Michael Kidron

Reform and Revolution

Rejoinder to Left Reformism II

(Winter 1961)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.7, Winter 1961, pp.15-21.
The notes have been re-organised slightly to fit with normal practice.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Michael Kidron, co-editor of this journal, edited Socialist Review from 1954 to 1960.

This article will attempt to take up the case against Left Reformism, as it was presented by Henry Collins in the last issue of International Socialism, at the point where Alasdair MacIntyre left it. In doing so it will try to meet Collins on the grounds of his own choosing and, simultaneously, fill in some of the gaps left by MacIntyre’s more methodological treatment.

Although nowhere presented in sequence, Collins’ argument amounts to a straight, rather crude, economism. By providing relatively full employment and a rising standard of living capitalism can prevent the frustrations it engenders amongst workers from congealing into violent, revolutionary opposition. It has succeeded in doing so in the past – at least from the 1870s – through exporting surplus goods and capital, and with them unemployment, to colonial and backward countries. It is doing so now by ‘funnelling money from the private to the public sector and by expanding credit’, that is by a measure of planning; and it will be able to do so in the future by internationalizing the planning process or, in greater detail, by strengthening international currency control, rationalizing international trade and so arming itself with the means to undertake the industrialization of backward countries. This, in turn, will provide it with a vast new market. Naturally, planning – whether national or international – is not welcomed by the orthodox, but they have no choice. The growing power of ‘communism’ compels capitalism to adopt the very measures it dreads or, at least, inhibits its opposition to planning measures thrust on it by the workers. Ultimately, ‘communist’ and working class pressure will result in the progressive assimilation of a degree of planning that will constitute ‘socialism’. And we’re there – without revolution.

There are a number of points in Collins’ thesis with which revolutionary socialists will want to quarrel. I shall deal with three of them: the role of planning in the stability of modern capitalism, the possibility of international planning today, and the problem of working class action. Two others – the effect of development in backward countries on capitalist stability and the role of the state – will have to wait for another occasion.

I. Stability and Planning

For reformists capitalist instability is subject to cure within the system; for revolutionary socialists it is not. The reformist will point to the absence of major slumps since before the war; the revolutionary – apart from a lunatic fringe who see in every visit to the labour exchange a prelude to hunger marches – will accept the fact but question its relevance. Slumps have never defined the system; they merely indicated, viciously and publicly, its contradictory nature. Ultimately they derive from factors which are as inherent in capitalism today as they ever were, and which remain as powerful a source of instability.

Were it not that the productive forces of society are controlled by an infinitesimal minority of its members, the capitalists, the disposition of its resources over and above what is required for renewal would present no problem. It would conform to a pattern formulated by all in terms of present and projected needs and wishes. Were it not for competition amongst capitalists, whether organized in monopolies or not, there would be no compulsion for them to accumulate these surpluses and re-invest them in a constant, unplanned expansion of the productive structure. These statements are axiomatic in my argument. Without both these factors there would be no reason for the blind accumulation of capital – blind in the sense that it bears no immediate relation to the consumer needs of society – that has always defined the capitalist system. And it is this compulsive accumulation, the expansion of capacity in response to the exigencies of competition rather than to the needs of society, that has been the final cause of the periodic crises of overproduction that punctuated the development of capitalism until quite recently. It is also for Marx the underlying factor in the long-term decline in the rate of profit which, by lowering the ceiling of booms and shortening their duration, presaged for him a future of increasingly catastrophic slumps.

