Reform or Revolution in the 2020s?

Should socialists remain in the Labour Party? This is not the key question, argues Neil Faulkner. What we need is clarity about ‘the revolutionary imperative’.

It is the most basic strategic question. Do we work through existing electoral and parliamentary systems to achieve change, or do we aim to overthrow the capitalist state and create new organs of popular power? This article addresses that question anew, in the context of the current world crisis.

Britain is my main focus. The question of ‘reform or revolution’ has been reconfigured by the collapse of Corbynism. The British Left is experiencing exceptional levels of demoralisation and disorientation. It has become a small pond on which floats slowly-sinking flotsam and jetsam of tiny groups offering pie in the sky.

Socialists have to stare reality in the face. This is the starting point for serious analysis. Only on this basis can we work out what is to be done.

The world crisis

We argue in System Crash that the greatest crisis in human history is now unfolding. It is a compound crisis on a global scale. The main dimensions of the crisis are:

  • A metabolic rift or rupture, the most virulent expressions of which are the pandemic and imminent climate catastrophe, though the breakdown in the relationship between humanity and the planet’s ecosystems extends much further.
  • Economic stagnation due to global over-accumulation and under-consumption, giving rise to financialisation and permanent debt, sweatshop production and mega-slums, the plunder of the commons, and militarised accumulation.
  • Ongoing redistribution of wealth and power from the working class to corporate capital and the super-rich, resulting in unprecedented levels of social inequality, with stagnant living-standards and decaying public services in the Global North, sweatshops, mega-slums, and super-exploitation in the Global South.
  • A tidal wave of authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, misogyny, and fascism, developments best understood, in our view, using the twin concepts of ‘global police state’ and ‘creeping fascism’.

These dimensions of crisis constitute a single structure: they are rooted in a global system of competitive capital accumulation – a system of rampant transnational corporate power beyond effective human control. This means that none of the problems facing humanity is soluble within the framework of the existing social and political order. The system itself – parasitic and predatory – destructive of both human and ecological wellbeing – is the problem.

Revolution has become a political imperative.

Revolution has become a political imperative. That is not the same as saying that revolution is imminent or even likely. History does not always provide a way out. Sometimes it presents a choice – between civilisation and barbarism – but the forces of progress are defeated, perhaps never even fight, and the crisis leads to black reaction. To say that revolution is necessary is to stare reality in the face. To say that revolution will happen is a leap of faith.

What is immediately clear, however, is that the reformist road – always a slow road to an uncertain destination – has become a dead-end. Even if – and it amounts to a triumph of hope over experience – Labour can (eventually, one day, perhaps) be ‘transformed’, time has run out. The crisis is all around us.

Starmer: a neoliberal non-entity

Starmer is a dull centrist mediocrity, another blur in the grey uniformity of mainstream neoliberal politics. Devoid of vision, idealism, or principle, he struts his hour upon the stage signifying nothing.

Regardless of his politics – or lack of them – he is a hopelessly bad at the most elementary requirement of an opposition politician: that he should oppose when it is appropriate to do so. So, in the face of a deadly pandemic, he offers ‘constructive engagement’ to a third-rate regime of public-school toffs and corporate spivs whose negligence, incompetence, serial lying, and corrupt crony capitalism have resulted in a ‘world-beating’ death toll. So, in the face of Brexit – an economic disaster, a carnival of reaction, and the regime’s flagship – he orders Labour MPs to vote with the Tories in favour of Johnson’s exit deal.

Only 37 Labour MPs refused to support it, including left-wingers Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Clive Lewis, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and John McDonnell. All credit to them. The rest, so much spineless lobby-fodder, voted like members of an undeclared National Government. When you look at the pictures of a triumphalist Johnson signing the deal before a row of Union Jacks, keep in mind Starmer’s role. Little wonder that the regime’s poll ratings remain at 40%.

What is this about? Starmer is competing for the white racist vote. This is part and parcel of the centrist stampede to accommodate to the politics of the Far Right. Starmer no doubt figures that if he appeases Johnson’s nationalist-racist support base, the electoral pendulum will, in due course, swing back in his direction.

The electoral mirage

But the uselessness of the current Labour ‘opposition’ is merely another instance of the historic failure of Labourism. This is not the place to rehearse that argument in detail. There are many excellent studies – Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, Tony Cliff’s The Labour Party, and Simon Hannah’s A Party with Socialists in it amongst others.

