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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What does 'Revolutionary' mean to Socialist Democrats today? (Including within the ALP Socialist Left)

Above:  Austro-Marxist leader and Theoretician, Otto Bauer

Does (and should) 'Revolutionary' mean anything anymore to the Democratic Socialist Left?

Should it mean anything anymore within the ALP Socialist Left?

Dr Tristan Ewins
A comrade in the ALP Socialist Left recently rebuked me for discussing "revolutionary" politics ; and said that "thankfully" the vast majority in the ALP SL are NOT revolutionaries and that that's "the beginning and the end of the discussion thankfully".

This was my response:

"When we speak of 'revolutionary' aims not everyone is talking of the same thing. Personally I'm NOT talking about an insurrection ; armed or otherwise. What I am talking about is qualitative change ; preferably through democratic channels ; though being prepared for whatever resistance may arise against said qualitative change through democratic channels when push comes to shove. So I'm talking about what various Leftists have described as 'slow revolution' or 'revolutionary reforms'.

What would be a 'revolutionary reform'? Well the Meidner Plan held that promise for a start. (ie: an economic plan which would have rewarded workers with collective capital share in return for wage restraint ; with the consequence workers collectively would over time become the dominant force in the Swedish economy) Going back further: free, universal and equal suffrage comprised a kind of 'democratic and political revolution' which only became possible in many countries following the end of World War I - and the fear of Bolshevism.

Were we around in the 19th Century - or in the 1917-19 period , would we have fought for the suffrage ; or would we have rejected 'revolutionary' changes of all sorts as a matter of policy so as not to rock the boat?

When I talk about a democratic economic revolution I'm talking about democratic collective capital formation ; restoring a robust mixed economy ; supporting co-operatives (producers' and consumers') with state aid. I'm also talking about decisive state support for the voluntary and domestic sectors. I'm talking about going down that road to the point where 'the democratic sector' becomes dominant. And hence a pivotal shift in the balance of class forces.

I'm also talking about a 'democratic cultural and political revolution' : driven by an exponential increase in political participation and consciousness. Where there is a qualitative change (a revolution) in our democracy which takes the form of said consciousness and participation.

For Marxists the final aim is to replace wage labour with economic democracy ; and then to transition to stateless communism. I'm not a full blown communist because I tend to believe human nature is not perfectible ; and therefore I think some kind of state power (albeit democratised) will be necessary for a long time to come.

I think the suppression of wage labour (ie: typified by the exploitation of labour by capital) can be taken so far ; But at a point you run into very serious resistance from the transnational corporations and often by their state-facilitators. Look what happened to Gough ; and look what happened under Rudd re: the Mining Tax.  Also there’s the problem of ‘workers exploiting themselves’.  Collective capital formation (workers - and hopefully citizens - holding what collectively is a significant share in capital) is a potentially democratising force.  (I specify 'citizens' as well so as not to exclude non-capitalist citizens who for whatever reason are outside of the workforce ; eg: pensioners) Hence my support for democratic collective capital formation as policy. At this point it’s a good outcome.  But it also creates complexities which would be hard to resolve.  So importantly I'm talking about a process - in this country and globally - which spans decades - and maybe more. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was a kind of revolution - which took maybe a couple of centuries. Why not be a revolutionary over the long run?

Indeed the Guaranteed Minimum Income that some of my critics support  (and I support as well) itself has revolutionary potential - by getting rid of workers' dependence on selling their labour power to capital in order to survive. Perhaps critics are just worried some Liberal will take the word "revolutionary" out of context ; and depict us all as terrorists or the like? But where do you draw the line then? Do we stop talking about socialism as well? Do we stop talking about 'capitalism' as anything less than 'an eternal absolute'? A truly 'closed system' ; which cannot be relativised or criticised ; and with no way out?

I'm a 'revolutionary' in the sense I support not only political citizenship ; but also social citizenship and economic citizenship. That's how some Swedish radicals viewed the question interestingly enough. 'Economic citizenship' would be a revolution to democratise the economy.  'Social Citizenship' involves the extension of social rights ; including those delivered via the welfare state, regulated labour market and social wage. 'Political citizenship' WAS the political and liberal revolution. And it's not necessarily finished yet either. So what's really so objectionable about all this at the end of the day?"