For Marxists, the problem presented by the absence of major slumps these last twenty years boils down to an enquiry into the factors that have fractured the compulsive accumulation-overproduction sequence. Is it planning, as Collins would have it, or something else? Logically, the factors fall into two groups: capitalism can either expand its markets or else destroy, partially or wholly, its constantly accumulating productive capacity. It is the first of these that has always appealed to reformist socialism: if only capitalists could be cajoled (right reformism) or forced (left reformism) into raising wages, a market would open up within the system which would both save it from crisis and benefit the working class. Thus Strachey. Thus Collins. But how useless! Were wages to increase at a greater rate than the increase in productivity, or the increase in the rate of exploitation, for any length of time, the rate of profit would fall and crises proliferate. Wages can, and have of course, been forced up, but always – in the long run – within these limits where they are ineffective in opening up new markets however important they are in humanizing the condition of the working class. An alternative market, once highly favoured by reformists but now rejected in a rush of new-found international brotherhood, was that of the colonial world. This was the Fabianism of the Webbs. It was imperialism. [1] But here too there was a catch. Although an effective evacuant of surplus capital for a time, imperialist investment merely postponed overproduction until the new capacity emptied its products on world markets. It could not serve as a permanent solution because it disposed of capital accumulations in an essentially productive way.

This brings us to the second type of solution open to capitalism – the destruction or partial destruction of capital. Even in its most progressive phase, capitalism has resorted to destruction in order to sustain itself. Slumps were ruinous of capital; wars even more so. Advertizing and the imposition of low standards (the interment of the perpetual electric light bulb or the ladder-resistant nylon stocking) play a small part in this today. Before taking up the discussion of the dynamics and limitations of this approach a word or two need be said about a possible combination of the two types of solution, a combination that couples the search for markets with the control over accumulation. As Collins rightly points out, ‘in the second volume of Capital Marx went on to show how the stability of a capitalist economy depended upon proportionate rates of growth being maintained in the sectors producing capital and consumer goods. Contrary to the teachings of the classical and vulgar economists there was no built-in tendency for such proportionate growth to occur, and crises of over-investment and under-consumption were, for all practical purposes, inevitable’. If the proportions could be maintained, capital prevented from flowing out of the heavy sector to consumer goods production in boom times, the system could be stabilized. This, Collins implies, can be assured through state intervention, which only now has become sufficiently massive and conscious to be effective. Perhaps. But, as this section will attempt to show, fixing the correct proportions is a function of the systematic destruction of potentially productive accumulation.

Capitalism is a naturally expanding system. In its industrial form it has spread from Britain both as an extension of the British economy (the Old Dominions) and as a defence against British encroachment and overlordship (large parts of Europe, for example). In many of the later, independent and defensive capitalist economies, say in Germany or Japan, viability depended from the start on a degree of concentration of available capital and on a degree of inter-penetration with the state, particularly with its active military arm, that were significantly different to what obtained in Britain. Naturally, foreign ‘aggressiveness’ fed back into the leading capitalist countries: they met concentration of capital abroad with concentration at home, tariffs with tariffs, state intervention with state intervention, militarism with militarism.

Readers will pardon the foreshortened and necessarily distorted sketch of capitalist development given here. Without it, it would be difficult to appreciate the normalcy of world war to the system or the critical importance of ‘defence’ and the Bomb in contemporary politics.

Structurally, the impact of militarism on the capitalist economy has been enormous. It has speeded the relative growth of manufacturing so as to dwarf all other forms of capitalist activity: the huge United States industrial establishment doubled its capacity in only four years of total war. [2] Relative growth and official encouragement (through taxation and other measures) have combined to make industrial financing largely an internal operation, securing the position of giant industrial capital as the major locus of accumulation in society and reducing the function of the banks and other financial intermediaries. Between 1949 and 1953 all industrial companies in Britain saved five percent more than they invested directly. [3] Military and other state-inspired orders have hastened the concentration of capital and accentuated the difference in expansion between big and small capital. Within industry it is heavy manufacturing and particularly the giant metal-using and chemical combines that have grown fastest: between 1949 and 1955 the largest hundred companies in Britain increased their share of industrial profits from 25.2 to 31.5 percent; they were growing at a rate of 12.1 percent compound per year compared with 6.8 percent for all industrial companies. [4] Naturally, war and militarism have enhanced the economic role of the state: tax receipts have risen from under 7 percent of national income on the eve of World War I to some 30 percent today, the state is now responsible for some 45 percent of gross fixed investment, for some 20 percent of output and so on. The picture is familiar. It goes without saying that the vast and growing size of the large capital agglomerates and the crucial, importance of state economic activity make for integration between the two in activity, in policy and, increasingly, in personnel. That this integration is such as to allow a large measure of conscious direction – of planning – by capitalism is also obvious. But to say this is far different from attributing to planning the major stabilizing role in modern capitalism.

