Reform or Revolution, 2019 Edition

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The old debate between Luxemburg and Bernstein is back: reform or revolution? But now it is Chris Maisano from the DSA and Jacobin defending electoral politics, while Tim Horras of the Philly Socialists argues for revolution and “base building.” Here, Juan Cruz Ferre of Left Voice explains why we need a revolutionary workers’ party.

"New Planet" (1921) by Konstantin Yuon

“What is certain is not certain.
Things will not remain as they are.”
—Bertolt Brecht, In Praise of Dialectics

Two recent articles by Tim Horras and Chris Maisano are the latest iteration of the debate on reform vs. revolution. Horras is a leading member of Philly Socialists, one of the main organizations in the Marxist Center. Maisano is a staff writer for Jacobin and a member of the DSA National Political Committee.

In his piece, Horras lays out a revolutionary approach to the fight for socialism. He persuasively makes the case that a revolutionary break is inevitable, providing some healthy skepticism about the idea of an evolutionary transition to socialism through elections. His essay is a breath of fresh air among so much conformism—the politics of what’s possible here and now. As Horras points out, “Reformists turn back before even reaching the limited horizon of bourgeois legality.”

This is not a minor issue. In fact, our point of departure needs to be that in the path to socialism, we will have to break with bourgeois legality many times. The whole edifice of the capitalist state—including its system of laws, the deeply antidemocratic electoral process and, notably, law enforcement agencies—was built, perfected and adapted to better serve the reproduction of the capitalist system. Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin and Trotsky understood that the power of the state ultimately comes down to “special bodies of armed men.” Beneath the velvet glove of liberal democracy, there’s always the iron fist of the state’s repressive apparatus upholding the dictatorship of capital.

As both Horras and Maisano recognize, the capitalist state is extremely powerful. And capitalism itself has an extraordinary capacity to evolve, mutate and adapt to new realities. Marxists have often underestimated this capitalism’ ability to reinvent itself, take a new form, destroy everything and then arise from the ashes like the phoenix. But committed revolutionaries have waged the battle against capital for generations, and it has not been in vain. The experience of past revolutions, triumphant and defeated, provides a useful guide for present and future struggles, and a rigorous touchstone for our strategy.

This is the method Marx and Engels used. It differed qualitatively from previous utopian socialist schools in that Marx and Engels provided a scientific method, made use of historical experience and were ready to adapt their theory and political strategy to the real historical process. It is well known that after reporting on and closely studying the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels updated “The Communist Manifesto” with a new preface in 1872, asserting that the working class cannot simply “lay hold of the ready-made state machinery.” The necessity of a revolutionary strategy in the fight for socialism was an integral part of Marx and Engels’ theoretical and political thought.

Since then, attempts to find a path to socialism that avoids a revolutionary break have taken different names and forms—from Bernstein’s revisionism and Kautsky’s “war of attrition” in the German Social Democracy, to Mitterrand’s Popular Front in France, to “Eurocommunism” later in the 1980s, or even more recently with the lamentable experience of Syriza in Greece—but they have all been essentially the same. All these movements have two things in common: They tried to harness the power of the capitalist state—allegedly for a socialist transformation—and they all failed. What is more, political leaders of all these movements typically professed loyalty to Marx’s and Luxemburg’s ideas, but claimed that “now” it is possible to achieve socialism through winning elections and passing reforms in parliament.

The Problem With the Capitalist State

The reason for this repeated failure is to be found in the very nature of the capitalist state. A crude “instrumentalist” interpretation of the state is probably best exemplified by this quote from “The Communist Manifesto”: “The executive of the modern capitalist state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” This is fine for an agitational pamphlet, but it is insufficient for an understanding of how progressive change happens. Today, we face a much more sophisticated state apparatus than a hundred years ago. It is no wonder that, again, we see a new generation of socialists who declare the revolutionary strategy outdated and insist on using the “ready-made state machinery.” The modern state has enough flexibility to give concessions to the working class here and there, implement progressive legislation and open the doors of the U.S. Congress to a handful of “democratic socialists.” This democratic veneer provides the best shell for the dictatorship of the capitalist class, and it’s good enough to convince millions of people that we live in a democratic regime. But socialists should know better.

