In a debate that was, from the beginning, dominated on both sides by the right there was only ever going to be one winner in last week’s referendum on British membership of the European Union – the right.
Given that the original decision to call the referendum was intended as a political maneuver on the part of David Cameron to outflank a hard-right insurgency from the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) the basic coordinates of the debate were never in much doubt. This was always, in effect, a debate structured as an internecine contest within and among the right over issues identified and framed in largely right of center, neoliberal terms.
On the one hand the mainstream Remain camp cohered a range of political forces under the hegemony of the ‘moderate’ Cameron wing of the Tories and leading sections of capital. On the other, Leave organized a motley alliance of forces under the domination of the Tory hard right and Ukip.
Operating on a political terrain not of its own making, in a struggle in which major camps on both sides were dragooned under the leadership of opposed factions of the right, it was predictable that the left would exert little influence over the key terms of the contest.
Any realistic assessment on the part of the radical left of the likely consequences of a victory for either side had to conclude that neither a victory for Remain nor for Leave would constitute a positive outcome. The real question was not so much which side we should want to win, but which of them we should desire most to lose.
For many of us, except a small band of Left Exit (“Lexit”) campaigners, it was very clear which of the two was the least worst option. For while Remain promised little other than business as usual (neoliberalism, austerity, ‘sensible controls on immigration’) under the aegis of continued membership of the EU, Leave represented something much darker and more dangerous.
In the end the worst worst option emerged victorious.
We have to be absolutely clear about this and indeed about how bad things now are. The Brexit vote is a major triumph for forces of national chauvinism, xenophobia, racism and the hard right. As such it is a catastrophe for workers – particularly immigrant workers – and the left.
Much media commentary interprets the vote in terms of an anti-establishment uprising – an expression of disaffection and anger at the status quo on the part of alienated, poorer sections of society. The Lexit left insists, along similar lines but with a Marxist inflection, that the referendum result represents a ‘rebellion by working class people’ against neoliberalism and austerity.
There’s certainly something to this analysis. Leave does seem to have won the support of a large segment of the poorest sections of society and indeed was able to tap a deep well of anti-establishment resentment among the working class born out of many years of growing class and regional inequality, deindustrialization, structural unemployment, ever increasing levels of job insecurity and so on. That Leave – headed up by figures such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage who aren’t exactly strangers to social and economic privilege -was able to channel such grievances reflects the key weakness of the Remain campaign.
In an age of anti-political populism, Remain’s ability to cohere all major political party leaderships (with the partial exception of a semi-detached Jeremy Corbyn), much of big business, a large tranche of the “great and the good” from the world of culture and entertainment and to attract the vocal support of powerful international politicians and technocrats – from Jean Claude Juncker to Barack Obama – turned out to be much more of a liability than a strength. It was almost as if Remain’s core strategy was to present itself as the voice of UK and international political and economic elites closing ranks. It was punished accordingly.
But although there was a significant anti-establishment component to the Leave vote we should reject the idea that the vote – and the lines of social cleavage that it expressed and revealed – can be adequately interpreted as some sort of working class revolt. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that the most advanced demographic analysis of the vote that we yet have to hand – the Ashcroft poll – doesn’t bear this out. The poll draws on one of the standard UK measures of social class, distributing voters into a class hierarchy measured in terms of occupational category.
The proponents of the “working class revolt” thesis make much of the fact that, according to the Ashcroft figures, a majority of AB voters – those in the top tier of occupations – voted Remain and a majority of voters from the lowest categories – C2 and DE – voted Leave. Needless to say, however, occupational category measures of social stratification do not operate on the basis of a Marxist understanding of class. Indeed, as Charlie Hore points out:
AB includes 25 percent of the population, including key groups of workers who have been in struggle recently–teachers, nurses, doctors and other health professions–and, in fact, most trade union members.
In addition, the DE figures are skewed by the fact that this category includes pensioners (some rich, some poor), among whom there was a very large turnout.
Further, the Ashcroft figures show us that 73% of 18 to 24 year-old voters and 62% of 25-34s chose Remain while “a majority of those aged over 45 voted to leave, rising to 60% of those aged 65 or over” – suggesting that, in fact age, rather than income or class was one of the key determinants of this ballot.
The statistics on voter choice by race and ethnicity are also striking. They show that while 53% of white voters voted chose Leave “Two thirds (67%) of those describing themselves as Asian voted to remain, as did three quarters (73%) of black voters” and that “seven in ten Muslims voted to remain”.
The regional and geographical breakdown of the vote does little back up the idea of a “working class uprising” either. All major cities with the exception of Birmingham voted to Remain. All districts in Scotland and nationalist areas of Northern Ireland – areas that encompass pockets of major deprivation – voted solidly to Remain as did the vast majority of London boroughs, including those containing high levels of poverty such as Lambeth and Hackney (79% and 78% Remain respectively).
So all in all as Hore remarks:
It’s an odd “working-class revolt” that doesn’t include Scotland, West Belfast, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, London, most union members, most Black and minority ethnic voters, and three-quarters of young voters.
The second major reason to reject the idea that the Brexit vote represents a popular rebellion to be celebrated and supported is that, whatever, the demographic profile of this “revolt”, what should matter just as much to socialists is its specific political character. There are of course populisms of the left and the right – it is absurd to imagine that all such political movements are inherently progressive or conceal within themselves somehow a fundamentally socialist dynamic.
So we should ask: what is the concrete political content of this ‘uprising’ – what political and social forces are hegemonic within it and along what lines have they channeled wider popular discontent?
It’s quite clear in this respect that the forces now riding the crest of the Leave victory are hard right forces in the Conservative party and beyond. Their strategic achievement was, as Richard Seymour puts it, to have,
successfully articulated a broad antiestablishment sentiment — originating in class injuries, regional decline, postindustrial devastation, generational anxieties, etc. — along bigoted, national chauvinist lines.
In particular, the Leave side focused relentlessly on immigration conducting one of the most sickeningly racist and xenophobic electoral campaigns ever seen in Britain. Effectively they transformed the referendum into a plebiscite by proxy on immigration.
Clear indication of this can be seen in the Ashcroft poll which reveals that a third of Leave voters said the main reason for their choice was that Brexit “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” It is also possible to deduce from the figures we saw above on the distribution of votes among black and ethnic minority voters that the large majority of non-white voters were quite aware of the way in which the Leave campaign pivoted on the question of race.
This isn’t to say that everyone who voted for Leave was racist or anti-immigrant or that the vote did not express dissatisfaction about a range of legitimate issues – but this was, in effect, the core “meaning” that the Leave campaign successfully conferred on the referendum and which was well understood by many Leave and Remain voters alike. As Seymour comments:
The vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism — but that is the primary way in which it has been organised and recruited and directed, and that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced.