This is where the argument links up with capitalism’s second ‘solution’ to the problem of overproduction. It is self-evident that wars have always destroyed accumulations. To our generation at least, it should be as self-evident that the bloated ‘defense’ budgets have a parallel effect. Since about 1950 something like half of the investible surplus in Britain – give and take a few percentage points – have been diverted through taxation from productive accumulation to the military budget. That the problem of over-investment has been correspondingly reduced needs no comment. When it is remembered that a market for destructive ironmongery is created by military expenditure; that this market hinges very largely on the products of the capital goods sector; that its emergence has reduced the importance of rigorous gearing between the output of capital goods and of consumer goods (the proportionality between Departments I and II in Marx’s model) and so permits a much looser form of planning (economie concertée as it is known in France as opposed to structural planning) – when all this is remembered, the importance of the permanent arms economy for capitalist stability can begin to be grasped. To repeat, the arms budget cuts deep into investible surpluses; it provides resources for the capitalist state to maintain a rough correspondence between the major economic sectors; and, through its effect on the size structure and number of the important capital concentrations it makes the need to correlate the parts of the system apparent.

Even then we should be careful not to attribute too much effect to planning as such. As generation after generation of missiles and such like chase each other into the limbo of obsolescence, and the market for war goods remains unsatisfied (as can be seen from the farcical unpreparedness of British capitalism to mount even the most tin-pot operation, as at Suez five years ago or in Kuwait last year), hundreds of thousands of workers are nevertheless employed in the military sector. They do not buy the stores they produce, so the wages they earn help to sustain the traditional consumer goods sector and, at one remove, the truncated capital goods sector. The demand for labour is kept high, its bargaining power remains strong, its standard of living rises (but not so much as would cut into profits) and, given the monopolistic concentration of modern capital, prices rise in perpetuo. The boom is on. Rather than being a product of planning, it is a natural outcome of the creation of a war market from the ruins of productive investment. True, individual capitalists mutter darkly about taxation and inflation. If only the ‘burden of defense’ were less they might be able to exploit the boom by investing, selling and expanding more. True too that the capitalist class in one country might find the burden debilitating in international competition, and might even take steps – as the British bourgeoisie have done since 1953 under pressure of foreign, particularly German, competition in traditional markets – to reduce it. But whether they like it or not, an end to ‘defense’ would mean an end to the boom and – to anticipate – of the capitalist system.

Again, the growth in relative size of capital agglomerates and, particularly, the ascendancy of the industrial giants and their independence in the sense already mentioned, have had effects of their own on capitalist stability. The cyclical fluctuations that derived to some extent, from independent movements in interest rates and changes in the level of stocks, have lessened.

It is difficult to attribute much influence to planning as such in these developments. And yet it would be foolish to deny that there has, indeed, been a growth in planning within modern capitalist economies. This same growth in the size of capital, the time taken for a major investment project to pass from project stage to production and the complex mutual dependence of such independent decisions makes some form of co-ordination essential to them. Steel is a case in point. In order to bring some order into their affairs, the Iron and Steel Federation was compelled last year not only to produce a five-year plan for their members’ own production, but to approach the major steel-using industries – weapon and machine manufacturing, vehicle building, civil construction and so on – for estimates of their production in the period. Not too much should be made of this in itself, but when coupled with the economic importance of the state, the integration of the private sector with it – an integration based largely on the production of military ‘use values’ – the growth of planning within and between industries, overt or covert, can be understood.

