members became palpable. Within a few hours a hastily written open letter rejecting the deal had gathered many thousands of signatures.

Indeed it was immediately obvious to many that the leadership had been – to say the least – strategically inept in signing up to this proposed deal. After all, the strike had the employers divided, demoralized and on the defensive. We had them on the ropes – we could and should have pushed on to press home our advantage and force a decisive victory. Instead this deal lets them almost completely off the hook and hands them a three year breather during which time of course, they will regroup, wait for the energy, determination and solidarity demonstrated by union members during this dispute to dissipate and then, almost certainly, seek to force through their original reform proposals at a more opportune moment.

We can still win

There’s still a chance that this disastrous deal can be scuppered. The union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) meet on Tuesday to vote on the proposals and will no doubt take a steer in their deliberations from a consultation meeting with branch reps which is also convening that day. Militant pressure on the HEC via our branch reps from the thousands of UCU members enthused and radicalised by the extraordinary mobilizations of the past few weeks can still head off the leadership’s imminent capitulation.

The strikes have unleashed a radical energy, optimism and fighting spirit among university workers and their student comrades. Calling this strike off now, under these conditions, will undo and destroy all that. But for now all that energy and combativity is still pulsing through us. We can still reject this deal. We can still tell our union’s leadership that we will not accept this climbdown. We can still show our employers that we will not roll over – that we’ve found our collective voice and our resolve to fight back against the neoliberalization of the university.

So much depends on this.

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Social Democracy Roars Back into Life

Here’s something I wrote for the work blog. It’s a bit derivative – but not much to say as yet that’s not already been said.

We have just, as the veteran broadcaster Jon Snow remarked on Friday, witnessed ‘one of the most remarkable election results in modern British history’ – and it is a result, moreover that has fundamentally shifted the basic coordinates of politics in Britain. Political ‘business as usual’ as we have known it for the past few decades is, quite simply, over.

Though the Tories won the greatest share of the vote and the most seats – and thus ‘won’ the election in the sense that they have been (only just…) returned to government – it is apparent to everyone that this election result was, for them, an utter catastrophe. The gamble on which May staked everything was to call a snap election in order to capitalise on an apparent post-referendum swing to the right in UK politics and thus solidify her leadership going into the Brexit negotiations with a large parliamentary majority. To say that May’s wager didn’t pay off would be an understatement – May miscalculated disastrously, leaving her authority severely and perhaps fatally weakened. Indeed the process that has seen her rapidly transformed from the ‘strong and stable’ darling of much of the media punditocracy to the pathetically diminished figure we see now scrabbling for a parliamentary alliance with the sectarian, homophobic reactionaries of the DUP in order to shore up her crumbling position has to be one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in post-war British political history.

May is now, as George Osborne remarked with brutal accuracy in a TV interview, a ‘dead woman walking’, deeply despised and increasingly isolated within her own party. However it’s probably unlikely that there’ll be a leadership challenge any time soon if only because most Tories fear triggering another general election which would almost certainly put Corbyn in 10 Downing Street.

That Labour should now be within striking distance of government power is surely the most remarkable dimension of the political earthquake we have just experienced. Just a few short weeks ago Labour was 20 points behind in the polls, and Corbyn’s personal ratings were recorded at a dismal minus 23 points (in comparison with May’s plus 28). The conventional wisdom across almost the entirety of the media and political class was that Labour was heading toward humiliating defeat and possible oblivion. Indeed, right up until the exit poll was released on Thursday night few even among Corbyn’s supporters really believed that the party could hope realistically for much more than survival as a major political force.

Given this, the party’s electoral performance was astonishing. Labour enjoyed its biggest surge in vote share since 1945, – up by almost 10% compared with 2015 to 40% of the total vote, winning nearly 13 million votes and increasing its number of seats by 30. This result is all the more incredible when you consider that over the past two years Corbyn has faced a relentless campaign of open hostility and sabotage from within the Parliamentary Labour Party and several attempts to oust him from the leadership. What is more he was subjected to a barrage of daily vilification from large swathes of the media over the same period – and not just from the traditionally Tory press. Most columnists for the generally Labour supporting Guardian, for example, have displayed little but contempt – or at best condescension – toward Corbyn and his supporters since he first won the leadership.

So how did Corbyn’s Labour do it?

Part of the explanation lies in the complete ineptitude of the Tory election campaign. There was of course, the debacle of the so called ‘dementia tax’, and the revelation, on the campaign trail, of May’s robotic awkwardness and inability to connect emotionally with ordinary people. Her failure to attend the BBC leaders’ debate – looking for all the world like someone scared of debating directly with her political opponents – might well have been a turning point in terms of her personal rating with the electorate. However, the atrocious Tory campaign cannot, in itself, explain Corbyn’s success. For that we need to look at the Corbyn team’s strategy and the way his campaign resonated with large numbers of people.

Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party rested from the start on the idea that the party’s fortunes could be revived by attracting lost voters and those who felt alienated by the prevailing political landscape. That is, he argued that the party should reject the Blairite machine-politics of ‘triangulation’ that focused on competition for a relatively small number of ‘centre-ground’ ‘floating voters’, and concentrate, instead on tapping a deep well of relatively disenfranchised voters including, crucially, the young (who tend not to turnout in large numbers during elections). This was to be done, in large part, by campaigning on distinctive left social democratic policies – putting clear red water between Labour and the other parties – and, just as importantly, by transforming the party into something like a party/social movement hybrid that sought to mobilise its members into a grassroots mass campaigning force. This leadership pitch was extraordinarily successful in catapulting Corbyn to the leadership and in galvanizing an active and mobilised base of support among the party membership to defend him from the various ‘coup’ attempts set in motion by the party’s right wing establishment. But while this had worked well within the party among a relatively small number of people, it was not clear that the same approach could be successful beyond the party itself among the electorate as a whole at the level of a general election.

