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International Socialism, Spring 1962


Peter von Oertzen

Reform and Revolution

Rejoinder 2


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 8, Spring 1962, pp. 24–28.
Translation Mary Philips.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Peter von Oertzen studied Sociology, Philosophy and History, and now lives at Göttingen where he is a Political Scientist. Since 1946, he has been a member of the SPD, and from 1955 to 1959 was a member of the Land Parliament of Lower Saxony. At the Godesberg Party Conference in 1959, he was one of the sixteen delegates who voted against the new program. He has just completed a long study of Shop Stewards’ Committees in the German Revolution of 1918–19.

Unfortunately this contribution to the discussion on ‘Left Reformism’ must be short and fragmentary; readers of International Socialism may find it unsatisfactory, but, I hope, not entirely useless, if it rouses the comrades with whom I wish to discuss to think over their arguments again and produce more detailed reasons for them.

It seems to me that, as far as the content of the discussion up to now between Henry Collins on one side and Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Kidron on the other is concerned, the duplication of effort in the criticism of Collins does not add much. Collins argued against a certain traditional conception of ‘revolutionary’ socialist policy and for ‘reformist tactics within a revolutionary strategy’ His arguments are not very convincing. Their weaknesses were shown clearly by the methodological reply of MacIntyre and the politico-economic one of Kidron. However, as regards the actual object of the discussion, the result is not satisfactory. It seems to me that Collins presented a worthwhile thesis with weak arguments but that the conclusive criticisms of his arguments do not necessarily weaken his thesis.

Thus, for example, the important question of what is actually meant by ‘Revolution’ and ‘Reform’ is left unanswered. What is revolution in the Marxist sense? Let’s ask Marx himself. (Preface, Critique of Political Economy).

’At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production ... which had previously been able to contain them. From forms of these development of the forces of production these relations turn into fetters. An era of social revolution then begins.’

Every transition from one social mode of production to another comes about through this process of revolution, which means a qualitative change of the relations of production. And the transition from capitalism to socialism must also be such a revolution. To that extent MacIntyre is quite right when he says that the expression ‘revolutionary socialism’ is tautological.

But does this resolve the old battle between the ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary’ roads to socialism? MacIntyre seems to be of this opinion when he declares: ‘To accept Left reformist theories into the Labour movement is to assist in turning labour away from socialism itself. Reformist tactics (my italics) are the most effective enemy of revolutionary strategy.’ This is easily misunderstood, because MacIntyre does not separate ‘Reformism’ from the ‘Fight for Reform’; for the latter can also be called reformism or reformist tactics. Bernstein, for example, was certainly a reformist, but he was not only a Left reformist, but a reformist socialist. He was obviously wrong on many points (although he was more correct about the revolutionism of Rosa Luxemburg than orthodox Marxists care to admit), but he wanted to reach a qualitative change of capitalism through reforms. He was, if you like paradoxical formulae, a revolutionary reformist.

This reformism must not be mistaken for that ‘reformism’ which has governed the European social-democratic parties since the first world war and destroyed their socialist heart to a great extent. In effect this puts changes in capitalism in place of changes of capitalism (cf. the Godesberg Programme of the SPD). This ‘reformism’ really has no longer anything to do with socialism, and, as MacIntyre very rightly remarks, weakens the Labour movement so much that it can no longer play even a successful reformist role.

But is this ‘reformism’ the same as the systematic struggle of socialists for reforms, or, to use Collin’s formula, the same as ‘reformist tactics within a revolutionary strategy’? The establishment of workers committees, the extension of social services, free education available to all etc., as Socialist Review demanded them in its old What we stand for, the structural reforms of the programme of action of the Belgian Left socialists (nationalisation of fuel and power, planning, control of free health service), at least three weeks’ holiday with pay and extension of participation in management, to which the German trade unions are pledged in particular, surely these are all reforms! None of these changes in itself means socialism; not even all of them together would achieve it. Each of them can be brought about legally or by collective agreement. They are all contained in the framework of reformist tactics. Nevertheless, socialists must and will put up and fight for these and similar demands. I do not doubt for one moment that MacIntyre and Kidron are fully in agreement with me over this point. Why, in spite of this, do they argue so passionately against ‘reformism’ and for ‘revolution’? Why don’t they differentiate more clearly between ‘reformism’ and ‘reformistic tactics’, i.e. the struggle for reforms? It seems to me that they have three reasons for this.

