Thursday, July 04, 2013

Sameh Naguib on what has happened in Egypt.

As news comes through of the Egyptian military ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi, after immense demonstrations by the Egyptian people, I'm posting this brief statement from my comrade Sameh Naguib of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists. This is because the situation is complex and I have the highest regard for his political understanding.


We have just removed the second president in only 30 months. It is a second revolution, a mass movement of millions. The scale of the mobilisations is unprecedented.
On the ground people have gained huge confidence in their ability to change history.
This is a contradictory situation. It is formally a military coup. The army has effectively arrested the president and 77 leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.
They intervened to save themselves from a new revolution.
But at the same time it is a mass popular revolt. The people forced the army to act, and the army only did so because they were worried about their own future.
This is the second time they have done so. They are running out of choices. If Morsi was a failure then the bourgeois alternatives, such as Mohamed El Baradei, are weak.
This is not the end of democracy, nor a simple military coup.
Revolution is actually an extremely democratic process. Simply voting every few years is a joke compared to this. The army is trying to cut this process off.
Major strikes were planned for tomorrow, Thursday. Bus and train workers, cement workers and Suez canal workers were all due to walk out. The protests could have developed into a general strike—the vast majority of the protesters are working class.
It’s not over.
Right now there is euphoria, and people are cheering soldiers. But those celebrating in the streets are not stupid. They know what the police and army have done in the past.
Expectations of change are sky high. They are higher even than they were when we brought down Mubarak. But the possibility of any new government being able to offer genuine reforms is very limited.
People feel empowered and entitled by the events of the last few days. They brought down the president after just one year because he did not deliver, and they will do it again.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Understanding Left Reformism

Understanding Left Reformism

Written for Irish Marxist Review 6 now online at

John Molyneux

There is something of a vogue for left reformism on the left at the moment.  I stress ‘on the left’ because it couldn’t yet be described as a societal phenomenon, except with Syriza in Greece. It doesn’t generally proclaim itself as left reformism preferring to sail under such flags as ‘fresh thinking’, ‘rethinking the left’ and ‘left unity’. Nevertheless the trend is real and perceptible both in Ireland and internationally.

In Ireland the TDs, Clare Daly and Joan Collins, are trying to create a new political formation called United Left and there have just recently been two forums of the left in Dublin devoted to this sort of project: the first, organised by Daly and Collins, featured former Socialist Party member Roger Silverman who argued (a familiar theme this) against the way ‘Leninist/Trotskyist vanguards’ work in favour of a broad anti- capitalist coalition on the model of Marx’s First International;  the second, organised by Look Left, was addressed by the American sociologist, Erik Olin Wright, who analysed the left historically, in terms of three tendencies – ‘ruptural’ (revolutionary), ‘intersticial’ (anarchist/utopian) and ‘symbiotic’ (reformist) – and called for them all to work together, although he was fairly dismissive of the revolutionary tendency.

In Britain, in recent months, Owen Jones (author, broadcaster and Left Labour Member), Nick Wrack (former Socialist Party, Socialist Alliance,and SWP member)[1]  and Ken Loach (socialist film director, former Respect, etc.) have all issued calls for a new movement/party of the left. Here is Owen Jones:

Britain urgently needs a movement uniting all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity, inflicted on this country without any proper mandate.

What is missing in British politics is a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the Coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity, Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated.[2]

And Ken Loach:

If the unions said we’re going to do what we did a century ago, we’re going to found a party to represent the interests of labour, and we will only support candidates who will support policies of the left then we could start again. But we need a new movement and a new party. And it needs all the people on the left of the Labour party who’ve spent their life complaining about it to get out and start a new one, with the unions.
It needs the unions because they have resources. If Unite, Unison, GMB, you know, said we’ve had enough… But they’re like dogs, the more you kick them the more they creep back to master. And they actually need to wake up and say this is not going to happen, we’re not going to reclaim the Labour party…The unions have got to cut the ties, start again, with everyone on the left, with all the campaigns, the NHS campaign, the housing campaign, the community services campaigns – everybody. And let’s begin again, and then we could really move.[3]

