Realism or illusion? The left, Labour, and reforms

Submitted by martin on 29 September, 2015 - 4:11 Author: Vladimir Derer and Sean Matgamna

While the Labour right openly try to sabotage and smear Jeremy Corbyn, more subtle Labour centrists tell him that he must move only as fast as the middle ground.

The Labour left surge of the early 1980s saw the same debate. That makes this exchange from that time relevant today.

Vladimir Derer was the secretary of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, a central force in that early-1980s surge and still important today. Sean Matgamna of Workers' Liberty replied to him in Socialist Organiser, then the paper of a broad range of activists on the Labour left.


By Vladimir Derer

Comrade O'Mahony claims that our “central weakness is that the working class movement does not yet have a coherent policy to deal with the enormous crisis of British society. It has a hodge-podge of measures which propose more or less drastic tinkering with the economy and the political system — not its replacement by a radically new system.”

What we need, according to comrade O'Mahony, is "the submission of the economy to democratic planning on the basis of social ownership..." and the takeover by the working class of 200 monopolies.

To do this "we need to organise ourselves to take on the existing rulers" and here "the great hole in the leftward-looking renewal of the Labour Party is on the question of the state. It is an illusion that the transformation of the labour movement can be done in segmented stages.”

O'Mahony says: "We must not confuse Parliament with state power". [But] the state is not a monolith. The bourgeois democratic state. i.e. a state in which the ruling class relies on those who operate the representative democratic institutions to ensure that the latter are used in its interest, is in fact full of contradictions. Under certain circumstances its representative institutions can be used against the interests of the ruling class and the reassertion of the bourgeois supremacy within the state is by no means automatic.

The use of the army and even of the police against a government enjoying legitimacy by bourgeois standards is not a simple operation. But, of course, no serious socialist would deny that such dangers do exist.

However, should the reiteration of old truths — particularly when they are

presented in a somewhat dated setting — be our first priority? For the whole underlying trend of argument [of] comrade O'Mahony... is directed against reformist illusions.

These certainly do exist among the broad masses (who do not read Socialist Organiser) and among many Labour Party members (who are just a little less likely to do so). But these illusions do not exist amongst the many socialists who do read SO and who comrade O'Mahony hopes to rally round its platform.

The main problem on the left at this stage is not reformist illusions but sectarian illusions and practices. It was not reformist illusions which prevented — during the last forty or so years — the left from producing a credible alternattive to Labour's right wing leadership. It was the left's preference for a fantasy world inhabited not by real people but lifeless formulae. And it was the left's steadfast refusal to engage in such political struggles as are possible in the environment we actually live

It is true that comrade O'Mahony wishes to see "the broadest possible alliances for the immediate struggles...” But these battles, important though they are, are already going on. What is not going on, and what needs to be started, is the struggle to give the left political credibility.

Participation in existing struggles is not enough to do so. Nor will tireless repetition of the somewhat abstract recommendation to the working class to break with reformism and to adopt a radical socialist programme achieve it.

This approach has been tried for decades and failed to produce results... A socialist group to becomce politically influential., must show its capacity to gain support among the broad masses of the people as well as among the more class conscious elements of the working class. But people can be organised only around such demands as they are already prepared to support. The programme of the left at any given stage must therefore correspond to the existing level of consciousness of the people to whom we are appealing.

If the great majority believe that improvements in their condition can be achieved through the pursuit of social reforms, it is no good lecturing them about the need for a revolution. Whether social reforms can actually be achieved without radical change in

the political structure can only be shown in practice and in any case most people will learn only from their own experience.

Only if those who oppose major social reforms resort to extra-parliamentary resistance will it be possible to convince people that extra-parliamentary means are required to reinforce the powers of reforming governments trying to carry out their programme.

Clearly the possibility that the ruling class may resort to force in order to safeguard its privileges must always be taken into account. As must the need to prepare appropriate counter-measures. Nevertheless this is not the situation we are facing at this stage. The problem is not what extra-parliamentary action is appropriate to organise support for a reforming government but is to get such a government.

And there is, of course, no guarantee, to put it mildly, that the next Labour government will be a reforming one. Given the present level of consciousness among Labour Party members, Labour supporters and Labour voters, there is not a hope that they would be prepared to support the kind of programme of radical social change that comrade O'Mahony advocates. Does this mean that there is no hope for socialism in our time? No.