Indeed, sadly – but utterly predictably – there seems to have been a major spike in the number of reported racist attacks and hate crimes since the Brexit victory. The UK news currently overflows with such stories: xenophobic graffiti scrawled across the doors of a West London Polish community center; a man on a rush hour Manchester tram told to “go back to Africa”; laminated cards with the words “Leave the EU – no more Polish vermin” delivered to the houses of Polish families in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire; a muslim girl cornered by a group in Birmingham and told “Get out we voted leave”. These are just a small selection of the reported incidents since the vote last Thursday – and reported incidents, of course, are likely to be the mere tip of the iceberg.
On Monday a student with a Portuguese passport came to my office, obviously in a high state of agitation, and told me that she doesn’t want to stay in a country where she and her family “are not welcome”. Many similar conversations will have taken place in universities, colleges, workplaces and among friends, families and between partners up and down the UK in the past few days. Britain has become a frightening place to be a foreigner and many immigrant people can see the referendum result clearly for what it is – the harbinger of intensified racism and xenophobia and indeed a political mandate for the hard right to ratchet up anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies.
An atmosphere of tension, uncertainty and indeed fear has descended on the country since the vote. There’s a real sense that the threat of serious violence and civil unrest is simmering just under the surface, waiting to erupt. Everyone can feel it. In no small part this is because every racist, every far right group, got a major psychological boost from the Brexit result – they feel their time has come.
Though intensified xenophobia is the main determinant of the heightened anxiety throughout British society currently, there is another source too. The signs of an imminent plunge back into serious economic recession will have escaped the notice of very few. The day after the vote Sterling fell off a cliff in the money markets and stock markets went into turmoil. Foreign investment in Britain is widely expected to fall, as is GDP growth and it’s widely suspected that many multinational corporations who were drawn to Britain as a stepping stone into the wider EU market are considering winding down their British operations.
Of course the interests of labor and capital are not synonymous – and not all of this will be bad news for those who can’t afford current house prices for example – but neither are they counter-posed in some zero-sum relationship. The structural power of capital after all pivots on the fact that under capitalism wage labor is dependent on the social class that exploits it for jobs, investment, availability of consumer goods in the shops and so on. A recession for capital is also a recession for workers – more so, in fact, given that workers and the poor always bear the brunt of restructuring and readjustment for the recovery of profits.
Already the Chancellor, George Osborne, has indicated that Brexit means more cuts, more austerity. Again, everyone knows this. Everyone can feel it coming. Most know too, that the insurgent hard right have a vision of Britain as a “neoliberal fantasy island”, more extreme than Cameron and Osborne were willing to conceive.
Of course, not everything is going swimmingly for Leave. Many have noted that Johnson and other Tories on the Leave side have looked strangely subdued in the aftermath of the referendum result (compare this with Farage’s sinister gloating and braying in the European Parliament) – as if they realize, in the context of the economic instability Brexit has unleashed and the apparent unwillingness of EU elites to make things easy for British withdrawal with an amicable deal, that they have just been handed a poisoned chalice.
Already we see signs of Leave backtracking on issues like free movement and exiting the single market. The danger here, however, is that if and when whoever takes the reins from Cameron fails to fully to deliver on Leave’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and on the British Empire-redux fantasies about remaking the country as a powerhouse of global trade, the forces poised to take advantage of mass disappointment are forces even further to the right – Ukip or perhaps even something much nastier currently lurking in the shadows.
Though the Tories certainly have their problems at the moment, they are nothing compared to the civil war now raging in the Labour party. According to the Lexit narrative Brexit would split the Conservatives and propel Corbyn into power. But this simply isn’t happening. The Labour right have seized the opportunity provided by the defeat of Remain to launch a serious and sustained bid to unseat Corbyn.
Given Corbyn’s determination to stay in place as leader and his continuing popularity among the party membership it seems likely that this bid will fail, at least in the short term. But it’s clear that the Rubicon has been crossed by the Labour right – they can’t go back now – and if they can’t get rid of Corbyn immediately, they will seek to grind him down, and if they can’t do that before the next election they will seek to wreck the chances of a Labour victory to make a self-fulfilling prophecy of their claim that Corbyn is “unelectable”.
This – the collapse of Labour, not the Tories – is one of the greatest political legacies of the referendum result.
So what must the radical left seek to do in these bleak circumstances? What can we feasibly aim to achieve?
A priority for the section of the British far left that continues to delude itself about ‘Lexit’ – and indeed for those sections of the international left that indulged this fantasy – must be to look reality in the face. There is no Lexit on the cards. There never was. What we face now is serious growth in officially sanctioned racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, the embedding of reactionary discourse within the political mainstream, drawing strength from a mobilized reactionary populism, the immediate prospect of deepened austerity and the implosion of the Labour party. We are not on the offensive. The referendum was not a victory for us. We are, on the contrary, very much on the defensive.
Our practical priorities in terms of mobilization and campaigning must be to work to defend migrants – a small beginning has been made in this respect already, but we will need to do much more and it will need to be sustained for the long term. A second practical priority must be to do what we can to defend Corbyn. I don’t hold out much hope for a Corbyn victory in the next General Election, but his continuing leadership is all that stands between having a Labour party that stands for the defense of immigrants and one which, on the basis of political expediency follows (and thus reinforces) the political drift to the right in the name of “legitimate concerns about immigration” and so on.
Some on the left hope for a second referendum or for some sort of legal-constitutional blocking of Brexit by the Scottish government. These developments may, indeed, yet happen – and, of course, the EU is no stranger to rerunning referendums (or ignoring them) until it gets the “right result”. But it would be a big mistake for the left to give its backing to such maneuvers. It would look like the worst kind of anti-democratic manipulation and – in the context of the diffuse anti-establishment feeling discussed above – hugely counter-productive.
Besides, we don’t hope for salvation from above. Our primary focus has to be on mobilization from below. We must start with defensive measures to hold off the racists and keep Corbyn at the head of the Labour party for as long as we can and hope for the tide to turn. I don’t think our chances are good. The odds are against us. But then again, they always are – perhaps some comfort can be taken from this.
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.
Neil Davidson’s argument for Lexit in the US Socialist Worker is a sophisticated one (of course it is, it’s Neil Davidson). Unlike most of the other Lexit arguments I’ve seen Davidson doesn’t seek merely to bash us over the head with a series of leftist truisms about the structures and practices of the EU (it’s capitalist (oh noes!), neoliberal, undemocratic… ) and takes left Remainers seriously – allowing that they may actually be aware of these things too.
