Socialism and parliamentarianism – two different approaches

Is social democracy a step on the road to socialism?

Labourism has always been and always will be for reforms. Don’t get me wrong; reforms like a minimum wage, the NHS, council housing and Sure Start can make all the difference to millions of people. But even at its best we will still have capitalism, exploitation, a rich 1% that control everything and barbaric racism, nationalism and sexism that divides us. So the question then becomes, what is the relationship between socialism and social democracy?

In her polemic with Eduard Bernstein in the German Social Democrat Party, Rosa Luxemburg challenged the notion that reformist and revolutionary roads would both lead to the same end goal of socialism.

Some argued that the reformist approach, that of gradual legislation, piecemeal, through a parliament was pefectly good enough, in fact in many ways better, since people would be more likely to support reforms than some kind of workers uprising.  This is still the most widely held view. Indeed, it is what came to characterise social democracy as a political movement, despite various incidents of socialist outbursts.

Luxemburg slammed Bernstein as follows:

“Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Every legal constitution is the product of a revolution. In the history of classes, revolution is the act of political creation, while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already come into being. Work for reform does not contain its own force independent from revolution. During every historic period, work for reforms is carried on only in the direction given to it by the impetus of the last revolution and continues as long as the impulsion from the last revolution continues to make itself felt. Or, to put it more concretely, in each historic period work for reforms is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution. Here is the kernel of the problem.

It is contrary to history to represent work for reforms as a long-drawn out revolution and revolution as a condensed series of reforms. A social transformation and a legislative reform do not differ according to their duration but according to their content. The secret of historic change through the utilisation of political power resides precisely in the transformation of simple quantitative modification into a new quality, or to speak more concretely, in the passage of an historic period from one given form of society to another.

That is why people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.” [From Reform or Revolution – Conquest of political power]

Different strategies?

Even if we are not talking about straight up revolution, but instead about mass organised direct action that points to some kind of rupture with the old society – the different approaches between parliamentary politics and extra-parliamentary politics is central.

The importance of building social movement and industrial campaigns and talking about the essential role of class within this context is essentially because we cannot rely on MPs or councillors to change the world. We cannot rely on them to do anything but manage the existing system that we already have. No country in the world has legislated away from capitalism – the best you can have is a tamed and controlled capitalism under social democracy – but arguably that system was only really possible in the post war period until the 1980s and now it is in various stages of collapse everywhere.

Managing capitalism as a stage to something more socialist is one thing, but historically social democrats have never got beyond reforms that only went so far. The socialist future (the New Jerusalem) was always in the future, always at some other point. That future was never reached, and because the capitalist class still retained control over the majority of the economy, still remained in charge culturally and politically, reforms get halted and rolled back.

Of course, everything is also a question of the balance of class forces at any given time, certain reforms are possible in certain periods because of the mass pressure from below to achieve them. But what Labour has achieved in government has been with the consent of the capitalist ruling class, that includes the widespread nationalisation of parts of the economy in 1945-50 (for more on this read chapter three of my book).

There is also a new strain of utopian argument that we are evolving away from capitalism towards  post-capitalism (Paul Mason) but these arguments are usually always technologically determinist and just assume that the ruling capitalist class would be so stupid as to remove themselves from power through excessive expansion of the means of production. It is a new version of Bernstein’s argument that progressive change is happening anyway, the goal is just to gently help it along with some useful legislation. It is a version of the Whig View of History, that everything is getting better always. Sadly in the face of the return of fascism and possible climate devastation we can no longer afford such generous views.

There is also a view that a return of social democracy might create more space for something more radical to emerge afterwards because it will embolden workers to go further.  It is generally true that a social democratic government is worth fighting for, especially when the alternative is the Tories. A radical reforming Labour government that really tries to tackle poverty, raise the economic and political level of the working class (higher wages, more leisure time, better housing, etc) can strengthen the working class movement. One that specifically sees itself as a workers government intending to  improve the fighting capacity of the class, through empowering trade unions and increasing workplace rights can create space for more radical struggles to emerge. These gains are what make a Labour government worth fighting for.

However, it could also happen that workers just get sucked into the parliamentary electoralist road and end up utterly demobilised by just relying on MPs and local councillors to deliver them from evil. You also cannot underestimate the pressure on a Labour government to govern in the ‘national’ (i.e. capitalist) interest. The Attlee government used the army to break workers strikes 20 times between 1945-50 and kept vicious anti union laws from the war on the statute books until 1951. And that was supposed to be the most left wing Labour government in history.

Rosa Luxemburg‘s point is that socialists want to end capitalism because wage slavery is exploitation and it is the economic domination of the capitalist class from which they draw their power. The judicial and legislative framework in which they regulate that power can be amended, sure, but it cannot be the way that capitalism is ended. From Luxemburg‘s point of view “the fundamental relations of the domination of the capitalist class cannot be transformed by means of legislative reforms, on the basis of capitalist society, because these relations have not been introduced by bourgeois laws, nor have they received the form of such laws.”

Independent working class movements matter because we need the mass of people, engaged and self-organised, to challenge capitalism as a system. Relying on a ‘long march through parliament’, on winning election after election to secure fundamental change, misunderstands how the British political establishment works. It misunderstands how vicious the capitalists and their allies will be to stay in power. It over-estimates the capacities of liberal democracy, assuming that all is possible if only you win an election – this is a conceit and an illusion. Parliament is a battle ground for contending class forces, that is true, but the working class forces can only achieve so much through the existing state before the grip tightens and the structural opposition tears it apart.

Socialism requires concerted action by the mass of the working class – organised as workers – to do. It means occupying workplaces and public spaces, taking control of production and distribution and organising mass assemblies of workers to bring about a genuine democracy that also democratises the economic relations in our society. Anything that undermines the power of the ruling class, whether it is a strike, a rent strike, an occupation, a mass social protest like the Poll Tax movement or urban insurrections like in the Arab Spring, all are legitimate tools in the class struggle.  Relying on MPs to pass legislation to put workers in charge of production and distribution of society means relying on a top down method of political change, where socialism is something done to the working class, not emanating from it. This is why Labour is important as a wing of the wider labour movement, but the struggle for socialism cannot be reduced to getting a Labour government, no matter how radical it might be.

Of course, what a genuinely socialist strategy today looks like is a question that must be debated. But surely it must take as its starting point the following principles

1) Emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class

2) The capitalist class must no longer own and control the economy.

3) Democratic control of the economy  is central.

4) A large degree of economic planning is required to save the planet from environmental destruction and ensure equitable distribution of resources.

5) This must be done globally, not through a narrow perspective rooted in any one country.


Published by

Simon H

Writer, socialist, bit part player in the end of the world drama

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s