The problem with the last Labour government was not that it lacked a programme which was sufficiently radical— which of course it did. The trouble was that it failed to carry out even the programme of the mild social reforms on which it was elected.

This failure was not due to the fact that “nothing can be achieved within the system". It was not "the system" which stopped virtuous men and women from carrying out their excellent intentions.

Barbara Castle... put her finger on the real problem: it was not the Civil Service, let alone the police and the army... It was her Cabinet colleagues.

The first task of the left must therefore be to ensure that the next Labour government is composed of men and women ready to honour Labour's election pledges and to ensure that these pledges are as radical as the present level of consciousness of Labour Party members allows.

Labour Party members would respond positively to such aims and would rally around an organisation campaigning on such a platform. If the left agreed to campaign on a programme of reforms it would be the first step towards winning political credibility and support...


By Sean Matgamna

No serious socialist would counterpose socialism to the fight for reforms. Now, on the contrary, the fight for reforms and against the vicious Tory counter-reforms is especially important...

But it would be a self-neutering exercise if the left were to confine itself to reforms and see this as counterposed for the immediate future to the fight for a new society, for socialism...

What kind of reform programme would Vladimir Derer put forward now? Would it be limited to what was considered — by an a-priori calculation — to be “possible” without having to shake or overthrow capitalism? Or would it be drawn up according to the minimum that the working class can settle for if it is to begin to solve the problems loaded onto it by the crisis of capitalism — mass unemployment for example?

Vladimir Derer should think out what even a modest reform like the 35 hour week (which would only go part of the way to answering the workers' needs) implies in today's conditions. Such a reform is inconceivable without mass industrial/political mobilisations of the working class. Even should a Labour government decree it, it would not be implemented unless the labour movement mobilised itself and fought to impose it. Otherwise it would suffer the fate of the 40 hour week decreed by a reforming government in France in 1936: a dead letter within a short time.

The capitalists would resist, defy the law, evade it, use the courts to obstruct it, or organise lockouts if necessary. They could probably be defeated only through sweeping nationalisations and replacement of the present managers by people elected by the workers.

We will only win any serious reforms now on the basis of struggles which shake the capitalist system, perhaps to its foundation. That does not mean, as one might conclude from what Vladimir Derer says, that it is all hopeless.

For Vladimir Derer's picture of the situation is too pessimistic and his conception of how the presently reformist workers will be won to fight for socialism is inadequate.

Suppose it is true that only reforms are likely to be accepted as goals by the mass of workers now. How do we get from this to a struggle for a different society?...

Reform demands should not be formulated as a minimum programme drafted to be compatible with capitalism and therefore not attached to the goal of socialism, nor even necessarily pointing to it.

Reform demands should be formulated according to the needs of the working class, without regard to whether or not they were compatible with capitalism (that is, with the maintenance of the principles and boundaries within which the capitalists owned industry and controlled the political system).

The name such “reform” demands are known by in the history of the socialist movement is “transitional demands”.

The working class would mobilise and be mobilised on its felt needs to gain such demands. Engaged in the struggle for them, it would learn with great strides about the system and about itself. It would choose between achieving its own needs at the expense of capitalism — or abandoning its own needs and confining itself to a “minimum” reform programme none of which challenged the capitalist system.

In fact, in a situation of capitalist crisis, the minimal approach yields practically no reforms at all. To return to the example above, the 35-hour week is a rather modest demand — in Britain now only an onslaught on capitalism could achieve it throughout industry.

The... working class needs stable organisations, but as a fighting class it can rouse itself in tremendous industrial mass strike mobilisations, and for political ends too. In the struggle it can learn in days or weeks more than in decades of slow organisation and propaganda.

Is this idea of a mass transformation of consciousness an irrational appeal to belief in and reliance on miracles? Not at all.

The spontaneous strike of ten million in France in 1968 came a few weeks after the failure of an attempt by the trade union bureaucrats to call a token strike. The defeat of the riot police by the students on their barricades galvanised the workers and gave them a model of victory to which they responded eagerly and with an explosive energy.

