- Interview by
- Alex Doherty
In July of last year, the socialist writer and academic Ed Rooksby, who has tragically passed away at just 46 years of age, wrote on the reemergence of communism and Marxism as commonplace terms of political discourse. Having first developed his political outlook during the 1990s and early 2000s—when End of History narratives were at their height—Ed recalled the sheer level of amused derision that describing oneself as a socialist often provoked in those years:
‘There’s something rather bewildering about the return of these terms from the margins for someone like me whose politically formative years coincided with an era (the Fukuyama-Giddens-Blair mini-Ice Age) in which even to call yourself a ‘socialist’ was to invite incredulous laughter and was taken to announce an otherworldly disconnect from reality. It wasn’t even hostile scorn as I remember. Much worse than that, it was scorn accompanied by a kind of patronising head-patting and an ‘awww bless, it’s so lovely that people still believe in all that stuff’. Conservatives weren’t scared of socialism. They thought it was funny and cute because it was to them obviously and definitely very dead.’
Perhaps a consequence of growing up in this era of socialist retreat, a notable characteristic of many leftists of Ed’s generation is a comparative self-effacement as compared both with earlier cohorts of socialist activists (for whom history seemed more firmly on their side) and the confident millennial socialists of today. That self-effacement could be debilitating, but in Ed’s case it manifested as a profound sensitivity to the theoretical and organisational weaknesses of the Left, which informed his careful and honest reckoning with what could and could not be salvaged and repurposed from the workers’ movement of the twentieth century.
Ed was concerned with social injustice from an early age. According to his mother, at age eight, he came across a Water Aid leaflet; wanting to know why other children didn’t have clean water, he asked if he might give his pocket money to help. His awareness of the exploitation and structural violence that capitalism imposes, even in its more benign guises under reforming leftwing governments, informed his later critique of social democracy and his belief that there was a moral imperative to abolish capitalism.
A politically formative experience was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But for Ed the defeat of ‘actually existing socialism’ led neither to the defeatist conclusion that socialism was impossible, nor to the view, common at the time on the horizontalist left, that there was little positive to learn from the Communist experience. Instead, drawing on the Eurocommunist current that emerged in the communist parties of Western Europe in the post-war era and on left theorists such Nikos Poulantzas, Ralph Miliband, and André Gorz, Ed became deeply engaged with the question of how to democratically transform the state and how rupture with capitalism might be achieved in technologically and materially advanced societies where the classically Leninist strategy of dual power seemed to lack relevance. It was this topic that Ed took up for his PhD at the University of York and which was to occupy much of his academic career at institutions including Ruskin College, Oxford and York, where he returned to teach in 2019.
While socialist strategy was his principal scholarly concern, Ed also wrote and blogged on a wide range of other topics, from the War on Terror (Ed had been radicalised by the Iraq war and was active on the York University campus left in the early 2000s) to union struggles and the Labour Party. His 2011 article in the Guardian on the pernicious ideology of Blue Labour—which he presciently warned had more mileage in it than many other left critics supposed—seems especially relevant today given Keir Starmer’s recent pivot from pro-EU cosmopolitanism to a cynical embrace of flag and family.
Ed’s work was notable for a cautious exactitude, his wry self-deprecating sense of humour, and a dislike for tubthumping rhetoric (his suspicion of both George Galloway’s Stalinist politics and his florid linguistic affectations was characteristic here) and in his many articles and book reviews he took care to sketch out opposing viewpoints generously in order to avoid strawmanning his interlocutors.
Interviewing Ed for Politics Theory Other in 2018, I was struck by his rejection of any comforting teleology of inevitable socialist victory. Instead, with characteristic realism, Ed openly stated that socialism may not be possible and that any advance towards it must necessarily be experimental and fraught with danger.
During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ed contracted the virus. He was one of many to suffer the effects of long Covid and he wrote movingly about the condition in his last blog post in early January. The suffering that Ed experienced during those nine months is a reminder of the incalculable impact of Covid-19 (and the British government’s disastrous response) beyond the raw data of cases, deaths, and the ‘recovered’ – a category covering a very wide range of experiences, many of them—as in Ed’s case—being a very long way from a full return to health. What contribution, if any, Covid-19 made to Ed’s tragic death remains unclear at the time of writing.