Finally and interestingly: the ‘Austro-Marxists’ (arguably one of the theoretically-most-significant tendencies in 20th Century European Marxism) talked about "slow revolution" ; especially during the interwar period ; Which they meant in a very similar way in which I use the word.  They were also amongst the first to theorise 'multi-culturalism' - in the context of the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire. (ie: 'what would replace the Empire?')

The idea of 'revolution via democracy' is not new or unprecedented. And Yes - if Bill Shorten started talking about it at this point then it would confuse people.  I doubt it reflects his world-view in any case. But here on the relative margins we can discuss it ; and maybe we should discuss it within the ALP Socialist Left (internally) as well ; as part of a process of working out what the ALP Socialist Left really stands for these days. It’s a long struggle to rehabilitate the language and substance of democratic revolution from shallow understandings. (ie: that 'revolution' means 'violence'.) But I think it's worth it in the long run. And it is crucial that people see we're NOT suggesting a 'revolution against democracy' ; but rather "a gradual, democratic (and hopefully peaceful) revolution FROM WITHIN democracy - to EXTEND democracy.


  1. Let's discuss other words ...

    Insurrectionary ... the theory that guns and bombs are a more efficient manner of imposing the immediate dictatorship of the party politbureau than ballot papers meetings and political struggle.

    Industrial ... the strategy that delivers for the working class by demanding a fair wage and fair conditions and supporting that demand with strikes and pickets.

    Parliamentarianist ... the strategy that views the formal expressions of the capitalist state the parliaments and courts and constitutions and relying on the tendency of the police to enforce the laws for the time being using these parliaments to deliver change.

    Ralph Milliband in one of his books argued this way ... to get beyond verbal disputes to actual differences.

    That said, some industrial and civil society campaigns are much more radical than others. And some new proposed laws are much more transformative than others. Does this help?

    1. Andrew Oliver ; But also while I prefer 'slow revolution' (via democracy) there was a time once when universal suffrage didn't exist... It was either TAKEN via the post-WWI revolutions ; or it was conceded for fear of Bolshevism. IN some instances it was only maintained by the existence of left-wing militias, and left-wing penetration of the armed forces. (take Austria) 'Insurrection' doesn't make sense today ; the post-WWI revolutions occurred amidst war exhaustion and collapse ; But we do have to ask ourselves seriously - "what would we do if the democratic path was blocked?" ; (and through violence in the final analysis) We need to ask ourselves these questions now because who knows what the future may hold?

    2. I prefer the phrase "radical reform" as I think the revolution phrases are tainted with historical crimes how should one put it involving violence militarism or threats of violence or assassinations ... Radical reforms require social movements to press from below the parliamentarians who cast the votes. Reforms with no support fail and get repealed.

    3. I can sympathise with that position, Andrew ; though today's Left is unavoidably pluralist ; What matters is the substance and how the various tendencies and perspectives fit together in 'a movement of movements'. Again I see 'revolution' as 'fundamental qualitative change' including fundamental and qualitative changes to a Constitution - whether forced by Civil Disobedience ; or achieved internally via the existing democratic mechanisms. I understand your perspective that "revolution" may appear tainted by association with some very bad stuff. People say the same thing about both Communism and Socialism. (but why not capitalism after a history of Cold War and other atrocities?) But I think we can reclaim the term. After all the post-WWI democratic revolutions WERE revolutions. If we understand how our perspectives and discourses fit together in a coherent way - the consequence of compatible SUBSTANCE - then pluralism in the language we use should be acceptable.

  2. The problem for me is that I don't think the parliaments HAVE to be merely "the expression of the capitalist state" ; early Marxist social democrats viewed free, universal and equal suffrage as a revolution in itself. The challenge was to defend the democratic path when the enemies of socialist democracy started to undermine it - once they were losing control. Of course it's a difficult prospect because of footloose capital and its powers to 'discipline' governments ; as well as ideologically opposed governments who may be hostile. I'm talking about the very long term here. But I still think 'social citizenship', 'economic citizenship', 'deepening of political citizenship' - need to be considered seriously by today's Left.

  3. Thanks Tristan. Your interpretation is relevant to our times when people are wanting change but cannot get it through mainstream politics. The rise of centre-right populism is a terrible non-solution. Internal reform of institutional practices and policies within the Labor Movement is essential at a time when capitalism is becoming so much more aggressive.