  1. They do not draw a clear enough line between the social revolution as the aim of socialists from ‘revolution’ as a means to that end (despite MacIntyre’s passing shot at a certain false revolutionism).
  2. They are strongly aware – rightly in itself – of certain dangers and one-sidednesses in reformist tactics and identify them – incorrectly – with reformism itself.
  3. They place too much emphasis, it seems to me, on the ‘crisis-ridden nature’ of capitalism (which I do not deny) for the development of a powerful socialist movement and, as a result, do not take enough account of the conditions under which the socialist movement will have to be built up between the acute crises or before the great crisis (will it really come? when? how?).

The socialist aim is in itself revolutionary. But to reach it there are many different paths and tactics. The division which was most important in the past and is still a determining factor is that between ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary’ tactics. It is not easy to define this division exactly; the historical conditions in which the labour movement is struggling are changing and the judgement of what is ‘reformist’ and what ‘revolutionary’ is changing with them. (Think of the struggle in German Social Democracy before 1914, or of Lenin’s critique of ‘Left Radicalism’).

How then are we to differentiate with any certainty between ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary’ tactics? Lately this differentiation has been regarded as the same as that between ‘parliamentary’ activity and that outside parliament; but that is obvious rubbish. No parliament exists in a vacuum; each depends for its life on the social forces outside its bounds, is supported by them and subject to them. And besides, not a few reforms are achieved outside parliament – e.g. through industrial struggle and collective agreement – and not a few revolutions have been led by fighting parliamentary majorities.

The definition states rather that ‘reform’ is the realisation of socialism in single stages, one step after another, while ‘revolution’ represents the introduction of socialism ‘at one fell swoop’ or ‘all at once’. Unfortunately for our attempts at a definition, however, the socialist revolution, the transformation of capitalism into the socialist society, can only be imagined as a long and weary process, which, unlike the great bourgeois revolutions, cannot really be achieved by taking over political power. On the contrary, the first successful grasping of political power by the working class may open a long era of social struggles, periods of degeneration, of social equilibrium, renewed advances of the working class and so on, in which it would not always be easy to differentiate between ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary’ tactics in this sense.

The most widely used and most rational definition still seems to me to be the one which means by ‘reform’ the essentially peaceful and legal road to socialism and by ‘revolution’ the violent path of insurrection, which means the break with the existing constitution and law. In effect socialism has entailed this conception right from the beginning and still does so extensively today (the idea of revolution ‘at one fell swoop’ plays its part here). The central point for the revolutionary syndicalists was the tactical use of the General Strike; for the Communists and other revolutionary Marxists it was the ‘armed rising’ or at least the ‘arming of the proletariat’ and the setting up of workers’ councils, or workers’ control of production, and as a prelude to victory, the short transition period of ‘dual control’. The political basis of such revolutionary tactics is a compact mass movement of the working class, with revolutionary intentions or at least disposed towards revolution, which represents the majority or at least a strong minority ot the people. In this case there still remains the question of why such a movement should not pursue the path of reform, if it has in fact won the support of the majority of the people. It is certainly a historical fact that up to now ‘revolutionary’ tactics have always been developed by socialist tendencies representative of a minority and therefore envisaging a minority revolution and following this the dictatorship of the socialist minority over the non-socialist majority of the people. (Of course things are quite different where the socialist movement is directed against a feudal or authoritarian regime, which makes the use of reforms impossible and also makes the question of minority and majority unimportant.)

The aforesaid revolutionary mass movement can arise in two ways. First as the movement of wretched masses with no rights and little political education under the leadership of a small elite (party). That is the, form which the revolution has taken in all underdeveloped countries – probably inevitably. The October revolution was also of this type; and Leninism is fundamentally nothing but the application of Marxism to an underdeveloped country. Lenin’s original conception of the ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants’ – away from which he moved towards Trotsky’s ‘more orthodox’ view in 1917 – meant indeed nothing but the endeavour of the revolutionary party, with the help of the minority of the working class to come to power on the backs of the rebelling peasants. When the hoped-for world revolution, i.e. the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, which Trotsky and Lenin had hoped would be the saviour of the socialist character of the Russian revolution, did not take place, Stalinism triumphed.