Confounding all of his critics, Corbyn and his team proved beyond doubt on June 8th that this approach could indeed work at a national level. The turning point in Labour’s election campaign was clearly the release of the party’s manifesto – a bold document full of public spending, redistributionist and growth-centred social democratic policies that broke with the politics and economics of austerity. The manifesto seems to have resonated deeply with wide sections of the electorate sick of many years of cuts to public services, stagnating wages and rising inequality. The Corbyn team’s gamble was that a relatively left-wing manifesto (by recent standards) would tap hidden but deep reserves of support among swathes of voters for the sort of policies that previous Labour leaderships had abandoned in their efforts to ‘triangulate’ and chase the ‘centre ground’. It paid off.

The early leak of the manifesto – whether this was deliberate or not (there is some suggestion that a pro-Corbyn source ‘leaked’ it to ensure that the manifesto pledges couldn’t be watered down by the Labour right) – also ensured that Labour was able to shape the agenda for the election campaign. Labour refused to concentrate their fight on the terrain preferred by the Tories – the issue of Brexit – steering the debate toward issues of inequality, public spending, healthcare and education. Though Corbyn was taxed initially by pro-Remain forces within Labour for his apparent fudging on Brexit, this manoeuvre appears, in retrospect, to have allowed Corbyn to side-step and close down an issue that threated to divide the Labour camp. Indeed psephological analysis of the vote indicates that Labour managed to hold on to (usually older) Leave voters in sufficient numbers while cohering the lion’s share of votes from those who supported Remain.

The turning point in Labour’s fortunes – the release of the manifesto – coincided with the period when broadcast media election rules kicked in. As Corbyn’s close ally John McDonnell has pointed out the more balanced broadcast coverage that this ensured enabled many people to see, for the first time, Corbyn for the ‘honest, decent, principled and indeed strong leader he was’. Seeing Corbyn speak directly and relatively unfiltered by media hostility and bias, people generally liked what they saw – especially in comparison with May’s wooden and uncharismatic performances. The Ashcroft poll indicates that it was indeed in this period in the final weeks before the ballot that Labour won people over in large numbers – 57% of those who voted Labour made their decision in the last month before the election.

The most striking thing about the voting figures, however, is the way in which young voters turned out for Labour – 67% of 18-24 year old voters (and well over half of 25-34 year olds) chose Labour. Various reports have suggested, moreover, that turnout amongst the youth vote surged to an impressive 72% – vindicating Corbyn’s decision to orient his campaign toward the young and those who do not normally choose to vote. This high turnout for Labour was almost certainly driven, to a significant extent, by the way in which the Corbyn campaign managed to mobilise active support among young people. It was for the most part, young people who joined the Momentum canvassing teams that flocked to Labour marginals and populated Momentum’s phone banking efforts. Further, it seems clear that a largely spontaneous pro-Corbyn campaign of video, meme and joke sharing (replete with its own tongue-in-cheek idiom – ‘Arm John McDonnell!’, ‘Corbyn is the absolute boy!’) emerged among the young on social media – Twitter especially – largely under the radar of established media commentators. Thus the youth turnout for Labour may well have been driven in significant part by an organic peer-to-peer social media effort that simply bypassed traditional forms of media that were largely hostile to Corbyn.

These factors cohered to produce what is surely one of the biggest political upsets in Britain in living memory. Corbyn has been transformed in a matter of days, from an utter outsider – largely derided in mainstream political discourse – to a Prime Minister in waiting. It’s worth pointing out, furthermore, that it is not just the Tories who look now like a spent and largely defeated force. Corbyn’s success was also a defeat for the Murdoch press and tabloid media who threw everything at Corbyn during the campaign with little apparent effect. The days when Labour politicians used to feel they had to bow and scrape before the right wing press are now over. It was also a humiliating defeat for the ‘centrist’ punditocracy that dominate the broadsheet and broadcast media in whose conventional wisdom – right up until the exit poll – Corbyn was leading the Labour party into oblivion. They look rather silly now. Most of all, perhaps, Corbyn’s electoral success was a devastating blow to his enemies within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Indeed, one thing is for sure – New Labour and the Blairite faction in the party are now truly dead and buried as a serious political force.

What all of these defeated groups shared in common were what we might call neoliberal assumptions – or assumptions characteristic of the neoliberal era in British politics. They simply took it for granted, that is, that you cannot succeed electorally on a left-wing manifesto, that voters are motivated more by fear and self-interest than they are by appeals to community and the public good, that they prefer ‘belt-tightening’ and privatisation to expanded investment in public services and above all that people have fully and irreversibly internalised the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to the ‘free market’-driven order. With Corbyn’s near victory confounding these assumptions, British social democracy has roared back into life after many years of dormancy and with it an ideological space has opened up, shifting the horizons of the possible, allowing us once again to envisage and work confidently toward a kinder, more equal and more humane social order.

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The Left After Leave

Edited version of the post below now up at Jacobin.

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Jacobin: Socialists and the EU Referendum

There’s a whole series of interesting articles and interviews on the EU referendum on Jacobin – includes contributions from Richard Seymour, Neil Davidson and David Renton. The series includes my article ‘There is No Left Exit’

Worth a look.

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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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Corbyn and the Left

I converted the notes below into an article for Jacobin.

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Is Syriza Radical Enough?

First published by New Left Project

It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but a party of the radical left is on the cusp of power in an EU country. The latest opinion polls indicate that Syriza will triumph in the Greek national elections to be held on Sunday and although it may not win an absolute majority in parliament it would (assuming it can find coalition partners) certainly be the dominant force in any coalition government that emerged.

Unsurprisingly the imminent prospect of a left government committed to breaking with the brutal reign of austerity has alarmed the powerful within and beyond Greece. In a thinly veiled attack on Syriza, for example, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently warned Greeks about electing ‘extreme forces’ into power and suggested, rather in the manner of a threat, that they ought to consider ‘what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the eurozone’.

