“Left Reformism” and socialist strategy

Issue: 140

Ed Rooksby

There has been a significant revival of interest among the radical left in “big picture” questions of socialist strategy that, as Mark L Thomas has pointed out, represents a return to “important debates of the left largely absent over the last three decades”.1 It is not difficult to identify the major factors driving this. Several years of deep capitalist crisis together with the almost total capitulation of social democratic parties across Europe to the austerity agenda have opened up a clear space to the left of these organisations—a development that has reinvigorated the radical left, but which has also forced it to confront fundamental questions of strategic orientation. Furthermore, the dramatic rise of Syriza in Greece—the political force that has most successfully moved to fill the space to the left of social democracy—has also, clearly, been a major factor informing the revival of this debate. Indeed Syriza’s electoral ascent to the point at which it is now widely seen as a possible party of government in waiting poses the question, in very immediate and pressing terms, of how, and to what extent, capitalist state power might be utilised for socialist objectives—one of the oldest and most fundamental controversies in socialist thought.

Much of this debate pivots on the concept of “left reformism”. At least this is a concept deployed with some frequency, currently, in commentaries and analyses emanating from members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The SWP uses the term “left reformism” to describe the general strategic orientation of Syriza and other similar political formations such as the Front de Gauche in France and Die Linke in Germany. That is to say that it is used to refer to the political outlook and approach of radical left wing organisations which typically seek to combine electoral and parliamentary activity on the one hand with extra-parliamentary mobilisation on the other. Crucially, these formations seek to utilise parliamentary channels to introduce radical reforms and thus a central component of left reformist strategy is to seek to form a “left government” within the institutions of the capitalist state.

The SWP has been particularly quick off the mark to apply the “left reformism” label to the Left Unity initiative in Britain. Certainly the SWP sees the emergence of Left Unity as part of a wider trend on the left internationally which is one in which “left reformist” ideas have acquired a certain voguish dominance. Indeed there has been a small flurry of publications emanating from SWP members in recent weeks and months in which “left reformism” is analysed and in which Left Unity is taken as a specific instance of this phenomenon.2 The basic argument put forward is that, although the strengthening and proliferation of “left reformist” ideas should be welcomed by Marxists in the Leninist tradition (because this expresses a radicalising political dynamic), no illusions should be sown in the capacity of “left reformism” to “open the way to socialism”. Correspondingly, the SWP’s approach to organisations such as Left Unity is to seek to work with them where possible, but to remain critical of the strategic approach they espouse.

In this article I shall put forward a defence of the idea of a left government as a necessary component of a wider strategy of revolutionary change. As such my argument almost certainly qualifies as “left reformist” from the SWP’s perspective; however, I dislike the term and think it is not a very useful one3—at least in the way that it is currently being used—for reasons I shall set out below.4

Criticisms of left reformism

Let’s examine the arguments against left reformism. The general thrust of the critique is that left reformist formations fail to break fundamentally with the logic of reformism more generally and thus do not escape the latter’s core limitations. It is in particular their commitment to the path of using the existing state to implement reforms (their “parliamentary statism” as Paul Blackledge puts it)5 which leads almost inexorably to a situation in which left reformists take on responsibility for managing, rather than seriously challenging, capitalism, no matter how radical their original intentions may have been.

How does this logic of capitulation unfold? Blackledge’s key point seems to be that parliamentary statism pivots on the mistaken assumption that the capitalist state is class neutral and may just as plausibly be used for radical purposes as for any other. Blackledge points out, however, that despite the “very real degree of autonomy that modern states have from capital”,6 their activity is constrained within certain limits—which are those presented by the imperatives of capital accumulation. In order to fill this out in more concrete terms, Blackledge draws on Chris Harman’s notion of “structural interdependence”:7

Capitalist firms need capitalist states to provide a “pro-business” context, and states need healthy firms as a source of tax revenue. This creates a relationship of “structural interdependence” between states and capital.8

Blackledge is also indebted to Fred Block’s fairly similar account of capitalist state power,9 which is (in very basic terms) that the particular constraints in which state managers must operate, including, importantly, the international context of competition between states, strongly compel them to act in ways which secure the efficient reproduction of capitalism. These constraints on state autonomy, Blackledge points out, take on a particular ideological appearance in conjunction with the wider “naturalisation” of capitalist social relations that is typical of the consciousness of individuals in bourgeois society. They appear, that is, as natural limits to the realm of the politically and economically possible rather than class determined and specifically capitalist ones.