This was nothing but the substitution of a ruling elite, fast becoming bureaucratised, for the working class ruling itself. The Left at that time fought against this development and today seeks to escape it in colonial revolutions. But in vain! Up to now, in revolutions in underdeveloped countries (the only ones which have so far succeeded), in every case a more (China) or less (Jugoslavia, Cuba) Stalinist, i.e. elitist, tendency has triumphed. Whether this is necessarily so is an open question. Only experience can answer it. But we must not overlook the fact that the roots of elitism, of ‘substitutionism’ are buried deep in traditional revolutionary Marxism (see Tony Cliff’s brilliant study in IS 2).

The other possible form of revolutionary mass movement is that of a conscious, democratic organisation of the whole working class under the banner of a revolutionary programme freely discussed and adopted out of conviction. This is without doubt the revolutionary movement as Marx and Engels imagined it. It has never yet in the course of history become reality (the nearest to it was perhaps the European Labour movement in about 1920) and it is a very serious question as to whether, as capitalism advances even further, it can in fact ever become reality.

It is possible that MacIntyre and Kidron will say that of course they did not mean this latter form of revolutionary tactics and movement. Unfortunately they both end their articles at the point when they begin to be really interesting. ‘The case for revolution’, ‘the detailed discussion of the role of a revolutioary party, the problems of its formation and the forms it could take’, these are left out. That is a defect. For the case against reformism cannot be separated from the case for revolution. We are concerned here with questions of tactics, which can only be explained in a ‘detailed discussion’.

But there are still several things to be said about the case against reformism. MacIntyre and Kidron produce a string of worthwhile arguments to support their view, that reformist tactics are the same as ‘reformism’ or at least that in practice they always amount to the same thing. From their arguments against reformism and from those which are commonly produced elsewhere I shall take three which seem to me to be particularly important:

  1. The attempt to cover the road to socialism in small steps, to start it off through changes or reforms which are possible under capitalism, leads inevitably to forgetting the final aim and making the means an end in themselves. (See Bernstein’s: The end is nothing, the movement is all.) Changes of capitalism become changes under capitalism.
  2. The reformist mode is one in which self-activity of the working class is necessarily minimized, (MacIntyre). In actual fact reformist tactics have up to now led to the emphasis in the carrying out of reforms being put on the leadership of the working class organisations, on the parliamentary parties and on the working class bureaucracy; thus every success tended to strengthen the confidence of the workers in ‘those up there’, who will ‘get it done’, and to weaken the independence and consciousness of the working class. I am also convinced that both of these destroy the essence of the socialist movement.
  3. A certain successful type of reformist activity which prevailed in the past namely, parliamentarianism, is beginning to lose its effectiveness, since for various reasons (which Michael Kidron very rightly sketches, see also Nigel Harris in the same issue of IS 7) the possibilities of traditional parliamentary politics influencing economy and society are diminishing.

These arguments weigh very heavily; but I do not believe they shut out the possibility of reformist tactics. Certainly in order to carry them out the following conditions must be fulfilled among others:

  1. A clear, theoretically well thought-out programme, which sets out clearly and concretely the aims of socialism, indicates the respective transitional stages and takes the reforms demanded out of the present situation and shows them as stages towards the ultimate aim. (I feel that the newspaper of the Belgian left-wing socialists La Gauche and its platform, Vers le socialisme par l’action fulfil these conditions quite well.)
  2. The presentation of demands which are indeed reforms, i.e. which could be carried out here and now and without revolution, but which arouse and strengthen the self-activity and consciousness of the workers and broaden the scope of their social bid for freedom (e.g. among others an extension of the rights of the factory workers’ representatives).
  3. The development of methods of struggle, calling upon the consciousness, self-activity and self-reliance of the workers and thus strengthening them in the struggle, i.e. more weight on activity outside parliament, especially in industry. The workers themselves are pressing towards this. M. Kidron has spoken of their ‘Do it yourself reformism’ and said rightly that for the worker ‘reform and revolution are not separate activities’.
  4. These conditions have repercussions on the organisation of the Labour movement. A party whose ‘heart and soul’ is the parliamentary party, and electioneering its only raison d’être, is useless for every type of socialist tactics, reformist as much as revolutionary. The political organisation must of course have parliamentary representation, but as one organ among others. The emphasis of the organisation must be on the working class, as close to job, industry and the social sphere of life as possible. In Germany such an organisation could only come out of the trade unions, but it could emerge. I cannot judge the situation in Britain.