Under capitalism, the personnel in office can only introduce minor changes to the economic and social order. Any attempt to radically transform the structure that secures capitalist exploitation will face immediate boycott from capital. A floundering economy, with rising unemployment and negative growth, can quickly destabilize any government. For this reason, “left-wing state managers” are intent on implementing all kinds of progressive reforms as long as they don’t interfere with a favorable business environment. Guarantees for businesses and prospects of profits invite more investment, which in turn keep the economy running, maintain government revenue to fund social policies and so on. The god of the market still wants its tribute—thus, the reformists cannot propose anything more left-wing than welfare capitalism. On top of this, any attempt at anti-capitalist transformation from within the state will immediately face the staunch opposition of unelected officials who form the state bureaucracy, and the “last resort” guarantor of the capitalist order: the armed forces.

For this reason, classical Marxists—most clearly Lenin—recognized the state bureaucracy and the standing army as mainstays of the capitalist state. To begin the transition to socialism, the first task of a workers’ government is to disarm the military and arm the working class, and to replace the biased, undemocratic bourgeois parliament with workers’ councils, a qualitatively more democratic form of political power. Smashing the state doesn’t mean “smashing public schools, social security,” as Eric Blanc dishonestly suggests. Anyone who read Lenin’s “State and Revolution” knows this. Therefore, when Maisano contends that the Bolsheviks did not dismantle the capitalist state, he’s either missing the point or consciously muddling the debate.

The Question of Strategy

Maisano and his fellow neo-Kautskyans seem to recognize this at times. In his piece, Maisano claims to “take most of the constraints and limitations of electoral politics [that] Horras enumerates as a given.” Yet on the question of an eventual confrontation with the capitalist state, he provides no strategy for this other than that of electing “a left government.” He clarifies:

Democratic socialists should be humble enough to answer “we don’t quite know” how exactly a victorious outcome—one that overcomes resistance while socializing the economy and preserving political freedom—might be achieved.

But since when does having no plan constitute a good strategy? After more than 150 years of debate and fruitful experiences, is it possible to declare oneself “agnostic” on the question of how we will overcome capitalism? Or is it just a cover for the same old reformist politics?

Blanc presented a slightly different but, in essence, analogous approach in a recent debate with Charlie Post. Although he recognizes the need for a rupture with the capitalist state at some point in the future, he contends that we “can’t know what it will look like” and thus advocates we focus on winning elections.

Reformists now love to quote Marx refusing to “write recipes for the cookshops of the future.” They find in this sentence a reassertion of their blasé disregard for formulating a strategy to overthrow capitalism. But Marx was referring to the idea of predicting what a communist economy would look like, not to the strategy in the fight for socialism. Whether neo-Kautskyans like it or not, under capitalism we are in a permanent class war. The capitalist class will have to be defeated at some point in order to begin the transition to socialism. Capitalists have the most advanced weaponry and no lack of resources, but we have the numbers. Now we are in the middle of the battlefield waging the war of our lives; meanwhile, Maisano, Blanc and other advocates of the “democratic road” are telling us we should follow them, because they… have no strategy to defeat the enemy.

The Greatest Democracy in the World

As I noted before, it is important not to downplay the current capitalist state’s capacity for co-optation, accommodation and bourgeois hegemony—especially in contrast with the Russian state of 1917. Lenin himself recognized this in 1920, as did Trotsky and Gramsci in their elaborations on what they called “the West” (Western European democracies) and the difficulties of a “frontal attack” in those countries. The heirs of Karl Kautsky today, however, fail to recognize that there were revolutionary uprisings in those developed capitalist countries that had parliamentary systems, universal suffrage, the right to organize in unions and socialist parties, etc. Take the German revolution of 1918-23, or the revolution in Spain 1936-39, or Argentina and Chile in the 1970s—is the United States qualitatively more democratic than these countries? Granted, Argentina’s history in the mid-20th century is spotted with military coups, but in 1973, Chile had the longest streak of democratically elected governments in the region.

The pro-Bernie wing of the DSA argues that since the U.S. electoral system is utterly undemocratic, socialists need to support democratic candidates running on a Democratic Party ballot. This idea was first and most clearly laid out by Seth Ackerman in his “Blueprint for a New Party,” where he contended that “our situation is more like that facing opposition parties in soft-authoritarian systems.” But this contradicts the notion that the United States has a kind of liberal democracy that is qualitatively more developed than its counterparts, for example, in Latin America—a central piece in their argument for a democratic road to socialism.