The upshot of all of this for left reformist movements is that they tend, sooner or later, to dilute their political aims and practices so that these become fully compatible with capitalist limits. The closer such groups get to power the more intense the pressure of “political realism” asserts itself on the leadership and the more they feel compelled to act as a “responsible government” in waiting. Thus part of the logic of this process of degeneration is for the leadership of left reformist parties to rein in and subdue radicalism among rank and file activists and supporters.

Another problem inherent in parliamentary statism is that, as John Molyneux puts it:

Strategies for the taking over of the existing state are, by their nature, ones in which the pre-eminent active role is played by parliamentary leaders, and other notables…while the role of the masses is to provide support for this process at the top.10

Left reformism, he suggests, involves a state-led, top-down conception of social transformation. As Thomas points out, however, “socialism can only be the outcome of workers’ own activity”.11 In fact the drift of the SWP argument in this respect is that left reformism does not aim at a genuine form of socialism at all. So, for example, both Molyneux and Blackledge argue that, in contrast to the revolutionary socialist aim of a qualitatively new and fuller form of democracy based on workers’ councils, left reformists intend merely to take over and transform the existing state. Blackledge is clear, indeed, that left reformists and revolutionaries differ not merely in their methods but in their very goals. The clear implication, here, is that left reformists have a more or less Stalinist or Old Labour conception of socialism—a “state socialist” or “state capitalist” view—rather than one based on soviets and democratic planning.

Thomas raises a number of additional problems that a left reformist movement would encounter if it managed to win government power while still maintaining some significant degree of radicalism. He points out that a left government would face a big problem of capital flight and investment strikes—and the structural interdependence between state and capital, of course, means that this would put huge economic pressure on the government to retreat from its programme of reforms. Further, it would face serious resistance from within the state. Indeed Thomas stresses that the capitalist state machine itself would not be under the control of a left government. For his part, Molyneux remarks:

The capitalist state, with its “bodies of armed men”, its armed forces and police, its secret services, judges and top bureaucrats, will not sit idly by and permit a “left” government to roll out its revolutionary reforms in Britain, Greece or anywhere else.12

Thomas suggests that only pressure from a mass workers’ movement outside parliament would offer any possible means of overcoming such resistance—but there are difficulties in this respect:

To overcome such resistance from the state as well as capital requires more than simply pressure from workers but very high levels of mass mobilisation capable of paralysing the economy and the actions of the state. To carry this through will require new and much more responsive democratic institutions to organise such mobilisations—workers’ councils.13

The problem here is that such a “coexistence of the capitalist state alongside an embryonic workers’ state” would be highly unstable. Here Thomas draws on the classic Leninist vision of “dual power” in which there would exist “a fight to the death between two rival centres of power, each embodying different class interests”. The logic of the left reformist strategy would be for its leadership to clamp down on emerging forms of workers’ democracy because, “having accepted that the state can be utilised to achieve a social transformation, a left government will tend to see threats to the integrity of that state machine as something to be resisted”.14

Blackledge, Thomas and Molyneux all, in addition, survey the historical record in relation to left governments. The common conclusion here is that “in none of these examples, nor in any other instance, did left reformism succeed in ‘opening the way to socialism’”.15 All are clear that none of this is to say that revolutionaries would not welcome the election of a left government that would reflect and, initially at least, help to deepen working class political confidence. Nevertheless they stress that revolutionaries should maintain their political independence from such a government and that they should try to break workers’ illusions in it, in the knowledge that sooner or later it would seek to subordinate working class struggle to the need to manage capitalism.

The limitations of left reformism as a concept and as a label

One of the problems with the idea of left reformism as it used by its critics is that it functions as a very broad catch-all term and as such its analytical usefulness seems to me somewhat limited. In Molyneux’s use of the term, for example, left reformism seems to encompass a diverse range of historical formations and phenomena from Attlee’s 1945 government through to left Eurocommunism, and Blackledge uses the term similarly. It is true that Blackledge makes a vague distinction between left reformism on the one hand and “centrist” currents on the other, where what is characteristic about the latter is that they typically “claim to have transcended the division between reform and revolution”.16 Nevertheless it soon becomes clear that for Blackledge left reformism and centrism incorporate similar flaws, and indeed he simply runs them together, treating them as more or less synonymous, in the analysis that follows.17 The trouble with this approach is that it lumps together a pretty wide spectrum of political positions, presenting them all as much of a muchness. From this perspective everyone from a left social democrat through to those who advocate “structural reforms” in order to help spark the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is a left reformist and may be analysed in the same terms.

