Reform or revolution? A response to three intriguing questions

Peter Solenberger

Posted September 27, 2019

The article by Steve Downs Three questions of political strategy poses three intriguing questions: Does “democratic road to socialism” = “parliamentary road to socialism”? Does “insurrection” = “revolution”? Does “rupture” = “revolution”? Steve found these questions helpful in understanding the contending views in Solidarity and DSA over reform or revolution. So do I.

Steve posed the first two questions in a contribution to the Solidarity Discussion Bulletin during the run-up to the June 29-30 Solidarity National Convention. His contribution deepened the discussion, which until then had focussed mainly on the Bernie Sanders campaign, the growth of DSA, and how Solidarity should relate to both. His questions addressed points of revolutionary strategy being debated in DSA, with implications for current work.

If you believe that workers can come to power through elections supported by strikes and demonstrations, as many in DSA do, you’re likely to see elections as about power and attach great importance to getting elected, even if as a Democrat, and staying in office, even at the price of going along to get along.

If you believe that workers can come to power only through revolution, including mass strikes in the Rosa Luxemburg sense and workers’ councils, you’re likely to see elections as mainly a way to raise ideas and to support mass action outside the electoral arena. Running for or holding office as a Democrat would undermine the political message too much to be worthwhile.

For the linked article Steve adds a third question, equally pertinent. Following are my responses to all three questions.

Does “democratic road to socialism” = “parliamentary road to socialism”?

The Bread and Roses caucus (B&R) and many others in DSA advocate what they call a “democratic road to socialism.” Steve references articles on the websites of Jacobin and B&R’s The Call to explore what this means. He cites Chris Maisano’s piece in The Call, Which Way to Socialism? and concludes:

It seems that his strategy for transition to socialism is to get socialists elected to high office, backed by mass mobilizations in the street and then, when the right-wing and capital respond with the viciousness we know they will … we’ll see what we can do. To me, this is what marks his strategy as the parliamentary road. He does not have a perspective for the extra-parliamentary action that will be necessary to defend the government and push the break with capitalism forward. That is hard to accept post-Allende and the crushing of the attempt to carry out a democratic road to socialism in Chile.

Steve then takes up Chile 1973, citing Ben B.’s introduction to Salvador Allende’s 1970 “Victory Speech” reprinted in The Call as Allende and Democratic Socialism:

While there is much to learn, perhaps the biggest and most obvious lesson from the Allende government is that winning elections is a necessary step on the road to socialism, but insufficient on its own. We also need working-class movements that can bolster and defend the program of a socialist government from below while cutting into the power of capital through their own initiative as well. And we need to be prepared to do everything within our power to defend a mandate once it is won against a capitalist class and right-wing forces that have no real respect for democratic legitimacy.

Steve concludes:

For me, this raises doubts that “the democratic road to socialism” can be treated as if it is simply a rebranding of “the parliamentary road to socialism”.

Other than tone, I don’t see much difference between “we’ll see what we can do” and “we need to be prepared to do everything within our power.” Both Chris Maisano and Ben B ignore or deny the very rich Marxist experience and analysis of the problem of workers’ revolution.

In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote algebraically “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.”

From the 1848 Revolution they concluded that “the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.” They specify “on the Continent” because at the time Britain and the US had no standing army that could be used to suppress revolution. That changed with the development of imperialism.

Marx and Engels knew that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes,” but they didn’t know the working-class alternative. In the 1871 Paris Commune they saw “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor.”

The 1905 Russian Revolution, the 1917-22 Russian Revolution, the 1918-23 German Revolution, the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution, and many other experiences taught Marxists about mass strikes, factory (workplace) committees, workers’ councils, dual power, a workers’ government, working-class united fronts, worker-peasant alliances, permanent revolution, workers’ defense guards, winning over the ranks of the army, insurrection, revolutionary parties, a revolutionary International, and many other lessons relevant to “what we can do” when the reaction counterattacks.

All this is missing from the Jacobin/The Call road to socialism.

The Paris Commune, the first attempt at a workers’ republic, destroyed Napoleon’s monument to war, 1871

Does “insurrection” = “revolution”?

