The most important and longstanding debate on the left is between revolutionary and reformist politics. It goes at least as far back as the 19th century debate in the German Social Democratic Party, when Rosa Luxemburg, in Reform or Revolution, demolished the arguments of Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein advocated that the party abandon its commitment to overthrowing capitalism and instead strive only for reforms to the system, with the vague hope that socialism might eventually come.
This debate has sharpened recently with the emergence of reformist currents associated with British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and with the Democratic Socialists of America and Jacobin magazine, which has popularised the reformist approach of Karl Kautsky, the leading theorist of socialism before World War One.
Some reformists accept that revolution is necessary in contemporary dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia. The real debate is over revolution in the West. A standard argument is that revolutionaries are obsessed with repeating the experience of the Russian Revolution – soviets and insurrection – in a world that has moved on. Russia, they point out, was an impoverished peasant country under a semi-feudal dictatorship in which unions were illegal and strong reformist parties didn’t exist. Things are not like that in Western capitalism. We have parliamentary democracy and legality and face different challenges. For example, Vivek Chibber, editor of Catalyst, the theoretical journal associated with Jacobin, argued in a 2017 article “Our road to power”:
“Today, the state has infinitely greater legitimacy ... Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance, and the ruling class’s internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917.
“Our strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach ... left strategy has to revolve around building a movement to pressure the state, gain power within it, change the institutional structures of capitalism, and erode the structural power of capital ... This entails a combination of electoral and mobilisation politics.”
Similarly, the Bread and Roses caucus in the Democratic Socialists of America “reject a strategy of insurrection which mistakenly seeks to adopt a model from vastly different historical conditions and apply it to our situation today”.
Let’s first clear away a few red herrings. There are vital lessons to be drawn from the Russian Revolution, but no one seriously argues that revolution in the West would be a carbon copy. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the most outstanding leaders in Russia, understood that a revolution in the West would have to overcome the strident opposition of reformist trade union bureaucracies and parties such as the ALP, which would side with the capitalists and try to sabotage any working class upsurge.
This led Lenin and Trotsky, and Western Marxists such as the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, to emphasise the need to build a clear and determined mass revolutionary party if there were to be any hope of these obstacles being overcome.
Chibber claims that the cohesiveness of the ruling class and the immense power of the capitalist state and its repressive apparatus make a revolution impossible. There is no doubting the repressive capacity of Western states. Just look at the murderous repression the French state, a supposed bastion of democracy, unleashed to crush the inspiring Yellow Vest movement.
According to Chibber, “a more gradualist approach of building a movement to pressure the state” and winning positions in parliament will get around this problem. Yet any movement that threatens capitalist rule will face a crackdown on a scale that would make the French riot police assault on the Yellow Vests seem like child’s play. The real question is, what will you do when a mass movement faces repression?
Do you attempt to broaden the struggle and call for more mass action such as a general strike? That could open a direct challenge to the capitalists. To have any hope of victory, you would need to have built a revolutionary party prepared to fight for workers’ power. You can’t establish such a party by building an organisation that adheres to a reformist strategy and doesn’t believe that workers can, and should, take power.
Do you retreat in the face of the state crackdown and accept defeat? Retreating, or failing to give a decisive lead, has been the standard reformist approach. It explains why so many opportunities for workers to challenge capitalism have been sabotaged, such as May 1968 in France or Chile in the 1970s.
Reformists have no answer to the immense power of the state. Trying to use parliament to undermine core parts of the oppressive apparatus won’t work. The ruling class is not full of naïve idiots. They won’t let you purge the state bureaucracy, disarm the police, sack the generals and disband the army just because you’ve won an election.
Some reformists argue that we need mass movements in the streets and workplaces to back up a left wing government. There have been many left governments, but even the most radical of them never pushed to abolish capitalism. Once in office, they recognised it was impossible to reform the system out of existence. Having rejected revolution, they feared summoning the masses because that might have provoked revolutionary outbursts that the reformists couldn’t control. We need mass mobilisations, not to back up such governments, but to go beyond them.
There is another problem with Chibber’s argument: the strategy of gradually building up working class organisation and winning parliamentary elections is based on unrealistic ideas about working class consciousness.
Working class consciousness can leap forward in mass struggle. Mass struggles are vital for workers to gain confidence in their ability to run society. They throw off attitudes of subservience and apathy and reactionary prejudices. Socialism must be consciously created by the collective action of millions of workers in the course of revolutionary struggles. But such upsurges are inherently episodic and can’t be conveniently timed to fit in with election timetables.
Mass upsurges in struggle lead to rising levels of confrontation with the capitalist order and can lead to the formation of workers’ councils – an alternative form of power to the capitalist state. Workers’ councils are massively more democratic than any parliament. Members of a capitalist parliament are elected for years at a time. Voters have no say over what they do and can’t remove them until years later. Voting in parliamentary elections is a passive activity, which does not require workers to be active participants in determining their own future. In workers’ councils, delegates are directly subject to the will of the workers who elected them and can be replaced at any time – reflecting rapid changes in political consciousness. Workers themselves debate and carry out the decisions of these revolutionary bodies.
Only mass struggle can create new revolutionary and democratic institutions. That struggle must end with those institutions overthrowing the capitalist state if the working class is to take power and reorganise society.
The case of Chile, where Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition government was overthrown by a military coup in 1973, well illustrates the problems associated with Chibber’s reformist approach. Chile was not an authoritarian dictatorship. It had a longer history of parliamentary democracy than many Western countries. There were mass reformist parties and a powerful union bureaucracy.
