Revolutionary socialists were never right

Submitted by Anon on 30 September, 1997 - 10:48

We are now in a period where it is widely acknowledged that there is a crisis of socialist perspectives. This is particularly true for those social-democratic parties across western Europe.

The essence of this debate about reform and revolution was summed up by Rosa Luxemburg at the time when she was engaged in a fight inside the German Social Democratic Party with Eduard Bernstein. Rosa said the debate between reform and revolution was not about different roads to the same goal but it was about different goals.

It was a debate about two perspectives. One was the revolutionary perspective which says that it is possible to replace this system of wage slavery, where the whole of human life is dominated by the relentless drive of capital to expand itself, where human beings are repressed, alienated, where our potential to develop as the species homo Sapiens is thwarted. It is possible replace this wasteful and barbarous system, which in the twentieth century has given us the Somme and Hiroshima, the gulag and Auschwitz, with and entirely different system. That system will be one of working-class rule which will end the pre-history of human society, a society of class struggle and open the way to real human development and a communist society.

The alternative perspective says a communist system is utopia. All we can aim and hope for is civilised, humanised or socialised capitalism. We can restrain the worst excesses of capitalism.

Both myself and Donald are aware that these two perspectives and traditions — the revolutionary Marxist and the social democrat — have been tested by the events of the twentieth century. But I would draw very different conclusions to Donald. First I would like to define more clearly the record of the two perspectives and traditions. Donald, unfortunately, identifies the Communist tradition with not just the early Communism of the Russian revolution but also with the Communist Party of Stalin. And so he fails to see that there is in fact three traditions in the workers' movement: the Social-Democratic tradition, the Stalinist tradition and that which I consider myself to be part of, the revolutionary Marxist tradition which is also democratic and internationalist.

The fundamental ideas of the Marxist movement are in the Communist Manifesto. There Marx says all previous socialisms have been utopian either because though they might be movements of the oppressed they have lacked the necessary historical possibilities to change society or they have been movements of middle-class reformist schemes for a better society, for instance Robert Owen's "ideal communities". In contrast, Marx defines socialism as a class movement where an objective agency, the working class, the wage slaves, had a capacity and potential and which would be compelled to fight. There would be a possible aim and goal for that movement which was the reconstruction of society on a socialist basis. Socialism was no longer a good idea thought out be a great mind but as Marx put it "the conscious understanding of a conscious process."

Marxism was and is still the only truly internationalist ideology. In the Manifesto Marx puts forward the idea that capitalism is progressive in the sense of that it breaks down barriers of tradition in previous class societies it also by creating a "society of international relations" it also creates its own grave diggers — an international working-class. The Marxists were the first to champion international working-class solidarity. The First International started off by trying to raise support for Polish independence, they supported printers' strikes in France. The key dividing line between reformists and revolutionaries in the Second International was the attitude the movement should take to the First World War.

Donald Sassoon

When social-democrats met in Paris on the 14th July in Paris 1889 to start the Second International there was no difference between social-democrats, revolutionary socialists or whatever. The overwhelming majority of the Socialist International in Paris considered themselves to be Marxists. Even when the big debate between Bernstein and Kautsky and the others took place it was considered to be a debate among Marxists. Bernstein attacked Kautsky but he did not attack Marxism, although he offered his own view of what Marxism was.

Bernstein tried to base his revision of the established Social-Democratic position on an analysis of the changes in capitalist society. One might, and I certainly do, argue with Bernstein's analysis of capitalist society but the important thing is that he justified his proposed change in position in terms of the changes in capitalism. That has remained within the socialist movement on of the key factors. In deciding which policy to adopt we must always look at what the real options are within a determined system. That is even true of the tradition later established by Lenin. He said "if there is no revolution in Germany we are doomed." There was a recognition that the revolution did not only depend on the efforts of the Russian revolutionaries, it depended on an international system which is what capitalism had become.

What did the socialists who met in 1889 say? If you read the texts of that time or the documents of the German social-democracy in 1891 — which incidentally has the blessing of the only socialist Pope of that time Engels — you find the typical programme of social democrats what made up of two things.

First they said, as later revolutionary socialists would keep on saying, the final aim is a classless society. Secondly they had a minimum programme a number of specific demands.