One of the lines of argumentation that this process of lumping together opens up is that it allows you to focus critical attention on one strand of left reformism and then assume that the failings you identify in this regard also apply to other strands—since these are all merely instances of the same thing. So in this way analysis of the more “moderate” wing of left reformism that is apparently only slightly further to the left than mainstream reformism, for example, becomes an analysis of left reformism as a whole. In my view both Molyneux and Blackledge at times slip into this method of arguing. So, for example (as we have seen), Molyneux and Blackledge suggest that left reformist commitment to using the state to introduce reforms means that they are, in fact, committed to a goal of “state socialism” rather than soviet power. Further, Molyneux suggests that left reformists do not understand the difference between nationalisation and socialism. Blackledge’s argument implies that left reformists, like more mainstream kinds of reformists whose essential limitations the former do not overcome, do not grasp that the capitalist state is not class neutral. Now, all of these criticisms may well apply to some forms of what the SWP refers to as left reformism—“Bennism” for example—but they hardly apply to all. Moreover, do Blackledge and Molyneux really think that the more radical currents involved in Syriza do not understand the difference between “state socialism” and workers’ power? or, for that matter, that the Fourth International (which fully supports the perspective of a left government in Greece)18 is unaware that nationalisation and socialism are not the same thing and holds to a reformist view of the neutrality of the capitalist state?

Indeed there is something rather condescending about all of this—and, sadly, it is all too familiar. There is a tendency among sections of the revolutionary left to talk down to their opponents as if the latter are, by definition, political naifs blundering around in unenlightened darkness. This attitude often seems to be buttressed by the assumption that Leninism (or the favoured interpretation of it) comprises a series of complete and final truths and that, certainly, nothing can be learned from those who are, at best, groping their way towards the light. I found it significant in this regard that, although I was clear in my Socialist Review article that a strategy for socialism involving a left government would, unavoidably, encounter severe problems, not one of the articles written (in part) in response indicated a single difficulty inherent in the Leninist approach they sought to affirm. It is much too facile, however, to point to the concrete problems left reformism may encounter in practice, and then simply assert the correctness of Leninist strategy as if this, in comparison, would be a matter of plain sailing. Given the magnitude of the kinds of changes socialists want to see, and the power and resources of those who would resist them, no conceivable strategy for socialism could avoid serious problems and dilemmas along the way.

Blackledge states that “to say that a formation is left reformist does not imply that we dismiss them”19 and indeed he is at pains to emphasise that revolutionaries should seek to work closely with organisations such as Left Unity—but it is difficult for those of us who are given this label not to feel that there is something dismissive about the way in which it is used. The indiscriminating catch-all nature of the concept together with what can appear to be condescension is more likely to irritate those who find themselves labelled in this way than it is to convince them of their errors. This seems counter-productive if the aim is to work closely with the formations categorised in these terms.

A strategy of revolutionary reforms

What the SWP refers to as left reformism—any strategic perspective which, while not the same thing as mainstream reformism, seeks directly to utilise the capitalist state machine for socialist purposes—is actually, then, a very broad field containing several different approaches. I have suggested that some of the criticisms that figures such as Blackledge and Molyneux direct at left reformism (which imply that the socialism of all of those corralled into this conceptual camp is pretty rudimentary) simply do not map on to some left government perspectives. Let us look in a little more detail at one such approach.

In his Strategy for Labour and Socialism and Revolution20 André Gorz sketches out a strategy in which a left government implements a series of what he calls “structural reforms” or “revolutionary reforms” which, if successful, would culminate in a decisive, revolutionary seizure of power on the part of the working class. He is clear that for socialism to come into being, the capitalist state would have to be destroyed and replaced with a new state based on workers’ councils.

The key point for Gorz is that revolution can only emerge organically and dialectically through a process of struggle for reform. Socialist revolutionary consciousness must be built through a pedagogical process of “struggle for feasible objectives corresponding to the experience, needs and aspirations of the workers”.21 At first these “feasible objectives” will be limited to reforms within capitalism—or at least to measures which, from the standpoint of a more or less reformist working class consciousness, appear to be legitimate and achievable within the system, but which may actually run counter to the logic of capitalism and start to push up against its limits. As the working class engages in struggle, however, the anti-capitalist implications of its needs and aspirations are gradually revealed. At the same time, through its experience of struggle for reform, the working class learns about its capacity for “self-management, initiative and collective decision” and can have a “foretaste of what emancipation means”.22 In this way struggle for reform helps prepare the class psychologically, ideologically and materially for revolution.