The prospects for fulfilling these conditions are not rosy. But the prospects for socialism in Europe in the immediate future are not in the least promising. And there is serious doubt whether anything other than ‘reformist tactics within a revolutionary strategy’ can come into question for the socialist movement of the sixties.

MacIntyre and Kidron both lay great stress on the fact that ‘the recurrent state of objective crises in capitalist social order’, its ‘crisis-ridden nature’ are indispensable preconditions of the socialist revolution. In a general sense this is certainly correct. But in another place Kidron puts it even more dogmatically: ‘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 are no quarrels with Collins.’ So not only does the final breakthrough of the socialist movement to power depend on the smashing of the capitalist social order through crises (a theory about which much could be said), but even the conditions necessary for the formation of a socialist movement itself, class consciousness! If that were really true, then there would be little hope for our cause; but I believe it is not quite like that.

What is the basic historical requirement for the social revolution? Let’s recall it: ‘When the productive forces come into conflict with the relations of production;’ but the greatest productive force is the revolutionary class itself (Marx, Poverty of Philosophy). Or, to put it in another way, when under a given system of property and class rule the needs of men are no longer satisfied, and their creative talents not developed, but rather more suppressed, then we have the objective possibility of revolution. When and insofar as men become conscious of their position – class position – subjectively, the active struggle against the existing social order begins. Revolution arises out of the ‘internal contradictions of capitalism’.

In the early and advanced stages of capitalism these contradictions were directly visible to the working class; socialist agitation only needed to name them; material misery, direct suppression, periodic crises. This situation has altered; objectively the contradictions have indeed come to a head: the real possibility of ending exploitation and suppression; atomic energy at the same time threatens mankind with complete annihilation. But the connection is no longer obvious to people: the ‘crisis-ridden nature’ of the system is veiled, its origins! in the capitalist system of property and its method of class rule must be carefully and thoroughly demonstrated, and despite this the results of the analyses are never quite clear-cut and convincing. But above all material poverty and direct tyranny have been so much moderated under advanced capitalism that an immediate revolt of the working class against the whole system can no longer be assumed. (Unfortunately here I must avoid the discussion of the nature of Stalinist society. I will just say: I do not consider it as ‘socialist’, nor as a ‘workers’ state’ – either ‘degenerated’ or ‘deformed’, or anything else – nor as ‘capitalist’ in any way, but as a system of exploitation and suppression sui generis – for which I do not yet know any suitable name).

It seems to me to be of decisive importance that the working class is integrated into the social system under advanced capitalism to a degree which Marx and Engels did not foresee. ‘Integrated’ does not only mean, subjectively: emasculated, weakened, betrayed, stultified, as a pseudo-revolutionary critic says; but objectively, the workers become a part of society: as producers, as consumers, as citizens, as members of the national culture. The working class, and of course a relatively healthy, prosperous, contented working class, is absolutely necessary for the stability of the system. The ruling class has recognised this and to some extent even acknowledged it practically. As a result, as Kidron very rightly formulates it, reforms have become ‘part of business’.

Of course, this state of affairs does not remove the objective contradictions of the system, and Marxist criticism rightly points out their continued existence. Nevertheless, it has not dealt conclusively with the new situation. Comrades like MacIntyre and Kidron do indeed see ‘frustration and aggression’, ‘the deep and incurable dissatisfaction with social life which capitalism breeds’, but for them these are only ‘fragmented personally-conceived’ emotions, which can only be changed into class-consciousness through crisis.