And Ed Rooksby in ‘Why it’s time to realign the left’ has attempted a theoretical/strategic articulation of Loach’s call. He writes:

The major difficulty in the traditional revolutionary approach, then, is in its rejection of the very idea of taking power within the political structures of capitalism.
So neither the traditional reformist approach nor the traditional revolutionary strategy seems adequate. We need, instead, a strategy that seeks to combine elements of both. In his book The Dialectic of Change the Russian theorist Boris Kagarlitsky seeks to elaborate just such an approach. Revolutionary transformation, he argues, can only emerge organically and dialectically from a process of radical reform set in motion by a socialist government. He calls this approach "revolutionary reformism".
…It is hard to see how the left in Europe can avoid the problem of taking power in a left government if it is serious about changing society.[4]

Elsewhere in Europe, there are a number of broadly similar political formations – Melenchon’s Front de Gauche in France, the Danish Red-Green Alliance, the Left Bloc in Portugal, the United Left in Spain, Die Linke in Germany and, above all of course, Syriza in Greece.

In a sense, the reason for the emergence of this trend is very straightforward. We have had five years of deep capitalist crisis, the painful effects of which are being felt by working class people more or less everywhere. During this crisis, right wing and mainstream reformism has either openly collaborated with the ruling class in making working people pay (as with the Labour Party in Ireland and PASOK in Greece) or has been completely ineffectual in terms of mounting any resistance (Labour in Britain, the centre-left in Italy etc). At the same time the revolutionary left has nowhere succeeded in making a sufficient breakthrough to pose a credible alternative to more than a small minority of workers. In these circumstances a certain turn to left reformism is anything but surprising.

Reformism and Left Reformism

To understand this phenomenon further, it is necessary to begin with a few remarks about reformism in general. Most of the time under capitalism, the consciousness of most working class people is reformist: they object to many of the effects of capitalism – this cut, this tax, this policy, this government etc – without rejecting the system as a whole. Alternatively, they dislike the system as a whole but do not believe they, i.e. the mass of working people, have the ability to change it. In either case, they look to someone else to do the job for them.

Corresponding to this reformist consciousness, there are reformist politicians, parties and organisations who step forward with the message that they are the ones who will deliver the desired change or changes on behalf of the masses.  A distinction must, of course, be made between workers with reformist consciousness and leaders or organisations engaged in a reformist political project.  With the former their ‘reformism’ tends to be relatively unformed and fluid; it can easily be a bridge to action (a campaign, trade union struggle, etc.) which in turn can lead to the development of revolutionary consciousness. With the latter,  it is usually more coherent, more set against revolution, and crucially is attached to various institutional and personal privileges (political career, parliamentary seat, trade union office etc.) which give its bearers a certain vested interest in the existing system.

Historically, the main political expression of reformism has been the Labour, social democratic and socialist parties originally associated with the Second (or Socialist) International, founded in 1889 and dominated by German Social Democracy (SPD), and usually closely linked to their respective national trade union bureaucracies.[5] The British Labour Party, the Irish Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, the Portuguese Socialist Party, and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party are all examples of this kind of party.

However, these are by no means the only political expressions of reformism*. Next in importance historically are the Communist Parties which started moving towards

* It should be noted in passing that the idea, sometimes canvassed on the left, that reformism has ceased or is ceasing to be a problem either because capitalism can no longer grant reforms or because the Social Democratic Parties have become pro- capitalist parties, is thoroughly mistaken. Reformism will be with us as long as we have capitalism.

reformism in the Popular Front period of the mid-1930s and completed the journey in the post-war period and especially with what became known as Eurocommunism. But there are many other forms ranging from various reform campaigns and NGOs, to Green Parties, to some left nationalist parties. Sinn Fein in Ireland and the Scottish National Party both present themselves to the electorate as parties of reform and rest to some extent on reformist consciousness in the working class.