When advocates of the “electoral road” assess the legitimacy of the advanced bourgeois states, they often highlight the comprehensive welfare state provided by advanced countries in Western Europe. This is a credible factor when comparing these countries to semicolonial countries in Latin America and elsewhere. But in the case of the United States, the squalid character of the welfare system can hardly inspire any allegiance to the political regime. It’s not necessary to elaborate on how adverse the health care system is to working-class people, on the regressive character of the U.S. pension system, or the Faustian bargain teenagers face when forced to take tens of thousands in loans to pursue a university degree. Suffice it to say here that many “third world” countries in Latin America have a more generous, universal health care system, free public university, state-guaranteed paid maternity leave (of three months in Argentina) and more.

So Horras is absolutely right to question a central assumption among reformists: that the state enjoys a seemingly overwhelming legitimacy. At a minimum, the majoritarian support for socialism in the United States among those aged below 35 should be interpreted as a problem of the political regime’s legitimacy. And how can we claim that a regime has great legitimacy when it leaves millions of working-class people without health insurance and condemns all the rest to be preyed on by the bloated and callous medical-industrial complex?

Of course we are not in a revolutionary situation. And because the left worldwide has retreated over the past four decades, revolutions are out of the imaginary for most people. But the blend of coercion and consent that characterizes every bourgeois regime is, in the case of the United States, leaning more and more toward the side of coercion. A measure of this is the rise of the surveillance state and the outgrowth of the repressive apparatus that Horras and Maisano mention.

The problem with Maisano’s perspective is that he, as is typical among social democrats, sees only orderly progress and stability, whereas capitalism is all about crisis and disruption. No matter how you interpret periodic economic crises, they are intrinsic to capitalism, and depending on the strength of the working class when the new downturn comes, the gains obtained in times of sharpened class struggle may be taken away by an emboldened capitalist class.

As long as we are unwilling to question this perpetual dynamic and prepare for a moment of rupture, we will be condemned to the hamster wheel of fighting for reforms under a system that is stacked against us. And the political situation in the United States could change dramatically in the next few years. The prospects of climate catastrophe already add a sense of urgency to the need for radical political change. And a successful revolution in a “weaker link” of the global capitalist order could have sweeping influence on the politics of the American left, just as the Russian and the Cuban revolutions did.

The Snapshot or the Film?

Horras shows a more nuanced (and more dialectical) understanding of historical processes. Quoting Leon Trotsky on the Russian Revolution, he highlights the dynamic character of social change and how working-class consciousness can sometimes lag behind the actual chain of events. In fact, the succession of events and the experience with bourgeois and reformist politicians advances at an incredible pace in situations of high class struggle. In 1917, the Bolsheviks had achieved a certain level of influence, with a daily newspaper that reached all cities in Russia and worker representatives in parliament, but they only influenced a minority in the soviets when the first revolution overthrew the czar in February. The accelerated experience of the masses with the provisional government allowed the Bolsheviks to become the party of the majority in the soviets by October of the same year.

But there is something missing in Horras’ piece. The connection between the vanguard, or the political leadership, and the working masses is not successfully addressed. Horras leaves some hints here and there—for example, when discussing “base building” as a vital link to the community. Beyond that, the reader has to figure it out. Furthermore, in the absence of a more clearly laid-out revolutionary strategy, the emphasis on the technical aspect (the need of a paramilitary force, militias and self-defense) ends up sounding too much like guerrilla strategy, even if that might not be the case.

In his rejoinder in The Call, Maisano is all too happy to seize on this weakness and equate Horras’ proposal to the preparation of a military confrontation with the state. It’s easy to mistake Horras’ proposal with Blanquism—that is, the idea that a well-organized group of revolutionaries can take over the state by force and begin the transition to socialism. The key difference between Blanquism and a Bolshevik strategy lies in that the latter recognized the need to win over the majority of the working class to the program of a social revolution and a workers’ government.

Horras is right to assert that “if civil war is likely to be an inevitable component of the transition to socialism, our movement must make every preparation necessary.” But the preparation cannot be military training + base building.

