Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Reform and Revolution: notes on Ed Rooksby and Richard Seymour.



Response to Ed Rooksby

Originally published as Letter in Socialist Review , June 2013.
 
I would like to make two points in response to Ed Rooksby’s article on realignment of the left (Socialist Review, May 2013).

 First, having experienced the rise and fall of both Respect in England and the United Left Alliance in Ireland, it is clear that the process of creating a ‘united’ left,  though desirable, is by no means  simple. This is particularly the case since, of necessity, the project involves people with different political perspectives, notably left reformists and revolutionaries, working together. If, in either instance, the SWP had dissolved its  organisation, as it is suggested they should do by some on the left, it would have been not just a tactical error but a strategic disaster.

The second is that the way Rooksby proposes transcending the division between reformism and revolutionary Marxism in favour of ‘revolutionary reformism’ is in no way new. It is what Lenin and Trotsky, as far back as 1919, called ‘centrism’ and vigorously polemicised against..

Rooksby counterposes ‘the reformist approach’ of ‘smooth, piecemeal change’ to ‘the defining feature of revolutionary socialism… that socialists must remain  strictly independent of the capitalist state rather than seek to work within it’. This is a mistaken formulation. Revolutionaries do not, and cannot, operate strictly independent of the capitalist state; we work within it, including taking part in elections, but in order to smash it. Left reformists aim to take over and use the capitalist state for socialist purposes. This distinction was the central theme of Lenin’s great work The State and Revolution.

Rooksby refers to Boris Kagarlistsky’s strategy of reforms being based on the demands at the end of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 but this misses the crucial amendment made to the Manifesto by Marx on the basis of the Paris Commune of 1871, namely that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’. This quotation is a cornerstone of The State and Revolution.

Significantly Rooksby fails to deal with the state at all, referring only to ‘the intense hostility of capital’ but the point made by Marx and Lenin remains valid. The capitalist state, with its ‘bodies of armed men’, its armed forces and police, its secret services, judges and top bureaucrats, will not sit idly we by and permit a permit a ‘left’ government to roll out its revolutionary reforms in Britain, Greece or anywhere else.

It remains only to add that history provides many examples of ‘left governments’ (France and Spain in 1936, Chile in 1970-3, Labour in 1945 and many others) but not one has opened the way to socialism. The only exception is the ‘left government’ in Russia in 1917 (headed by the ‘socialist’ Kerensky) which was overthrown from the left with the aid of a revolutionary party.

FOOTNOTE: On Richard Seymour and reformism.

Richard Seymour has posted on Facebook an interview he gave in Zagreb on 17 May, entitled ‘In practical terms, today we are all reformists’. The title is a direct quote from the interview and he quips that is bound ‘to wind up the right people’. I suppose I qualify as one of these ‘right people’, however, this formulation is both revealing and false: it needs to be challenged.

It is false because it implies that ‘we’ (socialists, Marxists etc.) can only really be revolutionaries in revolutionary situations, when there exist ‘agencies of revolution’, by which I assume he means a mass revolutionary working class. Speaking at Marx’s grave side Engels said that Marx ‘was above all a revolutionist’. He clearly did not believe that Marx was a revolutionist in 1848 but not in 1858 or 1867 when he published Volume 1 of Capital. Trotsky in his Testament wrote, ‘For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist…I shall die a proletarian revolutionist’. Obviously Trotsky was not a revolutionary only in 1905 or 1917.

The difference between reformists and revolutionaries doesn’t at all lie in whether or not we call for reforms. Every serious revolutionary, who is not a completely passive ultra-left, urges and fights for reforms all the time. The difference lies in HOW we fight for reforms (by emphasizing the self-activity and combativity of the working class) and with what perspective (with the perspective of preparing for revolution).

This is ABC. (It’s in the Communist Manifesto and in Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution).  In a sense Richard Seymour MUST know it, so why the lousy formulation?
There are two clues in the interview. In explaining his formulation he writes that ‘we’ (the left?) ‘advocate reforms that would strengthen the agencies that would be capable of being mobilized in a revolutionary situation’. This puts the emphasis on the beneficial effects of achieving the reforms rather than of the struggle for them. It may seem a small point but there is a slide there towards the notion of a ‘left government’ opening the way to socialism which is a classic left reformist idea.

The second clue is where he says, ‘most of the time these dichotomies [reformism and revolution] are used in a sectarian and moralizing way’. Now whether the number of times these dichotomies are used in a ‘sectarian and moralizing way’ exceeds the times they are used in a scientific and political way is hard to calculate but I think this is a rhetorical device to preempt the demand for political clarity on this question.

Where this argument really matters most is in relation to building the revolutionary party. One of the main lessons drawn by Trotsky (and Cliff, Harman etc.) from the victory of the Russian Revolution and the failure in Germany, Italy, Hungary etc. was the need to build the party in advance of the revolution. This is the point Seymour’s formulations seek to avoid and deflect.


John Molyneux
Dublin

16 comments:

Roobin said...

The relevant point, as I see it, is that revolutionaries, not only but especially in Britain, are in no position to 'fight' for anything. They are practically rootless, certainly ignored. The most recent example being the doleful calls for resistance, general strike now etc round the issue of public sector austerity. If there is a vanguard revolutionaries in Britain haven't the foggiest idea how to get it moving. This is not simply the fault of the SWP it has been the largest revolutionary organisation in Britain for at least the last 30 years (whilst, at the same time having a net membership gain of at most zero) it takes the lion share of the blame.

You and your co-thinkers have created a wilderness around yourselves. Enjoy.

Roobin said...

Or in other words (darn it, I should have thought of this at the time) Richard's statement is clearly not one of desire but indictment. The practice of the revolutionary left is not nearly as revolutionary as it thinks.

louisproyect.org said...