Reformism also, by its nature, covers a wide political spectrum from right to left. On its right flank (and usually confined to its top leaders) there is a wing of reformism which is closely linked to the ruling class and often accepted by it as a recognised ally. These leaders usually take some care to maintain a certain verbal distance between themselves and the main right wing capitalist parties (Tories, Christian Democrats etc) but it is a very thin line and, mostly, just for public consumption. Tony Blair is probably the outstanding recent example of this type but Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte also belong to this category. On the left flank of reformism there are both leaders and supporters who border on the revolutionary left and are willing, on particular issues and campaigns, to work with revolutionaries. For various historical reasons – primarily the role of republicanism and the Workers Party – the Irish Labour Party barely has a left-wing but in Britain Tony Benn, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are obvious examples.

There is seldom a clear boundary between right and left reformism with many intermediate stopping points and the journey from left (at the beginning of a political career) to right (as a position in government gets closer or is achieved) is a very familiar one: Eamon Gilmore, Harold Wilson, Lionel Jospin are  examples. However, at the risk of being schematic, the distinction between right/moderate reformism and left reformism can be formulated as follows: right/moderate reformism more or less openly accepts and supports the continuation of capitalism, while presenting itself to working people as being able to improve it, and run it better  - more in working class interests - than the
party or parties of the rich; left reformism is anti-capitalist but suggests that capitalism can be changed or moved in a socialist direction by means of a series of ‘strategic’ reforms. Hence the key role in left reformist thinking of a ‘Left Government’ – to which I shall return.

Marxism and Left Reformism

Historically, the main current of left reformism grew up alongside and to some extent within the Marxist movement. The parties of the Second International in the period 1889- 1914 were broad workers’ parties which contained, nationally and internationally, a right wing, a left wing, and a centre. The right, such as Eduard Bernstein in Germany, Turati in Italy and the Fabians in Britain, were reformists. The left, Lenin and the Bolsheviks and Trotsky in Russia, Luxemburg and Liebknecht in Germany etc, were revolutionary socialists. Between theses two poles was a large centre, led and epitomised by Kautsky in Germany, that often used the language of orthodox Marxism, but in practice always conciliated the right and focused on the gradual organisational and parliamentary accumulation of forces.[6]

At first this was not well understood by almost any of the participants. Marx and Engels themselves had barely written anything about organized reformism because, by and large, the phenomenon and its effects only started to emerge at the end of their lives and took clear shape only after their deaths (though Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme in 1875, and his and Engels’ ‘Circular Letter’ in 1879 show that they were picking up danger signals). Lenin and Luxemburg (and Plekhanov, Trotsky and others) came out clearly against Bernstein’s open revisionism but, while Luxemburg sensed Kautsky’s (and Bebel’s) conservatism, none of the Marxist revolutionaries broke with him or with the rest of the left reformist Social Democrats, until 1914 and their support for the imperialist war.

When Lenin did break from Kautsky after August 1914 he carried out a root and branch critique of the Marxism of the Second International including its philosophy (in his Philosophical Notebooks, Vol .38 of his Collected Works), its economics, especially in Imperialism- the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and its politics in The State and Revolution.[7] In this last book,  Lenin identified and emphasized that the key theoretical and practical distinction between left reformists and revolutionary Marxists on the question of the state was that the former aimed to take over and transform the existing state machine, hoping to use it for socialist or working class purposes whereas the latter, following Marx on the Paris Commune, held that the working class would not be able to use the existing capitalist state but would have to ‘smash’ it and replace it with its own, new workers’ state. On the basis of the experience of the Russian Revolution Lenin argued that this would be a state of workers’ councils or ‘soviets’ (the Russian word for council).

…only workers’ Soviets, and not parliament, can be the instrument whereby the aims of the proletariat will be achieved. And, of course, those who have failed to understand this up to now are inveterate reactionaries, even if they are the most highly educated people, most experienced politicians, most sincere Socialists, most erudite Marxists, and most honest citizens and family men.[8]

This point is of huge theoretical importance because it makes concrete in relation to the process of revolution the fundamental Marxist principle of working class self emancipation.[9] Strategies for the taking over of the existing state are, by their nature, ones in which the pre-eminent active role is played by parliamentary leaders, and other notables, who assume control of government ministries, the police, the armed forces etc., while the role of the masses is to provide support for this process at the top. Strategies for the smashing of the existing state are ones in which the workers themselves actually confront and defeat the state, city by city, town hall by town hall, police station by police station, and themselves create the new state workers’ council by workers council.

