Socialism, reform and revolution

Chris Jones of the Revolutionary Democratic Group looks at the role of class struggle in shaping the politics of the 21st century

In the 100th edition of International Socialism, the Socialist Workers Party's theoretical journal, John Rees, the editor, and executive committee member of the Socialist Alliance, wrote a keynote article, 'Socialism in the 21st century' (all quotes unless otherwise stated are from ISJ 100, autumn 2003). This is both an intervention in an ongoing debate between the SWP and the Scottish Socialist Party within the UK and a summary of the current thinking of the SWP with regard to some of the central issues of class politics, argued in relation to the question of reform or revolution (see John Rees, Murray Smith and Nick McKerrel ISJ 97, winter 2002; and John Rees and Murray Smith ISJ 100).

This short article takes issue with John Rees's analysis from the perspective of the Democratic Platform of the Socialist Alliance, and in particular the viewpoint of the Revolutionary Democratic Group, and only deals with Murray Smith's arguments in passing.

John Rees begins by setting out what he takes to be the Labour and social democratic tradition. His claim is that socialism, for many in this tradition, means 'reformed capitalism' and that "The institutions of existing society must be the means by which such reforms are achieved" (p3).

Rees then associates this view with a history stretching back to the Chartists and their distinction between physical and moral force. He puts his particular view on the split between reformist socialism and revolution into an either-or polarity found in all times and across every continent. The general question is then reformulated in this way: "Should we merely work to pressurise the existing state, to reform it, and eventually take positions within it? Or should we seek to overthrow it with institutions, often workers' councils, arising directly out of the struggle itself?" (p4).

At first sight this may seem an entirely conventional setting out of the position of revolutionary socialists with regard to reform, but I want to point out some slippery elements to this formulation, as they come to assume greater significance later. Firstly John Rees narrows the definition of reform to an extreme point, reducing the reformist position to that of political reform. Reformist socialism is not always reformed capitalism: its origins lie in an alternative gradualist path to socialism rather than a clear difference in aims.

John Rees's reduction does not help us to confront actual reformists who have always had much more subtle arguments. Take, for example, Ramsay MacDonald, the classic formulator of reformist socialism: "Socialist change must be gradual and must proceed in stages, just as the evolution of an organism does. Society will resist too violent readjustment. Kings can be removed and a republic established by revolutions. But in establishing socialism we change organic relationships, not superficial forms of government" (quoted in B Barker [ed] Ramsay MacDonald's political writings London 1972, p158).

In this formulation MacDonald separates social and economic reform from "superficial forms of government". Reformist socialism is thus both about gradualism, in so far as it concerns social and economic change, and perhaps just as importantly a separation between political forms and social change. MacDonald was a reformist in terms of both politics and society and claimed that the state was not an instrument of class rule: rather it was an organ of society in general.

State and society

In John Rees's formulations the possibility of a separation between the approach to socialism and the form of the state is missing. This blurring of the distinction between state and society has important practical consequences. In the 1930s a series of writers - famously Richard Tawney, but also Stafford Cripps - retained a reformist socialism alongside an increasing radicalism in relation to the state. They were not convinced that socialism could be achieved through existing parliamentary mechanisms. Reformist social and economic change can be associated with radical and even revolutionary approaches to the state.

Despite some exceptions Labourism was generally characterised by a variety of approaches to socialism - both in terms of what it might entail and how it might be achieved - but a near unanimity in relation to the state and parliamentary forms. In Ralph Miliband's famous summary: "Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic - not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system" (R Miliband The state in capitalist society London 1964, p13).

Reform then has two forms that are loosely linked: reformist socialism that argues for gradual reform to introduce socialism; and reformist politics of a liberal and radical tradition that argues for change within existing political and institutional arrangements. These two types of reform were fused in classic Labourism, but are analytically distinct and at times uneasy bedfellows.

A second and related issue arises early in John Rees's argument. He argues that the divide between reform and revolution arises directly out of a fundamental aspect of working class experience in capitalism: "Working for an employer gives workers a dual consciousness. Firstly there is an unavoidable subordination to a hierarchy that begins with the supervisor and the manager and runs to the top of society. Secondly there is the sense that the people who do the work have the right to control that work and, at least potentially, the numbers to enforce their views" (p4).

Rees simplifies and blurs some key distinctions in relation to class in this account of working class experience. Who are these managers and supervisors in this system and to what class do they belong? This is a central issue in late capitalism, as these sections of society have grown in absolute size and social weight and are described both as a new middle class and as a new working class. For John Rees the working class is not differentiated, yet to get to grips with Labourism and social democracy it is necessary to understand not just bureaucracy in general, but how this social layer affects the working class in the form of a distinct caste of labour bureaucrats. Reformism does not simply reflect a dual aspect of working class experience: it is articulated and mobilised through definite social layers that have a changing weight in society and form a specific layer within the organised working class. In the UK Labour is the party of this layer - the trade union and labour bureaucracy. It could be argued that I am placing too much weight on introductory statements intended to provide a simple and clear basis for the argument. However, I contend that the failure to make some basic distinctions leads to deep and fundamental problems with overall approach. For example, John underestimates the role of class struggle beyond the workplace. He is happy to talk about the limits of capitalist control over the work process and argues that working class consciousness is never wholly pro-capitalist or wholly anti-capitalist as a result. What is underdeveloped in his argument is the place of political struggle between classes and within classes. In John Rees's portrayal a homogenised working class has a permanent schizophrenia - a contradictory consciousness. The role of revolutionaries must then be to build the confidence of the class and emphasise one aspect of this contradiction in order to release a latent revolutionary potential:

"The knack of advancing the struggle for socialism, and of understanding the balance of the argument between reform and revolution, lies in defining exactly what proportions good sense and common sense are combined in the consciousness of workers at any given time. Do we live in a time of storm and stress or of passivity and quietude? If we can determine the balance of this contradiction, then we can see how best to act to strengthen good sense and marginalise those notions that will ultimately reconcile workers with the system." (p7).

This abstract and idealist formulation ignores the foundation of reformism in struggle within the working class and through its organised forms - in trade unions and political parties, in social and political struggle. Workers are not self-organising in John's view: they have to be called into battle by more experienced and theoretically equipped generals who have the "knack" of reading the signs of the times and manipulating the mood - like the SWP no doubt.

For Rees the key to reformism is that it seeks to continue within the existing system: "Reformism raises the prospect of a better life for working class people without the necessity of transforming the whole system" (p7).

As noted earlier, this formulation ignores the tradition of reformist socialism that aims to replace capitalism and cannot conceive of a vigorous mass reformism seeking fundamental change. The socialism of the Fabians and Ramsay MacDonald was as fully expounded as many revolutionary conceptions. The way John Rees summarises the emergence of the welfare state illustrates the underestimation of reformism: ""¦ economic expansion allowed a welfare state consensus to emerge among the various parties after the Second World War" (p27).

For John the expansion of the welfare state and economic growth from 1945 until the mid-1970s were causally linked. There are some simple historical problems with this. The welfare state began with Liberal reforms in the early 1900s and the expansion of welfare state predates the economic boom and emerges as a political outcome of World War II. The measures that produced the expanded welfare state were part of an emergent consensus. The Tory, Rab Butler, designed the educational reforms, the Liberal, William Beveridge, the welfare reforms and the socialist, Nye Bevan, the NHS. The welfare state was in this sense both the product of the power of the working class and a recognition of this in terms of a political compromise by the bourgeois parties. The ruling class accepted the welfare state as a price to be paid for the acceptance by workers of the strictures of the war.

The welfare state was an historic compromise between the different social classes, as they were represented through the political parties. For this reason we prefer to call this period the social monarchy, indicating the political form this compromise took. The welfare state was also the product of years of struggle within the working class to develop a viable form of political expression. It marked the ascendancy of Labourism, a particular and local form of social democracy. The welfare state was not simply allowed by economic conditions: it was won by the working class and conceded by the ruling class in what became an historic compromise.

These distinctions are not minor questions, as John Rees analyses the changes in the welfare state as a background to making comments about current political questions. Here his arguments are part of a response to the SSP's Murray Smith and they concern the political space left by the failure of Labour to deliver reforms. In the 1970s Rees argues that the favourable economic conditions that produced the welfare state were reversed and this led to political as well as social and economic changes: "The adaptation of the British state to the work of promoting a deregulated economy required a considerable alteration in its structures" (p20).

Rees correctly points out that the state has centralised and restricted its already limited democratic aspects, summarising the change as "this transformation in the state's inner constitution" (p21). The question for him is that, if the development of neoliberalism required the transformation of the inner constitution of the state, what were the origins and forms of the political state that accompanied the welfare reforms of the 40s and 50s? The description of the post-1945 state as a social monarchy captures the political form that accompanied the welfare state: the popularised image of a new Elizabethan age. In current conditions the degeneration of the social monarchy has been accompanied by crises of government and a series of crises in the monarchy.

By narrowing and blurring his definition of reformism, John Rees has excluded the possibility that political reform could lead social and economic change rather than simply following it. A full understanding of class struggle as encompassing all spheres of society would note that democracy and the form of the state has become the political focus both for ruling class attacks and for working class resistance. This is why the Democracy Platform is not simply concerned with the inner democracy of the Socialist Alliance. It is a platform based on the full version of People before profit, a republican and democratic programme for change in the UK state.

For John Rees the loss of the welfare state, just like its origin, depends only upon economic change, not class struggle mediated through political and social action. Just as the development of the welfare state signalled a compromise by the various political parties and the state, so the withdrawal of this compromise was a result of political struggle in the late 1970s and 1980s. The struggle over the ownership of the mines signalled the political rise and fall of Labour with nationalisation in 1948 and the defeat of the miners' strike and privatisation in the period after the mid-1980s. The changes in the state and the loss of the political and social space conceded to Labour were not automatic. They were marked by sharp struggles within the Labour Party, between the government and several major unions - notably in the steel and coal industry - and by struggles in the wider political and social arena. Examples were London with the Greater London Council, Liverpool with the Militant-led city council and on the streets and in the courts over the poll tax. Simply listing these struggles points to the central role of political leadership and class organisation. These different battles were not spontaneous outbursts of class anger: they were products of leadership and organisation.

