In this new article, Tristan Ewins explores the conflict between social democratic parliamentarianism and far-Left critiques of parliamentary democracy. He argues for the strategic worth of parliamentary interventions, but that social change involves more than electoralism.
There is a certain irony here, as 19th Century Marxism had long championed universal and equal suffrage as a vital reform for ‘gaining a foothold’ in the executive wing of government, and as part of a broader process of revolutionising the state apparatus. The structuralist Marxist, Nicos Poulantzas specifically was to refer to ‘the logic of class struggle’ imprinting upon ‘the state field’. (which involves an importantly diverging connotation when compared to the alternate concept of the state purely in the sense of an ‘instrument’) Problems arose, however, when socialist reformists began to apprehend the state power as a ‘neutral instrument’ which they could simply “lay ahold of” (Lenin) by virtue of a majority - in implementing their reform agendas.
Certainly, Kautsky’s idea of an “energetic shifting of power relations in the state” (find ref) – while vague – tends to suggest something more than instrumentalism. (Kautsky, The Road to Power, p 16, pp 71-72) . And while Kautsky comes in for criticism from modern-day would-be Bolsheviks, “Class neutrality” is the commonly accepted theory today – and is even more of a simplification…
To do them justice, ‘orthodox’ Marxists such as Kautsky and Martov were well aware that the state in bourgeois societies was far from a ‘neutral channel’, and still less a ‘neutral instrument’. They posed a political revolution as the means of democratising the state. In Kautsky’s words, this would involve a “great decisive struggle” where the proletariat “grow[s] immensely” and acquires “a dominant position in the state” through democracy. Though as we have noted – that in itself was a far more ambitious goal than a mere parliamentary majority. (Kautsky; The Road to Power p16, pp 71-72)
For orthodox Marxism, the need for political revolution was such that only the social democratic consciousness of the organised working class would enable it. Hence the usual opposition of ‘social democratic’ consciousness and methods with those of ‘pure trade unionism’. This distinction was carried forth into the 20th Century by radical social democrats and Bolsheviks alike, and still retains a certain usefulness. It is an important legacy.
Kautksy, Karl - ‘The Road to Power’ (Edited by John Kautsky), Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1996