The idea is emphatically not that socialists manipulate. We say who and what we are and what our goal is — and we say more than transitional demands. The key idea is that the workers can and do mobilise with limited immediate objectives, but that the struggle unfolds and has a sharp anti-capitalist logic when the fight for satisfaction of

even limited immediate needs brings the workers into clear conflict with capitalism.

A linked chain of demands can be constructed — beginning, say, from the 35 hour week or the sliding scale of hours and wages, and going on to the struggle for workplace and other workers' committees, to the struggle for workers' control to challenge the employers' utrammelled rule in a factory, to the creation of a workers' militia from (for example) flying pickets — all the way to the overthrow of the political power of the bourgeoisie...

Vladimir Derer asserts that “people can be organised only around such demands as they are already prepared to support. The programme of the left, at any given stage, must therefore correspond to the existing level of consciousness of the people to whom we are appealing”.

Obviously people can be organised only around such demands as they are prepared to support. (But already prepared to support? Where have those ideas “already|” come from? Can we not help to shape the ideas people support?).

The conclusion does not follow that the left's programme must correspond to the existing level of consciousness. If it did, either you would have no such thing as a stable left, defined by some difference from the existing level, or you would have a privately-defined manipulative left. (And where do their ideas come from? How would new people arrive at them?!)...

It is necessary for the left to explain (and develop) a socialist overview, goal, and criticism of society, and win people to that: and to educate the people with whom it is active on specific issues to see those issues in that framework...

Vladimir Derer says that a socialist system could not arise overnight, that there would be a transitional period. The point however is that today's “hodgepodge of measures" (Alternative Economic Strategy etc.) would not come anywhere near effectively transforming society.

There would indeed have to be a transitional period between capitalism and socialist society — but... there is a dividing-line and a break — at the point where the working class deprives the capitalist class of the possibility of exploitation. by making industry its own democratically-owned and controlled social property, and by breaking the power of the army and police to make a bloody counter-revolution against the workers.

The state is not a monolith, comrade Derer adds. But does it not have a core of “armed bodies of men” backed up by the state bureaucracy? Are not both linked directly by a thousand strings of education, wealth, family, and therefore loyalty, to the ruling class, and committed to the defence of the existing system?...

Yes, the labour movement has used Parliament, and must use it now. But Parliament has also dominated and even tamed large sections of the labour movement. Surely that is what much of the fight to make the MPs accountable is about: to reverse the historical experience and subordinate Parliament to the priorities and concerns of the working class...

But what would happen then? Certainly the direct grip and real control of such a Parliament over the “armed bodies of men” and over the bureaucrats would diminish. If such a parliamentary majority reflected the working-class, and fought the ruling-class interest, then it would be shown that Parliament does not control the state.

If the conflict between Parliament and the state became intense, then parliamentary control would cease to be real; and to the degree that the LabourMPs really fought for the working-class interest, then the conflict would become intense. Either the working class would disarm the ruling-class state, or it would face disaster.

At issue here is not a choice for “bloody revolution”, but the protection of the labour movement from bloodier counter-revolution...

This too leads to the conclusion that the left must organise itself on a real socialist programme, and fight to add a radical political content to the Labour Party as it renews its structures and procedures. For if we start a serious campaign for reforms in the present situation, it is certain it will escalate way beyond what we start with, “such struggle as is possible in the present situation”. We need a labour movement politically prepared for that.

To conclude: if it is not now possible, in the present terrible state of our society, to put forward a real socialist programme and an immediate socialist answer, and hope to win the working class for it, then in which conditions will it ever be possible and reasonable to do so?

If it is not right to pose to the militants of the Labour party and trade unions, who are now attempting a thorough transformation of their movement, that they should adopt such politics as their answer to the crisis of British society, then who can socialist politics ever be proposed to, and in which circumstances? If we do not now put forward a programme of reform and transitional demands that answer the immediate situation of the working class and mobilise the working class to fight for them, what is the way out for the working class now?

And if the radical socialists around Socialist Organiser, the SCLV, the CLPD, etc. do not elect to do it themselves then who will do it?

To me, the answer seems clear: if not now, never; if not the existing mass-movement militants and ourselves, no-one; if not a fighting reform and transitional programme, then no way.

[The contributions are abridged here, for space. Click here to download the full text as pdf].

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.