For Gorz this radicalising process of struggle for reforms would depend for its success on the coming to power of a left government. The working class, after all, would require some sort of political instrument to lead in carrying these reforms out. This would be a government whose reforming perspective was not limited to what Gorz calls, merely, “reformist reform”. A “reformist reform is one which subordinates its objectives to the criteria of rationality and practicability of a given system”.23 In contrast, “revolutionary reforms” are designed to break out of this logic and to destabilise the system. Each such reform brings concrete gains for the working class but also opens up the possibility of further changes.

The strategy, then, depends on dialectical interaction between a mass workers’ movement and a left government where the latter pushes its representatives within the state to implement its (escalating series of) demands and where these representatives are committed to a perspective of empowering the mass movement. Further, the fundamental aim of the programme of reform must be, as we have seen, to create the conditions in which the working class can take power—and this requires the emergence of institutions of workers’ democracy. A crucial objective for a programme of revolutionary reform must be to encourage the formation and strengthening of such institutions.

The great strength of this sort of strategy is that although it is not reformist it is able to engage with the typically reformist perspective of the working class. It seeks to harness working class reformism as the initial driving force for a process of change that, as it unfolds, goes beyond reformist limits. Indeed, as Alberto Toscano indicates, a project of structural reform may begin rather modestly with defensive struggles to resist attacks on the welfare state24—and indeed this today has to be the starting point for a strategy which aims to take up immediate demands corresponding to the general consciousness of the working class in the here and now and articulate these with longer-term anti-capitalist objectives.

Another advantage of this sort of strategy is that it seems to correspond, relatively closely at least (in comparison with the dual power perspective), with developments in the weak link of European capitalism where social struggles are at their most intense—Greece. That is to say that in the European country in which socialist forces have made the biggest advance, radicalised sections of the working class are looking, overwhelmingly, to Syriza to form a left government in order to implement a series of measures which, however moderate they may seem in themselves, are likely to run up against the limits of what capital will allow. In fact it is worth pointing out that it was Alexis Tsipras’s call for a “government of the left” which constituted a turning point in the party’s electoral fortunes25—this call resonated strongly with Greek workers and, as Richard Seymour points out, the “same call is likely to reverberate in other situations, where austerity combines with the breakdown of social democracy”.26

This is not, of course, to argue that Syriza’s leadership is consciously committed to a strategy of revolutionary reform. It is to say, however, that the anti-austerity measures Syriza is committed to implement if it comes to power are likely to bring it into direct confrontation with the forces of domestic and international capital. As Stathis Kouvelakis has argued, a Syriza government would face an immediate stark choice: either to surrender and renege on its commitments, or to press ahead “engaging in a protracted battle which would almost certainly lead to results that go beyond the current objectives put forward by Syriza”. This second possibility, he continues:

would conform I think to a quite familiar in history pattern of processes of social and political change, where the dynamic of the situation, boosted of course by the pressure of popular mobilisation, pushes actors (or at least some of them) beyond their initial intentions.27

This would be a situation in which a programme of structural reforms comes squarely onto the agenda—in fact Syriza would already have set off, de facto, in this direction of travel.

So how would this type of strategy measure up in relation to the various criticisms levelled against left reformism? Clearly, this is not an approach that confuses “state socialism” with genuine socialism or nationalisation with workers’ power. It is not an elitist strategy either in which reforms are handed down from above to an essentially passive mass. It recognises, however, that the emergence of a revolutionary subject confident in its own abilities of self-government must be seen as a process rather than something that can arrive out of nowhere. Neither is it premised on the idea of the class neutrality of the state machine and the associated idea that the capitalist state can be transformed into a socialist one. It is a strategy which seeks to utilise the capitalist state within the constraints that its structural interdependence with capital present in order to construct the conditions in which the working class can take power and wield this directly through their own institutions of democracy.

