26 January 2021
Alan Davies takes up some of the themes in Neil Faulkner’s recent article Reform or Revolution in the 2020s?
Neil argues on the one hand that the age of reforms is over and we are facing ‘creeping fascism’ on a world scale but never-the-less socialist revolution on a global scale is entirely possible within this decade. The working class, he argues, could explode like a dormant volcano and sweep capitalism away – led by “organs of popular power and mass struggle” that will spontaneously emerge.
He goes on to say that “it’s not possible to say today that it is imminent or even likely”, and that to propose it is “a leap of faith”. In the end, however, it remains the central thesis of the article. He is staking everything on a bet that the working class will explode like a dormant volcano and sweep capitalism away.
Maybe it will and I very much hope that it does. However, betting on that outcome is not a strategic perspective and it doesn’t take into account all the intermediate forms of struggle
I also disagree with him on some of the immediate political conclusions he draws. I think he underestimates the significance of the potential for reforms delivered by a mass movement, particularly the climate movement and the impact of Black Lives Matter on the Biden presidency. And while it is indisputable that the Labour left is on the ropes now, I would argue that he is too dismissive of the ongoing legacy of the Corbyn movement.
And while it is indisputable that the Labour left is on the ropes now, I would argue that he is too dismissive of the ongoing legacy of the Corbyn movement.
The most basic strategic question today he says is: “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?”
He predicts that “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.”
His most recent example is from 85 years ago. This leads him to essentially trash any notion of working in the Labour Party. Betting on a revolution being just around the corner implies the building of soviets of works and soldiers’ deputies and dual power on the streets. This is ultra-left.
His model (unsurprisingly) is the Russian revolution of 1917, which was the product of the most revolutionary period in European politics since the multiple revolutions of 1848. It was driven by the carnage of the first world war, the brutality of absolutism, alongside the destitution of huge swathes of the Russian population – and even then, it was not global. Today the workers’ movement internationally has been on the retreat for many years with industrial struggle in Britain (for example) remaining at a historically low level. The only sector of struggle which is on the rise today is the environmental struggle – about which the article has nothing to say.
His notion of banking on imminent global revolution and goes alongside a one-sided analysis of the strength of hard-right forces worldwide. The article predicts: “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’.”
The crisis we face
I agree with Neil that we are facing the greatest crisis in human history. Whether we agree on how to prepare for such an event, however – which is the crucial question – is another matter.
It is already clear that such a crisis will be ecological in content, and that the future of the planet, as a viable living space for human beings, will be at stake. It will take place (most likely) by mid-century, or before if the current rate of global warming is not halted and the increase in the average surface temperature of the planet goes above 1.5 degrees, which would bring major environmental feed-backs into play and would wreak world-wide havoc. It will take the form (most likely) of major societal and ecosystem breakdowns alongside popular uprisings.
(Interestingly, Donella and Denise Meadows in their inspirational and best-selling 1972 book The Limits to Growth were predicting major such events in a similar timescale. “If the present growth trends in the world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next hundred years”.)
The article implies that such an uprising would sweep capitalism away and lead to an ecosocialist form of society. But why and by what process?
The article implies that such an uprising would sweep capitalism away and lead to an ecosocialist form of society. But why and by what process? The problem with the exploding volcano theory is that it has nothing to say about the likely politics of such uprisings, where they are likely to go, and most importantly how do we (the left and progressive forces) prepare for them and influence their direction of travel.
In fact, without a mass movement built in advance and with authority gained in the struggle to defend the planet it would be more likely to go to the right with sections of the poor and the dispossessed turning to authoritarianism and even fascism.
In this situation sitting back and waiting to see what happens and then parachuting in is a completely inadequate approach. It amounts to gradually recruiting small numbers of people to revolutionary organisation.
“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.”
The struggle for reforms
Neil tells us “the reformist road is blocked. Perhaps it always has been. Certainly, it is now”. If he means by this that important gains and partial victories in the struggle to defend the planet are no longer possible then I think he is completely wrong and advocating a political approach which would miseducate the ACR’s members.
Joe Biden has just cancelled the Keystone XL Pipeline – a major extension to global fossil fuel infrastructure designed to give the Canadian tar sands better access to the market – on his first day in office after a 10-year struggle against it by environmentalists and Native American communities. The US will now re-join the Paris accords. The internal combustion engine (ICE) – one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses atmospheric pollution – is under notice of abolition with 10 or 15 years. The WHO has identified ICE emissions as the biggest environmental outdoor health risk in the world contributing to 3.7 million deaths a year. (Yes, we also want far fewer cars on the roads but we don’t have to wait for that to get rid of the ICE.)
In Britain fracking in has been halted after a long campaign against it. The decision to impose charges on plastic bags cut their usage by 85 per cent. The BBC TV’s Blue Planet II had a major impact on plastic pollution and habitat destruction. Even the inadequate but increasing level of renewable energy now being generated would not exist but for decades of campaigning by environmentalists.
Reforms, in any case, are not necessarily reformist. The road to revolution – as Trotsky argued – is forged in the struggle for reforms, partial gains, and concessions. I am more inclined to agree with Trotsky on this than with Neil. Today the struggle to force capitalism to make major changes in defence of the planet is a part of the struggle for an ecosocialist society committed to a completely new relationship with nature. If we are unable to build a movement capable of forcing such changes how are we going to build a movement capable of removing global capitalism?
The broadest possible movement
For a progressive outcome to emerge from the kind of popular uprisings discussed above will require the broadest possible movement to be built in advance and armed with both an understanding of the dynamics of the struggle and the kind of alternative that has to be constructed. To succeed it will have to take very large numbers of people with it and be organised at the global level and equipped with demands that offer real solutions
The model for challenging the elites on this has been provided by Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement she has led.
The model for challenging the elites on this has been provided by Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement she has led. This is to demand that they act now to reverse the looming catastrophe and reject their excuses for not doing so. She is right to point out that governments can make major changes fast when they decide to do so – for example, when they decide to wage war they can transform their economies within months. The Covid crisis itself has also taught us is that governments can find vast sums of money and resources when they decide to do so.
We have to take this message to Glasgow at the end of the year demanding that the totally inadequate carbon reduction pledges made in Paris are transformed into pledges that can hold the global surface temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees. The COP conferences have long been a rallying point for the movement for many years and this one is the most important yet. The task for eco-socialists, and indeed for the wider left, is to build and to be a part of a movement that can prepare for the struggles that lay ahead. Anything less would make us irrelevant.
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