Another theoretical implication is for the understanding of nationalisation and state ownership – always emphasised by left reformists. Nationalisation by the capitalist state is not socialism but state capitalism. As Engels said in Anti-Duhring:

The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head.[10]

But whether the goal is to take over or smash the capitalist state also has huge practical implications for socialists in the day-to-day struggle long before we arrive at a revolutionary situation. For example, it shapes our attitude to the police, the courts, and the armed forces. Our attitude to the police is not based on an assessment of the character of all, or most, individual cops, but on an understanding that this is a capitalist institution which our class will need to defeat and dismantle. Consequently, we do not call for the strengthening of the police or the state generally to deal, for example, with crime or anti-social behaviour.

Most importantly, it has implications for how socialists should organise. If the perspective is to take over the state machine, then the most obvious way to do that is to win a parliamentary majority at a general election – indeed it is the only way to do it short of some kind of revolutionary coup d’etat which has zero chance of succeeding in an advanced capitalist country. But winning a parliamentary majority clearly requires as broad a party as possible that is also compatible with a left programme i.e. it certainly requires a party that contains both reformists (albeit left reformists) and revolutionaries like the parties of the Second International and like Syriza today. This is especially the case given that it is highly unlikely that the majority of working class people will achieve fully revolutionary consciousness other than in and through a revolution.

If, on the other hand, the goal is to smash the state then what is needed is a revolutionary combat party capable of acting in a decisive way to lead the masses in an insurrection. This cannot be done by a party that is fifty-fifty, or some other balance, of reformist and revolutionary since the reformist wing would be able to paralyse the party at the crucial moment and prevent it taking decisive action.

Lenin said, ‘Political questions cannot be mechanically separated from organisational ones and anybody who accepts or rejects the Bolshevik party organisation independently of whether or not we live at a time of proletarian revolution has completely misunderstood it’ [11]. With equal truth, we can say that the question of what form party organisation should take cannot be separated from our understanding of the nature of the capitalist state.  (It is important to grasp this connection because some people on the left are currently rejecting ‘Leninist’ organisation as if it were simply an organisational question, without considering its relationship to the tasks of socialists in relation to the state.)

A Government of the Left?

As we have noted, the question of a ‘left government’ is of central importance for the left reformist project. For most left reformists it is seen the principle means of achieving their political goals and as such tends to become the overriding priority to which most day-to-day political activity and campaigning is subordinate. However, pinning down what exactly defines a ‘left government’ is by no means straightforward and left reformists themselves would generally prefer the matter to remain rather fuzzy. It is easier to say what a left government is not. 

It is not a typical social democratic or Labour government of the kind which has become extremely familiar in Europe over the last fifty years or so; it is not a Blair- Brown British Labour government, or a François Hollande French socialist government, or PASOK in Greece or Gerhard  Schröder SPD government or an Irish Labour government (should such a thing come to pass). It is not, in other words, a pro- free market, pro- US, pro-imperialist  business-as-usual government with perhaps a slight inflection towards moderate Keynesianism and the welfare state. Nor, obviously, is it full blown workers’ power with the takeover of banks and major corporations under workers’ control,  directly initiating the abolition of capitalism and the transition to socialism. It is somewhere in between.

At a minimum a left government is one that, while operating within a capitalist framework, would nevertheless governs against the capitalist grain; i.e. it would implement a series of reforms to which the capitalist class would be opposed and which would benefit working class people and the oppressed and it would fairly consistently try to defend working class people and attacks on their living standards emanating from the system. It would also be a reasonable minimum expectation of such a government that its foreign policy, if not based on militant anti-imperialism and socialist internationalism, would at least refrain from outright support for and collusion with imperialism and imperialist wars.

