Can we win socialism without breaking the law?

Posted: January 11, 2014 in politics

Apparently I am something called an “insurrectionary socialist”. I’ve never called myself this and until now nobody has ever called me this. Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien, who I take it are involved in the Left Forum in Ireland, used this newly-invented term casually and repeatedly in an article they wrote called “The Strategy of Attrition”.[1]

The article is an argument for the idea that socialism should be achieved without breaking any capitalist laws, by winning a majority in parliament and using the state to reform capitalism out of existence gradually.

An argument for reformism, in other words. But they won’t admit this.

A recent Left Forum debate had the title “Revolution, Reform, and everything in between”. The reformists present, of course, saw themselves in the “in between” bracket. At this debate O’Brien described himself as a “revolutionary reformist”! Today’s reformists, with the shameful failures of reformism in the 20th century still hanging over them, don’t want to call themselves by that soiled name. It has become a dirty word on the left (and it deserves to be). To gain some credibility today’s reformists have to spend a lot of time blurring the boundaries between reform and revolution.

So every time the authors write “insurrectionary”, they mean the following: “revolutionary – but we don’t want to use that term because it’s an admission that we are not revolutionary.”[2]

This need to invent a new term to cover their own asses leads the reformists to say some very silly things, like:

“As the experience of the last century has shown the far left, it is not so easy to organise insurrection against a democratically elected government, especially in the advanced capitalist countries.”

What do they expect us to say? “Yes, you’re damn right, I’m sick of taking part in failed insurrections. I’m blue in the face taking up arms and manning the barricades on Henry Street only to be shot down by the FCA time and time again. The lads in Les Mis thought they had it bad! Insurrections in 21st-century Dublin are really, really difficult to organise!”

To use their own language, calling revolutionary socialists “insurrectionaries” is “entirely unhelpful” and “vacuous”.

The State – Don’t mess with it, you never know what could happen!

“A large bureaucracy is a very complex machine and complex machines are far easier to break than to improve… changes which haven’t been carefully thought through in advance can quickly lead to severe social crisis.” This is just Edmund Burke rephrased.[3]

By contrast, the existing state institutions, to quote what the authors say on laws, “Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment.”

Existing is actually a very trivial accomplishment. What is decisive in making me value something is not whether it exists, but whether it is useful, and whether it has a future. The phrase “actually existing” made me laugh out loud. It made me think of Stalinist parties, which pledged allegiance to “actually existing socialism” in the USSR. Bad enough that it wasn’t socialism, a time came when it ceased to be “actually existing”.

Dialectical thinking is about discerning the outlines of what might arise in the future, and seeing everything “actually existing” as mutable and dependent on historical conditions. The dinner I plan to eat tomorrow does not have the virtue of actually existing. Disparate existing elements (rice, peppers, sauce) need to be brought together from diverse sources, and placed in extreme heat, in various conditions, which will cause them to change form. Still I plan to eat it. Capitalism has “the virtue of actually existing”. So did feudalism before it. Big deal. It’s going to take more than existence to impress me.

But as the quotes above show, the Reformists are scared of the consequences of change even though it’s a condition of this existence which is such an achievement. They think terrible things might happen if we try to change the state too much. If that is their view, then how can they justify even believing in socialism, which, whatever bizarre way they want to implement it, would mean radical changes on every level?

That terrible things might happen if we leave the state substantially as it is doesn’t cross their minds; that constant change is a condition of existence doesn’t seem to occur to them. Revolutionary change happens not when we feel like it but when it is a necessity and a possibility for all of society – and when that moment comes, you’d better not muck about. In any conceivable scenario where capitalism is overthrown, there’s already a “severe social crisis” going on. A new order is necessary to fix this crisis. That’s the whole point! How did they miss it?

 The State Machinery

To be fair, our Reformists do believe that the state machinery has a future and is useful. The state machinery for them is neutral. It is not essentially capitalist – it just operates in a capitalist context! The whole lot, parliament, elections every five years, the army, the guards, could run a socialist society without much change. In fact, almost every change will be enacted by the state!

To use their own image, they imagine that a tool designed to “bash heads and extract the surplus” can be used not only to govern a socialist society, but to decree from on high the transition to socialism. This head-bashing and surplus-extracting tool, it doesn’t take a genius to see, would not be ideally suited to creating and running a planned socialist economy. It’d be like trying to tighten screws with a hammer, or drive in nails with the butt of a screwdriver.

It is a surprise to me that they can imagine that there could be another mode of production, when they can’t even imagine that there could be another type of state.

They imagine a socialist government which has broken none of the laws (that were, by the way, designed to preserve capitalism), trying to enact a “revolution”, from above, with a parliamentary majority, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, saying please and thank you all the way. It’s like Stalinism in a drawing-room.

One Eventuality in which the Reformists will allow physical struggle

“Of course, should the democratic process itself come under attack, either through a frontal coup d’état or through a prolonged form of technocratic government installed by the IMF or the ECB, then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable.”