In the immediate aftermath of Ed’s passing many remarked upon his wit and intelligence, but more frequently mentioned than either attribute was his great kindness and generosity. In February 2012, Ed published a eulogy on the death of his father after a long illness. At the end of the eulogy he remarked on how kind his father was, and wrote that he hoped to emulate him in that regard. Judging by how many of his friends, students, and comrades made a point of mentioning Ed’s own kindness when responding to the terrible news of his untimely death, it seems that it was an ambition well achieved.
The following is an excerpt from Ed’s interview with Politics Theory Other.
Your article for Critique centres on the questions of how we might go beyond merely reforming capitalism and moving instead towards rupture with the system that would enable the establishment of socialism. Before we go into the details of that question, I wonder if you could say something as to why you think it is insufficient and undesirable to fix social democracy as the limit of our political horizon?
Well, I’m not at all hostile to social democracy, but social democracy in my view is inherently limited. Under post-war conditions it was extremely successful. It made a lot of people’s lives much better. But the core of the problem for me is that social democracy is based on the mitigation of the distribution of effects of market forces and not the replacement of capitalism. And as such, it’s dependent on the functioning of a capitalist economy on its own terms.
So when capital is growing strongly, capitalism can afford to make various concessions and that’s the time at which social democracy can flourish. But when capitalism goes into crisis, when profits are squeezed, those reforms that social democrats have put into place in the past, or reforms they want to put into place in the future, will be squeezed. There will be much less space to implement them and often they will be reversed.
And so that’s what you see historically if you look at the post-war conditions after the Second World War, when the social democratic Keyensian consensus was put into place. Those reforms were implemented in quite peculiar historical conditions based on a very long and deep capitalist boom that lasted for quite a long time. But as those conditions started to deteriorate by the 1970s, that’s precisely the time when you see social democracy run into problems and that’s when the neoliberal counter-offensive begins and the welfare state is progressively stripped back.
So, the key problem is that social democracy is the hostage of the logic of capitalism if you like. And I’m not sure that there’s the space today to implement some sort of full-blooded social democracy. I don’t think we live in the same political, economic, and institutional conditions that existed in the 1950s and the 1960s – conditions that made social democracy possible.
And besides, social democracy, even in its most full-blooded form, leaves in place the dysfunctions or injustices of capitalism. Among those I’d say the key ones are that capitalism imposes limits on the extent to which we can have democracy. So under capitalism, we can have parliamentary democracy, but we can’t have economic democracy. In most areas of our lives, at most times, most of us don’t really have that much democratic control over the conditions of our own existence. Which is a core problem for capitalism in my view.
Additionally capitalism can’t exist without constantly creating inequality within and between nations. And related to that, it also means that the vast majority of people, even those living in quite wealthy capitalist economies, live rather stunted lives. Often lives of drudgery, and lives in which they never really get the chance to develop their own talents and to flourish as human individuals. Most of us work in jobs that we don’t like and most people don’t really enjoy going to work. Most people don’t get to do what they’d like to do, don’t get to be creative and that is I think a real moral problem with capitalism.
And lastly, the economic logic of capitalism is one that’s inherently unstable, it’s a logic of booms and busts and I don’t think that can be purged from the system. And it’s also a logic of perpetual growth. Capitalism is based on the logic of the imperative of capital accumulation. And it’s not really based, therefore, on a human logic. Capital accumulation becomes an end in itself and humans become servants of that end. And that inverts the relationship that ought to exist. Humans should be the masters and the economic system should be the servant of human needs. But under capitalism human beings are servants of the economic system.
In your article you point out that in the current era, many left-wing parties have combined parliamentary struggle with social movement politics. Whether that’s Labour under Corbyn, Podemos in Spain, or Syriza in Greece (at least before the capitulation to the EU institutions). And you also point out that all these parties have a significant number of members who view social democratic reforms as a step to transcending or rupturing with capitalism. Could you say something about the political consciousness of the members of these parties?
I think the key characteristic of these left-wing formations and the support they’ve built up, the kind of mobilised support they’ve built up, is that combination of electoral tactics with social movement forms of organisation. And I think there is a certain inevitability about that. That seems to be the concrete form that relatively radical challenges to the existing distribution of power takes. I think certainly the support for these groups, the electorate or the membership start from a sort of left social democratic position.