Allende’s program was relatively modest. He was not aiming to abolish capitalism, a point he made clear on numerous occasions. Yet within a year of taking office, his government faced ferocious attacks from the ruling class.
At two major conferences, Popular Unity debated its response to the ruling class assault. The coalition comprised half a dozen parties, some of which were internally divided. The right wing argued to win the confidence of the bourgeoisie by slowing down the already limited pace of reform. The left wing argued to increase the pace of reform. But these more left wing reformists still focused on government action rather than working class mobilisation. They looked to a top-down approach, rather than the conscious action of workers to win their own liberation. They seemed to think that part of the power of the state had already been conquered. No one expressed concern about the military and police. They were in for a rude shock.
The right wing won the argument within the government, which used the military to crack down on workers’ mobilisations.
Rank and file workers responded differently than the Popular Unity left wing. In July 1972, workers from a series of factories formed independent organisations, the cordones: democratically elected worker committees. Allende attacked the formation of the cordones as “crass irresponsibility” – because his government supposedly represented workers’ interests.
This illustrates a key problem with reformist projects. They counterpose what reformist leaders do in parliament to the action of the masses. And parliamentary action always takes priority. When those two approaches clash, as they are bound to in times of great upheaval, the masses are told by the reformist leaders to desist.
In October 1972, the ruling class sharpened its offensive with a strike by trucking industry bosses. They were backed by factory owners, who tried to sabotage production, and by middle class professionals.
Workers immediately sprang into action. They commandeered transport, set up “vigilance committees” in the factories to maintain production and forced supermarkets to reopen. The cordones spread rapidly and demanded the nationalisation of the factories. Workers organised the distribution of food and supplies and took over production. Health workers kept the hospitals running in the face of a doctors’ strike. Self-defence units were organised against attacks by fascist groups.
By taking such a radical stance, workers inspired and drew behind them other oppressed sections of the population. A revolution was unfolding. But without a strong revolutionary socialist party with a clear program, the potential of this movement to take power was not realised.
The generalisation of revolutionary ideas from specific struggles, even objectively revolutionary ones, does not arise spontaneously. Workers’ activity can advance much more quickly than their political consciousness. The logic of their struggle can lead workers to set up organs of “dual power”, such as the cordones. But that does not immediately lead workers to conclude that they have to push aside the reformist leaders and take power. It needs the intervention of revolutionary socialists who can give these objectively revolutionary actions a framework that enables workers to overthrow capitalism.
The reformist parties in Chile did everything in their power to prevent that political development. Allende staked his government’s future on its ability to control the working class and implement its program in collaboration with the majority of capitalists. Allende responded to the worker insurgency by including generals in his cabinet. The military was unleashed to take back the factories workers had seized.
There was concerted resistance. The cordones formed a Coordinating Committee – a qualitative leap in the leadership of the struggle. Then, in response to an attempted military coup, the workers exploded into action. More workplaces were seized, and workers manufactured weapons in them. They were ready for a decisive struggle. The cordones – the organisations on which a new workers’ state could be built – already existed.
At such a moment, the enemy of revolution is reformism. Reformism means commitment to the defence of the existing capitalist state, at the expense of liberating humanity from exploitation and oppression.
The Chilean workers needed a clear revolutionary leadership to take on the reformists – a leadership with deep roots in the working class to argue to seize the moment. But in a revolutionary crisis, if there is no resolute leadership, all is lost. The result in Chile was a bloody coup that murdered at least 30,000 people. The most courageous worker leaders were rounded up, tortured and killed. The bosses wanted to terrify a whole generation for having challenged capitalist rule.
The reformists were to blame for this terrible defeat. They politically disarmed the working class and left it helpless in the face of the coup.
It is not just in Chile that reformists have done all in their power to sabotage potentially revolutionary struggles. Only a few years earlier, the Communist Party of France played a similar role in May of 1968.
Revolutionaries can’t will a revolutionary upheaval into existence. They arise when a deep crisis in the system provokes workers to move into struggle. At the start of that struggle, most workers won’t see their actions as a direct challenge to capitalism. But as the struggle unfolds, and in response to ruling class attacks, the movement can spread, creating more strikes, more workplace occupations and even a general strike.
Militant workers can set up democratic organisations such as cordones to coordinate the struggle. A situation of dual power emerges. The task of revolutionaries is to push that struggle to its limits; to combat the reformists’ arguments and try to win the leadership of the workers’ committees and convince workers these committees should take power.
Overthrowing the capitalist order can seem a daunting task. But there are no easier options. The reformist approach offers no way out, and reformists simply prop up the existing order. Socialist revolution is the only way forward for humanity.
Because of the power of Western capitalist states, socialist revolutions are likely to occur first in the weaker links of the world system, such as in Sudan recently. But success in one country can inspire revolts elsewhere. Revolutions repeatedly come in waves – starting as early as the revolutions of 1848, continuing through the revolts of the late 1960s and, most recently, the Arab revolutions.
In 1917, Russia was the weak link. The revolution there inspired a wave of revolt that swept across Europe and much of the rest of the world. Today, we live in an even more integrated world capitalist system than in 1917. This increases the potential for revolutions to spread quickly.
The task for socialists is to build an organisation that can intervene in struggles and push them forward to help lay the foundations of a revolutionary party that can be decisive in future revolts. We must be crystal clear on the arguments against reformism, which in all its numerous varieties helps maintain the rule of the rich and powerful.