Looking for alternatives to reformism

Issue: 34

Alex Callinicos

A review of Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism (Verso, 1986)

No sane observer of the British political scene could doubt that the current is pulling rightwards inside the labour movement. The New Statesman recently described the hard left inside the Labour Party as ‘the dog that did not bark’: ‘Labour’s Left has, since the near miss of Tony Benn’s attempt at the party’s deputy leadership in 1981 and even more since the electoral debacle of 1983, declined to the point of near invisibility’.1 Indeed, many former Bennites have long since capitulated to Kinnockism: Ken Livingstone is only the most spectacular example. Right-wing social democracy is now the dominant political force inside the workers’ movement in Britain.

Kinnockism has not lacked its intellectual prophets and apologists. The most important of these are associated with the Eurocommunist monthly Marxism Today, whose pages have in the past half-decade carried a steady stream of articles attacking the principal tenets of classical, revolutionary Marxism. The best-known, and most skilful exponents of what Ralph Miliband dubbed the ‘new revisionism’ are undoubtedly Eric Hobsbawm and Stuart Hall, the two ‘pink professors’, in Tariq Ali’s words.2

Ellen Wood succinctly summarises the main theses of the ‘new revisionism’:

The new ‘true’ socialism (NTS) … has virtually excised class and class struggle from the socialist project. The most distinctive feature of this current is the automisation of ideology and politics from any social basis, and more specifically from any class foundation. Against the assumption, which it attributes to Marxism, that economic conditions automatically give rise to political forces and that the proletariat will inevitably be compelled by its class situation to undertake the struggle for socialism, the NTS proposes that, because there is no necessary correspondence between economics and politics, the working class can have no privileged position in the struggle for socialism. Instead, a socialist movement can be constructed by ideological and political means which are relatively (absolutely?) autonomous from economic class conditions, motivated not by the crude material interests of class but by the rational appeal of ‘universal human goods’ and the reasonableness of the socialist order. These theoretical devices effectively expel the working class from the centre of the socialist project and displace class antagonisms by cleavages of ideology and ‘discourse’ (pp 1-2).3

There is nothing especially new about this version of socialism. Supplanting the class struggle with an appeal to human beings on moral grounds was central to the old revisionism of Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein was himself influenced by a tradition of German socialism dating back to the 1840s, the ‘true’ socialism which Marx denounced in the Communist Manifesto for distorting the revolutionary class content of early nineteenth-century French socialism and communism:

It is well known how the monks wrote silly lives of the Catholic Saints over the manuscripts on which the classical works of ancient heathendom had been written. The German literati reversed this process with the profane French literature. They wrote their philosophical nonsense beneath the French original. For instance, under the French criticism of the economic functions of money, they wrote ‘Alienation of Humanity’, and beneath the French criticism of the bourgeois state they wrote, ‘Dethronement of the Category of the General’, and so forth…

The French socialist and communist literature was thus completely emasculated. And, since it ceased in the hands of the German to express the struggle of one class with the other, he felt conscious of having overcome ‘French one-sidedness’ and of representing, not true requirements, but the requirements of Truth; not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy.4

There is an obvious analogy between German ‘true’ socialism and the ‘new revisionism’. Ellen Wood makes much of it, indeed dubbing the latter the ‘new true’ socialism (or NTS). Her new book, The Retreat from Class, is devoted to a critique of this theoretical and political current. She notes one difference between the new and old ‘true’ socialisms. While, as the passage cited above from Marx makes clear, German ‘true’ socialism made an abstract ‘Man in general’ the subject of change, the ‘new revisionism’ has been very heavily influenced by the ‘theoretical anti-humanism’ of Louis Althusser and his followers, an attempt to construct a version of Marxism in which history is a ‘process without a subject’, men and women but the ‘bearers’ of anonymous structures. Althusserian Marxism began to fall apart as a coherent theoretical tendency more than a decade ago, but various ‘post-Althusserians’ – Ernesto Laclau, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst, Gareth Stedman-Jones- are among the most prominent exponents of the ‘new revisionism’.

