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.