But what’s remarkable about this is that, for all the warnings of ‘extremism’, Syriza’s demands are in fact rather modest and indeed eminently sensible. At the core of its programme are pledges to negotiate the cancellation of 50 percent of Greece’s crippling debt, lift austerity and boost growth and employment through public investment. These proposals are accompanied by a range of measures designed to address what Syriza rightly calls the ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Greece such as promises to provide free electricity and subsidised meals and housing for the poor.

Given the economic and social catastrophe that austerity has visited on Greece—over 25 percent unemployment, an economy that has contracted by a quarter, wages and pensions slashed, soaring rates of homelessness, suicide and infant mortality—these are hardly outlandish or utopian proposals. They pivot on the simple, obvious truths that the national debt is unpayable, that austerity is generating nothing but misery and, further, on the rather basic ethical demand that every citizen should have enough to eat, decent housing and access to the basic resources that will allow them to live with dignity. There is nothing extreme about this—indeed, surely the real extremists are those who insist on further austerity, further hardship and humiliation for ordinary Greeks.

It is precisely the moderation of Syriza’s stance, however, that has attracted fierce criticism from other left wing groups. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) for example denounces Syriza for ‘opportunism’ while the Front of the Greek Anticapitalist Left(Antarsya), though much less sectarian than the KKE, refuses to combine forces with Syriza, arguing that the latter’s programme is insufficiently radical. Internationally too, there’s no shortage of left critics issuing dire warnings in relation to Syriza’s ‘reformism’, convinced that all it aspires to do is to manage, rather than seriously challenge, the system. Even among many of its supporters there is a general consensus that Syriza ‘is not as radical as we would want’ and that backing it in the forthcoming election represents a necessary reining in of the left’s political ambitions under current conditions.

These criticisms are mistaken, however, for three closely related reasons.

Firstly, it is not at all clear what serious alternative most of these critics propose. In fact, for many of them the underlying dispute with Syriza is not so much over the details of reform proposals as it is with the party’s very intention to form a government within the political institutions of the capitalist state. Such a strategy, they warn, leads inexorably to betrayal since any party that seeks to utilise capitalist institutions will become trapped within the logic of the system. But years of intense social struggles in Greece—including mass demonstrations, occupations of government buildings and more than 30 general strikes—have failed to stop austerity, much less usher in socialist transformation. It is clear that social mobilisation in itself is not enough and that the question of political power must be confronted. Greek workers require a political instrument to lead in actually implementing their demands.

In this regard many of Syriza’s Marxist critics invoke the need for soviet organs of workers’ power. The obvious problem here, however, is that in circumstances where such organs show little sign of emerging even after years of intense social struggle such invocation remains entirely abstract—it is, for the time being at least, wishful thinking rather than the identification of a serious, concrete alternative in the here and now. Indeed, typically, such critics cannot specify in anything but the most hand-waving and vague terms how such organs of workers’ power might possibly emerge. Syriza, however, grasps that the struggle as it currently is requires a government of the left that utilises existing political institutions and, for all the undoubted risks, problems and dilemmas that this will bring, are prepared to take on this responsibility. As such, only Syriza proposes a serious and concrete plan to confront the urgency of the situation in Greece. In comparison, many of its leftwing critics seem to me to offer little but evasive posturing which of course offers little of practical value to people currently struggling to feed their families and pay their rent—this, indeed, is one reason why the KKE and Antarsya will struggle to win more than derisory shares of the vote in the forthcoming election.

Secondly, Syriza’s proposed reforms correspond to the immediate needs and demands of ordinary Greeks—for jobs, better wages, affordable food and housing and so on. Indeed it’s precisely because of this correspondence that Syriza’s programme has resonated so successfully with Greek voters, bringing the party to the brink of office and thus putting imminent, real change on the agenda in a way that ostensibly ‘radical’ but wholly abstract revolutionary demands with little political traction never could.

Thirdly, it’s clear that, for all its sober pragmatism, Syriza’s manifesto is likely to bring it into direct confrontation with the forces of domestic and international capital. It’s certainly not a programme for the management of capitalism on capital’s terms. A Syriza government is likely to face intense hostility in the form, for example, of serious capital flight, bank runs, an ‘investment strike’ and threats of withdrawal on the part of multinationals together with various methods of blackmail and obstruction on the part of the EU. It will also face a dangerous struggle within the Greek state itself—not least in relation to an unreliable and hostile police force in which more than half of all officers voted for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in the 2012 national elections.

It’s likely, then, that on taking office Syriza will, very quickly, be faced with a stark choice: either to renege on its commitments in the face of powerful opposition or to press ahead, which will mean being prepared to take counter-measures to defend its initial reforms: cancellation of the debt, nationalising banks, expropriating closed factories. Of course there’s nothing inevitable about which of these two options Syriza will choose, but given the popular hopes generated by its promises, to retreat on its core commitments would certainly be to consign itself to future electoral oblivion. Much here would depend on mobilised mass support seeking to push the government on and to force it to stick to its promises—indeed a Syriza victory on Sunday will probably unleash a new wave of popular struggles.

The key point here is that determined, consistent implementation and defence of Syriza’s pragmatic election promises is likely to lead to measures that go far beyond the party’s current objectives. We could say that Syriza’s apparently modest programme conceals an inner dynamic of radicalisation.

The very possibility of this dynamic however is rooted in the moderation of the initial demands—in the way in which these articulate the everyday concerns of the mass of the Greek population. What anti-capitalist forces operating within Syriza grasp is that revolutionary social change must emerge from ordinary people’s collective experience of the way in which modest, common sense measures to improve their lives and defend their dignity run up against the limits of what the current order will allow. This experience thus reveals the system’s essential inhumanity—in a sense we might say its extremism—and demonstrates concretely, in a way that abstract declarations of ‘the need for socialism’ simply do not, the imperative to push beyond capitalist limits in order to secure the very basic conditions for a decent and humane society.

Ed Rooksby teaches politics at Ruskin College in Oxford and is a member of Left Unity.