Suffice to say here, Labour has never been any sort of vehicle for socialist transformation, and only rarely some sort of vehicle for social reform. It has always been an alliance between a conservative bureaucracy of professional politicians and union officials on the one hand, and a layer of left-wing activists who, in varying degrees, seek social change on the other; and the former have always been dominant.

bureaucracy is the bedrock of the Labour Right

The bureaucracy is the bedrock of the Labour Right. It is formed of relatively privileged and comfortable people who make a career out of working-class politics; a social group whose role is to negotiate and legislate for marginal improvements.

Over the last five years, we have been witness to the depth of this group’s allegiance to capital and the state. The Labour Right’s relentless campaign against the Corbyn leadership demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that they preferred that their party should lose a general election than that it should win one under left leadership. Better dead than red, as the US hawks used to say. And sure enough, Corbyn’s defeat has delivered the party back into their hands.

Corbyn’s programme was not even very radical; far less so than Labour’s programme in 1945 or 1974. But times have changed. Back then, Keynesian economics and the welfare state enjoyed broad support, and the working class was sufficiently organised and militant to fight for reform. Now, under the dominance of finance-capital, in the neoliberal era of private greed and public squalor, with the labour movement broken-backed after 40 years of defeat and retreat, we live in an age of corporate power and counter-reform. Let us recall that the privatisation of the NHS – the jewel in the crown of Labour reformism – was initiated by Blair, not the Tories.

The Left took the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015 by accident. The composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party changed little between then and 2019. So isolated was the leadership that Corbyn often struggled to put together a shadow cabinet, and when he did, it included right-wing snakes like Starmer.

And while Corbyn had the backing of an enlarged and energised party membership, this lacked any strong social foundation in mass working-class organisation and struggle. The Corbyn leadership was a castle in the air.

Labour has never been ‘transformed’. Labour has always been an alliance of Right and Left dominated by the former. Labour has only ever delivered reform under mass pressure from below. Labour has much more often sold out. Labour, again and again, has been the political mechanism for absorbing, containing, and dissipating popular pressure for change. Labour is British capitalism’s pressure-value.

How can Labour be ‘transformed’? How can we deselect most right-wing MPs and councillors and create a majority for radical social reform without the party tearing itself apart? And even if it could be done, how long would it take? Ten years? Twenty?

The collapse of Corbynism means that the reformist road has been closed for the foreseeable future. And since the crisis is upon us, and unfolding at fearful speed, that means, so far as practical politics is concerned, it might as well be closed for good. Anyway, the whole history of the Labour Party argues that the ‘transformation’ project is doomed.

This does not mean revolutionary socialists can ignore the Labour Party. To do this would be rank sectarianism. There are two reasons for this.

First, tens of thousands of activists are drawn to Labour, and these activists are an audience for the politics of revolutionary socialism. Millions of workers vote for it, and these millions are an audience for the politics of class struggle. For as long as Labourism has a grip on the minds of activists and workers, the Labour Party will remain an arena of radical debate.

Second, because the Labour Party is a mass organisation, what it says influences millions of people. When Labour capitulates to racism – supporting border controls, police raids, and detention centres, for example – it strengthens the Right. When it backs privatisation, austerity cuts, and anti-union laws, it undermines working-class resistance. For as long as it is a mass organisation, the programme, policies, and pronouncements of the Labour Party will help shape working-class opinion.

So revolutionaries cannot ignore the Labour Party, and many will continue to work inside it. But that is quite different from harbouring the delusion that Labour can be ‘transformed’, even into a reliable vehicle for social reform, let alone a vehicle for the achievement of socialism. This is not realistic politics.

Is revolution possible?

The reformist road is blocked. Perhaps it always has been. Certainly, it is now. But what, realistically, are the prospects for revolution – especially the worldwide revolution of the working class and the oppressed that is necessary to bring down the system?

Are the revolutionaries not hopelessly utopian? Is their vision not an even more stark instance of hope triumphing over experience? Is the history of the last 150 years – from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring – not a litany of failure, of broken promises, of shattered expectations?

Surely the very changes that have hollowed out reformism – creating the neoliberal travesty of ‘reformism without reforms’ – have also collapsed the chances of revolution? If working-class organisation is in the doldrums if the strike rate is stuck at rock-bottom, if the militant fighting traditions of the 1970s and 1980s are of the past, what hope can there be for revolution in the 2020s?