Now the principal agency through which Althusserianism gained an intellectual foothold in the English-speaking world was the New Left Review and its publishing house, New Left Books, which now uses the imprint of Verso. More than that, NLR and Verso have in the past provided a platform for various of the ‘new revisionists’, publishing as recently as last year books by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and by Michael Rustin which put forward appallingly right-wing positions. Yet there has developed a strong reaction to the ‘new revisionism’, which has led to NLR publishing a powerful attack on the whole intellectual and political trend by Ralph Miliband,5 and to a remarkably sympathetic treatment by the review of the Morning Star faction inside the Communist Party.

Various factors seem to be involved in NLR’s re-alignment. One is the evident disgust which its principal theorists, notably Perry Anderson, evidently feel towards the irrationalist ‘post-structuralist philosophies towards which post-Althusserians such as Hindess and Hirst have been attracted. Another may have been a split in the review’s editorial committee nearly three years ago, which led to the departure of more right-wing elements (among them Stedman-Jones). A third is the increasingly American orientation of NLR; not only is much of its circulation in North America, but a significant proportion of its output is written by North American Marxists. This change is itself in part a reflection of a phenomenon noted by Anderson, the shift in the centre of gravity of Marxist scholarship away from the European contingent and towards the English-speaking world.

The same pressures to move to the right felt by socialists in Britain have also been felt by the American left. Indeed, there has in recent years been an almost wholesale collapse of the New Left which emerged in the 1960s into the Democratic Party. Social democracy, in the form of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), has enjoyed a remarkable revival, winning many disillusioned ex-revolutionaries to the bankrupt old strategy of shifting the Democrats leftwards.7 It may be, however, that the kind of intellectual capitulation to reformism which has been only too obvious in Britain recently has been less widespread in the US, where paradoxically the weakness of social democracy as a mass force may make it a less powerful pole of attraction than the Labour Party. There may be a slightly larger space in which left intellectuals may subsist without either surrendering to social democracy or committing themselves to open and consistent political activity on the basis of revolutionary Marxism of the kind represented in Britain by the SWP and in the US by the International Socialist Organization. The support from left-wing academics which the recently formed Solidarity organisation, a re-alignment of three far-left groups, the International Socialists, Workers Power and Socialist Unity, on a rather vague programme, is some indication that this space exists.

Ellen Wood is one instance of this kind of North American socialist intellectual. She teaches at York University in Toronto, which seems to be something of a centre for Marxist scholars with links with both the British and US lefts (others teaching there are Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, both of whom have also had books recently published by Verso). She is also a member of the NLR editorial committee. Her book has, I think, a certain general significance, as a counterblast to the ‘new revisionism’ on behalf of a layer of Marxist intellectuals mainly to be found on the other side of the Atlantic, but whose principal organ is the NLR.

The main thrust of The Retreat from Class is one which this journal can only strongly endorse. Wood forcefully and cogently argues that to detach the socialist project from the struggle of the working class for its emancipation is to turn the former into a moral enterprise lacking any real historical conditions for its realisation. Examining the work of various ‘new revisionists’ – Laclau and Mouffe, Hindess and Hirst, Stedman-Jones, Gavin Kitching, Alan Hunt, Herbert Bowles and Samuel Gitnis – she shows that their criticisms of classical Marxism are generally misplaced, and that their arguments lead to a political dead-end. The book can only further undermine the ‘new revisionism’s’ intellectual credentials.

Why then did I read it with a growing lack of enthusiasm? There are, I think, four reasons, in ascending order of importance. The first arises from the form of the book, as a series of critical studies some of which have, at least in part, been previously published. The resulting book is somewhat repetitive, since a number of admittedly very important points, concerning the role of the class struggle in history and the centrality of the working class, tend to be re-iterated, almost ad nauseam. Furthermore, since the book is quite short, just 200 pages long, Wood is unable to engage in any detail with some of the substantial arguments made by the ‘new revisionists’, above all the analysis of contemporary capitalism as involving the decline of the working class associated in this country especially with Hobsbawm. Indeed she excludes Hobsbawm from the NTS, for the wholly unconvincing reason that ‘there has been no sign of any explicit departure from Marxist theoretical orthodoxy as he has understood it.’ (p 3, n 3) The overall effect is a certain superficiality.