What is this “democratic process”? Bourgeois democracy, which was pretty impressive in the 18th century. Today it means vote every five years for which group will kowtow to the markets and lie to you. It means a range of freedoms to organise, assemble, publish (subject to how much money you have) which are narrowing, not expanding, which are increasingly coming under attack in the advanced capitalist countries.

Why, even for a moment, would anyone hold on to the idea that there would be no decisive physical confrontation before capitalism is overthrown? It is a remote and bizarre possibility. What kind of political idea rests on a remote and bizarre possibility?

And what’s “old-fashioned” about a “street revolution”? Has everything since 2011 flown over their heads?

And what’s all this about not doing anything physical until the bourgeoisie “fires first” by attacking their own “democratic process”? What’s all this about refusing to allow the working class to fight meaningfully until the capitalists have violated their own mythical democracy?

It’s wrong to attempt any kind of revolutionary mass action when the mood of the working class is not favourable, when the workers are not convinced of the necessity. Many factors influence this mood, make the class bolder or make it more timid. One of these factors might be, and in most historical situations has been, that the state has committed some atrocity. Depending on the conditions, it might shock the class into action, or terrorize it into submission. Who has ignored this factor, this one factor among other factors? Not the revolutionary socialists, or even, if you like, the “insurrectionary” ones.

But the Reformists have elevated this factor to the level of a box that must be ticked. Why this factor and not others, such as how organised the masses are, how confident they are, how weak the ruling class is? Because they are very impressed with bourgeois democracy. They think it’s the bee’s knees. They use phrases like “a legitimate government sanctioned by a democracy.” When they use phrases like this I get the feeling that they are not really of our movement at all.

Effectively they seem to say, “We will approve of physical confrontation only after a violation of democracy by an embattled ruling class, something which is practically inevitable, happens. Until that happens we should base our entire perspective on the idea that this inevitable event won’t happen.” They’re gas, these reformists.

And the most obvious point of all: If you let the enemy fire first, you risk ending up dead. An atrocity by the government may provoke outrage and a response… Or it could be a brilliant coup that disarms and scares the masses, that sets off an unstoppable reactionary momentum, that exposes not the state, which is already exposed, but the leadership of the masses. The masses decide they do not want to risk life, limb and freedom for these “leaders” who have stood by and let the enemy savage them.


When two cowboys face each other, feet apart, arms tense by their sides, waiting for the darting hands and the pistol shot that will leave one of them dead, what’s going to happen to the cowboy who’s determined not to fire first? And why is he determined not to fire first? Is it because his head is full of the thoughts, ideas and instincts of his enemy?

Bourgeois Democracy

The reformists have elevated bourgeois democracy to a celestial level and bathed it in golden light. They even think it’s wrong to use the term “bourgeois democracy”. For them, it seems, its is the only possible form of democracy.

Apparently, the elections we have in Ireland are “broadly considered free and fair”. In reality only an eccentric minority think they’re “free and fair”. In society at large, now more than ever before, there is a huge frustration and cynicism with the political establishment and system. It’s a long, long way from Robert Mugabe but it’s not “broadly considered to be free and fair.” I don’t know where the Reformists got that one from.

Proletarian democracy, another, far superior form of democracy, involves councils directly elected from workplaces and communities, with every rep subject to recall and on the average workers’ wage. Organised on local, regional, national and international levels, on workplace and industry levels, this mass participatory democracy is the only form of state that can carry through a revolution and provide the mass input necessary to democratically plan a whole economy.

The Reformists’ trump card that they play against this argument is one word: Russia. So they use bizarre and ignorant phrases like “Lenin’s break with the Marxist Centre through his gigantic gamble on the soviet horse”. Elsewhere in the article they are very concerned with how massively capitalism and the state have changed since the early 20th century. But when it comes to the Russian Revolution, all concerns for context and historical change go out the window.

For all the attention they pay to the context, from the way they crudely graft its lessons onto today’s world, (“A temporary dictatorship will be necessary to bridge the gap between the collapse of capitalist political power and the institution of a new mode of production, a gap that may well last some decades”) it seems that for them the Russian Revolution might as well have happened in any advanced capitalist country in the last 20 years.

The USSR was not just a workers’ state in the abstract. It was a workers’ state in a backward, largely feudal country with a working-class that was a small minority of the population, that had lost 2 million people and been thrown into chaos by three years of total war, that faced isolation, siege, invasion and a vicious civil war on its advent. This brutalizing, deforming context is actually more important than the form of government that was instituted. But I have found that reformists generally, when they discuss the Soviet Union, show little understanding of this context, or even much interest. For O’Brien, it is sufficient to say that when power passed to the soviets, chaos ensued. Was there not chaos before power passed to the soviets? Was the year 1917 one of supreme and placid order? Chaos from what source? And what brought this chaos under control? This doesn’t interest these formalists.