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Why it’s time to realign the Left

First published in Socialist Review May 2013

Radical left parties such as Syriza in Greece and the Front De Gauche in France have made significant gains recently. But what about Britain? Socialist film maker Ken Loach has recent issued a call for a new left party to be formed here too. Ed Rooksby, one of the supporters of the call, explains why he thinks the time is right to launch such a party and what its aims should be. Socialist Review will respond in our next issue.

Radical left parties committed to fighting austerity and able to attract considerable popular support have emerged across Europe – most spectacularly in Greece. We are in desperate need of a similar party in Britain – one which is willing to take the risk of seeking to break the stranglehold of a social democracy that has long since capitulated to neoliberalism and present an unashamedly socialist alternative. Thankfully, for the first time in a long period, the conditions for the emergence of a broad left coalition of forces in the UK capable of attracting large-scale support seem ripe. These conditions have been generated and shaped by four major interconnected political and economic developments.

The first and most obvious of these is economic crisis and austerity. This has posed, in very immediate terms, the question of how best to defend jobs, living conditions and the healthcare, education and welfare reforms won in struggle decades ago, and which are now being stripped back in a determined assault. But it has also posed the question, again in immediate terms, of whether or not capitalism is in fact compatible, over any prolonged and sustained period, with decent welfare provision and conditions of life and work for the majority. For those who conclude that it is not, the further problem of how to build a more democratic and humane alternative is raised. The crisis and austerity confront us with fundamental and pressing questions in relation to organisation and strategy. It is in this context that the idea of the construction of a new organisation of the left has been put firmly on the political agenda.

The second development – one closely meshed with the first – is that it has become painfully apparent to many of the Labour Party’s erstwhile supporters and activists that Labour is not an effective political vehicle for the organisation of resistance to austerity (let alone for the implementation of a counter-offensive against capital). There has, over the past few weeks and months, been a pronounced acceleration of a longer-term process of disillusionment on the part of Labour’s core supporters and activist base and, correspondingly, a growing willingness among many of them to countenance the prospect of leaving Labour to join a new organisation – in particular, the Left Unity initiative associated with Ken Loach’s recent appeal.

Rise of Syriza

The third factor shaping this new conjuncture in the UK is an external one – the international influence and prestige of Syriza. The Syriza phenomenon has demonstrated that it is possible for a coalition of fairly disparate left forces to win mass support with a clear anti-austerity agenda and win such support very rapidly. More than this, Syriza has shown that it is possible for the radical left to challenge seriously for power. The morale-raising psychological impact of this on socialists across Europe should not be underestimated. This Syriza effect interacts with the loosening of Labour’s political hegemony – further contributing to the sense that it is possible to build an effective political force to the left of Labour. It has also created a renewed sense of possibility among more radical left groupings.

There is a fourth development which closely interacts with the third. This is the recent bust-up in the SWP. Whatever you think of it, this has clearly shaken up the political landscape on the left and opened up a new space for realignment. In interaction with the Syriza effect, this has created a very promising situation for building a new, broad coalition.

These are the main developments that together constitute a new conjuncture on the UK left in which a significant realignment of forces has become a definite and realistic possibility. The most exciting and promising development in this respect is the emergence of the Left Unity organisation which sees itself as the embryonic form of a new broad-church party of the left and which models itself in relation to Syriza and other successful groupings such as the Front de Gauche.

The classic strategic dilemma

One of the biggest questions that the conjuncture poses for us is the question of strategic orientation and the associated issue of the organisational form that a new coordination of forces should take.

Of course, here we start to encroach on one of the oldest controversies in socialist thought – the classic reform/revolution debate. Let me draw out (in what cannot be anything other than a very simplified way given constraints of space) the core problems with each of these approaches as they are usually conceived in order to provide the foundations for a different way of approaching the question of socialist strategy.

At the heart of the reformist approach is the idea that the process of transition to socialism can be a wholly evolutionary one of smooth, piecemeal change. The core problem (among many) with this strategy is that, when reformists find themselves in power, they also find themselves responsible for the management of a capitalist economy. Since radical measures aimed at the introduction of socialism must, by definition, endanger capitalist profit, reformist governments find themselves caught on the horns of an impossible dilemma; they require capitalist cooperation for a process of gradual transition to socialism, and yet the introduction of any measure which might lead very far in the direction of socialism would necessarily lose them the cooperation (and earn them the intense hostility) of capital. So, in opposition to reformism, it must be insisted that the transition to socialism cannot be a wholly gradual process but must involve some kind of revolutionary break.

The revolutionary socialist approach avoids the core problem of reformism but, as it is traditionally conceived, has its own particular deficiencies. Again, I cannot outline all of these here, so will focus on the main difficulty.

In one important sense at least there is no absolute dividing line between a strategy of reform and traditional revolutionary socialism. Most revolutionaries believe that the struggle for and winning of reforms increases the democratic capacities of the working class, raises its confidence and educates it politically. Furthermore, many revolutionaries (see, for example, Alex Callinicos’s An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto) appear to believe that revolution is most likely to emerge out of a (frustrated) movement for reform which probes the limits of what the capitalist state is willing to concede and which spills over into something more far-reaching – and so, to this end, the strategy is to seek to place demands on the state which can tip the balance of power in favour of the working class and popular forces.

The defining feature of revolutionary socialism as it is usually conceived, however, is the view that socialists must remain strictly independent of the capitalist state rather than seek to work within it. This, however, is where the strategy runs into a major problem. The first part of this problem is that, in countries such as Britain, with a long established tradition of liberal democracy and, indeed, a long established tradition of reformism, it is difficult to imagine a process of mass radicalisation in anything other than the electoral rise of a party seeking to form a radical government. That is, it is hard to see this process throwing up anything other than a movement committed to the formation of a “workers’ government”. This, indeed, is the way things appear to be working out in Greece.