The first thing in the range of demands they advocated was the expansion of political democracy — universal suffrage for men and women, written constitutions and so on. These were kinds of things that liberals also advocated at the time.

The second part of this minimum programme called for what we would now call the welfare state. They wanted a national health service, free education, pensions and insurance for everyone.

The third thing they asked for was the regulation of labour market — they demanded the eight hour day. They said a there should be a limit to capitalist exploitation.

The first two range of demands — political democracy and welfare — were not addressed specifically to the working class. They did not ask for workers to have special treatment. They addressed themselves to the citizenry as a whole. The vote was for everyone the national health service was for everyone. Only the third demand — the economic regulation — was a specifically trade union type of demand.

We can play all sorts of games with history but 100 years after 1889 in 1989, the year in which Soviet Communism collapses, that programme has been the basic programme of the vast majority of socialists in western Europe. In fundamentals it has been extraordinary successful. They got it right, they obtained all their demands, so much so that some of these things are now in danger of being attacked.

There is quite properly an outcry among all sort of people who want to defend these things. As we have seen in France it is extremely difficult to remove these gains, to reverse history that much. We cannot say however if these gains will be successfully defended, nothing is gained forever. For all I know we may have reached the end of that phase of socialist history and socialism may disappear altogether. I do not know, all I can say is that capitalism, as it is constituted now, does not need socialism. There are other capitalist countries outside western Europe which are doing very well without socialism. In the most successful capitalist country in the twentieth century, the USA, there was never a socialist party worth mentioning, one big enough to be voted into office, to implement reforms and so on. In another successful capitalist country, Japan, there is no challenge from any significant socialist party or even a powerful reformist liberal party.

Giving a verdict on this experience is rather complicated. In terms of the long-term aims of the social-democrats, of establishing a classless society, they totally failed. There has never been a socialist society which has emerged out of the successes of social democracy. Social democrats realised this, so much so that they dumped this final aim. They have not just done it, it has not happened under Blair, it happened in the 1950s. All that Blair has done in dropping Clause Four is conclude an itinerary which had started before. Clause Four was largely a symbol that have very little relevance.

The social democratic tradition is one which has reformed capitalism and has contributed a more or less determinant way to create in Western Europe a particular, or unique form of capitalism which is now under extraordinary pressure and could be destroyed.

At the UN Summit in Denver recently the Americans were saying if you want to be as successful as we are you have got to get rid of this nonsense — these strong trade unions, rigid labour markets and welfare state stuff. Be dynamic and flexible and forward looking, in other words they said, get rid of your kind of socialism. The real battle between the US and western Europe is over a modal of capitalism not over whether to get rid of capitalism.

There is also the Soviet communist tradition to consider. Is there one thing to be saved out of this experiment? I will not play the game which says that the bad guys were in the right place at the right time and therefore it all went terribly wrong but if only the good guys had triumphed things would have been so much nicer. No I will take the whole lot — Lenin and Stalin and Khrushchev — and ask what did they achieve?
They took over what was not yet a capitalist country so they had to face a completely different problem from that the social democrats had in western Europe where they were facing a capitalism, they did not have to build a capitalist industry. The social democrats could be determined reformists. They could try to use the surplus generated by capitalism for reforms. This option was not around in Russia. They had to build industry in a completely new way. And they were successful in doing that but the price was absolutely colossal and I am not prepared to defend it. The result was there, and industrial society, but not a consumer society or the society of abundance that Marx said would replace capitalism.

The other achievement of Soviet communism is that they had their kind of welfare state, a health service, education, free higher education and so on. But the successes they had — the full employment and the welfare state — the social democrats did as well. But we managed to do it without killing 20 million kulaks, and without purges and the rest. It may well be that there was no other way to do it in Russia, I don't know but that is the kind of thing people want to defend in Eastern Europe. So there is a parallel.

The only thing that the socialist movement has managed to do is the full implementation of the minimum programme devised 100 years ago. What were the conditions for the implementation of this programme?
The parties at the time called themselves "internationalist" but it was largely a rhetorical term and it did not mean "workers' of the world unite" — the organisation of international strikes was out of the question. Internationalism meant one thing, pacifism, and that crumbled in 1914 when the majority of socialist parties took the side of their state. I would like to defend the SPD and the French socialists who took the same line. It would very easy to defend the Russian social democracy, both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, and others who opposed the war. Why did the German SPD support the war? I think you have to look at the evolution and the constraints facing these parties.