Vanguard and Masses

There are two central and interdependent tasks for revolutionaries: honing a party of revolutionary militants (a “vanguard”) and winning over the majority of the working class. The question of building a revolutionary vanguard in nonrevolutionary times is not a simple one. Any such attempt will face the risk of either abandoning the lessons of past revolutions to embrace an opportunistic road, or sticking blindly to abstract principles and degenerating into an isolated sect with no influence on the real processes of class struggle. But there is a middle road, and it is the only one that ultimately leads to socialism.

Lenin was alternatively more concerned with honing a vanguard or with breaching the gap between this and the masses of workers. In “What Is to Be Done?,” we find a strong exhortation to the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) to become an organization of professional revolutionaries, one that can eventually play a leadership role in a social revolution.

We must have people who will devote themselves exclusively to [socialist] activities, and that such people must train themselves patiently and steadfastly to be professional revolutionaries. … Our very first and most imperative duty is to help to train working class revolutionaries … raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries, and not [degrading] ourselves to the level of the “labor masses” as the Economists [reformist trade unionists] wish to do.

In 1920, at the time of writing “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” his main concern was the tragic detachment from the working masses in Germany of an already forged revolutionary vanguard.

The proletarian vanguard has been won over ideologically. … But that is still quite a long way from victory. … The immediate objective of the [the Communist parties] is to be able to lead the broad masses (who are still, for the most part, apathetic, inert, dormant and convention-ridden) to their new position, or, rather, to be able to lead, not only their own party but also these masses in their advance and transition to the new position. While the first historical objective (that of winning over the class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat to the side of Soviet power and the dictatorship of the working class) could not have been reached without a complete ideological and political victory over opportunism and social-chauvinism, the second and immediate objective, which consists in being able to lead the masses to a new position ensuring the victory of the vanguard in the revolution, cannot be reached without the liquidation of Left doctrinairism, and without a full elimination of its errors.

The Importance of Workers’ Councils

A glaring omission in Horras’ piece is the importance of workers’ councils, or soviets.

The inevitability of a revolutionary confrontation creates the need for a revolutionary party and a revolutionary strategy. In combination with the task of organizing the working-class vanguard mentioned above, there needs to be a clear game plan, a strategy, for when the revolutionary situation comes and poses the question of assaulting the bourgeois state. The insurrection is like the “peak in the mountain of chain events” that is a revolution. The “art of insurrection” consists of finding the balance between the level of conspiracy necessary to plan the insurrection and the spontaneous uprising of the revolutionary masses. In the words of Trotsky,

An element of conspiracy almost always enters to some degree into any insurrection. Being historically conditioned by a certain stage in the growth of the revolution, a mass insurrection is never purely spontaneous.

After years of building its ranks in the working class, having its members rise as “tribunes of the people” and being recognized as the most resolute fighters against capital and against all kinds of oppression, the revolutionary party is set to play a crucial role, because

the masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses.

But there still remains an unresolved question, which highlights the importance of Horras’ omission. What is the link between the party of the revolution and the working masses? In other words, how do we avoid an adventuristic or Blanquist approach?

The answer to this question is the bodies of workers’ self-organization: soviets, workers’ councils, factory councils, “coordinadoras,” “cordones industriales.” In different places and different times, they take a variety of names and characteristics, but the essence is always the same: a self-organized body of workers who democratically debate and decide on a variety issues, from the very production and distribution of goods to the next steps in the collective struggle for a workers’ government. These bodies start as organs of the broadest united front of working-class resistance to the capitalists. But in the course of a revolution, they can transform into organs of insurrection and a workers’ government. It is in these spaces that revolutionaries fight for their ideas and program and make a patient, consistent attempt to win over the majority of the working class.

The renewed interest in socialism in the United States has reopened the conversation on strategy, and the age-old debate—reform or revolution. As Rosa Luxemburg said,

That is why people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.

While the majority of the DSA leadership and Jacobin are trying to put old reformist ideas in new clothes, there are also voices challenging the idea of reaching socialism through the Democratic Party. But it is not enough to understand the historic necessity (and inevitability) or revolutionary change. We also need to draw the key strategic lessons from the past. For us, this means building a revolutionary party and a strategy that relies on soviet-type organizations, while acknowledging the difficulties of revolutionary work within advanced bourgeois democracies. Such a strategy can provide a road map for a definitive rupture with capitalism.

About author

Juan Cruz Ferre

Juan Cruz Ferre

Juan is a writer and editor for Left Voice. He is a political activist and medical doctor from Argentina and is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the City University of New York.