The second part of this problem is that it is also hard to see how the sort of transitional reforms revolutionaries want to pressure the state to enact would be implemented by government representatives reluctant to do so, let alone deeply opposed to them politically and ideologically. Some concessions could be wrested from a pro-capitalist government, yes – but a whole series of radical reforms that seriously undermine the power of capital? It seems unlikely. The major difficulty in the traditional revolutionary approach, then, is in its rejection of the very idea of taking power within the political structures of capitalism.

The dialectic of change

So neither the traditional reformist approach nor the traditional revolutionary strategy seems adequate. We need, instead, a strategy that seeks to combine elements of both. In his book The Dialectic of Change the Russian theorist Boris Kagarlitsky seeks to elaborate just such an approach. Revolutionary transformation, he argues, can only emerge organically and dialectically from a process of radical reform set in motion by a socialist government. He calls this approach “revolutionary reformism”.

In Kagarlitsky’s view it is only when you grasp the idea that reform and revolution augment and condition each other that you can start to formulate a realistic strategy of socialist change. Kagarlitsky suggests that revolution should be “conceived as a definite and necessary stage, a qualitative leap, in the process of reform” – “revolution is a ‘break in gradualness’, a leap in development”. It is a stage of development which is necessary for the consolidation of the changes – new socialist social relations – which can be brought into being (in some embryonic sense at least) within capitalist society through reform.

Clearly, not all reforms intertwine organically with revolutionary change. Kagarlitsky’s favoured strategy of reform is based on a passage from The Communist Manifesto where Marx and Engels write of the implementation of a series of reforms which may “appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production”.

Marx and Engels indicate that the introduction of reforms which run counter to the logic of capitalism (and which therefore appear in themselves “economically insufficient and untenable”) may set in motion a dynamic of cumulative change – a kind of chain reaction. That is, these initial reforms destabilise capitalism and therefore necessitate the implementation of further reforms which themselves run counter to capitalist logic and, in turn, stimulate further changes and so on. It is in this sense that these reforms “outstrip themselves” – they unleash a process of change which goes much further than the initial effects of the primary reforms themselves. Kagarlitsky believes that the dynamic of cumulative change Marx and Engels sketch out here provides the basis for a strategy of radical reform today.

How could such a process be set in motion? It is the manner in which reforms are implemented that is the crucial factor. Firstly, Kagarlitsky suggests that each reform must be designed to stimulate further reforms which flow from it organically. This demands that each reform is integrated into a well-planned strategic programme. Secondly, he stresses that these reforms must be driven forward by a movement which unites mass mobilisation “from below” with pressure “from above” as revolutionary reformist politicians work within state institutions. Revolutionary reformists within state institutions must be subjected to constant pressure from below. There must be a mass movement outside these institutions, capable of controlling their representatives and forcing them on to implement the reforms they have promised.

Furthermore, “revolutionary reforms” must be designed to strengthen and empower this movement. The growth of popular power would develop the organisational capacity of the mass movement and this would open up opportunities for the further flowering of popular democracy. In this way it can be seen that the dialectic between mass movement and socialist representatives in office would contribute to the momentum of the revolutionary reformist dynamic of cumulative change. Socialist representatives are driven on to introduce reforms which deepen mass democracy which, in turn, encourages the mass movement to pressure leaders for still further changes and so on.

Transitional Programme

What reforms, more concretely, might such a transitional programme include? A few ideas can be suggested. It might begin in its initial stage with an ambitious programme of directed investment. Spending should be strategically targeted and designed to kickstart more sustainable growth, create jobs and reorient the economy away from its reliance on the financial sector. Priority areas for investment could include investment in green, low-carbon infrastructure – particularly in transport and energy.

Radicalisation of the process of reform might throw up further measures including nationalisation of major financial institutions under democratic control and the bringing into public ownership, of a string of industrial firms. Taking a large proportion of the financial sector into public ownership would enable financial resources to be allocated according to social and environmental criteria. Similarly, the nationalisation of industrial firms would allow their activities to be oriented increasingly towards socially useful and environmentally sustainable production. Radical forms of democratic planning could be explored within nationalised firms. Of course, democratic planning and control should not be confined to the narrowly “economic” sector. The entirety of the public sector – the education system, welfare system, NHS and so on – should be opened up to collective, democratic and participatory forms of management.

Of course, it is worth pointing out that such a strategy would depend for its success on the existence of allies implementing similar processes of transformation abroad. Certainly any country attempting to go it alone would- at least beyond a certain point – find itself hopelessly isolated in the face of hugely powerful international economic and political forces. But as we’ve seen with the “Syriza effect” – the process in which the rise of the radical left in Greece has kickstarted moves towards political realignment elsewhere – the emergence of a radical left government in one part of the world is likely to provide a boost to similar movements elsewhere.

Of course, this sort of strategy raises its own problems. Such a left government would certainly arouse the intense hostility of capital and would come under huge pressure to reverse its programme from day one. This pressure would only increase as the dynamic of any transitional programme gathered momentum – if, indeed, it did. But the argument I have developed above suggests that there does not seem to be any plausible alternative strategic approach. It is hard to see how the left in Europe can avoid the problem of taking power in a left government if it is serious about changing society.

Mark L Thomas’ response in the June issue of Socialist Review can be read here.

Paul Blackledge’s and Alex Callinicos’ recent articles in International Socialism Journal also responded, in part, to issues raised in the above piece.

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The European Crisis

First published in Oxford Left Review Issue 10 (June 2013)

In order to think realistically and creatively about matters of socialist strategy – how to resist austerity, how to defeat austerity and even more than this how to set about winning power in order to bring about fundamental change toward a more democratic, humane, equal and sustainable society – we need to be clear about the economic and political context in which we are seeking to operate. In the following I shall put forward some broad-brush observations in relation to the origins, development and trajectory of the current crisis of capitalism focusing in particular on Europe before drawing out tentatively, and giving brief consideration to, a series of possible ‘exit routes’ – two which might be imposed by capital and one which might be implemented by anti-capitalist forces.

