Reform, revolution and Jeremy Corbyn

December 13, 2017

British socialist Colin Wilson's article "Is business warming to Jeremy Corbyn" and a Readers' View response by Barnaby Raine titled "If not Corbyn, then what?" have led to a wide-ranging discussion online. Here, we compile several contributions, some written for SW and others adapted from Facebook posts--check back later for more contributions.

Jen Roesch

These are some initial reactions I had to Barnaby Raine’s Readers' View when it was published at

1. Barnaby argues that reform or revolution is no longer the "live choice" that it was when Rosa Luxemburg posed it. I hear this a lot, but it is an odd point to make. Revolution was far from a live choice when Luxemburg wrote her pamphlet in 1900. In fact, the entire point of her argument was to reject Bernstein's confidence in the stability and resilience of capitalism, which led him to prioritize fights for reform in the here and now, and downplay the "end goals" of socialism because they were not on the agenda.

The entire lesson of the Bolsheviks, in my opinion, is that it was precisely because they were preparing for the inevitability and necessity of revolution that they were able to recognize and seize that opportunity when the conditions became ripe. The importance of not divorcing the non-revolutionary present from the revolutionary future remains in all of our propaganda, strategy and tactics. Barnaby seems to want to dispense with that by putting revolution off the table, at least for now.

Image from

2. It is fundamentally false to equate the impact of ruling-class measures directed against the SYRIZA government in Greece, Venezuela under Chavismo or France's François Mitterrand with the effects of the counterrevolutionary war against the Bolsheviks. This is actually where the line between reformism and revolution runs.

The Bolsheviks faced this challenge because they came to power as part of a genuine working-class and peasant revolution from below. In response to the ruling class's attempt to crush it, they looked to deepen and spread the revolutionary process as the only possible way forward. It is the refusal to look towards this process that makes the reformists in power defenseless against this concentrated ruling-class power.

There is a difference between fighting and losing and surrendering the fight from the beginning. To invoke "the revolution betrayed" as the cause of the gulag is true, but it is the betrayal of it, not the revolution itself, that is at fault. To use this phrase in connection with the betrayal of SYRIZA leaders is a sleight of hand.

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

3. Barnaby says that the only choices socialists have before them are a series of "supremely unlikely wagers, some more immediately accessible than others." This may or may not be true, but let's say it is. How socialists should judge those wagers is not on "immediate accessibility," but on the capacity of the working class to struggle for its own self-emancipation. Unfortunately, that capacity is only in very rare cases the most "immediately accessible" option. But it is always decisive.

Thus, our "wagers" and our strategies must be based on factors related to that: what builds the confidence, combativity and capacity of that class; what enables us to build revolutionary organization rooted in that class and capable of arguing for a revolutionary direction in decisive moments.

4. None of this precludes an engagement with Corbynism or the possibility that Corbyn or struggles in and around the Labour Party could help move us in the directions I just outlined as necessary. But our starting point has to be the perspective of revolutionary politics. Instead, Barnaby seems to go even further than saying revolutionary politics are not relevant--he seems to question whether they are even desirable.

5. The entire argument here seems to rest on a profound pessimism about the potential for struggle outside the electoral arena. I think it is a misplaced pessimism. It is true that the level of struggle, and particularly working class struggle, is abysmally low. But there is no shortage of mass, even revolutionary, struggles to point to in very recent history. Greece and Egypt stand out sharply in my mind because both point to the real and devastating consequences of not having a substantial, organized current whose guiding principle is the necessity of revolutionary transformation.

6. In his, in my view, overly sectarian zeal to denounce the Trotskyist left for its "fetishes," Barnaby completely mischaracterizes and fails to engage with the actual content of Colin Wilson's piece. Far from being an abstract Trotskyist denunciation of Corbynism, Colin is laying out an argument for how to relate to the phenomenon--and an argument about the strategic direction in which socialists and left-wing supporters of Corbyn should push.

Here is the core of Colin's argument, as I read it:

There is both a need and an opportunity to bring the government down as soon as possible. If Corbyn went outside the normal limits of electoral politics--organizing rallies and demos saying that the Tories are incapable of governing and have lost their mandate to do so--he could put himself at the head of a movement involving millions of people, which really could make the country ungovernable and bring down the Tories.

The more Corbyn can become a Prime Minister like this, at the head of a popular movement, the stronger his position. The more he is supported by a widespread popular mobilization that involves as many different groups of people as possible, the more strongly rooted his government will be and the more likely it is that the reforms it stands for will become reality.

Yet such an approach--creating networks which can organize and support popular protest--seems to form an increasingly small part of the agenda of Corbyn and those around him. Instead, Labour's strategy is a much more conventional electoral one--of waiting for the Tories to exhaust themselves and collapse, so that power falls into the laps of Labour as the only possible alternative."

Colin is making an argument for how Corbyn could help set in motion a dynamic that could both win real reforms and increase working-class confidence and activity, and thus begin to shift the balance of forces and open up new horizons in the process. This seems to me a pretty useful implementation of a revolutionary approach to reformist struggles and forces.
Adapted from Facebook

Fainan Lakha

I AM generally sympathetic to Barnaby Raine's approach to criticizing Colin Wilson's "Is business warming to Jeremy Corbyn?"