It is a pity to leave the matter here. The forms of planning make interesting study, as does the conflict between the need to plan and the anti-planning ideology inherent in capitalism. The same holds for the role of the Labour Government in rationalizing the planning structure of British capitalism after the war. But space is short and, besides, there is enough here to elucidate the gulf that separates Collins from us. For him planning is imposed on capitalism, in defiance of its will and interests; for us, the planning that exists is an expression of contemporary capitalism’s most vital needs. He sees in state planning an independent factor opposed to the free workings of the system, modifying its imbalances, flattening its natural fluctuations; we see it as one outcome amongst others of the arms economy, subservient to it, and much less important in lending stability to the system than the unceasing destruction of potential productive capacity, which lies at the very heart of the system. To accept such planning without inquiring into its antecedents is to condone the threatening holocaust.

II. International Planning

Innocent as he is of any real insight into the nature of national planning it is not surprising to see Collins make the leap into international planning without turning a hair. Naturally, orthodox pundits might not like the idea, but there are always heavy guns like Triffin or Shonfield to bombard them into submission. [5] So Collins.

One would have thought the most superficial glance abroad enough to sink the idea that international planning is simply an extension of the planning that takes place in each country. The furious bargaining on the road to cartel-Europe, between British capital and that of the Six, British and Commonwealth capital, German and French, and so on, to take a current example of importance, is a clear enough indication of the difficulties involved. Turning eastwards, we still do not find the close international planning one would expect. One of Gomulka’s long-standing complaints has been the refusal of Eastern Bloc countries to coordinate their investment plans [6], the violence done to ‘full economic coordination’ by Russia’s dumping barley in Western Europe while China goes begging food grains in Canada or Australia needs no comment; nor does it look much like positive planning when Moscow withdraws aid and technicians to the accompaniment of Peking’s boasts of going it alone. [7]

To ignore these conflicts is to ignore the stuff of international relations within both of the blocs. It is to ignore the fact that a ruling class is defined by its control of the productive apparatus; that its power in relation to other ruling classes is a function of the strength of ‘its’ productive base compared with ‘theirs’; and that it will relinquish absolute power sufficient to collaborate with other ruling classes only if not to do so would endanger its continued existence. This does not mean that rudimentary international planning does not exist here and there. However vicious the bargaining,’ the European Common Market is a fact and an expanding one; economic activity, especially in trade, is concerted amongst Eastern Bloc countries; international aid consortia are being formed to help finance development in some backward countries. But such planning is no more an extension of national planning than the latter is an extension of workshop planning. On the contrary, international planning, such as it is, reflects the unplanned chaos of the world market, the competitive struggle in that market in much the same way as planning between firms to form cartels reflects the competitive relations between producers in a ‘pure’, isolated capitalist market. There is nothing new here. Marx is studded with references to the contrast between, and interdependence of, the a priori system of planning within the workshop and the anarchic, unplanned relations between workshops which, a posteriori and chaotically, impose some sort of pattern on capitalist production as a whole and which, in the final analysis, provide the coordinates for workshop planning. The only differences lie in the size of the basic planning units (workshops have given way to multi-plant firms in some cases, national productive structures in others), the size of the operative market (international rather than national or local) and, most important, the form of competition (from largely commercial rivalry, armed at times, to overwhelmingly military confrontation, with ‘peaceful’ interludes).

We are back again with the permanent arms economy, but this time in the guise of Cold War or ‘competitive coexistence’ whichever happens to be the passing phase of East-West relations. While there might be room for argument as to how far international planning is ousting traditional competition within each bloc, not even Collins can – and he stops short of the attempt – argue that there are any signs of it straddling the Iron Curtain. Bloc planning in East or West, the grudging withdrawal from unfettered sovereignty on the part of some at least of the ruling classes in either camp, can be explained almost entirely in terms of the dire competition between them.

