The case for revolutionary reforms

As against approaches which dichotomise reform and revolution, Ben Wray argues that left parties should develop a strategy of 'revolutionary reforms' which promotes concrete gains within capitalism whilst emboldening further movement against it.

We need revolutionary change. There’s no two ways about it – if the exploitation of labour by capital continues to be the central dynamic driving economic development, we are headed for human and environmental catastrophe.

But as I’ve discussed in the previous five parts of this series, getting from where we are to a revolutionary transformation that overthrows the dominant property relations of the capitalist economy and replaces them with social relations based on democratic control of the world’s resources is not as simple as declaring our desire for it to be so. I saw a petition on the other day proposing the overthrow of capitalism. If one million people signed that petition and one million people signed a further petition to introduce full collective bargaining rights for trade-unions in the UK, which one would move us closer to the overthrow of capitalism? I wager the latter.

Whilst having an end goal in sight is important, most people don’t change their thinking about the world based on bold visions of what could be done at some point in the future: they change their ideas based on evidence from their material lives which points to the inadequacy or irrationality of the status quo. In other words, we need to have ideas that build upon people’s lived experience of capitalism, and since that it is within the framework of a representative democracy system, we need ideas based around proposals for reforms. At the same time those reforms have to help rather than hinder a move to more revolutionary transformation that challenges the very core of the capitalist system.

The dialectic of reform and revolution

What we need, therefore, is a strategy of revolutionary reforms. Such a notion would appear as a contradiction in terms to many who identify as reformists or revolutionaries and see the two as dichotomous, but there is no reason why this should be the case. Indeed, history has shown that revolutionary transformations have always happened as a dialectical interaction between rapid, revolutionary movements and more institutional, reform-based challenges. Even the revolutionary part of that dialectic has always been motivated by the immediate needs of the participants involved – ‘land, bread and peace’ being the first half of the slogan of the Russian Revolution.

What does a strategy of ‘revolutionary reforms’ entail? Ed Rooksby explains that it is a political strategy that builds towards revolutionary change by using reforms to ‘push up against the limits’ of the ‘logic of capitalism’ in practice:

At first these “feasible objectives” will be limited to reforms within capitalism—or at least to measures which, from the standpoint of a more or less reformist working class consciousness, appear to be legitimate and achievable within the system, but which may actually run counter to the logic of capitalism and start to push up against its limits. As the working class engages in struggle, however, the anti-capitalist implications of its needs and aspirations are gradually revealed. At the same time, through its experience of struggle for reform, the working class learns about its capacity for “self-management, initiative and collective decision” and can have a “foretaste of what emancipation means”. In this way struggle for reform helps prepare the class psychologically, ideologically and materially for revolution.”

The late Daniel Bensaid expressed this argument through the lens of the history of the socialist movement:

“In reality all sides in the controversy agree on the fundamental points inspired by The Coming Catastrophe (Lenin’s pamphlet of the summer of 1917) and the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International (inspired by Trotsky in 1937): the need for transitional demands, the politics of alliances (the united front), the logic of hegemony and on the dialectic (not antinomy) between reform and revolution. We are therefore against the idea of separating an (‘anti-neoliberal’) minimum programme and an (anti-capitalist) ‘maximum’ programme. We remain convinced that a consistent anti-neoliberalism leads to anti-capitalism and that the two are interlinked by the dynamic of struggle.”

So revolutionary reforms means a policy agenda that, as Alberto Toscano has put it, “at one and the same time make concrete gains within capitalism which permits further movement against capitalism”. The Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci described this approach as a ‘war of positon’.

The neoliberal context

To understand what all of this means in practical terms for a left party in Scotland today we need to understand the economic and political context we live in. The last forty years of neoliberal capitalism has seen a rolling back of the gains of the post-war era, as the rate of exploitation has increased enormously, the strength of trade-unions has decreased significantly, and major chunks of the welfare state and public-sector have been shrunk or sold-off. The outcome is a massive redistribution of wealth and power to a narrowing capitalist elite, who increasingly use money to make money through financialisation, bypassing the productive aspects of the capitalist economy entirely. Britain is part of the vanguard of this neoliberal offensive. The political consequence of this is that mainstream parties, whether they be centre-left or centre-right, are unwilling to challenge the supremacy of neoliberalism in the British economy. The economic crisis if anything has seen a further radicalisation of neoliberalism.