Neil rightly identifies the left Remain argument as, essentially, a ‘lesser evil’ position. The most interesting part of his article is when he takes this on. But I’m not very convinced by what he says. His argument is, basically, that the ‘lesser evil’ argument is fatalist and ‘pessimistic’; that it ignores genuine anti-ruling class grievances among working class Leavers who might be won to a progressive struggle (i.e. Lexit) and with whom the left must seek to engage; that it reduces migrants to a ‘passive status’ rather than individuals and communities with agency and the ability to resist; that in any case British capital needs migrant labour and so is unlikely to implement draconian anti-migrant measures; that the left Remain argument puts us in hock to the EU as a saviour and tends to slide into apologia for that institution.
It seems to be one of the hallmarks of contemporary revolutionary polemic to refer to the “pessimism” of ones’ opponents. But of course one person’s “pessimism” is another person’s sober, worldly realism and as a form of argument it seems to me to rely on a sort of theological moralism – where what really seems to matter is the intensity of *faith* of the person in question and where this belief is assumed to have some sort of magical casual connection with the concrete salience of your politics. The “pessimism” of left Remainers, for me, seems to be absolutely indispensable. What it is, in my view, is simply a clear-sighted assessment of the prevailing balance of social and political forces in this referendum and of the likely consequences of a Leave vote, given these circumstances.
Neil seems to agree that the Leave campaign is dominated by hard right forces – but is able to dismiss the conclusions we draw on the basis of “optimism” (though he doesn’t use that term). But isn’t “optimism” the fatuous inverse of “pessimism” – magical thinking, voluntarism, self-deception? And I think there is something facile about the argument about migrants having the agency to resist persecution – as if we should think ‘Oh well, ok then, bring on the Johnson-Farage government because it’ll be no match for Polish trade unionists’. And I’m just not convinced by the argument that given how much migrant workers are needed by British businesses, there are unlikely to be any major consequences for foreign nationals working in Britain. As Pete Green suggested in his debate with Joseph Choonara, this kind of argument is a “crudely economistic, politically naïve claim” that fails to take seriously the relative autonomy of politics and the way in which political discourse can have serious concrete effects. It’s certainly the case that many EU migrants in Britain are decidedly anxious about the prospect of a Leave victory and indeed, it’s worth pointing out that the potential victims of any political consolidation of anti-immigrant feeling via a vote for Brexit go far beyond their number (about 2 million) to encompass all migrants (EU or not) and further, anyone who isn’t white – because, of course, an anti-immigrant climate is also a climate of generalized racism.
Lexiteers seem to me not to take seriously the extent to which the Brexit camp is hegemonised by the hard right. It’s true that there may well be potentially progressive strands of grievance among Leavers that could in principle be articulated into a left wing project. Of course it’s true. But the fact is that the forces of Lexit are tiny and overwhelmed by the forces of the right. It may be “pessimistic” to say this, but it seems to me a sober statement of fact, that the Lexit campaign while having some degree of traction among the diminished circles of the far left and its ‘periphery’ (enough perhaps to swing the vote in a closely contested referendum – currently 50/50 according to John Curtice’s poll of polls) it has next to no visibility among the broader constituencies it is seeking to cohere. The idea, for me, that Lexit can somehow reorient Brexit away from its current political trajectory – can transform it into its political opposite – just seems to me to be wishful thinking. It’s often rightly said by left Remainers that Lexiteers need to engage with the actually existing referendum campaign, not the one in their collective imagination. The hard right have effectively turned this referendum into a vote on migration. We know that the meaning of any vote cannot be seen in abstraction from the prevailing political and ideological discourses that frame it. It’s just not a referendum about neoliberalism or capitalism or fortress Europe – it *is* on the contrary about ‘fortress Britain”.
And Neil’s comments about the tendency for left Remain arguments to slide into apologia for the EU have to be seen in this context. This is, indeed, a danger and for what it’s worth I think there is a tendency to paint a rather too rosy picture of the EU among some in the left Remain camp. But there’s an opposite danger too – that, given the prevailing balance of forces on Leave, Lexiteers will be “pulled” closer into the orbit of the right. Indeed, up until the murder of Jo Cox at least I often encountered a sort of defensiveness from Lexit acquaintances when I mentioned the racism of the official Leave campaign. I noticed a sort of awkward, reactive desire to play down the racism and anti-migrant politics being stoked by Leave. Even though it was pointed out that Lexit has nothing to do with Vote Leave – organisationally, ideologically, politically – there was still this weird desire to counter the suggestion that the official Brexit campaign is as nasty as it is or to argue that the Remain one is just as bad. I’m not suggesting for one minute that Lexiteers would ever apologise for racism or scapegoating. But there are dangers in seeking to play down or pretend not to have seen the ugly forces that have been released by Brexit.
I’ve just got round to reading Giles Fraser’s recent opinion piece in the Guardian on the EU referendum which I noticed had been shared quite a bit on social media. I like Giles Fraser very much. He came to prominence as a figure on the British left as canon chancellor of St Paul’s at the time of Occupy LSX, providing public support for the protesters camping outside the cathedral – and indeed he resigned from this position when it became clear that the governing body of St Paul’s would not oppose the use of force in the eviction of the camp. Since then, he’s gone on to carve out a niche for himself as a media commentator, appearing regularly on Radio 4, BBC 1’s Question Time and as a columnist in the Guardian. Indeed I’m an avid reader of Fraser’s ‘loose canon’ column – there’s something I find very attractive about his CofE leftism.
In recent months Fraser has emerged as an eloquent, leftist voice for Brexit and indeed seems to have come in for a fair bit of stick for it. His recent column laments the abusive and poisonous tone of much of the debate about the referendum – particularly on social media it seems – and reaffirms Fraser’s conviction that, in view of the undemocratic and neoliberal structures and practices of the EU, the left has good reason to back leave rather than remain.
I agree and disagree with Fraser. I agree, of course, that there are principled progressive people in both camps with principled progressive reasons for their choice. I agree, too, that in many ways the EU is a horrible institution. But I disagree with this, the crux of Fraser’s argument: “It’s not who you vote with – it’s what you vote for”. This pithy phrase seems to me to encapsulate a core assumption in the Left Exit camp’s reasoning – the assumption that Lexit operates somehow on a completely separate plane of existence from the wider Leave campaign. Lexit does, of course, campaign separately from Vote Leave and organisationally, ideologically, politically has nothing in common with the anti-migrant dog whistlers like Johnson and Farage in the mainstream Leave camp. Nothing in common, at least, other than the fact that supporters of Lexit and Brexit will both place a cross in the same box on the ballot paper on 23rd June and that these votes will be amalgamated into the same mass when they are counted, with no distinction between them. That’s actually, in the end, quite an important commonality. There is no Lexit option on the ballot paper.
