Left Forum Meeting: “Revolution, Reform and everything in between”
I recently became invlolved in the Left Forum.
I wanted to have a space where I could discuss and debate political ideas. In particular, I feel that there is a distinct lack of debate amongst the Irish Left and not just the type of ‘debate for debate’s sake’. Polemics are on the rise again, as seen in recent articles on sex work, but they can be somewhat disjointed and other than the magazine LookLeft, many ongoing debates are abstractly recorded or not at all.
There seems to be some misinterpretation as to the purpouse of the Left Forum. Obviously, it encompases Socialists and activists from across the spectrum so Comrades may have different interpretations and aspirations for the project. My own subjective perspective is that it is wishes to popularise genuinely Left ideas, create a space for debate where people can politically develop themselves and create networks for activists engaged in similar areas of struggle. It is not an alliance of any political description.
The Dublin Branch of LF organised a debate yesterday (23rd November 2013) around the topic ‘Revolution, Reform and everything in between’. Always a relevant debate but with the potential coming-into power of SYRIZA it is no longer a relatively abstract discussion from a European perspective. Also, whilst Ireland and Greece are at polar opposite stages in terms of class struggle and consciousness there are some obvious similarities, that don’t need to be expanded on here.
James O’Toole from the SWP and James O’Brien from Spirit of Contradiction put the cases forward for Revolutionary Socialism and Revolutionary Reformism respectively. Let’s use those labels to facilitate things, as I thought I would try to give some kind of report on both accounts whilst making some of my own points along the way. For the record I do not subscribe to Trotskyism nor am I Revolutionary Reformist, I am simply giving my interpretation and some opinion on events. Two central themes arose and they were the role and nature of the state and forms of socialisation. A historical context behind both tactical approaches were forwarded to further support their arguments.
Naturally both speakers had to spend much of their contributions on putting forward their interepretations of the state. James O’Toole and other SWP speakers referred to the State being beneath everything, as Engels described, “armed bodies of men in defence of private capital”. He elaborated on this by saying that Lenin’s interpretation of smashing the state was as relevant as ever. Ultimately an insurrection of sorts would be necessary to take power from the Capitalists as they would use all repressive forces at their disposal to protect their interests. He pointed out that there are roughly 37,000 members of the repressive forces (police, prison officers, army and reserves) within this country, far more than there are members of the Left. He quantified this be referring to Greece where this would entail breaking the link between the army rank-and-file and the generals, adding that this was not utopian.
James O’Brien started from the premise that the state is not inherently Capitalist and that if you arbitrarily smash its organs, you may potentially smash its functions too. That many of the legal restrictions in the struggle to overthrow Capitalism have been removed, through struggle itself, such as right to strike, assembly, universal suffrage etc. He feels that the problem isn’t that we’re not legally allowed to take control of the modes of production but that we’re simply losing the battle. If the working class were strong enough the State could be subordinated. He elaborated further on all those points by saying that the running of a state is such a complex affair and that workers councils are not sufficient. The high divisions of labour internationally make this even more difficult.
Lenin’s interpretation of the State is born out of a time, as J’OB stated, when miliatry monarchies were the norm across Europe and were obviously monolithic in nature. Furthermore the state undoubetdly has developed considerable social infrastructures like education, social welfare, health care etc. In saying that, if we take the Greek example, these historic victories are being vigorously eroded away to an extent where poverty is now rampant. Furthermore the idea that the Greek working class will not come into direct and violent conflict with the repressive forces of the state is sadly not far fetched. In fact, it could be argued that the secret services, the army, the police and Golden Dawn are already beginning to play that role.
One issue that I feel many parties never eleboarate enough on is the complexities of running an economy. For example J’OB pointed out that whilst the Bolsheviks may have smashed the state and replaced it with Soviet democracy, it ultimately turned out to be highly problematic. The legislative and executive functions of many of the organs of the state merged. As workers by their nature spent most of their time working, the executive representatives became soviet officials and were unaccountable. Worker’s councils will never just be faced with administrative tasks there will of course be political ones too. This is not political heresy it is political fact. Something that cannot be simply ignored. In J’OB’s opinion, once the Bolsheviks took control, soon after production fell apart. Combined with the genuine functioning of Soviets being dismantled, this resulted in the Bolsheviks losing much popular support post-1918.
The second part of the debate centred around socialisation methods and tactics. This time SWP speakers used Marx’s quote “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves” as the premise of their argument. J’OT explained that insurrection would have to come to pass due to the contradictory nature of Capitalism creating revolutionary conditions and it was only the workers who would be capable of achieving this. Capitalists may go as far as allowing the working-class have its own Left Government because ultimately it would still control capital. The notion that the many capitalist protagonists would sit idly by and watch workers dismantle the state bit-by-bit seems utopian to him. He stated that he would love a Left Government but only as it would ‘put it up’ to the ruling class.
On the question of what kind of party was needed to achieve this he believes it must not adhere to programmatic formulism. That it is not up for the Left to merely get its act together, draw up the perfect programe and teach its politics to working class people. They must be involved in that process.
J’OB counterposed this by stating that an eco-system of Left politics must be re-established to make the Socialist movement ‘competitive’ again. He used the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) example of a whole variety of associations from smoking to sports club being affiliated to the Party. This allowed them to have a vast arsenal of membership, funds, press, passive support and voluntary labour at their disposal. He described the strategy of insurrection as having no cumulative process and lacking a benefit of brand. There must be a push for mass participation in society in the run-up to critical situations.
J’OB used a number of humourous analogies that almost seemed to be used to gain a reaction from his debating opponents. The highlight was the Catholic Church as a useful model for a potential mass party, without the unaccountable hierarchies. He explained that there may have been a system of priests, bishops, cardinals etc, but there were other organisations such as the Legion of Mary that also attached itself to the Church and helped form its considerable strength and ‘programe’. I believe that his point was that right-wing party members will often have much less in common than members of the Left would, but in unison they achieve far more than we do.
The end of the debate descended into a discussion on the SPD’s role in the lead-up to WWI. John Molyneux from the SWP accused the Marxist centre of the SPD of having backed the war to which J’OB stated this was historically inaccurate. J’OT said even if Kautsky initially had voted against WWI he played no serious role in organising strikes etc to prevent it from happening.
J’OB did not elaborate much on the ‘parliamentary way’ but in his summary he did offer his own Marxist quotation stating that at the Hague Congress of the 1st International in 1872, Marx had argued that a parliamentary majority could be a significant step towards workers taking power.
In conclusion, I would be very skeptical of J’OT’s comments in relation to progrematic formulism. In my opinion, British Trotskyism seems to adhere to a stringent doctrine that incorporates both theoretical and political dogmatic approaches. More on this in future posts. You wait with yawning breath, I’m sure.
I would also have serious concerns of Revolutionary Reformism’s analysis of Bourgeois parliaments. They obviously do not perpetrate that this in anyway constitutes Socialism but that it is merely a path towards it. The difficulty is that politicians come under immense pressure to capitulate and compromise on issues even whilst in opposition. As J’OB stated, neither ideology is in anyway simplistic and neither can claim to have achieved its ultimate goal.
I am sure I have missed out important aspects of both speakers’ contributions but hopefully I have painted an overall picture of their arguments.