The belief that things would be better if the working class democratically ran society, the economy and politics is not some freak eccentricity of us Trotskyists. It did not constitute “Lenin’s break with the Marxist centre.” It’s the essence of Marxism. If the Reformists can’t recognise that they should stop calling themselves Marxists.

What Practical Steps do They Propose?

I see socialism coming about through revolution. Revolutions happen in moments of extreme crisis, when it is intolerable for the mass of the people to continue living under the old conditions, and are organised and confident enough to go on the offensive. Revolutions are a fact of history. Ireland saw two revolutionary situations in the past century, one in 1917-1923 and another in the North in the late 1960s. Several revolutions have shaken the world since the beginning of the Tunisian revolution in 2011. An economic and political crisis and a continuing radicalisation characterise the global situation.

Despite all this, these Reformists seem to think that believing in revolution is like believing in Santa Claus. They say that basing your perspective on revolution is like waiting for the rapture. It clearly isn’t. It’s absurd that I have to point out that the rapture has never happened, anywhere. Revolutions have happened in the vast majority of countries. The rapture is not likely to happen because there is no evidence that it will. Revolutions are happening right now, and are likely to happen in the future because capitalism is not sustainable and is becoming less and less tolerable.

But the dumbest thing they say is that we “insurrectionaries” don’t actually have anything to do when there’s no revolutionary situation. I wonder are they the same people who, in the next breath, will accuse us of “frenetic activity”.

In fact revolutionaries have two main tasks. First: build a revolutionary party, to act as a decisive political force in a revolutionary situation. Second: build, strengthen, empower and embolden the working class in every way possible, through trade unions, community struggles and the building of a mass party of the working class. Which to place emphasis on, and how to approach them, are extremely flexible questions and depend on the situation.

By contrast, what kind of activity do these Reformists propose? Organise co-ops and build a mass party. Good luck with the co-ops, where’s your capital? The mass party idea is one I wholeheartedly support. But they don’t seem to have much of a clue on this question.

They talk about the SPD, the huge pre-WW1 social-democratic party in Germany. It had all kinds of groups attached to it, from smoking clubs to sports clubs to this, that and the other. But the SDP was the political expression of an advancing working class. Everyone wants to attach themselves to a movement that’s marching forward.

Is the Irish working class on the advance right now? No. It’s beaten back. It may go on the advance soon and there will be a prospect of a new mass party. But right now it’s not happening. So you’re not going to succeed in building a mass party at this moment, and copying some of the symptoms of the SPD’s success is not going to help your case, it’s going to add to your workload.

How Will Socialism Enter the World?

The Reformists repeatedly show a massive aversion to disruption, hassle and risk:

“The resulting break in the chain of production will see a severe decline in living standards and an immediate, perhaps irrevocable, plummeting of political support for seeing the transition out.”

This and many other such passages reveal the authors’ inability to visualise a socialist transformation of society. To any revolutionary, a level of disruption, even chaos, is justified if it could potentially lead to socialism. In any conceivable revolutionary situation, the working class will understand this damn well. But the reformists don’t think socialism is worthwhile if, to get to it, we have to go through serious disruption or suffering. They think the working class will bail out at the first sign of discomfort.

They don’t understand that it wouldn’t be a couple of bods at the top forcing changes on a foot-dragging, grumbling working class who will jump ship the moment things get tough. The class would make the revolution, not impatiently put up with it.

Socialism will not come into the world bowing and scraping, apologising for its own existence. It will not dispossess the most powerful people in the world using a state designed to dispossess the least powerful. It will not win power through an election where both sides worship some made-up thing called the “democratic process”. It will have to fight for every inch the capitalist world yields to it. Its only engine can be the enthusiasm of millions.



[1] I have heard of a trend in anarchism that calls itself “Insurrectionary”. As far as I can tell they are very anti-Marxist and do the whole black-block thing. As far as I know this is the only tendency on the left that calls itself, or that anyone else calls, “insurrectionary”. The reformists have displayed some cheek in inventing a new meaning for this word and applying it to us because they couldn’t think of a word for themselves that wasn’t “reformist”.

[2] Revolution is the process of one class physically defeating and replacing a ruling class. Eg, the dates of the French Revolution are usually given as 1789-95 or 1789-1799 or even 1789-1815. This encompasses a whole revolutionary process – multiple insurrections, battles, wars and shake-ups of various kinds. Insurrection is a more specific term, referring to a specific uprising, eg Easter Week 1916 in Ireland or the Bolsheviks’ uprising in October/November 1917. A revolution without any insurrections would be a very strange-looking revolution; that’s why it’s wrong to pose the terms “revolutionary” and “insurrectionary” as if you could be one without being the other.

[3] Edmund Burke, a Westminster politician, wrote a tract against the French Revolution, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, in which he argued that a bunch of uppity lawyers shouldn’t tinker with feudalism because terrible things were bound to happen if commoners attempted change. Kings and queens were awesome and knew what they were doing through long habit (this was literally his argument). Incidentally, in his only reference to the mass of the people he used the words “the swinish multitude”.


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