Revolutionaries and reformists in contemporary Australia

Direct Action, November 18, 2012

By Max Lane — Rosa Luxemburg wrote the booklet Social Reform or Revolution in response to the writings of Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein was advocating an “evolutionary” path to socialism, counter-posed to revolution. “Reform or revolution?” became a fundamental question for the socialist and labour movements at the beginning of the 20th century. Defining the division between revolutionary and reformist politics remains a fundamental aspect of political life on the activist left today.

When Luxemburg wrote in 1899, this fundamental question had a historical concreteness. The socialist movement and parties of the day, having developed in a period when they were heavily influenced by the ideas of Marx, were heading towards a huge split, consummated after the outbreak of World War I. Luxemburg’s pamphlets, not to mention Lenin’s critique’s of Bernstein, were a part of resistance to a strengthening trend of a conservative opportunism. From World War I onwards, the labour movements in most countries of the world, and especially in the imperialist countries, have been dominated by reformism, embodied in the class-collaborationist trade union and labour and social democratic party bureaucracies.

The dominance of these bureaucracies and their ideologies frames labour movement and even broader democratic politics almost everywhere — certainly in Australia. Although, perhaps it needs to be added that struggles for actual reforms have been gutted of most of their real content since the late 1970s or early 1980s. Capitalist ruling classes have needed systematically to take back reforms during this period in their desperation to resist a declining rate of profit created by some of the irrationalities of capitalist competition.

Dominant ideology

Nevertheless, reformist ideology — confining the working class’s political struggle to winning incremental reforms as a counter-position to placing fundamental social transformation (revolution) at the forefront of political activity — has been hegemonic in most of the of the capitalist industrialised countries for most of the time since World War II.

I think there would be little questioning of this assertion among the explicitly Marxist left, whether in or outside parties or groups, in most of these countries or in Australia. Marxist parties, groups and individuals all declare their opposition to the reformist and class-collaborationist politics of the Australian Labor Party and most of the trade union bureaucracies as well as the Australian Greens. Marxists continue to wish to win a hearing for Marxist alternatives to this reformism among working-class supporters, blue and white collar, of the ALP and the Greens. There are, of course, debates and discussions over the best tactics to do this and the extent to which reaching the most advanced elements in the working class requires a prioritisation of winning a hearing among working class people who actively support or orient to these parties over other sections of the class, including students.

However, what frames any discussion of “reform versus revolution” in a country like Australia today is, unfortunately, the drastically low level of class struggle politics as well as general ideological life, let alone radical ideological activity. Trade union membership is at an all time low, as is industrial protest of all forms. Academe has totally acquiesced to universities being reorganised as producers of education as a mass commodity rather than a public good (even if defined in terms of bourgeois culture), absorbing the ideology of the market to boot. Ideological (cultural) life outside the universities evolves in the same mode. Student political activism is almost non-existent. This low level of political and ideological conflict has many implications for how the “reform versus revolution” question is addressed and played out.

Among the Marxist left there is a concern to ensure that reformist thinking or approaches don’t start to influence the Marxist groups, parties and individuals. This is a natural concern given the long historical hegemony of reformism in labour and democratic politics as well as the particularly smothering hegemony that exists today. However, in a period of such low class struggle, the question of “reformists” versus “revolutionaries” can be addressed in very distorted ways.

‘Moral’ quality

The revolutionary left has a long history now and recognises the heroism, militancy and radical understanding of millions of revolutionary masses as well as outstanding revolutionary political leaders. This embodies the word “revolutionary” with a moral quality: revolutionaries are heroic, militant and sharply radical. After decades of doing real battle with not only capitalist reactionaries but also treacherous reformists, “reformist” has become pejorative on the moral plane, as well as a term trying to be scientifically precise in defining a particular political outlook and practice. The real — sometimes life and death — struggles over the last hundred years have rightfully imbued these terms with those meanings.

This means that using them loosely in the Australian context can be misleading. “Reformist” and “opportunist” are unlikely to be too loosely used terms in reference to the ALP, Greens and trade union bureaucrats. “Reformist” is still an accurate description of the general character of political consciousness among the overwhelming majority of the working class. But we must be careful about deploying both “revolutionary” and “reformist” in their respectively morally laudatory and pejorative usages among the small Marxist left struggling to organise towards the formation of a revolutionary Marxist party.

There are individuals on the Australian Marxist left, both still active and passed away, who I consider exemplary revolutionaries. But I don’t think any of us on the left have been put to enough of a test of our heroism, militancy and radical sharpness to be able claim that we are revolutionaries, let alone the revolutionaries, in the morally laudatory sense. At the most, we can claim persistence in the face of less than helpful objective conditions. We have not faced the test of a revolutionary crisis nor of serious repression.

