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  • Published in Book Reviews

Re-examine revolution, but surely now is not the time to abandon it. Chris Nineham reviews Socialist Register 2017: Rethinking Revolution


Socialist Register 2017: Rethinking Revolution, eds. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (Merlin Press 2016), xii, 363pp.

August Nimtz’s essay in this book on Marx and Engels, and organization, alone would make it worthwhile. Nimtz shows that though they didn’t write a huge amount about political organization, Marx and Engels showed through their practice and fragmentary comments that they believed, like Lenin after them, that socialists need to get organized in advance of great social struggles if they wanted to transform society. Nimtz quotes Marx:

‘The political movement of the working class naturally has as its final object the conquest of political power for this class, and this requires, of course, a previous organization of the working class developed up to a certain point, which arises from the economic struggles themselves’ (p.257).

And happy though he was about the gathering rejection of Liberalism by the British workers, and the growth of the German Social Democratic Party towards the end of the nineteenth century, Marx’s colleague Engels was alarmed by the German party’s quest for ‘absolute legality’:

‘You have nothing to gain by advocating complete abstention from force. Nobody would believe you, nor would any party in any country go as far as to forfeit the right to resist illegality by force of arms … not legality at any price, not even as a manner of speech!’ (p.259).

As Nimtz says, here was Engels anticipating with dismay the reformist course of twentieth century German Social Democracy.

There is, nonetheless, much else to recommend here. Jodi Dean’s chapter on the Actuality of Revolution is a fascinating investigation of the relationship between the future and the present in strategy and tactics. Perhaps slightly pushing a point, she argues that for Lenin, ‘the revolutionary future determines the actions that bring it about’ (p.62). One strand of the collection critiques identity politics. In ‘Revolution as national liberation? The origins of neoliberal antiracism’, Adolph Reed provides a thought provoking critique of variants of modern anti-racism, arguing that assuming the existence of a singular ‘black freedom movement’, ‘black liberation movement’ or even ‘a long civil rights movement’ effectively de-historicizes black history, removes all contradiction and marks ‘a retreat from programmatic commitment to social change’ (p.317). Andreas Malm’s account of the impact of climate change on the planet and the movements has the great virtue of analysing it through the prism of class and recognising that it will take revolutionary change to reverse. 

There are useful summaries, too, of left and movement experience in various corners of the globe. Steve Striffler’s and Robert Cavooris’s reports from Venezuela and Bolivia are particularly interesting given recent developments there. Robert Cavooris makes this important point:

‘If the right appears resurgent today throughout Latin America, this is in part because of the ambivalent positions of the state centred left. Moderate leftism in the global periphery, balancing between popular pressure and acquiescence to international capital, tends to wear itself out; capital has little use for an ambivalent ally, and revolutionary energies wane in the face of halting political contradiction’ (p.199).

The paradox of pessimism

This takes us to the central question in the book, socialist strategy. Here there is something of a paradox. One recurring theme is the crisis of elite legitimacy. Panitch and Ginden, for example, judge that the financial crash in particular has meant that ‘neoliberalism’s legitimacy has been undermined’ (p.36). Fabien Escalona points out that the growing power of elitist supranational institutions like the EU has created instability and undermined the system’s credibility (p.115), Bryan D. Palmer and Joan Sangster argue that serial political and economic assaults on working people have ‘prompted periodic populist and left-wing upheavals even within the conventional mainstream of political life’ (p.29).

But despite this recognition of a linked weakening of democracy, crisis in elite politics and popular sense of revolt, there is a marked reticence in quite a few of the contributions about the revolutionary project. With the spirited exceptions mentioned above and Palmer and Sangster’s interesting historical overview, many pieces keep their distance from the tradition of October 1917 rather than rethink it.

Instead we have, on the one hand, the case for semi-spontaneous resistance. Cavooris writes in praise of loosely linked autonomous movements making ‘positive demands for political space, more power to the communes in Venezuela, more land for the landless movements in Brazil … for the “taken” factories in Argentina’. A.W Zurbrugg writes off the Russian experience: social changes and experience elsewhere ‘make the Bolshevik model ever more inappropriate’ (p.281) and hopes that ‘movements for transformative change may seek out new paths that facilitate new social relations and forms of accountability, with both economic security for particular regions and the benefits of international trade’ (p.281).

The parliamentary path

A number of other essays - in line with a clear trend on the radical left - embrace some version of left reformism. In his interesting article on the heritage of Eurocommunism, Escalona sees the radical left’s task as democratizing Europe ‘at both the continental and the national scale’ (p.117). Striffler argues that the state and the political system ‘are important and necessary terrains of collective struggle that working people must (and can) capture’ (p.227).