Two results of this situation are of critical importance to the labour movement and to the future of socialism. First is the fact that the ruling class on both sides of the Iron Curtain increasingly derive their stability – or, as the sociologists would call it, their ‘legitimacy’ – from Cold War, from the current form of international competition. Second, this stability and the stability of the systems that sustain it are constantly endangered by Cold War itself.

Early in this article the point was made that the capitalist’s function consists in transforming the competitive pressures derived from outside his sphere of control, from the point of conflict of a number of capitals, into accumulation. Accumulation, although ‘blind’ in the sense shown, is yet the result of conscious decision on the part of the capitalists. Were it not for their control of the productive apparatus, they would not be in a position to take the necessary decisions; were it not that no single capitalist controls the entire productive apparatus the decision itself would be unnecessary. All this is common ground amongst socialists when it comes to analyzing orthodox, Western capitalism. But as soon as the same type of analysis is attempted for the relations between capitalist countries rather than firms, or applied to the accumulating societies that have sprung up beyond the bounds of the system as they were known to Marx, we are met by Collins’ ‘international planning’, ‘primitive socialist (sic) accumulation’, ‘communist society’ and the like.

Very, very briefly then, more in order to trace the roots of Cold War within the world capitalist system not, as Collins would have it, as something too foreign to its nature to deserve mention in his article than to set out a case for the state capitalist analysis of society east of the Iron Curtain [8], the argument as it applies to Russia would look like this.

After revolution, civil war and intervention it was clear that the Russian economy, one of the most backward in Europe, isolated by the defeat of the European revolution and under constant threat of external attack, could exist only if it achieved military power sufficient to deter its actual and potential invaders. Military power, then as now, could be attained only by massive investments which, under the prevailing conditions of backwardness, meant forced savings, freezing or even lowering the level of consumption of the masses in order to extract as much investible surplus as possible for capital accumulation. Naturally, the workers ranged themselves against the process. And yet it was imperative in the conditions of the time. If it were to be consummated and territorial Russia saved from conquest and restoration, the self-appointed agents of accumulation, the bureaucracy, had to escape control by the masses, had to crush the extreme working class democracy which October had ushered into the world. They had to assert control over the process of accumulation, over production. In other words, they had to constitute a ruling class as devoted to the accumulation of capital as their more orthodox counterparts in the West.

Its birth in revolution, war, backwardness and isolation goes far to explain the high concentration of capital adopted by the bureaucracy, its collectivist control over the productive apparatus and its early inability to meet competition with other than military means. From its beginnings accumulation for defence was its rationale, making its control over production, if not acceptable, at least inevitable in the minds of the Russian workers.

Needless to say, the growing military power of the Russian and its sister bureaucracies has been as much a precipitant of militarization in the West – with results that have been sketched in the first section of this article – as it has been a consequence. Without going into the details of their mutual interaction, it is clear that their role in ‘defending society’ on either side of the Iron Curtain provide the ruling class with the justification for continuing their control of accumulation and production. Each side constitutes a realm of necessity for the other, a condition for the existence of the other’s ruling class in much the same way as the competitive coexistence of different centres of capital within the orthodox Western system has been – and still very largely is – a condition of existence of a special class to decide about investment.

Stability is, however, only one aspect of the permanent arms economy internationally. The other, paradoxically, is a basic instability, more destructive, more terrible than anything the system has experienced, even during its deepest slumps.