To my mind, any good criticism of Corbynism must at least show the strategic openings there for revolutionaries. Wilson's conclusion, that the radical Left must be supportive at the same time as it prepares to hold Corbyn accountable, seems to dodge the more meaningful strategic questions on the table today.

I do, however, have a meaningful disagreement with one aspect of Barnaby's case. Toward the beginning, he writes: "The last two fetishes are calcified images of real politics: as eschatological and extra-parliamentary. The politics that matters, on this view, come with a single, final bang to abolish capitalism, and it happens on the streets."

Barnaby's piece rests on the idea that there is a problem with criticisms that come from a "revolutionary" point of view, where all things are measured against transhistorical abstractions that reflect an ideal scenario.

I agree, inasmuch as no materialist worth their salt should brook such abstractions. All of the best texts on Lenin--that is, the texts I have been given by my comrades (or written, for example, those of Paul LeBlanc)--do the work of contextualizing his ideas so that some idea about his methods might be available through a critical reading. If there are goals, or "regulatory ideals" that factor into this, they are formed dialectically--through a process of political and social analysis that provides the resources from which a horizon can be formed.

The Marxist idea of revolution isn't a static ideal. Revolution is a process of social transformation, and not something that happens in a bang. For Lenin, taking state power did not make socialism, it made only a worker's state--that is, a state which was founded on the principle of mass democracy.

Mass democracy has appeared continuously throughout the course of capitalism, and experience shows that the greatest expansion of democracy has meant the opening of the greatest range of possibility of social transformation. To my mind, the conclusion to draw, then, is that revolutionaries should be understood as the most strategically minded of radical democrats.

Looking at what is happening today, we must think about what the most effective interventions could be, and further to think about what interventions might be possible given the current trajectory of things.

If Colin is to respond effectively, I think it comes down to demonstrating why the project of building revolutionary politics outside of the context of the radicalization taking place in Labour is the correct strategy for strengthening the struggle and fortifying the long term prospects for transforming the nature of (class) power in Britain.

Colin Wilson

Barnaby Raine has written a piece in response to my recent analysis of Corbyn. I attempted there to highlight some issues--in particular, the current lack of popular mobilizations in support of Corbyn and more generally--which I think should be of concern to the left whether inside or outside the Labour Party.

Barnaby has responded by addressing a wider question, that of reform or revolution. His claim is that mass struggles and revolution really aren't on the agenda--parliament is the only game in town. If I and a few others think otherwise, it's because we have a nostalgic attachment to past events such as Russia in 1917 or Britain in the 1970s.

Others have written in response, so let me just say something here from a more personal perspective. I was Barnaby's age in the mid-1980s. Eastern Europe was then still ruled by the Soviet Union, and apartheid existed in South Africa. We protested over both issues--the first Socialist Workers Party meeting I ever went to was about Solidarnosc in Poland--but it was difficult to imagine the end of apartheid or of the Soviet empire. But militant strikes by South African workers did force the end of apartheid, and protests by East European workers brought down the Berlin wall, the Ceausescu regime in Romania and so on.

The years since then have seen radical and revolutionary movements around the world, from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter. If we haven't seen movements on such a scale in Britain, it's worth remembering how the fall of Thatcher came about in 1990--after rioting in central London on a historic scale, when people turned over police cars in Trafalgar Square and set buildings on fire.

Perhaps the most remarkable change I've seen in the last 30 years is changes in attitudes to LGBT people. Back in the 1980s, gay men were dying of AIDS in our thousands. Thatcher introduced Clause 28. The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester accused gay men of existing in a "cesspool of their own making." Cops raided one Manchester gay club because people were having sex in a back room and drove them out into the street. They entrapped gay men in public toilets. Divorced lesbian women lost custody of their children.

All this is unthinkable now. What made the difference was, most of all, changes in attitudes as millions of people came out to friends, family and workmates. The work of groups like Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners acted as a catalyst for those changes within the labor movement.

None of these historic changes--the end of apartheid, the withdrawal of the Soviet empire from Eastern Europe, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, the fall of Thatcher or growing acceptance of LGBT people--happened because of people voting.

That isn't to say that elections are of no importance. But it is to say that the heart of revolutionary socialism is the idea that ordinary people have the power to change the world, not through elected representatives, but through their own activity. And to see such change happening, we don't need to look back as far as the inspiring example of Russia in 1917--it happens far more frequently than that.

Such struggles often achieve more than an initial pragmatic calculation of what was achievable might have dared hope. For all its shortcomings, the acceptance of LGBT people we have won was unthinkable 30 years ago. As Oscar Wilde wrote, "A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing."

The question, then, is what kind of organization can facilitate that process. Some people, for whom I have great respect, believe that the best way to help bring about such change is to join the Labour Party. I myself still think staying outside Labour is the better option.

But a strategy of joining Labour as part of the struggle to radically transform society is, it seems to me, quite different from accepting, as Barnaby puts it, that "the electoral plane is by far the dominant field of politics now." It does seem to me that in this approach, the self-emancipation of workers and oppressed people has fallen off the agenda. Yet such struggles are the ones that make history.
Adapted from Facebook

Further Reading

From the archives