It seems to me there are several errors here. First of all: crises are also ‘personally-conceived’; their impression on the workers does not immediately and automatically turn into class-consciousness, but only through long drawn out theoretical education, propaganda and agitation. Without these, sections of the working class can very easily develop a fascist consciousness instead of a socialist one in a crisis. This points to a further problem: the broad mass of the working class must, if it is not to be thrown into confusion by crisis, already have assimilated political experience in the period of good business and comparative prosperity; they must have organised themselves and practised in the struggle for their interests. But at the present time this cannot be achieved by declaring : look at the ‘crisis-ridden nature’ of capitalism, and neither is it possible through ‘revolutionary tactics’. It is absolutely unrealistic to assume that more than small sections of the working class and groups of intellectuals can manage at one and the same time to carry out important functions within the system over a long period of time and to stand in a ‘revolutionary’ battle-position against the system. Nevertheless, the mass of the working class are fully prepared to fight for their immediate interests (and if necessary, very hard). Now would be the time for socialists to evolve a programme of reforms, meeting the immediate interests of the workers and thus being immediately obvious to them, and in fighting for which at the same time the self-activity, consciousness and experience of the working class are increased. Naturally the connection of such reforms with the ultimate aim of socialism must not be hidden, and we must try to make this connection clear and to point out the target.

I believe that there are experiences and interests in the social life or the worker – ‘be his wages high or low’ – which such reformist tactics can awaken. MacIntyre and Kidron do acknowledge the existence of certain ‘dissatisfactions’, but do not seem to judge them really correctly.

Here a word about Cardan’s article in IS 4 is necessary. Unfortunately I cannot give a detailed answer to him and to Ken Coates’s criticism in IS 5. Coates picks out the one-sidedness, the utopianism, the sectarianism of Cardan very shrewdly, but he circumvents his central theoretical judgements (which were actually explained more clearly in the great discussion in Socialisme ou Barbarie). It seems to me to be of the utmost importance that in the place of work, in the factory, a central contradiction of capitalism (and also of Stalinism) is expressed, which every blue- and every white-collar worker experiences daily, the contradiction between the creative possibilities of the producers and the hierarchy imposed on them by social relations. Here the productive forces really rebel against the relations of production, here the ruling class begins to be truly functionless. Modern direction of business and industry is not only inimical to the workers and to man, it is also unproductive. In a system of cooperation instead of a system of class-rule the working class would not only live more like human beings, but also produce more abundantly. Up to now this was hardly more than a hope of socialists (and has most certainly been cruelly dashed under Stalinism). The day-to-day experience of the modern worker and the scientific insight of a few slightly more advanced research workers are beginning to make this hope realistic.

That is why the conditions of work and the life of the factory present a central problem for every Socialist program and all Socialist tactics. When we reach this position we do not need to wait for ‘the crisis’, this crisis of capitalism is permanent and is always immanent for the working-class. Other permanent contradictions with which classical reformist politics have always been concerned continue of course. Likewise, they need new solutions. But this problem is central because it touches the situation of the worker as producer directly.

At this point, nearly everything in terms of socialist theory and propaganda, agitation and organisation, remains to be done. English socialists (in contrast to German) and, in particular, International Socialism, certainly do not need to reproach themselves with having ignored this problem – which can only be described very generally by the expression ‘workers’ control’. But the comrades and readers of International Socialism will certainly be of the same opinion as me, that the state of our theoretical knowledge and our practical experience still leaves much to be desired.

Therefore this sketch can only really be concluded with a series of open questions. I think that we socialists have to fight two contrasting errors in the ranks of the Labour Movement: the sterile ‘reformism’ which degrades Socialism to a second class appendage of bourgeois radicalism, and a worthy but not less sterile ‘revolutionism’ which takes no account of reality. I have presented the case for Left Reformism here in a certain sense; but I would much rather leave this fruitless debate between ‘Reformist’ and ‘Revolutionary’ tactics on one side. Socialist tactics should be relevant to the situation; this is important. For this there must be a program of effective reforms at the present and in the near future, as well as a readiness for revolutionary struggle, when the crisis of capitalist society – which we must always take into account – forces us to this point. At this point. I am completely in agreement with Michael Kidron; ‘Reality is infinitely more complex and contradictory than appears here’.

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