Why should we believe that the degree of state autonomy within the constraints presented by structural interdependence might be extensive enough to allow for the implementation of radical reforms? It is important to grasp that for Block (on whose theory Blackledge draws, as we have seen) there is nothing automatic or guaranteed, over the short term at least, about the state’s tendency to function in ways which secure bourgeois interests—it is, precisely, a tendency. This tendency emerges from the particular converging pressures that state managers come under. The major pressure here, as Blackledge indicates, is to ensure that state policy encourages capitalist investment since the state’s ability to finance itself depends on the condition of the capitalist economy. However, Blackledge does not mention that for Block the state also faces pressures from other sources and that key among these is working class struggle. In normal circumstances state managers will ensure, given their interest in capitalist growth, that the reforms they grant in response to working class demands are compatible with capital accumulation or, better, that they improve conditions for accumulation. Nevertheless he is clear that this does not occur smoothly or without the possibility of implementing reforms that cannot be integrated easily into the capital accumulation process. Indeed Block argues that a strong working class can force state managers to reform capitalism in ways which are not compatible with its efficient reproduction. 28

Block’s account of the way in which the state functions assumes, naturally, that state managers are not normally radical socialists. However, if the political executive among those state managers was made up of socialists with a transitional perspective, they would be much more likely to respond positively to demands which run counter to the interests of capital than those who are only likely to do so if absolutely forced. This is certainly not to say that a left government could somehow evade altogether the constraints on state action presented by capital. Clearly the structural dependence of the state on capital means that there are limits to how far a process of radical reform could go. A point would come at which a socialist movement would face a choice between pressing forward to revolution or retreat and capitulation. What Block’s theory does suggest, however, is that the degree of autonomy the state possesses provides space for a project of radical reform within capitalism.

How could such a strategy stand up to the intense hostility of capital and reactionary forces within the state? We have seen that Leninist critics insist that a left government would not be able to withstand such pressure. Yet, when their arguments are investigated closely it is often possible to discern a certain ambiguity in this regard. In an article critical of left reformism, for example, Alex Callinicos comments that:

to the extent that Syriza in government were to implement measures against austerity this would need very powerful pressure from below both to keep it on track and to defend it from the furious reaction these measures would provoke.

Further, he argues that “revolutionaries must organise to help counter the immense power that capital can bring to bear on [left] reformist parties and governments”.29 This rather suggests that, if buttressed and forced on by extra-parliamentary forces, left reformist governments could actually resist bourgeois hostility to some significant degree.

Of course much, here, rides on the fact that Leninists such as Callinicos and Blackledge insist that, in order to be able to impose this pressure, revolutionary socialists must maintain their political independence of that government. Maybe this is so, but I cannot see any reason why, in the sort of strategy outlined by Gorz, the extra-parliamentary movement should not act significantly independently of government representatives. Indeed, Gorz’s vision is precisely of a mass movement driving the government on to introduce more and more far-reaching measures—which implies a substantial degree of autonomy. There is surely ample scope within this strategy, furthermore, for revolutionary socialist groups to join such an extra-parliamentary movement while also maintaining their political independence.

Thomas is clear that, in principle, mass mobilisation could provide the means to overcome capitalist resistance but insists that the institutions this movement would have to create in order to achieve this would come into conflict with the state. Clearly this possibility cannot be discounted but it is worth pointing out that Thomas’s analysis seems to rest on the assumption that in any left reformist strategy the capitalist state must be regarded as the primary and more or less exclusive instrument of socialist transformation and that, indeed, it does not disappear in the process but is, rather, transformed somehow into a socialist state from within. The revolutionary reformist strategy, however, does aim to do away with the capitalist state and replace it with a socialist system of workers’ councils, but also pivots on the judgement that such a system could not develop without struggle for a series of reforms that help bring it into being.

Would this not bring the risk that the demands and activities of the movement are constantly subordinated to an over-riding objective of not “embarrassing” or hindering the left government? Again, yes, this does seem to be an inherent risk. Nevertheless, there is something unsatisfactory about the way Leninist arguments about tensions between left reformist groups and mass movements seem to rest on an implicit assumption that this can be contrasted with an alternative which is free of such dangers. Would a workers’ movement under Leninist leadership not contain its own inherent tensions and contradictions? Is not the relationship between party and class in the Leninist schema precisely one of dialectical interaction—which, by definition, encompasses specific differences—rather than a relationship of harmonious uniformity?