But I’m not sure that anyone seriously among that mass support is thinking consciously about smashing the system or overthrowing capitalism. I think what they’re trying to do is to resist the offensive of neoliberalism and to assert quite concrete immediate demands in relation to improving their own lives, and the lives of their families, and the lives of the communities around them. But I think that asserting those kinds of demands and organising in this combination of electoralism and social movement politics—which is much more democratic than traditional social democracy—it’s what I think became, at least in the twentieth century, the form of organising that has an internal radical dynamic that tends to push beyond the limits of social democracy. The limits being that social democracy came to mean nothing beyond the amelioration of capitalism, of building a capitalism with a human face.
I think that social democratic consciousness is really the consciousness of most people, perhaps inevitably. The trick is— without necessarily engaging in some kind of deception or a politics of exposure, which I’m very suspicious of—working with that kind of consciousness and with those forms of organisation. And then seeing how we can push them forwards in order to reveal the limits of social democracy and at same time build up the psychological material, and political resources to push beyond them in a way that I don’t think the classic revolutionary perspectives actually manage to engage with very well.
In the article, one of the main focuses is on the question of the state. Obviously the state is quite an everyday term, it’s used in a very routine manner, but it’s not always clear what is meant by it. So, for instance, what we understand of as the state changes over time. So, for example, the state in the post-war era is a much vaster and more complicated thing than it was in the early twentieth century. There’s also disagreement within the Marxist tradition about what institutions of society we should conceive of as part of the state. For instance, Louis Althusser described the churches, and the schools and the media as being ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) when most people would conceive of those institutions as being part of civil society. So what do we mean when we talk about the state?
Well, I’m somewhat suspicious of Althusser’s idea of ISAs and also Gramsci’s notion of what he calls the ‘integral state’. There’s something to those perspectives of course, but one of the things that Ralph Miliband pointed out in his debate with Poulantzas is that there’s a danger there, in that if you say that all institutions that are involved with the reproduction of society are part of the field of the state, it tends to create a way of thinking that brings the danger of thinking that another form of state, a worker’s state or whatever you want to call it, would also require ISAs.
And there’s generally a danger to conflating the state and civil society – which we did see in the eastern bloc. There are problems with this division, but we can use the terms the state and civil society I think in a way that makes some kind of sense. I think that if you conflate the state and civil society it brings all sorts of dangers, some of which manifested themselves in the Soviet Union and the monolithic Soviet state.
So what do we mean when we talk about the state? I mean, I don’t know, is the honest answer. But I think we’ve got useful resources to draw on. I think the state is clearly more than that classic Leninist formulation—which is drawn from Marx and Engels—which sees the state as being essentially a body of armed men. It is that of course, but it’s also clearly more than that and it became very much more than that in the course of the second half of the twentieth century.
In my opinion the best resource we have to draw on is the Greek Marxist theorist Nikos Poulantzas – particularly in his later work State Power Socialism, which I think is unsurpassed in terms of thinking of the state as a field of power. There was also interesting work done by Erik Olin Wright on this question, and also Fred Block who actually set himself up as an opponent to Poulantzas and his notions of the relative autonomy of the state vis-à-vis capital. But I think he ends up actually coming up with a very good explanation of what the relative autonomy of the state pivots on.
For Block, it’s the notion of structural power of capital, of business confidence. So what Block argues is that fundamentally what makes the capitalist state a capitalist state is that it relies on capitalist investment. In order to manage a modern society, you need to manage the economy in such a way that encourages continued and increasing investment from private investors. And that’s why the state tends to act in the long term interest of capital and acts as a sort of ‘ideal collective capitalist’. And that also allows the state to go against the short term interests of particular fractions of capital, in order to keep its eye on the overall health of the capitalist economy and the overall growth rate.
So I think there are lots of resources that we can draw on. But I think that we need to get beyond the dichotomy between the classic reformist view which is that the state is an instrument of power that can be used by the working class just as much as by the capitalist class, versus the Leninist perspective which sees the state as essentially bourgeois in its very essence, and therefore that it needs to be overthrown and that it can’t be used in any kind of direct sense by socialist forces. I think those sort of counter positions have created a sterile dichotomy over the last century or so.
You’ve already mentioned the Greek Marxist theorist Nicos Poulantzas and his conception of the state. I wondered if you could just flesh that conception out a little bit more – especially with regard to how his understanding of the state contrasts with the Leninist perspective.