At the higher end of the scale, a left government would be one that does the above and seriously attempts to erode capitalist power by, for example, gradually bringing ever greater sections of the economy into public ownership and, crucially, initiating more democratic forms of management and beginning the process of bringing the state apparatuses (police, army etc.) under democratic control. In foreign policy, it would not only shun direct collusion with imperialism but also actively support and build alliances with anti-imperialist liberation movements and anti-war movements internationally. In this way, such a government might prepare the ground for or ‘open the way’ to a thorough socialist transformation of society after, say, a five or ten year period and a fresh mandate from the electorate.

The key question is, of course, is such a government possible? It is not so much whether or not it could be elected – clearly, in certain circumstances it could -  Syriza could easily be elected in Greece – but whether or not it would be able to govern in an ‘anti-capitalist’ way in either the weaker or the stronger sense of the term?

The historical experience

Ireland has never had a left government; however, there exists a considerable international experience on which we can draw and from which we can learn.

One of the administrations most frequently cited as an example of what can be achieved by a left government is the British Labour Government of 1945-51 under Clement Attlee. Left reformists, like Tony Benn, have always pointed to the Attlee government as epitomising the ‘old Labour’ to which they wanted to return and recently the socialist film director, Ken Loach, has released The Spirit of 45 – a film devoted to evoking and celebrating that moment in British history – to coincide with his call for the formation of a new left wing party to resist the current Tory Government’s massive onslaught on the welfare state. What earned this government its reputation on the left was its development of the welfare state, above all the creation of the National Health Service, and its substantial programme of nationalisation.

The 1945 Government did not start the British welfare state from nothing -its origins go back to the Liberal Government of 1906-14 which brought in old age pensions, unemployment and health insurance – but the three acts it introduced in 1946 (the National Health Act, and two National Insurance Acts) and the National Assistance Act of 1948 were reforms of major importance. There is no gainsaying the fact that these measures, and especially the establishment of the NHS – free to all at the point of provision- made for a significant improvement in the lives of British working class people.

In terms of public ownership, 1946 saw the nationalisation of the mines with the formation of the National Coal Board and the nationalisation of the Bank of England. This was followed, in 1947, by the establishment of the Central Electricity Generating Board and in 1948 with the nationalisation of the railways, inland water transport, some road haulage and road passenger transport plus Thomas Cook & Son under the British Transport Commission. In 1949, the UK gas industry was nationalized and 1,062 privately owned and municipal gas companies were merged into twelve area gas boards and, in 1951, the government nationalized the Iron and Steel industry.

To these achievements it should be added that these were years of more or less full employment (unemployment never rose above 3%) and consistently rising living standards (by about 10% per year). Moreover, between August 1945 and December 1951, over a million new homes were completed in England, Scotland, and Wales.

Clearly this is impressive but when one looks at the overall record of the government the picture is less rosy, especially when it is viewed in its wider historical context. First of all it is clear that the Attlee government in no way ‘opened the road’ to socialism in that it was followed by 13 years of Tory rule in which capitalism enjoyed the largest boom in its history, without any wholesale reversal of Labour’s policies. This was possible because the nationalization carried out by the government was state capitalist not socialist nationalization. It was the taking over of a segment of the productive forces by the existing capitalist state with no element of workers’ control or workers’ power involved. As Engels put it:

 The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians.[12]

And as far as the capitalist state was concerned, the government touched not a hair on its head. There was not a hint of abolishing or even reforming the anti-democratic House of Lords or the monarchy – no question of anything but complete ‘loyalty’ to ‘King and Country’. However the government had no qualms about using this state against workers’ taking industrial action.