So the trouble with Fraser’s phrase (and this for me is what the necessity to vote Remain pivots on) is that there is, in fact, no airtight seal between ‘what you vote for’ and ‘who you vote with’. It’s not adequate to appeal to your good intentions – to say that what you mean by your vote is specifically x, y or z – ballots don’t register subjective preferences with any such nuance. What matters in this referendum are the likely political consequences of a victory for either camp and this depends crucially on the manner in which a victory for either side is likely to be interpreted – the likely features of the political mandate that will be asserted in the aftermath of the counting of votes. This will pivot on the balance of political forces within each camp overall – specifically on the question of which of these are hegemonic and have most effectively been able to shape the key terms at stake in the referendum. Because, of course, the referendum (like any other vote) is not some sort of abstract, static question hovering above the dynamic process of political struggle. It can’t be understood in abstraction from the political context that frames and shapes it.
So what you’re voting for is absolutely bound up with the question of who you’re voting with – more specifically, it’s bound up with the question of what forces are dominant among those with whom you’ll vote. It is pretty clear that the dominant forces in the Leave campaign (and let’s not beat around the bush here – the tiny constellation of left groups pushing Lexit are, sadly, totally marginal in the national debate) have, with the collusion of substantial sections of the press, in effect turned the referendum into a plebiscite on immigration. This is what’s at stake. The choice is between a bad outcome (the UK remaining a member of an undemocratic, neoliberal, ‘Fortress Europe’) and an absolutely terrible one (a neoliberal, ‘Fortress little Britain’, in which the hard right have the upper hand and and plausibly claim a mandate to ramp up the persecution of migrants).
Lexit supporters need to think seriously about the likely political consequences of a victory for Leave. They need to start thinking soberly about the referendum that’s actually taking place and not the one that really only exists in their imagination. This imperative to think honestly and with realism goes for Left Remain too, of course – and I’ve written previously about my doubts in relation to the idea of ‘democratising the EU’. But the likely consequences of a Leave vote in current circumstances in this world, rather than in the parallel universe of Lexit, seem to me to be much much worse than the likely bad consequences of a victory for Remain.
I intend to vote Remain in the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s EU membership and as a lefty, of course, I gravitate toward the Another Europe is Possible (AEiP) campaign rather than the generally awful mainstream Britain Stronger In Europe campaign – that simultaneously grotesque and incredibly tedious lash-up of Tories, Lib Dems, right-leaning Labour figures and multinational CEOs trumpeting their ‘patriotic arguments’ for Britain’s EU membership. I have to say though, that while basically a supporter of AEiP, I’m not particularly convinced by arguments emanating from that camp in relation to the possibility of transforming EU institutions in a leftist direction.
Writing for AEiP, Hilary Wainwright and Mary Kaldor articulate one of the clearest arguments for a strategy of leftwing reform of the EU in their essay ‘So You Think the EU Can’t be Reformed?’. The thrust of their argument boils down to a vision of the EU as a basically neutral institutional terrain that neoliberalism currently dominates on a merely contingent basis. I think they do hit on something when they imply that there’s something crudely ‘essentialist’ about the ‘Left Exit’ (Lexit) argument – or, actually, the assertion as it’s never fully explicated – that the EU is absolutely unreformable because of something or another inherent in its DNA. Actually, as Wainwright and Kaldor argue the EU – like any institutional complex – is a constantly battled-over terrain of struggle and never inherently or absolutely one thing or another. Indeed precisely because it’s a ‘project’ rather than a ‘finished’ and stable set of institutions the EU, constantly in a state of becoming, is a particularly contested site of contestation. We know for example that different national states joined this project for different reasons and projected their own particular class inflected national imaginaries onto it. Some of these had concrete institutional effects beyond mere interpretation. We know that key architects of the European project (as Wainwright and Kaldor point out) such as Jean Monnet seem to have been driven by a genuinely internationalist and cosmopolitan vision of a future ‘United States of Europe’ that was born out of the destruction and killing of WW2 and the determination that this should never be allowed to happen again – and we know that this really was a motivating force driving the early construction of European institutions, at least to some extent. We know that the EU is traversed by conflicting ‘supranational’, ‘federalist’ and ‘intergovernmental’ logics – the institutional matrix as a whole expressing all of these things simultaneously. It is a body that is constantly pulled and pushed in different directions. It is many things at the same time but never fully any of them.
But what Wainwright and Kaldor downplay or miss is the necessary structural predominance of particular logics/interests. It seems to me revealing that they refer merely to the domination of ‘corporations’ and banks as the apparent explanation of the less pleasant facets of EU policy rather than ‘capital’ – or indeed ‘capitalism’ – as if there is nothing systemic about the pressures exerted on and within these institutions or the all pervading context in which it is rooted and grows out of. While the EU bears in some ways the traces of Monnet-type cosmopolitan optimism – at the very least rhetorically in the trumpeted ideological self-image of the ‘project’- this is certainly not a dominant logic. As the specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions at the European level as Poulantzas might have pointed out – though a particularly indirect, second-order condensation, filtered and refracted first through national condensations of relations of social force – the EU is absolutely and inseparably bound up with national and trans-national capitalist accumulation imperatives and strategies (how could it be otherwise?)
They miss, too, the way in which the structures and practices of the EU manifest and express the unequal power of particular member states – the power of some states over others and relatedly the (super?)exploitative power of particular national capitals over foreign economies. In addition they overlook (given for example the huge power of the unelected European Commission, the virtually ornamental function of the European Parliament and indeed the absence of a European demos to speak of) the way in which EU institutions are relatively insulated from popular pressures in a way that national states are not and cannot be if they are to maintain their popular legitimacy – and indeed the way in which the EU might well function, partially, as a bolster to national state legitimacy, taking responsibility for neoliberal reforms ‘imposed from without’ that can be disavowed by the state elites that helped draw them up in the first place. So, while it’s got to be true that the EU can be reformed, there are structurally embedded limits to any possible social democratic/leftist reforms and they’ll be extraordinarily difficult to push very far.
The pro-Remain left is on weak ground, in my view, when it campaigns on the basis of a vision of a transformed, progressive, leftish EU. I think the strongest arguments for Left Remain lie elsewhere – not least in the evident delusions of Lexit. Our argument should pivot on an assessment of the political and social balance of forces at play here in the UK, and to a lesser extent those across the continent, and the simple observation that the actually existing Brexit campaign is dominated by particularly reactionary and dangerous arguments, ideas and political forces – and that, as such, Lexit is simply not on the agenda. This is, unfortunately, a ‘lesser evil’ argument. But that’s the reality.
This is a write up of a paper I delivered as part of the ‘Alternative Strategies for the Left Today in the Light of Past Theoretical Debates’ panel at the Historical Materialism 2015 conference in London. It’s a bit rough and ready (it’s a talk) and obviously I didn’t cover everything in this (rather long) written up version in the talk itself – but this is what I got when I wrote up the notes. I aim to convert it into some sort of publication (suggestions gratefully received). It also feeds into the book I am writing.
