Dismantle the few. Dismantle the few. Source: Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Dominic Alexander argues that a socialist strategy requires alternatives that can be implemented in the here and now but which also lead towards the overthrow of  the system itself

The debate which opposes reform and revolution as non-compatible opposites is the oldest false dichotomy in socialist politics. No revolutionary socialist movement can be built without mobilising around demands for reform, partly for their own sake, but also for the sake of building working-class organisation.

A perspective that limits itself to seeking reforms, however, will tend more and more towards accepting ever more meagre compromises, while prioritising a focus on political and trade-union leaderships, rather than the vigour of rank-and-file self-organisation. It is only the latter which truly gives the working class power, either to force reforms on a reluctant ruling class or indeed to lay the organisational foundations for radical challenges to capitalism as a whole.

The history of social democracy is one where initial radical and revolutionary currents found themselves overwhelmed, in parties like the German SPD, by bureaucratic leaderships who were more concerned to achieve their own legitimacy within the existing political system than building militant working-class organisation. Hence by the end of the 19th century, debates had erupted within the SPD between revolutionaries, various shades of ‘orthodox’ Marxists, and revisionists about the nature of capitalism, and whether it is reformable.

Arguments of this kind have never gone away, but right now there is an urgency about understanding why we need both Marx’s analysis of the dynamics of capital and a clear programme of demands for structural reform to rebuild a powerful working-class movement. The false dichotomy, however, seems to be evergreen.

The ‘anti-reformists’ vs the ‘neo-Kautskyites’

Recently, Dylan Riley, on the New Left Review blog, attacked ideas about achieving a ‘Green New Deal’ to address the environmental and economic crises together, saying that this ‘sepia-toned “Rooseveltology” should be exposed for what it is: a backward-facing obstacle to the establishment of socialism.’ Reform won’t work, instead the ‘commanding heights of the economy – in this period, finance – must be seized at once’. On the other hand, Seth Ackerman in Jacobin responded by decrying ‘the logicians of capital’ like Riley, who say capitalism can’t be reformed. Ackerman goes on to dismiss the theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as marginal to Marx’s writing. This is a little odd since Riley does not refer to that tendency, but rather to the problem of ‘overcapacity’, or overproduction. Nor can it seriously be maintained that the theory is marginal in Marx.

Regardless, both of these are untenable positions which miss how a socialist strategy should work. Ackerman’s dismissal of the law of profitability, and implicitly much else in Marx’s value theory, disarms socialists from being able to analyse the present nature of capitalist dynamics, and therefore of an ability to form the right strategy.

On the other hand, it is true that a ‘Green New Deal’ is an empty slogan, particularly if left to be defined by politicians like President Biden in the US, or if applied to Starmer’s neoliberal designs for a ‘Great British Energy’ company. However, we can’t leap from a dismissal of such inadequacies straight to seizing the commanding heights. There needs to be mediating demands around which to build a movement which could plausibly be powerful enough to do that.

Nonetheless, Riley’s point about the effects of a state-led policy to build the industries needed for a green transition can’t be dismissed out of hand. It is true that if a number of developed countries, such as the US, UK and Germany, for example, all onshored and expanded production of solar panels and wind turbines, for example, this could lead to overcapacity and falling profit rates. This would require government subsidies to support profitability or to maintain production if the industries were nationalised.

However, capitalism is beset with a crisis of falling profitability and overaccumulation anyway, and allowing it to take its own course will only deepen the crisis that already exists. With variations in extent, the tendency now is for inflation to drive down living standards so that at least some industries can push profits upwards, while public services are subject to destructive levels of austerity. In this situation, it is vital that socialists offer alternatives that can be implemented in the here and now.

Reforms and capitalist crisis

In an economic period of high-profit rates due to rapid rises in productivity and lower levels of capital accumulation, such as obtained in the immediate post-war period, it was possible for reformist parties to implement major institutional change. Capital had its own reasons for accepting the social-democratic settlement of that time, but it did so to varying degrees, depending precisely upon the political context, and the strength of labour and socialist movements in different countries. Those economic conditions don’t exist today, and the margins of reform that are acceptable to the ruling classes are very narrow indeed.

However, capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis, and levels of discontent are rising to heights of great severity. Certainly, the British ruling class is running out of solutions, which explains the extreme political lurches from Theresa May to Boris Johnson, to Truss and to Sunak. The position in the US is only a little different, largely due to its position in the world’s financial architecture. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has barely stretched the confines of neoliberal strictures. France is in a serious political crisis, and Germany’s economic position is actually a little better than the UK’s. Yet, the poly-crisis makes an ambitious programme of structural reform ever more plausible, and possible, if there is a political force capable of fighting for it.

Riley’s concern over overcapacity leading to an asset bubble only matters if the long-term concern is the health of capitalism. Too often in history, social-democratic leaders have ceded to the concerns of capital on the grounds that only a prosperous capitalism can support reforms. This has led to the point where there is next to nothing social-democratic remaining about parties such as Labour in Britain, the Socialists in France, or the SPD in Germany.

It is possible to take another view of the problem Riley raises. The ill effects of capital circulation unfold over time, not simultaneously with the start of the process. Therefore, for example, an energy transition could be put underway, but the temporal gap between that and any ensuing crisis is one where politics can determine the outcome. The solution to the capitalist crisis in this case would be a further and accelerating transition to a democratic, planned economy. Certainly, nationalising the finance system is something that should be done as early as feasible. The alternative is to be consumed by capitalist crisis either way.

Needed: a militant working-class movement

It also matters whether socialists become fixated on the prospect of a more or less reformist government. In Britain, the defeat of Corbynism means such a government isn’t on the cards, and nor is any kind of significant turn to the left by the Democrats in the US likely. However, Ackerman rightly points to the importance Marx placed on the winning of the Ten Hours Act of 1847, which limited working hours in certain industries.

Nonetheless, the context here is crucial. At the time, the working class was excluded from suffrage, and parliament was dominated by bourgeois interests. The bill would not have passed but for the preceding decade of Chartist agitation, which had reached a height with the General Strike of 1842. This was effectively a revolutionary moment, and it was this pressure which forced a compromise on the ranks of hostile capitalists. We don’t necessarily need a reformist government to force compromises on capitalism, but we certainly do need a radical, militant working-class movement.

We need Marx’s structural analysis of capitalism’s dynamics, and yes, of the declining rate of profit, precisely in order to strengthen the capacity of the working class to fight for reforms. If capitalism could be reformed on its own terms, then it would be just a matter of polite and rational debate among politicians and intellectuals about the best way forward for the economy and society. This is not the case.

Capitalism’s drives are contrary to the health of society, and it takes an organised class struggle to force it into different directions. Marx’s value analysis shows why the working class cannot just trust in a top-level leadership to lobby for compromises and reforms, but why it has to organise an all-out fight for meaningful reform, in the 1840s for the ten hours in Britain, and today for a radical version of green structural reforms.

If the movement is not aware of the crisis dynamics of capitalism, then it will be unable to prepare the strategy it needs to respond. Reforms are worth fighting for, but any reform is only a temporary victory precisely because of capitalist structural contradictions. Building workers’ self-organisation and mass social movements is the way through these dilemmas, and is surely what Marx had in mind. What is needed is a revolutionary organisation that engages in movements for reform.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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