Poulantzas re-conceptualises the state or state power, more specifically, as a terrain of struggle. So he wants us to think about the state in terms of something analogous to the Marxist conceptualisation of capital – that it’s a social relation essentially. Poulantzas wants us to think of the state as a fractured terrain or a battlefield on which different class forces operate and struggle to modify the institutional structure of the state, what Poulantzas calls its institutional materiality. In a more concrete sense, what Poulantzas is getting at is the observation that, certainly by the second half of the twentieth century, the state is no longer simply a tool of capital. It provides various welfare functions, and the ranks of states have been expanded in terms of civil servants who it is very hard to classify at lower levels as simply agents of bourgeois power.
And there are labour struggles that traverse the state – most obviously when state employees go on strike in the public sector. So, it’s clearly no longer the case that the state is merely an instrument of oppression. It’s something much more complex than that.
So Poulantzas wants us to think about the way in which any kind of challenge to capitalist power is likely to be reflected in some way within that institutional terrain of the state. There’s clearly the chance of state employees broadly defined—not just civil servants, but firefighters, teachers, nurses, and so on—being a part of that movement for radical reform from within the structures of the state itself. There’s also clearly the possibility of some sort of left-wing government being elected to power within the parliamentary institutions of the state, and then acting to try to reconfigure state power from within.
In State Power Socialism, and also in various interviews he did at the time, he tries to rethink the classic Leninist vision of revolutionary crisis, or dual power crisis, and argues against what he thinks is the Leninist view – according to which a revolutionary confrontation will be between the state on one hand, representing the political force of the concentration of capitalist power, and a mass movement embodied in soviets and street demonstrations and so on, on the other.
Instead he has this vision, in which the crisis will traverse the field of the state itself so that the crisis of dual power in fact passes through the field of the state (rather than occurring entirely outside of the state). So in a revolutionary situation you’re likely to see the state itself marked by these alternative forms of power.
That is I think a much more realistic, intuitively believable idea of what a radical challenge to capitalism would look like today. And interestingly it also corresponds quite closely with the nearest things we’ve had in recent years to revolutionary crises, where in each case, or in most cases at least, you see some form of interaction—not necessarily always harmonious—but some sort of interaction between a left government and mobilised forces of people outside the state too.
A classic example of that is Chile under Salvador Allende, the defeat of which the Leninist left responded to with these kind of ‘just-so stories’ that describe Chile as the ultimate proof that a reformist strategy can’t possibly work. But what you actually see in Chile in 1970 to 1973 is a very interesting dynamic developing between a radical government and a mass movement. And the movement of dual power, and the movement of workers’ power that emerges in Chile in 1972 and 1973 particularly, wouldn’t have existed without the election of the Popular Unity government. That’s the kind of context in which Poulantzas is writing in the late seventies, as he’s thinking about those sorts of developments and trying to think about a revolutionary strategy fit for the late twentieth century and perhaps for us today too.
Coming up to a more recent example, in the article, you talk about the situation in Greece. So in 2015, Syriza comes to power, the first instance of a radical left party coming to power in Europe in the post-Financial Crash era. And its eventual capitulation to the EU was taken by Leninists, and also by mainstream social democrats, as evidence of the folly of attempting any sort of parliamentary road to socialism. But in your article, you’re relatively sympathetic to Syriza and in particular to the ‘left platform’ – a minority position within the party associated with Stathis Kouvelakis, in particular. Could you explain why you don’t share the disdain for Syriza that’s very common for European left now?
Well, I’m critical of the leadership of Syriza and it’s really impossible to defend what Tsipras did. However, I think that there is a rather simplistic story being told about lessons that we should draw from the Syriza experience. The lessons we should draw are, in my opinion, quite different to the ones being drawn by the classical Leninist tradition. We need to recognise that there simply wasn’t a concrete alternative to Syriza at the time and the left groups that kept their distance from Syriza and were critical of its electorialism made very little impact on the political situation. I’m thinking of groups like Antarsya, and also the communist KKE who were politically very different but had a shared rejection of the parliamentary strategy of Syriza.
I think that position effectively was a rejection of the possibility of any advance. It was a kind of revolutionary purism which didn’t manage to actually advance any feasible concrete alternative to the path being plotted by Syriza which was broadly: we build up support in order to elect a left government then we see what we can do from there. We try to latch on to people’s immediate demands, we try to alleviate the suffering caused by austerity in Greece and we try to build up some kind of strength within the left outside parliament.