Some General Points about the Crisis

It must be emphasised that the current global capitalist crisis is, precisely, a crisis of capitalism. That is, it is a systemic crisis. It is not simply a debt crisis. It is not about ‘profligate government spending’ as the neoliberal right have sought to present it – very successfully so, incidentally, given the way in which this narrative frames much of the debate in the political and media mainstream. It’s not even really about ‘greedy bankers’ or a ‘failure of regulation’ as the dominant narrative on the centre-left tends to suggest. The first of these two (complementary) elements of the centre-left story moralises the crisis in a crudely simplistic way and the second presents it merely as a failing of administrative/ managerial competence. Deeper, underlying structural and systemic determinants – the economic pressures driving risk-taking, profit-maximising behaviour (i.e. the driving logic of capitalism) and militating against the imposition of regulatory constraints on those behaviours (and thus on maximised rapid financial returns) – are ignored and entirely excluded from the picture. It must be insisted, against all this, that the crisis is rooted in the dysfunctional logic of capitalism and that, indeed, this is an extremely serious crisis from which it is very hard to see how capitalism has any immediate prospect of recovery. It is likely to drag on for years.

Just as for capitalist growth and expansion, capitalist crisis unfolds in processes of combined and uneven development. The close international integration of national economies means that a crisis emerging within one of them can be transmitted widely very rapidly. However, while this entails generalisation of the crisis internationally in some respects (and indeed the crisis takes on some specifically and irreducibly international/global features) the effects of the crisis are not evenly distributed and its intensity varies from state to state and from region to region. This unevenness is shaped by national (and in Europe to a certain extent by regional) specificities and ‘path dependencies’ – the relative weight and health of particular economic sectors, the particular configuration of political-economic institutions and the particular constraints and capacities that arise from them, and the specific policy responses to the crisis chosen by governments for example.

One important feature of this international unevenness is that the crisis tends to become concentrated at any given time in one or two particular locations. It is not just, then, that the uneven development of the crisis is expressed in differing levels of intensity from place to place, but that the crisis becomes focused and condensed within a particular economy or economies. Developments in those particular locations take on a general significance – the unfolding of the crisis in these places manifests a sort of concentrated expression of the international crisis in general. Certainly the development of the crisis internationally can turn very rapidly on developments in these locations. These sites in which the crisis is concentrated and condensed need not include the location in which the crisis first emerges – indeed the geographical epicentre(s) of the crisis can shift. In the current crisis the epicentre of global economic instability has moved from the US to Europe. It began as a crisis in the US mortgage market and has been transformed into a European sovereign debt crisis and a crisis of the institutions of the EU and Eurozone. Furthermore, this European crisis, which condenses the global crisis, has a particular focal point of its own – Greece. It is in Greece, then, that the global crisis is manifested in its most concentrated form and it is for this reason that whatever happens in Greece over the next few months – economically but also politically – is likely to have hugely significant international ramifications.

Dimensions of the Crisis in Europe

We’ve been told regularly over the past few months that the European crisis has ‘turned the corner’. Each time the proclamation has been proven wrong by subsequent events, only for the proclamation to be repeated a few weeks later which, in turn, proves to be mistaken – and so on. Recent economic figures show the seriousness of the situation. Eurozone GDP contracted for three consecutive quarters in 2012, following 0% growth in the first quarter of that year. The fourth quarter saw growth fall by 0.6%, following a drop of 0.1% in the previous quarter. Clearly things are not improving. The last quarter of 2012 also saw some of the worst GDP figures for major states in the EU: Italy minus 0.9%, France minus 0.3%, and even Germany saw its GDP decline by 0.6%. ‘Peripheral’ southern European economies such as Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and particularly Greece are, of course, suffering the worst effects of this crisis. In Spain, for example, unemployment currently stands at about 26% – youth unemployment at 52%. In Greece, which has seen a cumulative reduction in GDP by about 20% over the past four years and which is expected to have contracted by 25% by the end of 2014, the unemployment rate stands at about 27% – with youth unemployment at 61.7%. About a third of Greece’s population (that’s about 3.9 million people) are now thought to live in poverty.

The fact is that Europe is in a deep, intractable crisis and nobody really knows how it can be overcome. As we’ve seen, the crisis in Europe (the most acute, focal point of which is Greece) condenses the global crisis and so stagnation in Europe both manifests in sharp form, and also itself drives and reproduces, the great world recession.

How did we get here?

The current crisis represents the breaking down of a series of temporary solutions to a major crisis of capitalism that emerged in the 1970s. In effect, the international economy has gone full circle and returned, after a few decades of (largely debt-fuelled) growth based on various temporary fixes, to the relative stagnation in which it languished around forty years ago. In order to understand the crisis today, then, we need to examine the development of the global economy over the past few decades.

Robert Brenner1 has argued that the advanced capitalist economies entered a crisis of profitability at the end of the 1960s. Indeed, according to Brenner, these economies have suffered from relatively low rates of profit ever since. One major reason behind the crisis of profits that emerged in the late 1960s was that firms encountered increasing constraints on opportunities for profitable investment as the post-war boom petered out. The effects of this can be seen in the marked slow-down in rates of growth from the 1970s onwards compared to previous decades (the average rate of annual GDP growth in Western Europe from 1950-73 was 4.79%, while from 1973-03 it averaged 2.19%).

Capitalism responded to this crisis in several ways. It sought to ‘go global’ in order to seek out cheaper pools of labour and to open up new investment opportunities abroad. Under Thatcher and Reagan especially, it launched an assault on trade unions and pushed up unemployment in order to weaken organised labour and drive down wage costs at home. Finance was also, increasingly, deregulated in order to soak up excess capital looking for profitable outlets. Some of the initial solutions, however, soon created further problems for capital. Repression of wages, of course, drove down workers’ spending power and thus reduced the rate of effective demand. Capital’s solution to this problem was to extend the credit system and to ramp up debt-fuelled consumer spending. This strategy intertwined with wider moves to deregulate finance and with the rapid acceleration of ‘financialisation’. Credit-fuelled consumption, together with asset price inflation drove growth for a while. However, this solution, in turn, eventually became the source of serious problems for capitalism because it ‘ultimately led to working-class over-indebtedness relative to income that in turn led to a crisis of confidence in the quality of debt instruments’.2 The crisis that emerged in the US ‘sub-prime’ market brought into full view the extent to which major financial institutions had become perilously overextended and, indeed, the extent to which growth had been reliant on ballooning of debt.