Therefore a left party that challenges neoliberalism is also challenging capitalism. What may have been a reform the capitalist system could easily have absorbed or even desired forty years ago is now a fatal threat to its order. Indeed, the word ‘reforms’ today is used to justify all manner of counter-reforms which further dismantle the safety-net of public services and the welfare state. Global capital is trying to go further than ever in stripping away the rights of states and judicial systems that don’t work in their favour.

One particularly terrifying example of this is the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which is a single-market agreement between the EU and the US. What is in the fine print is an “investor-state dispute settlement” mechanism whereby in the situation that a particular nation-state doesn’t want companies to, say, mine in particular areas or sell goods produced unethically, the decision can be overturned by a secret arbitration panel of corporate lawyers which has the power to bypass domestic courts and ignore the will of parliaments.

Given this context of hyper-capitalist authoritarianism, the reform-revolution dialectic is intensified today compared to forty years ago. As the Candian Marxist Leo Panitch puts it:

Perhaps the greatest illusion of 20th-century social democrats was their belief that once reforms were won they would be won for good. In fact, we can now see how far the old reforms were subject to erosion by expanding capitalist competition on a global scale. They have been so undermined by the logic of competitiveness that it now seems very difficult to see how state protections against markets could be secured in our time without additional measures that would be seen as revolutionary.”

Genuine reforms, such as democratic public control of the money supply, would cause panic amongst credit agencies and the ‘markets’, potentially leading to a run on the banks of the nation-state in which such a proposal was made. This is global capitalism’s way of threatening the state to tow the line, and usually states and their political parties are responsive to its needs.

Pressure points

But modern capitalist states are not one dimensional – whilst they serve the basic function of wielding a ‘monopoly of violence’ in defence of private property, modern capitalist economies also require a civil and political society including a range of regulations and universal services (skilled labour, schooling and regularly renewed political leadership through democratic elections would be three of these) to ensure the optimal circumstances for (re)production of the system. The state, therefore, creates its own points of weakness: the parts of the state that require mass participation to further capitalist accumulation can be used to undermine capitalist state power itself.

If, through a strategy of revolutionary reforms from a left government, one can divide the state between on the one hand those undemocratic elements like civil servants, MI5 and the heads of the police which will always protect the capitalist elite no matter what and on the other hand the parts of the state which contain democratic elements, like parliament, it can create a situation whereby a left government encourages and needs greater impulses from below to defend its policies and its government against the reactionary elements of the state who want to return to normal capitalist state relations. A left government can help foster and provide direction for new forms of democratic organisation from below; workers, community and student control, which can in turn provide support and pressure upon a left government in a synthesis of working class power.

A rough agenda

What would an agenda for revolutionary reforms by a left government look like in a country like Scotland today? It would have to constantly change to meet the evolving requirements of politics, but as it stands some of the following points would be fundamental:

This last point is important: I am not proposing centralised state control of everything. The Scottish socialist Andy Cumbers’ book Renewing Public Ownership explains how public ownership must also mean bottom-up, genuinely democratic control if it is to not become bureaucratised and sclerotic like many state-owned institutions did in the post-war era.

A left party would obviously propose a whole range of other policies pertaining to international and social issues, including policies that don’t neccessarily challenge the logic of capital but are redistributive and generally positive for the mass of society. The SSP’s policies on free school meals and free public transport would be examples of this, as would much of the ‘Common Weal’ agenda. A distinction has to be made between rupture policies, that attempt to build an alternative balance of power to capitalist society, and general policy demands, which attempt to improve the lot of people within the framework of the existing society. The emphasis upon rupture policies and general policy demands is entirely dependent upon the context.

Earlier instalments of the ‘What sort of left party do we need’ series may be found here:


The case for an electoral party

The case for training and expertise

The case for tolerant democratic discipline

The case for politics, not just beliefs 

Rethinking the relationship between party and movements

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