The question of government power has returned. For the first time in many years, the radical left in Europe (the issue was posed earlier in Latin America) is being forced to confront concrete problems of strategy in relation to the conquest and exercise of political power.
Despite their many differences one of the key perspectives shared in common among the leftist formations that have made political headway recently – Syriza, Podemos, the Corbyn movement – is an explicit orientation on winning government power in order to implement a series of left social democratic reforms. It’s these groups and movements that have most effectively been able to tap into and articulate a popular anti-austerity mood.
The clear organic dynamic of contemporary radicalization across Europe then is toward the formation of ‘left governments’ of radical reform. It’s my view that, like or not, we have to work with the grain of this dynamic and identify the resources to enable us to relate to them and to seek to radicalize them from within – or more specifically to draw out the radicalism within them to the fullest extent.
While it’s clear that much of the Leninist left believes that its critique of the ‘reformism’ of Syriza, and by extension its critique of any strategy but a (vaguely sketched) ‘dual power scenario’ strategy, has been vindicated by that party’s performance in office, I do not believe that it has. I don’t think that there was anything inevitable about Syriza’s trajectory – something pre-ordained, inherent in the very decision to take government office. I certainly think that the probability of this trajectory was high. This high probability of failure was only partially determined by the internal composition of Syriza – a slightly mushy and unstable composite of social democrats, Marxists, pro-Europeanists and those who wanted a rupture with the Euro (but how could it have been otherwise – what other political formation could possibly have taken office in Greece?). More significant was the political and economic power of Syriza’s opponents. Indeed given the forces ranged against Syriza’s initial programme of reforms the chances of success were always slim. But the fact is that any movement of radical change must, without exception (whether ‘reformist’, ‘revolutionary’ or whatever), run up against major, structurally embedded obstacles. No conceivable strategy for socialist change could avoid serious problems and dilemmas along the way. It is in the very nature of the socialist project that the odds are always stacked against us.
So while it is of course true that Syriza has been comprehensively defeated (from without and within) – and it is a terrible, demoralizing defeat – it does not automatically follow that the idea of a ‘left government’ strategy has been demolished with it.
Moreover I think it’s clear that Syriza’s left critics – those to the left of Popular Unity – have been completely unable to present or even articulate a credible concrete strategic alternative.
The paralysis of the contemporary revolutionary left has two major dimensions. The first is a more or less empirical/practical problem to do with organizational culture, popular appeal and the ability to win (and retain) active recruits. After decades of effort the Leninist party building approach has never led to the creation of anything remotely approaching a mass party. As Neil Faulkner recently pointed out, no such group has ever grown beyond 5000 members and indeed all remain as politically marginal as they have always been – perhaps even more so.
The second dimension is a more theoretical one to do with strategic outlook. Panagiotis Sotiris has pointed out in this regard that the Leninist left has never managed to close the ‘distance’ between its focus on everyday tactics and struggles on the one hand and ‘an abstract defence of revolutionary strategy per se, in terms of identity rather than practice’ on the other. That is, the ‘revolutionary’ status of revolutionary leftist groups tends to function for the most part as a rhetorical mark of differentiation from putatively reformist or ‘left reformist’ competitors much more than it indicates the possession of a developed perspective on how, actually, to set a revolutionary process in motion. Revolutionary socialist parties are revolutionary in a sort of negative sense then – in that they define themselves as not reformist and as against taking capitalist state power and so on. The concrete, positive substance of revolutionary strategy remains at best only vaguely defined. To coin a phrase, we know what they’re against, but what are they for? Even the tactical slogans of revolutionary left parties seem largely reactive, defensive, negative – ‘Resist!’, ‘Rebel!’, ‘Revolt!‘, ‘Smash X!, ‘F**k Y!’. OK, but in order to do/set in place/construct… what exactly?
There’s nothing new about this characteristic vagueness and evasiveness in relation to strategy and desired ends – indeed it’s not exclusively specific to revolutionary leftist politics either. In his survey of the history of the European socialist movement, One Hundred Years of Socialism, Donald Sassoon suggests that the left has always been (and still is) caught in a kind of double bind. In fact we might say that this impasse is, in a sense, constitutive of socialist thought and practice. Sassoon presents the dilemma in terms of an unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand, the immediate demands of the present and, on the other, the goal or ‘end state’ of socialism.
The terms of the problem, briefly, are that there is no way to move straight to the end goal, but the process of attending to immediate problems – amelioration of the worst effects of capitalism by means of reform – tends to lead to incorporation within a system that has definite structural limits and embedded systemic mechanisms to enforce these (capital flight, inflationary pressure, balance of payments crises). Theorists such as Adam Przeworski have described this process in terms of ‘business confidence’ – this is the major structural mechanism that enforces the limits of capitalism and that systematically blocks attempts to transform capitalism fundamentally from within. It is rooted in capitalist control over the investment function – i.e. capitalist ownership of capital (c.f. Fred Block).
The ‘reformist’ way of attempting to resolve the dilemma is essentially to kick the end goal into the long grass. For ‘reformism’ the socialist goal is always already not just yet, just over the horizon, relegated to a perpetually postponed future. This is, of course, a kind of bad faith.
But there’s a ‘revolutionary’ mirror image to this too – a ‘resolution’ of the dilemma which is not really a resolution. This is to pin everything on a kind of deus ex machina, a semi-millenarianism, in which the revolution (always vaguely sketched – necessarily so since the concept of ‘the revolution’ functions as a kind of magic bullet solution to all major problems of transition) emerges as if from nowhere. But it’s also always already never quite here (and is always already frustrated by the machinations and betrayals of reformists, the errors of left reformists and centrists, the craven collaborationism of the trade union bureaucracy, the absence of a rooted revolutionary party founded on the correct interpretation of Lenin and so on). Again, this is a kind of avoidance.
Typically the Leninist revolutionary sequence is conceived in something like the following terms: worker’s struggle throws up soviet type institutions which, in a situation of ‘dual power’, are increasingly federated and integrated together into an embryonic workers’ state and which after a revolutionary insurrection and the ‘smashing of the bourgeois state’ become the institutions of democracy through which the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ is exercised.
There are two major problems with this typical sketch of the revolutionary process. One is that the phrases ‘smashing of the bourgeois state’ and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ are hand-waving generalities – they are pieces of phraseology that gloss over problems while purporting to be solutions to those problems. As Nicos Poulantzas points out (in the much maligned final chapter to State, Power, Socialism) these phrases were for Marx and Engels at most ‘signposts’ indicating problems (the class nature of the state, the necessity of a stage of transition toward the process of the state’s ‘withering’ – another signpost) but which have since become transformed into apparently definitive answers to those same problems in Marxist orthodoxy.