But we still use the “r” word. I am a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). The RSP is currently involved in a merger process with Socialist Alternative, and in that process both the RSP and Socialist Alternative consistently talk about “revolutionary unity”.

What constitutes being “revolutionary” in a political situation such as we find in Australia today? There are no barricades to defend, no mass struggles to lead or build, no severe repression to fight, no courtroom speeches to deliver. We could perhaps posit that a high level of consistent activity — dedicating high levels of time and energy over decades — is the relevant measure. But many people, in many walks of life, with many different commitments, also do that.

Perhaps, it would be the way an individual, group or party orients to the clear reformist and class-collaborationist organisations, such as the ALP and Greens or the trade union bureaucracies? But because Marxist groups are all likely, to some degree or another and from time to time, to try to win a hearing among sections of the working class influenced by the ALP and the Greens and the union bureaucrats, the differences here can sometimes be differences of degree, or, given the low level of political activity, can too easily be perceived as just differences in degree of orientation or prioritisation.

Final goal

Luxemburg wrote in her booklet: “But since the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the Social-Democratic movement [i.e. the socialist or communist movement] from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labour movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order — the question: ‘Reform or Revolution?’ as it is posed by Bernstein, equals for the Social-Democracy the question: ‘To be or not to be?’”

This point — “the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the … movement” — remains true today. In a period of very low class struggle and ideological life, keeping this distinguishing factor at centre stage is no less important than in a situation of upsurge or semi-upsurge, when the struggle to do this will take the form of the struggle for leadership over a rising movement.

Today it takes the form of a struggle to establish a pole of attraction that will, having grown sufficiently, be effective in responding to real political motion. Such a pole of attraction will need to place explaining the arguments for “the final goal of socialism” and what will be the steps in struggle necessary to replace it at the centre of its activity, consuming the bulk of its time and energy. Explaining is a pedagogic concept; it relates to education, to providing as many people as possible with the theoretical and scientific tools to progress in the struggle for the final goal. “The entire strength of the modern labour movement rests on theoretic knowledge”, wrote Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution.

There are two fundamental aspects to “patiently explaining” political ideas. One is the tactics needed to win a hearing. This occurs first. The second is to the presentation of the ideas to the people whose hearing you have won. The tactics needed to win a hearing can be many and varied. They usually involve some form of engagement with people already thinking and/or acting critically about or against the political status quo. Sometimes they involve supporting, in words or in deeds, reforms to the existing system. Luxemburg again: “The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”

One aspect — not the only one — of this struggle for reforms is the role it plays as part of the process of winning a hearing. Where the struggles are big and involve mass action, another aspect can be the direct lessons workers can learn from the struggle. Where struggle is at a lower level, all sorts of small campaigns, as well as just speaking out in one forum or another, helps keeps issues on the agenda and influences the general political atmosphere. This latter aspect is quite important in Australia today, but winning a hearing is the primary role of advocating for reform insofar as it is a part of being “an indissoluble tie”.

But it is a tactic only.

Keep the aim visible

It ceases to be a tactic when the tie to the final goal is too rarely seen. In the Australian context, the final goal of socialism is not being posed in action via a mass movement challenging capitalism. It will disappear from sight if there is not a sustained, ongoing, systematic, as-professional-as-resources-allow effort to keep the explanation of the final goal of socialism and the methods of achieving it front and centre stage before as many as possible of the people thinking critically against the status quo.

Intervening in campaigns and actions to advance these campaigns and winning a hearing at the same time is essential, and can also be a resource in the form on inspiration. Any Marxist group, no matter how small, must all the time strive to extend this work. In the immediate Australian context, such an interventionist organisation must give very heavy priority to clear and strong high profile public explanation of the specific ideas of revolutionary Marxism.

In the first years of the RSP, we assessed the best way for a group of 50 people with no material resources to do this pedagogical work in Australia was concentrating our efforts of activities in solidarity with and education around the Cuban and Venezuela revolutions — as bridges to a more general discussion of socialism. Experience showed that this was not an effective tactic.

Socialist Alternative has complemented its interventionist activity with a strong program of publications, forums and conferences. These forms of activities, presented in the most interesting, challenging and democratic manner, can and should be of the highest priority in this period. Subordinating — in terms of time, effort, profile and priority — this kind of work to activities that are essentially bridges to the opportunity to explain these ideas usually means that they are just so much less immediately and easily visible. Both intervention work and public campaigning to explain revolutionary Marxism and the final goal of socialism, must be as effective as possible. That will be a central goal of the revolutionary unity we are implementing. It is not yet the barricades, or the huge mass mobilisation, or the general strike; but the battle of ideas is no less a confrontation that requires its own militancy, its own offensives and a mastery too of the art of (ideological) war.