The working class is, indeed, weak. Consciousness, confidence, and combativeness are at a historic low. The very idea of a socialist alternative to capitalism based on the self-activity of the working class and the oppressed seems to have shrivelled away.

But that is only part of the picture. The ruling class is also weak. It may represent an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power. Corporate capital and the militarised states may appear to be all-powerful global titans. But the rich are few and we are many, so they cannot rule by force alone. They must combine coercion and consent. They must win the active allegiance, or at least the passive acquiescence, of many millions if they are to keep resistance at a manageable level.

This was easier in the boom years of the 50s and 60s, when the world economy was growing, living standards rising, public services improving. Welfare capitalism in the Global North, national-developmental programmes in the Global South, held out a promise of social improvement under capitalism.

Neoliberalism has destroyed political consensus and the social contract on which it was based.

Now the opposite is true. Neoliberalism has destroyed political consensus and the social contract on which it was based. Rampaging corporate power, grotesque greed at the top, stagnation, poverty, and despair at the base have created a crisis of legitimacy for the system. This is the social basis for the ‘global police state’ and ‘creeping fascism’.

These two are close cousins. On the one hand, there is growing militarisation, police power, and repressive violence. On the other, there is a wave of authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, and misogyny. Both developments – intensified coercion and fascist-type politics – arise from the system’s crisis of legitimacy.

In the neoliberal dystopia of the 2020s, both major classes are politically weak. Neither is ideologically ‘hegemonic’; neither commands the allegiance of wide masses of people; precious few are enthusiastic about the existing social order, but equally few believe that radical change is possible.

There is political paralysis. But the crisis continues.

A dormant volcano?

There two kinds of volcano: active and dormant.

Active volcanoes release pressure continually: there is no long-term accumulation. In the boom years, the working class built strong trade unions able to improve wages and conditions and voted for social-democratic parties that implemented real reforms. There was a steady release of pressure from below.

Dormant volcanoes tend to erupt suddenly and explosively: for the pressure has been building for decades. Many mass struggles and revolutions are like this. They are eruptions of long-dormant volcanoes.

There are many recent examples. The wave of struggle which convulsed the world between 2010 and 2015 – a wave that included revolts by students and anti-capitalist protestors, full-scale urban uprisings in major cities from Athens to Rio, and, in the case of Egypt, an 18-day political revolution that ended a 30-year-old dictatorship – was of this kind. The Black Lives Matter revolt against killer cops – which turned into the biggest global uprising against racism in history – was also of this kind.

Marx sometimes spoke of ‘the mole of history’. He, like us, experienced long periods of defeat and demoralisation. Between 1850 and 1864, he withdrew from political activity into the library and wrote Capital, re-emerging only when the struggle revived – a revival that would culminate in the Paris Commune of 1871, the first working-class revolution in history.

Lenin predicted in late 1916 that he might not live to see the revolution. Two months later, a group of starving factory women came out on unofficial strike in Petrograd. Others joined them. Soon the entire working class was on strike. Within five days, the soldiers had gone over to the revolution, and the 300-year-old Romanov monarchy had been destroyed.

The world crisis is insoluble without the overthrow of capital and the state.

The world crisis is insoluble without the overthrow of capital and the state. The reformist road is a long one leading to a dead-end. Revolution has become a historic imperative.

We cannot predict when, where, and how the volcano will explode. What we can say is this. When it does, new organs of popular power and mass struggle must emerge. History suggests that they need not be built in advance. The Paris sections of 1793, the Petrograd soviets of 1917, and the Republican militias of 1936 were built during the revolution itself.

What is essential is that such organs are created. For if they are not, the struggle will rise like a rocket and fall (yet again) like a stick. This has been the fate of many recent struggles, from Occupy! to Black Lives Matter.

That is why we need to recruit revolutionaries and create revolutionary organisation. The more of us there are who understand what needs to be done when the lid comes off the cooker, the more chance we will have of turning popular uprisings into a democratic revolution capable of smashing the state and ending the rule of capital.

Neil Faulkner is the author of Alienation, Spectacle, and Revolution: a critical Marxist essay (out now on Resistance Books). He is the joint author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution. Neil sadly passed away in 2022.

One comment

Join the discussion