The second problem is that it is not entirely clear how things move from the current conjuncture to one in which a revolutionary scenario comes onto the immediate agenda. How concretely does a revolutionary situation emerge from the day-to-day struggles of the WC? How, in Sotiris’ terms, is it possible to close the ‘distance’ between everyday tactics and the still as yet abstractly envisaged objective of revolutionary change?
Underlying these problems of strategy, however, is in my view a deeper problem of theory in relation to the conceptualization of state power. The traditional Leninist strategic orientation is rooted in the view that the capitalist state cannot be utilized to any significant extent by socialist forces for socialist ends. The structural limits imposed by the institutional form and systemic functions of the capitalist state are so narrow that any attempt at using that apparatus will necessarily have the effect of reinforcing bourgeois hegemony. Those who seek to use the capitalist state to transform capitalism will end up taking responsibility for managing rather than challenging cap no matter how radical their original intentions might have been. Thus, in the Leninist view, the capitalist state cannot be wielded (directly) for socialist purposes (although demands may be forced upon it from the outside) – it must be confronted and destroyed.
The seminal text here, of course, is Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The tensions and lacunae in this text are well known (see e.g. Ralph Miliband’s essay on S&R). The fundamental problem with The State and Revolution in my view however is that – as Erik Olin Wright has elucidated – Lenin presents what is overall a very structural-functionalist view of the state. He is much less interested in identifying the specific institutional mechanisms through which bourgeois hegemony is concretised within and through the state (though Lenin does specify some of these) than he is in arguing that the state necessarily performs a particular function that is determined by the class structure in which the state is embedded. As Wright suggests, Lenin treats the organizational characteristics of the state as conceptually subordinate to the question of the function of the state – as if once you grasp that the state is ‘an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another’ (is this all it is? – does this encompass and explain everything the state does?) this is all that you really need to know about the state and how it operates. The essential (stripped down, ‘in the last instance’…) function of the state is simply given by the prevailing mode of production and, furthermore, is successfully performed by the state (in whatever way) because this is the function that is given to it. The capitalist state is inherently and wholly and always in every respect bourgeois – its totality and very essence is determined by its structural function and there you have it. There is nothing more to be said except that it must be eschewed, confronted and ‘smashed’.
In the end this doesn’t seem to me to advance much beyond the classic aphorism/assertion in the Communist Manifesto that ‘The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. I don’t think this gets us very far – in fact (in present circumstances at least) – it gets us only as far as the avoidance and the holding out for a deus ex machina (the fall from the sky of a pristine dual power situation) that characterizes Leninism today. It has little to say about how we engage with political power in the here and now and offers few resources in terms of thinking about how to engage with actually existing established and rooted forms, institutions and traditions of political activity and democratic expression in advanced liberal democracies.
Indeed this analysis had little to offer in the context of the political struggles as they developed in Greece over the past two or three years. Surely the site of the most intense popular struggles we’ve seen in Europe for decades, nothing like soviet institutions, let alone a situation tending toward dual power, emerged in Greece. What did emerge, organically, out of the day-to-day struggles of the Greek working class however was an electoral challenge – a more or less spontaneous move toward support for the idea of a left government as the next concrete step in the process of struggles in that country. While Syriza successfully grasped this dynamic (indeed helped to galvanize it) other organisations of the left were unable to relate to it and as such were more or less bypassed.
Indeed, as Antonis Davanellos indicates, while the slogan ‘for a left-wing government’ raised by Syriza resonated deeply with workers, Antarsya (and the KKE) –trapped in the logic of a more or less Leninist rejection of ‘reformism’ – could only reply ‘by propagandizing various programs, which included positions on all issues except the crucial one: How were we to confront the current urgent situation?’ Or as Sotiris put it
In a period when weak links of the chain opened the possibility of combining a radical left government with forms of popular power from below, and actually initiating a highly original revolutionary sequence, the position of important segments of the anti-capitalist left in Europe was practically that nothing can be done.
In effect these segments simply waited for Syriza to fail so they could say ‘told you so’.
For all the party’s weaknesses, silences, fudges and so on Syriza’s message resonated with the Greek population, precisely because they were prepared to confront the question of political power rather than dodge it.
Syriza failed in office. But at least their failure was a failure of some significance, rather than the pre-emptive failure of effectively rejecting in the first place the very possibility of taking power and really starting to confront concrete problems of social transformation. More than this, the path taken by Syriza promised at least some possibility (however remote given the odds stacked against it) of success. This path was not for all Syriza’s activists and supporters (though it was for some) the classical ‘reformist’ one of infinite gradualism, in which the end goal is kicked into the long grass. But neither did it pivot on the longing for an infinitely delayed revolutionary event to materialise – mysterious and indescribable in advance – in which everything is transformed. The most forward thinking of Syriza’s partisans realized that a radical rupture with austerity and, beyond that, with capitalism could only emerge through engagement with power – taking office and acting on the immediate needs and demands of the unfolding situation – in a necessarily experimental process. As Aristides Baltas indicated, quoting the poet Machado, the only possibility in relation to social transformation is to seek to ‘make the road while you walk it’.
If other challenges from the left emerge in the foreseeable future they will take a broadly similar path to that made and trodden initially by Syriza. Indeed, as we have seen, all other leftwing movements that have made headway recently share a roughly similar orientation. We have no real choice then, but to work with the grain of this contemporary political dynamic – not seek to evade it, or polemicise against it, or provide unconvincing, hand-waving alternatives that quite clearly don’t have any significant political resonance.
So it is a matter of some urgency that the radical left readdresses the question of government power and confronts afresh and with genuine openness the issue of the possibilities for, and limits to, radical reform. This means thinking seriously about the possibilities and limits of radical ‘transitional programs’ and ‘structural reforms’ and about how a government of the left in dialectical interaction with an extra-parliamentary mass movement might be able to enact such measures in such a way that the movement from below is progressively empowered.
There’s a conspicuous lack of such thinking today – but it’s useful I suggest to draw on some of the resources produced in what was in some ways a similar conjuncture when people were confronting similar urgent questions in the context of capitalist crisis and disorientation on the left. We can draw on ideas which gained currency in the 1970s in particular. There was an attempt in this period to think creatively, beyond sterile orthodoxies, in relation to the possibilities of ‘structural reform’ – an attempt to map out the possibilities of using state power to prepare the political terrain for a radical rupture with capitalism; to create the conditions by means of radical reforms in which revolutionary change might actually come onto the agenda.
This sort of thinking was expressed in various ways and took root in different parties, movements etc., and there were various iterations of the broad idea of ‘structural reform’. You can see it in the thinking of groups and formations such as the PSU and CERES in France, in left Eurocommunism and in the work of individuals such as Erik Olin Wright. All attempted to grapple with the complex question of how to formulate a revolutionary strategy applicable and adequate for conditions encountered in advanced capitalist formations
Two figures in particular I think provide especially valuable conceptual and theoretical resources: Nicos Poulantzas and Andre Gorz.