What we saw, then, from the 1970s onwards was a series of temporary fixes to a deeper structural problem in which each fix raised further problems that had, in turn, to be temporarily solved with further fixes. Indeed Capitalism, as David Harvey points out,3 never really resolves its crisis tendencies – they are merely shifted around, postponed and held off. Capitalism finds a way of overcoming one crisis only to discover, sooner or later, that the terms of this solution, in turn, throw up new problems which develop into a new crisis.

It is worth noting that ‘financialisation’ represented a response to very real pressures on profitable accumulation – it was a way of soaking up excess capital given the weakness of profitability in the productive sector. The deregulation of the financial markets and the concomitant extension of credit and debt did not simply represent, as social democratic and Keynesian theorists tend to suggest, an ideologically driven, bad policy choice on the part of neoliberals. A solution to the problems we face then, cannot be as simple, as some sort of return to the post-war ‘Keynesian consensus’ in which financial regulation is tightened up and the financial markets put back in the box from which they escaped after the 1970s. The real structural pressures to which ‘financialisation’ was a response are still there and remain unsolved.

The Eurozone Dimension

The crisis in the Eurozone intersects with this deeper, wider crisis of capitalism more generally. The Eurozone crisis, however, has a number of specific features and emerged in a relatively distinct historical process closely bound up with particular effects emerging from the institutional architecture of the Euro. European Monetary Union (EMU) flowed logically from closer and closer economic integration among European economies and from the institutional/legal structures (such as the Single European Market) which reflected and accelerated this process. One of the key factors driving economic integration in Europe – from the mid-1980s especially, after a period of so-called ‘Eurosclerosis’ in the 1970s – was the intensifying global competition which set in after the petering out of the post-war boom as outlined above. Monetary Union, as the most advanced and ambitious form of economic integration in Europe, functioned as a joint strategy among European elites for defending and improving the global competitiveness of the region in the context of a general and sustained crisis of profitability. EMU was rooted in world crisis from the start then – it has always been, in a sense, an expression of this underlying crisis of profits. As the most recent in a series of successive fixes to this underlying global crisis (financialisation) broke down, however, EMU itself became a key source and driver of the global recession we are now experiencing.

The key weakness of EMU from the start was the ‘one size fits all’ approach embodied in its ‘discipline and convergence criteria’ for membership and perpetuated in its ‘stability and growth pact’. This yoked together economies as diverse as Germany, Greece, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Cyprus in a deeply inflexible system. One of the key problems was that some of these economies are strong exporters and others are not. Inevitably major trade imbalances between national economies within the Eurozone emerged. Germany in particular ran huge trade surpluses (driven in part by sustained wage repression) while countries like Spain and Greece ran corresponding deficits. Further, the surplus from exporter economies (particularly Germany) was increasingly recycled into the property market in Spain, driving the speculative property boom there, and also into financing Greek borrowing to cover its trade deficit. For countries like Greece, then, a vicious cycle of debt emerged in which – unable to deploy the traditional instruments for rectifying trade imbalances (devaluation, allowing inflation to rise) because of the constraints imposed by EMU membership – it had to borrow more and more to cover its growing trade deficit and the more it borrowed to finance imports the larger this deficit grew.

It is worth making plain that for a several years this dysfunctional arrangement suited countries like Germany very well – after all it bound stronger and weaker economies together in an intra-European core and periphery relationship which helped to underpin export driven growth in Germany in particular. It was only after the eruption of the Euro crisis that, suddenly, Greek ‘profligacy’ was discovered and loudly denounced by German politicians and EU elites.

The ‘credit crunch’ of 2008 eventually brought these structural imbalances to the surface. As the effects of the sub-prime crisis in the US rippled outwards and deepened into global financial crisis the money loaned to southern Europe by northern banks suddenly looked very vulnerable. The crisis in Greece was finally precipitated in 2009-10 when, on coming to power, the new Papandreou government announced that the country’s debts had reached 300bn Euros and, shortly afterwards, announced that its 2009 budget deficit was four times the limit imposed by EU rules. The emergence of an acute sovereign debt crisis in Greece heightened fears about heavy indebtedness elsewhere in the Eurozone – particularly in Spain, Ireland and Portugal. The EU’s and IMF’s response was to insist on severe austerity measures in return for emergency loans and bailouts to stricken economies. It soon became clear that EMU (and perhaps even the EU itself) was in no small danger of disintegration and possible collapse.

Of course, the current crisis in Europe is not confined merely to members of the Eurozone – the current situation in the UK, for example, cannot be attributed directly to effects arising within the structures of EMU. Nevertheless the various sovereign debt crises that have emerged within the Eurozone are key drivers of the crisis in the EU more widely which is, in turn (since the economy of the EU as a whole is the largest in the world), at the core of the continuing global turbulence.

Austerity in Europe

Austerity has been implemented unevenly across Europe – but it is the favoured response of European political and economic elites to the crisis. It is quite clear, however, that as a strategy for economic recovery austerity is failing miserably and is, in fact, making the economic situation much worse. As Meadway explains, there is a simple mechanism at work here:

Cuts in government spending shrink demand in the economy. As demand shrinks, firms sell less. Firms that sell less cut wages and make redundancies. Demand falls still further, and a vicious circle of decline is established. Cutting spending to reduce a deficit leads to bigger deficits as unemployment rises and taxes fall. Austerity is self-defeating.4

The self-defeating logic of austerity is, of course, most plain to see in Greece where it has been implemented in its most vicious forms and where the economy contracted severely.

