Kicking off the morning, SP deputy general secretary Hannah Sell opened on reform and revolution. This isn't a burning issue in the labour movement at the moment as the key dividing line is between those arguing for a new vehicle of working class political representation and those who remain committed to Labour. But it could become a live issue again should a new workers' party/left formation emerge in the near future. This is why it is important to take another look at the debates that took place in the Second International early in the 20th century, particularly the ideas of Eduard Bernstein's (pictured) and the revolutionary critcisms of his positions. Hannah argued Bernstein's theories reflected the practice and outlook of a layer of relatively privileged workers within the German SPD, despite its formal adherence to Marxist principles. Bernstein's argument, simply put, is that 'objective' capitalist processes were increasingly able to overcome its contradictions. When this is married to the extension of parliamentary democracy a reforming road to socialism opens up, whereby the new society could peacefully emerge from the womb of the old by simple electoral means. Unfortunately, Hannah noted, this cannot be the case. While it is true revolutionary socialists fight for reforms the nature of capitalism is such that the ruling class will always try and claw them back. The pendulum of reform and counter-reform is dependent on the balance of class struggle, and can only be resolved in the former's favour if the working class assumes power.
However, one can understand his opus, Evolutionary Socialism as a context-specific work, conceived as it was in a period of working class advance and relatively stable economic growth. And it is no accident reformist ideas (albeit those owing more to Keynes and social liberalism than Bernstein) took deep root in the post-war economic boom. But today after 15 years of consecutive growth the reformist impulse has been absent. The boom has been their boom. As the ruling class globally have enjoyed bumper profits US and British wages have stagnated and the neoliberal orthodoxy has overseen a massive transfer of wealth from labour to capital. In the absence of a global alternative to capitalism, capital has not felt any external pressure to concede reforms, as was the case early on in the Cold War. If any reforms are to be won from neoliberal governments it can only be on the basis of successful struggle.
But as we're seeing, these 'boom' conditions are changing. The Daily Mirror's calculation of inflation (which tracks household bills, transport costs and food prices) pegged inflation at a rate of 18.5%. and job seekers' allowance claims went up 15,500 in June, the largest increase since 1992. On top of this has been the collapses of Northern Rock, Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac. In spite of their neoliberal orthodoxies, New Labour and the NeoCons of the Bush administration have been forced to intervene economically to bail these institutions out and prevent further damage. For example, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac underwrite 50% of US mortgages. Already 2,500,000 plans face foreclosure - one can barely imagine the social devastation heaped on top of this had these institutions gone to the wall.
We must be absolutely clear though. This intervention does not signal a return to the Keynesianism of the post-war period, but if, as these actions have shown, governments are willing to nationalise strategically important companies then there exists a re-opening of political space for reformism's return. And under present political circumstances this is a welcome development. Should reformist ideas grow it reflects an increasing confidence in workers to articulate their own demands and as the brewing crisis deepens the more circumstances will force them to do so. But because of the volatile nature of what's coming, chances are this will be a reformism without a stable reformist party. That image belongs to the post-war period. The experience of new workers' parties and left formations on the continent shows that those organisations who emerge in the political space to the left of social democracy have lost out when they have tried to implement reformist strategies. For new formations the choice is between standing uncompromisingly on the side of workers, or abandoning this independent stance for a few crumbs from the master's table. This is why the CWI engages with these processes.
In the questions a number of interesting points were brought up. One comrade noted that in a way, we've never really had out and out neoliberalism. Where the precepts of dogma have conflicted with the class interests of capital, it is the latter that wins out every time. For example, Bush was quite happy to impose tariffs on steel imports and rule out foreign ownership of US ports (this incidentally is opposite to New Labour's attitude, who have had no problem green lighting overseas ownership of key British industries). But also the coming period is where the contradiction between the nation state and the global economy could come to the fore. Reformism usually demands something of the state, which in turn could deepen the legitimacy of the state should it grant reforms and (relatively) successfully shelter its citizens from the global economic storm. As we saw in Germany in the lead up to the first world war, the spread of reformist "common sense" no doubt contributed to the initial burst of popular enthusiasm for the war. Another comrade raised the idea that the economic crisis is unfolding against the backdrop of environmental crisis. Depending on the severity of climate change there will still be a boost for green reformist ideas, which have already gained a certain currency in policy circles at the supranational level. If concerted international action can be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change, it doesn't require much of a leap to realise social reforms are possible via these institutions.
In her summing up, returning to the point about reformism and nationalism there is clearly a link. This puts the added onus on socialists to push the internationalist dimensions of our politics. On the promises of supranationalism we have seen some reform-minded ideas emerge from within the global justice movement, such as the Tobin Tax. While these reforms maybe worthwhile we have to avoid fostering any illusions in supranational entities/ For example, the UN acts as one of the few remaining repositories of political idealism, when its main purpose is to serve as a liberal fig leaf for the machinations of the big powers. On the political consequences of the economic crisis, Hannah feared it would likely have a stunning effect on the working class, at least in the initial period. This could benefit the right - part of the appeal of Cameron is that he's not New Labour. But in the long run large numbers will start questioning the system and begin drawing radical conclusions. Socialists have to help this process along as best we can.