In this way my argument coincides with Murray Smith who notes: " "¦ we are no longer in a period of reformism without reforms. We are more than 25 years into an offensive of the capitalist class internationally. The aim of this offensive is to take back everything that was gained by the working class after 1945" (p67). Reformism, whilst restricted by economic constraints, is by no means incapable of delivering reform at times of recession. Murray Smith has noted correctly that in those circumstances reforms can still be conceded in the face of mass movements. More than that, the claim made by Rees that economic conditions militate against concessions to the working class fails to note that reforms are political events and that they do not start and end with economics.

His argument would imply that good economic conditions would allow for deep reforms. This is not borne out by the recent history of the UK. The welfare state was born in the austerity of war and its aftermath, whereas the affluence of the long boom saw Labour governments signally ineffective. The Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s, viewed in retrospect, are marked not by their economic reforms, but by social measures, such as legislation on race and women's rights.

New Labour gloss

More recently still, the New Labour politics of the 1990s were marked by political reforms that had only a marginal economic cost, such as the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales and the ending of hereditary peers. These are not centrally class issues, but they allowed the New Labour administrations to gloss their politics with an appearance of reform. Reformism without reforms is a consequence of political action and the hegemony of New Labour and the third way was not an inevitable outcome of economics.

Murray Smith and John Rees disagree over the type of political party needed by the working class. Murray Smith argues against a revolutionary party and for a broad party of a new type, exemplified by the SSP and Rifondazione Comunista. Fundamentally Rees and Smith disagree on the political space left by the demise of traditional Labour and social democratic politics. John Rees claims to stand in the tradition of revolutionary politics, preserving the SWP as the revolutionary party, whilst engaged in a series of united fronts that aim to fill a vacuum on the left. In contrast Murray Smith calls for a broad socialist party with the aim of occupying the whole political territory abandoned by New Labour.

The issue is posed by John Rees as whether to build a revolutionary party or a broad party. Murray Smith in contrast claims to retain the strategic aim of a revolutionary party whilst rejecting the methods and tactics of the SWP: "Building a broad socialist party today may in fact be the best way to advance towards a mass revolutionary party tomorrow" (p73). Smith rejects relying on a left split from Labour or the linear growth of the SWP and argues for a party with a mass character.

In general I believe that the Democracy Platform agrees with Murray Smith that a broad party with a mass character is necessary. He argues that the main divide is between anti-capitalists and pro-capitalists, not between reform and revolution. We would agree that the divide between reform and revolution is not as John Rees portrays it, for in his hands reformism loses all content and becomes simply liberal capitalism. However, we remain convinced that the divide between reform and revolution remains central to the building of a mass workers party.

This has led some to take the line that the Socialist Alliance must transform itself into a revolutionary party. The RDG believes this is a mistake. We have advanced the position that the broad party advocated by Murray Smith would be a communist-Labour alliance. We have argued that these two historic political trends can unite in a principled manner in a republican socialist party. Republicanism can provide the political focus for joint action and the growth of a common political culture. We agree with Murray Smith that such a party must be pluralist, allowing factional rights and tendencies. However, we differ with him, in that we argue for a clear and open revolutionary wing in such a party - one which may well become the dominant trend. The line that John Rees has elaborated leads directly to the Respect unity coalition. The key is to find the "knack" of connecting to the discontent with New Labour. Political struggle and open disagreement are to be avoided, as the weathermen of the SWP discern which way the wind is blowing. The role of the party is simply to act on decisions arrived at by the leadership.

This may also account for one of the more bizarre claims that John Rees makes in relation to the war and the left. He claims to identify three positions: a pro-war left: a left that supported the Stop the War Coalition; and a third position, identified with "a small number of left sects and individuals, some of whom were in the Socialist Alliance," who took no "active part" in or actually "opposed the founding" of the STWC. The oddness of this claim lies in this alleged third camp. There may indeed be such sects and individuals, but John Rees knows only too well that the serious opposition within the Socialist Alliance has come from the groups and individuals now organised in the Democracy Platform. These groups supported the Stop the War Coalition and have no objection to working with muslims. Indeed they have a strong track record of working with both religious muslims and communists originating from islamic societies.

The identification of only a select group of acknowledged supporters of the Stop the War Coalition is in fact an attempt to justify the SWP's line of identifying those it wishes to work with and excluding others. It seems that the new Respect coalition is only to be addressed by the SWP and its allies and that those groups that have different ideas are to be ignored and besmirched by insinuation and rumour. The SWP has set up a false dichotomy that pitches reform against revolution in simplistic terms, justifying a crude practice that downplays the realignment of the left. The Democracy Platform agrees that we need to engage with the new coalition and any supporters that it draws, but begins from the standpoint of an open struggle for political ideas. Revolutionary politics will be central to the building of a broad socialist party out of the ashes of Labourism and 'official communism'.

However, anti-capitalism and broad coalitions are not enough. The place for this struggle is not in a united front or a broad coalition with indeterminate aims. It lies in the building of a broad republican socialist party with a powerful revolutionary wing.