As it happens, of course, Syriza very quickly capitulated, admittedly under incredible pressure. And it’s hard to think what anybody else might have done in Tsipras’s position. But there was an alternative current within Syriza: the left platform which you mentioned, who did come up with an alternative to this capitulation course of the leadership. Their vision was to try to harness the implicit radicalism within the support for Syriza and to try to radicalise that movement from within. So, it wasn’t about rejecting the very tactic of taking state power. They said ‘we need to have a left government, but we also need to find ways of empowering the mass movements.’
So the critique of people like Kouvelakis was that Syriza were captured by the logic of elite decision-making behind closed doors. The first thing Syriza did when they won elections was to engage in negotiations with representatives from the Troika. But the effect of that was to demobilise the masses – it was an anti-democratic course of action, though not necessarily deliberately on the part of the leadership. An alternative course of action might have been to try and further empower the mass movement of ordinary Greek people and to do that from a base of support in the grassroots that would have been able to provide that government with the strength outside of parliament, outside of those closed-door negotiations, to actually resist the power of the Troika and the power of international and domestic capital.
There’s no guarantee that that kind of strategy would have provided any different outcome. But it’s likely that if that had been the dominant mode of thinking within Syriza, something different might have happened after the Oxi referendum, which seemed to show a massive degree of support amongst the Greek population to radicalise the agenda.
People like Kouvelakis and Costas Lapavitsas argue that Greece had no option but to leave the Euro. I think they are probably right about that. The trouble is that it looks like the vast majority of the Greek population didn’t want to leave. They wanted some kind of reform within the Eurozone. But I think a more radical course of action which was about building up some democratic capacity amongst people might have been able to shift the terms of that debate. It might have made some people start to think about the ways in which resisting austerity necessitated more radical measures than through the usual parliamentary channels.
So, I think that there was the potential within Syriza of working with the dynamic of that movement to radicalise it from within, and I don’t think there was anything inevitable about that strand of thought not winning within Syriza. It seems to me that if there is going to be another radical challenge to capitalist power in the near future, it will probably take the form of something like Syriza. And if it does so, it will also likely throw up a more radical strand or fraction within that group too, that we might hope to push forwards.
Regarding the kind of elite managerialism of the Syriza government that you describe, I suppose a critic of Syriza might say that this was simply and inevitably the outcome of going into government – that the exigencies of being in government forces you to behave in this manner. Would you be arguing that these managerialist tendencies were already present within Syriza, and in fact were dominant within the party, and it’s for that reason it didn’t go down the alternative path that you describe?
Yes, there was always going to be a battle within Syriza between a social democratic current and a more radical dynamic. And whoever won that battle was a matter of contingency. It didn’t necessarily have to go one way or the other. But there clearly is a logic of parliamentarianism, which tends to produce an activist elite and a passive majority who are reduced to being a kind of voting fodder, whose role is to cast a ballot in elections and then wait for the leaders to sort things out for them.
But that’s an inescapable dilemma for any movement which is trying to change the system (if we reject the possibility or the likelihood of a straightforward revolutionary path beyond capitalism which doesn’t in some way pass through the parliamentary institutions). Personally, I find it quite hard to imagine a classically revolutionary situation happening in advanced capitalist democracies. So if we reject the possibility of that sort of 1917 redux situation, then we are left with trying to think through the dilemmas, limitations, dangers, pitfalls of a different sort of strategy.
I don’t think there are any easy answers. We know by now that there isn’t any road to socialism which is going to be easy. There’s no easy road to socialism, no sure road to socialism. We probably don’t even know if socialism is even possible. All we’ve got is the knowledge that we need to work with existing tendencies and existing resources. We need to build on concrete developments to find a way to push that process forward. It can’t be anything other than an experimental process. So there are clear limits and dangers to any form of parliamentary strategy. And this is something that Eurocommunist parties found in the 1970s – it’s what other movements as well as Syriza found too.
Could you say something about Eurocommunism? Because I think it’s a political tendency that is largely forgotten and not necessarily very well thought of, either.
It was a really interesting and complex development in Western European communist parties that came to fruition in the late 1970s, and it was a complicated mixture of different strategies, different aims, different processes that weren’t all necessarily very admirable. So on the one hand, after the second world war, a sort of classic Eurocommunist strategy emerges in the PCI, the Italian Communist Party. And also to some extent, in the Spanish Communist Party, where it’s a way of trying to build an alliance against the Francoist dictatorship in Spain. Eurocommunism also emerges in a more muted form in France, within the much more Stalinist-oriented communist party in France which integrated Eurocommunist ideas in a much more problematic way than the Italians did.