Steve notes that The Call rejects “a strategy of insurrection,” asks whether this means that they reject revolution, and answers:

I’m not convinced that The Call means to reject revolution when they reject insurrection…

I think the position of The Call is 1) we do not believe socialism will come about through the gradual accumulation of reforms, 2) we don’t think the model of insurrection derived from the Bolshevik experience necessarily applies in capitalist democracies, and 3) we think some sort of rupture with capitalism is necessary to achieve a truly democratic society, but we don’t know how that rupture will come about or what to call it.

If we agree with 1 and 2 (we do, right?), and we think the necessary rupture is a revolution, I think we could make a big contribution by expanding on what ‘revolutionary’ politics are now and how they will help the left prepare for the needed rupture (especially in the light of Chile). Put another way, if revolution does not equal insurrection, what is it likely to look like in the US or other capitalist democracies?

The Call’s formulation reduces the “Bolshevik experience” — and the Marxist strategy of workers’ revolution — to insurrection. But the insurrection of October 25, 1917 was only a moment in a revolution which lasted more than five years, from the February 1917 overthrow of the Czar through the liberation of Vladivostok in October 1922, which ended the Civil War and imperialist military intervention.

The insurrection itself was an essentially bloodless affair, because the revolution had already won politically. The workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets had become revolutionary. The ranks of the army and navy and many officers followed the soviets. The Provisional Government was dispersed with no loss of life.

Revolutionaries should indeed help prepare the working class and its multi-million vanguard for revolution. We should indeed think about what revolution might look like in the US and other advanced capitalist countries, including how likely it is that they will remain democracies as their crises deepen. But we’re not starting from zero. We’re building on more than 150 years of experience and analysis.

Does “rupture” = “revolution”?

Steve notes that “many people around B&R do seem to prefer not to use the word ‘revolution’ when describing their politics or strategy. It’s as if it’s a little too tainted by its association with insurrection.” He cites a passage in the B&R Where We Stand statement to explain their alternative:

(We) want to build a socialist party that can take advantage of a crisis of legitimacy of capitalism, when it surely arrives. A party can even help foment a crisis, through helping to build powerful movements from below — millions of people acting on their own behalf in strikes, workplace takeovers, student occupations, and mass demonstrations — and by electing a socialist government. Such mobilizations and such a government would together be able to create a rupture with the capitalist system. And since no ruling class has ever peacefully ceded power, in a transitional period a socialist government backed by popular mobilizations will have to do everything necessary to defend the mandate they have won to carry out a program of redistribution, expropriation, and democratic reform of state institutions.

And concludes:

It seems to me that what B&R calls a “rupture” is what most people reading this would call a “revolution”.

Yes, but the difference is more than terminological. More on that below.

To reinforce the equation of “revolution” and “rupture,” Steve cites remarks by Eric Blanc, a leading member of B&R, in an April 2019 debate with Charlie Post called Which Way to Socialism?:

Because of these structural constraints, we need a revolution to break the economic and political power of the capitalist class…

The key question is whether you think a socialist revolution will take place against the entire state or whether you think some key institutions of the current state — e.g., democratically elected parliaments and administrations — can and should be utilized by the working class for anticapitalist rupture…

We need to participate in and identify with the democratic-socialist project of building mass working-class power and transforming the state — always with an eye on pushing in the direction of anticapitalist rupture…

Of course, we’re nowhere near a moment of revolutionary rupture in the United States.

Steve asks:

If B&R uses “rupture” when most of us would use “revolution”, if “rupture” and “revolution” can be used interchangeably, what does B&R believe they gain by using “rupture”, instead of “revolution”? Doesn’t avoiding “revolution” when explaining what democratic socialism is imply that revolutions are, in some ways, undemocratic?

A good question. I’d like to know how B&R supporters would respond to it. But the problem is deeper than their reluctance to use the word revolution.

In the passages Steve cites above, Eric Blanc says, “The key question is whether you think a socialist revolution will take place against the entire state or whether you think some key institutions of the current state — e.g., democratically elected parliaments and administrations — can and should be utilized by the working class for anticapitalist rupture.”