Nicos Poulantzas’ ‘Revolutionary Road to Democratic Socialism’
In State, Power, Socialism Poulantzas’ basic point of departure is that (in contradistinction to his earlier theory – but also to Lenin’s approach) the nature, practices, activities, institutional structures of the state cannot simply be read off in functional terms – i.e. that it simply reproduces the class hegemony of the bourgeoisie.
Instead, famously, Poulatnzas argues that the state should be conceptualised in terms analogous to Marx’s conceptualization of capital. He analyses the state, that is, as a social relation – a material condensation of social relations of force, a terrain of struggles traversed by social antagonism.
Simplifying, the state is, in effect, an ever-changing material reflection or expression of the class balance of forces – the institutional accretion of the cumulative effects of past class struggles. The state’s structure and internal organisation, and indeed its activities and specific functions, are constantly battled over, modified and reshaped by struggles between classes and class fractions.
So it follows from this, of course, that the state is not a monolithic unified apparatus – it’s a fractured ensemble of apparatuses, riven with contradictions and fissures. Neither is it an apparatus which is entirely controlled by, or which exclusively represents the interests of, the bourgeoisie nor the merely functional political thing-instrument of capital – though it does tend to organize the overall hegemony of the capitalist class (while disorganizing the working class) under the leadership of a constantly rearticulated and reorganized power bloc.
Though certainly not without its difficulties, lacunae or unanswered questions, Poulantzas’ extraordinarily rich analysis of the ‘extensive, complex, uneven and ridden-with-contradictions character of state power as class power, as the material condensation of class struggles and resistances’ opens up and ‘makes necessary a more complex conception of revolutionary practice’. (Sotiris, 2014: 154-5).
Famously, Poulantzas rejects the traditional Leninist conception of the ‘dual power scenario’ as inadequate for advanced capitalist democracies since it operates on the basic assumption that the capitalist state is a sort of impenetrable fortress – the thing-instrument of the bourgeoisie which must (and can) be surrounded and besieged by forces wholly external to it before finally being stormed and razed to the ground by these forces, before it is replaced with a second thing-instrument (this time of the working class).
Poulantzas extrapolates from his theory of the state his famous ‘democratic road to socialism’ (or what he perhaps rather provocatively calls the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ in his very interesting 1977 interview/argument with one time LCR revolutionary, Henri Weber – who has since, of course, travelled some distance from his former political position) (See Martin (ed.), 2008: 334-60 The Poulantzas Reader).
Simplifying greatly, the idea of this ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ is to combine struggle within the state – conquering positions of strength within representative bodies and ‘centres of resistance’ ( and he is clear that a necessary part of this must be the election of a left government) – with a parallel struggle outside the state (or in relation to the state) ‘giving rise to a whole series of instruments, means of coordination, organs of popular power at the base, structures of direct democracy at the base’ (Poulantzas Reader).
As he puts it in State, Power, Socialism this ‘comprises two articulated processes: transformation of the state and unfurling of direct, rank and file democracy’ and ‘the flowering of self-management networks and centres’ (Poulantzas, 2000, 263 & 261-2).
There’s a complex dialectical relationship between the two – struggle at a distance from the state helps to transform it and open up space for further experimentation with forms of self-management while conquering positions of strength within the state provides a sort of protective shield for that experimentation, in part because it neutralizes, isolates, disrupts and divides the core institutions of bourgeois power within it.
And this is an absolute necessity he emphasizes in his debate with Weber. In opposition to Weber’s insistence on the necessity and inevitability of something like the classic dual power strategy, Poulantzas asks why (even it were possible to struggle somehow in a relationship of total exteriority to the state – as if working class struggles don’t traverse the strategic terrain of the state) the capitalist state would let socialist forces centralize a counter-power [an embryonic workers’ state] aiming at parallel power. He rightly insists that such a counter-power would be crushed long before it reached the stage that it could provide a serious challenge to the bourgeois state unless its development was articulated with a parallel transformation and disruption of the existing state from within.
In fact it’s interesting that Weber is forced to concede during the interview that in fact revolutionary forces would have to operate within the capitalist state and that they must seek to democratize and transform it at least to a certain extent when he’s made to consider the probable concrete circumstances of a dual power situation once he comes down from his initial counterposition of an abstract and vaguely stated ‘revolutionary seizure of power’ to the openly stated dilemmas of reform that Poulantzas is seeking to think through.
None of this is to say that Poulantzas’ thought is without problems, difficulties, unanswered questions, evasions…. One often remarked on difficulty is that although Poulantzas is clear that his ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ cannot be a smooth, gradualist one of piecemeal and generally tranquil transformation – and that it must culminate, as he insists in his interview with Weber, in some sort of ‘trial of strength’ – he tends to shift from the suggestion sometimes that this must be a single moment of revolutionary confrontation and overthrow to the suggestion that this trial of strength will in fact be a series of ‘trials of strength’ – parceled out into a spaced out series of ‘ruptures’ in which the power of the bourgeoisie is undermined in a gradual series of stages.
(Paradoxically, perhaps) I think there’s a real strength in this weakness however. It’s not that Poulantzas is being evasive – in fact he is quite clear in the interview with Weber that there are all sorts of dangers, risks and pitfalls in the sort of strategy he presents and he’s very open and lucid about the fact that this idea of ‘a series of ruptures’ risks falling into the trap of reformist gradualism (it’s ‘an ever latent danger’ he admits). The strength here is Poulantzas’ clarity and honesty about the unavoidable uncertainty of the endeavour. He’s absolutely clear that he is unsure whether there will be a single moment of revolutionary rupture or a series of them – that we cannot possible know in advance.
It is a strength of Poulantzas’ later thought, that is, that he openly admits and in fact insists on the fact we need to face up to the reality that we cannot know in advance what any revolutionary sequence is going to look like – as against the very odd apparent certainty of so many Leninists, which I just don’t trust.
Poulantzas is absolutely right to insist that there is a radical uncertainty at the heart of the socialist project. There has never been a socialist revolution in any advanced capitalist country and, more than this, there have been no examples anywhere of successful transition to socialism – all attempts have failed and given this the only honest conclusion must be that nobody really knows (though plenty seem to think that they do) how to get to socialism or even, for that matter, whether it is even possible. There are no blueprints or foolproof strategies – there is only, as Poulantzas repeatedly insists, knowledge of a series of ‘signposts’ and lessons from the past pointing out the various traps along the way that we must seek to negotiate. As he puts it in SPS ‘History has given us some negative examples to avoid and some mistakes on which to reflect’ – and nothing more than that.
What Poulantzas provides, though not without problems, is extremely useful. It’s in Sotiris’ words ‘the most advanced attempt to rethink revolutionary politics not in terms of “articles of faith” but of actual apprehension of the complex materiality of political power in advanced capitalist formations’ (Sotiris, 2014: 155).