The SPD was successful. That means that it was a state within a state. Even though it developing within the confines of imperialist Germany and had been persecuted and practically banned until 1890 it had a lot of votes, at one stage 32% in an electoral system that was against them, it had its own party schools and libraries and a phenomenal amount of support among the working-class. In other words it has become very German, it had become very proud of its anchorage within that particular state because it was able to thrive.

In that position they could not throw it away, go against what their base was and go against what the workers in Germany wanted. I'm very sorry to have to say that workers in Germany in 1914 were in favour of the war. They were scared stiff of the Russians. They felt they had to defend "our Germany" which has given us rights, pensions, national insurance. The German social democratic party defended itself, its own people and went to war.
This broke the international socialist movement which was always based on the nation state. Why was it always based on the nation state? Because socialists can only go so far as capitalism can go and capitalism was based on the nation state and had not gone international at that time. The history of the socialist movement is incomprehensible unless you look at it from the point of view of the organisation of everyone in these capitalist states.

Now capitalism is truly becoming international but socialists are still stuck in the national state because the entire political structure was based on the nation. Socialist will be stuck in this position for a long time. Because they are organised as national parties they negatively acquire all the characteristics of the national politics.
The recent conference in Malmo shows this phenomena very well. There was an unprecedented degree of convergence — the parties there were all pro-European, all reformist, all anti-Soviet communism. However they all took different position. Blair called for a more flexible market as a secret recipe to bring down unemployment. Jospin took quite a different position.

One can say wouldn't it be nice to have Joispin's programme, it's not quite as bad as Blair. But in the point is in France you cannot win elections on a Blairite platform. And probably in Britain you cannot win elections on Joispin's programme. The mentality in France is based on a whole set of ideas related to Republicanism which are at least 100 years old. These ideas emphasise the state which will protect all the French people. The idea of being French is not so much a racial idea when it is based on Republican values. All sorts of other things are barely understandable from the British context. For example when 73% of the French population say when asked what they expect from the next government they expect the working week to be lowered to 35 hours. Even Chirac was promising this in 1995. This makes Chirac to the left of Blair. You cannot stick everyone who is anyone in Europe along some kind of continuum and have a supra-national view of what is left and right.

Left and right are connected to distinctive, special social realities. Why are the Italians so Euro-enthusiastic and are ready to rip off their old age pensioners in order to meet the Maastricht criteria. Well this is because Italian pensions are extraordinary generous, are a large proportion of the state budget and are unfairly distributed. You can only understand the differences between policies of various countries if you also now the social and economic structures of those countries. No one in France or Italy goes on about single mothers, because there are not so many.
In real politics these are the kinds of issues that decision makers have got to face all the time. It is nice to take a critical position but the price for this is the understanding of what can and cannot be done.
You talk about three positions — the Stalinist, the reformists and then yours. I talk about two. This is because I can only talk about really existing positions, things that have occurred. I cannot argue about or challenge a tradition that has not been tested. There is nothing wrong with the revolutionary tradition because whenever socialists takeover by revolutionary means something goes wrong and then people like you say — these revolutionaries were the bad ones. Whenever socialists come to power on a reformist programme you say of course they are just reformists. If your lot never win anything they can never do anything wrong. The result is that you are beyond criticism except in one sense. Why is it that after 100 years, after two world wars, the collapse of capitalism in 1929, the revival of capitalism after 1945, various social-democratic experiments, the collapse of dictatorship in three southern European countries, the collapse of communism. After all this why is that the one thing that never happened was that you won. Surely a little bit of self-criticism at this stage should be welcome. The revolutionary tradition has never become a party of a respectable size. It hasn't even managed to become as big as some of the small reformist parties in Europe like that get a fair vote like the Greens in Germany for instance. It took those Greens only ten years to become a source of radical left politics, they spoke the language of many people.

Until the revolutionary left tradition gets its act together it cannot have a role in society.

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