A key figure is Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian PCI. After the second world war what Togliatti seems to be doing is balancing orders from Moscow, which at that point take the Stalinist strategy of seeking to defend the foreign policy interests of Stalin’s USSR by not antagonising the Western powers. So what Togliatti is able to do is prevent any confrontation between the very considerable forces of the Left in Italy and the allied powers, because Stalin doesn’t want to fall out with them. Togliatti is trying to balance that position with also trying to carve out a strategy to build up socialist power in Italy in a context where the communist party could actually see itself as part of a broader coalition. And in fact, it was part of a coalition governing Italy for a couple of years after the end of the war.
So it’s partly a strategic development within the parameters of Stalinism. But on the other hand, it’s also a real and I think a genuine attempt to engage with the conditions of liberal democracy in advanced capitalist countries. It’s an attempt to think past the limitations of Leninist strategy which people like Togliatti, and later Enrico Berlinguer, were engaged in. They argued, I think with a lot of credibility, that the Soviet experience is just not transposable. We can’t think about the changeover to socialism in Italy looking very much like what happened in Russia in 1917.
And they are also trying to genuinely integrate a respect for civil liberties into communist party practice. They’re trying to think about how to move away from the worst aspect of Stalinism, the one-party state, the secret police activities, the banning of all opposition, the subsumption of civil society into the state completely. There’s a complex set of manoeuvres going on here, with some sort of ‘good faith’ manoeuvres, if you like, of trying to adjust radical strategy to the conditions of advanced democracy on one hand, and also trying to balance that against the realpolitik of Stalinism on the other.
I think you can separate out different strands of Eurocommunism. So there are the right Eurocommunists such as Giorgio Amendola and Berlinguer himself, who start to take the communist party more and more in the direction of classic social democracy. They shared the revolutionary radicalism that the PCI used to have but they argue for things like an anti-monopoly alliance. Which is a bad faith argument about how the communist party needs to build up an alliance between working class and the middle class, and also with ‘progressive capitalists’ against the big bad monopolies and finance capitalism. It’s a strategy that doesn’t make much sense empirically.
On the other hand, you’ve got a left strand within Eurocommunism, exemplified by Nicos Poulantzas in its most advanced forms, where there is a genuine attempt to retain some sort of revolutionary radicalism. There’s an attempt to think about a way in which reform could actually lead to a really revolutionary situation. So it’s not the abandonment of the original goals of the party of socialism. It’s a way to update them in the context of the Eurocommunist left.
And I think it’s the Eurocommunist left that still speaks to us today – people like Poulantzas and people on the peripheries of Eurocommunism like André Gorz in the late sixties, who were making very creative attempts to think through the interactions between government and mass movement. They were attempting to grapple with liberal liberties and liberal forms of politics and socialism and to think through the dialectical interaction between reform and revolution – of change from above and change from below. Their work is a really unsurpassed resource that we need to go back to today.
Yes, I was going to ask you about André Gorz and the concept of ‘non-reformist reforms’ which you discuss in your article – the idea being that you can implement certain kinds of reforms that in themselves help to lay the basis for further struggles, that exacerbate contradictions within the state, and that make possible the winning of further gains and of disaggregating the ruling class. So I wonder if you could say something about that.
But also, going back to Chile and Greece, does the failure of the Left in those contexts suggest that movements in Chile and Greece lacked a proper strategic orientation for implementing their reforms in a way in which such a radicalising dynamic could be created? Or would you perhaps argue that it was more the case that these were attempts to implement reforms where the material conditions were always going to make it profoundly difficult to win?
So Gorz is is the theorist most associated with the term ‘structural reforms’, although it was a phrase invented by Togliatti. And Gorz makes a distinction between what he calls ‘reformist reforms’ and ‘non-reformist reforms’, or what he then later, perhaps wisely, renames as ‘structural reforms’ or ‘revolutionary reforms’. The former are the kinds of reforms that we associate with social democracy. They’re about ameliorating the system, but they are implemented in such a way that they are absolutely compatible with the fundamental logic of that system.