One of the main lessons drawn by Trotsky (and Cliff, Harman etc.) from the victory of the Russian Revolution and the failure in Germany, Italy, Hungary etc. was the need to build the party in advance of the revolution.

---

Yeah, well. But in practice it hasn't worked out very well, has it? The Fourth International and its heterodox spin-offs like Tony Cliff's have produced nothing but sects. To a large extent this involves sanctifying a "revolutionary program" that serves as a kind of marketing ploy by small groups making a fetish over small differences. If you look at the programs of pre-Leninist groups--including Lenin's own party ironically--they are fairly minimal and hardly get into the kind of doctrinal mumbo-jumbo so dear to the heart of the James P. Cannons or Tony Cliffs of the world. Mostly they involve things like "A heavy progressive or graduated income tax." That's from the Communist Manifesto. For more on this, check:

http://louisproyect.org/2011/01/05/rethinking-the-question-of-a-revolutionary-program/

Anonymous said...

Whati s the revolutionary program if the SWP?

Anonymous said...

The response to John's article and Richard Seymour's response on his blog are typical of those who want to embrace reformism but feel they need to dress it up in new clothes in order to justify this shift.

That's why they have jumped on the cyber-utopian bandwagon and adopted many of the discredited tropes of post-structuralism to give their reformist shift a contemporary spin.

Ex-revolutionaries finger wagging at revolutionaries for their so-called "failures" demonstrates the shallowness of their strategy where moralism replaces a political analysis.

In one of his blog posts Seymour criticises illusions in the celeb left and cyber-utopianism but really he's milking these illusions for all they're worth. Pretty typical of someone who is emulating the trajectory of those in Marxism Today who followed Poulantzas and Stuart Hall and eventually advised New Labour.

Illusions in reforming the capitalist state are not new but have taken on a new form in which the symptoms of neoliberalism are mistaken for their underlying causes. This is a recipe for disaster for the left.

Rosa Lichtenstein said...

Richard has replied here:

http://www.leninology.com/2013/06/the-toothless-comb-of-orthodoxy.html

Anonymous said...

Seymour's usual mix of sophistry and personal invective. Very predictable and mildly disappointing. I suppose he thinks that if he backtracks and denies what he said we're all stupid enough to fall for that ruse.

The toothless comb metaphor tells us all we need to know about how far he's willing to trivialise the distinction between reform and revolution (for him it's all reform now) which is precisely the political argument being made against him.

He's probably most upset about being made a footnote.

Roobin said...

"Seymour's usual mix of sophistry and personal invective".

Thank goodness Anon's above all that (although, that said, my wilderness comment was a bit extravagant given the circumstances). What Richard said was clear and easily understandable - both Anon and John are wilfully misunderstanding:

"It is surely obvious that I was describing the huge gap between what revolutionaries are 'subjectively' committed to, and their 'objective' day to day actions. This was the point of the Macintyre quote. It doesn't mean that one cannot be 'subjectively' committed to revolutionary socialism, and that one cannot organise with that in mind, outside of a revolutionary situation. Indeed, I think it's important that people do so, to connect their day to day actions with a longer-term perspective and strategy. That's why, in the same interview, I stressed the need for a revolutionary pole within a reconstituted left. I'm for revolutionary parties. I'm just not for authoritarian, bureaucratic, hierarchical sects which cover up rape allegations."

I managed to grasp it first time around. I must just be special...

Anonymous said...

The artificial separation of the subjective and the objective is exactly the problem with Seymour's mechanical formulation. He's not being judged on one quote but on his politics as a whole. As for his perpetuation of the lies and slander about the how the DC handled rape allegations that is beneath contempt. It just confirms that he'll stoop to any level in an attempt to win a political debate.

Roobin said...

Is it fair to say you like a drink, Anon...?

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't it surprise me that you resort to personal insults, Roobin?

Roobin said...

You wouldn't get it because it's all "lies and slander".

Anonymous said...

No, I don't "get" internet gossip and sectarian mudslinging dressed up as political debate. And I hope I never will.

Tom Delargy said...

Whoever the anonymous critic of Richard Seymour is, I like his style a lot. I am probably going to have to write quite a lot but don't have time to do it in one go. Richard Seymour's lack of clarity can be traced to his academic 'Marxism'. Lenin and Trotsky, Gramsci and Luxemburg bent over backwards to communicate ideas. if they used metaphor they knew their audience would get it from the context. With Seymour the more mysterious he is the better for his career, the harder it is for his critics to pin anything on him as it is like pinning jelly to the wall. Chris Harman explained this wonderfully, as has John Molyneux over the years. Having said this, I am not sure I completely agree with John. Some of the critics of sects do have a point. And this brings us back to Seymour's splitters. While it is great his cancer has gone, others raised criticisms that the SWP need to address. Changes in the regime will help build a robust workers party. Can it be a purely revolutonary party today? I wish this was possible, but I think we need to take a step back. No revolutionary party cn be built without using elections, and first past the post necessitates compromises with centrists and even some reformists. A democratic centralist faction can be built inside a broad workers party. TUSC/Left Unity can provide an incubator within with a Leninist Party can grow to maturity. If expelled by Kate Hudson (as is possible), then the SWP has to create a party that allows factions that can challenge a centrist party like Left Unity etc.

Srikanto Bormon said...

I like it extremely varied and provide information that helps you in finding new information. pleased to meet- Transportation
Warfare
Medical
Clothing
Communication
Entertainment
Electric
Financial
Food Preparation
Green Technology
Software
Instruments
Office

Srikanto Bormon said...

Lots of information about the provided treatment.
Good thing you have it shared: Transportation
Warfare
Medical
Clothing
Communication
Entertainment
Electric
Financial
Food Preparation
Green Technology
Software
Instruments
Office