What about Molyneux’s point that reactionary forces in the state “will not sit idly by and permit a ‘left’ government to roll out its revolutionary reforms”? At the risk of seeming trite, however, the obvious retort here is that it is also quite hard to see why these forces would “sit idly by” and watch revolutionary forces construct an embryonic workers’ state in a situation moving towards dual power. As pointed out above there is no conceivable route to socialism that could somehow sidestep the problem that very powerful forces will be ranged against it—or, indeed, the fact that any attempt at the socialist transformation of society will necessarily involve great risks.

A similar table-turning argument can be utilised in regard to the list of historical failures Leninists set out in relation to left reformism. It is true that left reformism has never “opened the way to socialism”, but, again at the risk of triteness, the historical record of revolutionary socialism is not exactly wonderful either. Moreover while Leninists produce a relatively long list of failed left reformist projects and compare this unfavourably with the one “successful”30 genuine socialist revolution, the balance sheet here can be interpreted, equally plausibly, in a very different way. The major lesson it seems to offer from my perspective is that while there has never been a socialist revolution in an “advanced” capitalist country, and while Leninist ideas have never won mass support in any of them, the left reformist perspective of taking power within the capitalist state has had a great deal more success. If we are to develop a strategy for socialism today that might plausibly win popular support we have to produce one which pivots on this perspective.

Transitional demands and government power

Let’s consider the Leninist alternative. The key problem here is that it is not entirely clear how things move from the current political situation to one in which a network of soviets emerges and a revolutionary scenario comes onto the immediate agenda. Of course, it is true that Leninists are clear that revolution emerges from practical struggles for reforms—but there is still something of a leap here. How, concretely, does a revolutionary situation emerge from the day to day struggles of the working class? The question is surely all the more pressing given that in Greece—where capitalist crisis is at its most acute and where popular resistance to austerity at its most advanced—soviet power shows no sign of emerging.

This is exactly the problem, of course, that Trotsky attempted to address with his programme of “transitional demands” which was designed to “bridge” the divide between the “minimum programme” of reform and the “maximum programme” of revolution. Transitional demands “start from the immediate needs of the struggle, but the logic of pursuing them implies a conflict with capital”.31 There has been something of a return to the idea of transitional demands within the SWP in the last few years—impelled, perhaps, by a sense that the party’s strategic perspective requires more concrete elaboration. Callinicos set out a series of measures conceived in this way in his 2003 book, An AntiCapitalist Manifesto, for example.32 More recently, in an article for this journal, he has argued for the development of transitional demands geared towards current struggles against austerity.33 He draws here on radical reform proposals drawn up by Costas Lapavitsas among others in the Research on Money and Finance (RMF) group, designed for implementation in Greece. These include, for example, “a broad programme of public ownership and control over the economy”.34

What is striking about Callinicos’s transitional proposals is that they seem remarkably close to what the SWP terms left reformism—they would certainly qualify as such if Callinicos could bring himself to call for a government of the left to carry them out. It is here, however, that his argument becomes rather mysterious. Who or what, precisely, is to carry out these transitional demands? Callinicos’s International Socialism article is, in my view, particularly circumspect in relation to this question. Callinicos seems to be in an odd position where his argument appears to imply the necessity of a “left government” despite the fact that this is a perspective he criticises elsewhere. Furthermore, though the article was published before the dramatic rise in Syriza’s electoral fortunes, it is presumably the case that he still holds today to the positions he puts forward in it—and this seems to raise questions about his stance specifically in relation to the question of Syriza. Surely the only entity remotely likely to implement the sort of demands the RMF group propose would be a Syriza, or Syriza-led, government. Yet Callinicos refuses to back Syriza’s left government perspective. Of course, a major sticking point here is that Syriza refuses to commit to withdrawal from the euro—which is one of the key components of the RMF group’s proposals. Nevertheless, Kouvelakis has argued powerfully, as we have seen, that confrontation with capital is likely to drive Syriza beyond their initial intentions and indeed he is clear that they are likely to be driven to exit the euro.35 In any case the question remains: who or what else might reasonably be expected to implement the sorts of demands for which Callinicos calls?

Things are slightly clearer in An AntiCapitalist Manifesto. Here Callinicos remarks that the sort of transitional reforms he proposes “can only be won by a movement that maintains its political independence”36 from the state—so a strategy involving taking government power within capitalism appears to be off limits. However, this is hardly satisfactory either. Callinicos appears to be suggesting that a government that is not committed to a socialist perspective can be induced to enact a series of radical reforms which seriously undermine capitalism and galvanise a revolutionary challenge against it. It is hard to believe that a pro-capitalist government is likely to do this. Callinicos’s programme in this book surely implies the need for some sort of left government, as does his International Socialism article.