Secondly, some of Wood’s arguments seem a little ill-targeted. Her discussion of Hindess and Hirst had a strong feeling of déjà vu about it. Their writings were influential in the late 1970s on the Eurocommunist wing of the CP; I doubt if they are much read, or taken seriously today, even by their authors. It is indeed bizarre to devote so much attention to Hindess and Hirst now (Wood announces that NLR is to publish a detailed critique of their work), when the review entirely ignored them at the height of their influence a decade ago. Moreover, the arguments of Hindess and Hirst, and indeed of Stedman-Jones, Laclau and Mouffe are only intelligible in the context of the post-structuralism of Foucault and Derrida, which is generally taken to deny the existence of any reality existing independently of ‘discourse’. Yet Wood does not address the philosophical underpinnings of one major wing of the ‘new revisionism’. Finally, Wood wholly ignores the most intellectually lively version of the ‘new revisionism’ in the English-speaking world, the ‘analytical Marxism’ of Jerry Cohen, Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski, Erik Olin Wright and others, who have sought, inter alia, to transform the Marxist theory of exploitation into a theory of justice, to deny any validity to Marxist economic theory, and to provide an intellectual rationale for social democracy. Often Wood seems to me merely to be tilting at windmills rather than engaging with real, and formidable opponents.

Thirdly, Wood does not correctly assess the political significance of the ‘new revisionism’. She argues that it emerged in Britain in a context of working-class militancy, the struggles against the Heath government in 1970-4 and the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978-9 which brought down the Callaghan administration:

The evolution of the NTS…co-incided with these episodes of militancy, and has reached fruition during yet another dramatic moment in the history of working-class struggle, the miners’ strike of 1984-5. And each milestone of working-class militancy has been followed by further developments of NTS theory.

This leads Woods to reflect on

the irony that the theoretical expulsion of the working class from the centre of the socialist project was being prepared at the very moment when workers in several European countries were exhibiting a new militancy and that especially in Britain it has reached new heights whenever militant workers have dominated the political scene (p 10).

The irony is in the eye of the beholder. The struggles under Heath and those of the past decade are not comparable. Thus the 1972 miners’ strike involved rank-and-file control successfully employing innovatory tactics such as the flying picket in an increasingly generalised confrontation between the working class and the state, while the 1984-5 strike was a defensive struggle, controlled from the top by the union bureaucracy, in which the government was able to isolate and defeat one of the traditionally most militant and powerful groups of workers. Without going over at length an analysis which has been well developed in the pages of this journal,9 one can distinguish between two broad phases in the class struggle throughout Western capitalism in the past two decades, one of upturn in workers’ struggles between about 1968 and 1976, involving mass strikes controlled from below (May 1968 in France, the Italian hot autumn of 1969, Britain 1970-4, Portugal 1974-5, Spain 1975-6), and a period of downturn which set in about ten years ago, in which the Western working class has been generally on the defensive, engaging at best in bureaucratically controlled strikes such as the miners’ struggle. Canada perfectly conforms to this pattern, a surge of rank-and-file militancy developing in the mid-1960s, culminating in a period in the mid-1970s when Canada had the highest strike rate in the Western world, and then falling off to a situation where the strike level in 1985 was a third of that a decade ago, and where the union bureaucrats are firmly in control, even when mass strikes do develop, as in the case of British Columbia’s Operation Solidarity in 1982.10

