Saturday 19 July 2008

Reformism Revisited

Members of the Socialist Party gathered in Huddersfield on Saturday for our Northern Marxist Education School. In the afternoon e participated in sessions on the lessons of Chile and Venezuela, transitional demands today and a report on the work the CWI in several European countries. This will be dealt with in a separate post.

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.


Anonymous said...

"the key dividing line is between those arguing for a new vehicle of working class political representation and those who remain committed to Labour."
No, that's totally wrong.
The key dividing line amongst the working class is between those who remain committed to an alternative to capitalism and those who see no alternative.
In this situation focussing on ideological differences in an era in which there was a generalised idea amongst the working class that their weight in society could effect fundamental change is to completely miss the point.
Do you really think that the fundamental question amongst the working class today is reform or revolution ?
I don't.
The task amongst socialists today is to re-build the idea that there is an alternative to the nightmare of capitalism, that there should be a socialist party of the working class.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

I'm gutted I couldn't make it (damned work). it sounds like it was really good though from what some of the comrades in branch (bangor branch not hudds) told me about it though.

Anonymous said...

Oh please - reform or revolution? Hullo - the split of 1917 is now officially over. The split ended when the apparently 'principled' side - the side that opposed the First World War - accepted that the Soviet adventure was dead.

The cause, of course, remains: building a world run for the many, not the few; a world that is structured to answer need, not create profit.

We can learn things from the 3rd (or even 4th) International in trying, once again, to pursue these aims. But we can also learn things from the 2nd International, and, yes, the much derided Bernstein. Read Paul Mason's rather wonderful book Live Working or Die Fighting on how the old SPD created a whole 'alternative world', cultural as much as political. But most of all we can learn from the Greens - an entirely separate tradition.

Phil said...

Have you been reading a different post to the one I authored here? Just in case you missed it:

"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 ... But it could become a live issue again should a new workers' party/left formation emerge in the near future."

This was a session about the conditions in which reformism *could* re-emerge. Right now only the Sparts and the IBT are daft enough to think it's the key dividing line in our movement.

Anon, I'm all for learning political lessons from the Greens - see the post below. Incidentally I think socialists are too dismissive of Bernstein. There are some very interesting arguments he makes in Evolutionary Socialism that need to be taken on board by anyone engaged in Gramsci-informed politics.