Close, but not quite. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State Engels describes the essence of the state:

In contrast to the old gentile [clan] organization, the state is distinguished firstly by the grouping of its members on a territorial basis. The old gentile bodies, formed and held together by ties of blood, had, as we have seen, become inadequate largely because they presupposed that the gentile members were bound to one particular locality, whereas this had long ago ceased to be the case…

The second distinguishing characteristic is the institution of a public force which is no longer immediately identical with the people’s own organization of themselves as an armed power. This special public force is needed because a self-acting armed organization of the people has become impossible since their cleavage into classes… This public force exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men, but also of material appendages, prisons and coercive institutions of all kinds, of which gentile society knew nothing. It may be very insignificant, practically negligible, in societies with still undeveloped class antagonisms and living in remote areas, as at times and in places in the United States of America. But it becomes stronger in proportion as the class antagonisms within the state become sharper and as adjoining states grow larger and more populous. It is enough to look at Europe today, where class struggle and rivalry in conquest have brought the public power to a pitch that it threatens to devour the whole of society and even the state itself.

Today nearly every state in the world has at its core a standing army, police and prisons. The “democratically elected parliaments and administrations” are shells around the core, important but still shells.

To rephrase Eric Blanc’s “key question” more exactly: “The key question is whether you think a socialist revolution can be won by transforming the capitalist state, that is, transferring the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, or you think it requires splitting the repressive apparatus along class lines, disabling it, and ‘smashing’ it as an instrument of capitalist rule.”

Elections and elected office can play a role in this, not in the sense of “taking power,” but in the sense of exposing power, showing the limits of parliamentary action, and supporting the extra-parliamentary action needed for a real anti-capitalist rupture. Parliamentary elections may ratify workers’ power, but they can’t win it. A deeper democracy is needed, a democracy from below, the democracy of workers’ councils.


2 responses to “Reform or revolution? A response to three intriguing questions”

  1. Jules Greenstein Avatar
    Jules Greenstein

    I found Steve’s article and Peter’s response to be interesting, and I wish they were not, at this point in our history, so academic.

    Not being a soothsayer, I have no idea which, if any of the several “roads” will eventually be viable. Perhaps a decision among them will be necessary some day. I certainly hope so, but I do not see those road forks as being in our near future.

    The road I am on is one where I see the socialist movement as pathetically small and unable to make viable the precursors to any of the debated roads.

    As I see it, our current task is to build a socialist movement large enough for the debates among the various “roads” to be more than an exercise in speculation.

    At present, I am for whatever steps, however small, help to spread the ideas that lead to the growth of the socialist movement.

    I have been active in the Sanders campaign, not because I share his illusions about reforming the Democratic Party, his ludicrous equating of socialism with the New Deal, or his wretched foreign
    policy proposals.

    For whatever reasons, he calls himself a “democratic socialist” and this has inspired thousands to ask what this means. It has led to the remarkable growth of the DSA which, whatever one thinks of its positions, may eventually become a springboard for a movement that people can take seriously.

    Unfortunately, America is mired in the two party system and, like it or not, it’s the only show in town. People pay more attention to its various roads to a better future than they do to those of DSA, Solidarity, Jacobin,

    Aside from the Sanders campaign and the growth of DSA, the only other effective tool I see is “Labor Notes” helping to breathe some life into the moribund labor movement.

    We are at a point now where we have a few sparks on our tinder and need to blow on it and add kindling to make it a real fire. That means adding to the effectiveness of the Sanders campaign, DSA, and Labor Notes, and seeking out whatever else might increase interest in the ideas of democratic socialism.

    Please do not view this reply as a put down of Peter or Steve’s efforts. I only aim to put them in what I see as the context in which the “roads debate” should be discussed.

  2. Elizabeth Fattah Avatar
    Elizabeth Fattah

    Climate change disruptions need to be considered when discussing any kind of socialist change. What we will be living through in the near future will be unique and difficult to to anticipate. What we do know is that continuing Capitalism is surely a death knoll for the future of humans.