Wood’s failure to draw the proper distinctions between upturn and downturn is important, for two reasons. First, it renders her incapable of explaining the ‘new revisionism’. She thrashes about in the face of the ‘irony’ she claims to have discovered, appealing essentially to psychological factors, ascribing to exponents of the NTS ‘pessimism’ because no workers’ struggle has yet overturned capital, and ‘a certain fastidious middle-class distaste for- not to say fear of – the working class’ (pp 10-11). There is a much simpler explanation: the intellectual shift to the right is largely a consequence of the collapse of working-class militancy. It was relatively easy, especially for freshly radicalised students, to regard the proletariat as central to the socialist project in the early 1970s, when workers in country after country took to the offensive, when one could see workers’ power taking concrete shape on every picket line. Once the tide of proletarian militancy receded, then an identification with working-class politics required a much tougher, long-term and more theoretically grounded commitment. Many of those earlier drawn to the far left were unwilling to make this commitment, especially since they had often been recruited to versions of ‘Marxism’, Maoist or, less frequently, orthodox Trotskyist, which had in any case broken the connection between socialism and the working class, and had been encouraged to indulge in fantastic perspectives of instant revolution. The first signs of the shift to the right in Britain can be detected in 1977-8, with the appearance of Hindess’s and Hirst’s most well-known writings; on the continent it developed perhaps a year earlier, with the emergence of the ‘Nouveaux Philosophes’ in France, and the disintegration of the Italian far left.11

The speed of the subsequent intellectual surrender can be traced in the writings of Stuart Hall, toughly resistant to Hindess and Hirst in the late 1970s, but now confined largely to spouting neo-liberal platitudes surrounded by a fog of Gramscian rhetoric. The miners’ strike temporarily reduced the influence of the ‘new revisionism’, since saying goodbye to the working class seemed treacherous as well as silly while the coalfields were in a state of war, but the NUM’s defeat undoubtedly gave the NTS a huge shot in the arm, at the same time as enormously strengthening the Labour right’s hand.12

Secondly, Wood’s lack of comprehension of recent class struggles reveals a flaw in her own politics. To insist on the centrality of the working class and the class struggle to the achievement of socialism while failing to analyse the concrete course of that struggle, and the advances and retreats which that class makes is to display a purely abstract commitment to Marxism. The working class becomes a theoretical totem rather than the living force which Wood in her criticisms of the ‘new revisionism’ constantly invokes. Moreover, an adequate reply to the NTS requires an explanation of why workers have failed to defeat capital, of why, on the contrary, the balance of forces has in the past decade shifted so strongly against the labour movement. But that would involve a concrete analysis of the Western working class, and in particular identifying the various social and political forces at play within it. To understand why downturn succeeded upturn one must focus on the role played by the trade union bureaucracy, and its political expression, the reformist parties, who in country after country snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, demobilising workers’ struggles, and negotiating a succession of agreements with the bourgeoisie which rescued Western capitalism from its worst crisis since the 1930s.

Wood says not a word about all this. The silence brings me to the fourth reason for my unhappiness with her book. Wood’s criticisms of the ‘new revisionism’ are not from the standpoint of classical, revolutionary Marxism. Instead her perspective is that of the kind of centrism which, since the time of Kautsky and the Austro-Marxists, has vacillated between reform and revolution. This is most clear in the discussion of democracy to which the latter chapters of The Retreat from Class are largely devoted. Here Wood endorses Miliband’s argument that ‘there is always a tension between the necessity of “direction” and “democracy”, between state power and popular power’ such that ‘democracy can be preserved [under socialism] only by a system of “dual power” in which state power is complemented by widespread democratic organisations of various kinds throughout civil society.’ (p 155)

The expression ‘dual power’ was of course coined by Lenin to designate the situation in Russia between February and October 1917, namely, ‘the interlocking of two dictatorships: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie…and the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry (the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies)… There is not the slightest doubt that such an “interlocking” cannot last long. Two powers cannot exist in a state’.13

The characteristic illusion of centrism is the belief that a situation of dual power can be perpetuated, that parliament and workers’ councils can somehow peacefully co-exist, despite the fact that every attempt to reconcile a mobilised workers’ movement with the capitalist state, from Germany in 1918-19 to Poland in 1980-1, has ended in catastrophe.