So the Leninist strategic perspective today seems caught in a bind. In its most concrete accounts of how struggles for reform are to be transformed into revolutionary struggles, government-implemented reforms seem to play a key role and yet it is insisted that revolutionary movements must remain independent of the capitalist state. The problem here is that this provides no clear explanation of how a government likely to enact a series of transitional measures is to come into being. The logic of approaches such as Callinicos’s seems to demand a left government—but this logic is ignored because to grasp it would mean abandoning a fundamental tenet of the SWP’s thinking. As John Riddell remarks in relation to the idea of a transitional programme, however, demands “for social reforms ring hollow unless capped by the perspective of a workers’ political instrument to lead in carrying them out”.37 Indeed, Riddell—a noted scholar whose work focuses on the Communist movement in the era of the Russian Revolution—argues that Lenin’s Communist International came to just this realisation in the early 1920s. This was expressed in the Comintern’s decision on what it called the “workers’ government”—a left government of the working class which would come to power within the institutions of the capitalist state. It is worth examining this a little further.

Workers’ government and the early Comintern

“When the Comintern was formed in March 1919,” Riddell comments:

It set as its goal the transfer of power to the revolutionary workers’ councils that then existed, or seemed likely to be formed, in several countries of Europe. A year later, such councils no longer existed to any significant degree outside the Soviet republics.38

By the early 1920s it had become clear that revolution was no longer on the immediate agenda. The Comintern realised that its approach had to adapt to these new conditions; a strategy for revolutionaries in non-revolutionary circumstances was needed. It was in this context that it:

launched efforts to build a united front of workers’ struggle, challenging the organisations led by pro-capitalist officials to join in efforts to win immediate demands such as opening the capitalists’ financial records, workers’ control of distribution of food, shifting the tax burden to the rich, and arming workers for self-defence against reactionary gangs.39

These were early examples of transitional demands rooted in immediate needs but pointing towards workers’ power. This raised the question, however, of how such a programme could be implemented. The answer the Comintern settled on was that it could be put into effect by a “workers’ government”.

The notion of the workers’ government was controversial within the Comintern and furthermore there were different interpretations of the concept. Nevertheless its most vigorous proponents were clear that it would be a “transitional government, striking blows at capitalist power and seeking to open the road to a socialist transformation”.40 It was crucial, furthermore, that it emerged out of, and was driven forward by, mass workers’ struggles. Clara Zetkin emphasised that such a government must be:

Born out of a forward movement and the struggle of large masses of the proletariat and must live and act in a close alliance with the forward movement and struggle of these masses.41

This was the conception of the workers’ government that was finally affirmed at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922. The core objective of such a government would be to prepare the conditions for the revolutionary seizure of power. For Zetkin the workers’ government was “the attempt to force the bourgeois state within its essential historic limitations to serve the historic interests of the proletariat”.42

Those in favour of the concept of a transitional workers’ government were aware that such a strategy would entail certain risks. Zetkin was clear that it would bring the danger of becoming prisoners of “opportunism” but there was, for her, no choice but to accept and seek to negotiate these dangers.43 In circumstances in which there was no immediate prospect of revolution, the workers’ government presented the only obvious means by which workers’ power might be brought closer. Indeed, for Karl Radek, commenting on the situation in Germany (on which much of the debate focused), the workers’ government was “the only practical and real means of winning the majority of the working class to the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat”.44

Only two years after the perspective of the workers’ government was affirmed by the Fourth Congress, the Comintern began to retreat from this position as it entered a process of Stalinist degeneration. Nevertheless, what the decision of the Fourth Congress shows is that the Leninist tradition is not at all implacably opposed to the notion that a left government could be a significant transitional step towards socialism. Indeed, in the thinking of Lenin’s Comintern, struggle for a workers’ government flows logically from circumstances such as the ones we are in now in which soviets do not exist to any significant extent. Given this, then, it is quite hard to see why the SWP rejects on principle—invoking the Leninist tradition as they do so—the idea that a left government might open the way to socialism.