It gels with the organic dynamic identified earlier – providing resources for thinking through the possibilities of a situation in which a ‘left government’ comes to office.
Indeed it’s interesting that Poulantzas’ thought on the ‘revolutionary road to democratic socialism’ was at least partially prompted and shaped (as brought out in interview with Weber) by concrete political developments in France – the growing rapprochement between the PS and PCF and their joint formulation of the Common Programme for a government of the left in the late 1970s.
Poulantzas isn’t the only state theorist who provides such resources – fertile resources can also be drawn from Fred Block and Erik Olin Wright’s work on what he calls the ‘two relations of determination’ at work in capitalist state power – the fact that there is no necessary correspondence between what is structurally possible in terms of state intervention/policy on the one hand and what is functionally compatible with the requirements of reproducing capitalism on the other.
Nevertheless Poulantzas produced what is surely the most rich and ground-breaking account.
André Gorz and ‘Structural Reform’
While Poulantzas provides an outline of the general contours of a policy of radical reform on the part of a government of the left and which is rooted in a rich analysis of capitalist state power, we should turn to André Gorz’s slightly earlier thought on ‘structural reform’ or ‘non-reformist reform’ (which he sketches out in Strategy for Labour and Socialism and Revolution) for a more fully worked out account of the kinds of reforms and practices on the part of a left government that would be necessary.
Gorz’s thought was, like Poulantzas’, formulated in a specific conjuncture where a Provisional Union of the Left government was a distinct possibility – he wrote his key essay on ‘Reform and Revolution’, later published in Socialism and Revolution, in the immediate aftermath of May 1968 – which could have toppled de Gaulle and swept an ‘exceptional’ left wing government to power in a sort of pre-revolutionary situation (for details see, Sassoon, 2010: 397-400). Clearly Gorz thought that such a situation might be repeated and tries in this essay to think through what such a government, borne forward by waves of protests and strikes, should/could do. His ideas became quite influential in the 1970s (in groups such as the PSU) which is why we can think of him as a 70s resource.
Gorz’s argument goes something like this:
Revolution can only emerge organically and dialectically through a process of struggle for reform. Thus we need a transitional strategy of reform that takes us from the present to a situation in which revolution becomes actually possible.
Socialist revolutionary consciousness must be built through a pedagogical process of ‘struggle for feasible objectives corresponding to the experience, needs and aspirations of workers’. At first the ‘feasible’ will be limited to measures of reform within capitalism – or at least measures which from standpoint of reformist consciousness appear ‘legitimate’ but which may actually run counter to logic of capitalism and push against limits
As the working class engages in struggle, the anti-capitalist implications of its needs and aspirations are grad revealed. At same time, through its experience of struggle, the working class educates itself and learns about capacity for self-government. So struggle for reform helps prepare the class psychologically, ideologically, organisationally, materially for revolutionary social change.
Gorz is quite clear that this process depends on the election of a left government – the working class require, after all, a political instrument to implement these reforms (to act on their demands).
This, for Gorz, must be a government whose perspective is not limited to merely ‘reformist reform’. A ‘reformist reform is one which subordinates its objectives to the criteria of rationality and practicability of a given system’. In contrast ‘non reformist reforms’ or ‘structural reforms’ are designed to break out of this logic and to destabilise the system. Each such reform brings concrete gains for the working class but also open up the possibility of further changes. In fact, precisely because they destabilise capitalism, each revolutionary reform necessitates the implementation of further measures to deal with the effects of this destabilisation – measures which will, in turn, necessitate further reforms and so on in a radicalising dynamic of cumulative change.
Revolutionary reforms, Gorz remarks, must be seen as ‘means and not an end, as dynamic phases in a progressive struggle, not as stopping places’.
A key characteristic of a structural reform is that they have to be rooted in popular initiatives – in the sense that, as Gorz puts it ,they are controlled by those who demand them and also in the sense that they always involve an extension of popular power and thus nurture the growing democratic and collective capacity for self-organisation among the working class.
Importantly a programme of structural reform would include extension of organs of direct democracy in communities and in workplaces. They would begin to extend democratic, social control over collective services and public transport, over the economy in terms of forms of democratic planning, socialisation and public direction of investment and so on.
So this process would involve a dialectical interaction between a left government implementing reforms to empower a mass movement which in turn pushes the government on to implement further reforms and to defend these from counter-attack. The resistance and limitations that each round of reforms bring to light – the unbalancing of the system – prompts further more radical measures in an escalating dynamic of permanent revolution.
While the government and the mobilized movement interact, there must always remain a tension between them and the latter must always retain its autonomy in relation to the former.
The whole thing, Gorz is clear, must culminate in a revolutionary ‘trial of strength’ but the point is that the possibility of such a rupture – and the possibility of working class victory in such a rupture – can only emerge dialectically and organically through a process of preparatory structural reform.
One of the things that unites Poulantzas and Gorz is their shared understanding in relation to the radical uncertainty of any such undertaking. Gorz is clear that there can be no guarantees of success and that the strategy runs a very real risk of a slide into reformism. Structural reform inhabits a sort of space of tension between mere reformism on the one hand and revolutionary rupture on the other – indeed it is an attempt to negotiate a course of transition from one to the other. But there’s no guarantee of the direction of travel. It’s just that, unless we think that revolution is always already immanent and imminent – just waiting to burst out at any moment – there’s no other option but to seek move toward it via a series of intermediate steps.
There’s a radical uncertainty of another sort too. Gorz, like Poulantzas is clear that we can’t know in advance in anything more than broad outline what an escalating series of reforms would include as it progresses, how far these reforms could go, at what exact point they would encounter definite limits, at what point it would morph into revolution or indeed precisely what a revolution would look like. The point is that a strategy of structural reform would be a process of experimentation, discovery and making the road as we travel it. We can only know the limits to reform by pushing against them and we can only develop the means to go beyond these limits by building popular capacities for socialism in and through a process of struggle for transitional measures.
Indeed the question a left government strategy of structural reform pivots on is, in E O Wright’s words “not so much how to make a revolution, but how to create the social conditions in which we can know how to make a revolution.”
The radical left formations currently making the greatest political headway in Europe are committed to the perspective of seeking to take power within capitalist institutions in order to implement radical reforms which many in those organisations hope will help to generate a transitional dynamic of change. We need to work with this organic dynamic. We must find a way to connect with it, take it seriously and draw out its radical potential by working with the grain of it, while also seeking to radicalise it from within. Theoretical resources developed and popularized in the 1970s are immensely useful in this regard – this was, in many ways, a similar political conjuncture in which theorists such as Poulantzas were asking similar questions. In particular we need to return to and learn from the resources left to us by Nicos Poulantzas and André Gorz.
RS21 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).