For one thing, the more effective the Cold War in stabilizing capitalism and securing the position of the ruling class on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the more does the pursuit of Cold War lose its urgency for them: the burden of armaments becomes irksome as boom opens up infinite possibilities of expansion; pressures to reduce it, or prevent it increasing, such as have been felt in Britain and Germany respectively since 1953, grow; the pursuit of ‘national’ aims comes into conflict with international alliances as when France reduces her NATO commitment to a shadow in order to bleed Algeria; backward countries claim resources for development or for insurance against revolution, and cannot be ignored lest others provide. The bundle of conflicts tied under Cold War pressure tends to loosen and with every unravelling the more resistant does the ruling class become to diverting resources from productive accumulation to war production and the greater and more threatening must the Cold War crisis be to gather them together again. It is significant in this regard that no matter what the weather forecast at the Summit in recent years, British capitalism has found military expenditure above £1500 million a year (plus or minus £100 million) unacceptable.

The existence of this type of limit is important for another reason. The derivation of automation from war conditions is well known, as is the fact that Cold War continues to induce a high level of technical innovation, particularly in the armaments industries. However significant arms production in underpinning full employment, unless it grows as a proportion of national income, at a greater rate than that of the cheapening of capital goods or the rate of growth of the labour force, ie beyond the limits at present acceptable to the ruling class, it will gradually lose its powers to keep full employment going. Creeping unemployment in the United States is a pointer to what might be expected. Given the militancy and structure of the working class today, themselves related to the permanent arms economy, this sort of development is pregnant with revolutionary possibilities as will be shown in Part in of this article.

Finally, there is the unstable nature of East-West relations themselves, due to the uneven and compulsive development of the protagonists’ productive structure. It is hardly in dispute that the centralized state capitalist economies are expanding – at least in the crucial industrial sector – faster than most of the orthodox capitalist countries. Whether the difference is as great as Russian experts would have us believe – some 10 percent per year as compared with 2-3 percent in the United States – is immaterial. What matters is the fact that Russia and the Eastern Bloc generally is growing in its capacity to sustain a full range of nuclear and conventional armaments at the same time as they are entering more and more into ordinary politico-commercial competition in world markets. There is no point in exaggerating the extent of such inroads into Western capitalism’s traditional preserves – Eastern aid is still small in proportion to Western aid in backward countries, and their trade only some 5 percent of total world trade outside the Iron Curtain; nor is there any point in underestimating the resilience of Western capitalism or its ability to concentrate its wastefully-used but immense resources when challenged. Nonetheless, it is more than probable that the Eastern Bloc will continue to enjoy a faster rate of growth and therewith a growing competitive power over the coming years.

There is more to this than mere figures for economists. Orthodox western capitalism will be compelled to tighten and rationalize its structure in order to increase its overall rate of accumulation and so meet this competition, whether militarily or ‘peacefully’ or both.

Naturally this tightening will feed back across the Iron Curtain. Given the federal structure of ruling class alliances, given the unstable class relations on both sides, this will be a process fraught with explosive possibilities. More important will be the effect of intensified East-West competition on the stability of the current international framework. If it takes a military form, as it well might, the instabilities of capitalism will have made their final salto mortale into the stability of the grave. If, for technical reasons such as lend the theory of mutual deterrence its transient reality, competition adopts a more traditional, commercial form, the implication of mounting productive investment in both camps, aimed, ultimately, at a world market that is constantly shrinking in relation to world productive capacity, is clearly the most thoroughgoing, lasting and destructive slump that has ever been experienced. There is no point in plumping dogmatically for any or either perspective: reality might well contain both and more. But whatever the future holds, it is one of irreparable instability, of crises whose violence is such as to question the continued existence of capitalism as a world system at best, or at worst of civilization itself. This brings us to a consideration of the perspectives for revolution.

III. Reform and Revolution

There is good reason for devoting so much space to an admittedly rough analysis of the roots of capitalist stability today and of the factors tearing at these roots. Although capitalism as a system breeds frustration and aggression with every hour of its existence, by alienating the worker from his labour and, ultimately, from himself, it is only the system’s instability, its crises, that weld these fragmented, personally-conceived dissatisfactions and aggressive drives into class consciousness and class action. In this there is no quarrel with Collins. The dispute lies, as has been shown, in our different assessment of capitalism’s ability to rid itself of cataclysm, and in our conflicting views on the effect of cataclysm on working class consciousness and action.