Theoretical defences of this position typically take the form of a rejection, at least in the case of parliamentary democracy, of the Marxist theory of the state as an institution of class domination. Thus Miliband argues that ‘an accurate and realistic “model” of the relationship between the dominant class in advanced capitalist societies and the state is one of partnership between two different, separate forces, linked to each other by many threads, yet each having its own separate sphere of concerns’.14 Wood is no exception. After a fairly relentless polemic against the NTS’s ‘autonomization’ of politics she suddenly endorses as, ‘with certain qualifications…not unreasonable propositions’, the following:

the institutional forms of parliamentary democracy are not in themselves antithetical…they need not be destroyed as a pre-condition to socialism…they are not in themselves useless to socialists in their struggle to transform society, and perhaps even … may still have their uses after the destruction of capitalism. (p 136)

Wood’s difference with straightforward social democracy is that she doesn’t regard parliamentary institutions as sufficient political means for achieving socialism; they involve the capitalist separation of economics and politics (pp 137-8), and so must be supplemented by forms of ‘popular power’. However, she also wants to distance herself from

a position that regards liberal democracy as so completely a mere reflection of capitalism that it must be regarded as simply a deception, a mystification. This is roughly the position of various ultra-left groups. Liberal-democratic capitalist stales, according to this view, are not substantially different from authoritarian or even fascist forms of capitalism. (p 146)

Now there certainly are ultra-left groups who believe this kind of piffle. However, the classical Marxist theory of the state does not imply either that parliamentary democracy (or, to give it its scientific name, bourgeois democracy) is ‘simply a deception’, or that it is no different from fascism. It is fairly clear, though, that Wood does assimilate this theory with its ultra-left distortions. But no-one was more insistent on the distinction between bourgeois democracy and other forms of capitalist state than Trotsky in his withering criticisms of the Stalinist theory of ‘social fascism’: ‘In a developed capitalist society, during a “democratic” regime, the bourgeoisie leans for support primarily upon the working classes, which are held in check by the reformists… In a fascist regime, at least during its first phase, capital leans on the petty bourgeoisie, which destroys the organisations of the proletariat.’ Consequently, ‘from the angle of the proletariat, the difference appears to be quite enormous.’ Revolutionary socialists therefore are committed to the defence of bourgeois democracy against fascism: ‘in the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilising it, by fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sports clubs, the co-operatives, etc.’ These embryonic institutions of workers’ power would be razed along with bourgeois democracy; the two can only be defended together. But this does not make bourgeois democracy any less a form of capitalist class rule. And so Trotsky goes on to insist in the next sentence that ‘the proletariat cannot attain power within the formal limits of bourgeois democracy, but can do so only by taking the road of revolution: this has been proved both by theory and experience’.15

The fundamental distinction between bourgeois and proletarian democracy lies in the manner in which the working class participates in politics under the two systems. Under bourgeois democracy workers form a passive, atomised electorate ‘choosing’ between different capitalist parties, with at best the opportunity to vote for a bourgeois workers’ party like Labour. Socialist democracy, by contrast, is based on the active participation in and control of the state by the mass of the proletariat organised in workers’ councils. These are two antithetical forms of state, as is shown by the tendency of major workers’ struggles to come into conflict with parliamentary institutions, from May ’68 through the Portuguese revolution to the great miners’ strike of 1984-5. Wood is able to identify some of the disastrous mistakes to which Labour’s parliamentarism has led it (pp 193-5), but her own centrist incomprehension of workers’ democracy prevents her from tracing these errors to their roots. Thus, in a revealing throwaway remark she says that ‘the seizure of power’ can take two forms, ‘election or…putsch’ (p 193). It is, of course, a gross misrepresentation of classical Marxism to suggest that Lenin or Trotsky conceived revolution as a conspiratorial minority capturing the state machine, rather than a vast movement from below through which workers developed their own organs of state power, and then overturned those of capital.