After several years of deep capitalist crisis, socialism still seems as far from the immediate political agenda as it has ever been. The radical left formations currently making the greatest political headway in Europe, however, are committed to the perspective of seeking to take power within capitalist institutions in order to implement radical reforms which many in those organisations hope will help to generate a transitional dynamic of change. Unfortunately the SWP is unable to relate in a wholly positive way to what it calls the left reformism of these formations. The SWP insists that there is nothing dismissive or disparaging about its attitude toward these groups, but it is hard to agree. There is something dismissive about an approach which focuses on lecturing these formations on their errors from an apparent position of absolute political certainty. Given that, on current evidence, left reformism, rather than the Leninism of groups such as the SWP, seems to have the greatest capacity by far to win mass support, anyone might be forgiven for supposing that maybe it is not the SWP which should be giving the lectures. This, however, would be to put it rather harshly. Certainly, left reformist formations have much to learn from the revolutionary tradition in which the SWP stands—but, equally, is it not the case that maybe the SWP also has something to learn from them?

This is not to say that any strategy that rests on reformist assumptions can be successful. We have seen, however, that the SWP’s analysis of left reformism corrals a wide spectrum of positions into the same camp and then insists, unconvincingly, that the camp and thus everyone in it are essentially reformist. It is possible, however, to hold the view that a left government must form part of a strategy for socialism (this, for the SWP, is the commitment characteristic of left reformism) while also holding to a revolutionary perspective. Indeed, I have argued that once the necessity of transitional demands is admitted—and it is hard to think of any other method of bridging the gap between day to day struggles and revolution—the strategic perspective that emerges also implies the necessity of some sort of left government. This need not be a problem, however, for those operating within the Leninist tradition because, as we saw, the workers’ government perspective of the early Comintern seems to provide the justification of historical precedent in this regard.

Many of those operating in groups labelled left reformist by the SWP would welcome a more constructive relationship. Surely this would be assisted by a much more open approach in which it is admitted that, while of course there are lessons and guidelines to be drawn from the past, nobody really knows—nobody can know until it happens, if it ever does—how to make a socialist revolution today. There are no blueprints. Nobody has all the answers and we all have much to learn—from each other and most of all, of course, from the struggles ahead.


1: Thomas, 2013. Thanks to Peter Dwyer for his comments on an early draft of this article.

2: See, for example, Blackledge, 2013, Molyneux, 2013a, and Thomas, 2013. Thomas does not actually use the term “left reformism” but his analysis of “left governments” is clearly in the same vein as Blackledge’s and Molyneux’s analyses.

3: I have signalled that I think this term is unhelpful and problematic. To continue to put the term in inverted commas throughout the sections that follow would be cumbersome, however, and so I stop doing this from this point.

4: This is a chance for me to expand on the argument that I set out in a recent article in Socialist Review: Rooksby, 2013.

5: Blackledge, 2013.

6: Blackledge, 2013.

7: See Harman, 1991.

8: Blackledge, 2013.

9: See Block, 1987.

10: Molyneux, 2013a, p26.

11: Thomas, 2013.

12: Molyneux, 2013b.

13: Thomas, 2013.

14: Thomas, 2013.

15: Molyneux, 2013a, p33.

16: Blackledge, 2013.

17: Molyneux, 2013a, has a footnote (p25) on the “centrism” of “Kautskyites” among parties of the Second International. He treats the “centre, led and epitomised by Kautsky in Germany” as the main historical current of left reformism in his analysis.

18: See, for example, Executive Bureau of the Fourth International, 2012.

19: Blackledge, 2013.

20: Gorz, 1964 and 1975.

21: Gorz, 1975, p154.

22: Gorz, 1975, p159.

23: Gorz, 1964, p7.

24: See Toscano, 2012.

25: See Baltas, 2012, p125.

26: Seymour, 2012.

27: Kouvelakis, 2012.

28: See Block, 1987, pp64-65. See Rooksby, 2011, for a fuller examination of Block’s state theory.

29: Callinicos, 2012.

30: How successful? Soviet power was not established on any durable basis.

31: Callinicos, 2010.

32: Callinicos, 2003.

33: Callinicos, 2010.

34: See Lapavitsas and others, 2010.

35: See Kouvelakis, 2012.

36: Callinicos, 2003, pp139-140.

37: Riddell, 2012a.

38: Riddell, 2011, p21.

39: Riddell, 2012b.

40: Riddell, 2012c.

41: Zetkin, 1922.

42: Zetkin, 1922.

43: Zetkin, 1922.

44: Riddell, 2011, p22.


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