The question now at issue is this: what guarantee is there that future crisis – of war or slump – will be conceived in revolutionary terms in the minds of workers? Why should they not – as has happened so often before – opt for reformist solutions, seen as ‘the same, only more’? The answer revolves around the changing nature of reformism in modern capitalism and the reaction of the working class to it.

The larger the units of capital and the more integrated they are amongst themselves and with the state (the largest of them all), and the greater the overall scarcity of labour brought about by the permanent arms economy, the more necessary is it for them to plan for labour as part of general planning, such as it is. If we were to accept the Economist’s word, there is somewhere in the Treasury a group of men who spend their time plotting the likely increase in national income over the next twelve months and the acceptable rise in the country’s total wages bill. Whether such men exist is immaterial. The fact is that there is a felt need for them, that modern capitalism, however rudimentary its planning processes in the West, cannot ignore its effect on the supply of labour, cannot assume that labour will be there when wanted, must approach it with the same circumspection with which it approaches any other scarce factor of production. It cannot afford to meet with totally unforeseen demands from labour; and must plan for them and contain them as far as possible within the system. Reforms are becoming part of business.

It is as well to recall here the contours of modern, western capitalism. We have to do with a small number of vast industrial complexes each of which is independent in the sense that finance, management, production and research are organized overwhelmingly from within; each of which enjoys a planning autonomy within the bounds, naturally, of a commonly accepted framework hammered out by their representatives in the state machine. The large state sector is itself little more than primus inter pares. In fact, if there is one structural hallmark of contemporary capitalism, it is the existence of federal relations between centres of capital within any one national sphere: mutual pugnacity is gradually, although not harmoniously, giving way to a degree of cooperation, while the state, once the impartial, economically-uninvolved holder of the ring for the embattled capitals, is slowly becoming one of them. This is not to say that the old has disappeared: takeovers are still with us, competition not dead. But is it not a fact that the overwhelming majority of takeovers are ‘amicably arranged’ and competition rife in all spheres but that of prices where it is liable to hurt?

The importance of the growing confederacy of capital lies in the diffusion of the locus of reform and the spread of its agents. If it is true that modern capitalism is increasingly forced, by reason of its size and structure, by reason of the conditions created by the permanent arms economy, to cater for working class demands, even, sometimes, ahead of their formulation, it is equally true that the catering is being done more and more in the boardrooms and associations of giant industry and correspondingly less in Whitehall, the seat of political power. The decline in state-implemented reforms, the bundle of measures that go up to make the Welfare State, needs no substantiation here; Nigel Harris has proved the point in detail in his article in this issue of IS. Nor does the corresponding growth in private welfare schemes, from private pensions to industrial health projects, require more than a mention. They are well known. What is important in these developments is the localization and disaggregation of the reforming process, the lessening relevance of the state and its parliamentary paraphernalia.

An obvious outcome is the decline of reformism as a political movement. Whether it is measured in the shrinking individual membership of the Labour Party, or in the changing nature of the party as Gaitskell drags it towards Brandts’s SDP, or in the utter confusion of the honest reformist left around Tribune, the symptoms of decline are all too apparent. On balance workers still vote Labour – although the balance amongst young workers is slowly tilting away – but the expectation of improvement from changes at Westminster are dying, and with it the degree of political involvement on the part of the working class.

This is not to say that workers are any less interested in reforms than they have ever been. The permanent arms economy has provided full employment; it has created the expectation of continued full employment and to that extent a degree of self-confidence and indifference to authority little known in working class history. It is hardly to be expected that this confidence and bargaining power will be wasted. On the contrary, far from there being less interest in reforms and less involvement in gaining them, there are more; what has happened is a change in the forms and arena of struggle and, to an even more marked extent, a change in the troops.