Despite the general sense in the collection of a shift towards more authoritarian forms of rule and a strengthening of unaccountable international institutions, both these approaches play down the power of the state to repress or derail opposition. One problem is that some of the authors are working with caricatured versions of Leninism and the experience of the Russian revolution. In particular, the scope of Lenin’s strategic approach is underestimated.

Escalona’s throwaway comment that part of the achievement of Eurocommunism is to ‘go beyond the dual impasse of Leninism and traditional social democracy’ is echoed in Panitch and Ginden’s rejection of Leninist and Social Democratic models, both of which in their view display ‘a distrust of popular capacities to democratize state structures’ (p.53). This is to ignore so much. Not just the democratic breakthrough of the soviets, but the battle Lenin fought internationally about the importance of bourgeois elections, the effort at the third and fourth congresses of the Communist International to develop strategies to work with reformist organisations, the intense debate over participation in ‘workers’ governments’ centred on the experience of the German Communist Party, and so on and on.

In rejecting what they regard as Leninist centralism, the advocates of spontaneous struggle pretty much ignore the question of state power, or just hope that through some kind of networking, state power will somehow be sidestepped. Not only is no strategy considered for dismantling hostile state institutions, avoiding repression, or dealing with a ruling-class media, there is no discussion of what kind of representative institutions might be able to replace existing ones. We are left in Cavooris’s vision of change with the vague aspiration that, ‘fragments of autonomous potential can, if organized in yet-to-be-discovered ways, form a coherent counterpower to the right’ (p.203).

The other tendency is to focus on democratizing the state, using a combination of parliamentary and non-parliamentary means. In Panitch and Ginden’s words, a party aiming to take office ‘must more than ever keep its feet in the movements and far from trying to direct them, remain the central site for democratic strategic debate in light of their diverse struggles’ (p.55). Escalona talks up Jean Luc Melenchon’s strategy of rewriting the constitution to ‘transform the strategic terrain to better promote (eco) socialist policies’ (p.117). Steve Striffler advocates nurturing and channelling ‘public consciousness while building the political forms and institutions capable of … advancing socialism’ (p.227).

The state we are in

It is a commonplace that state institutions have massively increased their role and scale as compared to the days of the Russian Revolution. It is less clear, however, that this is a reason to give strategic primacy to the entry of political forces into the state through elections. Enlarged state apparatuses are arguably just as hard to democratize from within as less developed variants, because their democratic element is likely to be even more embedded in unaccountable bureaucracies. Secondly, in order to fragment these state structures, it is likely to take more concerted, better organized and more persistent movements from below.

Now, if we move beyond caricature, there is no argument between revolutionaries and more radical reformists about the need for socialists to operate at multiple levels in confronting the state. The Bolsheviks ran deputies for all democratic bodies including the provisional government and took their role in these bodies very seriously, as well as building mass opposition in the workplaces, and encouraging workers’ councils as a much higher form of democracy. It is hard to imagine a deepening crisis in any country that would not have an important parliamentary aspect to which socialists would need to pay close attention.

The question is where to put the emphasis; which element has strategic priority. A strategy that is based primarily on trying to implement socialism through parliament – even with mass support from below - faces a tangle of problems which Panitch and Ginden well describe:

‘the contradiction for any radical government that would be engaged in this process will include responsibilities for managing a capitalist economy that is likely in crisis while simultaneously trying to satisfy popular expectations for promised relief, and yet also embarking on the longer-term commitment to transform the state’ (p.54).

Their clearest answer to these conundrums is that popular pressure will be necessary to force the process forward. One immediate problem with this is that a party prioritizing parliamentary work logically cannot play the role of mobilizing popular forces to overcome its own inertia, conservatism and the danger of incorporation.

Behind this lies the deeper issue that the very stress on parliamentary processes will inevitably tend to blind people to the separation of politics and economics built into parliamentary politics and to the undemocratic nature of the core elements of the state. Its supporters will no doubt answer that pursuing parliamentary politics can expose precisely these things. But if we wait for them to be exposed in practice without at the same time building organizations that are honest about these problems and planning ways to deal with them, then it will be too late. The fate of left-reformist projects has too often been precisely this. Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile was brought down by Pinochet’s 1973 coup for which the movement was unprepared. Syriza’s recent radical experiment in Greece was cut short by a financial coup to which the wider movement wasn’t strong enough to respond. Underestimating the state risks repeating history.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.


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