Does revolution still matter for the left?

Danny Katch looks at an old debate on the left about how to get where we want to go.

Greek workers on the march during a general strikeGreek workers on the march during a general strike

THE PAST two years have seen the biggest surge of interest in socialism in the U.S. in two generations.

Along with that growth come debates between and within socialist groups about just what it is that we're fighting for, and how we're going to get there--including one of the oldest questions in our movement: Can we get to socialism through reforms alone or will it require revolution?

In his recent article for Jacobin titled "Our Road to Power," Marxist scholar Vivek Chibber makes a case for the former.

Chibber argues that the revolutionary road has long been a dead end because the ruling class and the governments that represent them are stronger than they were at the time of the Russian Revolution 100 years ago. From this, he concludes that "we must start down the road of social democracy" and focus on building a movement that can elect socialists into government.

Some might ask if this debate is premature. The socialist movement has just started to be revived in this country--can't we wait a bit to figure out the final step?

But the question of revolution today isn't about the distant final climax. It's really about whether we see our greatest power under capitalism as being our vote or our labor--and whether the society we're fighting for looks like this one, but with a better government, or is something fundamentally more liberatory and participatory.

It's also about whether the kinds of organizations we need are primarily electoral parties that can sell the working-class majority on the idea of socialism--or activist parties of collective self-education, where workers learn how to fight for their own liberation.

Nobody better explained the current-day importance of this debate than the Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg. In her classic 1900 pamphlet Reform or Revolution, Luxemburg criticized her contemporaries who, like Chibber today, claim that it's merely a strategic question about the most effective way to achieve the same end of workers' power:

It is contrary to history to represent work for reforms as a long-drawn-out revolution and revolution as a condensed series of reforms. A social transformation and a legislative reform do not differ according to their duration, but according to their content...

That is why people who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society...Our program becomes not the realization of socialism, but the reform of capitalism.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

SOCIAL REVOLUTIONS only happen when the oppressors are sufficiently weak and the oppressed sufficiently strong. Thus, the strongest case to be made against revolution is the disorganized state of the working class.

Strike levels in the U.S. and many other countries have been at historically low levels for many years, and workers in many countries, including this one, lack their own political parties, which has given middle-class forces built around racism and even fascism an opening to win wider support.

But this isn't one of Chibber's points. He spends much time arguing for socialists to be more rooted in the working class, which is hardly controversial, but no time assessing the state of that class and the implications of that assessment for the tasks of socialists today.

(He does write that socialists should run for office in order to build a working-class base, but, of course, the entire history of the Democratic Party shows that attracting working-class voters has little to do with building working-class power.)

Perhaps "Our Road to Power" doesn't dwell on the weakened condition of the working class because it presents nearly as much of a barrier to achieving social democracy as it does to revolution.

In order for socialists elected to office to be able to enact even mild reforms, they need a powerful labor movement--able to strike in the face of capitalists who feel no more obligation to democracy in the 21st century than they did in the 19th or 20th.

Militant strikes and protests were the chief source of the successes of European social democracy in the last century, and their absence in recent decades is the main reason for the rightward turn of the same social-democratic parties.

Left-winger Jeremy Corbyn has proven the popularity of the socialist message since he was elected leader of Britain's Labour Party, but if he becomes prime minister--as he is predicted to by opinion polls these days--the success of his reform agenda will depend on what British workers do to fight for it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

RATHER THAN discuss the importance of working-class power in achieving any social change, Chibber puts the weight on the other side of the question, arguing that revolution has been off the agenda since the end of the Second World War:

The state has infinitely greater legitimacy with the population than European states did a century ago. Further, its coercive power, its power of surveillance and the ruling class's internal cohesiveness give the social order a stability that is orders of magnitude greater than it had in 1917.

The point about increased powers of repression is undeniable, but it's a formidable barrier to both revolutions and substantial reforms. On the other hand, the era of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner--to say nothing of Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico or Bashar al-Assad in Syria--isn't the best one to be talking about governmental legitimacy and ruling class cohesiveness.

None of this is to say that the next American Revolution is around the corner, of course.

But it is to say that, just as we understand our conditions are very different from Russia in 1917, they might be just as different from the highly exceptional circumstances in postwar Western Europe--the most sustained economic boom in history, plus powerful labor movements that were tolerated by the U.S. empire for Cold War purposes--that enabled social democracy to flourish for a generation.

Chibber writes that we have to learn from the failures of social democracy since that time as well as those of revolutionary socialism, but he doesn't provide an assessment of why social democracy "was a spent force by the 1980s."

The problem, as Phil Gasper and Tyler Zimmer explained in a 2015 article, is that:

Under capitalism, every government, no matter what political party rules, relies on tax revenues, which in turn depend on the health of the capitalist economy. When capitalist economies go into recession, funds for social programs come under pressure...

When that happens, there is tremendous pressure on all political parties committed to maintaining the capitalist order--including social democrats--to find ways to jump-start economic recovery and ensure that capitalist profitability is restored. In this context, the compromise between labor and capital breaks down, the ruling class demands policies that will restore profitability at the expense of labor--and all political parties unwilling to go beyond the capitalist order are obliged to heed their call.

This is why we can find innumerable examples since the 1980s of self-described socialist politicians cutting back on the social safety net, reducing taxes on corporations, weakening the bargaining power of unions, privatizing public services and easing regulation of the financial sector. This is exactly what happened in Scandinavia from the 1980s to the present.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHAT SOCIAL democracy does have going for it today is that it knows its answer to the question that thousands of people just becoming socialists are eager to ask: What should we do? The social democratic response is direct and simple: run in elections, win more votes, get elected, change the system.

Capitalist democracy doesn't work that way, but at least it's a strategy, and that's better than sitting around waiting for a revolution, right?

Socialists do need strategies, of course--and we need to have something to say when new recruits ask us what they should do (although the former shouldn't be dictated by the latter).

In this volatile political period in which workers' ideas are radicalizing, but their organizations remain weak, we need strategies for building grassroots democratic infrastructure out of the multitude of protests that emerge, often spontaneously--and in the longer term for building a radical electoral party independent of the Democrats.

But we also need to win large numbers of this radicalizing new generation to the idea that the path to winning an economically and ecologically inhabitable world won't be straight and easily mapped out. It will be a long revolutionary process that will include incredible triumphs--and (more often) devastating losses.

We need to win people to revolution--not to make them hardened and dogmatic, but to make them resilient and flexible, able to understand that the struggle for socialism requires both a commitment to fight even when it's unclear how we're going to win and the humility to accept that we are often at the mercy of economic and international forces beyond our control.

Revolutionary change seems very far away today, but it almost always has--and that hasn't stopped revolutions from happening. It's the job of socialists to look for the links that can take us from this stage of the fight to the next--to pursue maximum change and see if that takes us to a new juncture where the path to a different society looks a little clearer.

If we get too caught up trying to map out our road to power from this distant point, the danger is that we'll get so invested in managing the path that we'll eventually find ourselves invested in managing the system that surrounds it.