The dispute between revolutionary socialism and centrism is not simply one over strategic objectives. It has immediate practical consequences. In the first place, one of the main issues within the British labour movement during and since the miners’ strike has been the question of whether or not to accept Tory legislation requiring pre-strike ballots. The debate raises in a concrete form the struggle between bourgeois and parliamentary democracy, since the Tory advocacy of ballots was intended precisely to extend forms of decision-making involving a passive and atomised electorate throughout the unions, and thereby to undermine workers’ ability collectively to organise against employment attacks. The use of ballots has caused a number of disastrous setbacks, notably on the railways and during Liverpool City Council’s battle against rate-capping. One index of the triumph of the Labour right has been the collapse of virtually all resistance to what Mick McGahey christened ‘ballotitis’ (McGahey himself has been a notable victim). Even NLR editor Robin Blackburn recently joined in the chorus of criticisms of Arthur Scargill and the striking miners for their refusal to hold a ballot.16 Wood’s blurring of the distinction between proletarian and bourgeois democracy could easily provide theoretical justification for this kind of capitulation to Kinnockism.

Secondly, treating parliamentary democracy as at least partially autonomous of capitalist relations of production opens the door to electoralism, despite Wood’s denunciations of the social-democratic right. Thus she argues that Labour doesn’t lose elections when it’s too left-wing: ‘On the contrary, the most dramatic electoral disasters have occurred precisely when such parties have too consistently departed from, and even betrayed, the class interests of their natural constituency’ (p 192). As a historical generalisation this is disputable: Labour’s electoral fortunes improved after the defeat of the 1926 general strike, despite the fairly despicable role played by Ramsay MacDonald, Jimmy Thomas et al: a similar pattern followed the 1984-5 miners’ strike, even though Kinnock had outdone his predecessors in treachery. Moreover, Wood here accepts the social democratic premiss that what counts is winning votes, and simply urges that left-wing policies will gain more than right-wing ones. In truth, what happens will depend on the concrete balance of class forces: Labour won on a left-wing manifesto in 1974, but a roughly similar programme was associated with crushing defeat in 1983; policies more right-wing than any since the 1950s, when Labour lost three elections in a row, may gain victory in 1987 or 1988. To argue as Wood does is to make oneself vulnerable to the kind of logic to which so many Bennites have succumbed since 1983: having found that left-wing policies don’t win votes at present, they have gravitated towards right-wing Labourism because it does. The only way out is to break with electoralism altogether, to cease to make votes a criterion of success, and instead to focus on the consciousness and combativity of workers themselves.

Ellen Wood’s critique of the ‘new revisionism’ is thus flawed. Despite her powerful defence of historical materialism against right-wing distortions and attacks, her abstract conception of the working class, and her centrist belief that one can somehow combine bourgeois and proletarian forms of political rule involve serious concessions to social democracy. The danger is that, given the very powerful social and political pressures to move rightwards, which arise from the fragmented and defensive nature of workers’ struggles, Wood’s version of Marxism could degenerate into a theoretically sophisticated version of left reformism. It isn’t enough subjectively to identify with the cause of the working class. Consistent socialist politics today requires a theoretical clarity which The Retreat from Class, for all its many virtues, ultimately lacks.


1. New Statesman, 15 August 1986.
2. See A Callinicos, ‘The politics of Marxism Today’, International Socialism 2:29, 1985.
3. References in the text are to E Wood, The Retreat from Class, London 1986.
4. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, London 1975, vi, p 511.
5. R Miliband, ‘The New Revisionism in Britain’, New Left Review 150, 1985.
6. See A Callinicos, ‘Perry Anderson and “Western Marxism”‘, International
Socialism 2:23, 1984.
7. See M Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, London 1986, ch 7.
8. For a representative selection, see J Roemer, ed., Analytical Marxism,
Cambridge 1986.
9. See T Cliff, ‘Patterns of Mass Strikes’ and C Harman, ‘1984 and the shape of things to come’, International Socialism 2:29, 1985.
10. Information on Canada drawn from material produced by the Canadian
International Socialists.
11. See C Harman, ‘The Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left’, International
Socialism 2:4, 1979, and A Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism? London
1982, ch 1.
12. See Callinicos, ‘Politics’.
13. Lenin Collected Works, Moscow 1964, xxiv, pp60-1.
14. R Miliband, ‘State Power and Class Interests’, New Left Review 138, 1983, p65
15. L Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, New York 1971, pp158-9.
16. Against the Current, New Series 1, 1986.