Wednesday, February 6th, 2013


To follow on from the previous post and since I am copyediting my big Lenin book, a discussion of the role of reform:

One might expect that Lenin would opt clearly for revolution over against reform, for an abolition of the current system over against tinkering with it in order to make life more bearable. A selective reading of Lenin’s texts can give this impression. Reform is thereby described as a “tinkering with washbasins” (characteristic of the Zemstvos), that is, introducing reliable water supply, electric trains, lighting, and other “developments” that do not threaten the foundations of the “existing social system” (CW 10: 189; LPSS 12: 263). Such reform may therefore be seen as a response by the bourgeoisie to the strength of the working class, attempting to steer the workers away from revolution by emphasizing reform. Even more, reformism is “bourgeois deception of the workers,” who will always remain wage-slaves as long as capital dominates: “The liberal bourgeoisie grant reforms with one hand, and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery” (CW 19: 372; LPSS 24: 1). In other words, reform is a bourgeois weapon designed to weaken the working class. Yet, should the foundations of the system be threatened, when the proletariat begins its own onslaught of that system, all the various dimensions of “tinkering with washbasins” will be abolished before we can slip out a fart.

It follows that those socialists who see the prime task at hand to be reform miss the elephant in the room, for they wish to alleviate the conditions under which they work and do not realize that the problem lies in those conditions themselves (CW 5: 387; LPSS 6: 42; CW 10: 378–80; LPSS 13: 62–64). As Lenin observes in relation to debates, especially with the Mensheviks, over voting in the Duma elections, the danger is not whether some conservative party or other will win the elections, by fair means or foul, but in the very elections themselves: the danger “is manifested not in the voting, but in the definition of the conditions of voting” (CW 11: 459; LPSS 14: 277–78). One should never rest with what is given, but work to change that given. And the reason is that by fighting on the ground chosen by the enemy, reformists strengthen the power of their enemy.

What, then, is the function of reform? Is it to be dismissed entirely as a bourgeois deception and as a socialist compromise with the status quo? Contrary to initial impressions, Lenin does see a clear role for reform. In a daring formulation that is based on revolutionary experience, he argues that the opposition of revolution and reform is itself false. One cannot have either one or the other; instead, the condition for reform is revolution itself. Without any revolutionary agitation, reform would simply not exist: “either revolutionary class struggle, of which reforms are always a by-product … or no reforms at all” (CW 23: 213; LPSS 30: 282). In this light, reforms may be understood as temporary reconciliation with a partial victory or even failure in which the old system has been shaken but has not yet collapsed (CW 11: 30-31; LPSS 13: 221). More importantly, reform becomes a central feature of revolutionary agitation, a means of raising the consciousness of workers and peasants, a way of both alleviating conditions in the intermediate period and of pointing out that those conditions are the problem. In this way, workers will see through the false promises of reformism and utilize reforms to strengthen their class struggle. Or, to put it simply, as Lenin recommends to public speakers and the Social-Democratic Duma representatives, “five minutes of every half-hour speech are devoted to reforms and twenty-five minutes to the coming revolution” (CW 23: 159; LPSS 30: 221).

It is reasonably common refrain these days that social-democrats (or labour parties) have abandoned their true beliefs, that they have become proponents of rampant capitalism, that the only people who vote for them are middle class. This assumes that once upon a time the social-democrats stood for a political philosophy that was distinct and would make the world a better place. That’s crap, since social-democracy has always been deeply problematic.

To be clear, by ‘social-democrat’ I mean the political movements and parties that split away from the socialists in 1914. Before then, communists were known as social-democrats. But when the German Social-Democratic Party voted in favour of war credits so Germany could begin the First World War, the difference became apparent. Other social-democratic parties followed suit in their own countries, thereby destroying what had been a consensus in the Second International until then: workers would refuse to fight in an imperialist war, turning their weapons against the capitalists. When the national social-democratic parties broke that agreement and supported their respective war efforts, they revealed their true colours.

The most obvious of those was an acceptance of bourgeois democracy as the untranscendable horizon within which they would work. They soon dropped the ‘bourgeois’ epithet from ‘democracy’ and argued that the ballot-box was the only way to achieve lasting change. The problem, of course, was that they chose to fight on ground not of their own choosing. That ground was chosen and laid out by the bourgeoisie, which thereby was able to set the terms of debate, the acceptable range of what could and could not be changed, which boiled down to a liberal program and the unquestioned validity of capitalism. Social-democratic parties were all too happy to oblige, feeling that they had a better agenda for making capitalism work.

This means that any change has to take the path of reform. Illegal activity is unacceptable, and social-democrats have often been the harshest on any extra-parliamentary communist agitation. But pure reform (without being subservient to a revolutionary program) entails an evolutionary approach. The champion of this was Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932). He infamously argued that workers could persuade the bourgeoisie of the benefits of social-democracy, to which they would then turn in grateful acceptance. All one need do is use the sacrosanct bourgeois parliaments to achieve the necessary reforms. Bernstein liked to think that the tail would wag the dog, but the reality is that the dog was and is firmly in control of the tail. I would suggest that all social-democratic parties today are Bernsteinian by default.

That leads to some of the oddest arguments I have heard of late: social-democrats governments have actually achieved socialism by parliamentary means. I hear it reasonably regularly in relation to Scandinavia, but it has also been trotted out in regard to Scotland (!), the UK and even Australia. And it is made by those who identify as being on the Left. This position is coupled with two other assumptions. First, the communisms of Eastern Europe and Asia are assumed to be travesties, of no worth. Indeed, the achievements of Western social-democratic governments outshine – so it is asserted – any of those ‘pseudo-communisms’. Second, this curious position often appears with a good deal of nostalgia. Once social-democrats believed they could change the world: nationalise industrious and banks, establish welfare states, provide universal education. Once upon a time they actually achieved a Bernsteinian socialism. But now they have ceased to be true believers. I’m sorry, but the only faith of social-democrats is capitalism and bourgeois democracy.