Such reforms are not at all challenging to capitalism, and they don’t modify the relations of power between labour and capital. A structural reform, or a revolutionary reform, is a reform that is implemented in such a way that it’s intended to break the equilibrium of the system. It’s meant to modify the relations of power between class forces, and the key characteristic of structural reforms for Goetz is that they necessarily modify or threaten to modify the relations of production. Such reforms must be about building up workers power within capitalism. So what it comes down to time and time again, in his writing, is workers’ control at the point of production and the setting up of democratic organs for controlling the labour process and making decisions about investment and making decisions about distribution.
What he imagines is a left government, or a government under pressure from other left forces, implementing reforms that respond to immediate demands for people’s needs, but which also substantially modify that relation to power – for instance, by not just nationalising key industries but nationalising them under workers’ control, or creating a space for new forms of cooperative industries, experiments in workers’ power, and so on.
And what Gorz thinks is that these sorts of changes build up a kind of counter-power from below and that they have an effect on the political horizons people have. So, for instance, by changing the way people interact with each other, and giving people a little bit of power to make decisions about the economy, for example, he hopes that that can create the conditions psychologically, economically, and politically for further radicalisation in that consciousness.
So he has a vision—and this was something that Kouvelakis was talking about too, from the Syriza left platform, although without referring to Gorz—of the possibility of a logic of permanent revolution.
So what is hoped will occur is a cumulative strengthening of the mass movement from below which can then put pressure on its leaders in the government to push forward with more radical reforms. So you get this virtuous dynamic of ordinary people demanding reforms from the government which further empower that mass movement until the point comes when there’s a sort of qualitative transformation.
Poulantzas talks about revolutionary rupture, where the structure of the state in that relationship between government power and the people is transformed into something else. But it’s not a process that Gorz or Poulantzas thinks would happen without that initial process of dialectical interaction between a reforming government and a gradually empowered mass movement from below campaigning for immediate demands for things they need in the here and now. What Gorz is against is this idea that socialists should start from a concrete vision of socialism and then seek to realise it. He thinks that what we need to do is to start from where people are, and try to strengthen some kind of dynamic in which people learn themselves in concrete situations and build up their abilities and capacities to construct something that goes beyond the system that we have right now.
So, this brings me on to the Labour Party. You mentioned the necessity of building up workers’ institutions, cooperatives and so on. Do you see Labour’s current policy platform, and the ideas contained in the Alternative Models of Ownership report, as the potential basis for just this kind of struggle?
Yes, there’s potential there. But I think we’re actually a long way away from that place in Britain at the moment. What I would expect from a Corbyn government would be something a lot less dramatic than that. We’re talking about, after all, a leadership which is putting forward a programme that not so long ago would have been seen as quite mildly social democratic, although that programme does look more radical in the current context. Because to insist on quite sensible things such as taking public utilities into public ownership, trying to control finance, and stopping austerity, represents a real breach in the ‘there is no alternative’ neoliberal status quo.
There is something genuinely different about Jeremy Corbyn and the current Labour leadership in that they are much more open than previous leaderships (even ones that were more radical at the level of policy) to grassroots mobilisations. So the creation of Momentum is an example of their relative openness to democratic engagement from below. That’s something very different about Corbyn and John McDonnell. So there is the potential that a kind of Gorzian dynamic of structural reform might emerge from that.
Yet I’m slightly dubious about that being on the horizon right now. I don’t think that’s probably on the agenda in Britain for the time being. One of the possibilities that we need to start to engage with much more seriously is, what happens if Corbyn is elected? What happens if he sticks to his agenda? What sort of opposition is he likely to face? What kind of counter-attack is he likely to come under? And I think it’s going to be a lot more than what we are seeing at the moment in terms of the various attacks or attempts to undermine him.
It will be a lot more intense were he the Prime Minister. And it would all be backed up by the concrete power of capital, the veto power that capital has over investment. There’s a danger—I don’t think it’s inevitable—but there’s a danger that we might encounter something like the experience of the early 1980s Francois Mitterand government in France, where a pretty radical government came to power and it immediately faced capital flight, an investment strike, a run on the currency, and so on, which forced the government to largely abandon its programme.
And it’s not unlikely that Corbyn might find himself under similar pressures and if that was to be the case and if there were a mobilised movement around Corbyn, of active members and active supporters, it’s conceivable that that intense situation of polarisation might start to spark some sort of logic of structural reform – of the kind that the left platform in Greece were advocating. But I think it’s important not to get carried away right now in Britain because we’re at the very early stages of this sort of process.