The Current Relevance of an Old Debate



I'm posting this essay in response to some of the comments from Bhaskar's "Beyond Good and Evil" post.  First, I will fess up and say that my arguments are largely derived from the book Revolutionary Strategy by the British Marxist and academic lawyer Mike Macnair. I don't claim to be offering anything particularly original here. Furthermore, what I write may not seem to have direct relevance for socialists in the U.S., where we lack even a labor party run by right-wing "Third Way" neoliberals. But since the hundred-plus year old debate in the original Social Democratic Party of Germany -- between the "revisionist" Eduard Bernstein, the "centrist" Karl Kautsky, and the "left radical" Rosa Luxemburg -- came up in discussion, I thought I'd weigh in.

The dominant tendency on the Left for the last century has its roots in the right wing of the socialist movement, of which Eduard Bernstein was the official theoretician. This tendency, as Bernstein suggested, has participated in cross-class coalition “left” governments as a means of achieving reform. However, the parties of official Social Democracy are largely now as committed to free market dogmas as the parties of the Right. They are not so much “social democratic” as “social liberal.” It makes no sense to think of the UK's Tony Blair, Germany's Gerhard Schröeder, Italy's Romano Prodi or or France's Laurent Fabius as social democrats.To the left of the social liberals are parties, often with roots in the old official Communist movement, which are either “real,” Cold War-era style social democrats (like Die Linke, in Germany) or which claim to be anti-capitalist and want more than reform (like Rifondazione Comunista in Italy).

Such parties are confronted with a rather old question whenever they become sizable: should they participate in coalition governments controlled by social-liberals – people with “Third Way” politics – in order to keep out the open parties of the Right?

By and large – perhaps out of the desire to bring marginal advantages to the exploited and oppressed -- this is what they have done. They have been sucked into the role of junior partners to the social-liberals in administering the capitalist regime, and thereby undermined their claim to offer an alternative to the neoliberal consensus. The Brazilian Workers Party was originally a radical, “social movement” party; it is now a social-liberal party of coalition government, participating as a minority. Rifondazione joined Prodi’s Unione coalition government, with disastrous results. Die Linke is in a social-liberal regional government in Berlin. And we are seeing the same thing happen again in Iceland, with the Left Greens joining with the social-liberal Social Democratic Alliance in government as a minority partner.

So, this essentially Bernsteinian strategy is a dead end as a means of achieving significant reform, let alone anti-capitalist revolution. It is a “get rich quick scheme” that never pays off.

On the other side is the revolutionary Left, mostly Trotskyist. (Anarchist, too, but anarchist organizations usually have an ephemeral existence and I won’t be analyzing them.)Like the semi-syndicalist wing of the Second (Socialist) International – which Rosa Luxemburg partially represented – Trotskyists imagine that partial, trade union, etc. struggles can be led into a generalized “mass strike” challenge to the capitalist state, and in the course of that challenge they can guide the movement to the seizure of power in the form of “all power to the soviets” – in spite of their marginal numbers before the crisis breaks out.

Taken together with the autocratic centralism of most Trotskyist organizations and their secretive, hide-behind-a-front-group tactics, this policy amounts almost exactly to the policy of Mikhail Bakunin and the Bakuninist anarchists in 1870-73. It has had almost as little success as the Bakuninists’ projects. Before 1991, the Trotskyists could more or less plausibly account for this failure by the dominance in the global workers’ movement of the USSR bureaucracy and hence of official Communism. Since 1991, official Communism's global political collapse has left the Trotskyists without this excuse. Without the Soviet Union and official Communism to its right, Trostkyism has proved to be politically rudderless.

To say this is not to reject in principle mass strikes or one-day general strikes or even insurrectionary general strikes. The point is that these tactics, which may be appropriate under various conditions, do not amount to a strategy for socialist revolution. And for those Trotskyists who have rejected the mass-strike strategy, “revolution” reduces to the need for the “Leninist party”: that is, to a version of the false conclusions about the need for quasi-military centralism that the early Communist International drew from the belief that Europe was about to enter into generalized civil war.

So, like the coalitionist social democrats, Trotskyists think they can get rich quick, without engaging in the long hard slog involved in building a mass party and associated organizations (cooperatives of various sorts, workers’ educational institutions, workers’ media, etc.). They effectively think they can con the working class into taking power (this is what “transitional demands” amount to), even if they don't realize that this is what they are trying to do.

This is where the Kautskyan “strategy of patience” comes in, where the workers’ party/movement builds up its forces over the long term to the point at which it is finally able to take power with majority support. The party refuses get-rich-quick coalitionist schemes as well “mass strike” fantasies. It instead fights, as the early SPD did, for an opposition that will openly express the independent interests of the working class. Without beginning with the struggle for an opposition, there is no chance of confronting in the future the problem of an alternative governing authority to that of the capitalists.

In parliamentary regimes, which are now a common form across most of the globe, the capitalists rule immediately through the idea that the point of elections is to give legitimacy to a government that heads up the existing, bureaucratic, coercive state – and electing representatives to the parliament or other representative bodies is only a way of choosing a government. This fetishism of government forces the formation of parties and coalitions in which the capitalists’ immediate paid agents have a veto over policy, and creates the corrupt duopoly/monopoly of the professional politicians.

Within this political regime – with its corruption, its statism, its dependence on the financial markets, etc. – to govern is to serve capital, regardless of the government's desires; and, therefore, to create a coalition that aims to pose as an alternative government within this political regime is also to serve capital. To fight for an opposition is to insist that socialists will not take responsibility for government without commitment to fundamental change in the political regime. This means establishing a regime in which -- in addition to the political liberties partially provided by liberal constitutionalism (freedom of speech, assembly, association, movement, etc) and an extension of these liberties, there is:

  • universal military training and service, democratic political and trade union rights within the military, and the right to keep and bear arms;
  • election and recallability of all public officials; public officials to be on an average skilled workers’ wage;
  • abolition of official secrecy laws and of private rights of copyright and confidentiality;
  • self-government in the localities: i.e., the removal of powers of central government control and patronage and abolition of judicial review of the decisions of elected bodies;
  • abolition of constitutional guarantees of the rights of private property and freedom of trade.

This, by the way, is where the SPD “center” fell down. The Kautskyans fostered the illusion that the Left could simply take hold of and using the existing state. They allowed the idea of the democratic republic – which Marx and Engels saw as the immediate ­alternative to the capitalist state – to be turned into a synonym for the liberal constitutional state. The national horizons of their strategy helped support the feeding of the working class into World War I.

I firmly believe that this is still a live political issue today. The large majority of the existing Left uses nationalist arguments and seeks to take hold of and use the existing capitalist state machinery. But since the first impulse of the post-WWII social-democratic settlement began to fade, the electoral cycle has repeatedly produced weaker reformist governments that end in disillusionment, the temporary rise of the far right and the victory of ever more right-wing center-right governments.

But the Kautskyans were right on a fundamental point. Socialists can only take power when we have won majority support for working class rule through extreme democracy. There are no short cuts, whether by coalitionism or by the mass strike. The present task of socialists in liberal democracies is therefore not to fight for an alternative government. It is to fight to build an alternative opposition: one which commits itself unambiguously to self-emancipation of the working class through extreme democracy, as opposed to all the state-loyalist parties -- social-liberal, social-democratic, or outright capitalist.

This is how and why the Kautskyan strategic perspective is relevant today. The anti-capitalist Left needs a strategy of patience, like Kautsky’s: but one that is internationalist and radical-democratic, not one that accepts the existing order of capitalist nation-states.

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