Striking dockers, gas workers, miners and lorry drivers were denounced, spied upon and prosecuted. Two States of Emergency were proclaimed against them and two more were narrowly averted. Above all, the government used blacklegs against these strikes… On 18 different occasions between 1945 and 1951, the government sent troops, sometimes 20,000 of them, across picket lines to take over strikers’jobs.[13]
Also, in terms of its foreign policy, the government was thoroughly reactionary and imperialist. It deployed troops in Greece to crush the Greek resistance, waged a brutal war of counter-insurgency in Malaysia, used British troops to help restore French colonial rule in Vietnam, reinforced British rule and the Orange supremacy in Northern Ireland, backed the formation of Zionist Israel, crushed a general strike in Kenya, and supported the South African annexation of Namibia. It also sided unequivocally with the US in the cold war, manufactured the atom bomb and joined NATO in 1949.
This unusual mixture of reforms that benefited working people with strike-breaking and support for imperialism was the product of an exceptional combination of circumstances. On the one hand the government won a landslide election victory on the basis of a wide radicalization among working people during the war, but because the war had popular support it was a relatively passive radicalization that took the form of voting Labour rather than the form of mass strikes, anti-government demonstrations, anti-war mutinies and so on. On the other hand, the government coincided with a period of full employment (established during the war) and the beginning of the post-war economic boom. This made the ruling class willing and able to make concessions (allow reforms) and to go along with a Keynesian economic policy and a degree of state capitalism (nationalization). Here it is crucial to grasp: a) that the boom and the full employment were not the result of Labour’s economic policy or wisdom, rather it was international capitalist expansion created by the war and maintained after the war by the permanent arms economy; b) that this particular combination of circumstances is highly unlikely to recur, especially in Europe at the present time. 
There are, however, certain parallels with the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela.  The legacy of Chavez is discussed elsewhere in this journal by Peadar O’Grady so I will make only very brief comments here. Like the Atlee government that of Chavez was able to achieve a number of significant reforms. 
Under Chavez unemployment fell from 14.5% in 1999 to 7.8% in 2011, the percentage living in poverty fell from 62.1 to 31.9, child malnutrition fell from 4.7% to 2.9%, Social spending rose from 11.3% of GDP to 22.8%, enrollment in secondary education went from 44% to 73.3% and the number of Venezuelans with pensions rose from 500,000 to 2 million.[14] An impressive record.

[5] For a recent analysis of the reformist role of the trade union bureaucracy see John Molyneux, Marxism and trade unionism’, Irish Marxist Review 1.

[6] Because Kautsky and his followers stood in the centre of the SPD they, and the phenomenon they represented, became known in the Leninist-Trotskyist tradition as ‘centrists’. Centrism refers to political tendencies that vacillate between revolution and reformism but in practice most of the Kautskyites were left reformists.
[7] The State and Revolution was written in 1917 in the midst of the revolution but it is worth noting that its key ideas were already present in his notebooks of 1916. See V.I.Lenin, Marxism on the State, Moscow 1976.
[8] V.I. Lenin, Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, Peking 1965, p.80. It should be noted that this is written in a book in which Lenin is arguing in favour of revolutionary participation in parliament.
[9] See James O’Toole, ‘The principle of self emancipation’, Irish Marxist Review 2,

[11] Lenin, quoted in G. Lukacs, Lenin – A Study on the Unity in his Thought, London 1970, p.26.
[13] Geoff Ellen, ‘Labour and strike-breaking, 1945-51,’ International Socialism 24, Summer 1984, p.45
[14] Figures from Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal

[15] Owen Jones,Hugo Chavez proves you can lead a progressive, popular government that says no to neo-liberalism’ The Independent, Monday 8 October 2012.

[17] Franco launched his coup from Morocco and 80,000 Moroccan troops fought on his side. If the Republic had made Morocco independent this would have hugely weakened the fascists. See Andy Durgan, The Spanish Civil War, New York 2007, p.33.
[18] ‘Nearly 4000 anti-fascists are known to have been imprisoned in Catalonia up until the end of the war. Most were CNT members.’ Andy Durgan, as above, p. 99.
[19] It is a bitter irony that Pinochet was promoted to Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army by Allende on 23 August, just two weeks prior to the coup.
[20] K.Marx, The German Ideology,
[21] K.Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme
[22] See
[23] See
[24] See John Molyneux, ‘Marxism and Trade Unionism’, as above.