In a word, workers have become their own reformists. Where before they pursued their reformist aims – minimum wages, maximum hours, health and other welfare services – by sending representatives to Parliament, now, with the decanting of power out of Parliament into the huge private complexes that control the economy, they take steps to achieve the same ends directly, without intermediaries other than shop-stewards’ or similar local organizations.

It is no part of this argument to idolize this development after the manner of the syndicalists. It has unpleasant aspects. However militant a body of workers, or successful in improving their own conditions, unless their militancy is generalized into political action, it can only result in deepening the gulf between themselves and less fortunate sections, those that are either too old or not lucky enough to work in the concentrated and growing industries. The pattern of capitalist success merely assumes a cloth cap. Their activity is sectional, it multiplies the fragmentation of their class, substitutes a local, ad hoc consciousness for class consciousness, leads to a distrust of political ideas and political organizations. The indictment is long and could be extended. Nevertheless, these things are happening. To deny it, or the relevance of sectional militancy or do-it-yourself reformism to modern conditions is to ignore contemporary capitalism’s most characteristic features and the realism of the working class response to them.

But if there is no case for idolatry, there is equally no cause for despair. By becoming his own reformist the worker rejects the inhibiting influence of the organized reformist party. It is he, directly involved in his local primary organization, who bears the brunt of the conflict with capital; it is he who takes the decision, with scant reference to authority, to act; and it is his appreciation of the relation of forces between those fragments of capital and labour with which he has direct experience that informs his activity. For him reform and revolution are not separate activities, enshrined in distinct and separate organizational loyalties; his transition from reform to revolution is natural, immediate and unhampered by the vested interests of a reformist organization and one eminently responsive to changing circumstances.

It is here that the discussion of capitalist stability ties in with the argument. Were the system as stable as Collins suggests, there would be no question of transition. It is only because of its fundamentally crisis-ridden nature that we can posit the transformation of sectional consciousness and loyalties into then: class equivalents, and therewith a change of society, sharp and cataclysmic, as a realistic alternative to the deadly status quo.

To say this is not to underestimate the difficulties of transition. Reality is infinitely more complex and contradictory than appears here. And working class history is a confusion of revolutionary opportunities lost, of revolutionary consciousness castrated by the very fragmentation that has enabled sections of the class to attain a high order of self-mobilization. But this is where we must stop. To continue would entail a detailed discussion of the role of a revolutionary party, the problems of its formation and the forms it could take.


1. See Bernard Semmel’s Imperialism and Social Reform, London 1960, for a full and interesting account of the marriage between reformism and classic imperialism.

2. Mentioned in Barbara Ward, India and the West, London 1961, p.44.

3. Brian Tew, Self-Financing, in Tew and Henderson, Studies in Company Finance, Cambridge 1959, Table 3.1, p.44.

4. S.J. Prais, Size, Growth and Concentration, ibid., Table 8.1, p.109.

5. See the Reviews Section, International Socialism 4 (Spring 1961) for a critical analysis of Shonfield’s views on planned international trade. As for Triffin, the fate of the monumentally cautious Jacobsson plan which replaced Triffin’s should be borne in mind: ‘What emerges from (the Vienna meeting of the IMF) is not so much a stronger IMF as a second and largely separate line of possible stabilization credits, which although formally routed through IMF would in fact be akin to direct credits from national governments, acting in cooperation’ (Economist, 30 September 1961).

6. See Note on China and Russia in IS3, Winter 1960-61. Since then coordinated investment programs have been decided on between Poland and Czechoslovakia – still a far cry from full common planning.

7. Ibid.

8. For a full presentation of the argument as it applies respectively to Russia, Eastern Europe and China, see T. Cliff, Stalinist Russia, A Marxist Analysis, London 1955; Y. Gluckstein, Stalin’s Satellites in Europe, London 1952; Y. Gluckstein, Mao’s China, London 1957. [originally note 7]

Last updated on 25 February 2010