Why, given its clear failure, do states remain committed to austerity? The basic intention behind the austerity drive is to ensure that the costs of the crisis are shifted away from capital as much as possible and born, instead, by ordinary people. In the Eurozone this has, in addition, a key international dimension in that it is the loans of over-extended northern banks that ‘the troika’ is, in particular, seeking to protect and it is the ordinary population of the southern states who are being forced to pay the price. The determination to stick to austerity despite its dire effects reflects the determination of European elites to defend the banks come what may.

Nevertheless the fact remains that, plainly, austerity is not succeeding as a means of overcoming the crisis. This must be just as clear, now, to the political elites driving austerity as it is to those being forced to endure the suffering it inflicts. The determination to stick with this approach does not at all imply that European elites have any confidence any longer that it will work. Indeed, the current situation seems to be characterised by a certain ideological bewilderment on the part of those elites. They do not know how to end the crisis. They continue with austerity only because they have no idea what else they can do – they can see no other acceptable alternative. The strategy, such as it is now, is simply to keep going in the desperate hope that something turns up.

The Future

How might the crisis in Europe unfold over the next few years and what ‘exit routes’ might emerge? Of course no firm predictions can be made but it is possible to discern three distinct possible paths. The first of these – which is also, in my view, the most likely – is that the crisis simply drags on for several years. That is, Europe remains mired in a condition of relative stagnation as political leaders attempt to ‘muddle through’ the crisis in the hope that generalised austerity can squeeze wages and the ‘burden’ on capital presented by public spending enough to restore profitability to the point at which ‘normal’ rates of capitalist growth can return. Nevertheless it is quite hard to see how profitability can recover without massive destruction of overaccumulated capital – the underlying basis of the current crisis. In other words, capitalism probably needs a major slump in order purge itself of the dead weight which currently weighs it down – but, of course, the political and social costs of a severe depression would be so high that most governments are unlikely to let this happen. All of this raises the interesting prospect of the possible political ‘normalisation’ of capitalist crisis and stagnation.

A second path of development – something that has been mooted among EU elites – is some form of managed breaking up of the Eurozone as it is currently constituted and its radical reconstruction. This would involve the ejection of southern European economies from the Euro and the formation of a smaller and more tightly integrated Eurozone made up of core northern European economies. Full fiscal and banking union among these core economies would occur – responsibility for the banking system and for taxation and public spending would be taken away from constituent states and given to supranational institutions. This might be a way of abolishing the structural problems and imbalances within the Eurozone and ensuring that they do not re-emerge. This process might be accompanied by the break-up of the EU as it currently exists, too, or perhaps the emergence of a ‘twin-track’ EU in which the tightly integrated Eurozone states co-exist with a more loosely integrated ‘outer Europe’.

However, this would be a difficult path for the Eurozone to take for several reasons. First, it would put northern banks’ loans at great risk and the process of disentanglement as southern European economies left the Euro would be a pretty perilous process for all concerned. Secondly there are considerable political obstacles in the way of fiscal and banking union among core EU states – not least that many citizens in the states involved are likely to be hostile to the idea. A third problem is that this root and branch reconstruction of the Eurozone would take several years to organise – therefore, it could not provide a quick route out of the Eurozone crisis. The final problem is that this process of reconstruction would not necessarily provide any means of addressing the underlying crisis of profitability.

There is a third path, however. This is probably the least likely of all to happen – but it is the one that socialists must fight for. The point of departure for this route would be the breaking of austerity by mass resistance and the implementation of a series of reforms which would alter the balance of class power in favour of the working class and other popular forces and which would set in motion a process of transition beyond capitalism. What happens in Greece over the next few months is key to this process. We have seen that it is in Greece that the crisis of capitalism is condensed in its most acute form. This makes Greece the weak link in the contemporary imperialist chain – and a socialist breakthrough at this point would send shockwaves through the entire system. In the general election of June 2012 Syriza – the coalition of the radical left in Greece – narrowly missed (by 2.8% of the vote) becoming the largest party in the Greek parliament. A situation which would have been unthinkable a few years ago – a radical anti-capitalist party in Europe on the verge of winning power (in a country where the present governing coalition might fall apart at any minute) – has become a reality. If Syriza can take power and bring austerity to a halt in Greece it would provide an inspiring example to people elsewhere in Europe and help to deepen and radicalise anti-austerity struggles across the continent.

Of course, a party seeking to utilise the capitalist state apparatus to implement a radical left-wing programme of reforms would face many great difficulties and dilemmas. Here we start to encroach on one of the oldest controversies in socialist thought – the classic reform/revolution debate. It seems unlikely to me that there is any strictly reformist road to socialism, but it is also my view that there is no reason why revolutionary transformation should not emerge organically and dialectically from a programme of transitional reforms. In any case it is hard to see how a process of socialist transformation in countries with established parliamentary democratic institutions could entirely bypass these structures. One of the interesting things about the unfolding crisis in Greece is the way in which it maps closely onto the classical Marxist conception of a pre-revolutionary situation in all but one key respect. We can observe a certain level of decomposition of certain state apparatuses in Greece (demoralisation of the police for example and its increasing penetration by, and collusion with, far right forces), the collapse of the political centre and the increasing polarisation of social forces for example. However, there is little sign as yet of any proliferation of workers’ councils/soviets and nothing corresponding to the emergence of a ‘dual power situation’. The resistance of ordinary Greek people is finding political expression in the rise of a party committed to forming a united government of the left within (and against) capitalism. One of the most urgent tasks for the international radical left today is to return to, and rethink, the idea of the ‘workers’ government’, because it is in this direction that Syriza – at the vanguard of socialist struggle today – is heading.

1 Brenner, Robert (2005) The Economics of Global Turbulence (London, Verso)

2 Harvey, David (2010) The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism (London, Profile Books), p. 117

3 Ibid. p. 117

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